"For six terrifying months in 1911-1912, Parisians were gripped by a violent crime wave. A group known as the Bonnot Gang began robbing banks and killed anyone who got in their way. These weren't just bank robbers; they were anarchists."
Professor John Merriman retells the hunt for Anarchist Bandits on the eve of World War I through the perspective of two lovers: Victor Kibaltchiche (later the famed Russian revolutionary and writer Victor Serge) and Rirette Maitrejean. The pair reporrted on the Bonnot crime spree in the radical newspaper L'Anarchie. While wealthy urbanites enjoyed luxuries during the so-called Belle Epoque, Victor and Rirette protested state AND criminal violence. Ultimately, though, police would target both the bank robbers and revolutionary writers.
John Merriman teaches, researches, and teaches French and Modern European history. His books include Dynamite Club: How A Café Bombing Ignited the Age of Modern Terror was published by Houghton-Mifflin in 2009, by JR Books in London, and in French translation by Tallandier as Dynamite Club: L’Invention du Terrorisme à Paris, and in Chinese translation, as well. Yale University Press published a second edition in 2016, with a new preface discussing several of the recent terrorist attacks in France and the United States. He recently published Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Époque Paris (Nation Books, 2017). Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune appeared with Basic Books in New York in 2014 and by Yale University Press in Great Britain. It has been translated into Portuguese in Brazil and in Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese. In 2019 the University of Nebraska Press published a collection of his essays: History on the Margins: People and Places in the Evolution of Modern France.
Merriman’s other books include The Agony of the Republic: The Repression of the Left in Revolutionary France, 1848-1851 (1978); The Red City: Limoges and the French Nineteenth Century (1985), published in French as Limoges, la Ville Rouge (1990); The Margins of City Life: Explorations on the French Urban Frontier(1991), French edition, Aux marges de la ville; faubourgs et banlieues en France 1815-1870 (1994); and The Stones of Balazuc: A French Village in Time (2002, was published in Chinese translation in 2015), in French as Mêmoires de pierres: Balazuc, village ardéchois (Paris, 2005), and in Dutch; and Police Stories: Making the French State, 1815-1851 (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Welcome to turn of the century. I'm Joe Hawthorne. And we're back with the podcast about the turn of the 20th century and inflection points in modern history. We're back with Yale Professor john Merriman, who I was quite impressed to learn also has a metal from the Polish government. I was looking at that before. Welcome back, john. JOHN is the author of many excellent books.John Merriman:
Thank you. We talked about the Paris Commune last time and buddy weekend massacre is at the end of the commune. But today, we are talking about the dynamite club and The Ballad of anarchist bandits, a book that john wrote several years ago, or came out several years ago. And if you're listening, I assume you've been drawn in by the promise of thrilling crime sprees, anarchists in Paris and the eve of World War One, but let's set the scene for that kind of salacious intro. Johnny, can you talk a bit about the time period? I guess we'll start with what happens between the Paris Commune and the eve of World War One, what is the myth of Belle epoqe? France and Paris? Well, the Belle Epoque didn't exist. Because no, we think of the mean, you did to an extent, I was not called that either. It was a that's a construction really the Belle Epoqueto focus a construction that came in in the 1950s. You know, one would think that it came in the 1920s when things were so terrible, France had lost 1.5 million soldiers in the war. And other countries had lost The same number, German Empire, the British as well, getting killed for nothing. And you think well, they were looking back and said those were the good old days, maybe those were the good old days. The the 1890s in the first decade of the 20th century. Well, there weren't really the good old days, because Life was hard for most people, and it was hard in two ways. One, because the economic situation for ordinary people. Here I'm thinking more about France was was disastrous. So many people, you know, died, frozen in their beds and in poor places in Paris. running water wasn't available and send a knee and then the working class suburbs, banlieue of Paris. It wasn't, it really wasn't good at all. And the other thing is that for ordinary workers, there was a time of massive repression that George Clemenceau. So who's known to everybody, because of his role in World War One was sending with a police in a working class neighborhoods, ringing the bells were very rapidly and hauling people out of their apartments and up against the wall. And let's hear IDs and they call these things are rafles, by the way, and French ra f l e s. And that's a term we set as an associate, sadly, even more sadly, with July 1942, in July 1943, when French police in Paris and other cities were running up to Jews in rafles, so these are hard times for ordinary people. But there were workers were organized, there were strikes in Lemoge where I used to live in 1905, and read a lot about the most, a book called The red city, porcelain industry, etc. And of course, the troops are shooting down French workers, their same thing happens in 1907 in the south, and happens again in 1911 in the south. So this wasn't a Belle Epoque for, for the good old days for ordinary people. Now this is not to say that when you look back and you're gonna think about monmatre as tourist trap crowned by the god awful Basilica of Sacre Coeur, but it's true, I mean, that Picasso under high and, you know, the cubists sitting and lots of great painters, lots of great writers were there, Monmatre was very dangerous because Picasso had to carry a pistol when he walked around Monmatre. I mean, so the these were, you know, true cultural happenings. And we can look back as you can about Vienna, Viena was even more interesting in terms of, you know, the Fin de Siecle in terms of a cultural revival, the renaissance, and success, successionists cetera, et cetera. But the Belle Epoque was, as I said already, and you could read a great book by my late friend Dominique Kalifa. called the real history of the Belle Epoque which talks a lot about that. So it wasn't bell for very Many people. VoilaJoseph Hawthorne:
So you know, it's on reflection when people have just experienced or remember a World War, you know, the period right before it can seem better can seem nice but in reality, the eve of World War One for talking about France and Paris specifically was a violent difficult time to be an average person. You know, last episode that we spoke, I'm thinking about the mason that you mentioned who was killed but you know, the idea of being you know, an average working person and Mason, it's not a pretty time. It's not like an ideal idealized period of time. So talking a little bit more about the stories in your books about the crime sprees and anarchist bandits. Can you talk a little bit more about the dynamite club and the Bonnet gang?John Merriman:
Yeah, well, there's a few different incidents. First of all, let me say emphatically that most anarchists were not terrorists. The book I wrote on Emile Henry, I follow Ron for two years as a short book, because he only lives 21. When he puts his head through a little window as guillotine, he went out to kill anyone out to kill very ordinary people. And he would look down from his impoverished dwelling up in the 20th, arrondissment looked down on the fancy neighborhoods and see all the glittering lights and see the opera and see notre Dame and he hated them. And he went out to kill, and he'd killed before. And I followed him around for tears. I don't admire him, let me make that clear. And to repeat. Most anarchists were not terrorists. But one of the reasons why I wrote the book "massacre, the life and death of the Paris Commune", is that his father had been condemned to death after the Paris Commune and managed to get out, and it got to Barcelona, where Emile Henry was born, that Emile Henry is executed in 1894 puts his head through the little window. Then I get to one of my heroes, and Emile Henry already is not a hero, and that is Victor Kibalchich. Who's better known to history as Victor Serge, SCR G. He was an anarchist intellectual born of Russian parents born in Brussels, born into poverty, they had no money at all. He learns French by getting copies at at the flea market. So Moliere and Zola and reading them he meets another boy his age and they go up on the top of the Palace of Justice and look at the to Brussels, the Brussels of the wealthy and the Brussels of the poor. I have to go see everything I write about I tried to climb on the top of a Palace of Justice and an armed policemen told me I better watch it and get the hell out. But anyway, Victor Kibalchich. As an intellectual he moves to Paris and becomes an anarchist and he lives on Monmatre, avoids Sacre Coeur. The Basilica, but but he and his girlfriend, Rirette Maitrejean who's from the center part of France. They publish L'anarchie, the newspaper panners anarchy, and he's got totally admirable person. He was against violence, anarchists violence, a brilliant guy they're living with, they live out in the banlieue out in a horrible place for Rom a ville I'm here with a bunch of other anarchists, some of whom are not so wonderful people who are robbing post offices, etc. And some of them were bandits. And, and Victor, they move into their in Paris and in people's Paris, people's Paris as a good way of thinking about it. And at that time in in 1912, there's the first hold up ever using an automobile. And it's an anarchist, sort of an anarchist, who was a mechanic who knew how to drive they steal the car, they hold up a bank, and they shoot somebody point blank. And again, Victor doesn't approve of any of this stuff. And we're not even sure if he'd ever met this guy, who is called Jules Bonnot, who is from Franche-comte. That is even closer to the, to the Swiss border. Yeah, in eastern France, and he was a bad dude. And he has some other bad dudes with him. Um, and they kill, he and his gang killed slaughter this of these old people out in a place called Thiers in the suburbs. After they've done this bank, hold up, etc. and the police Finally, you know,identify them as a band:
The Bonnot gang. One of their members is served engaging a fellow called Andres Soudy. And he was called Pas de chance. He called himself no luck. Why was he called no luck? Two reasons he contracted syphilis from a cousin. And he had tuberculosis, which was the working class disease and he was gonna die. And he was born on Loire River, he us to survive by stealing cans of sardines, out of stores. And he was very naive, you say? Rirette would say to him, Pas de chance. You know, can you take my kids to the park? Sure I'll do that. And the boy named boy, no game would say, hey, Andre, can you take this rifle and threaten a buddy who's going to come in and that's we're holding up a bank in a bank and someone in northern France. And in threatened anybody comes sure I'll do that. And it ends badly for politicians. So anyway, Victor did not approve of these holdups in order to do that, and he writes over and over about this. So Bonnot's a clever guy. The police have found him they know where he's hiding right outside the city limits right right in Yves which is on the edge of the 13th arrondissment in Paris old working class town place then suburb a big communist Bastion in the 1920s and 30s. And the politics of Bonnot are sort of uncertain. He claimed to be an anarchist, but I don't think he really was he was basically a killer. But some of the people yeah. Think the latter interpretation is correct. And I said I don't remember what a couple years ago. But I think that's that's what I said, but but he did hang around with some anarchists and he and others with him had had met a victor and Rirette, that when a bunch of them all live together, not Bonnot, but live together out in Roman Ville But, but so the police are after them. And anarchists had the right to knock on the door of another anarchists and say, can you lodge to me. And nobody would ask your name what you've done why the police looking for you. But you're sure you're asleep here and they get your glass of wine and a cup of tea or something like that. And so he's able to escape, he and his gang are able to escape and to commit more, commit more crimes. But the police find him and he escaped to the window. At one point, he kills the the director of the Parisian police or the system director. So he's a murderer. But the police finally find him in I'm in the suburbs, and I've been in the building in which he didn't himself. Now it's surrounded by apartment houses. But I had to be in that building. And they surrounded and, you know, people come up from the theater dressed in their fancy clothes to hear there's going to be a shootout out there. And it becomes, you know, part of the Belle Epoque I guess. The show is not the show, but they that go or whatever, who said that I can't possibly remember. He said that, um, and they surround him and they find they go in and they kill him. It's the end of the green beans for him, as you say in France. And there's a picture of his body actually, in the book. But we're going to go back to Victor who had condemned all of this violence he and Rirette. And so they're arrested. And it becomes one of the big trials to have in the in the in the Palais du Justice, Same place where they try Emile Henri, and they put both of them on trial. Now why have they put Victor on trial? Well, they said he was the inspiration for these crimes because he was a theoretical anarchist. And he wrote articles in his newspaper on anarchism. So they put them these people on trial. Now some of the other people they put on trial were involved in these crimes and they're condemned to death. One of them commit suicide, Andre Soudy I've gonna have with his story how he ends up in the end. And so Rirette is not found guilty. But Victor is found guilty. And he sentenced to five years in prison. I mean, it just makes no sense. But this is the belle Epoque that wasn't. And so they execute his former friend Raymond Callemin, who's in the book who's important role, who was who believed in, in violence and and killing and, and they split. They'd been friends in Brussels and they're not friends anymore. He's executed. He puts His head through little windows. I said, we're another one, commit suicide. And what about 'Pas de Chance' Soudy? Well, he's still, he he's condemned to death. And it's not clear he did anything at all. He did hold the gun at one point, and he was recognized by the slang that he spoke by witnesses so they wake him up to kill him to execute him at four o'clock in the morning at the prison of la Sante, which is still there. And they knock on the doors. This is time to go Andre. You're gonna you're gonna meet la veve, you're going to meet the guillotine? Is there anything you want to want to drink? He says, No, no, I don't I don't drink. I don't want to vodka rum. I would have asked for two vodka and two rums in my case. And what what would you want something he says Yes, I'd like to have a cafe au lait and two hot croissant. And the guard says I'm sorry, the patisseries the Baker's don't open here at four in the morning. I can't get that for you. And Andre says, pas de Chance jusqu'a le fin no luck until the very end. And he puts a little window that's end him and he wills his head his head to the to the anthropology Museum, by the way. So what happens the victor? Victor who had denounced professional armies, anarchist denounced professional armies, and anarchists. And Victor said one day there's going to be a big effing war. And people are going to get killed as well. They put them in prison in Moulin, which is capital the, it's close to Paris. It's a dreary place. It's near the beautiful chateau vaux le vicomte, which is far more interesting than god awful. Chateau de Versailles. vodacom it's worth the trip. And he can hear the Battle of the Marne when the war starts. But he's not allowed to read newspapers, or even asked what's going on. He can hear the canons of the Battle of the Marne in September, which was, you know,Joseph Hawthorne:
World War One,John Merriman:
but he's not allowed to know. And for me, he's a heroic person, these What are my heroes, and he's allowed to marry Rirette and spend an hour together. But he's still in prison. They finally let him out in 1917. I he goes to Barcelona, but he doesn't find a piece or even calm in the sunshine of Barcelona. And he goes back to his roots. He'd never been to Russia. He goes to Russia, he divorces Rirette he marries a Russian woman and he becomes a Bolshevik. Um, so it goes from anarchism to Bolshevism. And he, the great anarchist kropotkin was just hated Bolshevism. But Victor becomes a Bolshevik and he works in Vienna. He does publicity for the party for the common term in Berlin for a while, but then he turns against Stalin completely against Stalin when Stalin comes to power after after landing after landing dies. Um, and he's sent to the Gulag um, by Stalin with his son they by then he has a son, and he can track the disease and he dies and Mexico City not have an icepick to his neck. It's reminiscent Trotsky killed by Stalin's people, but of this disease, but the point of all of this, and this is why I admire and I'm not an anarchist. But why I admire Victor as an anarchist and lots of anarchists is because they got it right. I didn't say they said that these professional armies which are gunning down workers in the MIDI, the south of France, in the wine protests, and are gunning down porcelain workers and limos in 1905 and they're gonna go to war for nothing someday. And in 1914 and August, when Europe goes to war, the world goes to war. Nobody knew was going to take down four empires and kill millions and millions of people. But the anarchists got it right? And that's why I admire Victor Kiblachich, who becomes known and becomes very well known as Victor Serge. And that's why I would love to have met Rirette Maitrejean, shield this poor girl from young woman from the Corres. And she lives until to see another failed revolution. If it was a revolution, that of 1968 she dies in June 1968. A long and amazing life. So that's the story of Victor Kiblachich, and of the Bonnot gang. And again, I don't admire these people of Bonnot. And I admire Pas de chance quite a bit because he couldn't help himself. He was naive, but I don't admire the other ones. But it was a time when we were entering a new era, weren't we? The good old days weren't so good. The first bank robbery committed by people driving an automobile a stolen one is the beginning of no gone, boy, no gang. And, you know, it's an interesting story. For me it was a fun story to, to research. And to write. Yeah,Joseph Hawthorne:
it's a while Ah, yeah, that's good. Good exclamation point for it. No, because it's a it's an amazing story. And it's, you know, so many of the the kind of, in a way salacious details but exciting, the exciting elements of the story. Also, I think, ring true if you're like a fan of bank robbers. And third is if you're like, you know, john Dillinger fan it, you know, obviously, if you don't want to root for liver, no gain, but it's still it's an amazing story. And I andJohn Merriman:
one thing, that I'm thinking a lot, you know, we had this horrible incident, murder three people in nice yesterday. And you know, that the Charlie Hebdo killings and bought that clown, which is fairly close to our apartment in Paris, and terrorism is a real thing. And one of the, one of the the patterns that was occurring in the time that I've been writing about the anarchists at the time of Bonnot gang was the link between Brussels and Paris, is that anarchist went back and forth, and there weren't controls at the border, or whatever. And a lot of the terrorist incidents that have occurred in France recently, also have links to, to neighborhoods in and around Brussels. So that's why you know, at a time whether they're supposed to longer be controls between going from country to country, that's why there are a lot of controls between that tweet, a lot of cops on fleek, gendarme, between, between France and, and Belgium. So there are these links. There are these kind of duties in space and time. So I'm sorry, I interrupted, you did one that's it didn't want to get that that thing back in? Yeah, that's great. IJoseph Hawthorne:
wasn't even that didn't even cross my mind before. So that's really it. But what you know, what I was thinking about as, as you've been talking about, both the commune and the, the belly puck, that wasn't that you've gone to many of these places that still exist in France and Paris. And so that just made me think about how, you know, that can be a luxury in the US where many things are torn down, many things are simply new, you know, built or rebuilt. But that, you know, the buildings, a lot of the places are still there, you know, a lot of the maybe not the exact same people, but you still have, you know, whether it's working class people or revolutionaries or you know, terrorists, you're, you have a lot of the same themes and literal same places still there in like Brussels or Paris. So I appreciate that those super interesting, what I wanted to conclude, to think about because we've gone from the 1870s, to the 1910s to 1912, is to think about why this matters. And you you mentioned this before that, you know, anarchists got it right that not just about World War One, and the terrible unnecessary death toll, but also things like, you know, a limited work day or women's rights, you know, a lot of things that they were quite ahead of their time on. And so I'm just thinking about when we're talking about government repression or state repression. Do you see this chapter that are this I mean, the story that you've written the book, but a chapter in history as a significant turning point or good example of the ways that the government tactics the government used to basically eliminate enemies of the state to eliminate revolutionaries. People that were critics of the government. Why is this an important story in French and our world history?John Merriman:
Why? I guess? Because we see. I mean, again, in France, we need the Gendarmerie. You know, we need the Minister for please. But the we cut forbid, we need the CRS. But it's there's a long history of sort of state and police repression, they think of 1968, where all sorts of people are killed by the murder by the police. And you think of, you know, think of the events of Muslim 2006, which are the riots and in the suburbs are starting theses to waag, which was a in many ways a police riot. Where there, there's a there's a vigorous and targeted repression of minorities is something that, that that that occurs all the time in France, I mean, I've stood in, in chalet, which is a huge, you know, Metro exchange point and god awful place in Paris, and when the police are there, and they're asking IDs, and I've pissed them off by standing there and counting the number of people that they check IDs, and they're not checking off, I'd be there back then at really long hair and looked at scruffy as I do now. And I you know, I never been controlled once and I spent half my adult life in France. And I sat there and I counted this 90% of the people that control or minority to take control the French sense that they're checking their IDs and let's see your IDs, you don't TT and they to tois them. Of course if they're minority say to them, they don't say boo. They'll say rude to the white people and to the informal to the minorities and it's simply a reality. And there's a lot of violence in the copter van Torres you know, the department's all have numbers and and I'm maniac enough to work on every single dip optim on France, but, you know, he said Where do you live and once you beat the cutter on trends and that's a stigmatization in a way if someone says oh you live in a culture and trust he has that's to send send an E that's it's the minorities are the majority of the population there. And when they claim their be discriminated against by the police. It's absolutely true. And so that's something that that we have continuity is in French history, a lot of our good continuity, but this is a bad continuity. And it's the same thing as in the Paris Commune or they're not saying up against the wall am FM shooting them. But there is this this targeting of minority populations if you take even take the ruler group dawn, Zola wrote so much about AI in less time why, you know, it is a street near the Gar du Nord to the north, and it became identif ed with and it was used by Ch rac as a form of cultural and e hnic stigmatization when he said Oh, it smells here on the rue le gourds, because minorities live there. That w s his point. And it sort of bu lt in I mean, Sarkozy was e en worse a bit Sarkozy you o ght to be in jail. He soon will e in jail, I think because of al the financial frauds but yo know, the kind of we said, well you got to just spray paint t ese people not spray paint. ou have to the rakai you see call some scum. The Kenai there kay? And you have to take thi powerful cleansers and ge rid of these people clean the . You know, there's a racism built into power in France. And it's not the only place I mean, look at Donald Trump. Um you know, who's arguably e en worse. Um, but I mean, it's it's part of your look at loo at Poland now, you kindly said was decorated by the Polish go ernment, please let me insist it wasn't this current Polish g vernment. Because Poland h s become a fascist theocrac these days, but there's stig atization of immigrants there If they're not white immigrants from Belarus, from, from Li huania. So these are sad, trag c continuity. So there's a lot of good things about the olice in France to let me not j st I'm not just dissing all F ench, you know, police because, ou know, we meet them in Bal Su re, I live in a village in th south of France. And, you kno , so it's complicated, but t ese things have to be kept n mind. And that's why it's imp rtant, these continuity are ce tral.Joseph Hawthorne:
And I think that is a good that is a good place to to wrap up, you know, that at the beginning of our, our two part conversation I was talking about, you know, how we judge the turn of the century and then errors of history and you know, what counts as a turning point, but it's also important that, you know, we talk about really interesting stories, but also that Some things are turning points. And some things are part of a larger continuity that you know, they help explain or understand events we still live with today. So I wouldn't necessarily consider, you know, the events we just talked about in 1912 to be the end of an era, but it helps inform something that happened around the beginning of the 1900s helps inform French and you know, even World History throughout the 20th and 21st century. So I will wrap up there, but is there anything else that we didn't get to especially when it comes to you know, the importance of we just talked about, that you want to touch upon?John Merriman:
I can't I think we've covered most of the bases, and it's been fun hanging out with you all, and enjoy this conversation very much.Joseph Hawthorne:
Thank you so much. ThankJohn Merriman:
you joy.Joseph Hawthorne:
Yeah, thank you. And again, I will just, you know, plug. There's plenty of great works by Professor john Merriman. We were just talking particularly about The Ballad of anarchist bandits, the crime spree that gripped Belle Epoq e Paris or the mythical may e belly pop Paris by john Merrim n and will of course have mo e links in description in the sh w notes. But thank you agai , john. It's been a pleasurJohn Merriman:
Thank you see.Joseph Hawthorne:
And just to add quickly, remember to subscribe, like review. If you enjoyed the show. If you don't, then you can totally disregard that. But I hope if you made it this far, we did like it. Alright, that's it for today.