The 19th-century roots of terrorism

2 03 2009

By Chuck Leddy Globe Correspondent / February 26, 2009
Source: The Boston Globe

Terrorist bombings of nightclubs, restaurants, and hotels are, unfortunately, the stuff of today’s headline news. But the bombing of Paris’s Café Terminus in 1894 was a new, stunning phenomenon made possible by a violent philosophy and the development of dynamite. Yale historian John Merriman does many things in “The Dynamite Club,” his book about the bombing, and does them quite well, from explaining the intellectual and social underpinnings of anarchism to detailing the invention of dynamite to taking us inside the murky underworld of extremist Émile Henry, who built and then set off the 1894 bomb.

THE DYNAMITE CLUB: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror By John Merriman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 259 pp., illustrated, $26

“This book is motivated by a very simple question: Why did Émile Henry do what he did?” In seeking an answer, Merriman meticulously details the massive socioeconomic inequalities of 19th-century Paris, and the rest of Europe, which created alienation and resentment, especially among impoverished intellectuals such as Henry. Merriman shows us the dual worlds of Paris, the conspicuous consumption of the relatively few haves and the desperation, sickness, and want of the majority have-nots. Henry’s radical father had been forced to flee France after the 1871 Paris Commune, and young Henry adopted an extreme anarchist philosophy that advocated violence to destroy the social and political order.

Unlike socialists, anarchists like Henry rejected “electoral politics because they saw it as a means of propping up the bourgeois state,” writes Merriman. Acts of violence were needed to destroy the state, and as with today’s Islamic terrorist groups, anarchism developed a cult of martyrdom whereby those who died destroying the enemy were celebrated as heroes. Merriman effectively explains anarchism’s reverence for martyrs, showing how Henry was consumed by a need to avenge the death of other anarchists.

Henry performed his first act of terrorism in November 1892. He walked into the Paris headquarters of the Carmaux Mining Co. and placed a bomb, wrapped as a gift, at the front door. A suspicious employee contacted the police, who came and carefully carried the package to the nearest police station. “Two minutes later, the bomb exploded. Unimaginable horror followed,” writes Merriman, detailing the gruesome deaths of five victims inside the station. Henry fled to London, satisfied with his handiwork.

Henry lived on the lam in London and Paris, in a global anarchist underworld rife with secrecy, violence, and the fear of police informants. Merriman writes about international police efforts to uncover anarchist plots around the world, especially in London: “As part of this effort, police agents from France, Italy, Russia, and other countries were dispatched to Britain, where they infiltrated anarchist groups,” the author notes. Yet Henry remained on the loose, planning his next bombing.

On Feb. 12, 1894, Henry left a bomb in the crowded Café Terminus. Merriman describes the ensuing destruction: “The explosion left a sizable hole in the wooden floor and punctured the ceiling. Amid general panic, the screams and shouts of the wounded joined the smoke.” Incredibly, only one person died inside the cafe, while 20 were injured. Henry was captured fleeing the scene. Under police interrogation, he proudly admitted both bombings.

Tried for murder, Henry defiantly justified his actions as payback for police repression against anarchism. On May 21, 1894, he was guillotined in front of a Paris crowd. In describing the fate of a single terrorist, Merriman has skillfully illustrated how social alienation fueled the rise of extremist ideas and acts. The lethal impulses that motivated Henry aren’t so different, the author concludes, from the impulses that lead to terrorism today. This accessible account is historically eye-opening and psychologically insightful.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.