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

John Merriman


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  • Hardcover: 259 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH); 1st Edition edition (12 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618555986
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618555987
  • Product Dimensions: 21.7 x 14.2 x 2.4 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,927,377 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dynamite Club 19 Feb 2009
By Stephen Balbach - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
John Merriman, professor of history at Yale and author of the classic undergraduate text A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present, has been called America's best living historian of France. Born and raised in Oregon, he has lived in France on and off much of his life and is skilled at bridging the cultural divide. In our current "age of terror" it is illuminating to remember that for about a 15-20 year period during the "fin-de-siecle" (end of the 19th century), Paris was gripped by a wave of Anarchist Dynamite bombers. The central story of this book is about one of those Dynamiters, Emile Henry, the first terrorist to bomb anonymous otherwise innocent civilians and, according to the subtitle, "ignite the modern age of terror."

`The Dynamite Club` is a small package (216pg, 8.5" book) but, like the subject of its title, packs a wallop amount of information. Using the creative non-fiction technique of writing history through telling the narrative story of a central hero (or anti-hero in this case), it is a biography of Emile and the bombing and its aftermath - and also the larger story of Anarchism in the 19th century. We learn about the underground world of Paris and London, teeming with hungry, unemployed and angry youth, the revolutionary intellectuals who inspired them and the state enforcement that emerged with them. Merriman not only dug deep into the archives, he traveled to the locations involved (some still in business), even retracing the steps of Emile Henry through the streets of Paris the day of his bombing, clocking the amount of time it took to verify his story (luckily traffic in Paris today is so bad, travel resembles the speed of 19th century horse and carriage).

This is a really fascinating and accessible introduction to the world of 19th century Anarchism - one of the defining characteristics of fin-de-siecle Europe. Merriman is a serious historian and I had trouble finding anything that appeared embellished, unfortunately so common with journalist-historians these days writing for a popular audience. Merriman teaches a course at Yale called "France since 1871" (18hrs, 24 classes). It has been video recorded and is freely available online for anyone to watch (see link in the Comment below). Merriman is a dynamic and fun teacher to watch. The first 12 or so classes are about France between 1871 and 1914 and it is a great introduction to everything "fin-de-siecle". Lecture 8 in particular is called "Dynamite Club: The Anarchists", and was recorded while he was working on this book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dynamiting to End Society 1 May 2009
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It might make headlines when some nightclub or hotel is bombed, but such headlines might not even make it onto the front page these days, for unfortunately such occurrences are frequent. This sort of terrorism was new and startling in 1894 when a bomber attacked the Café Terminus in Paris. It may not have been the very first incidence of modern terrorism, but it was part of a new type of attack on society. Such attacks could not have happened without dynamite or without philosophical and social underpinnings. A wealth of details about such larger issues, and about that particular bombing, is set out with impressive clarity in _The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror_ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Yale historian John Merriman. It was Émile Henry who executed the attack, and Merriman writes, "This book is motivated by a very simple question: why did Émile Henry do what he did?" It was a long time ago, and in a foreign society with different bad guys than we have now, but it is bracing to have Merriman as a guide to a frightening act which introduced the world to a completely new type of threat, one which came from an individual who was not completely an outsider and not completely mad.

Henry grew up within the anarchist philosophy, but Merriman makes clear that the wide inequalities between rich and poor at the time made such a philosophy seem tenable: "In short, the belle époque was not _belle_ for most French men and women, who had little reason for optimism and great concern for the future." Henry won prizes for excellence in school, but as he became older, he was obsessed with the grinding poverty in Paris; his sympathies were always with the jobless and hungry. Most anarchists were not interested in violence, and many rejected the bombings that were called "propaganda by the deed." Even Henry initially rejected the use of dynamite, but later accepted it as a way of destroying even the bourgeoisie who kept the state going. There were dynamite attacks in Paris in 1892, and Parisians worried about an international dynamite club. As befits anarchists, however, there was no such organization, and the dynamite club was only as real as the worried imaginations of officials could make it. Merriman describes Henry's bombing of the Café Terminus as the first time a political terrorist had used ordinary people as a specific target. Henry was caught as he fled, and met the guillotine in May 1894. The French government passed outrageous laws in overreaction to the threat of the imaginary dynamite club, and Merriman explains how police informers arranged for hundreds of people to be arrested with meager convictions resulting.

Merriman is wise in seldom drawing parallels to modern terrorism, which chiefly comes not from those who would abolish governments but who would set up strict religious ones. Anyone reading about the overreaction of the French government, however, will be dismayed that our contemporary terrorists have led us into an unnecessary war, restrictions on rights, and state-sponsored torture. Merriman's accessible history usefully illustrates how over a hundred years ago activists responding to social alienation and socioeconomic inequities brought forth extremist acts that triggered unnecessary paranoia rather than a coherent judicial response. Anarchism is passé, but the bombing never stops.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A dynamite of a book! 4 Jun 2010
By Paul Gelman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The terrorists of these days had some good teachers and precursors in the past.These were the anarchists of the nineteenth century whose purpose was to bring to a radical change of the world order.The state was regarded by them as something evil which,in Proudhon's words,"is my enemy.To be governed is to be watched,inspected,spied upon,directed,law-driven,numbered,regulated,enrolled,indoctrinated,preached at,controlled,checked,estimated, valued,censured,commanded by creatures who have neither the right not the wisdom or virtue to do so".Anarchism was a reaction to the rapidly expanding power of governments following the creation of nation-states in the nineteenth century.Expanding bureaucracies,police forces,amd armies manifested power.Anarchists were confident that a new,improved society could exist one day,but they believed that violent revolution was a prerequisite, in contrast to those adherents who preached for socialism.Most of the anarchists were far from being intellectuals.But the hero of this book was different,because he was a middle-class youn educated man who might have enjoyed a productive life,were it not for his father's treatment at the hands of the state, exarcerbated by the appalling poverty that he witnessed in Paris.
One day,on a February evening of 1894,Emile Henry drank two beers at a Parisian restaurant,then left behind a bomb.What follows is a most intriguing tale of suspense and history of anarchism before,during and after Henry's deed.The French society like many other European ones,was extremely anxious,living in constant fear of bombers who were certain they were achieving immortality for a very good cause.Suffice it to remind the reader about the murders of the Spansi prime minister Canovas in 1897,Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary in 1898,and the American president William McKinley in 1901.
This excellent book traces the thoughts and deeds of Henry,his trial and his execution and is a major contribution to the history of anarchism.It allows the novice to this topic to get acquainted with the world these anarchists wanted to get at and discusses in detail the work of the Paris police.We also have a very good description about another center where those anarchists were to be found-London.In targeting civilians to achieve their ends,the dynamite bombers charted a new course which managed to change the way the internal security forces in the various states started to view them.
5.0 out of 5 stars Well wriiten history 1 Jun 2009
By Charles A. Murray - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is an extremely well written account of an incident in 19th century France that gives you a real feeling of what French society was like at the time. Anyone who thinks about the tensions that have driven violence in this country and the rest of the world will find this an informative experience. Whether you think back to the violence from internal sources, in this country in the 60's and 70's, or the attacks from the Islamic terrorist more recently, the reader finds himself constantly reminded that of one of the causes for attacks, that to most seem hideous, is the belief in the mind of the perpetrators that because of the inequality of life they perceive the only way to gain attention is through a shocking outrage that no one can ignore.
6 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars History, but with no link to today 20 Mar 2009
By JGP821 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book based on references (including dust jacket copy) which indicated that it drew parallels between late 19th Century anarchism and today's militant Islam. ("How a bombing in fin-de-siecle Paris ignited the age of modern terror.") Unfortunately, while the book is an exhaustively researched and detailed description of how and why a restaurant in Paris was blown up on February 12, 1894, that's all it is. No references to similarities between anarchism and Islamic terrorists (or any other kind of terrorists). No analysis of how anarchism then might be similar to other kinds of terrorism today. In fact, no reference to 'the modern age of terror' at all.

If you have an interest in anarchism in the 19th Century, go for it. If you have an interest in how terrorism has developed over time, and how anarchism might be similar to modern terrorism, you won't find it here.
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