Military history



Anarchists, ca. 1880–ca. 1939

THE PALE, SLIGHTLY built young man in his “shabby black pants, vest, boots, and a white shirt with a black tie”—the typical uniform of a down-at-the-heels intellectual—would have attracted little attention as he wandered through the frigid night air of fin de siècle Paris. Unless, that is, someone had looked more closely at his overcoat and wondered what could have made that bulge in his coat pocket.

From his modest rented room in Belleville, a working-class district within sight of the newly completed Eiffel Tower, he walked down the elegant Avenue de l’Opéra. He stopped by a couple of fashionable boîtes—the Restaurant Bignon and the Café de la Paix—but they were too empty for his purposes. At 8 p.m. he reached the Hotel Terminus, next to a bustling railroad station. There were a substantial number of patrons in its café and more arriving, so he took a table, ordered a beer, and lit a cigar. By 9 p.m. more than 350 people were drinking aperitifs, smoking, and conversing, as if in a scene from La Bohème, while an “indifferent orchestra” played in the background.

But then any resemblance to the Puccini opera stopped. The man in black calmly opened the door, took the package out of his pocket, lit it with his cigar, and tossed it inside just as he was stepping onto the sidewalk. The homemade bomb weighed just four pounds. It was nothing more than a metal lunch pail filled with dynamite and buckshot along with a mercury fulminate fuse. Simple, but destructive. The explosion on February 12, 1894, shattered marble tables and metal chairs, “blew to atoms the windows and mirrors,” and left holes in both the floor and the ceiling. Twenty people were injured, five badly. One of them would later die. It was hardly the sort of decadent scene that we have come to identify with the Belle Époque.

As smoke and screams emanated from the café, the bomber tried to get away. But he had been observed by a waiter who screamed, “Stop him!” A small crowd of passersby joined the chase in the gloaming darkness. As he ran, the bomber pulled out a pistol and fired several shots at his pursuers before a policeman finally grabbed him. The bomber tried to shoot him too, but after a short struggle he was arrested. Even when he was in custody, he continued to resist, screaming, “Pigs! I would kill you all!”

At first he gave his name as Leon Breton, then as Leon Martin. Within days it emerged that his real name was Émile Henry and this was not his first act of terrorism. More than two years earlier, on November 8, 1892, he had left a bomb outside the Paris offices of a mining company that had just broken a strike by its employees. The police had discovered the device and carried it back to their station house, where it detonated, killing five officers. At his trial Henry expressed only one regret—that he had not killed more people. He had hoped at least fifteen would die in the Café Terminus.

His brazenness was no surprise to the crowd of spectators because the twenty-one-year-old was already a dedicated anarchist—someone who believed that the state would have to be destroyed to bring about a nirvana where private property ceased to exist and people lived in perfect liberty and harmony. The only surprise was that he was not himself an impoverished worker or, as a London magazine put it, “of the loafer and low criminal type”—the stereotypes that polite society liked to project onto the anarchists. He was, the prosecutor noted, “a perfect little petty bourgeois.” His father was a published author; an uncle was a marquis. Henry had been a brilliant student who had gone to work for another uncle who was a civil engineer. But he abandoned thoughts of a career to pursue his anarchist beliefs—inspired, no doubt, by the example of his father, who had been a leading member of the Commune, which took over Paris for seventy-two days in 1871. In one bloody week in May 1871, the communards had been routed, with 20,000 killed and 40,000 arrested.36 Henry’s father was forced into exile in Spain. That created an enduring grievance for anarchists such as Henry and his older brother, Fortuné, both of whom became associated with anarchist groups in the French capital.

They were also embittered by the terrible poverty that they saw around them, with the proletariat living in miserable slums while wealthy Parisians cavorted in opulent restaurants and music halls. As Émile Henry was to explain at his trial, “The factory owner amassing a huge fortune on the back of the labor of his workers. . . . The deputy, the minister whose hands were forever outstretched for bribes. . . . Everything I could see turned my stomach and my mind fastened upon criticism of social organization. . . . I turned into an enemy of a society which I held to be criminal.”

Thus was Henry motivated to become a pioneer in urban terrorism, a phenomenon distinct from, even if it had some overlap with, the sort of rural terrorism practiced by the Ku Klux Klan or John Brown. By striking in the midst of heavily populated urban areas such as Paris, where their actions would instantly be sensationalized in the emerging mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, Henry and other anarchists showed how even a tiny terrorist organization (in his case, a band of one) could have a disproportionate impact on popular opinion.37

IN FORMULATING HIS critique of society, which, he admitted, “has been voiced too often to need rehearsing by me,” Henry had been influenced by three philosophers above all—the anarchist trinity.

First came the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–65), a gifted sloganeer who claimed “property is theft” and “god is evil.” Then there was Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76), a lumbering Russian nobleman with an unruly beard who spent a decade in tsarist prisons and ended his days in Swiss exile. He was Karl Marx’s bitter rival in the International Working Men’s Association (the First International) at a time when communism and anarchism were jostling for influence in revolutionary circles. With the Russian Nihilist Sergei Nechaev, Bakunin cooperated on a famous pamphlet, Principles of Revolution, which stated, “We recognize no other activity but the work of extermination, but we admit that the forms in which the activity will show itself will be extremely varied—poison, the knife, the rope, etc. In this struggle, revolution sanctifies everything alike.” They also worked together on Catechism of a Revolutionary, which claimed, “Everything is moral that contributes to the triumph of the revolution; everything that hinders it is immoral and criminal.” Although Bakunin subsequently broke with Nechaev, who became notorious for murdering a young fellow revolutionary in Russia (an incident that inspired Dostoevsky’s novel Demons), he never repudiated his endorsement of violence.

The third great apostle of anarchism, Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), was less given to inflammatory and even bloodthirsty pronouncements. A Russian prince who had turned against the old regime, he spent time in prison before escaping and settling, as had Marx, in England. Eventually he tried to dissociate himself from the doctrine of “propaganda by the deed”—the euphemism for terrorism coined by the Frenchman Paul Brousse in 187738—but he refused to reject violence as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. would later do. “Personally I hate these explosions, but I cannot stand as a judge to condemn those who are driven to despair,” Kropotkin said in a statement echoed by countless terrorist apologists through the ages.39

Most adherents of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin were not violent, but some were. The police identified more than five thousand anarchists in France; one thousand were considered dangerous.40 Anarchists were also concentrated in Italy, Russia, and Spain. Immigrants from those countries promulgated their doctrines as far away as North and South America. In the late nineteenth century, the world was transformed by “globalization,” with the spread of railroads, steamships, and the telegraph, and, just as they would do a hundred years later with the Internet, airlines, satellite television, and cell phones, terrorists took advantage of this phenomenon.

Then, as now, London provided a safe haven for radicals, including for a time Émile Henry. Here exiles could print their books and pamphlets for distribution back home. They could even meet in their own clubhouse, the Autonomie Club off Tottenham Court Road. Scotland Yard, and in particular its Special Branch, which had been created in 1883 in response to Irish Fenian bombings, kept a wary eye on the foreign radicals but did not usually interfere unless they plotted against British targets. That was rare but not unheard of. In 1894, just three days after Henry’s attack in Paris, a French tailor named Martial Bourdin tried to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich but through “clumsy bungling” blew himself up instead, an incident that inspired Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.41

Outside of Britain the anarchists were more successful. President Sadi Carnot of France, Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo of Spain, Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary, President William McKinley of the United States, and King Umberto I of Italy were all slain by self-professed anarchists between 1894 and 1901. Other monarchs, including Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany and the shah of Persia, narrowly escaped the same fate. Never before had any terrorist group killed so many heads of state, nor has any since then.42

Such killings posed, as King Umberto noted, a “professional risk” for rulers.43 More shocking were indiscriminate attacks like Émile Henry’s that were directed at ordinary people whose only crime was to be “bourgeois.” Three months before Henry’s attack on the Café Terminus, a Spanish anarchist, Santiago Salvador, had flung two bombs from a balcony into a crowded Barcelona theater during a performance of William Tell, Rossini’s opera, which, ironically, tells the story of an earlier rebel against established authority. Twenty-two people were killed and five others wounded.44Many years later, in 1920, a horse-drawn wagon filled with explosives was blown up on Wall Street in New York. Thirty-eight people were killed and hundreds wounded, making this the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The perpetrators were never caught, but the leading suspect was the Italian anarchist Mario Buda, creating a climate of fear about Italian-Americans and other immigrants that intensified as the decade progressed.45

Many of these bloodlettings were justified as reprisals for punishments meted out for earlier attacks; the desire for revenge has always been the most powerful of terrorist motivations. In the twentieth century numerous radicals would claim they had been embittered by the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists executed in Massachusetts in 1927 after a much criticized trial found them guilty of killing two men during an armed robbery. Émile Henry, for his part, said he was avenging August Vaillant, who had been executed for throwing a bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies that had injured a number of people but killed no one. (The president of the chamber had memorably proclaimed, “The session continues.”)46 Henry’s arrest, in turn, led his friend, the Belgian anarchist Philibert Pauwels, to plant small bombs into two shabby Paris hotels, one of which killed an elderly landlady. Pauwels then tried to blow up the elegant Church of the Madeleine but killed only himself when his bomb exploded prematurely.47

NEWS OF ANARCHIST outrages, hyped by the yellow press of the day, led to panic among the respectable classes. Between 1892 and 1894 Paris was the scene of eleven bombings, which killed nine people. As a result, wrote a newspaper correspondent, “the Parisians of 1894 . . . lived in daily dread of some fresh eruption. . . . If a trifling mishap occurred to a tramcar, through an electric wire getting out of order, people imagined that an explosive had been deposited on the line.”48 (Anyone who was in New York after 9/11 will recognize the reaction.) Anarchist beliefs were attributed to many ordinary criminals who, for their part, were happy to claim political motives for their acts. In 1887 a French burglar who had stabbed to death a policeman trying to arrest him defended himself by saying, “The policeman arrested me in the name of the law; I hit him in the name of liberty.”49

There was widespread speculation that a nefarious Black International (black was the anarchists’ color) was scheming to bring down Western civilization. Bakunin furthered this impression by inventing grand if nonexistent organizations with names such as the World Revolutionary Alliance. His fanatical friend Sergei Nechaev was designated its “accredited representative” No. 2771, falsely implying there were 2,770 others.50

It was true that anarchists sometimes crossed national borders to carry out their deeds—something that was easy to do because, as one anarchist noted, “Europe at that time knew no passports, and frontiers hardly existed.”51 The Austrian empress Elizabeth, for instance, was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in Switzerland. King Umberto was killed by an Italian-American anarchist living in New Jersey. But anarchists never had a unified command structure in any individual nation much less across all nations. They did not even have joint training camps. Those were innovations that would await a subsequent wave of terrorism in the 1970s.

The very concept of an anarchist organization was an oxymoron. Anarchists were fierce individualists who resisted the kind of regimentation that Marxist leaders imposed on their parties, which helps to explain why anarchists were less successful. As Émile Henry noted, anarchism was not a “dogma, an unassailable, incontrovertible doctrine revered by its adepts the way Muslims venerate the Koran.”52 Although anarchists held occasional conventions (for example, a London congress in 1881 that endorsed “propaganda by the deed”), whatever cohesion they had—and it was not much—came from informal meetings and from newspapers such as L’Endehors, a Parisian weekly that was briefly edited by Henry. Most anarchist terrorists heeded the German exile Johann Most’s advice in his jaunty how-to pamphlet, The Science of Revolutionary Warfare (1885), one of the first terrorist manuals ever produced: “If you want to carry out a revolutionary act, don’t talk to others about it first—go ahead and do it!”53

For all their disunity, anarchists appeared to be so formidable that numerous governments responded with repressive measures in waging what the New York Times described in 1881—the year that both President James Garfield and Tsar Alexander II were assassinated—as “The War on Terrorism.”54 The most severe penalties were applied, as might be expected, in illiberal states such as Russia and Austria. But even in democratic France laws were passed to crack down on “evil-doers” who distributed anarchist propaganda or defended its doctrines. In the United States, Congress passed a law barring from the country any alien “who disbelieves in or who is opposed to all organized government.” A more severe crackdown, known as the “Palmer Raids” after Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, occurred during the Red scare of 1919–20 when numerous radicals, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, were deported or imprisoned. Theodore Roosevelt reflected the supercharged atmosphere of the times when he said in 1908 that “when compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance.”55

Those today who believe that the world’s response to 9/11 is entirely novel should realize that the anarchist menace of a century earlier prompted growing attempts at international police cooperation such as the anti-anarchist conferences in Rome (1898) and St. Petersburg (1904). The Russian secret police established a sizable operation in Paris with the French government’s consent, and Italy deployed detectives to keep track of Italian anarchists around the world. Such steps laid the foundation for the creation in 1923 of Interpol, the International Criminal Police Commission. Anarchist groups were riddled with informers and provocateurs who kept the police forces of many countries well informed of their plots—and sometimes invented fresh plots simply to collect greater rewards for uncovering them.56

As usual, technology was a two-edged sword: the same cameras that made it possible for the mass media to publish pictures of terrorist attacks, thus furthering the perpetrators’ aims, also made it possible for the police to photograph and identify suspects. This era saw the beginning of “mug shots,” fingerprints, and forensic laboratories, all of which made the terrorists’ jobs harder.57

ANARCHISTS WERE CONVINCED that attempts to repress them would spur a public backlash. At his trial, just before he went to the guillotine, Émile Henry declared, “Hanged in Chicago, decapitated in Germany, garroted in Xerez [Spain], shot in Barcelona, guillotined in Montbrison and in Paris, our dead are many. But you have not been able to destroy anarchy. Its roots go deep; it sprouts from the bosom of a poisonous society which is falling apart. . . . It is everywhere . . . and it will end by defeating you and killing you.”58

Henry was wrong. Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movement had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921.59 In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936–39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell inHomage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left.

That the anarchists did not accomplish more was hardly surprising, since they were, in the words of a recent book, “demanding the impossible.” They were in some ways the opposite of the Ku Klux Klan, which pursued a broad-based campaign of terror to achieve limited objectives. Anarchists, by contrast, committed isolated acts of violence over many years and in many different countries in pursuit of utopian goals. By one estimate, between 1880 and 1914 these “wild beasts without nationality,” as an Austrian official dubbed them, struck in sixteen nations, killing 160 people and wounding at least 500. Ninety-three more people would die in anarchist attacks after World War I, not counting the Russian and Spanish civil wars.60 Nowhere did they achieve much momentum.

Socialists suffered from many deficiencies of their own, but in the land of the tsars, at least, they would achieve a critical mass of terror that would contribute to the ultimate collapse of the old regime.

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