For All the Panic They Created, Anarchists' Actions Were Often Thwarted
Some of the official records of the war waged against the anarchists remain heavily redacted or conveniently missing.
The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret AgentsPublisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 528 pages
Author: Alex Butterworth
Publication date: 2010-06
Fighting an idea, as we're learning, isn't so easy. Who's in charge? How are the fighters connected? How do you smoke out the bad guys without causing a fire in the process?
More than a century before the current war on terror, governments in Europe and the United States waged war against a loose, ever-changing network of terrorists, some of whom used guns, knives and even bombs in the name of the sacred cause of anarchy. What that cause was, who led it and the consequences of the war against it are the focus of English historian Alex Butterworth's painstakingly researched book, The World That Never Was.
The subtitle "A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents" doesn't begin to round up the sprawling cast of characters therein. From the rise and swift fall of the Paris Commune in 1870 to the tragedy of World War I, Butterworth's tale crosses paths with most of the era's most important figures, from monarchs to literary giants, while presenting some of the fascinating characters in the anarchist movement.
Many of the latter couldn't have been dreamed up by the most inventive novelist (and they tried — writers as varied as Jules Verne and Joseph Conrad flitted on the fringes of the movement, and incorporated many of the personalities). There's Peter Kropotkin, a former Russian prince who was a leading voice of peaceful anarchy for more than half a century. And Gabriel Jogand-Pages, a journalist-turned-forger who tricked French officials into sending a ship to fend off a squad of anarchist-trained sharks (no, really).
Despite the erratic and unstable nature of the anarchist movement, it managed to keep most of the Western world on edge for 40 years, and killed off a few world leaders — Russia's Tsar Alexander II in 1881, French President Marie Francois Sadi Carnot in 1894, U.S. President William McKinley in 1901.But as Butterworth points out again and again, for all the panic and clamor they created, the anarchists' actions were more often than not thwarted by the efforts of undercover agents and secret police.
A central character in much of The World That Never Was is Peter Rachkovsky, who led the Okhrana, Russia's secret police, from the 1880s into the 20th century. Rachkovsky's agents wormed their way into nearly every anarchist cell in Europe, sometimes supplying them with the very weapons they hoped to use against authority, including bombs.
Such machinations kept the anarchist movement spinning its wheels for years, but, Butterworth notes, they also fanned the flames of future, more ominous threats. Among those who got a boost from Rachkovsky and his allies were Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who as Lenin led a small revolutionary faction that the Okhrana clandestinely propped up in a bid to split Russia's left-wing movement.
Butterworth charts this tangled terrain with authority and rigor, but, even for readers familiar with the times, it can be a hard map to read. (A timeline and a roster of key players would help; international intrigue can be a difficult game to follow without a scorecard.)
Still, it's a sign of how serious governments took the anarchist movement that, more than a century later, Butterworth reports that some of the official records of the war waged against it remain heavily redacted or conveniently missing.