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the dynamite club

February 27, 2009

[Salon] Among those inspired by Ravachol was the aforementioned Émile Henry, whose bombing of the Café Terminus in 1894 is the principal subject of Merriman’s book. Unlike Ravachol, who was raised by a single mother in extreme poverty and lived by odd jobs and petty crimes, Henry was a genuine son of the bourgeoisie who turned against his own tribe. He had grown up in a quiet country town just outside Paris, where his mother kept an inn. He excelled in school, and had barely missed admission to the École polytechnique, France’s most prestigious college for engineers. (He could have reapplied, but never did.) He worked at various clerical and accounting jobs, where his employers invariably found him diligent and pleasant.

Yet somehow this promising and intelligent young man, who was initially horrified by Ravachol’s indiscriminate bombings of apartment buildings, became the author of that era’s most notorious attack. At about 8 p.m. on Feb. 12, 1894, Henry entered the Café Terminus, a big and bustling Gilded Age establishment around the corner from the Gare Saint-Lazare, where he ordered two beers and smoked a cigar. (He paid, even though he was about to blow the place up. A proper bourgeois after all.) An hour later, there were about 350 people in the place, and the orchestra was playing operatic music by Daniel Auber. Henry got up to leave. Once outside he took a homemade dynamite bomb, concealed in a workman’s lunch-bucket, out of his overcoat, lit the fuse with his cigar, and threw the device behind him into the cafe, where it struck a chandelier, fell to the floor and exploded.

Only one person died in the Terminus bombing, which made it pretty wimpy even by Henry’s standards. (His previous bombing, although aimed at a mining company, had killed three police officers, a secretary and an office boy.) There were dozens of injuries and a popular nightspot lay in ruins, but the real effect was psychological.

As Merriman sees it, this was the first time a political terrorist had envisioned ordinary people as a legitimate target, or attacked the public life of a major city. There are other candidates for this dubious honor: One could point to the spectacular “William Tell” bombing a year earlier in Barcelona, in which 22 theatergoers were killed. (Arguably that was more targeted, in the sense that the orchestra level of a luxurious theater was the province of the ruling class.) Whoever thought of it first, the point is that at least a few violent anarchists had moved rapidly from the theoretical notion that society should be destroyed to the idea that leaders of that society deserved to die and then to the sweeping conception that anyone who supported the existing society, even as a citizen and a consumer, was effectively guilty of crimes against humanity.

Henry understood as soon as he was arrested that he had no chance of avoiding the guillotine, and he admitted full responsibility for the bombing. The only defense he offered at his trial was a lengthy declaration of his ideas and motives. In his statement, Henry attacked the ordinary petit-bourgeois citizens of Paris, those who lived on 300 to 500 francs a month (a middle-class income, more or less) and who applauded the actions of the government and the police. They were “stupid and pretentious,” he said, “always lining up on the side of the strongest.”

Anarchists had no respect for human life, he said, because the bourgeoisie had shown none. “We will spare neither women nor children because the women and children we love have not been spared,” Henry continued, making it clear that he was directly blaming the complacent classes for the misery that existed on the other side of the Gilded Age’s shocking social divide. “Are they not innocent victims, these children, who in the faubourgs slowly die of anemia, because bread is rare at home; these women who in your workshops suffer exhaustion and are worn out in order to earn 40 cents a day, happy that misery has not yet forced them into prostitution; these old men whom you have turned into machines so that they can produce their entire lives and whom you throw out into the street when they have been completely depleted?”

He understood that he and many other anarchists would be killed, as Ravachol and others had been killed before him, Henry told the court. “But what you can never destroy is anarchy. Its roots are too deep, born in a poisonous society which is falling apart; anarchism is a violent reaction against the established order. It represents the egalitarian and libertarian aspirations which are opening a breach in contemporary authority. It is everywhere, which makes anarchy elusive. It will finish by killing you.” (read)

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