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From Hitler to IRA, London has kept stiff upper lip
Scripps Howard News Service


July 07, 2005

Terrorists couldn't have picked a more resilient city to attack than London.

From Catholic dissidents, militant suffragettes, the kaiser's zeppelins, Adolf Hitler and the IRA, the city has been repeatedly bombed through its 2,000-year history and has always bounced back.

This November, London is commemorating the 400th anniversary of one of its most notorious bomb plots: the efforts of Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic dissidents backed by Spain to blow up Parliament and kill King James I.

Fawkes and seven co-conspirators were arrested the night before they were set to ignite huge casks of gunpowder - an event the British still celebrate with bonfires and fireworks every Nov. 5.

This year also marks the 90th anniversary of the first attempts by Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm to bomb England into submission with zeppelin attacks that started in 1915 and ended only with the armistice in 1918.

The sporadic bombs dropped by zeppelins only increased British resolve to defeat Germany - similar to Londoners' reactions during the greater devastation of the blitz in World War II. Some of the "Tube" stations targeted in Thursday's attacks were used as bomb shelters during those wartime years when Edward R. Murrow broadcast to America about "you know stiff upper lip and all that sort of thing."

"They are certainly resilient," said Brian Levack, a history professor at the University of Texas who studies 17th-century England.

The Gunpowder Plot produced a backlash that affected British politics for two centuries, Levack noted. By the late 17th century, Britain adopted harsh laws against Catholics, and anti-Catholic riots raged in London in the 1700s. Catholics were not permitted to be members of Parliament until 1829.

There was a similarly harsh reaction in recent years after the Irish Republican Army brought its war in Ireland to London, with the expectation that it would force Britain to withdraw troops from Northern Ireland.

The IRA bombed soldiers on ceremonial duty in London's Hyde Park in 1982, killing 11 of them, and in 1991 there was a mortar attack on the prime minister's residence at No. 10 Downing Street. Two years later, one person was killed when a huge truck bomb wrecked a building in London's financial district, and a bomb destroyed the hotel at the seaside resort in Brighton where Tory leaders were holding their convention.

"(Then-Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher's attitude towards the IRA was very draconian," recalled Jonathan Schneer, a history professor at Georgia Tech's School of History, Technology and Society.

Despite the IRA bombings, British troops stayed in Northern Ireland. Britain passed laws beefing up its intelligence services and prohibiting broadcasts of the actual voices of IRA representatives. The latter law resulted in the BBC hiring British actors to repeat the words of IRA representatives on news programs.

"Bombing campaigns put strains on democratic institutions and civil liberties," said Schneer, who specializes in modern British history.

Schneer said he was not shocked to hear of Thursday's bombings, and expects them to put new political pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is governing with a reduced majority in Parliament and is under attack from the left wing of his own Labor Party for the support Britain has given the United States in Iraq.

Although London has a reputation today as one of the world's most sensible cities, it actually has a violent history going back to its founding by the Romans as a fortress trading center. Only 12 years after it was founded in 48 A.D., British tribes under Queen Boudicca burned it down.

Boudicca is the woman in the chariot represented on British 50-pence coins today.



Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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