The Invention of Terrorism in Europe, Russia, and the United States

The Invention of Terrorism in Europe, Russia, and the United States

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Terrorism's roots in Western Europe and the USA

This book examines key cases of terrorist violence to show that the invention of terrorism was linked to the birth of modernity in Europe, Russia and the United States, rather than to Tsarist despotism in 19th century Russia or to Islam sects in Medieval Persia. Combining a highly readable historical narrative with analysis of larger issues in social and political history, the author argues that the dissemination of news about terrorist violence was at the core of a strategy that aimed for political impact on rulers as well as the general public. Dietze’s lucid account also reveals how the spread of knowledge about terrorist acts was, from the outset, a transatlantic process. Two incidents form the book’s centerpiece. The first is the failed attempt to assassinate French Emperor Napoléon III by Felice Orsini in 1858, in an act intended to achieve Italian unity and democracy. The second case study offers a new reading of John Brown's raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859, as a decisive moment in the abolitionist struggle and occurrences leading to the American Civil War. Three further examples from Germany, Russia, and the US are scrutinized to trace the development of the tactic by first imitators. With their acts of violence, the “invention” of terrorism was completed. Terrorism has existed as a tactic since then and has essentially only been adapted through the use of new technologies and methods.


  • “The book builds an extraordinarily careful argument about the specificities of context in the 1850s and 60s necessary to an understanding of how terrorism as a distinctive body of political thinking and practice arrived in the modern world, focusing on the field of understanding that coalesced around "freedom, nation and violence" in the epoch framed by the French Revolution and Revolutions of 1848. It does not fall into common trap of the available literatures, viz. to approach the ‘genealogies’ from an excessively presentist point of view. Instead, Dietze approaches the 1850s and 60s as a generative crucible for the conjunction of ideas and influences that need to be very carefully historicized as such if we're to have any chance of understanding the subsequent intellectual and political histories concerned. In its willingness to engage explicitly and at length with the literatures in political science as well as the writing theoretically about terrorism in general, Dietze's book has unusual strength for a historian.
    “The book is impressively "transnational" in the terms that have become aspiringly normative for so many theoretically self-aware and ambitious historians during the past decade.”
    “Dietze brilliantly makes these familiar and well-established histories and perceptions strange.”
    "Another vital and original aspect of the study is its emphasis on media history and the particular characteristics of the mid 19th century public sphere -- BOTH in terms of the circulatory conditions needed for the transnational quality of the history she's trying to reconstruct AND for the key argument she's making about impact and reception. In other words, this is partly an argument about mechanics and the particular means of transmission and circulation. But it's also about the ontological grounds of political thought and political agency created out of this remarkable transnational circuitry."

    Geoff Eley, Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan
  • This book may well revolutionize our understanding of the origins of terrorism in the 19th century. In highly original fashion, it closely links together the actions of terrorists in France, Russia, and the United States and shows how between 1858 and 1866 two key terrorists influenced three copycats who altogether ignited the explosion of modern terrorism. The depth of Dietze’s research, drawing upon archives not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Russia, is staggering. A must read for anyone interested in the history of terrorism.

    Richard Bach Jensen, Louisiana Scholars’ College at Northwestern State University, author of The Battle against Anarchist Terrorism