19th Century Paris: Terrorism's Training Ground

By Robert ZaretskyOctober 21, 2014

19th Century Paris: Terrorism's Training Ground
“AS THE WORLD CHURNS” is the story of our times. We all know the plot line: the revolutionary advances in technology and science, industry and education, communication and transportation that transform our society and promise brilliant tomorrows also spur waves of unprecedented violence, wrought by individuals who, displaced or replaced by these vast changes, now exploit them in their campaigns of terrorism.

Yet this story would have been déjà vu for Parisians more than a century ago. Paris at the end of the 19th century, no less than the beginning of our own century, was shot through with great promise and perhaps even greater dread. For its contemporaries, fin-de-siècle France seemed to be tottering toward the fin du temps, or end of times, hurried along by a wave of terrorism that, in some ways, anticipated the terrorism of our age.

1894 marked an exceptional harvest of one of the most notable isms to take root in French soil: anarchism. Unlike other ideologies issuing from the French Revolution, ranging from communism to conservatism, anarchism did not seek control of the state. Instead, it aimed to obliterate it. Come the next revolution, declared the anarchist Jean Grave, a true anarchist, rather than creating a new government, would shoot anyone who tried. Anarchists held that while man was innately good, the state was inevitably oppressive. Once freed of a ruler — archon, in Greek — men and women would join in balanced and harmonious social and economic associations.

This millenarian belief in a flourishing world without laws and bosses found a ready audience in belle époque Paris. The worlds of privilege and poverty, splendor and squalor coexisted uneasily; the new wealth of the city’s western half — the fruit of commercial and industrial advances — starkly contrasted with the destitute and dire condition of the eastern neighborhoods, inhabited by workers and immigrants. During these decades, the disparity in wealth between the haves and have-nots deepened dramatically, as did the gap between the nation’s republican ideals and its reality. In a city of two million, more than 200,000 Parisians were without work, while others worked 18-hour days for a pittance; at the same time, other Parisians frequented the theaters, opera house, and posh restaurants, gossiping about the rising tide of political and financial scandals. As the historian John Merriman remarks in The Dynamite Club, his gripping account of French anarchism, the belle époque “was not belle for most French men and women, who had little reason for optimism and great concern for the future.”

What to do? The answer for many young men with some education, few prospects, and little hope lay in the anarchist credo. Many went no further than the so-called “Propaganda by Word”: dozens of journals and pamphlets flowered in which struggling intellectuals denounced the glaring inequities of their age, and announced the glories of the coming age. Many artists, like the Fauvists, also channeled this faith in a coming rupture: when a critic described the paintbrush of André Derain as “dipped in dynamite,” readers understood it was more than a mere metaphor.

Indeed, between 1892 and 1894, Paris was rocked by the activity of anarchists who, dissatisfied with words, plumped for “Propaganda by Deed.” During these two years, 11 bombs burst in Paris, most of them heaved at institutions and individuals that anarchists believed stood between oppression and liberation. Explosions erupted in chic restaurants and law offices, military barracks and the Chamber of Deputies: every element of civil and political society became targets for anarchists. Though fewer than a dozen people died in these terrorist attacks, fear gripped bourgeois Paris — a sense of insecurity that was, predictably, heightened by the popular press. No less predictably, when an Italian immigrant assassinated French President Sadi Carnot during a visit to Lyon, shouting “Vive l’anarchie!” as he flashed his knife, the government instituted a series of laws, the infamous “lois scélérates,” or scoundrel laws, that undermined many legal and civil liberties.

Yet the most dramatic act of terrorism, if only because it now appears as a rehearsal for the blood-dimmed wave of terrorism in the Middle East, was aimed not at political or judicial figures, but instead at innocent bystanders. On February 12, 1894, a young and impoverished intellectual, Émile Henry, entered the Café Terminus. A popular café at the Gare Saint-Lazare, the Terminus was bustling with white-collar workers, whose modest careers as shopkeepers and clerks hardly qualified them as the traditional targets of anarchist terrorists. Lighting with his cigar the fuse of a homemade bomb filled with bullets and explosives, Henry tossed it into the main room; the explosion, which shattered mirrors and chandeliers, killed one bystander and wounded 20 more.

This, for Merriman, explains the bombing’s true significance: “What makes Henry’s attack qualify as the origins of modern terrorism,” he told me in an email exchange, “was the fact that he did not go after someone identified with the state, but ordinary bourgeois having a beer.” Tellingly, neither the death nor injuries drew expressions of remorse from Henry — to the contrary. Caught, convicted, and condemned to die, Henry declared there were no innocents. These “petty bourgeois with a steady salary in their pockets,” he railed, were no less guilty than generals and presidents.

Or, it is tempting to add, they were no less guilty than foreign aid workers and journalists — not to mention local residents who do not share the same interpretation of Islam — have lately been in the eyes of ISIS’s franchises in Syria, Iraq, and Algeria. Of course, there are dramatic differences between the forms of terrorism practiced by French anarchists a century ago and by Islamist extremists today. One sought to abolish the state, while the other seeks to erect a theocratic one; one scorned religion, while the other flaunts it (all the while flouting its teachings); one wished to liberate the dispossessed and disenfranchised, while the other wants to roll back whatever modern freedoms they posses and subject them to sharia, a different and more dreadful kind of tyranny.

Parallels, sobering and stubborn, nevertheless exist. Like ISIS, anarchist terrorism had global pretentions: President William McKinley, shot dead by an anarchist in 1901, was just one of several Western political leaders at the turn of the century whose lives were taken, or nearly so, by anarchists. Just like anarchist artists who excelled at presenting their cause, ISIS has cultivated its own brand of propaganda by word and image, moving quickly from videos of beheadings to videos of anti-Western lectures given by some of its other captives. Both then and now, jobless and aimless young men, banished to the margins of society, turn against the values of that same society with a murderous passion. Both then and now, politicians and popular media have done a better job at scaring their audiences than at informing them, just as both then and now, governments roll back legal and human rights while attempting to roll back the terrorists.

The wave of anarchist terrorism in Paris subsided after 1894. Not only had France begun to emerge from a deep recession, but civil society also proved more resilient and more rewarding than the bleak vision offered by the anarchists. This may again prove the case. Over the past several weeks, a growing number of open letters and manifestos, written and signed by Muslim clerics and intellectuals in France, have loudly denounced the acts of ISIS. Whatever the future does hold, however, the past reminds us that terrorism has been the refuge not just of religious fanatics, but also secular fanatics, and that profane ideology no less than holy scripture can lead to utter disregard for human life.


Robert Zaretsky is the history editor for the LARB.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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