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London bombings and alien panics

Antony Taylor points to the historical parallels between the recent London bombings and those a century ago.

The shock of bombings in an urban setting, particularly in the confines of a tube station, produces a stunning force as the London bombings show. The Times summed up the horrified reaction to events in its report of 1 November:

‘It would be difficult to exaggerate the appalling character of the ruin which might have been wrought if either of the explosions had taken full effect, as was probably intended, upon one or more crowded trains. The crash of dynamite in a crowded tunnel, rending and overthrowing all resisting bodies, plunging the dead and dying into utter darkness, and perhaps causing a second train to be hurled against the ruins of the first, cannot be adequately represented by the imagination of ordinary men.’

Dating from 1883, rather than 2005, the events described relate to a premeditated explosion on the London underground. Sometimes attributed to Irish republicans, or incorrectly described as the work of a disgruntled employee, the explosive devices of November 1883 were ignited by anarchists. They paved the way for a number of subsequent bombings in the capital and for further attacks on the tube in 1896. This long-forgotten campaign provides strong parallels with recent concerns about Islamic terrorism in the UK. It set the tone for all subsequent treatments of terrorist activity in Britain, led the government to embrace legislation to exclude suspected bomb-makers from the country, and raised fears about the threats posed to Britain’s traditional civil liberties, both by terrorism and by government itself. In 1905, as in 2005, government stood accused of dismantling the country’s traditional legislative safeguards for asylum seekers and of eroding traditions of tolerance and ‘fair play’.

Curbing terrorism was high on the agenda of many late nineteenth century governments in Europe. Although motivated by secular rather than religious concerns, the anarchist attacks on people and property bear a number of similarities to recent campaigns pursued by Islamic militants. President Carnot of France, King Umberto I of Italy, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and President McKinley in the US were all celebrity victims of anarchist assassins. For contemporaries anarchism was a fanatical and intolerant creed that bred merciless and steely-eyed enemies of society. Originating in the Tsarist domains of the Russian empire, anarchism was an ideology coloured by totalitarianism. Its many critics saw it as a doctrine of force perverted by its Russian origins. Apparently, tainted by the absence of a habit of democracy in the East it bred mordant revenge fantasies. Knowing only tyranny it thrived on violence and expressed itself as a doctrine of revenge. ‘Banditism from below replies to banditism from above’ wrote the French journal L’Humanite’. As with contemporary depictions of Islamic Terrorism, anarchism was portrayed as an unnatural import carried by the many refugees and exiles that left Russia to seek safety from the Tsarist state in London.

In common with recent bombing and assassination campaigns by Islamic militants, anarchism claimed a mastery of the technology of destruction. Anarchism’s arsenal was cutting edge. After 1864 Alfred Nobel perfected nitro-glycerine, succeeding in stabilising the notoriously volatile liquid in a solid compound for military and civil use. Nobel realised the potential for destruction posed by ‘nitro’ but believed it to be a weapon of such potentially devastating effect, that it would never be used in anger, and might actually help to prevent war. Nitro-glycerine was cheap, easily available, and could be carried in small quantities perfect for bomb manufacture. In the 1880s it became the ’poor man’s artillery’ that could redress the balance against large, well-equipped armies. As one contemporary anarchist newspaper put it: ‘A single wayfarer, with dynamite in his pocket throws the cities of England into greater terror than would a hundred thousand men landing at Dover’. Dynamite became a weapon of indiscriminate and mass slaughter. In 1893 when the French anarchist Emile Henry threw a bomb into the Café Terminus in Paris it produced numerous and indiscriminate casualties in scenes reminiscent of the recent Madrid bombings. Nineteenth-century anarchism established a template for organisations like Al-Quaida in which ‘propaganda’ by deed, and fears of superior (and sometimes nuclear) terrorist weaponry created a climate of fear that fomented a backlash against those wrongly suspected of sympathy with militants.

As in the nineteenth century, ‘moral panics’ about terrorism increasingly dominate sensationalist news media and provide the rationale for secret conferences of world leaders and specialist units dedicated to a ‘War Against Terror’. In the 1900s some saw Britain’s benign tradition of receiving political exiles as making it uniquely vulnerable to European anarchists seeking refuge behind its comparatively open borders. Anarchist atrocities in London, including an attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894 and the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911 in which the police and troops shot it out with East European anarchists holed up in an East End tenement, ignited fears that London was a natural magnet and target for anarchists, in a series of panics long predating recent media obsessions with London as ‘Londinistan’.

As also with recent statements about young Moslem men, the ‘alienated’, ‘disaffected’ and ‘un-integrated’ were said to provide a recruiting ground for anarchism. In the nineteenth century such notions often reflected contemporary concerns about the break down of the family. Orphans, those from broken homes and the illegitimate were all believed to be potential anarchists. Celebrated anarchists like Francois-Claudius Ravachol, Johann Most and Emma Goldman were all from unconventional family backgrounds and conformed to these stereotypes. Such ruptured families tended to be a feature of migrant communities. For this reason, the dislocated Jewish migrant families of the East End of London were often depicted as breeding and proliferating anarchism.

True enough, anarchist ideas occasionally found expression amongst Jewish migrants. Some prominent Jewish incomers brought anarchist notions with them from the Tsarist empire where anarchism was embraced as a creed of revenge against a state that fomented anti-semitic purges in the 1880s and 1900s. Never entirely representative of all Jewish opinion, however, the associations between Jewishness and anarchism led to the ‘scape-goating’ of the Jewish community at the time of anarchist bomb atrocities. As with the Moslem community in the twenty-first century, the Jewish community in London found itself the object of much scrutiny and suspicion in the 1880s and 1890s.

The misunderstanding of the Jewish communities of London, and concerns about Britain’s role as a place of exile and haven for continental revolutionaries created a climate in which legislation was considered to exclude dangerous and anarchistic adversaries of society. In 1905 the Anti-aliens Act provided one such response to rising concerns about anarchists in Britain. Overturning centuries of tolerance the Act introduced limitations on incomers. Outraging much liberal opinion at the time, and offending some European neighbours, after the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911 there were further debates about beefing up the act and controlling the circulation of firearms which continued until the eve of the Great War.

Despite the threat posed to traditions of British tolerance by the Aliens Act, it still contained asylum clauses for those suffering from persecution abroad. Nevertheless, for many, it worked against the grain of centuries of British history and tradition. Numerous radicals and liberals spoke out against it with, in contrast to 2005, the infant Labour Party very much to the fore. Under the new act the right to asylum and protection from persecution was no longer a right, it was instead a privilege. On the eve of Labour’s anti-terror bill, the government should pause and reflect on the loss of deeply-ingrained freedoms by its plans for detention without charge, the proscription of extremist groups (however defined) and changes to immigration law. The new legislation could do incalculable damage to Britain’s civil liberties and international standing. Adopted unamended the bill could bring about the consequences Bernard Porter reports of the 1905 Anti-aliens act in his book, The Refugee Question in Mid-Victorian Politics: ‘a liberal age had come to an end: and there was no possibility that it could return’.

Antony Taylor is an academic historian.