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The Rise of the Anarchists

In just seven years, between 1894 and 1901, five Western heads of state were mowed down by anarchists:

President Sadi Carnot, about a year before his deathJune 1894. President Sadi Carnot of France was being driven through the streets of Lyon. He had recently refused to intervene in the trails of various French anarchists, accused of numerous bombings in Paris cafes and against government buildings. Carnot, traveling in what he thought was the safer, more conservative south, had commanded that the more sympathetic crowds be allowed to approach his carriage. One young Italian, handsome and wan with pale blue eyes, stepped out of the crowd with a rolled-up newspaper, as if holding flowers from a bodega. Carnot motioned him forward. The young man pulled a dagger from the “bouquet,” plunged the blade six inches into Carnot’s abdomen, and screamed “Vive la révolution, vive l’anarchie!”

Antonio Cánovas del CastilloAugust 1897. Premier Antonio Cánovas del Castilla of Spain was on vacation in Santa Agueda, a popular Basque spa, recuperating from a brutal few years which included a host of anarchist attacks, mostly in Barcelona, as well as the increasing hostilities of that upstart United States. The Premier and his wife noted an impeccably dressed, mild-mannered guest at the hotel who repeatedly saluted him and spoke Spanish with a lilting Italian accent. When Cánovas asked his chief of staff about the man, he discovered that he was registered at the hotel as a correspondent for the noted Italian paper Il Popolo. At breakfast one morning, the Premier thought perhaps he’d offer a small interview to this well-heeled guest and motioned him to step over to his table. The man did—and pulled out a revolver, firing three shots from about six feet, killing the Premier instantly. Madame Cánovas jumped up and flew at the man, the revolver still smoking in his hand. “Murderer! Assassin!” she cried, hitting him with her open fan. He turned to her and calmly said, “I have nothing to do with you, Madame. I am the Avenger.” In the end, the act had few repercussions--except Cánovas did not live to see the final Spanish possessions pass into American hands at the end of the war.

Luigi LucheniSeptember 1898. Luigi Lucheni was a street urchin, born out of wedlock, put out as a day laborer for the Italian railroads at the age of nine, conscripted by the army at twelve. At his discharge a few years later, he was penniless, certainly brutalized, probably sodomized. He became the disreputable Prince of Aragon's valet, a high position possibly granted because of his rakish looks--and then was let go for unclear reasons. He was perfect fodder for the anarchists. He took up with them, traveled to meetings on their dime. He set his sights on King Umberto I of Italy. “I’d like to kill somebody,” he told his friends, “but it must be somebody important so it gets into the papers.” Still, a young man needed more than dimes to get to where a king would be staying. And Lucheni was currently stuck in Switzerland, away from home, lonely and adrift.

The last photograph of the Empress Elisabeth (on the left), the day before her deathHe saw that the wife of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Empress Elisabeth, was in Geneva, visiting the quality. The Empress was a chronic depressive, given to long fits of blackness, caught in a very unhappy marriage, separated from her husband on the QT. She adopted crazy diet fads to improve her mental health—only oranges and milk for two months—and exercised ruthlessly, taking furious walks of six to eight hours without break every day at such a pace that none of her guards could keep up. As the Empress left her hotel one morning with her retinue and walked toward the Quai Mont Blanc, Lucheni blocked their path. He had planned to assassinate the Duc d'Orleans, the current "pretender" to the French throne, but the Duke had abrupty left town, leaving Lucheni without a target. He rushed at the Empress—then stopped to pull her parasol aside and make sure he’d gotten his victim right. He plunged a sharpened file through her heart. His claim: “It will be Umberto’s turn next.” Although his act--killing the estranged, depressive wife of a haughty, remote despot who admitted to being glad to be rid of her--was perhaps the most pointless of all the anarchist killings, Lucheni was nevertheless right about the order of events.

King Umberto I of ItalyJuly 1900. Italy was not the sort of place for King Umberto I. It was run over with food riots, trampled with political unrest, and almost destroyed by cholera. Even the plague was making a come-back. In response, the King held to his routines. He was a bland man, the lower half of his face almost obscured by a great white moustache. He loved riding more than almost anything—almost as much as his daily schedule. He rose every morning at six, drank two cups of coffee, attended meetings over his personal finances at nine (he had enormous holdings in the Bank of England), strolled through his stables thereafter, went for a ride, had lunch, went for a carriage ride on the same paths of the Borghese Gardens every afternoon, and visited his mistress promptly at six thirty where they made love within ten minutes of his arrival. He then returned to his queen, had dinner, and went to bed. The poor were not his concern. Until one afternoon when he was forced to go to Milan to deliver some prizes for a local athletic competition. Irritated at the loss of his schedule, he wanted to distribute the medals and get home. He ran the event from his carriage. A dazzlingly handsome young athlete approached, bowed graciously, and shot him four times from five feet away. The young man turned out to be an American, a silk weaver from Paterson, New Jersey, its Italian cafes now a hotbed for anarchist thought among recent immigrants. They had paid for his steerage trip back to Europe to assassinate the monarch most Italians hated, none with a more burning rage than those immigrants who had left the country.

Official mug shot of Leon CzolgoszSeptember 1901. Leon Czolgosz was plodding, methodical, a reader of sorts, although probably functionally illiterate as well, the middle child of a large Polish family who had recently moved to a farm in Ohio. By ten, he was working in a steel mill; by his mid-teens, he was fired for agitating a strike. He then got caught up with the radical Emma Goldman and her American circles in Chicago—and soon began to protest the U. S. war in the Philippines. By means still not completely clear, he managed to get himself to Buffalo, to the Pan-American Exposition just opening in the city. He stood patiently in a receiving line and shot President McKinley at point-blank range with a pistol. And thus, the anarchist with the least understanding, the lowest level of intelligence, did the deed with the longest consequences, bringing the rough rider Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency and solidifying America on its course to empire. In his confession, Czolgosz claimed he killed McKinley because “I done my duty.” He finished with a rationale that collapsed into nonsense: “McKinley was going around the country shouting prosperity when there was no prosperity for the poor man. I don’t believe we should have any rulers.... I don’t believe in voting. It is against my principles. I am an anarchist. I don’t believe in marriage. I believe in free love.”A sketch of President McKinley's assassination, taken from eye-witness accounts

These five murders, while spectacular, actually obscure the hundreds killed by bombs in Paris cafes, in Barcelona restaurants, in Chicago public squares, and in London society. Besides these, there were at least fifteen other anarchist attempts to kill the heads of state, whether Czar, Kaiser, or King.

Anarchy was perhaps the single most powerful force in Western thought in the years that ran up to the Great War. It was, after all, an ideology without structure, slippery, almost impossible to pin down. It sprang from Europe, a gasping response to increased voting rights without increased political power, to high-stakes, no-safety-net capitalism, and to the rotten religious structures that offered mumbled platitudes to the starving masses.

Anarchy came from a bifurcated soul: the hatred of those in power, the love of those not. Its thinkers cloaked it in quasi-religious thinking: anarchists could usher in the millenium, the thousand years of peace on earth. Striking the king, president, or premier from his post would set freedom in motion.

The rank and file were fueled by intellectuals in Paris and Saint Petersburg. They preached an ideal state where humans would achieve a sort of nirvana, everyone doing whatever they wanted to do, money abolished, labor now understood as a common good. If you like to fix banisters and I like to unplug drains, you should come over and fix my banister while I’ll go to your house and unplug your drains. We don’t need a government to tell us what to do. We’ll do what we love.

Peter Kropotkin, a Russian intellectual and one of the founders of the anarchist movementEuropean intellectuals preached these fantasies in the cafes and restaurants frequented by the poor until these intellectuals were chased out by Continental governments. The intellectuals then ran for the two havens of free speech: England and the United States. They set up shop among newly immigrated laborers, the same audience as on the Continent, but now even more rootless, with even less to lose.

And yes, there were poor people. Millions of them. Beyond count, in fact. Western society was so skewed with economic inequality that the ghettoes could barely contain the illiterate, the dying, and the sick, not to mention the masses who managed to squeak by on pennies a day from their back-breaking jobs. In 1890, when the Danish-American reformer Jacob Riis published his bombshell book, “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York,” he consciously knew the title was a bit of snark. Half? No, the other ninety percent. Riis was no anarchist—but he articulated the social problem without offering much of an answer. In stepped the anarchists.

A Jacob Riis' photograph: "Five Cent Lodging" (on Bayard Street in New York City)They believed fervently in what they called “the deed,” an act of such daring, such final consequences, that the global structures would tilt off their axis. At that, governments would come crashing down and the whole notion of private property would lie in ruins. The common man would have his chance.

Unfortunately, the deeds they actually committed were small acts: bombs in cafes, terror from receiving lines. Yes, monarchs and presidents were killed. But set against a geopolitical structure of increasingly interconnected nations, there was little that could bring down a whole society, much less the notion of property rights. And besides, the anarchists missed a crucial step in their argument: the moneyed classes were no longer the ruling classes. The moneyed interests pulled the strings backstage; the politicians and even royalty were starting to dance on cue. To off the puppet had little effect on the puppeteers.

Emma Goldman, possibly the greatest American anarchist, about 1911But this basic confusion—about the way capitalism was developing, about how money matters worked, about the functionality of economics—lay at the heart of anarchism. For in truth the early anarchists were romantics stuck in the nineteenth century. And the world had already turned a corner. The industrialists were in control. They were churning out steel and motor cars, metals and armaments, the means of transportation and the goods being transported. In other words, they were arming the world’s societies to the teeth, both economically and militarily.

When the Russians called for the first international disarmament talks in 1899 (and again in 1907), not a single nation from all those invited, not Germany or Great Britain, not Japan or Brazil, not the United States or France, would consent to discuss the actual subject of the talks. They agreed instead to extend the Geneva conventions to naval affairs; they would not reduce their weapons--partly because the industrialists were some of the very delegates sent to the conference. Shut down their factories to quit making tanks? Don’t be absurd. Just ask Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the man who preached a naval build-up that sent the world into the first arms race. After all, he was the U. S. delegate to the peace conference.

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