Return to yesterday: an historical perspective on terrorism

In the late 19th century terrorism and unrest were commonplace in parts of Europe and the United States. Anarchists were the main bogeymen, though there were numerous violently progressive movements, each hating the others. Anarchists were a mysterious and little understood underground, haunting the popular imagination, much written about in the newspapers and in novels and stories, both feared and fascinating. There was a certain dark glamour and they terrified beyond any rational danger. There were many, many more likely causes of death, but there is something intimidating about someone desiring your death impersonally, and apparently not fearing their own. We feel this now as much as then, and it’s as well to get some perspective. Here I relay some of what novelist Ford Madox Ford wrote about the phenomenon in his memoir, Return to Yesterday. The similarities between then and now hardly need to be spelled out, but the differences are also interesting.

Ford Madox Ford on the terrorism of the late 19th century

The physical force anarchists were mostly active in Chicago, Paris, Rome, Naples and Barcelona. Their presence in London was usually transitory. They found refuge there when the pursuit of their native police forces grew too hot. The London police left them too alone; they committed practically no outrages in that city. The outrages in London and the north of England were mostly committed by Fenians. Their idea was to terrorise England into granting freedom to Ireland. They dynamited, successfully or unsuccessfully, underground railways, theatres, the Houses of Parliament and docks. They murdered officials, landlords’ agents, tenants who paid their rents or refused to subscribe to the Clan-na-Gael in Ireland. They had many sympathisers in the United States. They not infrequently crossed the American border to commit outrages or foment insurrections in Canada.

So much for the United Kingdom; Paris is later given particular attention.

The state of affairs in some of the Continental cities was incredible. I remember Paris in 1892 as being absolutely paralysed. I was stopping with American relatives who belonged to the rich Anglo-American circle that solidly ornamented in those days the French capital. That colony and the rich and solid French families with whom they mingled and intermarried lived again as if in the days of the siege. They dared not go to theatres, to restaurants, to the fashionable shops in the Rue de la Paix, to ride in the Bois where there were Anarchists behind every tree. The most terrible rumours ran round every morning: the Anarchists had undermined the churches of Paris; they had been caught pouring prussic acid [cyanide] into the city reservoirs; the New York Herald came out one day with a terrifying story of Anarchists having been hidden beneath the seats of the tiny black and yellow fiacres [horse-drawn cabs] and coming out and robbing and murdering rich American ladies in the Champs-Élysées.

The Anarchists did not, of course, hide beneath the seats of fiacres because those little vehicles had no spaces beneath their seats. The axles of the wheels were there. Nevertheless today the catalogue of their outrages reads like an improbable nightmare. They bombed the cafés where the rich took their aperitifs and the more costly restaurants; then they bombed the poor restaurants where their comrades had been arrested; they bombed theatres, railway stations, the Chamber of Deputies, the President of the Republic himself. Merely to consider how they can have done it in the face of the most skilful and remorseless police-force in the world is an amazing speculation.

‘Paris,’ says a contemporary journalist, Fernand Evrard, writing in 1892, ‘offers the spectacle of a besieged city: the streets are deserted, the shops closed, the omnibuses without passengers, the museums and the theatres barricaded. The police are invisible but ubiquitous; the troops assembled in the suburbs are ready to march at the first command. The rich foreign families take flight, the hotels are empty, the takings of shops dwindle. After some weeks of relative quiet the populace takes hope again and the red sequence seems at an end. Then the terrible bomb in the police station of Rue des Bons Enfants, followed immediately by the discovery of the dynamite cartridge in the Prefecture of Police causes new panic and despair… There is cholera in the outskirts of the city, the Panama [political–financial] scandal within the walls… One hundred and four deputies are suspected of complicity. The year 1892 may well bear on its brow the words “Death to Society”, and “Corruption to Politics”.’

Ford speculated that ‘pity’ was behind the violence. (Note that Ford was an eccentric Tory of sorts, not some crypto-anarchist or fellow traveller.)

The world in turning towards universal industrialism was undergoing immense growing pains. The distress which goes with developments, as with stagnations, of trade is accompanied by widespread and atrocious suffering. The hideousness of poverty in the early ‘nineties the world over would now [1931, two years after the great crash of 1929] be incredible were it not that some of them are only too visible today. And it is not merely that hunger, cold, and squalor beset the actually destitute. It was the terrible anxiety that forever harassed the mind of those who were just above the starvation line. You were in work one day, you were out the next. Thus even whilst you were in work you had no rest at the thought of the morrow. Worklessness meant the gradual disintegration of your home, the wearing out of the shoes of your children if your children had shoes; it meant thus slow starvation, their and your moral decay, your slowly sinking away from all light. I remember Charles Booth saying fiercely in 1892: ‘Do you realise that there are now in London 250,000 people—and in Lancashire God knows how many—who in this December weather have no fire in the grate, no meal on the table, no stick of furniture on the floor, no door in the doorway, no handrails to the stairs and no candle to go to bed by?’ Mr Booth was a great shipowner but he was also a statistician. His statistics affected him at that time almost to madness.

That was what was said to be behind the terrorist outrages of the time. For us, yesterday, it was the publication of cartoons. Of course there is more behind it, and of course today’s terrorists and the terrorists of 1892 must have a good deal in common in their psychology and irrational motivation—there’s a type who is attracted to violence and rigid, all-encompassing world-views, perhaps it’s partly a lack of empathy—but the comparison doesn’t do much for the honour and glory of our assassins.

If there’s any consolation to be taken, it is that things have been worse. If there’s something more worrying to think on, it’s the fact that things could get worse. And there are huge populations in today’s world currently experiencing a new industrial revolution and the turbulence and suffering that means. Still, let us take what comfort what we can; it’s within living memory (just) that aircraft were dropping bombs on most of the cities of Europe. And beware those who say today’s situation is unprecedented, requiring unprecedented measures to meet it. The UK Home Office identity card and surveillance enthusiasts will no doubt be at it again.


Ford Madox Ford 1931, 1999 Return to Yesterday (Manchester: Carcanet)

Carcanet publishes a wide range of Ford’s work in very nice editions. His more famous novels (including some of my favourites, especially the Parade’s End books) are available in various editions. The Ford Madox Ford Society website is here.

Two good and interesting anarchist-themed period novels are:

Joseph Conrad 1907 The Secret Agent (available in many editions; tells the 1886 story of a terrorist attack on the Greenwich Observatory—in Return to Yesterday Ford relays some of the ‘real’ background to this)

G K Chesterton 1908 The Man Who Was Thursday (available in many editions; something of a comic adventure story about anarchists, and an insightful one—’Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German’, as Chesterton wrote elsewhere)

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