The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siecle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror

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Overview

The fascinating story of a long-forgotten "war on terror" that has much in common with our own

On a February evening in 1894, a young radical intellectual named Émile Henry drank two beers at an upscale Parisian restaurant, then left behind a bomb as a parting gift. This incident, which rocked the French capital, lies at the heart of The Dynamite Club, a mesmerizing account of Henry and his cohorts and the war they waged against the bourgeoisie—setting off bombs in public places, killing the president of France, and eventually assassinating President McKinley in 1901.

Paris in the belle époque was a place of leisure, elegance, and power. Newly electrified, the city’s wide boulevards were lined with posh department stores and outdoor cafés. But prosperity was limited to a few. Most lived in dire poverty, and workers and intellectuals found common cause in a political philosophy—anarchism—that embraced the overthrow of the state by any means necessary.

Yet in targeting civilians to achieve their ends, the dynamite bombers charted a new course. Seeking martyrdom, believing fervently in their goal, and provoking a massive government reaction that only increased their ranks, these "evildoers" became, in effect, the first terrorists in modern history.

Surprising and provocative, The Dynamite Club is a brilliantly researched account that illuminates a period of dramatic social and political change—and subtly asks us to reflect upon our own.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Dynamite Club

"In The Dynamite Club, John Merriman brings together his astonishing knowledge of nineteenth-century France, his unmatched skills as an archival ‘detective,’ his marvelously lucid writing style, and his uncanny talent for bringing historical figures to life. The result is a searing portrait of the tensions and violence that lurked behind the glittering façade of fin-de-siècle France and eerily foreshadowed the terrorist threat of the present day."—David Bell, author of The Cult of the Nation in France and The First Total War

"Those who think of terrorism as an inexplicable evil produced by an alien culture will have their eyes opened by this fascinating study of nineteenth-century anarchist terrorists . . . [An] absorbing true crime story, with Dostoyevskian overtones, about high ideals that motivate desperate acts."— Publishers Weekly, starred review

"John Merriman has told an absorbing story of the strange world of anarchism in late-nineteenth-century France. Replete with uncanny and uncomfortable similarities to the ‘war on terrorism’ today, The Dynamite Club portrays a society swept up in the fear of bombers who are certain that they are achieving immortality for a righteous cause. This saga of Émile Henry and his motley crew of fellow anarchists is hard to put down."—David Kertzer, author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and Amalia’s Tale

Bookforum
"Reading a book on nineteenth-century anarchism by John Merriman is a bit like reading one on the semicolon by Strunk and White. Merriman’s A History of Modern Europe (1996) is perhaps the best survey of the era, but by narrowing his scope from five hundred years of Continental history to a few bomb-throwing anarchists in Belle Epoque France, he is able to pack in riveting detail. "
Texas Observer
"Questioning why terrorists attack people like us may lead to answers that call for us to examine our own roles in creating and maintaining the social, economic or political conditions that give rise to terrorist acts. This examination is what makes The Dynamite Club so important. Merriman demythologizes Émile Henry and the loosely organized international group of anarchist thinkers who inspired and supported him. Merriman also comments, without being heavy-handed, on the conditions European anarchists were trying to change."
Barnes and Noble Review
"Merriman paints a fascinating picture of the anarchist underworld, giving real-life background to a milieu made famous by novels such as Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday."
San Francisco Examiner
"Those who think of terrorism as an inexplicable evil produced by an alien culture will have their eyes opened by this fascinating study of 19th-century anarchist terrorists."
The Boston Globe
"Yale historian John Merriman does many things in "The Dynamite Club," his book about the bombing, and does them quite well...In describing the fate of a single terrorist, Merriman has skillfully illustrated how social alienation fueled the rise of extremist ideas and acts. The lethal impulses that motivated Henry aren't so different, the author concludes, from the impulses that lead to terrorism today. This accessible account is historically eye-opening and psychologically insightful."
The Shepherd Express
"Written with elegant brevity, The Dynamite Club is a reminder of an era when violent anarchists acted out their hatred against a repressive civilization."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Gripping as a narrative, necessary as a historical lesson, Merriman's "The Dynamite Club" reads like a great novel—all in the service of bringing novel insight into the birth of modern terrorism."
Chicago Tribune
"In The Dynamite Club, his enthralling and cinematic account of a Paris cafe bombing in 1894, Merriman achieves that rare thing: virtuosic storytelling that doubles as superb history."
Booklist
“A notable scholar of French history, Merriman recounts an episode of terrorism in 1890s Paris that plumbs the motivations of one particular bomber. He was Émile Henry, who at age 20 rejected a potential career in the French army and embraced anarchism…Reconstructing Henry’s own attacks, Merriman allies a forensic eye with the texture of Paris de la belle Époque, ably renders Henry’s personality, and implicitly invites comparison of his with the mind-sets of contemporary terrorists.”
Chicago Tribune
"In The Dynamite Club, his enthralling and cinematic account of a Paris cafe bombing in 1894, Merriman achieves that rare thing: virtuosic storytelling that doubles as superb history."
San Francisco Examiner
"Those who think of terrorism as an inexplicable evil produced by an alien culture will have their eyes opened by this fascinating study of 19th-century anarchist terrorists."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Gripping as a narrative, necessary as a historical lesson, Merriman''s "The Dynamite Club" reads like a great novel -- all in the service of bringing novel insight into the birth of modern terrorism."
The Boston Globe
"Yale historian John Merriman does many things in "The Dynamite Club," his book about the bombing, and does them quite well...In describing the fate of a single terrorist, Merriman has skillfully illustrated how social alienation fueled the rise of extremist ideas and acts. The lethal impulses that motivated Henry aren''t so different, the author concludes, from the impulses that lead to terrorism today. This accessible account is historically eye-opening and psychologically insightful."
Bookforum
"Reading a book on nineteenth-century anarchism by John Merriman is a bit like reading one on the semicolon by Strunk and White. Merriman's A History of Modern Europe (1996) is perhaps the best survey of the era, but by narrowing his scope from five hundred years of Continental history to a few bomb-throwing anarchists in Belle Epoque France, he is able to pack in riveting detail. "
Texas Observer
"Questioning why terrorists attack people like us may lead to answers that call for us to examine our own roles in creating and maintaining the social, economic or political conditions that give rise to terrorist acts. This examination is what makes The Dynamite Club so important. Merriman demythologizes ?mile Henry and the loosely organized international group of anarchist thinkers who inspired and supported him. Merriman also comments, without being heavy-handed, on the conditions European anarchists were trying to change."
The Shepherd Express
"Written with elegant brevity, The Dynamite Club is a reminder of an era when violent anarchists acted out their hatred against a repressive civilization."
Barnes and Noble Review
"Merriman paints a fascinating picture of the anarchist underworld, giving real-life background to a milieu made famous by novels such as Joseph Conrad''s The Secret Agent and G. K. Chesterton''s The Man Who Was Thursday."
Publishers Weekly

Those who think of terrorism as an inexplicable evil produced by an alien culture will have their eyes opened by this fascinating study of 19th-century anarchist terrorists. Yale historian Merriman (History of Modern Europe) tells the story of Émile Henry, a well-educated young man from a politically radical family who tossed a bomb into a crowded Paris cafe in 1894. In Merriman's portrait, Henry emerges as an understandable, if not sympathetic, figure-a sensitive dreamer whose outrage at the misery of the poor curdled into a fanatical hatred of bourgeois society. He found a home in Europe's percolating anarchist movement, whose adherents celebrated a cult of revolutionary violence and sang hymns to "Lady Dynamite"; their bombings and assassinations set off a wave of panic and police repression. Merriman's account frames an illuminating study of working-class radicalism in belle époque France and its bitter conflict with the establishment in an age when class warfare was no metaphor. It's also an absorbing true crime story, with Dostoyevskian overtones, about high ideals that motivate desperate acts. Photos. (Feb. 12)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In the 21st century, we are concerned with economic and social inequalities and rapid technological change-but so were those living in 1890s Europe. With tension building between "haves" and "have-nots," strong anarchist movements had gained momentum there, paving the way, says Merriman, for the tactics used in today's age of modern terror. Merriman (history, Yale Univ.; A History of Modern Europe) leads the reader through a succinct history of anarchism and the rise of dynamite during this period. He uses young anarchist Emile Henry to epitomize this troubled period. Henry was the first individual to use indiscriminate terrorist means (by throwing dynamite into a crowd) to promote a particular social agenda; previously, most acts of violence by anarchists and other groups were directed at the police, heads of state, or the upper classes. Merriman's account complements other sources on the history of terrorism (e.g., Walter Laqueur's History of Terrorism) by putting a human face on this and other anarchist acts. Well told and thoroughly researched at the National Archives of Britain and France, this work is recommended for academic collections or public libraries collecting comprehensively on this aspect of history.
—Maria C. Bagshaw

Kirkus Reviews
Chronicle of the 1894 bombing of an upscale Parisian cafe, which set a deadly pattern for the subsequent quarter-century and beyond. Merriman (History/Yale Univ.; The Stones of Balazuc, 2002, etc.) begins with Emile Henry (1872-94) packing a metal lunchbox with dynamite. "This book is motivated by a very simple question," he writes. "Why did Emile 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 Cafe 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 thosebelieving 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618555987
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 2/12/2009
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

JOHN MERRIMAN is the Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of many books, including the classic History of Modern Europe and The Stones of Balazuc. He lives with his family in Connecticut and Balazuc, France.

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Read an Excerpt

In his room on the edge of Paris, Émile Henry was preparing a bomb. He took a worker’s metal lunchbox, broke off the handle and lid, and placed a cartridge of dynamite inside. He then filled a zinc tube with 120 pieces of buckshot, adding green powder and picric acid to make a deadly mix. In a small opening in the tube, he put a capsule of mercury fulminate, along with a fuse that would burn for fifteen to eighteen seconds, which he attached with sealing wax. The fuse protruded from the screw hole that had once secured the handle. Having soldered the tin container and wrapped wire around it, Émile put the bomb, which weighed about five pounds, in a deep pocket of his overcoat. He then armed himself with a loaded pistol and a knife, and walked out the door. It was February 12, 1894. His hand firmly on the bomb, the pale young man headed to the elegant boulevards in the area of the Opera. He wanted to detonate the bomb in this wealthy district, killing as many people as possible. He counted on fifteen dead and twenty wounded at the very least.
     At the end of avenue de l’Opéra, Émile Henry stopped in front of the opera house, a giant gilded wedding cake of a building, its scale and rich decoration signifying the monumental ambition and self-indulgence of its founders and patrons. In that twenty-year-old edifice a fancy ball was taking place, and Émile knew that he could not get past the guards to throw his bomb. Upon moving away he mumbled to no one in particular, "Oh, I would have made them dance in there." He checked out the restaurant Bignon and the chic Café de la Paix in the Grand Hôtel, then proceeded to the Café Américain on rue de la Paix. (Had he consulted the Baedeker guide for 1889, he would have noted that it was "less frequented in the evening.") He looked a little like a flâneur, an intellectual who might be something of a dandy, but Émile was in fact an impoverished bourgeois who lived on the margins of urban life. He strolled along the grands boulevards not just to observe nightlife in a detached manner, but to hate and to kill. The carriages and wagons that passed as he walked along boulevard des Capucines may have included a black wagon carrying the "bois de justice" —the guillotine. An execution was planned for the following morning at place de la Roquette in a working-class neighborhood of Paris.
     At about 8 p.m., Émile reached the Café Terminus, around the corner from the busy Gare Saint-Lazare. The Hôtel Terminus was only about twenty years old. The café, which one entered from rue Saint-Lazare, took up the ground floor; the hotel rooms occupied the upper floors. Opposite the entrance stood the counter where waiters collected drinks for patrons and behind which stood the cashiers and bartenders. Beyond that, up several steps, was the grand hall of the adjacent Restaurant Terminus. In the far left corner of the grand hall stood a compact raised stage, set for a small gypsy orchestra scheduled to play that evening.
     Although his clothing was hardly elegant, with his dark pants, tie, and black felt hat, Émile Henry seemed like someone who might naturally be present there. At 8 p.m., as the café was slowly filling, he went in and took a small table to the right of the glass door that gave onto rue Saint-Lazare. He ordered a beer, and soon another, along with a cigar, and paid for them as the orchestra played. The musical program began at exactly 8:30, as it did each evening. It was to include seven pieces in the first set, to be followed by five violin solos (among them, pieces by Meyerbeer and Rossini). Several instrumental transcriptions of popular operatic arias were on offer. A short entr’acte, consisting of polkas, and a little Wagner were to follow. By 9 p.m., about 350 people had assembled in the Terminus. At 9:01, the small orchestra had just started to play the fifth piece in the first set, music from Daniel Auber’s opera Les diamants de la couronne.
     Émile found the music annoying, but, in any case, he had other plans. He took the bomb from his overcoat pocket, got up, and walked to the door, which a waiter closed behind him. But after taking a step or two outside, Émile turned back, lit the fuse (on the third try) with his cigar, opened the door, grabbed it with his left hand for support, and threw the bomb into the café, toward the orchestra.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The Cafe Terminus 1

1 Light and Shadows in the Capital of Europe 7

2 The Exile's Second Son 25

3 "Love Engenders Hate" 51

4 Dynamite Deeds 69

5 Carnage at a Police Station 99

6 Two Bombs 137

7 The Trial 163

8 Reaction 203

Acknowledgments 219

Notes 221

Bibliography 243

Index 251

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