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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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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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