What Differentiates Late 19th Century European Terrorism with that of the Early 20th Century?

Utilizing only Gerard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin’s The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, this short paper examines how European terrorism changed between the late nineteenth and early (pre-1939) twentieth centuries.

What Differentiates Late 19th Century European Terrorism with that of the Early 20th Century?

By Tom White

European terrorist organizations of the nineteenth and twentieth century shared similar ideological goals, but an increase in funding allowed the latter to take their terrorist strategies to a new level. The additional funds allowed them to craft and execute larger, more disturbing terrorist events. Increased financial support allowed early twentieth century terrorists to engage in terrorist activities on an unprecedented scale, enabling their message to play out on an international stage.

Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was undergoing profound political and economic change as a result of the industrial revolution. While some colonial empires experienced great successes, others declined, resulting in instability. Although many of the terrorist organizations of both centuries could claim nationalism as a driving force for their terrorist activities, the organizations of the early twentieth century were much more successful at raising financial support to advance their causes. Terrorist organizations of the nineteenth century were poor, “often forced to turn to crime to fund their activities”[1]and this made them less effective.  The early twentieth century organizations on the other hand, were able to count on support from outside sources including governments, which resulted in better planning and execution of terrorist campaigns. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) for example was able to count on “American support-financial at first, then political.”[2] Other groups such as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) received funding from Italy in the form of finances and arms as did the Croatian movement known as the Ustase who relied on Hungary as a benefactor.  The early twentieth century terrorist organizations were more effective because of this additional financial support, unlike their predecessors who often relied on crime for funding which not only limited their operations, but increased the likelihood being apprehended. 

The increase in financial support enabled early twentieth century terrorists to orchestrate larger events so their message would play out on an international stage. The IRA was one of the most effective at employing this strategy. A perfect example can be found in the Easter Rising of 1916 when IRA “insurgents seized the General Post Office and raised the green, white and orange flag of the future Irish republic.”[3] The British reacted with a swift brutality to the insurrection, executing most of the leaders of the rebellion. But because of the unprecedented scale of the operation, the events played “out on the stage of politics”[4] for the entire world to see. This event played right into the hands of the IRA, who got their message out to the world and increased support for their cause. Another example can be found in terrorist strategies of the IMRO, who engaged in a series of bombings which resulted in the sinking of French ship in 1903 and the targeting of high profile casinos. The IMRO failed to “provoke the powers into intervening”[5], but as a terrorist organization did succeed in getting their message out to the world.

Although late nineteenth and twentieth century terrorists often shared similar ideologies, it is in their terrorist operations and strategies where the distinctions can be made. As previous examples demonstrate, the early twentieth century terrorist was much more effective because they were able to plan and engage in terrorist strategies on an unprecedented scale as a result of financial support. Consequently because of the larger scale of their operations they were able to reach a much wider audience, setting a precedent for insecurity, destruction, and fear on a global scale which continues today.


Chaliand, Gerard, and Arnaud Blin, Eds. The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007.



[1] Gerald Chaliand and Arnaud Blin, “The ‘Golden Age’ of Terrorism” in The History of Terrorism and Guerilla Warfare: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, ed. Gerald Chaliand (University of  California Press, 2007), 182

[2] Ibid, 186

[3] Chaliand and Blin, “The ‘Golden Age’ of Terrorism”, 185

[4] Ibid, 187

[5] Ibid, 190

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