European Police in the English Imagination

Lately, I’ve been reading about European police agencies to better understand nineteenth-century English prejudices against continental policing. By far the most prominent criticism made against European governments was that they spied on their citizens. Although the English recognized that such tactics could be effective, political policing remained anathema to British sensibilities.

Joseph Fouché

The well-trodden statement of the Earl of Dudley in the wake of the 1811 Ratcliff Highway murders has come to represent broader English opinions about early nineteenth-century continental law enforcement. Dudley felt that decentralized law enforcement was preferable to “domiciliary visits, spies, and all the rest of Fouché’s [Napoleon’s Minister of Police] contrivances.”[1] Similarly, Select Committee reports in the first quarter of the century made clear that centralized policing and detective policing would be considered assaults on traditional British freedoms.

These statements present English police institutions as decentralized and non invasive, while those of her European neighbours seem monolithic and pervasive. Although European regimes maintained highly centralized police and used invasive techniques to gather information, these methods were not always effective. The examples of Austria, Russia and France indicate the profound difficulty (and, sometimes, impossibility) of keeping track of public opinion and monitoring political dissent in nineteenth-century Europe. That the governments of these three states repeatedly strained their resources to maintain political control and public order emphasizes the Sisyphean task they set out to accomplish.


Russian, Austrian and French officials all relied heavily on censorship to maintain advantageous political climates. This included banning suspect publications while favouring ones supporting the government. Newspapers, domestic and foreign, were bought off to print material supportive to current regimes while condemning rival politics. In Austria and Russia, agents of the police routinely went through post office mail to determine the existence of and danger of threats to the political establishment. Similarly, in France and Russia, state agents were encouraged to listen to the private conversations of subjects to discover plots and other subversive activities. When caught, those implicated in anarchist plots were subject to intense interrogation and, if possible, encouraged to rejoin their comrades as agents provocateurs.[2]


This system of rooting out political dissent went much further than any nineteenth-century English government was comfortable with. These tactics reflect the vast political differences between parliamentary England and her absolutist neighbours. Simply because European police practices often rode roughshod over individual rights, however, didn’t mean they were always successful.

Clemens von Metternich

Such investigatory techniques failed to prevent the assassination of two tzars, Paul I in 1801 and Alexander II in 1881 (after attempts in 1866 and 1879). The Hapsburg rulers under Foreign Minister Metternich and Minister of Police Sedlnitzky were unable to prevent revolutions in Naples (1820), Piedmont (1821), the Papal States (1831), nor the revolutions of 1848 that would remove both men from power.

In France, the frequent changes of government between 1789-1870 demonstrate the difficulty of accurately gauging, let alone influencing, public opinion.

Thus, while the English shunned the police practices of other European states, those denunciations may have overemphasized the effectiveness of such methods.

[1] Quoted in Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 21-2. It seems the good Earl forgot some of the less savoury activities of his own government in the 1790s.

[2] For a greater discussion of these tactics, see the “Further Reading” section below.

Further Reading

Donald E. Emerson, Metternich and the Political Police: Security and Subversion in the Hapsburg Monarchy (1815-1830) (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1968).

Clive Emsley, Gendarmes and the State in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Clive Emsley and Barbara Weinberger, eds., Policing Western Europe: Politics, Professionalism and Public Order, 1850-1940 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).

Charles A. Ruud and Sergei A. Stepanov, Fontanka 16: The Tsars’ Secret Police (Montreal: Queen’s University Press, 1999).

** This post is the result of independent academic work and is intended for future publication by the author. Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author (reblogs excepted). Any questions or concerns can be directed to Rachael Griffin via the Feedback page


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