Tibor Frank. Ein Diener seiner Herren. Werdegang des Ö¶sterreichischen Geheimagenten Gustav Zerffi (1820-1892). Vienna: BÖ¶hlau Verlag, 2002. 315 pp. EUR 29,00 (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-205-99453-4.
Reviewed by Jeff Leigh (Department of History, University of Wisconsin Marathon County)
Published on HABSBURG (July, 2003)
Wer ist Zerffi?
Wer ist Zerffi?
Tibor Frank's title Ein Diener seiner Herren posits an answer to the question of what was the man variously known as G. I. Zerffi, Hohlbrück, Dumont, Dr. Piali, or Dr. Gustav G. Zerffi in place of an answer to the question of who he was. Indeed, it restates the question of personal identity in the form of a social role, and, in this, provides the framework for this wide ranging book. As stated in the foreword: "This book would like to appear as a simple biography, but it is not the simple story of a man. This book is, first off, a contribution to the history of the secret service in the Habsburg Monarchy in the nineteenth century. It also concerns itself with important aspects of the Revolution and the struggle for freedom in Hungary, 1848-9, and especially with its consequences, as with the exiles of the European Revolution in many lands. And, in an especially important way, the biography of G.G. Zerffi constitutes a presentation of the European origins of the modernization of Japanese historiography in Meiji Japan. Although these aspects appear only to be tied together through the life of a single man, this book is more than a biography. It is the investigation of the different possibilities of an intellectual and of the value of his moral and intellectual triumphs and tragedies. From notorious Hungarian journalist of the Vormärz, he transformed himself into an anonymous Austrian secret agent, became one of the first members of the Royal Historical Society in London, and an internationally known historian. In an important way, his biography is a cumulative symbol of the possible life paths and pitfalls of the intelligentsia of the nineteenth century" (p. 9).
And this is only the beginning. Biography concerns itself with the difficult task of summarizing and assigning meaning, "identity," to the life of its subject. In biography, the subject is usually chosen on the basis of his/her centrality to "important" events and/or the variety and import of his/her accomplishments. More often than not, there is a certainty to the identity, indeed, a realization of that identity, in a work of biography. In the case of G.G. Zerffi, however, the author confronted an individual who spent most of his life self-consciously changing the content of his identity, an individual who may never have found a concrete self or set of satisfactory social relations. The life of G.G. Zerffi appears more to have been a set of causes and assumed alien identities, illustrating a fundamental rootlessness "as an assimilated Jew in the Hungary of Metternich, as a 'homeless' 'Hungarian' émigré in Turkey, as an 'Austrian' agent provocateur in the international revolutionary emigration, or as the former 'revolutionary Honved officer' in the academic life of Victorian England" (p. 207). The investigation of such an individual is therefore particularly interesting as it begins by bringing into question the usual factual material upon which biography is based.
Frank has created a narrative and analysis of the life of this uncommon man by piecing together an interesting variety of evidence: from Zerffi's secret reports to Vienna, numbering over 2,000; his published journalistic and academic works, which included many articles, pamphlets and books; contemporary primary sources in Hungarian, German, English; and a wide range of historical works on the period. His conclusions are that Zerffi was, above all, an intellectual with sufficient talent to assemble known materials but incapable of creating original works. As Frank puts it, "he stands before us as a man whose life and work show a continuing ideological and moral identity crisis" (p. 11). He appears to be a man who spent his life serving various masters, and, in this, again reflected rather than created the various tendencies of his age.
Although his origins are uncertain, Frank concludes that he was the son of the writer Julius Stephan Zerffi, and that his family, which was Jewish and included intellectuals, had migrated from the German principalities to the Habsburg Monarchy and converting to Catholicism sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, settling in Hungary. This material forms the beginning of Frank's characterization of Zerffi as a person whose identity: religious, geographical, and political/ideological was influenced by a lack of rootedness. His identity as a converted Jew is posited to help explain his attachment to the Monarchy, which provided some equality for Jews under Joseph II, and to the liberal revolution, which, at times, promised full equal rights. Although Zerffi's consciousness of this identity is not established in the book, it provides a starting point for the inconsistencies which follow.
Nothing is known about Zerffi's first eighteen years, but in 1839 he began a career as a stage actor under the name Hohlbrück, working in Vienna. He may have come under police surveillance at this time, but there is no material on political activities. In 1845, he traveled to Saxony where he published his first book, Kunterbunt, which was banned and confiscated by the Austrian censors. Again, the offending content is not known, but it does seem that he was in contact with members of Young Germany and the book does contain some elements of liberal thought. From this time forward, he had a police record, which stood in the way of advancing his journalistic career in the Monarchy.
In 1846, he returned to Hungary and became a regular contributor to the conservative paper Honderü, where he exhibited conservative, anti-liberal tendencies, sparing with Petöffi, and attacking Kossuth and others. Zerffi also attacked the censors and perhaps because of this failed to overcome their earlier appraisal of him as unsuitable for higher journalistic license. Zerffi was then in a kind of limbo in the last days of the Vormärz.
In March 1848, when the Revolution came, Zerffi immediately took up its cause, toasting Kossuth, publishing Petöffi's national hymn and The Twelve Points, and opening his own liberal paper entitled Reform, with the slogan "Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity." Although the opposition referred to him as having been "a March-born standard bearer of Hungarian liberalism," he became a solid presence among the opposition journalists, an "aggressive republican," and spoke out strongly for equal rights, especially for Hungary's Jewish population. During the revolution, he also began to write about the need for a well-organized, centralized police apparatus and served as a police official of independent Hungary and as adjutant to General Jozsef Schweidel.
In 1849, he again transformed himself, this time, into a paid agent of the Austrian state. Although it should be said that he was in difficult financial straights, that there were severe political and personal clashes among the émigrés, and that with his pregnant wife and son still in Hungary he was vulnerable to intimidation, Zerffi's 1849 conversion was just as remarkable as his transformation into an anti-Austrian revolutionary just a year earlier. As an agent, he performed several functions. He delivered copious amounts of raw intelligence, pioneering espionage methods of gaining access to important personages, such as Kossuth, by cultivating their entourage and observing their means of communication. He also succeeded as an agent provocateur, working to deepen the rifts between the political émigrés. And, finally, he wrote reports tying this work into general assessments of the political conditions in the places of his operation, first Belgrade, then Istanbul, and later Paris and London, where he cultivated relationships with Gottfried Kinkel and Karl Marx, among others. In these works, he was clearly an advocate for the Austrian state, criticizing mistakes that he found in Austrian policy, and suggesting more fruitful alternatives.
In this material, Frank illustrates the solitude he finds in Zerffi's existence. In the Austrian spy network, most agents operated independently, unaware of one another. This rather lonely world is also reflected in the realization that Zerffi was never completely trusted by either the Austrian officials or the political émigrés, some of whom, such as Kossuth, uncovered evidence of his espionage. In this light, his political analysis appears to have been part of an effort to identify with Austria. Still, the Austria he promoted was one which reconciled his various principles. It would be federal in nature with equal rights and recognition of national interests within its borders. Such an Austria, argued Zerffi would provide an example to the Balkans as a whole and help to move its peoples away from the other Great Powers and into the Austrian orbit.
His ideological orientation continued to develop in the 1850s. In anonymous pamphlets, which appear to be of his authorship, he continued this line, promoting Austria in his preferred vision of its future and attacking Hungarian nationalism. Under his pen, Hungary had prospered under Austrian leadership, benefiting through the introduction of "German law, German science, and German politics."
He still maintained that nationality must be protected for the small nations, but that they must be led by the larger. In further works, he tied liberalism to the Austrian state and increasingly to German nationalism: "Liberals insist upon the strict adherence to the law-- liberals keep their word--liberals speak the common language of law and truth--Austrian liberals accept the Imperial Patent of 20 October 1860 and February 1861 as the basis for a free, united, and powerful future nation--The Hungarian liberals want to become a part of a powerful German nation. These liberals have nothing at all to do with Kossuth and his followers" (p. 123).
In his vision of German nationalism, Zerffi appears to have sought both a reconciliation of his competing identities and an alternative to Austrian service. In 1861, he became a member of the London-based German National Society, and began to identify himself more and more with Prussia as the benefactor of united German national interests. This, together with other circumstances, led to a deteriorating relationship with Austria during the early 1860s. He began to complain that his reports were not sufficiently safeguarded by his superiors in the Austrian service, he ran into personal conflicts with these superiors, and faced the difficulty that the Hungarian emigration was becoming less and less important to Austria as the decade progressed. Shortly after his stipend was cut in half in 1864, he ended his service.
During the decade and a half of his secret service, Zerffi continued to publish articles with major European newspapers, worked as a language teacher, and published some literary and historical works, and endeavored to develop an identity as an intellectual. In 1853, he settled in London; in 1859, he Anglicized his name and began to refer to himself as Dr. G.G. Zerffi; and in 1862, he applied for British citizenship. He never gained a full-time academic post nor recognition in British academic circles, but he made an important name for himself in the public lecture circuit, became a co-founder and then chairman of the Royal Historical Society, 1880-1885, and gained the attention of Suematsu Kencho, son-in-law of Ito Hirobumi, who employed Zerffi to write a historiography and introduction to European history for Japanese scholars. In these endeavors, he again served as a compiler, reporting and systematizing movements in the art of the Western tradition. Contemporary critics congratulated him on his "fine sense of historical develop of decorative arts" and the clarity of his style, but they decidedly identified him as not an art critic in his own right (p. 162).
In all of these endeavors, Frank places him in the context of time, subject to changes in political and cultural trends and ever endeavoring to reconcile the competing tendencies that animated him.
While in England, he moved from German nationalism, which was becoming so important in the 1860s, to a larger conceptualization of the fraternity of English and German Aryans. This commingling of German and English followed his commingling of German nationalism and liberalism and his later determination of the superiority of the British political, economic, and social system above all others. He was heavily influenced by the trends of the 1860s and '70s: positivism, Darwinism, and the secularization movement, and began to posit the superiority of reason to "dogma" after first going through a phase of antagonism to materialism and an embracing of the perspective of the English evangelicals, including their strident anti-Catholicism. In his later works, he promoted a vision of social Darwinism, creating a pseudo-scientific reconciliation of the competing currents that had marked his life.
In his thought, Frank deems him a masterful compiler and summarizer of popular intellectual trends, but in no way an original thinker. In fact, he frequently makes note of Zerffi's plagiarism and cut-and-paste approach, combining the models and ideals of greater thinkers. In this, he serves more as a reflection of his times, and in this a useful subject for historical enquiry, rather than as a maker of his times. He was, as Frank describes him, ein Diener seiner Herren, a servant and perhaps a reflection of the very difficulty of assigning identity to a historic subject and moreover the very difficulty of that individual's effort to construct his own identity.
In this work, Frank has sought first and foremost to bring the person of Zerffi to life. He has connected him to the political environment and the popular intellectual trends of his times and done a fine job in presenting the historical problem posed by this intellectual enigma. I am not sufficiently familiar with Victorian England to judge the validity of Frank's assessment of its culture, but related to my own area of interest I had hoped that the book would more fully develop an analysis of the problematic cross-currents of Austrian Neoabsolutism and provide a deeper treatment of the workings and importance of its secret service, promised in the foreword. This said, the book does succeed in its fundamental purpose and certainly stimulates the pursuit of new questions and approaches to the study of nineteenth-century European political émigrés and intellectuals.
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Jeff Leigh. Review of Frank, Tibor, Ein Diener seiner Herren. Werdegang des Ö¶sterreichischen Geheimagenten Gustav Zerffi (1820-1892).
HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.