The First Global Terrorists Were Anarchists in the 1890s

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tags: terrorism, Anarchists



Maya Jasanoff is a professor of history at Harvard who is writing a book about the life and times of Joseph Conrad.

It was past dark on a February afternoon in 1894 when a keeper at Greenwich Park, just outside London, heard the bang. Rushing toward the spot, he made out the figure of a young man on bent knees, with his abdomen gashed open and his bowels spilling out. The police identified the victim as a Frenchman named Martial Bourdin, with ties to a well-known anarchist club. Clearly, they concluded, he’d been on his way to bomb the Greenwich Observatory. It was a highly symbolic target: the Prime Meridian, the longitudinal center of the world.

Bourdin did rock the center of the world, just not the way he may have intended: Anarchism in the 1890s touched off the first age of global terrorism, and then as now, migrants and civil liberties paid the price.

Today, “anarchism” seems harmless, almost quaint, something you might associate with ex-hippies, former punks and wild-haired loners scrawling anti-establishment manifestos in cabins off the grid. But in its heyday, anarchism promoted a broadly appealing vision of a free, stateless society. Delegates at the International Anarchist Congress in 1881 adopted the strategy of “propaganda by deed” — in a word, terrorism — to achieve it.

A single attack could “make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets,” said the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin, and anarchists carried out dozens. They committed a string of high-profile assassinations the likes of which seem unimaginable today, killing the U.S. president, the French president, the Spanish prime minister, the king of Italy and the empress of Austria-Hungary in less than a decade.

More shocking were the bombs. Armed with newly patented dynamite, the first widely available weapon of mass destruction, anarchists transformed sites of bourgeois sociability — a bustling Paris café, a piazza in Rome, the opera house in Barcelona — into screaming scenes of murder. ...




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