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The World That Never Was: A True Story of…

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists,…

by Alex Butterworth

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176867,448 (3.03)5
  1. 00
    The proud tower: a portrait of the world before the war, 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Addressing roughly the same time period, both books shed light on the 19th and early 20th Century Anarchist and Socialist movements.
  2. 00
    1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: The one almost serves as the sequel to the other. Panoramic picture of a tumultuous time and the people who fought for and against it.
  3. 00
    The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Fictional encounter between Dostoevsky and Russian anarchist

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Alex Butterworth has put a huge amount of work into this, essentially a history of anarchism and its off shoots from the Paris Commune to the First World War. In parallel he traces the shadowy world of spies, provocateurs, agents, double agents and triple agents and general betrayal fermented by the Okhrana in particular. Despite the title, this is not a world that never was - it was a world that very much existed and there were plenty of corpses to prove it.

Its a fascinating period - the birth of modern surveillance and manipulation techniques, the birth of terrorism as individualist anarchists adopted "propaganda by deed" - largely bombing outrages and assassinations, and the repressive responses of the governments of France, Russia, Italy and Spain (with Britain taking a much more tolerant attitude). Readers will be particularly struck by some of the parallels with today; young men burning with passionate idealism, with little to lose, manipulated into violence and seemingly content to die. The panicky response of government will be familiar too

Butterworth is good on the main characters; the ubiquitous Louise Michel, the saintly Kropotkin, the shadowy Rachovsky, the tireless Malatesta. But a stream of other characters weave in and out of the narrative sometimes with a gap of 100 pages - by which time you've forgotten who they are. Yes, there is a list of Dramatis Personae to help with this, but its still confusing. As for the world of secret agents - well, Butterworth has done well to achieve the clarity that he has given the lack of documentation of much of this, but I defy any reader to make sense of the actions of the agent variously known as Hekkelman, Landesman and Harting and especially those of Evno Azef .

Some events are handled well. The rise of the Commune, the subsequent deportation to New Caledonia of the survivors, the development of revolutionary emigre society in London, the rise of violent anarchism in the early 1890s. But in general the scope is just too broad to keep track of a lot of the threads that Butterworth spins out but doesn't really tie back together

Very worthy, and a mighty effort of research, but only about 70% successful I'd say ( )
  Opinionated | Aug 7, 2015 |
A rambling incoherent mess. ( )
  VGAHarris | Jan 19, 2015 |
Butterworth chose a great time for this work (roughly, Kropotkin's active years), and there's a fabulous story to be told about it, but this book isn't quite it. On the upside, his research is mind-boggling, and my life is substantially richer now that I know about the fabulous Gabriel Jogan-Pages, aka Leo Taxil, who, e.g., managed to convince the military governor of Marseilles to hunt down an imaginary school of killer sharks, and convinced much of the world that the Freemasons worshiped devils and sacrificed human beings. The general thrust of the book is to show how many wonderful characters emerged from the 1871 Commune, or from interactions with communards on the one hand, and, on the other, how anti-terrorist bodies fairly quickly turned into terrorist bodies all in the interests of catching terrorists. That's all reasonable.

Unfortunately, there are far too many kettles on the stove-top; Butterworth, like many non-professional historians, is more concerned with cramming more stuff in than selecting the most relevant bits and pieces, and, still worse, his prose style is very, very, very poorly suited to a story involving dozens of people flung across the globe. It's entirely up to the reader to work out which events were the important ones, which sounds wonderful, but is actually like trying to choose a good meal from a menu on which there's only names and no description of the food. It's just impossible.

Five stars for the choice of topic and the asides and digressions; two stars for the execution. Well worth reading, though you might need to skim sections. Or even whole chapters.*

*: please, please, please, historians, give your chapters real names so your reader knows what the topic is before they get half way through. No more clever quotes as chapter titles, I beg you. ( )
1 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Lots of great information, context, and stories here. I wasn't reading for academic reasons though, so I had to develop a way to skim past some of the overwhelming detail. I never gave up though and I learned a lot for it. Would recommend if you're really interested in the subject. ( )
  pdesjardins | Sep 5, 2013 |
Oh my wishlist just keeps getting longer and longer. ;0
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 037542511X, Hardcover)

A thrilling history of the rise of anarchism, told through the stories of a number of prominent revolutionaries and the agents of the secret police who pursued them.
In the late nineteenth century, nations the world over were mired in economic recession and beset by social unrest, their leaders increasingly threatened by acts of terrorism and assassination from anarchist extremists. In this riveting history of that tumultuous period, Alex Butterworth follows the rise of these revolutionaries from the failed Paris Commune of 1871 to the 1905 Russian Revolution and beyond. Through the interwoven stories of several key anarchists and the secret police who tracked and manipulated them, Butterworth explores how the anarchists were led to increasingly desperate acts of terrorism and murder.
Rich in anecdote and with a fascinating array of supporting characters, The World That Never Was is a masterly exploration of the strange twists and turns of history, taking readers on a journey that spans five continents, from the capitals of Europe to a South Pacific penal colony to the heartland of America. It tells the story of a generation that saw its utopian dreams crumble into dangerous desperation and offers a revelatory portrait of an era with uncanny echoes of our own.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:04 -0400)

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"The World That Never Was" is a thrilling history of the rise of anarchism, told through the stories of several violent revolutionaries and the secret police who pursued them.

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