Early responses to international terrorism

Jun 1, 2007

Initial attempts to develop effective responses to incidents of international, state-sponsored terrorism date back to the assassination of King Alexander 1 of Yugoslavia. Dr. Michael Callahan feels understanding how nations responded to international terrorism in the 1930s could help countries better understand how to deal with it today.

A single bullet. That's all it took. One shot, the sound of which has never fully faded.

It began simply enough. King Alexander 1 of Yugoslavia arrived via ship to Marseilles on a state visit to France in October 1934. The French foreign minister-Jean Louis Barthou-led the French delegation that met Alexander. According to Dr. Michael Callahan, professor of History in Kettering's Dept. of Liberal Studies, an honor guard that included Senegalese troops in addition to French infantry escorted the dignitaries from the dock. But during the procession, a man lunged from the crowd, climbed onto the running board of the open-air limousine in which the group traveled and fired several shots, killing Alexander immediately. Barthou, who was not the target of the attack, was hit in the arm and bled to death. These murders created an international crises that Callahan said, "threatened the peace of Europe."

Although this was not the first act of modern international terrorism, Callahan said that the response represented the first systematic effort by nations of the world to establish effective general legal norms to define, prevent and punish modern international terrorism. As he writes in a draft of an introduction for his newest work, "Evidence quickly established that the crime was also an act of state-protected international terrorism."

Recently, Callahan won a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society (http://www.amphilsoc.org/) based in Philadelphia that will allow him to conduct research this fall at the National Archives outside of London as well as at other university archives in Birmingham and Oxford. This research will support his new work tentatively titled "Combating Evil: The League of Nations and the First 'War on Terror'." This work will focus on the roots of modern day state-sponsored terrorism identified with the 1934 assignation of King Alexander I. After this incident, the League of Nations, Callahan explained, wanted to better understand this new threat, how to properly define it and ultimately how to counteract it.

"The League desired a legal response to this form of terrorism," he said. Although the organization was successful in crafting a response in the form of to new international conventions (or treaties) following lengthy debate and revision in 1937, the conventions, "failed to receive enough ratifications by various national governments of the world to take effect before the outbreak of war in 1939," Callahan said, noting that this failure did not detract from their historical significant or their use as potential models today.

His new work is an attempt to study this subject more closely and discover the patterns of international terrorism during the early part of the last century. In Callahan's view, these patterns might provide some insight into how governments can deal with and counter international terrorism today. Since Sept. 11, 2001, historians have been forced to consider this issue in more depth, given the extent to which our world is impacted by terrorism.

But he warned that history is not cyclical.

"History does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme," he said, a quote attributed to American author Mark Twain.

Another reason he wishes to pursue this subject is that few historians have looked closely at this subject in a comprehensive way. The Franklin Research Grant will allow him to do just that. Specifically, many historians regarded the League of Nations as a failed institution because it could not prevent the onset of World War II. But in Callahan's mind, this view is somewhat flawed, because to accurately assess the long-term impact of terrorism near the early part of the last century required significant time and effort. Given the complexities of modern day history as it evolved during the 1930s leading up to WWII, there were many issues that preoccupied the time of scholars, and international terrorism was in some ways overlooked in light of developing world crises.

Callahan also considers this project an opportunity to help his students look closely at the issues of war and peace, and how these issues affect everyday life. "Terrorism has a detrimental impact on how organizations conduct business throughout the global economy, which means that students have a stake in how our institutions effectively deal with this issue," he said.

This new work represents a departure of sorts from his previous books and research interests, which focused on the mandates system of the League of Nations. The titles of his previous works are "Mandates and Empire: The League of Nations and Africa, 1914-1931"; Sussex Academic Press, 1999); "A Sacred Trust: The League of Nations and Africa, 1929-1946" (Sussex Academic Press, 2004); and he served as co-editor of "Imperialism on Trial: International Oversight of Colonial Rule in Historical Perspective" (Lexington Books, 2006).

Written by Gary J. Erwin