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Home | 2016 | October | Jacobins

Under the belljar

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

After the Jacobins had gone to their nooses and their dungeons there was silence about them. Franz's belljar came down. The official police and court documents were sealed and put in a secret archive, an archive that was expressly kept secret even by Franz II's grandson, Emperor Franz Josef I in 1878, more than 80 years later. Eventually it was as though the Austrian Jacobins had never been. As we shall see shortly, even 50 years after the trials the still prevailing censorship regime had made these events just a vague memory, a memory that it was probably best not even to try to remember. By the time the Austrian Empire collapsed in 1918, more than a century after the plotters had met their end, the Jacobin plot and its chilling effect on the citizens of the Empire was largely forgotten. It would be another half century before historians became aware of the importance of this dramatic moment. [1]

We can no longer measure the full extent and importance of the Jacobin conspiracy in Austria. After the first police raids an unknown number of manuscripts and samizdat in the possession of the conspirators and their supporters would have been destroyed in anticipation of further police action. Even after Riedel's arrest, friends went through his apartment and removed any incriminating evidence that the police had overlooked. The model of Hebenstreit's war machine was still in the chest in which it was stored and was also removed. We can only suspect that there was a large number of Jacobin manuscripts in existence that had been distributed among a wide circle which were hurridly destroyed. In an empire based on preferment the possession of such things was a dangerous liability.

The conspiratorial and revolutionary documents the police found went into the files of the case and effectively disappeared from view for 150 years.

The socialite

And what did the people of gay, cosmopolitan Vienna, the hub of the Empire, think of all this going on in their midst?

Caroline Pichler, author and socialite with a noted salon, then a 25 year-old, has left us a description of the events around the Jacobin plot as seen by a socially well-placed inhabitant of Vienna. Her eyewitness description is interesting but must be taken with at least two pinches of salt.

For the first pinch we need to remember that she is writing this account fifty years after the fact, so that it is not entirely suitable for use as a historical documentation of the events of that time.

The second pinch is that she is writing under the strict scrutiny of the censor: her statements are therefore carefully formulated – recognisably so in the language she uses – so as not to give offence. What survives after this salting is still worth consideration, though.

She gives an account of the shock that went through Viennese society when the knowledge of the arrest of the Jacobin suspects came out:

[The news of the arrests] came like a bolt out of the blue to the cheerful Viennese, out of the middle of whom a considerable number of well-known men, called friends by many, had been ripped, designated as traitors and who were looking at an uncertain, perhaps terrible future. The arrestees mostly belonged to the educated middle class; they were civil servants, businessmen, lawyers, academics, in other words just that category that had produced many of the important revolutionaries in France. [2]

What she says about the citizens' knowledge of what was going on, given Franz and Pergen's preference for secrecy, seems completely credible. Franz's tight grip on the press meant that only that information leaked out that the government allowed to leak out:

What the crimes [of the condemned] were, what their aims were and how many of those aims they succeeded in attaining remained covered with a thick veil. [3]

Because of the impending censorship of her autobiographical work Memories, Caroline had to be extremely circumspect in describing her attitude to the plot and the plotters. She does not mention their names or their fates, covering all the details – the acts, the motives – in a 'thick veil'. That is what Austrian writers had to do, even half a century after the fact. She herself was never a revolutionary, neither in background nor temperament, so her description seems to reflect a genuine opinion, albeit phrased very carefully.

Moderate people believed that a secret conspiracy … existed and that it had had questionable, indeed subversive intentions and that it was necessary and imperative from the viewpoint of public order and security that it should not be tolerated but instead punished severely.

However, [it was also thought] that one had proceeded with too much noise and unnecessary severity just because some of the principal discoverers and commission members were keen to advertise their services and had therefore chosen to present the issue to the Monarch in the most dangerous and disadvantageous light. [4]

Many thought like this and even at that time I agreed with them, because I couldn't a priori ascribe any unfairness to our Emperor Franz. The later knowledge of the confessions of some of the condemned and their release after their imprisonment confirm this opinion completely. [5]

Those who dabble in the gloomy study of 'channelled speech' and particularly the manner of writing that offers no attack surface for censors will have their dreary fun with this passage, indeed with most of Caroline Pichler's reminiscences from her Memories. 'I couldn't a priori ascribe any unfairness to our Emperor Franz'. Quite. One day we shall pluck up courage and have a look at that work more closely: it has a tale to tell.

Caroline tells us that the trial of the Viennese Jacobins polarised opinion in Viennese society:

From this time onwards the voice of the spirit of division was loud and intemperate in Vienna. The term 'Jacobin' began to be heard frequently, a term that was not only applied to all those who nursed 'French principles' but which unfortunately was used by exaggeratedly loyal and orthodox opponents to stigmatize anyone who expressed any sort of liberal idea.

In return, the other party would call anyone an 'aristocrat', a 'bigot', an 'enemy of all enlightenment' who adhered to his religious rules, was a loyal subject of the Emperor and who desired public order and security. [6]

The polarisation of opinion and the associated prejudices were even reflected in fashion – that completely characteristic Biedermeier proccupation:

… and many men grew enormous sideburns. Many others, however, especially the most moral and reserved young men avoided this style, since loyalists took large sideburns to be the true sign of a Jacobin. Some men, who may have even been quite loyalist, sported sideburns just to follow the fashion and were therefore also stigmatized as Jacobins, thus creating a bad impression on their superiors and therefore affecting their careers. [7]

The artist

Ludwig van Beethoven was living in Vienna at the time. Unlike Caroline, his mind, as far as we know, was not concerned with the hairstyles of the young men, but like her he was affected by the events and the rumours surrounding the trials. He wrote about them to his old friend Nikolaus Simrock (1751-1832) in Bonn on 2 August 1794. Simrock was a notable figure in the German Enlightenment, a publisher of many of Beethoven's first editions and a supporter of the French. Beethoven's amusing, grumpy satire is, however, careful satire. Despite the fact that he was the plaything of princes, as a stranger in a strange land he knew he had to be careful in the way he expressed himself.

It's very hot here; the Viennese are worried, they soon won't have any more ice cream; because the winter was so mild, the ice is in short supply. Here, various people of importance have been arrested; people say a revolution was supposed to break out. But I believe that so long as the Austrian has brown beer and sausages, he won't revolt. It is said that the gates of the suburbs (Vorstädten) are to be closed at night at ten. Soldiers are said to be carrying their weapons loaded. One must not speak too loudly here otherwise the Police will provide accommodation for you. [8]

The first plotters had been arrested barely a week before this letter was written. We are clear about the condition of the populace after the arrests: nothing is clear, everything is whispered from person to person. Beethoven's caution is evident: 'various people of importance', 'people say', 'was supposed to', 'are said to be'. Simrock, a revolutionary in his own prosperous way, would be able to read between the lines of his old friend's letter, containing important events wrapped in trivia.

The message

Emperor Franz quickly grew impatient with his legal system, knowing how damaging delay was. Sooner or later the authorities would have to lift their news blackout around the events and tell people something. When Gilowsky's corpse was publicly dangled on a pole and then Hebenstreit was strung up he had thousands of flyers ready to tell the populace of their evil ways. The other prisoners just disappeared from view in distant dungeons, held in solitary confinement, known only by the number of their cell. Their rank stripped, their assets confiscated. They became unpersons. One moment they were there –  Caroline Pichler would have known many of the Viennese among them  – and the next moment they had gone.

Returning to Caroline's carefully phrased memories of those by then distant times, she tells us delicately of the inhibiting effect the Jacobin trials had on the young. It forced young men to be more cautious and not risk giving the wrong impression, not only in fashion and hairstyles but also in speech and behaviour. Caroline gives us a good picture of what it was like to be a young, educated man in Vienna after the Jacobin trials.

It is natural that young men of our circle would feel the effects of these public events. Although in their dress, speech and manners they all kept within the barriers of respectibility and acceptability, those who belonged to certain 'Saturday Clubs' decided to dissolve these in order not to give the Government and public opinion any cause for offence. One of these men especially was Count Chorinsky, the nephew of just that senior civil servant who had proved to be the most active in his pursuit of the suspects and the conspirators. Most of them destroyed anything they had written, especially when it concerned politics or which contained 'advanced' opinions that had been expressed without reserve, because expressed among friends. They were justifiably afraid of house searches: those who were still making a career in the world could not allow such a stain to fall upon their reputations. [9]

The vast bureaucratic apparatus of the Austrian Empire was the employer of choice for young, educated men. Few thought of taking up capitalist enterprise unless they already came from entrepreneurial families. With success and money you could buy yourself aristocratic standing, but until that moment the industrialist, the factory owner, the trader had usually no more social legitimacy than than a baker or a teacher. For the non-entrepreneurial young man there was no easy movement from class to class: a post had to be found which was appropriate to the young man's station. Closing off career opportunities by being thought to be a dangerous freethinker was almost a sentence of starvation.

Franz Schubert was born on 31 February 1797, just a little over two years after Franz's reinstatement of the death sentence in his 'insolent criticism' decree of 2 January 1795. That decree and the pervasiveness of the Secret Police who had 'saved' Franz from the Jacobin Conspiracy, the snoopers, the paid narks, the ever-present censorship and the secret police who implemented it set the tone in the Austrian Empire for the next fifty years.

Enough already! In a future post we shall meet the young men of Franz Schubert's Freundeskreise, his Circles of Friends, and see how they grew up and survived in the suffocating atmosphere of conformity under Franz's Biedermeier belljar.


  1. ^ This gist of this paragraph is true, but requires some additions for the pedantic minded. That there had been a 'Jacobin Conspiracy' was known in rough outlines. For example, the event was taken up in 1842 by the writer Franz Ernst Pipitz (1815-1899) in his novel Der Jacobiner in Wien : Oesterreichische Memoiren aus dem letzten Dezennium des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts, Im literarischen Comptoir, Zürich und Winterthur, 1842, available online here . Even though publishing the book in Switzerland, in the politically turbulent years of the 1840s Pipitz still kept his name off it. The book is not an easy read: it impresses us most by its demonstration of how little Pipitz knew of the details of the tale. He had no access to any official documents and fills in the gaps with wild speculations that suited his conspiracist mind. He was also a passionate believer in the absurd idea of Joseph as an Enlightenment giant, sabotaged by… well, whatever.
  2. ^ Pichler, Denkwürdigkeiten, p. 179.
    Wie ein Donnerschlag aus heiterm Himmel wirkte diese Nachricht auf die lebensfrohen Wiener, die plötzlich aus ihrer Mitte eine bedeutende Zahl wohlbekannter und mit vielen befreundeter Männer gerissen, diese als Staatsverräter beinzichtigt, und einem sehr ungewissen, vielleicht schrecklichen Schicksal entgegengeführt sahen. Die Ergriffenen gehörten meist dem gebildeten Mittelstande an, es waren Beamte, Kaufleute, Advokaten, Gelehrte – mit einem Worte, jenen Kategorien, aus denen auch in Frankreich viele bedeutende Männer der Revolution hervorgegangen waren.
  3. ^ Ibid, p. 180.
    Worin ihr Verbrechen eigentlich bestanden, was sie bezweckt, wieviel ihnen davon schon gelungen, blieb stets mit dichtem Schleier bedeckt.
  4. ^ Caroline Pichler's carefully framed hint that the 'principal discoverers' (no names, of course) had exaggerated the dangers of the conspiracy for their own political ends is slightly similar to Pipitz's vision in Der Jacobiner in Wien, p. 282f., that a mysterious reactionary 'oligarchy' had ramped up the dangers of the Austrian Jacobins and had taken over control of the now powerless Franz II. We know from the files of the proceedings that are now available that it was Franz who was quite decisively driving the issue forwards.
  5. ^ Ibid, p. 180.
    Gemäßigte hielten dafür, daß zwar allerdings eine geheime Verbindung, die in Wechselwirkung mit der ungarischen unter Martinovich stand, existiert, und daß sie bedenkliche, wohl auch staatsgefährliche Absichten gehabt habe, daß es notwendig, und der Gerechtigkeit, ja der bürgerlichen Ordnung und Sicherheit gemäß war, diese nicht zu dulden und streng zu bestrafen; daß man aber doch mit zu großem Lärmen und unnötiger Strenge verfahren sei, weil einige der Hauptentdecker und Mitglieder jener Kommission sich gern recht in die Augen fallende Verdienste erwerben wollten, und daher dem Monarchen die Sache im gefährlichsten und nachteiligsten Lichte zeigten. So dachten viele, und meine Ansicht stimmte schon damals damit überein, weil ich a priori unserm Kaiser Franz keine Unbilligkeit zutrauen konnte und die spätere Erfahrung, ja das eigene Geständnis manches damals Verurteilten, und dann nach der Strafzeit wieder Freigegebenen bestätigten vollkommen diese Meinung.
  6. ^ Ibid, p. 181.
    Von diesem Zeitpunkte an sprach sich der Parteigeist recht laut und gehässig in Wien aus. Da fing man an, die Benennung Jakobiner oft und vielmals zu hören, und mit diesem Worte wurden nicht allein jene bezeichnet, welche allerdings Grundsätze hegten gleich denen des französischen Konvents, sondern leider ward sie von den übertrieben loyalen und orthodoxen Gegnern jedem als Brandmal aufgedrückt, der nur irgendeine freisinnige Idee äußerte; c'est le mot pour perdre les honnêtes gens, wie einer unserer Hausfreunde sagte. Im Gegenteil wurde wieder von der andern Partei jeder ein Aristokrat, ein Bigott, ein Feind aller Aufklärung gescholten, der seine kirchlichen Vorschriften befolgte, seinem Herrscherhaus treu ergeben war und öffentliche Ruhe und Sicherheit wünschte.
  7. ^ Ibid, p. 183.
    Die Männer stutzten ihre Haare ebenfalls, kein Zopf, kein Haarbeutel, keine Seitenlocken wurden mehr gesehen; der Puder verlor sich ebenfalls, und bei vielen traten ungeheure Backenbärte hervor. Hierin aber genierten sich doch viele, und gerade die sittlichsten, geregeltsten der jungen Männer; denn so ein Schwedenkopf, wie man sie zuweilen nach den Porträten Karls XII. nannte, und ein starker Backenbart galt bei Loyalgesinnten oft für das wahre Abzeichen eines Jakobiners und mancher, der die Mode als Mode mitmachte und vielleicht ganz rechtlich gesinnt war, mußte sich mit diesem Namen brandmarken lassen, der nicht ohne übeln Einfluß auf die Gunst seiner Vorgesetzten und somit auf sein Fortkommen in der Welt blieb.
  8. ^ Ludwig van Beethovens sämtliche Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, 1. Band 1783-1814, hsg. und erläutert von Dr.Fritz Prelinger, Wien u. Leipzig 1907, p. 28, 'Brief an Nikolaus Simrock, 02.08.1794' quoted in Körner, Riedel, p. 229.
    ”... Hier ist es sehr heiß; die Wiener sind bange, sie werden bald kein Gefrorenes mehr haben können; da der Winter so wenig kalt war, so ist das Eis rar. Hier hat man verschiedene Leute von Bedeutung eingezogen; man sagt, es hätte eine Revolution ausbrechen sollen. Aber ich glaube, so lange der Oesterreicher noch braun's Bier und Würstel hat, revoltirt er nicht. Es heißt, die Thöre zu den Vorstädten sollen nachts um 10 Uhr gesperrt werden. Die Soldaten haben scharf geladen. Man darf nicht zu laut sprechen hier, sonst gibt die Polizei einem Quartier."
  9. ^ Pichler, Denkwürdigkeiten, p. 183f.
    Es ist natürlich, daß die jungen Männer unserer Sozietät die Einwirkung dieser öffentlichen Ereignisse ebenfalls fühlen mußten, und obwohl sie in Kleidung, Äußerungen und Betragen sich alle in den Schranken des Anstandes und der gebräuchlichen Formen hielten, so beschlossen doch diejenigen, die zu der gewissen Samstagsgesellschaft gehörten, diese nun aufzulösen, um der Regierung und öffentlichen Meinung keinen Anstoß zu geben; besonders da einer unter ihnen, Graf Chorinsky, der Neffe jenes hohen Staatsbeamten war, der sich am tätigsten in der Verfolgung der Verdächtigen und Verschwornen bewiesen hatte. Die meisten vertilgten also ihre Aufsätze sowie die Beurteilungen, besonders jene, welche politische Gegenstände behandelten und worin freisinnige Meinungen ohne Scheu, weil bloß vor Freunden, waren ausgesprochen worden. Man fürchtete damals nicht ohne Grund sogar Haussuchungen, und diejenigen, welche noch ihre Karriere in der Welt zu machen hatten, durften keinen solchen Makel auf ihren Ruf laden.