'Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits'

“Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Époque Paris,” by John Merriman, Nation Books, 2017, 336 pages, $28

Between 1911 and 1912, Belle Époque Paris was gripped by a crime spree. A gang of criminals conducted a series of violent crimes: daylight bank and post office robberies, leaving dead and wounded in their wake. The crimes caused a sensation.

The book, by John Merriman, tells the story of these robberies, conducted by the Bonnot-Garnier gang, a group of anarchists.

The robberies have achieved an almost mythic quality in France, like Bonnie and Clyde in the United States. Several factors contributed. The violence was unprecedented. The robbers used automobiles for getaways, a first. The robbers’ anarchist roots added a touch of fear. Newspapers used the robberies to increase circulation, giving the stories extra prominence and linking unrelated crimes to the gang.

Merriman peels away the myth, putting the crimes into historical and political context.

Belle Époque (literally beautiful time) was the label the French placed on the years preceding World War I. While beautiful for the middle class and wealthy, 82 percent of Paris’ population was poor, with 60 percent classified as indigent. Inadequate jobs, insufficient food, and overcrowded housing made Belle Époque Paris grim.

Some desperate poor turned to anarchism, the belief that without government man would return to an Eden-like equality. One faction, the illegalists, believed laws had to be broken.

One group of illegalists including Octave Garnier and Jules Bonnot conducted a violent bank robbery, using stolen automatic pistols and a stolen automobile for escape. After killing one man, the band had nothing to lose. Their violence spun out of control.

The government’s reaction also grew disproportionately. Many anarchists, including those uninvolved in the robberies were rounded up. Upon trapping gang members, the government deployed hundreds of police and soldiers.

Merriman picks through France’s anarchist factions, highlighting participants. He shows how the robberies affected French society and French anarchism, personalizing the story through the eyes of participants, anarchists and police.

“Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits” highlights an interesting story set at the start of the 20th century. It recounts a tale which still resonates today.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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