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  • The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror
  • Patrick Chura
The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror John Merriman New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009; 272 pages. $26.00, ISBN 978-0618555987

This interesting book is motivated by a desire to get inside the mind of nineteenth-century terrorist Émile Henry, a French anarchist who tossed a deadly bomb into a Paris café on the evening of 12 February 1894. Merriman explains in his prologue: "Embroiled in our own ‘war on terror,' it may well be instructive to look to the past for insight." The author's theory is that the more clearly his main character comes into focus, the more clearly will emerge the thread that ties him, his circumstances, and his circle of anarchists to the current context of terror associated with Islamic extremism.

Merriman observes that Émile Henry was "a very unusual terrorist." He was an intellectual from the educated bourgeoisie rather than the laboring classes. Like the 9/11 hijackers, he was willing to sacrifice innocent life by victimizing random citizens rather than symbolically targeted officials or heads of state. For these reasons, Henry and his compagnons, referred to as "the dynamite club," describe a line of demarcation: "The day [Henry] threw a bomb into the Café Terminus was a defining moment in modern history. It was the day that ordinary people became the targets of terrorists." [End Page 137]

What makes this study atypical is that, for most of its chapters, the author doesn't directly argue his thesis. Rather, he makes the book read like a novel, using meticulous archival research not so much to persuade as to bring to life his subject and the world he lived in. We get fascinating descriptions of fin-de-siècle Paris, including its architecture, its hotels and cafés, its newly widened boulevards and those who frequented them, and the sights, sounds, and geographical layout of the various arrondisements. The reader quickly realizes that Merriman has immersed himself in the quotidian particulars of French social history, and that he takes great pleasure in sketching his milieu.

Merriman's skills as an archivist and talent for reconstructing history are put to best use in his picture of Paris's main political substratum: the international anarchist movement itself. With unusual depth and nuance, the book illuminates the personal and circumstantial forces that attracted Émile Henry to terrorism, diverted him from a promising academic future, and isolated him within a fanatical ideology. We get graphic, vividly narrated accounts of Henry as an individual—his early life and family background, his crime, his arrest and trial, and his execution by guillotine.

Not until chapter eight, however, do we get anything close to a worked-out analysis of how Émile Henry "ignited the age of modern terror." Merriman's brief closing offers a perfunctory nod in the direction of historical exegesis, noting perceptively that the French state's "overreaction to the words and deeds of anarchism" only incited further aggression and helped create new terrorists. He observes that the cycle of violence affecting France was broken only when juries had the sense to begin acquitting anarchists rather than making martyrs of them. In the author's conclusion that "[o]nly justice and freedom could defeat anarchism, not sheer force and continued injustice," engaged readers will recognize an interrogation of the American response to Islamic extremism.

And although Merriman's deep interest in nineteenth-century Paris is the life-blood of the book, it somewhat limits his scope. The book's fifth chapter, for example, mentions that four months before Henry threw his bomb, a Spanish anarchist bombed Barcelona's Liceo Theater during a performance, killing 22 and wounding 50. The author acknowledges, though only in a buried endnote, that "the bomb in the Liceo Theater can of course also be considered as an originating or at least defining moment in the origins of modern terrorism." Since Merriman is looking for the source of modern terror [End Page 138] in attacks on ordinary people, we might ask why the earlier...


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pp. 137-139
Launched on MUSE
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