- See also : Anarchism, Terrorism Studies and Islamism, Paul Stott, Global Discourse, Vol.1, No.2, 2010.
Daggers, Rifles and Dynamite: Anarchist Terrorism In Nineteenth Century Europe
Terrorism and Political Violence
Vol.16, No.1, 2004
Initially the anarchists did not call for terrorism, but by the 1880s, it erupted as the result of harsh socio-economic conditions in Europe and America, regional and national traditions of social warfare and justified regicide, government repression of more peaceful and organized forms of protest and labor activity, the spellbinding examples of the Paris Commune and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the invention of dynamite and anarchist incitement to ‘propaganda by the deed’. These ignited chain reactions of social protest, repression and revenge. While the number of assassinated heads of state and government, and of monarchs of major countries was unprecedented, the anarchists, outside of Spain, killed relatively few people. Nonetheless, the anarchists’ desire for dramatic signs of vindication, the authorities’ and the public’s fears of a vast anarchist conspiracy and the media’s hunger for sensational news combined to create the mirage of a powerful terrorist movement sweeping through nations and across the world.
Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1866 transformed the world. Not only did it make possible spectacular construction projects such as blasting railroad tunnels through the Alps and digging the Panama Canal, but it also put into the hands of terrorists a source of power almost unimaginable in its dimensions. A popular Spanish periodical of 1908 captured this image when it described the attributes and allegorized the power of dynamite:
Its irresistible force, its formidable power. It seems that the spirit of Shiva, the god of destruction, eternal destroyer of life, resides in the depths of its strange composition.
All the great phenomena of Nature resemble it in their effects:… it creates and it destroys, it annihilates and it gives life; it is chained Prometheus and angry Jupiter; it illuminates and darkens. From civilization’s necessity, it becomes its chastiser…it has changed into a social anathema, into the dissident sects’ weapon of terrorism.1
Nobel’s Promethean invention that so troubled his times produced a ‘super-explosion’ twenty times more violent than black powder, which for over 800 years had been virtually the world’s only known explosive. In a fraction of the time and with a much smaller amount of explosive than that needed in the case of black powder, dynamite could shatter into tiny bits granite and other rocks of adamantine hardness. Earlier, in 1846, the powerful explosives nitroglycerin and guncotton had been invented. Because of their highly unstable composition, however, they were liable to explode at any time, or not at all, as in the case of nitroglycerin, which, after being ignited by a fuse, might simply burn but not explode. For all practical purposes these high explosives were unusable until Nobel devised the blasting cap and employed the stabilizing element kieselguhr, a spongy, absorbent clay abundant in northern Germany.2
The wave of terrorism brought forth by this immense new physical power, as well as by economic, social and political discontent, began in the 1880s, reached a terrifying climax in the 1890s and, after a few years pause, resurfaced in the early twentieth century. It was usually identified with the anarchist movement. Because of anarchism’s fearsome physical power and explosive ideas, one Italian author described it as ‘the most important ethical deviation that may ever have disturbed the world”. After the assassinations of the Empress Elizabeth and President McKinley, German newspapers noted that ‘society…dances on a volcano’ and that ‘a very small number of unscrupulous fanatics terrorize the entire human race….The danger for all countries is very great and urgent’.3 Even in 1908, years after the great wave of anarchist bombings and assassinations during the 1890s had largely subsided, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that ‘when compared with the suppression of anarchy, every other question sinks into insignificance’.4 While in popular imagination the terrorist bomber and the anarchist became the same thing,5 in retrospect we know this was not true. Few anarchists became bomb-throwers or carried out violent acts. Moreover, not all the alleged ‘anarchist’ terrorists were anarchists, the label ‘anarchist’ simply becoming the easiest means for many journalists and some politicians to identify the myriad, often-obscure malcontents who carried out violent deeds during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
But if there was never a perfect fit between ‘anarchist’ and ‘terrorist’, there was a history of theoretical and practical involvement by anarchists in carrying out violent deeds to achieve their aims. In this article we will look at the growth of the anarchist movement, the development of political and social terrorism, and the persistent gap between historical reality and public perception.
The Development of the Anarchist Movement in Nineteenth Century Europe
Ever since anarchism was born in the nineteenth century as an ideology and a political and social movement, it has meant many different things, both to its supporters and to its opponents. In general it signified to its enemies chaos and destruction, while to its exponents it promised hope of a better life built on juster foundations than those to be found in the status quo. A good way to begin to understand it, at least from the anarchists’ point of view, is to turn to the definition developed by one of its most famous practitioners, the Russian anarchist and former prince, Peter Kropotkin. Invited by the Encyclopaedia Britannica to define anarchism for its eleventh edition (1910), he wrote at the beginning of his lengthy entry on the subject that anarchism was:
The name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government (from Gr[eek] agrν- and agrρχη, without authority)— harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.6
Although it had precursors in such thinkers as William Godwin (1756-1836), for the most part the European anarchist movement grew out of an amalgam of the ideas and practices of the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and the Russian Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876). Proudhon, the thinker and writer, and Bakunin, the man of action, theorist and Proudhon’s self-declared disciple (although he did not agree with all of Proudhon’s ideas), advocated a non-authoritarian form of socialism.7 They sought to bring about a revolution of workers and peasants against the established order of property-owners, the church and government. Proudhon, the first man or woman proudly to proclaim him- or herself an anarchist, wrote in his 1840 work, What is Property?, that ‘property is theft’ and called for ‘scientific socialism’, ‘equality’, and ‘justice’. He praised: ‘Anarchy, that is the absence of a ruler or sovereign. This is the form of government we are moving closer to every day’.8 The two pillars of Proudhon’s thought, his vehicles for achieving ‘Anarchy, or the government of each man by himself’, were federalism and mutualism.9 Federalism aimed to replace centralized governments by federations of local communities or communes. Mutualism sought to base society on small, mutually-supporting economic groups and, by eliminating the capitalist middle man through the creation of new forms of contract and a People’s Bank, to secure for the worker the full value of the goods he had produced.10 By the mid-1860s followers of Proudhon dominated the French working-class movement.
Bakunin, the son of a prominent Russian landowner, became a heavily-bearded, wildman revolutionary during the European revolts of 1848-49. Arrested, he spent a decade in prison. After his escape in 1860, he increasingly embraced Proudhon’s vision as the necessary framework for the coming social revolution. Bakunin’s charm and eloquence helped bring Proudhonist ideas, together with Bakunin’s own beliefs in collective action, to the watchmakers of the Jura, in western Switzerland, to the people of Italy and most momentously of all, in 1868 through an intermediary named Giuseppe Fanelli, to the peasants and workers of Spain.
In the 1860s few clear-cut distinctions existed between the various socialist groups that were sprouting up all over Europe. In 1869 Bakunin and his followers affiliated with the International Workingmen’s Association, which in 1864 Karl Marx and others had founded in London. Marx exercised considerable influence over the anarchists’ economic thinking, but Bakunin completely rejected his authoritarianism and his desire that the party of the workers should participate in bourgeois politics. Even after the First International expelled Bakunin in 1872 and moved its headquarters to New York City (and later Philadelphia) in order to elude the grasp of the charismatic Russian, socialists of the Marxist and anarchist persuasions continued to mix at the local and national levels.
To evaluate the threat that anarchism and its terrorist offshoot posed for established society during the nineteenth-century, it would be helpful to know the size of the movement. This, however, is a question open to much dispute, particularly since the police, journalists and various authors often greatly exaggerated the number of anarchists. One authoritative source calculated that in Spain alone-where, ostensibly as part of the International, anarchism had taken root and come to dominate the working class movement-the International had attracted 300,000 supporters.11 This is clearly wrong, and although an exact count is impossible, a more plausible estimate for the size of Spanish anarchism at a highpoint in the early 1870s is some 60,000 adherents.12 Bakuninism also found many followers in Italy, where in 1874 a report confiscated by the Italian police estimated membership to be 32,000.13 In 1882 an interior ministry report claimed that the number of anarchists had shrunk to 5,617, but this oddly precise figure may well be unreliable.14 For France, the historian Maitron estimates that in 1894 anarchism attracted 1,000 militant followers, 4,500 sympathizers who purchased anarchist journals and 100,000 others who were faintly supportive.15 Anarchist groups also sprang up in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and in the Americas, especially in the United States and Argentina, where growing immigrant populations provided a fertile breeding ground for anarchist ideas. Here too the estimates vary greatly. In 1889, a contemporary historian thought that not more than 10,000 anarchists resided in the United States.16 Of these, at least according to the Haymarket grand jury, not more than 100 and probably not more than 40 or 50 could be considered dangerous.17 Paul Avrich, one of the foremost historians of the anarchist movement, thinks these figures underestimates. ‘Scattered across the country, with concentrations in the larger cities, anarchists reckoned in the tens of thousands at the crest of the movement between 1880 and 1920, with 3,000 in Chicago alone during the last decades of the nineteenth century and comparable numbers in Paterson and New York’.18
The anarchists came from all classes of the population: from the nobility and the proletariat, from the illiterate peasantry and middle-class intellectuals. The ideas of Bakunin and Proudhon often appealed to those who were harmed or angered by the exploitation of the working people during the harsh, early days of the industrial revolution. It also appealed to those angered by the middle classes’ and the liberals’ abuses of their economic, social, and political power, and by the failure of aristocratic rulers to adjust their regimes to the demands for freedom and equality that had issued forth during and after the French Revolution. In most countries anarchism remained the ideology of a small minority, but in Spain it became a mass movement involving the laboring classes, and long dominated that country’s organizations for industrial workers. Anarchism also had a strong presence in the labor unions of Italy, France, Portugal, Argentina and other countries.19 Contrary to the stereotype, anarchism’s strongest appeal was to those who were not destitute and whose literacy rate was higher than the local or regional average.20 Artisans were the most characteristic adherents to the movement. Mechanics, bricklayers, carpenters, bakers, butchers, carters, skilled vine tenders, tailors, watchmakers in western Switzerland and craftsmen who made casks for the sherry of Andalusia all flocked to the black banner of anarchism. Shoemakers and barbers were particularly important components of the anarchist movement. In southern Spain (and probably in Italy), barbers were crucial because besides clipping hair, they often served as distributors for anarchist newspapers and journals, collected money for subscriptions and held political discussions in their shops.21 These artisans looked to the anarchist movement as the best means of opposing encroachment and exploitation by sherry merchants or large industrialists or other members of the upper classes. Anarchism offered the artisans ‘a chance of establishing social justice while retaining their treasured independence’.22
In Spain, although rarely in other countries, anarchism attracted the support of many peasants and rural people. These included not only seasonal workers, landless day laborers and the unemployed, but also peasant landowners, tenants, sharecroppers, small vineyard proprietors, shepherds and rural schoolteachers, all of whom found the ideas and social organizations of the anarchists attractive.23 Why anarchism never found a mass following among the peasants and landless day laborers of southern Italy, where Bakunin had lived for over a year, exercising great influence over the rising generation, including the young Errico Malatesta, and where social conditions and sufferings resembled so closely those of southern Spain, remains a mystery.24
Despite Russia’s contribution of many of the greatest anarchist leaders and thinkers, its huge peasant population proved largely immune to anarchism. The early development and continuing influence of Russian populism and of populism’s successor, the Social Revolutionary movement (neither of which rejected rule by a central state, as anarchism did), help to explain this, as well as the ferocious repression of the Tsarist police. In order to flourish anarchism needed at least a modicum of official tolerance.
The Emergence of Anarchist Terrorism
At first the anarchists did not espouse terrorism as a weapon to foment revolution. What brought that about, and what brought about the popular identification of anarchism with terrorism, was a complex web of factors configured somewhat differently for each country. Italian, French, and Russian propagandists and theorists, events in Paris and St. Petersburg, economic difficulties, government repression and historical chance: all of these were important as catalysts in producing the theory of ‘propaganda by the deed’ and the action of the terrorists.
Neither Proudhon nor Bakunin called for assassination attempts and terrorist bombings. Proudhon stressed the necessity for each individual to begin his personal moral reform and that this would ultimately lead to the reformation of society. Proudhon was equivocal about or even opposed to (as in a May 1846 letter to Marx) immediate revolutionary action.25 ‘Killing people is the worst method for combating principles. It’s only through ideas that we triumph over ideas’, Proudhon announced in the populist newspaper he had founded during the Revolution of 1848.26
Bakunin, physically gigantic and possessed of enormous appetites of all kinds (except the sexual), was attracted to violence and revolution, and wrote, famously and even before he became an anarchist, that ‘the urge to destroy is also a creative urge’.27 Bakunin predicted that in future times masses of peasants and workers would rise in terrible and bloody revolts: ‘Of course it is a pity that humanity has not yet invented a more peaceful means of progress, but until now every forward step in history has been achieved only after it has been baptized in blood’.28 Although fascinated by the young Russian terrorists of the 1860s and later, he still rejected regicide and premeditated terrorism. In The Program of the International Brotherhood (1869) Bakunin noted that
kings, the oppressors, exploiters of all kinds…are evildoers who are not guilty, since they, too, are involuntary products of the present social order. It will not be surprising if the rebellious people kill a great many of them at first. This will be a misfortune, as unavoidable as the ravages caused by a sudden tempest, and as quickly over; but this natural act will be neither moral nor even useful.29
Rather than conspiring to murder members of the royal family and other selected individuals, Bakunin advocated the destruction of property and the institutions of government and society, views that his key writings, such as the National Catechism (1866) and The Program of the International Brotherhood, make clear.
At the outset (when the people, for just reasons, spontaneously turn against their tormentors) the Revolution will very likely be bloody and vindictive. But this phase will not last long and will never [degenerate into] cold, systematic terrorism… It will be war, not against particular men, but primarily against the antisocial institutions upon which their power and privileges depend.30
In 1869-70 Bakunin briefly collaborated with Sergei Nechaev, a ruthless Russian terrorist whose proletarian background and, even more, his ‘colossal’ and ‘savage energy’ attracted Bakunin and seemed to bring great advantage to the revolutionary cause. After Nechaev murdered a fellow revolutionary, however, Bakunin became disillusioned with his brutal compatriot and rejected Nechaev’s ‘catechism’ (which advocated robbery and assassination) and his whole ‘Jesuitical system’.31
Instead Bakunin sought through endless conspiracies and anarchist-led insurrections to bring down the old social order. Bakunin also saw possibilities in organizing workers and farm laborers into a revolutionary force. Because of his propensity for political solutions through mass efforts, whether they be insurrectionary or labor-oriented, Bakunin’s brand of anarchism came to be referred to as ‘collectivist’.
While the majority of anarchists certainly believed that violence would accompany a future social revolution, it should be pointed out that an important pacifist, or at least non-violent, strain existed in the movement. This was exemplified in the late eighteenth century works of the English writer, William Godwin, in the later writings of the novelist (turned prophet), Leo Tolstoy, and in the thinking of the Dutch anarchist, Domela Nieuwenhuis.
The brief success of the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871, when radicals (some influenced by Proudhon’s ideas) took over the capital for three months before the French government summoned sufficient troops from the provinces to crush the rebellion, thrilled Internationalists everywhere. The Commune acquired a tremendous notoriety and terrified the middle classes because of its bloody excesses, which included shooting the Archbishop of Paris and other hostages, and destroying such landmarks as the city hall and the Place Vendome’s Napoleonic column. The emergence of the Paris Commune convinced the bourgeoisie and many governments that the International was an organization of immense power, despite the fact that genuine adherents of the International had played only a small part in the uprising. The Paris Commune also convinced Internationalists throughout the world that it might indeed be possible to launch a successful insurrection against the established order.
How illusory was the power of the International became apparent during the 1870s, when the insurrectionist strategy proved a complete failure. A spontaneous peasant revolt in southern Spain failed in 1873, an uprising in the Romagna led by Bakunin himself fizzled in 1874 and an expedition led by the anarchists Malatesta and Cafiero to revolutionize the peasants of southern Italy failed in 1877. Overreacting to the actual threat posed by these events, governments in Italy, France, Spain and Germany cracked down hard, not only on the Internationalists, but also on the entire labor movement. The International was suppressed in France in 1872, in Spain in 1874 and in Italy at various dates throughout the seventies; Germany outlawed the Social Democratic party in October 1878.
It was in the context of the apparent failure of Bakunin’s collectivism together with the increasing repressiveness of the police and the authorities that the theory of ‘propaganda by deed’ developed and became widely known. In December 1876 at the Berne Congress of the Bakuninist wing of the International, Malatesta and Cafiero announced as the policy of the Italian Internationalists, that the ‘insurrectionary deed, designed to promote the principles of socialism by acts, is the most effective means of propaganda and the one which …penetrates to the deepest social stratum and attracts the living forces of humanity in the struggle that upholds the International’.32 While Malatesta and Cafiero emphasized popular revolt (and carried their idea into practice during their 1877 guerrilla expedition into the Matese mountains northeast of Naples), Paul Brousse, a French anarchist who had emigrated to Barcelona and then Berne after the suppression of the Commune, developed the concept further. Brousse, apparently the first person to use the phrase ‘propaganda by the deed’ (in an article published two weeks after the Italian statement), suggested that the tactic could be employed not only by small bands of conspirators, but also by individuals.33 In December 1880, Carlo Cafiero, in a famous article published in Le Révolté, the Geneva-based newspaper founded a year before by Peter Kropotkin, called for:
Action and still more action…
Our action must be permanent revolt by the spoken and written word, by the dagger, the rifle, dynamite…We will use any weapon when it comes to striking as rebels. Everything is good for us that is not legal…34
Kropotkin, the brilliant, exiled young Russian of noble descent who in the last decades of the nineteenth century became anarchism’s foremost spokesman and theoretician, echoed many of Cafiero’s ideas. Never as radical as the fiery Italian, in May 1881 in a widely distributed newspaper article and pamphlet, Kropotkin exalted ‘acts of illegal protest, of revolt, of vengeance’ carried out by ‘lonely sentinels’. ‘By actions which compel general attention’, Kropotkin claimed, ‘the new idea [of revolution] seeps into people’s minds and wins converts’. Each act of these so-called ‘madmen’ could ‘in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets’.35
A month and a half after the appearance of Kropotkin’s article, in July 1881, an international congress of anarchists, including Kropotkin and Malatesta, met in London and officially adopted the policy of ‘propaganda by deed’, a policy of illegal acts. These acts aimed against institutions and toward revolt and revolution were necessary since verbal and written propaganda had proved ineffectual. At the congress Kropotkin also called for the study of the technical sciences, such as chemistry, in order to make bombs that could be used for offensive and defensive purposes.36 Subsequently anarchists like Johann Most (1846-1906), a violent German publicist and orator nicknamed ‘the Wild Beast’, published detailed directions for manufacturing and using explosives.37 It should be noted that Kropotkin and many other anarchists assumed bombs and propaganda by the deed would be used in the service of mass revolution, rather than of random acts of terror. Most, on the other hand, advocated using bombs, burglary, poison and arson against the bourgeoisie whenever possible. This equivocation over the exact meaning of ‘propaganda by the deed’, and whether it justified individual terrorism or not, was never to be decisively resolved or clarified by the anarchists.38
While anarchist leaders were debating theoretical issues involving the use of violence, a dramatic series of assassinations took place. During 1878, revolutionaries and assassins attacked officials throughout Europe: the chief of the St. Petersburg police was shot, the German Kaiser was first fired at, and then less than a month later, peppered with shotgun pellets, and finally, on separate occasions, the kings of Spain and Italy were assaulted. The culminating attentat took place in March 1881, when a secret organization of Russian populists or ‘Nihilists’, to use the term first coined by the novelist Turgenev and later taken up by the popular press, tossed a lethal bomb at Tsar Alexander II. These assassination attempts had little direct connection with anarchist ideology, yet because the anarchists generally applauded them, they came to be seen as anarchist and furthermore influenced subsequent anarchist views on the use of violence. The assassination of Alexander II, Europe’s most despotic and reactionary ruler (at least in the eyes of the Left), electrified the anarchists, who believed this deed demonstrated that revolutionary changes might indeed be possible and imminent.39 Ironically, therefore, the desires of the anarchists and the misperceptions and sensationalism of the popular media once again collaborated to reinforce the picture of a mighty international conspiracy undermining the entire established order.40
Driven by fears of this mostly phantom International, governments throughout the continent ordered massive police repression, rounded up thousands of people and harassed or dissolved scores of labor organizations. This repression only convinced many anarchists that legal activity was pointless or impossible, and that terrorism was the revolutionaries’ only effective arm. Anarchists abandoned ‘collectivism’ for the anarchist-communist ideas of Kropotkin, who wanted a more egalitarian division of the products of labor than Bakunin and feared that too much involvement in labor union activity would dull the revolutionary impulse of the workers. Historians have disputed whether this turn toward Kropotkin’s ‘communism’ promoted a strategy of violence, or whether indeed there is any direct link between anarchist ideology and the terrifying acts of violence that occurred during the 1880s and 1890s and were labeled ‘anarchist’.41 The Spanish historian Joaquín Romero Maura has written that in Spain the small groupings of anarchists encouraged by Kropotkin’s communism provided fertile soil for the growth of violent plots.42 On the other hand, it can be argued that the deepening influence of Kropotkin’s ideas on the anarchist movement worked as much against terrorism as in favor of it. For example, in Italy during the 1880s and early 1890s, anarchists increasingly embraced fatalistic views-derived mainly from Kropotkin-about the inevitability of the coming revolution, rather than becoming violent activists.43
Despite contemporary allegations to the contrary, little or no evidence exists that the spokesmen and leaders of anarchism conspired with the assassins and bomb throwers. While a few anarchist thinkers such as Eliseé Reclus sympathized with the dynamiteers,44 in the early 1890s Kropotkin, Most, and Malatesta explicitly denounced terrorism. Kropotkin declared that ‘A structure [i.e., authoritarian European society] built on centuries of history can not be destroyed with a few kilos of explosives’.45 Malatesta described those anarchists who supported Ravachol’s bloody deeds as having missed the point about the anarchist struggle. ‘It’s no longer love for the human race that guides them, but the feeling of vendetta joined to the cult of an abstract idea, of a theoretical phantasm’.46 While Malatesta justified tyrannicide,47 he also told a reporter that he ‘would rather kill chickens than kill kings. Chickens are good to eat. But a king, of what use is he?’48 Given anarchism’s emphasis on individual freedom and initiative, of course, what the leaders thought about terrorism was much less influential than it would have been in other political ideologies and movements.
During the 1880s and 1890s various acts of social revolt and violence took place in Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Russia and the United States, but these acts were almost always closely connected to local conditions and traditions in which violent response to social problems had long been the norm, rather than being solely or mostly due to anarchist instigation. In southern Spain violence against the rich had been a common popular tactic much before the Spanish section of the International called for such attacks. Especially during times of high unemployment or in periods of government repression, Spaniards often stole food, cut down vines and set wheat fields or olive groves on fire; they resorted to frequent daylight robberies and even murders.49 In Italy there was a long tradition, preceding the emergence of anarchism and reinforced by the Risorgimento or struggle for national unification, of taking revenge for injustice by killing tyrants.50 Giuseppe Garibaldi was a supporter of tyrannicide and Felice Orsini, a former follower of Mazzini, became a nationalist hero after trying to assassinate Napoleon III for his failure to assist the Italian cause.51 The example provided by Italian nationalists for assassination (as well as for violent insurrection) proved influential inside and outside of Italy. Italian anarchists soon became famous as the great regicides of Europe, although they used the traditional dagger and the pistol, rather than the new weapon of mass terror, dynamite.52
Anarchist terrorism also developed within the context of painful social and economic changes taking place throughout Europe and the Americas at the end of the nineteenth century. Some historians view propaganda by the deed violence as coinciding with the ‘transition period of a pre-capitalist economy to the establishment of organized capitalism’ just as the earlier ‘insurrectional phase’ of anarchism had coincided with ‘agrarian anarchism’.53 In southern Spain the collapse of the sherry market in the 1860s drove small peasant proprietors and vine tenders to the verge of bankruptcy and into the anarchist movement. Throughout Europe the coming of the Great Depression in the late 1870s brought a steady decline in agricultural prices and sharpening international competition between industrial manufacturers. Such developments particularly hurt artisans and Europeans living in the countryside, while in contrast urban factory workers experienced a rising standard of living.
These structural causes for violence, found in hunger, unemployment and other degrading living and working conditions, should not be overemphasized. Nor, in the case of Spain, should the blame for terrorism be put on the shoulders of the wretched agrarian masses of Andalusia infected by anarcho-communism.54 While the deeds of some of the assassins and bomb throwers may be considered the desperate protests of those ‘crushed beneath the wheels of industrialization and modernization’, other anarchists acted for coolly calculated political reasons and came from the middle classes and intelligentsia.55 As for Spain, people from outside the south carried out most of the famous assassinations and bombings.
A proper understanding of the origins of anarchist terrorism at the end of the nineteenth century must take into account not only a variety of causes, some of them contradictory, but also a baffling gap between rhetoric and reality. Malatesta and Kropotkin had called for propaganda by the deed, meaning actions aimed at insurrection and revolution, but soon got random acts of murder about which they harbored deep misgivings. Loath to abandon the lowly instigators of these deeds, the anarchist leaders apologized for them, and thus enabled, or at least assisted, the popular press and numerous politicians in finding someone to blame, or to scapegoat, for miscellaneous anti-social acts. Equal in its irony, many governments, seeking to end the violent insurrectionism that they blamed on a largely phantom International, sought to crush the organized labor movement, only to sow the seeds for a crop of revenge-seekers who trumpeted the cause of defiant anarchism. Police brutality ignited chain reactions of violence in which the anarchists met acts of police brutality with bloody responses. Massive government crackdowns followed, but only provoked even more spectacular assassinations and terrorist bombings. Traditional means of maintaining social order no longer seemed effective against an enemy who picked such nontraditional targets as religious processions, opera performances and outdoor cafes. Adding to the confusion and contributing to the violence were regional and national traditions of social warfare and justified regicide. These had long preceded the writings of Proudhon and the actions and words of Bakunin, yet after the 1860s they were all labeled ‘anarchist’.
Therefore, it can be argued that the wave of anarchist terror that swept through Europe during the eighties and nineties drew its growing strength from a curious combination of the acts of ideologically committed anarchists and of the violent deeds of a miscellany of perpetrators who shared dubious or no connections with anarchism. The assassination of Czar Alexander, attempts on the German kaiser and Italian king in 1878, scores of mysterious bombings in Barcelona between 1904 and 1909, attacks on British civilians and officials in India, the Italian soldier Masetti’s assault on his commanding officer in 1911 and other acts of violence were all co-opted into the terrorist ‘black wave’, not only by the prejudices of the media and politicians, but also by the fervent desires of many anarchists, who saw in them dazzling images of proletarian power.
Terrorism During the 1880s
After the London Congress embraced the doctrine of propaganda by deed in 1881, a miscellany of violent incidents took place in Europe and the United States. Newspapers and frightened governments attributed this hodgepodge of incidents, some connected to anarchism, some not, to the sinister designs of the Black International. During the 1880s, attempted assassinations and murders of leading police and political figures occurred, but more characteristic of the period were violent acts involving labor disputes and pure acts of criminality, such as robbery and the murder of ordinary citizens. A strand developed (and long continued) in anarchism, described by one historian as a mutant offshoot, that advocated expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a legitimate tool in the promotion of revolution.56
As already mentioned, the most spectacular assassination of the eighties took place in March 1881 when the People’s Will succeeded in mortally wounding the Russian Emperor, Alexander II. The People’s Will was not an anarchist organization, since it was authoritarian and hierarchical and intended to create a popular dictatorship after toppling the Czar. Most anarchists rejected authoritarian political structures, even if devised by themselves, and after the revolution favored turning power over to autonomous local groups and organizations. But the People’s Will did share with the anarchists the famous practice, indeed they pioneered it and provided a model, of employing dynamite for terrorism.
In 1875 Nobel’s invention of an even more powerful explosive, variously called blasting gelatin, gelatin dynamite, or gelignite, excited the Russian revolutionaries. Nobel found a way to dispense with kieselguhr, the spongy clay he had used to stabilize nitroglycerine but which diminished its force, by mixing nitroglycerine with collodion, a low nitrated, soluble form of guncotton (which is cotton treated with a mixture of acids and very explosive). According to a perhaps apocryphal account, Nobel made his discovery in curious fashion, realizing the possibilities of the odd combination of ingredients after painting a cut on his finger with collodion, which was used at the time as a quick-drying bandage for wounds.57 The mixture of collodion and nitroglycerin produced a pale yellow substance that looked like jelly and was for many decades ‘the most powerful nonmilitary explosive in existence’.58
The People’s Will used gelatin dynamite for all its attempted assassinations, even though the conventional pistol was more easily available, cheaper and probably stood a greater chance of success. The reason for this was that the revolutionaries believed that an assassination caused by a dynamite explosion would have a much greater psychological impact: it would express ‘a new stage in the revolutionary movement” rather than being ‘interpreted as an ordinary murder’.59
The first anarchist act of terrorism appears to have occurred in October 1881, when the young French anarchist Émile Florion attempted to assassinate a bourgeois gentleman he met by chance.60 Florion, an unemployed weaver, had initially intended to shoot the famous republican leader Gambetta, but after failing to locate his intended victim, shot and slightly wounded the little-known Dr. Meymar. Florion then tried, but failed, to kill himself.61
A much more significant assassination attempt took place against the German kaiser in September 1883. If a badly sprained ankle had not led the chief conspirator, August Rheinsdorf, to turn the plot over to his incompetent followers, German anarchism might have succeeded in carrying out the most spectacular piece of propaganda by the deed of the nineteenth century, blowing up not only the kaiser and the crown prince, but also many top generals, aristocrats and government officials. All of these prominent people were scheduled to attend the dedication of a great monument symbolizing Germania on a high ridge of the Niederwald overlooking the Rhine River. But a wet fuse that failed to ignite sixteen pounds of dynamite placed in a drainage pipe foiled the attempt of the anarchists. In a subsequent effort they blew up a nearly empty concert hall in nearby Rudesheim on the mistaken assumption that the German emperor intended this place for a visit.62
The failure of the Niederwald attempt illustrated some of the practical problems of utilizing dynamite. Although for fifty years dynamite preserved its reputation among anarchists, revolutionaries, and the public as the miracle weapon of destruction, a gap existed between the potent symbol and the mundane reality. Dynamite was much more powerful than previous explosives, but in practice it often proved less lethal and more cumbersome than expected. Most’s manuals on explosives were inaccurate and attempts by amateurs to concoct dynamite bombs often ended in premature explosions. Even when the terrorists stole or purchased commercially produced dynamite (which Most recommended over his homemade recipes), huge quantities were often necessary to guarantee success. Most was wrong when he wrote that a ten-pound bomb could sink a warship. Even if the explosion had not taken place prematurely, the historian Walter Laqueur claims that the seventy pounds of dynamite placed under the Tsar’s dining room in the Winter Palace by the People’s Will would have been insufficient to harm him.63 Laqueur points out that the ‘great technical problem that faced the terrorist during the last third of the nineteenth century was the miniaturization of bombs’. Only in the early twentieth century did the Russian Social Revolutionaries succeed in inventing a powerful hand grenade capable of killing hated Tsarist officials.64
Some commentators feared that the anarchists would move on from dynamite to other means of mass destruction, including bio-terrorism. In 1894 the British weekly magazine Tit-Bits, claimed the discovery of evidence, provided by a highly placed detective, of a plot to release disease into the air or the country’s water supply.65 But this claim, as well as so much else about the anarchist threat, proved to be sheer fantasy.
Soon after the failure of the Niederwald attempt and the explosion in Rudesheim, the police arrested Rheinsdorf and another anarchist; both were tried and executed for their part in the assassination attempt. Perhaps in revenge for this sentence, in January 1885 an unknown assailant stabbed to death the police chief of Frankfurt, a man who had played an important role in convicting Rheinsdorf. Circumstantial evidence was used to convict the anarchist Lieske of the deed.66 After his sentencing, Lieske called for revenge, as did Most’s New York based German-language newspaper, Freiheit (Freedom).
But the murder of Police Chief Rumpf and the execution of Lieske proved to be the end of propaganda by the deed in Germany. Rather than leading to a new chain reaction of revenge and repression, these events were accompanied by a rapid decline in the German anarchist movement, which in any case was rather small, consisting in the 1880s of no more than perhaps a couple dozen groups and 200 members.67 While the police rounded up or exiled anarchist leaders and dissolved their organizations, the German anarchists had a major falling out amongst each other and used up their energies squabbling. Although the Anti-Socialist Law harmed both the Social Democrats and the anarchists, the Socialists were better able to survive since many of their leaders, as deputies elected to the Reichstag, remained safe from prosecution. In the late 1880s, German anarchism, which had always been much smaller than the movements in France, Italy and Spain, went into a rapid decline. Since the majority of the German anarchists had been handicraft workers, the powerful development of German industry and the growth of socialist-dominated labor unions greatly undermined the movement’s social base.68
Besides the events in Russia and Germany, the only other significant act of ‘symbolic’ terrorism in Europe during the 1880s took place in France. In 1886 the anarchist Charles Gallo threw a bottle of prussic acid into the Paris stock exchange, fired his revolver at random and shouted ‘Vive l’Anarchie!’ The only harm done was to the stockbrokers’ noses, which were assaulted by the acid’s abominable stench.
Acts of propaganda by the deed connected with labor disputes were more characteristic of the 1880s. In 1882 a mysterious ‘Black Band’ was accused of terrorist acts against local mine operators and religious and political authorities in Bois-Duverne and Montceau-les-Mines, seventy miles north of Lyon, and of bombings in Lyons itself, where Kropotkin and other anarchist leaders were later tried for instigating these crimes. If anarchists were indeed involved in the 1882 bombings, which is debatable, it would have been the first instance of anarchists using dynamite to commit terrorist acts.69 The historian Maitron believes that the authors of these first dynamite attempts were miners and other workers angered by economic exploitation and religious repression who might have been exposed to some anarchist ideas and literature, but were not part of any self-consciously anarchist movement.70 This distinction was lost on the authorities and the public, however, due to the anarchist press’s glorification of the ‘admirable anarchist movement’ at Montceau and attempts by the anarchists of Lyons to make contact with the Montceau miners.71 From the very beginning, then, a pattern emerged that was to characterize the entire era of anarchist terrorism. The anarchists’ desire for signs of a rising proletarian revolt combined with the authorities’ and the public’s fears of a vast anarchist conspiracy to create the mirage of a powerful movement of anarchist terrorism. But the anarchists’ involvement in violence was not entirely a mirage, since evidence exists that they instigated a wave of dynamite explosions in 1883-84.72
During the same years that the ‘Black Band’ was operating in France, the equally mysterious ‘Black Hand’ was accused of perpetrating violent deeds in southern Spain. Since murders and other acts of violence had long characterized the bitter class struggle in Andalusia, it is not at all certain that the Black Hand existed outside the minds of the police and the newspapers.73 Nonetheless the trials and executions of the alleged members of the Mano Negra, all anarchists, served as an effective means of crushing the Andalusian labor movement.
The most famous of all the labor disputes connected with propaganda by the deed involved the campaign for the eight-hour day in the United States, which culminated in the Haymarket Bombing of 4 May 1886. On that day, the police, in high-handed fashion, began breaking up a peaceful meeting of militant laborers in Chicago. An unknown assailant (probably an anarchist, at least according to Avrich’s careful study) hurled a bomb into the ranks of the policemen, killing and wounding several law enforcement officers. Yet, as occurred frequently during this era, the restoration of order caused more blood to flow than the original act of anarchist terror; police firing wildly into the crowd killed and wounded over a hundred people.74
During the 1880s many of the most notorious anarchist deeds were hardly more than common crimes. Between 1882 and 1884 Austrian radicals and anarchists robbed and murdered a shoe manufacturer, a policeman and most shockingly of all, a moneychanger and his nine- and eleven-year-old sons.75 In France a former employee killed the mother superior of the convent where he had been working; in Germany anarchists robbed and killed a pharmacist and a banker, using the expropriated funds to finance propaganda.76 In the late 1880s, exiled Italian anarchists in Paris led by Vittorio Pini and Luigi Parmeggiani robbed and used part of their proceeds to finance a few issues of an anarchist publication. Elisée Reclus, a well-known geographer and anarchist publicist, Sébastien Faure, a journalist and libertarian philosopher, and other French anarchists (although not all) applauded these robberies as revolutionary acts against the immorality of property ownership and in support of friends.77 In February 1889 Pini and Parmeggiani traveled to Emilia in north-central Italy and stabbed a former-internationalist in revenge for his criticism of their tactics.78
These dreadful deeds, as well as the other acts of anarchist violence during the 1880s, exercised limited impact. They were isolated events and, although they preoccupied the authorities, produced little or no panic among the public at large. Chain reactions of violence, repression, and revenge had either failed to ignite or proved to be short lived. Calls for revenge against the execution of Lieske in Germany and of the robber-murderers in Austria met no response. In Germany and Austria, at least, severe police repression combined with a lack of sympathy for the anarchist murderers not only ended terrorism, but also effectively emarginated anarchism as a social and political movement. In France the terrorist events of the eighties had been even more isolated, with fewer immediate repercussions than in the German-speaking countries. Throughout Europe, with the exception of the death of Alexander II in 1881, the various assassination attempts against crowned heads and ruling politicians had been unsuccessful.
Anarchist Terrorism in the 1890s
All of this was to change in the 1890s. Then, to quote a popular British journal, anarchist terrorism became an ‘epidemic…almost as mysterious and universal as the influenza’ against which ‘police precautions appear to be as useless as prophylactics against the fatal sneeze’.79 The years 1892 to 1901 became the Decade of Regicide, during which more monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers of major world powers were assassinated than at any other time in history (President Sadi Carnot of France in 1894, Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas of Spain in 1897, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, King Humbert of Italy in 1900, and President William McKinley of the United States in 1901).80 Carnot’s murder was the first assassination of a French head of state since 1610 and Humbert’s the first of a member of the house of Savoy in 700 years. The 1890s also became the era of the terrorist bloodbath, as anarchists hurled explosive devices into crowded cafes, religious processions, and operatic performances. The 1893 bombing of the Barcelona Opera house during a performance of Rossini’s William Tell killed as many people (thirty or more) as all the incidents of the 1880s combined.81 In an age unaccustomed to terrorist attacks on women and children, the shocking spectacle of their murder at the hands of anarchists drove many observers into a frenzy. William Tallack, president of the Howard Association, wrote the London Times in June 1897 that ‘these deeds are not only wicked, but also contemptible to the last degree. For unspeakably cowardly it is to hurl fatal explosives among women and children! These dastardly outrages are, in the nostrils of mankind, as the fetid repulsiveness of the most nauseous of animals’.82
While during the 1880s, the most prominent acts of anarchist terrorism took place in Germany, Austria and the United States, in the next decade the geography of terrorism shifted. During the 1890s a few bombs shook Greenwich, Constantinople and Zurich, but terrorism centered in western and southern continental Europe-in France, Spain, and Italy and, to a lesser degree, in Portugal. In these countries, real or alleged anarchists killed more than sixty and injured over 200 people with bombs, pistols, and daggers.83 While the number of victims was relatively small, the political and social prominence of many of them greatly increased the impact and notoriety of these violent deeds. Adding to their force was the fact that they took place in such great urban centers as Paris, Barcelona and Rome; in the 1880s, except for the incidents in Vienna and Chicago, the sites of most anarchist deeds had been the countryside or small towns. Compounding the terror of the anarchist bombings, especially between 1892 and 1894, was the fact that the blasts seemed linked together in chain reactions of violence that were impervious to police efforts at prevention. Moreover, the dynamiting and assassinations often took place in several countries simultaneously, which magnified their psychological impact and made them seem part of one vast terrorist conspiracy. Italian anarchists journeyed to France in 1894 and Spain in 1897 to avenge their martyred French and Spanish comrades by killing President Carnot and Prime Minister Canovas del Castillo. The Italian parliament rushed through draconian anti-anarchist legislation not only because of violence in Rome, but also because of its horror at events taking place in France and Spain.
The mass of the population reacted to these violent incidents with growing concern and even panic. In France the panic began when the arrest in March 1892 of Ravachol, the most famous of all the anarchist terrorists, did not bring an end to the bombings in Paris.84 Since Ravachol, besides robbing graves and murdering old misers, had given money to the wives and children of imprisoned anarchists, spoken eloquently at his trial and behaved bravely at his execution, in the eyes of many he became a folk hero and martyr. Celebrated in novels and in such popular songs as ‘La Ravachole’, he came to symbolize the retribution of the poor against the rich.85 At his trial, Ravachol had called for revenge, and his words proved prophetic, since nine bombing attacks followed his death on the guillotine. Reviewing the case of Ravachol, it is difficult not to grant a share of the responsibility for the outbreak of sustained terrorism in France to chance.86 Who could have predicted that the actions of Ravachol, the author of so many unsavory deeds, would have exercised such a fascination over the minds of men that they would give up their lives to vindicate his anarchist ideals and to avenge his death?
Less than two weeks after the beheading of Ravachol, Alexander Berkman, a young Russian emigrant to the United States, repeatedly shot and stabbed Henry Clay Frick, the operating manager of Carnegie Steel, in his office in Pittsburgh. This proved to be the only anarchist attentat on American soil during the 1890s. Indignant over Frick’s ruthless use of Pinkerton detectives to crush a strike (in one melee a little boy had been killed), the twenty-one year old Berkman, together with the devoted Emma Goldman, plotted to avenge the wrongs done to the Carnegie Steel workers.87 Berkman, who worshiped ‘the Cause’ and ‘the grand, mysterious, yet so near and real, People’, asserted in his memoirs published in 1912 that ‘the removal of a tyrant is not merely justifiable; it is the highest duty of every true revolutionist’.88 Frick seemed to be such a tyrant and Berkman’s attempted murder (Frick recovered from his multiple wounds after a few months) akin to the deeds of both the Russian Nihilists and the Italian tyrannicides.
In Spain, the era of terrorism began in September 1893 when Paulino Pallás threw two bombs at Martinez Campos, the Captain General of Catalonia, slightly wounding the general, but killing two other people. Pallás had acted to avenge a sentence of garroting—strangulation by means of a continually tightened iron collar—ordered by a military court to be carried out against several anarchists for participation in a revolt. At Pallás’s trial he declared that, for his own execution, ‘Vengeance will be terrible!’ Like Ravachol, Pallás’s words proved prophetic since bombings and assassinations continued in Spain for the next four years.
In Italy, too, a cycle of social protest, government repression and anarchist revenge unfolded in the winter of 1893-94 and the spring and summer of 1894. The Italian government responded to violent popular confrontations in Sicily and a rising of the anarchist marble workers of Tuscany with massive military repression. Subsequently, in March 1894, a mysterious bomb exploded just outside the Italian parliament damaging not only the building, but also killing two people and injuring six more, and, in June, an anarchist shot at and slightly wounded the prime minister. Blasts went off near the Justice and War Ministries, allegedly in revenge for the harsh sentencing of one of the leaders of the Sicilian popular movement (the fasci siciliani). In July, an anarchist stabbed to death a Tuscan journalist who had strongly condemned the anarchists for their involvement in the assassination of Carnot.
On 4 February 1896, in Lisbon, Portugal, a huge explosion severely damaged the building in which lived one of the doctors who had certified an anarchist as insane, subsequently sending him to a lunatic asylum. The police had recently arrested the anarchist because he had thrown a rock at the Portuguese king. This incident led to the passage of some of the most ferocious anti-anarchist legislation ever written.89
Were these acts of violence the product of conspiracies? Contemporary opinion believed so. Ambassador Benomar, Spain’s representative in Rome, wrote to Madrid on 15 February 1892 that ‘the demonstrations that have taken place in some cities in Italy upon receiving notice of the execution of the assassins of Jerez [i.e., the alleged anarchist fomenters of the January 1892 rising] demonstrate that the crimes committed there and the agitation in Barcelona have their origin in, if indeed they don’t obey, an international anarchist impulse’.90 Italian Queen Margherita believed that, in 1897, the ‘infamous sect’ had chosen Pietro Acciarito by lot to assassinate her husband (‘chosen by lot’ became, quite erroneously, the standard explanation for how anarchist assassins were selected).91 The Corriere della Sera, a prominent Milan daily, declared shortly after the assassination of King Humbert in 1900, ‘There is general agreement here that one is dealing with a plot… aimed not only at the King of Italy, but at all European sovereigns… the vastness of the plan of the anarchists and of the aims they propose to reach, allows one to hope that we will be able to discover the truth more easily’.92 Both the police and governments in private and the media in public subscribed to the theory of a vast anarchist conspiracy to assassinate and terrorize.93 Much evidence contradicts the contention sometimes made that the police knew these vast anarchist conspiracies were all shibboleths.94 Yet exhaustive government investigations and searches for accomplices found little evidence of conspiracies of any sort, particularly of conspiracies with international ties. In France and Italy, at least, the anarchist assassin or bomb thrower was usually a lone individual.95 An accomplice or two, as in the case of Ravachol, might assist the anarchist bomber or assassin, but usually he received little more than emotional support and meager financial assistance from a few friends and sympathizers.
More of a case can be made for international or wide-ranging conspiracies in regard to Spain (and for attempted assassinations of Spanish leaders traveling outside of the peninsula). The leaders of the Cuban exiles in Paris, eager to undermine the Spanish government and hasten their island’s independence, probably gave Angiolillo, the Italian anarchist, the idea of assassinating Prime Minister Canovas (rather than the queen regent or her son, as had earlier been his intention) and may have provided funds for his trip to Madrid. Sympathizers in Spain provided him both with money and a deadly revolver.96 The historian Romero Maura has constructed an elaborate argument to show that the 1905 and 1906 assassination attempts against the life of King Alfonso XIII of Spain, both of which missed the king but killed and injured many bystanders, were the fruit of complex plots. The ‘mastermind’ behind all these was Francisco Ferrer, the well-known anarchist educator, assisted by Alejandro Lerroux and his radical republicans. Lerroux hoped to benefit from the political chaos that would likely follow from the extermination of the king and a possible collapse of the monarchy (since the young Alfonso had not yet produced an heir).97 Probably more than one person was involved in the 1905 attempt, but the evidence for 1906 and for the involvement of Ferrer remains inconclusive.98
Kropotkin’s communism, which animated Spanish anarchism in the nineties, encouraged association in small groups, and it was in these ‘grupitos’ or grupos de afinidad, that the origin of many acts of violence was to be found. Precise information about these groups is difficult to unearth. Five to ten dedicated anarchists would meet at a working class cafe to debate politics and plan propaganda efforts. This might take the form of maintaining a small library to help educate workers to read and write. Some grupitos also put out a small newspaper. Inside the grupito might be an even smaller group of intimate friends who met secretly and planned reprisals against the bourgeoisie. Grupitos gave themselves names such as Salut, Fortuna, Avant, Benvenuto, and later, Mártires de Ravachol. While one may attribute to the grupitos a series of mostly harmless bombings-harmless since many of the bombs were concocted from such objects as tin pans, coffee-grinders, metal boxes, and banister knobs-that continuously rattled Barcelona and other Spanish cities during the early twentieth century, little evidence exists of meaningful links between them and the deeds of the famous assassins and bomb-throwers like Pallás and Salvador.99
The inability of the police to prevent individuals or tiny groups from carrying out their violent exploits, as well as the unpredictability of the anarchists’ targets, created an atmosphere of panic in Spain. In January 1894, at the height of the bombing campaign, José Echegaray wrote in the periodical La Lectura that
Explosives are on the order of the day in the Chambers [of parliament], in the disorder of the night in the theaters; they hang as a menace over the entire bourgeoisie, without respecting the poor worker if they encounter him in passing, and there is no person who does not worry about dynamite, nitroglycerine, panclastinas, and detonators…
Modern explosives have come to upset everything: ideas and property and social relations.
The lowliest wretch in the worst social rubbish heap [pudridero social] holds a threat over the entire society, like a horde of barbarians showing their monstrous heads over the frontier. The result is that the least becomes the first, if not by power, by terror… Satan has made himself a dynamiter and tries to be equal with God, and threatens his shadow [on earth].100
The nervous mood described by Echegaray led to fearful responses. On 26 December 1893 in Madrid, the governor of the city received two letters threatening to blow up the Opera House where the Queen Regent and the Infanta planned to attend a performance. The governor warned Queen Christina not to attend, and when news of this warning reached the audience, it caused a panic. The people made a rush for the doors, and although they exited without serious injury, this abrupt departure spread, in the words of the Associated Press, ‘alarm and excitement throughout Madrid, and all through the night the wildest rumours were in circulation’.101
During the first half of 1894, the Spanish press constantly reported news of anarchist deeds of terrorism, particularly those occurring in France, where events mirrored events in Spain. The execution of Emile Henry, the instigator of so many Parisian bombings, took place May 21, 1894, the same day as the execution of six Spanish anarchists accused of the bombing of the Liceo Opera house. Although it might seem implausible in this case, such strange coincidences helped perpetuate the idea frequently voiced in the Spanish press of linkages between the anarchists of various nations who were alleged to be involved in an international conspiracy against society.102
A fear of terrorism amounting to panic also affected many in the Italian capital. In March 1894, after the bombing of the Italian parliament, a Rome newspaper wrote that the ‘impression produced on the citizenry’ was ‘most painful’; people were ‘seriously and justly terrified about an explosion that massacred men and ruined property’.103 Even two days after the bombing, it formed ‘the topic of every conversation at every gathering’ in the city.104 When explosions shook government buildings again in May, the newspaper La Tribuna referred to the ‘extraordinary gravity’ of these occurrences and the astonishing inability of the police and government to protect the ‘quiet and tranquility of the populace’ after months of searching for the perpetrators of the earlier bombing.105 Despite its admonitions to the government, La Tribuna seemed less interested in preserving the ‘quiet and tranquility of the populace’ than in selling newspapers, and began a column entitled ‘Chronicle of the Bombs’ that ran sporadically for a month.106 In early July 1894 Prime Minister Francesco Crispi spoke to Domenico Farini, the head of the Italian senate about ‘the anarchists, about the danger that menaces everything and everybody’. A few days later the king told Senator Farini that ‘many are fearful; many people no longer leave their homes. I have anonymous threatening letters from every part [of Italy]… Crispi is continually menaced’.107
Paris provides the best-documented case of mass hysteria. The public flooded the offices of the Paris police with reports of suspected bombs and bombings. The police found themselves carefully extracting suspicious objects from the garbage, taking them to the municipal laboratories and opening them with a thousand precautions, only to discover that the deadly device was no more than a sardine can.108 The slogan ‘Long Live Anarchy!’ appeared everywhere in the French capital, spoken in private discussions and shouted at public meetings, printed in the newspapers and scrawled on innumerable walls. The police imagined they heard it whenever encountering resistance, although the culprit might be a tipsy railway clerk rather than a dangerous anarchist.109 In one case police and prosecutor browbeat a seventeen-year-old youth, after he had stabbed a man, into a false confession that he was an anarchist.110 In other cases robbers willingly cloaked their deeds with the mantle of the anarchist cause, even though this meant a death sentence rather than imprisonment.111 Once again police and non-anarchists alike unwittingly collaborated in magnifying the anarchist menace out of all proportion to its true size.
Among the general public, small incidents led to panic. In separate incidents in Paris, faulty electrical wiring on a streetcar and the collapse of some scenery at a theater sent people rushing about, screaming hysterically because they were fearful of impending explosions.112 Even the police of Paris were terrorized, with policemen under the authority of Commissioner Raynaud requesting transfers and resigning in order to avoid the bombings in which several of their fellow officers had been killed.113 Spreading the panic were thousands of anonymous letters, the product of private grudges, containing threats to blow up landlords, concierges and neighbors. One letter threatened to blow up a bakery unless the owner promised in eight days to reduce the price of bread.114 The newspapers added to the overexcitement with daily columns devoted to ‘dynamitings’.115
Anarchist Terrorism and the Age of Mass Journalism
It was not only in France, Spain and Italy that newspapers played a role in whipping up hysteria over anarchist acts of violence. The Age of Anarchist Terrorism coincided with the beginning of the Age of Mass Journalism. In Britain, the United States and throughout the western world, the 1880s witnessed the emergence of a ‘new journalism’. Pioneered by such editors as Joseph Pulitzer with his St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and later his New York World, and W. T. Stead in his Pall Mall Gazette, the ‘new journalism’, with its sensational headlines in heavy black letters, was less interested in hewing to a single political line or providing in depth and long-range analysis than churning out exciting news for mass consumption and entertainment.116 The circulation of the new mass newspapers surged. After 1880, newspaper after newspaper, their prices often slashed-in England many were cut to a halfpenny an issue-surpassed 100,000 circulations. In 1896, Lloyd’s Weekly News of London reached a million, and around 1900, the French paper Le Petit Parisien reached a similar figure.117 Between 1880 and 1910 the circulation of newspapers in Paris rose from 1,947,000 to 4,937,000 copies; between 1871 and 1910 the real cost of Parisian newspapers for laborers in the provinces dropped over fifty percent as national press circulation expanded more than eight times.118
In New York City, Pulitzer’s World (or Evening World) vied with William Randolph’s Hearst’s Evening Journal to provide the most sensational and popular accounts. When it came to events in Europe, both papers almost always scooped the more staid and expensive (during the 1890s, three cents an issue as compared to the World and Evening Journal‘s penny a copy) New York Times. This paid off at the newsstand when the World reported, on the day it happened in 1893, the horrific bombing of the Barcelona Opera house. In an ‘extra’ edition and in its last edition, the World gave the leading place to the large, bold front-page headline:
Bombs in a Theatre
Anarchist Casts Two Deadly Missiles into an Audience
Eighteen People Die
Mad Panic Follows a Terrible Explosion in Liceo Theatre, Barcelona
Many Trampled Under Foot
Nearly Four Thousand People Engaged in the Wild Rush
Two days later, the World boasted that the November 8 issue that printed this news, together with the dramatic results of the New York elections, had sold more copies (629,176) than any other single issue in the history of American journalism. Hearst’s New York Evening Journal was even more sensationalistic in its format than the World. Although devoted in its daily coverage to American stories of sports, fashion and murder, the Evening Journal still gave top billing to the assassination of the Empress Elizabeth on 10 September 1898. A giant headline stretched across the entire top of the front page, ‘AUSTRIA’S EMPRESS FOULLY ASSASSINATED BY AN ITALIAN ANARCHIST’, accompanied by a large sketch of a youthful and attractive crowned head in a low-cut evening gown. Ample coverage of the assassination filled the columns of the first and second pages.
The new journalism was slower to arrive in Italy and Spain where illiteracy remained high (in 1900, 56% of Spaniards over ten years of age and 49% of Italians over six could not read or write) and readership more limited than in wealthier countries. Nonetheless, one can still see its impact in the coverage afforded terrorist deeds. For example, the Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s most important newspapers, issued two extraordinary editions in a single day disclosing the news of the assassination of King Humbert. The 30-31 July 1900 headline trumpeting this event was unprecedented in its size and format (two black bands framing a huge banner headline). By comparison the 5-6 March 1896 headline announcing Italy’s disastrous and decisive defeat by the Ethiopians at the battle of Adowa (with the loss of 5,000 Italian dead) and the subsequent resignation of Francesco Crispi, the quasi-dictatorial prime minister, events of equal or greater importance than the death of the mediocre Humbert, received a less spectacular treatment. Examples like this could be multiplied for both Europe and America. They demonstrate that the gripping details of anarchist assassinations and bombings provided perfect fodder for the new ‘mass media’, a term that became applicable for the first time only at the end of the nineteenth century.119
Sir Howard Vincent, who helped found Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department and later represented Britain at the 1898 Rome Anti-Anarchist Conference, was not alone in believing that all this publicity exercised a powerful effect on the minds of many potential terrorists. Writing confidentially in 1906 after a bloody bombing attack in Madrid, Vincent opined that: ‘the rapidly increasing means of location, the spread of information, and the incendiary influence of publicity and notoriety [make police cooperation] more and more essential… The “advertisement” of anarchism, as of many other crimes, infallibly leads to imitation’.120 While this may be an exaggeration, several notable examples support Vincent’s conclusion. Lucheni, who murdered the Empress Elizabeth, longed to get into the newspapers as a famous anarchist assassin. Czolgosz, who shot McKinley, slept with a clipping describing the assassination of King Humbert tucked beneath his pillow.
The myth of anarchist terrorism and of the power of dynamite as created by sensationalistic newspapers, a fearful populace and the anarchists themselves was as important in the development (and containment) of anarchist terrorism as were the heterogeneous acts of violence themselves. Real acts of anarchist violence did take place, the product of harsh socio-economic conditions in Europe and America, regional and national traditions of social warfare and justified regicide, government repression of more peaceful and organized forms of protest and labor activity, the spellbinding examples of the Paris Commune and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the invention of dynamite, incitement to ‘propaganda by the deed’ and historical chance. While the number of heads of state, government and monarchs who were assassinated is noteworthy, and the unprecedented blowing up of innocent bystanders marked a terrible milestone in the history of terrorism, one is struck by how relatively few, outside of Spain, were the victims of anarchist violence. Nonetheless, the anarchists’ thirst for dramatic signs of a coming proletarian revolt and of vindication against their enemies now combined with the authorities’ and the public’s fears of a vast anarchist conspiracy to create the mirage of a powerful terrorist movement. In the context of these fears, governments and police tended to overreact, which in turn added more fuel to the anarchist desires for revenge. Chain reactions of repression and revenge swept through nations and across the world, and seemingly beyond the capacity of any police force to prevent or control. It was in this dreary quandary that much of Europe remained until after 1900 when new economic, political and social forces, at least outside Spain, redirected the energies of the anarchists and largely removed anarchist terrorism as a salient feature of European life.121