Chronicle of the 1894 bombing of an upscale Parisian café, which set a deadly pattern for the subsequent quarter-century and beyond.
Merriman (History/Yale Univ.; The Stones of Balazuc, 2002, etc.) begins with Émile Henry (1872–94) packing a metal lunchbox with dynamite. “This book is motivated by a very simple question,” he writes. “Why did Émile Henry do what he did?” The answer involves enormous social and economic inequality that the author sees still flourishing today. Echoing John Edwards, Merriman describes “two cities…the ‘People’s Paris’ of the east and the increasingly chic neighborhoods of the west.” Henry, a young intellectual whose straitened family circumstances prevented him from getting a higher education, was disenchanted with the corrupt bourgeois society he saw around him. He turned to anarchism, a philosophy that declared “whoever lays a hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant,” and advocated violent resistance to the state. There had been anarchist bombings, including one of a police station by Henry, before he threw his handmade explosive into the Café Terminus on February 12, but their targets had been government officials or the wealthy; this was a random attack on ordinary people. Chased in the streets by a waiter and several passersby, Henry was collared by a doughty gendarme, pummeled and taken to the local police station. He spent his days in custody reading Zola, Dumas, Spencer and Dostoevsky. Even his most bitter opponents, notes Merriman, were impressed by his articulate and confident, even arrogant, speeches during his trial. Nonetheless, judgment was quick, followed by an appointment with the “national razor.” Henry became a martyr to those believing in “propaganda by the deed”; one month after his execution, a knife-wielding anarchist killed French president Sadi Carnot. Anarchist attacks on individuals and public places terrorized Europe and America in the years before, during and immediately after World War I.
Brisk and well-written, continually directing our attention toward contemporary analogues.