Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Filippo Giuseppe Maria Ludovico Buonarroti
The Carbonari were one of the many secret societies that proliferated in the years after the French Revolution, and especially after the Bourbon Restoration. Indeed, the secret societies and the fears of secret conspiracies were skillfully exploited by legitimist governments after 1814 to justify often extreme measures of political repression and the curtailment of individual liberties.

Since the numbers of the secret societies and the often impossible actions attributed to them were deliberately exaggerated as much by their supporters as by opponents, it is often still difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. But the secret societies existed, among them the Carbonari, which were prominent and especially prolific in southern Italy. Like nearly all the other secret societies, the Carbonarist lodges were modeled on the freemasonic lodges that had spread widely in Europe in the late eighteenth century and were officially promoted throughout Napoleon’s empire (1804–1814/15). As opposition to French imperialism grew, however, the secret societies offered the emperor’s opponents a less visible alternative to freemasonry.

The first references to the Carbonari in southern Italy came at precisely the moment when relations between Napoleon I and his brother-in-law Joachim Murat (1767–1815), were breaking down. Murat had ruled Napoleon’s satellite Kingdom of Naples since 1808, but relations with Paris deteriorated to the point that in 1811 he nearly lost his throne. As Murat’s position in the imperial enterprise weakened, he became more dependent on his Neapolitan supporters, who in turn pressed for a constitution.

This became the principal political platform of the Carbonarist lodges, whose name was adopted from the Charbonnerie, an informal secret association among the charcoal burners (charbonniers) of the Jura Mountains between France and Switzerland. The name seems to have been taken at random by a group of French officers, hostile to Napoleon, whose regiment took part in the conquest of southern Italy in 1806. One of the first Carbonarist lodges was founded in Calabria by Pierre-Joseph Briot, a senior French official who was also an unreconstructed Jacobin and a longtime opponent of Bonaparte’s dictatorship.

The Carbonarists had adopted two alternative political projects. One was the constitution conceded by the king of Spain to the Cortes (legislative assembly) of Cadiz in 1812, and the other was the very different constitution that the British had imposed on Sicily in the same year. Support for these demands spread quickly, and an insurrection in the Abruzzi in 1813 revealed strong support in the army as well. The government immediately banned the Carbonarist lodges, and in Milan, Napoleon’s viceroy Euge`ne Beauharnais did the same. But when in 1814 Murat defected from the empire, on three separate occasions his generals demanded a constitution as the condition for their support.

In southern Italy the Carbonarist lodges played an important role in the transition of power after the fall of Napoleon and Murat and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815. Their great hope was that the Bourbons would extend the Sicilian constitution to the whole kingdom, but instead it was abolished. As a result, the lodges began to spread both on the mainland and now also in Sicily much to the alarm of the authorities.

Those fears were shared more widely as numerous new and old secret societies began to appear all over Europe. They had a bewildering panoply of names and projects: the Adelfi, the Decisi, the Perfect Sublime Masters, the Calderai, to name only a few. Some supported the legitimist restorations, others opposed them, and others had their own projects, like the Russian Decembrists, the Polish Patriotic Society, and the Greek Hetaira Philike´. A growing source of public alarm, the presence of these conspiracies, real or imagined, provided the authorities with pretexts for draconian public security measures, whereas for an inveterate conspirator like Filippo Michele Buonarroti (1761– 1837), a conspirator in the 1796 ‘‘Conspiracy of Equals’’ in Paris and now in the safety of Geneva, these fears gave substance to a revolutionary threat that he knew did not exist but dearly wanted to create.

In southern Italy the Bourbon government was paralyzed by its fear of the Carbonari. The fears grew when an insurrection at Macerata in the Papal State in 1817 was attributed to the Carbonari, but in Naples the generals reported that the lodges were too many and too powerful for a frontal attack. When the Spanish revolution took place in January 1820, southern Italy at first seemed calm. But when a protest began in the cavalry barracks at Nola at the beginning of July, within days the protest spread to other regiments. Faced with a general mutiny the monarchy was forced to concede the Spanish constitution.

The revolutions in Naples and Sicily in 1820 succeeded because the constitutional program had overwhelming support in the army, but there is strong evidence to suggest that they were planned in the Carbonarist lodges, where the constitutional project was prepared and which during the nine months of constitutional government played an important role in maintaining order. But it was hardly surprising that the Carbonarist revolution in Naples and Sicily rang fresh alarms through Restoration Europe and many now claimed that the secret societies were the invisible hand that linked the revolutions in Spain, Naples, and Sicily to the Cato Street conspiracy in London, the murder of the duc de Berri in France and of the journalist August von Kotzebue in Germany in 1819, which was the immediate pretext for the draconian Carlsbad Decrees.

In November, Prince Clemens von Metternich (1773–1859) summoned the European rulers to meet at Troppau in October to coordinate action against the forces of revolution. During the meeting, when the tsar, Alexander I, was informed of a mutiny in one of the St. Petersburg regiments, he immediately detected the work of the secret societies. With the willing complicity of the king of Naples, an Austrian army was dispatched to southern Italy in March 1821, and the revolutions were crushed. The Carbonarist lodges were closed, and their members arrested or placed under police surveillance, dismissed from public office, and banned from the professions.

According to Metternich, the Carbonari were ‘‘prelates, priests and citizens of distinguished rank.’’ In fact, they also included many artisans and lesser landowners, but overwhelmingly the Carbonarist lodges gave political voices for the first time to the provincial gentry, of which they were now deprived. However, the police records also show that their numbers were much smaller than the authorities liked to believe, and their suppression served primarily to justify political purges that extended to the entire army, public officials, and the clergy.

Despite the defeat of the revolutions in Naples and Sicily, elsewhere in Europe fear of the secret societies now reached a peak. In December 1821 the Carbonari were banned by the pope, but the discovery of plans by a French Charbonnerie to stage revolts in Belfort and Saumur in December 1821 caused new alarms that were exacerbated when four sergeants who were put on trial at La Rochelle for complicity refused to divulge any information.

By 1824 the panic was subsiding, Europe was not in flames, and Metternich decided that the threat had been grossly exaggerated all along. By now the revolutionaries were also losing patience, and the failed insurrections that took place in the Papal State in 1831 were the last strike of the Carbonari. A year later Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) founded Young Italy, the revolutionary society that explicitly rejected the tradition of secret conspiracy. Mazzini had begun his career as a member of the Carbonari in Genoa, but now he called on Italian revolutionaries to declare themselves openly and to proselytize the young to the national cause, accusing the Carbonari of adhering to the revolutionary strategies of the French Jacobins that he believed to be outdated and unworkable.

The Carbonari now disappeared as quickly as they had materialized. Under attack from the revolutionaries and under growing pressure from the police, the secret societies came to be seen as anachronistic. Former Carbonarists found new berths in a variety of political movements, some more some less militant, while others reverted to mainstream freemasonry. In France, for example, the Charbonnerie made a brief reappearance during the July Revolution in 1830 but were subsequently absorbed into the republican movement. However, while the political threat they posed was certainly exaggerated, the Carbonari and other secret societies enabled European governments to impose even tighter controls—over the press and public associations but also on army officers, public servants, the clergy, and the independent professions—that remained in force down to 1848, and in many cases well beyond.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Davis, J. A. Naples and Napoleon: Reform, Revolution, and Empire in Southern Italy, 1750–1820. Oxford, U.K., forthcoming. Roberts, John Morris. The Mythology of the Secret Societies. New York, 1972. Spitzer, Alan B. Old Hatreds and Young Hopes: The French Carbonari against the Bourbon Restoration. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.


The Carlsbad Decrees were a series of measures adopted by the German Confederation in 1819 that established severe limitations on academic and press freedoms and set up a federal commission to investigate all signs of political unrest in the German states.

The Napoleonic Wars had spurred the growth of a small but influential nationalist movement in Germany, which garnered some of its most fervent supporters from among students and professors. After the anti-Napoleonic campaigns of 1813– 1815, student veterans returned to their universities and founded a series of nationalist fraternities or Burschenschaften, which were intended to promote the values of ‘‘Germanness, militancy, honor, and chastity.’’ While the Burschenschaften were active throughout Germany’s Protestant universities, the radical hub of the movement was Jena. There students and like-minded professors took advantage of the new press freedoms granted in Saxony-Weimar’s 1816 constitution to promote liberal and nationalist positions and critique the slow pace of reform in Germany since the Congress of Vienna. Saxony-Weimar was also the site of the Wartburg Festival (October 1817), in which students gathered to sing nationalist hymns, issue vague demands for freedom and unity, and burn a list of books they deemed reactionary or anti- German. These developments were viewed with alarm by the Austrian chancellor Clemens von Metternich, who saw the student movement as a serious threat to the Restoration order established at Vienna. Metternich maintained that such radicalism was encouraged by an overly lenient attitude among government officials in Prussia and by the broader push toward constitutional government in Baden, Bavaria, Württemberg, and Saxony- Weimar.

Metternich was already seeking to clamp down on the Burschenschaften and their supporters when they provided him with a perfect pretext. On 23 March 1819 the student Karl Sand assassinated the conservative playwright August von Kotzebue in his apartment in Mannheim. Kotzebue had been a vociferous critic of the radical nationalist movement (one of his books was on the list burned at the Wartburg Festival); moreover, as a prolific and highly successful author of light comedies he was widely seen as the embodiment of Old Regime frivolity and lasciviousness. Recently it had become known that Kotzebue was sending reports on German cultural affairs to the Russian tsar. Sand, a student of theology at Jena and a member of the local Burschenschaft, resolved to take matters into his own hands, striking down this ‘‘traitor’’ to the German nation. With Kotzebue dead, Sand attempted to kill himself but was instead arrested, tried, and eventually executed. Meanwhile, a deranged student had made an attempt on the life of a district official in Nassau, adding to the sense of unrest and imminent revolution.

Sand’s act represented a substantial reversal for the reform party in Prussia, as moderates like Karl August von Hardenberg and Karl von Altenstein lost influence with Frederick William III (r. 1797–1840) to more reactionary members of his cabinet. At a meeting in Teplitz on 1 August, Metternich and the Prussian king agreed that their states would take a common hardline policy against the ‘‘revolutionary party’’ in Germany. The outlines of that policy were hammered out two weeks later at a conference of ministers from ten leading German states, which took place in the resort locale of Carlsbad. The conference drafted a series of decrees, which were then approved unanimously at a meeting of the Federal Diet on 20 September 1819.

The Carlsbad Decrees consisted of four laws. The University Law established a state plenipotentiary for each university, who was responsible for maintaining proper discipline and morality. The state governments were obligated to remove any teacher who taught subversive doctrines or otherwise abused his authority and to enforce existing laws against secret student organizations (that is, the Burschenschaften). Professors fired by one university could not be hired by another, and students found guilty of involvement with the Burschenschaften were banned from future employment in public office. The Press Law required that all books and periodicals shorter than 320 pages be approved by a censorship board before they could be published. Periodicals that harmed the interests of a German state could be shut down and their editors banned from publishing for as long as five years. An Investigative Law set up a federal investigative body that was charged with examining and reporting on all evidence of political unrest in Germany (though prosecution of suspects was left to the individual states). Finally, the Provisional Execution Order granted the Confederation the authority to take action against states that failed to suppress revolutionary activities within their borders.

The immediate effect of the Carlsbad Decrees was a stifling of liberal political expression in Germany. The Burschenschaften were banned, liberal professors were fired, and students suspected of illegal activities found the path to government office blocked. Thus Prussia and Austria were able to impose an effective conservative hegemony within the Confederation, hampering efforts toward liberal or constitutional reform. Once the decrees attained permanent status in 1824, government spying and censorship became a way of life in Germany, often lamented in the writings of Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Börne. Yet the impact of the Carlsbad Decrees should not be overstated. Application of these laws was always uneven, and opposition figures became quite skillful in skirting the censors. Moreover, the Revolution of 1830 in France would unleash a new wave of political unrest in Germany, which led to new constitutions in Hannover and Saxony and liberal reforms in a number of other states. Still, it required another revolution (that of 1848) before the Carlsbad Decrees were finally repealed by the Federal Diet in April 1848.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Büssem, Eberhard. Die Karlsbader Beschlu¨ sse von 1819: Die endgültige Stabiliserung der restaurativen Politik im Deutschen Bund nach dem Wiener Kongress 1814/15. Hildesheim, Germany, 1974. Huber, Ernst Rudolf. Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1789. Vol. 1: Reform und Restauration 1789 bis 1830. Stuttgart, Germany, 1957. Sheehan, James J. German History, 1770–1866. Oxford, U.K., 1989. Williamson, George S. ‘‘What Killed August von Kotzebue?: The Temptations of Virtue and the Political Theology of German Nationalism, 1789–1819.’’ Journal of Modern History 72, no. 4 (2000): 890–943.