While artists and writers rebelled against aesthetic conventions, anarchists terrorized pre–World War I Paris.
The author of several histories of Parisian unrest, Merriman (History/Yale Univ.; Massacre: The Life and the Death of the Paris Commune, 2014, etc.) uncovers the dark side of the famed belle epoque, offering a fresh perspective on the reality of life for much of the city’s population. While Proust, Picasso, and Apollinaire pursued their art, laborers and craftspeople barely subsisted on low wages, facing destitution if they became ill or were laid off. Angry revolutionaries railed against worker exploitation, political corruption, and injustice; some, calling themselves “illegalists,” believed that “any acts against society were justified,” including theft. Central to Merriman’s revelatory history are two self-proclaimed anarchists: Belgian-born Victor Kibaltchiche (he later changed his surname to Serge), the son of Russian émigrés, and his companion, French-born Rirette Maîtrejean. Merriman draws heavily on their memoirs, supplemented by archival sources and other contemporary testimony. Unfortunately, many quoted passages are not introduced by speaker, forcing readers to turn to the endnotes to make sense of the citations. Victor and Rirette did not condone violence. However, like their fellow anarchists, they believed “that once states had been destroyed, people could live in harmony in natural groupings. They believed fervently that people were basically good” but that government, capitalism, organized religion, and professional armies fomented conflict. Merriman focuses on a particular wave of robberies committed by the Bonnot Gang, led by Jules Bonnot, a sometime mechanic who could not bear anyone in authority. With a string of arrests behind him, in 1911, he and his armed accomplices—“not a finely organized group, but rather a band in flux”—launched into robberies and, later, murder. The author details the aggressive police response and the alarming newspaper articles that incited public panic. Inevitably, Victor and Rirette were swept up as suspects, “accused of being intellectuals who encouraged illegalist criminality,” although they had no connection to Bonnot.
Chilling historical evidence of the dire consequences of inequality and injustice.