Empathy for the Anarchists like Good Biographers, the Avriches Have Some Sympathy for Sasha Berkman and Emma Goldman. (Henry Clay Frick Did Not.)

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By Paul Avrich & Karen Avrich.

Belknap/Harvard University Press ($35).

Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman were determined to create a government-free paradise on Earth. As their biographers, Paul and Karen Avrich, demonstrate, they didn't much care how many people they had to kill to achieve their dream.

Fortunately for every country where they temporarily set down roots, neither had the planning skills or, more importantly, the basic mechanical ability to carry out their utopian dreams.

Berkman in 1892 originally had thought to use dynamite to kill Henry Clay Frick, the head of Carnegie Steel. He spent several days building two bombs. When the first one failed to go off during a test, he decided to switch to a handgun. "A week's preparation had been lost and forty dollars wasted," the Avriches write.

Paul Avrich, a scholar of Russian and anarchist history, had worked for many years on a book about the personal and political relationship between Berkman and Goldman. After his death in 2006, his daughter, Karen, augmented her father's draft, notes and interviews with her own research to produce "Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman." The resulting book provides an in-depth look at a lesser-known chapter of American and world history: the decades-long war that anarchists waged on governments around the world.

While their weapons more often consisted of speeches, pamphlets and rallies, they augmented those tools with bombs, bullets and blades. Their unlikely victims included the liberal Russian Czar Alexander II, reformist French President Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot, the inoffensive Empress Elisabeth of Austria and U.S. President William McKinley.

Anarchists also sought to blow up the mansion at Pocantico Hills, outside New York City, owned by oil baron John D. Rockefeller. The Avriches find plenty of evidence that Berkman helped with the planning, but the conspirators wisely kept him away from the actual bomb making. That didn't help. Three of the plotters accidentally blew themselves up in a Manhattan apartment building on July 3, 1914. The massive explosion injured 20 people and killed a fourth woman unconnected to the dead anarchists' plot.

Berkman, who dodged both the explosion and arrest afterward, praised the dead men at a memorial service. "I want to go on record as saying that I hope our comrades were manufacturing the bomb that caused their death and that they hoped to use it against our enemies," he told mourners.

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Berkman is best known in Western Pennsylvania as the man who shot and stabbed Henry Clay Frick at his office in Downtown Pittsburgh during the Homestead Steel Strike. …


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