Monday, 21 October 2013



The Secret Societies of the European Revolution, 1770-1876. By Thomas Frost. 2 vols. Tinsley Brothers.1876.

(From the Times.)

FORTIFIED by two formidable quotations from Lord Beaconsfield's speech at Aylesbury, and from a pastoral letter of Cardinal Manning, Mr. Frost has made up his mind that this is tho right time to write a history of the Secret Societies of Europe during the last hundred years—associations which he does not scruple to tell us "have made the political history " of this quarter of the globe during that period. We are sorry to say that we are compelled to join issue with our author at the very outset of his preface. We always imagined in our ignorance that the History of Europe had been the work of the nations and Governments which, in the open light of day, had lived and conducted their policy. In free countries the work has been done by the nation acting on its Government, and in countries despotically ruled by the Government acting on the nation. Not so, holds Mr. Frost. In theory, if not in practice, he is an absolute Guy Fawkes. For him history is formed, not under the rays of the sun, but by the fitful gleams of a dark lantern. In hole-and-corner meetings, by men in masks and disguises, by the use of symbols, passwords, grips, and other tomfoolery, " revolutions and insurrections have been prepared," and out of them has sprung the history of a whole century. It would be as fair to say, because earthquakes and hurricanes and thunderstorms occasionally disturb the order of nature in certain countries that those convulsions are the order of nature itself. To our eyes if we survey the history of Europe since 1770 down to the present day, we behold in all lands enlightened progress on the part of each several nation in obedience to the natural instincts of humanity. This is a development quite distinct from the spasmodic efforts of assassins and fanatics who have striven to attach themselves to national movements, and who cry, as the whole world moves on, " Behold, we make it move." In our opinion, therefore, the action of Secret Societies has been something like the old fable of the Fly on the Wheel, and as for any creative power of their own on history we should be inclined to deny it altogether. But this is not what Mr. Frost thinks ; and as he boasts that he has special facilities for undertaking the work, having collected materials from private sources during more than thirty years, and having been in connexion with political refugees from almost every part of Europe, it may be worth while to listen to what he says. We do this all the more willingly, because he seems to be aware that the statement of refugees must be received with caution. In a word, Mr. Frost must be regarded—and evidently regards himself—as a sieve through which the crude stories of these gentry have been dressed and bolted into the fine flour of revolutionary history.
Though his work embraces a century, Mr. Frost is not an Old Parr or Old Jenkins. He could not have had that oral communication on which he prides himself with the llluminati, the United Irishmen, the Philadelphians, and the Tugendbund. Still less could he have been intimate with the Chief of the   Assassins, with the Old Man of the Mountain, or with the Grand Master of the Knights Templars, all of whom he presses into his service as heads of Secret Societies in the sense in which he understands these bodies. Here let us observe that, though his reading in such matters has been so extensive it is remarkable that he has altogether omitted a Secret Society which undoubtedly played a great part in the Middle Ages. Why, when the early Freemasons and the Assassins and Templars are dragged into this history, is there no mention of that awful tribunal of mediaeval Germany, the Holy Vehm, with its nightly meetings, and citations, and executions, which an Irish agrarian assassin might envy ? Perhaps Mr. Frost, if he is aware of the existence of the Vehmgericht, will answer that its sittings and deliberations were partly public, and therefore he omits that association from his story ; but that excuse will not avail him ; for the proceedings of the Tegundbund were also public until the tyranny of the repressive system of Prussia forced them to become private, and yet he assigns to the Tegundbund a prominent place in his first volume. The fact is, and we sincerely regret being forced to say it, that Mr. Frost's eyes are so dazzled by the glare of his dark lantern, that he mixes up societies which were in no sense secret with others which were the offspring of conspirators and revolutionists. Such an association as the Tugenbund, for instance, or even of the Hetairia in Greece, and of the United Slavonians in Russia, was very different, both in its aims and action, from the Communists in France and from the Fenians in Ireland. The one aimed at establishing Constitutional Government on the ruins of despotism and tyranny, while the others aimed at the destruction of Constitutional Government. But even as regards the Fenians and Communists, we may remark, Mr. Frost's theory breaks down ; for while the Fenians were pre-eminently a Secret Society, the Communists were not secret, but openly avowed Revolutionists, and when their opportunity came, fought it out to the bitter end with those constituted authorities which they detested. It would have been far better for his purpose if Mr. Frost, instead of massing all these societies under one head as "secret" had proceeded on a more rational principle, and had distinguished those associations which, starting with openly avowed objects and with the most praiseworthy intentions, were forced to become secret by the tyrannical authorities which hunted them into the shade of night from the broad light of day, from others which were mere social conspiracies, which began and have been over at home in the secrecy and darkness which they so much affect. 
Proceeding on this principle, it will not be difficult to throw some light on the gloomy chaos across which Mr. Frost has only glanced with the fitful gleams of his dark lantern. To the llluminati in Germany, whom he ranks first in his list of Secret Societies, belongs the doubtful honour of having enlightened France in the reign of Louis XVI., and so prepared the way for the French Revolution. We say doubtful, because France with her Encyclopaedia and her Voltaire and Rousseau may well have been called self-enlightened. Be that as it may, the working of the llluminati was at first social rather than political. Not so with the second in Mr. Frost's list. The United Irishmen were rather a political than a social association. It arose, to use Mr. Frost's words, " while the sun of liberty was rising in France from a blood-red horizon, but it rapidly degenerated into riot and insurrection, and was suppressed with Russian severity, and passed away having done nothing, and leaving nothing but a confused feeling of bitterness against all British authority in the minds of the Irish people. Instead of liberating, it turned them into a nation of conspirators, and left them there. The Philadelphians and Olympians in France, whom Mr. Frost places third in his list, were a Secret Society, whose sole object was the overthrow of Napoleon's rule first when he was First Consul, and afterwards as Emperor. They were suppressed by Fouché, who was so completely master of the situation, that Carnot told Napoleon, "You may shoot Fouché to-day, but to-morrow you will cease to reign." These Philadelphians were powerless against Napoleon, and they, too, passed away without a sign, though no doubt when the Emperor fell by the force of others, and other circumstances, they cried out, " There he lies, and we have worked his ruin." The Tugenbund was of a very different stamp. It was a national, patriotic, and open association, first banded to overthrow French rule, and afterwards to secure Constitutional Government for the German people. Repressed in the evil days for liberty after the downfall of Napoleon, they, were thrown into the shade, but they still lived on, and we behold their work in the large measure of liberty which the German people now enjoy. Of the same kind, though with some modifications, the result rather of race and climate than of principle, were the Carbonari and the Reformed Carbonari in Italy, whose proceedings were only secret because they could not help it, who were reformers before they were conspirators, and whose object was to construct a polity rather than to destroy one. Of the Greek Hetairia and of the United Slavonians we have already spoken—the latter were ruthlessly repressed by the Emperor Nicholas after his brother, the mild Alexander, had coquetted with its principles. This association was, we suppose we must say, the parent of the Omladina, with which another Alexander may one day have to deal. The Hetairia was a Secret Society, which was successful in its aspirations, and we may behold its work in the Kingdom of Greece, which is still filled with its "great idea." The Slavonic Association met with another fate, and has long since entered into its kingdom, which is not of this world. There was something heroic in the way in which the chief conspirators of this association met their death. The executioners were awkward, and the ropes broke, and some of the victims fell to the ground only to be raised and executed again. " Can nothing succeed in this country—not even death? " murmured one. " Cursed country," said another, "where they do not even know how to hang a man."
Mr. Frost's list includes those famous Fenians who have caused us so much fear and after all have done so little harm. Looking back on their deeds, we are almost ashamed to compare them with any of their associates in Mr. Frost's book. By their own showing a whole nation was behind them, and millions of sympathisers with them in America, and yet, in spite of all their drilling and bluster, as used to be said of the Poles, they have "wearied the patience of Europe," so that one might almost be tempted to imagine that the sole object of the Brotherhood was to play off a gigantic hoax on England. The one thing that is certain about them is the origin of their name, which was undoubtedly derived from Finn M'Coul and his bodyguard, a sort of national militia, whose deeds are shrouded by the mists of antiquity almost as completely as those of their modern namesakes have been obscured by the Irish police and the base rule of the Saxon in the Emerald Isle. One or two outbreaks which ended in smoke, one or two attacks on barracks, many robberies of arms and ammunition, and several very base assassinations and murderous explosions have been all that this splendid organization has been able to effect. We beg pardon, there is one thing more, though it never came about. The Fenian Brotherhood were resolved
to accomplish what Guy Fawkes and his crew were not able to effect. They tried to make their way up a sewer and to blow up the new Houses of Parliament, but they were frustrated in their determination by a base informer, who went and told Sir Richard Mayne, and so the entrance of the sewer was watched by the police, and the Fenians, forewarned, were too wise to attempt to enter it. We are very sorry that Mr. Frost has omitted to mention this very gallant resolve in his account of the exploits of the Brotherhood ; but it is a satisfaction to us to learn from a man who possesses such a store of exclusive information, that " the Fenian organization, deserted by its ablest leaders, with its funds exhausted, and the rank and file discouraged by failure, has subsided into insignificance."
But, after all, this is a practical age, and what it wants to know is all about those Secret Societies in Sclavonic countries, of which Lord Beaconsfield writes and speaks. In our time we much prefer a live dog to a dead lion, and though the Omladina may not be as formidable in this generation as the Assassins and Templars were in theirs, still it is as well to know all about an association which has filled the minds of Prime Minister and Cardinal with so much apprehension. We approached Mr. Frost's account of this Secret Society, therefore, with an interest which we must say the remainder of his book failed altogether to awaken. What was our disappointment, then, to find that he has very little to say on the subject! "The information concerning the organization of this society," says Mr. Frost, "which is as yet available is very scanty." No better proof could be given of this than the assertion that the head-quarters of the society are at Belgrade, and its greatest strength in Servia, on which we may remark that a Secret Society of which the head-quarters can be pointed out in a town no bigger than Belgrade ceases to be a Secret Society at all, and dwindles into something very like the league formed by the three tailors of Tooley-street.
Altogether the way in which Mr. Frost writes of the Omladina is quite in keeping with its character as a Secret Society, for he is so obscure and contradictory that we are left pretty much in the dark. Thus, in one page, he says " that the Omladina has become a great force, whether for good or evil, has been, shown equally by the pressure which it has exerted upon Prince Milan, and by the evident inability or unwillingness of the Servian Government to adopt measures for its suppression ; " and in the next that, in spite of this power, it has " failed to arouse the Slavonic subjects of the Sultan to more than partial efforts." It may horrify Mr. Frost to hear us asserting that, though the Omladina is a very formidable body, its head-quarters are not in Belgrade, as he so positively asserts. If the head-quarters of the Association could be so easily identified, it would have been long since suppressed, even by the feeble Government of Prince Milan ; but the great feature and the great peril to constituted authority, whether Turkish, Russian, or Austrian, is that the head-quarters of this Secret Society are everywhere and nowhere at once. Everywhere, when there is a movement to be made or supported; and nowhere when it is to be discovered or detected. We suspect it would puzzle Mr. Frost, just as it has hitherto puzzled Czar and Kaiser, to say where the centre of the Association is, now that Servia has played out its part in the struggle, and been found wanting.
Here we take leave of Mr. Frost, who ought to have written a better book on so good a subject. No doubt it was too big for him, and striving to grasp more than he was able to digest, he has come to grief. A man may be a friend of Refugees from many Secret Societies, and yet not be able to write a history of the whole of them. There are men who, by the fire of their genius and the warmth of their devotion to the subject, might have fused the gloomy plottings and heartbroken revelations of Refugees into a lively story of their wrongs and sufferings ; but it is not Mr. Frost's nature to be warm. We rise from the perusal of his work with a feeling that we have read through two volumes on a very interesting question, and after all have learnt little or nothing as to what a Secret Society really is.

 The Sydney Morning Herald 24 February 1877,

No comments: