Those foreigners know a thing or two

Posted by Tory Historian Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tory Historian is ploughing through Michael Burleigh’s “Blood and Rage – a cultural history of terrorism”. It may well become one of those books of interest to all those interested in conservative history but for the moment judgement is not exactly withheld but balanced.

The book is useful in that it traces the history of modern terrorism from the days of the Fenians and the Russian nihilists of the nineteenth century thus showing certain continuing characteristics that are worth studying. There is nothing so annoying than hearing yet another member of the various anti-terrorist organizations complain about the difficulties of dealing with this new lot because they are so unlike the IRA. Well yes, but are they unlike the anarchists of the 1890s and 1900s? Are there no similarities between them and the German and the Italian groups of the seventies?

The details of Burleigh’s book are, however, problematic. His account of what he calls “guilty white kids” – the Italian Brigada Rossa and German Red Army Faction – is precise and accurate, apart from a tendency of describing killings by terrorist with one bullet fired to the head as “executions”. Sloppy, very sloppy.

When it comes to the chapter on the Russians (40 pages devoted to 60 years of complicated history) Burleigh’s account becomes more than sloppy. It is inaccurate and the parallels are often forced. He is shaky on the Anarchist International. Not every strike organizer in the United States was an anarchist. Some were devoted socialists or anarcho-syndicalists.

More as the ploughing through progresses. However, Tory Historian’s attention was caught by an intriguing quote from the critic and literary writer Edward Garnett, husband of translator Constance Garnett. The topic in hand is Joseph Conrad’s superlative novel “The Secret Agent”, whose plot is based on the attempted bombing of the Greenwich Observatory (though, as it happens, the same writer’s “Under Western Eyes” is a better study of the pathological nihilist mind).

Garnett wrote rather superciliously:

It is good for us English to have Mr Conrad in our midst visualising for us aspects of life we are constitutionally unable to perceive.
Edward Garnett thought of himself as being far superior to the average rather cloddish English writer, critic and reader, being, as he saw himself, a connoisseur of superior foreign literature. However, what that sentence irresistibly reminds Tory Historian of is a passage in George Mikes’s “How to be an Alien”:
“You foreigners are so clever,” said a lady to me some years ago. First, thinking of the great amount of foreign idiots and half-wits I had had the honour of meeting, I considered this remark exaggerated but complimentary.

Since then I have learnt that it was far from it. These few words expressed the lady’s contempt and slight disgust for foreigners.
Somehow Tory Historian suspects that Edward Garnett would not have liked George Mikes’s masterpiece.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Fancy confusing your anarchists with your anarcho-syndicalists.

  3. A grievous fault.

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