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Home | 2016 | Jacobins

The lockdown

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-10-01 09:06.

On 2 January 1795, just a few days before Hebenstreit's meeting with the hangman, Franz and his government published a new law on treason that re-introduced into Austria the death penalty for civilians who 'led by wicked intentions or dazzled by dreams or as tools of enemy plans, get involved in secret attacks of this type'. [1]

Franz provided a long laundry-list of things for which a person could be hanged, specifically mentioning plotting to overthrow the state in secret societies and concluding with 'incitement, recruitment, reconnaissance, connection, support or any other action with this intention'. Following the dealings with the Austrian Jacobins, in effect, secret societies – in fact, any secret events – were now implicitly treasonable. The 'death penalty by hanging' could be imposed 'whether or not there were any real consequences of the treason'.

The new law also added two chilling corollary offences. One was failure to report, the other was 'insolent criticism' (frecher Tadel). Whereas Vinzenz Degen had carried out his spying task against the Jacobins with obvious élan, it was now an offence NOT to report treasonable cases to the police, an offence punishable by life imprisonment. Under this law, Blumaur wouldn't have escaped with a reprimand just because he himself did nothing directly.

Reporters of treason, even when they had effectively been participants, were explicitly given immunity, whereas the punishment for 'failure to betray' was grimly nuanced: anyone who might easily have stopped a treason but failed to do so would be sentenced to life imprisonment under 'the hardest dungeon conditions' (mit schwerstem Kerker); anyone failing to report would be regarded as an accomplice and would receive life imprisonment under 'hard dungeon conditions' (mit hartem Kerker); anyone who, thinking the treason harmless, failed to report would receive five to ten years of imprisonment, also under 'hard dungeon conditions'. One small mercy: a clause explicitly excluding conspiritors' relatives from punishment was included after much pressure from the enlightened Karl Count Zinzendorf. Parents, spouses and children would be spared.

The clause concerning 'insolent criticism' we would now take to mean sedition or incitement of discontent. It was framed broadly and is, if anything, the most generally repressive part of the new law. It is a point where policing and censorship unite:

Whoever through insolent criticism in public life, writings or pictorial representations gives cause that feelings against the form of government, the administration or the constitution could be inflamed is, because of such disturbance of public calm in the country, to be punished as a criminal with imprisonment under hard dungeon conditions for five to ten years. [2]

It was an impressive gesture of despotic theatre to publish this law reinstating the death penalty on 2 January and hang Hebenstreit six days later. Taken together, both events showed Franz's subjects throughout the Empire that he was not merely playing at repression. Public or private dalliance with new ideas would have unthinkable consequences.


  1. ^ Hofdekret 02.01.1795, p. 1f.
  2. ^ Ibid, §5, p. 4.