An oppressive and beleaguered empire, a terrorist international, a storm raging in the world press about torture, right-wing Christians on the march against moral decline and the collapse of family values–you can stand here on Montjuic hill and history grips you by the arm.
In 1896 all Europe was shaken by reports of the terrible tortures endured by prisoners entombed in the dungeons of the fortress built by the Bourbons on Montjuic. Terror, in the form of militant anarchism–the Al Qaeda of its era–had already been on the march for a generation, its detonations caused by such devices as the “Orsini bomb,” whose sinister horns were filled with fulminate of mercury, which exploded on impact, thus bypassing the need for a fuse. Orsini went to the guillotine in 1858 after hurling his invention at Louis Napoleon. He missed, but he killed eight and injured 156. In 1862 Nobel patented dynamite and gave “propaganda of the deed” a deadlier tempo.
Suicide bombing can be traced at least as far back as Ignatei Grinevitsky, part of the team that killed Czar Alexander in 1881. The first bomb failed in its intention, so Grinevitsky stepped close enough to the Czar’s carriage to insure that the second bomb would do the job, though it took him as well as his target. As listed by Benedict Anderson in a marvelous series across three issues this spring, summer and fall in New Left Review, international anarchism had a steady run of successes. After Czar Alexander came the assassinations of French President Carnot in 1894, Spanish Prime Minister Cánovas in 1897, Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, King Umberto I of Italy in 1900 (planned in Paterson, New Jersey), US President McKinley in 1901, King Alexander of Serbia along with his Queen in 1903, Russian Interior Minister von Plehve in 1904, Grand Duke Sergei of Russia in 1905, King Carlos of Portugal and son Luiz in 1908, Prince Ito of Japan in 1909, Russian Prime Minister Stolypin in 1911 and King George of Greece in 1913.
Being a ruler was a riskier business a hundred years ago, and bystanders were not immune either. From the explosives hurled at processions or from such venues as the upper tiers of theaters came substantial collateral damage, contemplated with moral equanimity by some anarchists. Asked at his trial in 1894 why he had killed so many innocent people, the French anarchist Emile Henry explained to the court that anarchism “is born in the heart of a corrupt society which is falling to pieces; it is a violent reaction against the established order. It represents egalitarian and libertarian aspirations which are battering down existing authority; it is everywhere, which makes it impossible to contain.” So, said Henry as he faced the guillotine, “Il n’y a pas des innocents.” There are no innocents, at least among the privileged classes.