The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents by Alex Butterworth - review by Donald Sassoon

Donald Sassoon

Bombe Surprise

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents


The Bodley Head 482pp £25

The problem with terrorism is that it initiates action but can never control the consequences. Politics is always more complicated than throwing a bomb or launching a plane into a building. If this is true of today’s terrorists, it is even truer of yesterday’s violent anarchists, those oddballs who caused considerable panic among right-thinking people at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1881, after many botched attempts, the group Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) managed to blow up Tsar Alexander II (who, by the standards of tsardom, was rather liberal). The consequence was the end of a period of sustained reforms. The failed attempt on Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1878 gave Bismarck the excuse for draconian anti-socialist legislation. In June 1896, a bomb was thrown at a religious procession in Barcelona, which led to heavy repressions of anarchists, socialists and even republicans, hundreds of whom were jailed and tortured. A year later an Italian anarchist, Michele Angiolillo, killed the Spanish prime minister in ‘revenge’. The repercussions were even worse. In September 1898 another Italian anarchist plunged a sharpened file into the heart of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the famous ‘Sissi’, who bled to death. The shopaholic Sissi was very popular, much in the way Princess Di was, and killing her was not a smart thing to do in terms of appealing to the masses. 

These perpetrators were hardly representative of mainstream anarchism, most of whose activists were busy organising workers in competition with their more staid socialist rivals. The bomb-throwing anarchists, like today’s terrorists, hogged the headlines and caused far more panic than those agitating for boring stuff like eight-hour days. 

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