Last week, NYU’s Casa Italiana hosted a Q&A with one author of the book Assassins Against the Old Order: Italian Anarchist Violence in Fin de Siècle Europe (subsequently Assassins Against). The book, “in spite of the current state of things, is not a how to”, joked author Fraser M. Ottanelli at the beginning of the session; instead, the book presents a valuable opportunity, in a time in which our supposed democracy is revealing its more tyrannical side, to reassess acts of rebellion from the last century, and perhaps extend that reflection to today.
Assassins Against re-examines the figure of the Italian anarchist “attentatore” (i.e. assailant) at the end of the 19th century, arguing that until now this figure was unfairly vilified and not adequately contextualized. Ruling European regimes of the time, backed by social scientists in Italy and abroad, had good reason to antagonize the “sleazy” Italians guilty of attacking them, but these figures have not been truly reevaluated in the literature until now. At the time, individual psychology and an international “conspiracy” of anarchist “terrorists” were blamed for the acts of violence.
Ottanelli and the late Nunzio Pernicone, who was also an author, believe, rather, that the anarchists’ “propaganda of the deed,” or the individual acts of violence intended to bring about revolutionary change, can be better explained by the socio-economic and political circumstances of the anarchists as well as their Italian roots. Specifically, most of the anarchists lived in extreme poverty and faced continuous police and state repression due to their political beliefs as anarchists. The state would keep constant watch over them and persecute them for distributing political pamphlets, for example. Many of them struck out either due to frustration at their circumstances, or as a form of retaliation to the acts of the state against fellow laborers or anarchists. Michele Angiolillo, for example, assassinated Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo in Spain as an act of revenge for the torture and execution of Spanish anarchists. Moreover, anarchists did not operate as a group, or a “conspiracy,” due to their dislike of hierarchy, their belief in individual will, and their fear of infiltration.
In the book, the authors establish a genealogy between the violence committed by the heroes of the Italian Risorgimento (the unification of Italy), such as Mazzini and Garibaldi, and the Italian anarchists of the fin de siècle, thus situating the latter within a national context. The former were celebrated for their “political violence” in the name of Italian nationalism while the latter, committing virtually the same acts, were seen as genetically inferior and naturally violent specimen. As a member of the audience said, “timing is everything.”
But Assassins Against does not only attempt to produce a meta narrative that gives a rationale and context for these anarchists. At the book’s inception, in fact, Pernicone was studying the attentatori more as characters, individuals with interesting biographies, than facilitators of a historical analysis. Pernicone, a recognized expert in the field of Italian anarchism, began the research as a continuation of his 1993 monograph, Italian Anarchism, 1864-1892, in which he identified six key figures of post-1992 Italian anarchism and centered his research around these men rather than any particular thesis. Ottanelli called Pernicone a story teller, and excerpts from the books are testament to this, with engaging description detailing the lives of these men. We learn, for example, that Sante Cesario, the man who would go on to assassinate French president Marie François Sadi Carnot, was an “exceedingly generous” man who abstained from smoking, drinking, and sex (until he could find the right woman). An anecdote of Cesario recounts that he was walking along the streets of frigid Milan when he came across an elderly woman freezing outside a posh hotel where she had been stationed as a lookout for thieves. Conscious of his own widowed mother, he pressed coins into the woman’s hand and, reportedly, said that “a society that permits such infamy deserves no pity.” Through these vivid and incredibly detailed accounts, the perpetrators of “propaganda of the deed” transcend their anarchism, or, perhaps, are reduced to their individual humanism, and become recognizable characters attempting to react to the unfair and sometimes desperate conditions of existence.
Before Pernicone passed in 2013, he told Ottanelli that he was now in charge of finishing the book if he did not want “ten years of research to go to waste.” Ottanelli accepted the challenge, first entering the mindset of Pernicone by going through his 700-page manuscript and the many notes he left behind, and then adding an introduction, conclusion, and connecting thread throughout his work.
The reflections the book presents, especially at the end, articulate important questions for our time as well. The form of political violence practiced by the Italian anarchists is identified as falling under the Italian tradition of tyrannicide, i.e. the killing of a despot for the common good. In a sense these “assassins” can also be seen as “giustizieri,” or “avenging executioner[s] who [exact] retributive justice for the victims of state violence and oppression.” This definition is contrasted explicitly with that for terrorism, which the anarchists are often accused of, and is defined instead as a “violent act committed against unknown people without distinguishing between the innocent and the guilty.” Italian giustizieri of the fin de siècle were very conscious of the political identities and symbolism of their targets – thus when Gaetano Bresci, who assassinated King Umberto I of Italy, was accused, he claimed: “I did not kill Umberto, I killed the king.”
This conversation brings us to analyze terrorism today. For the past half-a-century, at least in the West, it has taken the form of attacks targeting civilians. In democracies, perhaps, “guilt” and “innocence” are harder to untangle among an electorate complicit in the acting government through the act of voting. Moreover, due to heightened security, it may be simply harder to reach the reigning symbols of power, which in the past could be successfully approached (and stabbed). Assassins Against is a reminder for us to adopt a contextualized approach to understanding political violence in whatever form it may take, rather than resorting to easy vilifications or glorifications. On top of this, it is a quick read due to the many intimate stories that easily guide the reader along. In this event, the Casa Italiana celebrated the importance of reassessing and questioning historical accounts – new contextualizations allow for more nuanced understandings of not only what produced our current order, but also of how it should be approached.