There is widespread agreement that modern-day terrorism emerged as a specific type of political violence in nineteenth century Europe. But what social and political contexts shaped the phenomenon remains contested. Carola Dietze examines five key cases of terrorist violence from a short eight-year period to show that terrorism occurred considerably earlier and international communication played a more significant role than has been generally recognized to date. Her highly readable narrative argues that the dissemination of news about terrorist violence was at the core of a strategy that aimed for political impact on tyrants or rulers as well as the public. Her analysis also reveals how the spread of knowledge about terrorist acts was from the outset a transatlantic process.
Two incidents, their context and impact form the book's centerpiece: first, the failed attempt to assassinate French Emperor Napoléon III by Felice Orsini in 1858 in an act intended to trigger a European revolution and achieve Italian unity and democracy. The second offers a new reading of John Brown's raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859 as a decisive moment in the abolitionist struggle and occurrences leading to the American Civil War. Dietze shows how Brown changed plans on that October night, abandoning the idea of capturing weapons to arm slaves and instead opting for a symbolic, terrorist strategy. Brown achieved national and international attention by using various communicative channels, including some of the earliest documented media interviews. Three further examples from Germany, Russia, and the US are then scrutinized to illuminate the transfer and reception processes that soon came into play, including especially the role of media interpretations.
Drawing on an impressive array of sources from five languages, the author probes the terrorists' biographical and political background, their intentions and impacts and, in particular, responses to their acts from the state, politicians, the media, and the general public. She shows how terrorism emerged where promises of political revolution were pervasive but institutions were seen as failing to fulfill them. This book offers convincing evidence of how spectacular acts of violence were perpetrated as attempts to end political blockages that impeded change, at first to promote democratic goals, but later also to prevent them.