As anarchism turned away from ‘hot-head’ violence towards collective political action, terrorism continued to flourish across the world. In Russia, the nihilist tactics of old were studied by the Socialist Revolutionaries, who unleashed a bloody campaign in the early 1900s. They were joined by anarchists, far-right anti-Semites and practitioners of ‘motiveless terrorism’, who adhered to no ideology or political goal, but simply wanted to inflict death and chaos on Russia. As this wave of terrorism reached its apogee in the land of the tsars, insurgents in India and China took instruction from French anarchists and Russian nihilists, from whom they acquired knowledge in explosives manufacture and conspiratorial planning. This diffusion of terrorist knowledge led to bombing campaigns by Anushilan Samiti in India, and the attempted assassination of the Qing regent by Wang Jingwei in Beijing. These and other acts of terrorism perpetrated across the world were not the products of a global conspiracy nor a transnationally shared belief in anarchist ideals. Rather, these attacks were the products of the decades of terrorist knowledge, myths and histories that had developed since Orsini’s bombing of 1858, the sum of which was a terrorist milieu from which any violent radical could borrow for whatever purpose – personal, political or otherwise. By the early 1900s, therefore, terrorism was normalised across the globe.
This chapter explores the short history of Hell’s successor organisation, Narodnaya Rasprava (People’s Revenge), and the partnership formed between its leader, Sergei Nechaev, and the foremost anarchist of the 1860s, Mikhail Bakunin. A psychopathic narcissist who inveigled university students into his schemes, Nechaev was doted on by Bakunin, who saw the younger man as key to the success of his ‘International Brotherhood’ – a semi-mythical alliance of radicals from across Europe. Together, the two unleashed a propaganda campaign in Russia designed to bring recruits into People’s Revenge. This was complemented by Nechaev publishing the Catechism of a Revolutionary, a terrorist manual that went on to influence violent radicals from Russia’s Socialist Revolutionaries to Al Qaeda. Central to the Catechism was the idea that revolutionaries should be unfeeling, merciless and ‘doomed’ to death in the name of their cause. This idea disturbed one of Nechaev’s followers, whom the People’s Revenge leader murdered, souring his relations with Bakunin and undoing their plot to assault tsardom. Still, the fear of the Bakunin–Nechaev alliance and the so-called International Brotherhood continued to plague police thoughts across Europe.
Throughout the 1870s, a fear persisted across Europe that the ex-Communards were poised to regroup and strike back, as part of a coordinated conspiracy with Marx’s First International. In pursuit of this imagined IWMA–Communard conspiracy, police across Europe resorted to blanket measures of repression, clampdowns on immigration and censoring radical publications. This anti-radical crusade was seized on by the Paris police prefecture as a means of rebuilding France’s intelligence capabilities in the wake of the war with Prussia. In Russia, the IWMA–Communard conspiracy was also linked by the Third Section to People’s Revenge, whose members were put on trial in 1871. Cynical and fantastical, these police efforts to combat an imagined conspiracy belie the reality that, rather than dreaming of a new Commune-like uprising, violent radicals were turning towards individual acts of terrorism, which Europe’s police had little capacity to thwart.
This chapter charts the sudden rise and brutal fall of the Paris Commune, a revolutionary movement that seized control of the City of Light in the aftermath of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Comprising Jacobins, socialists, anarchists, republicans and even the wandering soldier-of-fortune Cluseret, the Commune represented the ideological diversity of the world’s radical movements or, as one newspaper had it – ‘the most fiendish representation of internationalist terrorism that has ever been seen ’. The lack of ideological cohesion in the Commune led to outside observers judging it by whatever prejudices they held. Some believed the Commune was a return to the sanguinary practices of the original French Revolution, whilst others feared it marked the arrival of communism in Europe. For police chiefs inured of terrorist conspiracy theories, the Commune provided evidence for their beliefs, necessitating a brutal suppression of the Communards in May 1871. Undeterred, certain Communards – Louise Michel and Élisée Reclus in particular – continued to dream of their revolutionary struggle.
With People’s Will grabbing headlines across the world, the London Anarchist Congress met in June 1881 to sketch out a future strategy for revolutionary action. It decided to use dynamite to engender cycles of retaliation by the police, which would radicalise wider society – a strategy known as ‘propaganda of the deed’. At the same time, the Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa also embraced dynamite as central to his efforts to restart the Irish republican terrorist campaign that had faltered in the 1860s. Having formed the United Irishman of America, O’Donovan Rossa sought the expertise of an alleged affiliate of People’s Will going under the name Professor Mezzeroff. Understanding that the fear of attacks was as potent as the violence itself, Mezzeroff and O’Donovan Rossa gave boastful interviews to the press about their bomb-producing capacities and ability to carry out acts of terrorism across the British Empire. To this was added a spate of bombings across Britain from 1881 to 1885, which constituted the Fenian dynamite campaign. Arguably the first effective modern terrorist campaign, the dynamiting of Britain forced Prime Minister William Gladstone to consider the Irish Home Rule question seriously. In doing so it also provided further proof of the concept People’s Will had demonstrated – that dynamite could change the world.
The story concludes with an account of the most damaging act of terrorism in the twentieth century – the assassination of the archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, by Gavrilo Princip. A Serbian nationalist, admirer of ‘propaganda of the deed’ and student of People’s Will’s tactics, Princip was part of a group of assassins called Young Bosnia, whose members were all mindful of the deeds committed by the anarchist, nihilist, Fenian and nationalist terrorists who proceeded them. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the global war it began demonstrated the dangerous ideas formed during of the first age of terror, the shadow of which continues to loom over the world to this day.
As the American Civil War drew to a close, in distant Russia a group of nihilists – ascetic extremists – sent one of their number to Geneva to acquire allies and plans for the Orsini bomb. Operating under the menacing name Hell, this terrorist group’s purpose was to unleash what some journalists were now calling ‘Orsini warfare’ on Russia, with the aim to murder the tsar and topple his regime. Grand as this goal was, Hell’s leader, Nikolai Ishutin, was a fantasist who filled the heads of his young followers with dreams of murdering tsarist officials and blowing up palaces. None of this was attempted, as Ishutin spent more time urging Hell’s members to deprive themselves of food and commit to self-mutilation . From the depths of this bleak cult arose Dmitry Karakozov, a disillusioned university student who tried to shoot Tsar Alexander in 1866. Karakozov’s attempt failed and the other members of Hell were swept up in a brutal police dragnet, the approach to which was informed by the tsar’s secret police – the Third Section – believing Ishutin’s lie that Hell was ‘an international gang of usurpers and criminals ’ with ties to radicals in Europe. Absurd as this claim was, it inspired another nihilist to rise up in St Petersburg and finish what Ishutin started.
By the end of the 1860s, the fear of a revolutionary terrorist conspiracy – driven by Orsini’s bombs, the Bakunin–Nechaev alliance, the recent efforts of the IRB and suspicions of Marx’s First International – reached a crescendo in Europe. In the midst of this fear Stieber was returned to power in Prussia, off the back of foiling an assassination attempt on the Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. This was one of a slew of assassination attempts on political figures during the 1860s, which were taken as evidence by Stieber of the existence of a wider conspiracy. He was not the only police chief to think this. In France, the head of the Paris police prefecture, Joseph-Marie Pietri, also came to believe in a revolutionary underground, the more so when rumours emerged in 1870 that the notorious radical Louis Auguste Blanqui was plotting with other subversives in Paris to kill Napoleon and incite an uprising. Though no evidence of this ambitious plot was uncovered, anxiety still hung over France, even as it entered into a catastrophic war with Bismarck’s Prussia.
As this chapter explains, the real ‘international brotherhood’ of the 1860s was not spearheaded by nihilists but by Fenians – Irish-American radicals who sought Ireland’s emancipation from the British Empire. The New York-based chief of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), James Stephens, forged relationships with Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association in London, the Franco-American mercenary Gustave Cluseret and the Swiss republican Octave Fariola. With the help of these collaborators, the IRB launched a series of ambitious attacks in 1866 and 1867 in Canada, Ireland and England. The attacks failed but in the process a policeman was shot and a prison in London was bombed by Fenians, prompting public outrage and accusations in the press that the IRB had turned to terrorism, with one newspaper claiming that the Irish republican movement now ‘reeks of the dreaded violence and depravity of the Russian nihilists’. The lesson that targeted violence could alert the British public to Ireland’s plight was learned, prompting a new generation of Fenians to consider terrorism as the way forward in their struggle.
This chapter shows the folly of the police pursuing the IWMA–Communard conspiracy theory, by chronicling the spate of assassination attempts carried out across Europe in 1878. Attempts to link the shootings and stabbings to the supposed conspiracy denied the reality that Europe’s radicals were fragmenting rather than coming together in the 1870s, their allegiances split over whether to follow Marx’s vision of a communist revolution or Bakunin’s talk of an anarchist utopia. Beneath this schism, individual assassins and the world’s first terrorist organisation, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), emerged to practise a new form of terrorist violence. This trend reached its crescendo in Russia in 1881, when People’s Will carried out the era’s most spectacular terrorist attack – the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by a suicide bomber. This promoted an overhaul of Russia’s secret police and clumsy efforts to create a reactionary conspiracy against terrorism, in the form of the nationalist sect, the Holy Brotherhood. Neither this group nor the efforts of the tsar’s new secret police – the Okhrana – could stop the spread of terrorism in the 1880s, as People’s Will provided inspiration similar to that which Orsini had given radicals in the 1860s. The key to this inspiration was the tool by which People’s Will had taken the Holy Tsar’s life – dynamite.