Posted by Richard on  UTC 2016-10-01 09:02

The hothead

Franz Hebenstreit (1747-1795) characterized himself as a passionate, even aggressive debater who was incautious in his utterances. His characterization would also fit our other hothead Franz Seraph von Spaun perfectly.

I get heated, as is my wont, when I debate and harsh words enter into my speech. Count Alberti and my aunt certainly said on occasion that I would damage myself using such expressions and that if I were ever to be arrested for this it would be too late to have regrets. I laughed at that when I was no longer heated, as Count Alberti said, because I thought: it is just idle talk; however, when I was full of zeal, I used to say: I can say that in front of the whole world and even before a court.[1]

Hebenstreit, after a good education in philosophy and jurisprudence, joined the Austrian army in 1768 as a private in the light cavalry (the Uhlan or Ulan), working his way up to the rank of corporal by 1773.

He was the son of an academic in Prague and was proud of his educational standard. Life in the cavalry suited the impetuous and dashing side of his character, but his intellectual nature – ambition or egotism, take whichever word you prefer – made him an over-thoughtful NCO, one who became increasingly frustrated at being passed over for promotion in favour of inferior but aristocratically better connected soldiers. Hebenstreit's interrogators described him as 'vainly proud' of his abilities:

He was young, vainly proud of his abilities. His comrades would often tell him that he deserved better fortune than he received. When Cadet Schröder gave him the regimental orders listing the latest promotions [Hebenstreit] let slip the remark: 'This has now gone on too long'. That evening, Schröder asked him what his words had meant. At first he refused to say, but after being pestered he told Schröder that, if things didn't change soon he was thinking of deserting and going to America. Schröder immediately volunteered to go with him and … could no longer be dissuaded from the plan.[2]

The deserter

When a little later Cadet Schröder told Hebenstreit that another soldier wanted to come with them as well, Hebenstreit, afraid that the blabbermouth Schröder's unwanted recruitment efforts could lead any moment to the discovery of his plan, decided to leave that very day.[3]

The horses were too tired for the long journey and Hebenstreit had to change his planned route. The new route led the group into a company of Prussian soldiers and, after the confected stories failed to convince the guards, they had to confess to being Austrian deserters. They were taken to prison and only escaped by joining the Prussian army, in which Hebenstreit served five years.[4]

In 1778 the Austrians offered a general amnesty to deserters. Hebenstreit's chance to escape from his service with the Prussians had finally come. On 30 August he was able to slip out – astonishingly together with the two other Austrian soldiers who had deserted with him that first time five years before. They came to the Austrian lines and 'reverted'. He became a first lieutenant in 1791, 13 years after reverting to the Austrian army. In all it had taken him 22 years to be promoted to this modest level. Despite all his learning and his evident charisma, he had met the glass ceiling of his class. He was angry, bitter and now had time on his hands.

The reverter

The 47 year-old Hebenstreit, an early communist and revolutionary thinker, wrote tracts, poems and songs in the cause. He frequented taverns, drank heavily and grumbled and complained loudly to anyone who would listen. Hebenstreit's 'thunderous voice' (Donnerstimme) was indeed very loud.

His 542-line poem in Latin, Homo hominibus, was probably not quite what the peasants wanted, but it proved very popular among the educated members of the Jacobin circles. He had composed it during the long, boring patches of his military service and had it by heart. Even modern analysts find the poem difficult to understand.

Reading the poem we can only agree that Hebenstreit's political role was that of an ideologist – such a complex figure could never rouse the masses: 'This Hebenstreit was no leader of an uprising of rabble, but a political Don Quixote!'[5]

Those who knew him held opposing opinions about him. For some the learning he wore on his sleeve made him a philosopher, for others he was weird, a fool or a hothead, a 'brutal man', a 'hothead and big-mouth'. One comrade noted that even Andreas von Riedel, the most senior figure in the group – the teacher of princes and the intimate of Leopold II – always seemed to defer to the convivial, charismatic hothead Hebenstreit.

Unlike many of his other plotters he was a true Jacobin. He rejected all tinkering with the existing political and social structure. He demanded consistently a complete overthrow of the powers that be and a social levelling for all citizens. He wanted 'the destruction of all aristocracy, the banning of all art and science and the elimination of religion'.[6]

The war engine

Our Don Quixote would have been a relatively harmless hothead were it not for one thing: his war engine. Our political dreamer in Latin verse devised a war engine designed to help peasant rabble repel cavalry attacks – after 22 years in the cavalry his speciality. This contraption seems to have been a variant on the cheval de frise, a transportable barrier of pointed sticks or, in Hebenstreit's case a machine with rotating blades to attack the horses. Hebenstreit believed that this apparatus would help the citizen forces of the French in their battle with the Austrian and Prussian cavalry and thus bring the war to an early and welcome conclusion.

And here we have a conundrum that we cannot resolve: why would a cavalry officer with 22 years' service design a machine to slash his comrades and their horses to pieces? Had Hebenstreit been so unhappy in the army? From humble origins he had risen from the rank of Private and finally reached his glass ceiling of First Lieutenant after all those years of service. Was he seething with resentment at the aristocrats who moved so gracefully into high rank and privilege? Would seeing them minced up on the battlefield by his machine in the hands of a group of peasants be compensation for all those years of humiliation? As Platzleutnant (Barracks Lieutenant) in Vienna he would not be the one charging his machines.

His war machine was certainly a serious project for him. It was not just a drawing: with Riedel and others in the circle he built a small scale wooden model of the device using two old pram wheels. Riedel's first employment had been as a teacher of military engineering (Feldkriegsbaukunst) at the Military Academy in Vienna – he wasn't just the philosopher of the group.

Hebenstreit's design was sent to the Poles, who might also be able to use the machine against the Russian Cossacks. Design sketches was also taken to Paris by two emissaries, Karl Traugott Held and Karl Denkmann. Not only did Hebenstreit give the emissaries his design for the machine, he also drew a diagram with French annotations to show how the machines should be deployed.

Held and Denkmann travelled via Switzerland, arriving in Basel on 28 April 1794. Pergen, the Police Minister, received reports of the passage of the emissaries through Basel, but knew nothing at the time of the purpose of the journey. Their next stop was Freiburg im Breisgau, at that time in French hands. They were granted an audience with the local commander who assisted them and gave them the passes they would need for the next stage of their journey to Paris: according to French law at that time, nationals of enemy countries were to be guillotined immediately on entering France. It is difficult to find any other word than 'treason' for their actions once they crossed that border.

A French farce

They arrived in Paris in early May. In gratitude their French hosts arrested them and imprisoned the pair for two months, before sending them packing at the beginning of August, 1794. When we review the events in France in the two months that the emissaries were sitting in prison we realise how utterly foolish and pointless the scheme to take a design for a cavalry barrier to the heart of the enemy was.

In June the French had defeated the Austrians at the battle of Fleurus and France was now riding high in the conflict; in July the Thermidorian reaction started: Robespierre, the Jacobin leader, and his supporters in the Committee of Public Safety were summarily executed; the Jacobin 'Reign of Terror' was brought to an end and the 'White Terror', the revenge of the Girondists on the Jacobins began. Hebenstreit's emissaries were truly lucky to get out of Paris with their lives. As was Tom Paine (1737-1809), the author of the seminal work Rights of Man, who escaped the guillotine only thanks to a missing chalk mark on his cell.

Once freed, Held and Denkmann were brought to one of the great figures of this troubled time, General Carnot. Lazare Carnot (1753-1823) was a military expert, a man who would reform France's armies, a writer, poet, mathematician, physicist and the father of the founder of modern thermodynamics, Sadi Carnot. He was not only a genius in intellectual terms but a man shrewd enough to live through those times in high positions and die a 70-year-old, his head still attached to his body.[7]

Our two hapless emissaries laid their drawings out in front of Carnot, who must have been amused, for if anyone could design a war machine for use against the cavalry it was Carnot. Fortunately for our pair he was a humane man, too. Knowing exactly what would await them if they were to return to Austria he sent the two idiots who had spent four months and risked their lives on this escapade on their way with visas stating they were 'German Refugees'.

Held and Denkmann's mission to bring Hebenstreit's design for a war machine to the French had been foolhardy, dangerous and ultimately pointless. Worse, it was the one act that could be used by Franz to justify the harshness of his legal response. Enlightened lawyers in his government could argue that the day-dreams, meetings and samizdat writings of the rest of the plot were not actions and that essentially no harm was done. Hebenstreit's design for a war machine taken at great risk to the heart of the enemy was a completely different matter. That was an act of treason that no lawyer could argue away.

Loose talk costs lives

Almost at the moment that the two emissaries had arrived in Paris, a spy in Vienna had started delivering information to the police about the Jacobin circles there. The spy was Joseph Vinzenz Degen (1761–1827), a book publisher, who was in partnership with Aloys Blumauer (1755-1798), another publisher, who had attended some of the meetings of the circles. Blumauer was gregarious, loose-tongued, with a penchant for masonic and such meetings. It is not a surprise to find him floating around the circles of the Viennese Jacobins, but his motivation for leaking important information about the Jacobins' meetings is unclear. Applying the usually reliable motto cherchez la femme we find that Blumauer seems to have been the lover of Katharina Hackel, the wife of one of the most prominent Viennese Jacobins, Johann Hackel. Was Blumauer trying to get rid of the husband? Over to you, Inspector Maigret.

Degen, primed with Blumauer's information, and acting under the promise by the authorities of complete anonymity, was now to become an agent provocateur with the mission of gathering conclusive evidence about them.

He was very good at his task, his reports to his masters showing how much pride he took in his job and how pleased he was when his manipulations and schemes to get people to talk came to fruition. Degen was not just a reporter or an unwilling or pressured betrayer: he was a skilled manipulator of men and he took pride in the work. In the middle of July he succeeded in gaining the confidence of three of the 'Jacobins'. They arranged for him to meet Hebenstreit in the Brigittenau, a popular park and gardens with many inns and restaurants close to the Danube, on 21 July 1794. Degen even took an additional witness with him in order to fulfil the legal requirements for evidence.

At the meeting Hebenstreit was soon in full flow in front of these two strangers and explained in some detail his plans for the future of the Austrian Empire. With oily officiousness Degen notes for his masters that, in mitigation, he ought also to report the circumstance that Hebenstreit had already drunk a whole glass of beer before their meeting. Degen's report was enough, beer or no beer. Hebenstreit and his closest associates were arrested three days later, in the night of 24 July 1794.


The subsequent investigations turned up the full extent of the conspiracy piece by piece. The police had known nothing of the most dangerous and organized circle, that in Hungary. One of its leaders, Ignaz Martinovics, was captured along with the Vienna group and, thinking the police already knew all about the Hungarian circle, he confessed its details.

The members of the other circles were arrested, confessions extracted in one way or another and, like a row of dominoes, the remaining elements of the entire organization collapsed. The dispatch to Paris of Hebenstreit's design for a war machine was revealed. The police had found out that something was afoot whilst the emissaries were in a Paris prison, but had thought it was just the Viennese Jacobins making contact with their French counterparts. For Pergen, all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place.

There were many discussions concerning Pergen's legal powers to seize and even try the suspects in secret. Even Franz wanted to keep an aura of legality, however diaphanous, around his actions and to his credit resisted Pergens wilder requests for legal permission to arrest and detain at his pleasure anyone for anything at any time. Some requests he resisted, some he ignored.

He even showed an open ear and mind for the impressive pleadings of the jurist Karl Anton Freiherr von Martini (1726-1800). If there are heroes in this dark episode then they are Martini and Karl von Zinzendorf (1739-1813), who, however unsuccessfully on this occasion, at least argued the Enlightenment case for legality and due process in the Council of State. Without the interventions of these two cool heads things might have gone much worse for the suspects. As it was, they went quite badly enough.

The end of the line

The Hungarian prisoners were tried in Hungary, an act intended to placate local nationalistic feelings but which also had an additional advantage: capital punishment had been reintroduced there the previous year.

Martinovics, the Hungarian picked up in the Viennese raid, was returned to Hungary to stand trial with them. In Hungary a total of 18 people were sentenced to death, only seven of these executions, among them that of Martinovics, were actually carried out. The execution method of choice in Hungary was the axe and the block. The other 11 had their sentences commuted to imprisonment for an indefinite period, which, given the prison conditions they would experience, may not be considered to be a real improvement on just having their heads chopped off. Four of them died before the group was finally released between 1801 and 1803. Another 16 Hungarians were given jail terms.

The Habsburg Palatin of Hungary at the time was Archduke Alexander Leopold (1772-1795), the fourth son of Leopold II. He was considered a moderate like his father, but the events of the French Revolution and the Jacobin Conspiracy shocked him deeply and he, like his brother Franz II, took refuge on the path of repression. Attentive readers will remember him as the amateur chemist and firework maker who burned himself and his attendants to death setting up a fireworks display at the Laxenburg Palace.

The Austrians were tried in Vienna. Hebenstreit and another plotter, Gilowsky, because of their military status, were tried by a military tribunal. Both were sentenced to death. Gilowsky evaded the hangman's noose by hanging himself in his cell using his handkerchief on 8 September 1794, whilst still under investigation. No matter: his corpse was convicted and hanged as a traitor from a 12 foot pole in front of the Stubentor two days later from early morning until sunset.

It is difficult to describe the inexpressible number of people of all classes and stations that turned up throughout the day on the Glacis between the Stubentor and the Kärntnertor to see this evil-doer.[8]

Hebenstreit, 47, was very publicly hanged in Vienna on 8 January 1795 at the Schottentor, not at the usual military execution site. The Schottentor had plenty of space: despite the cold a large number of spectators were expected. The expectation was correct: the Swabian ambassador, although not personally present, estimates that 100,000 people were there. A high gallows was built so that everyone had a good view. There were a large number of cavalry troops spread around to ensure 'order, calm and security'. Just in case Hebenstreit tried to make a speech musicians were on hand to play a march, not just a drum roll.

The Ambassador of Mainz, who was present at the execution, said that his bearing was resolute; had it not been for the presence of a priest next to him, Hebenstreit could have been mistaken for the officer in charge of the execution, not the condemned man. On the gallows, just before the hanging, there was a little ceremony of stripping him of his rank and breaking his sword and at his feet 'to make an impression and create disgust'. He was weighed down with chains and a placard: 'Franz Hebenstreit for high treason'. His corpse was left hanging on the gallows until sunset.

That the government made the executions so public and even went to the trouble of hanging a corpse leads us to the easy conclusion that the executions were as much about deterrence as about punishment. The presence of so many cavalrymen at Hebenstreit's execution may not have been solely about the need to keep public order but just as much about showing Hebenstreit's former colleagues what happens to troublemakers in Franz's Empire.

After each execution leaflets were circulated in Vienna detailing the despicable crimes of the executed man and his just fate.

Into the dungeons

The Viennese plotters who were not hanged received sentences of 'prolonged severe dungeon imprisonment' (langwierig schweren Festungsarrest) ranging from 60 years, 35 years, 30 years and 20 years. As civilians they couldn't at that time be executed, a deficiency in the law that Franz changed after the Jacobin trials were over. They may have avoided the noose, but their punishments were the equivalent of a death sentence, arguably worse. The prisoners were eventually sent to the fortress of Munkács, about 600 km to the east of Vienna, a prison we already know about as the dungeon of choice for Franz Seraph von Spaun. The police had recommended this fortress as suitable for the imprisonment of the Jacobins: 'The fortress of Munkács is intended for political criminals and, on account of its location, would be a place where those confined would soon meet their end'.[9]

Two of the imprisoned did indeed meet their end before the group was amnestied in 1802. Not every member of the group was freed, though. One of them, Andreas von Riedel, would never be forgiven by Franz.


  1. ^ Schuh, p. 779.
    Ich erhitzte mich, wie es mir zu geschehen pflegt, wenn ich disputiere, und da kommen wohl unsanfte Ausdrücke in die Rede. Graf Alberti und meine Base sagten wohl zuweilen, daß ich mir mit solchen Reden schaden würde, und daß, wenn ich einmal dieser wegen in Verhaft gezogen werden sollte, ich es zu spät bereuen würde. Darüber lachte ich, wenn ich nicht erhitzt war, wie Graf Alberti sagt, denn ich dachte, es ist nur bloßes Geschwätz; war ich aber in Eifer, dann pflegte ich zu sagen: das kann ich vor der ganzen Welt und auch selbst vor Gericht sagen.
  2. ^ Quoted in Körner, Der österreichische Jakobiner Franz Hebenstreit, p. 76.
    Er war jung, eitel auf seine Fähigkeit, hörte von seinen Kameraden sich oft sagen, daß er ein besser Glück verdiente als das, das er genoß. Und als im Junius 1773 der nachherige mit ihm desertierte Kadett Schröder ihm jenen Regimentsbefehl brachte, in welchem das letztergangene Avancement publiziert wurde, entfuhr ihm die Rede: Nun hab ich mir’s zum längsten angesehen. Kadett Schröder fing diese Worte auf und fragte ihn am nämlichen Tage abends, was er damit habe sagen wollen. Nachdem er ihm diese Entdeckung oft verweigerte und immer wiederholt danach angegangen wurde, so sagte er ihm, daß, wenn es nicht bald anders würde, er zu desertieren und zwar nach Amerika zu reisen gesonnen sei. Kadett Schröder trug sich gleich an, mit ihm zu reisen, und obschon er ihm deutlich sagte, daß er, Schröder, welcher nichts gelernt habe, als sich zu putzen, in der Welt nicht fortkommen könne, ließ er sich doch von dem Gedanken nicht mehr abbringen.
  3. ^ Ibid, p. 77.
    Es wurde einige Zeit nichts mehr davon geredet, und Inquisit dachte, es würde so hingehen, als Schröder abermals zu ihm kam und ihm sagte, daß ein Gemeiner namens Schwerdlin ebenfalls mitgehen wollte. Darüber fuhr er auf und fragte ihn, wer ihn zum Werber gemacht habe. Und aus Furcht, vor der Tat durch dieses Hin- und Herreden entdeckt zu werden, beschloß er den nämlichen Tag noch durchzugehen.
  4. ^ Ibid, p. 77f.
    Darauf wurden Pferde und Rüstung kartellmäßig übergeben und Inquisit nebst seinen beiden Begleitern nach der Festung Glatz geführt, daselbst auf die Hauptwache gebracht, und da, nach damalig preußischer Sitte, kein ander Mittel war, aus der Hauptwache wieder herauszukommen, als Dienst zu nehmen, genötigt, in preußische Dienste zu treten und fünf Jahre daselbst, da er keine Möglichkeit fand zurückzukommen, auszuhalten. Im Junius 1778, da der letzte preußische Krieg ausbrach, marschierte das damals Datensche vorher Fouquesche Regiment ins Feld, und der hierseits publizierte allergnädigste Generalpardon wurde durch Zeitungsblätter bekannt, fand auch am 30. August des nämlichen Jahrs so lang gesuchte Gelegenheit zu entkommen, welche er dann benutzte, an benanntem Dato mittags unter dem Vorwand, für die Wache Kraut zu holen, desertierte, um 5 Uhr abends zu Hohenelbe eintraf und sich aUda als Revertent meldete. Die zwei andern mit ihm desertierten Männer sind nachgehends ebenfalls revertiert
  5. ^ Schuh, p. 797.
    Dieser Hebenstreit war kein Rädelsführer eines Aufruhrs, sondern eher ein politischer Don Quixote!
  6. ^ Körner, ibid, p. 81. Captain Billeck, a fellow plotter, described Hebenstreit's viewpoint as
    Die Ausrottung des Adels, die Verbannung aller Künste und Wissenschaft, Vertilgung der Religion – a manifesto straight out of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, particularly in respect of the banning of all arts and sciences.
  7. ^ Drimmel, p. 166.
    Die längste Zeit ist es nicht so schlecht gegangen mit dem Kriegführen gegen Frankreich. Freilich, das Jahr 1794 ist kein gutes Jahr für die Österreicher gewesen. Jetzt wirkten sich drüben die Reformen Carnots aus, nicht nur in der Organisation des Ffeerwesens der jungen Republik, sondern auch im Feld: Auf dem Hauptkriegsschauplatz am Rhein und in der Niederlande waren die Franzosen an Zahl den Kaiserlichen überlegen, sie hatten auch den Vorteil einer einheitlichen Leitung ihrer Operationen.
  8. ^ Kaiserliche Reichsoberpostamtszeitung zu Köln Nr. 150, 20. September 1794, quoted in Körner, Die Wiener Jakobiner, p. 216.
    Es ist kaum zu beschreiben, welche unsägliche Menge Volk aus allen Klassen und Ständen den ganzen Tag über auf dem Glacis zwischen dem Stubentore und Kärntnertore sich einfand, um diesen Bösewicht zu sehen. Indessen sind die Anhänger dieser Rotte noch nicht alle beisammen.
  9. ^ Vertr. Akten, F. 24, fol. 429, quoted in Wangermann, p. 167, note 4.
    Die fur Staatsverbrecher bestimmte Festung Munkacs wäre vermöge ihrer phisischen (sic!) Lage von der Art, dass die dahin Verurtheilten ihrem Lebensende bald entgegensehen.

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