From ediciones chafa
translated from the French
originally published on Lundi Matin, Sept. 19th 2016.
The story of Mr. Molotov. And a bit of naphthalene against the myths.
Following the protests against the [French] Labor Law, on Sept. 15th 2016, the media noted two striking images: that of a protest gone one-eyed (likely caused by a grenade launched by the forces of order); and that of a gendarme mobile [French national police agent] “in flames.”
This second image highlights the effect, according to myth, that the molotov cocktail has when thrown by a protestor towards the forces of order, in this case positioned in line on one side of the place de la République in Paris.
Apparently one side of the political sphere threw itself whole-heartedly towards this image; as was the case with the “sacking” of the hospital at Necker, the torching of a police squad car, the police officer on the verge of death (who in reality had a fractured jaw), etc. Though the same voices grew quiet when it was a matter of an employee of AP-HP [a French state medic] being gravely injured during a protest.
"One shot ! Ici on fait des cocktails juste pour deconner ! One shot"
— Naha Rchist (@kichenlib) September 15, 2016
— Poki (@pokiloo_) September 15, 2016
Now a reality check on the relation of force found in the streets for months: there had been no sudden escalation of the “level of violence” this past September 15th. Hundreds of people have been injured since the beginning of the movement against the Labor Law; including a student from Rennes who lost an eye due to a flash bomb and a Parisian protestor who had his skull crushed by the blow of a police grenade. Let us recall that on June 14th 2016, the forces of order had used 175 dispersion grenades (the same kind that certainly hit the eye of a union member of Solidaires on Sept. 15th) which is more than used in the entirety of a “normal” year. The police on the other hand had to deal with about 20 molotov cocktails on that day.
The protests against the Labor Law, most notably those in Paris, could be described as: tear-gassed, roughed-up, humiliated and mutilated protestors. In return, (and not only), the police had been confronted with the determination and solidarity of the protestors. Sufficiently enough so that this determination would have to be dressed up as:
This new organization of casseurs differ from the famous “black blocs,” anti-globalization protestors who were structured in such a way that they bore no lethal logic, rather theirs was a logic of clashes (…) the violence was a passing violence and in no way individual.” This is totally unlike the current movements where “the level of violence is very elevated because today most of their acts are done with lethal intent and not just solely to demonstrate a strong opposition to the policies of the government.
Now let’s return to this photo [of the police in flames]: as spectacular as it may be, it is not powerful enough to erase dozens of other photos bearing the bloody faces of protestors. Though the gendarme is here the flipside of the high school student receiving a punch square in the face and thus dehumanized: he is also a representation of the function of the police; a representative of the forces of order who have humiliated protestors for months; representing also his colleagues who have struck, mocked, pulled by the hair and as well taunted protestors with a shake of their fists. He is also dehumanized by his gear which makes him appear like a robot in flames but it is also this gear that effectively protects him.
This is but a detail, but the image reveals itself to be deceptive. At a glance, you could imagine what follows in the photo: the gendarme becomes a human torch, running in flames, for quite a while before being saved by a plunge in the Canal Saint-Martin. This was not the case. The talent of the photographer was in capturing the moment where the vaporization of the fuel (a point we shall later return to) produced a large fireball. In motion it appears as such:
Let us recall that a flame (even that of a candle) generally reaches a temperature of 900 – 1000°C [1652 – 1832°F]. (And still, “the flame, as we know it does not reach but 70% of the heat of the fire of Hell.”) This is enough to cause burns… Here it is a question of time exposed to the flame (and through which materials the heat would need to be transferred through to the skin). This is how fakirs can walk on hot coals (which also reach 1832°F): because charcoal is a bad conductor of heat. Inversely, we cannot put our finger for a second in water that is at 100°C.
This is why the gendarmes wear gear of such quality. Besides their helmets with visors that can stop small calibre fire they also have their forearm protections; their tall bullet-proof shields; the gendarme also possesses fireproof pants, a fireproof vest, a fireproof long-sleeve shirt and long fireproof underwear (since 2011).
Despite the 5 or 6 molotov cocktails thrown during the protests, the police station only declared that one gendarme was injured with a leg injury. Although the giant fireball unleashed by the explosion of the projectile only lasted for an instant, a bit of flammable liquid had visibly slipped into the leg protection of the gendarme, continuing thus to burn and would have been enough to cause a burn.
We must thus return to the spectacular and frightening character of the use of the molotov cocktail, a very strong fear among the forces of order. BFM Radio had tracked down and interviewed a CRS agent [anti-riot police agent] who had been struck by a molotov cocktail on Sept. 15th. He thought he had surely caught fire (“it didn’t last very long”). This was not the case though: he had in fact been hurt, on the hand, by a small rock. And we thus understand the deterrent effect that could be provoked by such a tool: it forces one to retreat, or at least to do continue forward more cautiously. It is against this fear that gendarmes struggle to train against at their training camp in Saint-Astier, by submitting themselves to real molotov cocktails. This is the inverse effect which protestors hope to exploit by keeping away the forces of order which have the maddening habit of breaking through marches.
But what exactly is a molotov cocktail? To go beyond its mythical, fantastic, or rather folkloric character of this object – linked by its repeated used to modern insurrectional moments – let us look at its history, its fabrication and its more recent uses.
The term “molotov cocktail” is of a rather recent coining. It makes a reference to one of Stalin’s close friends, a member of the Politburo, minister of foreign affairs for the USSR from 1939 – 1949: Viatcheslav Molotov. “Molotov” is in actuality his pseudonym, which he chose in 1906 (from molot, молот, or ‘hammer’).
After having survived the great purges of ’37 – ’38, Molotov is named the minister of foreign affairs just before the second World War. Among other things he would sign the German-Soviet pact, order the massacre at Katyn and be entrusted by Stalin with the production of armor.
Then on Nov. 30th 1939 started the “Winter War” between the USSR and Finland. Briefly, the Soviet Union takes for pretext the failure of negotiations with the Finnish government to create a buffer zone to protect Leningrad from an eventual Nazi attack (which included the annexation of the isthmus of Carelia [Finland], to the north-east of Leningrad and the establishment of a naval base at Hanko) to then be able to invade Finland. In reality Finland appeared within the secret protocol of the pact between Germany & the Soviet Union, which divided up quite a few countries and territories between them to annex.
This war (despite it having been “won”) was disastrous for the USSR, which headed an army ridiculously under and badly equipped, but who could hold back the Red army for 104 days (the offensive was initially planned to succeed in 10 days)? The war happened under terrible weather conditions (-40°C) to in Finland’s favor, where they were able to demonstrate their ingenuity. They used the technique of “motti”: cut-off the motorized military columns, encircle the small group of enemy combattants obtained and then let them “cook” until they no longer have any fuel (a form of “kettling” but which they did performed on skis). They had to above all find a solution against Soviet tanks: the Russians had 3,000 and the Finnish only possessed 30. They learn to immobilize them with wood logs inserted in the sprocket right in front of the tank tracks. They then destroyed them with molotov cocktails and from here we get the name!
The Finnish were inspired by improvised incendiary devices which had already been used against Soviet-made T-26 tanks during the war in Spain (first used by the pro-Franco factions but which later were used by the Spanish Republicans). Thrown into the motor block, they were used to ignite the fuel tanks within.
The flammable mixture of these incendiary devices was nicknamed “cocktail molotov” by the Finnish. It was for them a fitting welcome to the Russian armored tanks, which on the international scene allowed them to boast that Russia did not bomb Finland, but rather that they delivered them their food by air (“a drink to go with your food, Molotov!”).
These molotov cocktails (we now use this term to designate both the flammable cocktail and its container) were mass-produced in a distillery in Rajamäki. 92 workers produced 542, 194 of them during the war.
The molotov cocktails assembled in the Finnish factory, Alko, were made up of: a bottle of 750ml, filled with a mix of gasoline, ethanol or kerosene and tar. The bottle, filled up only by 2/3 (so that it would easily break) was then hermetically sealed. It also came with two large waterproof matches (storm matches). The device was launched, after being lit, by hand or by slingshot. The principle is the following: when it falls, the bottle breaks, putting in contact the flame with the gasoline-alcohol mixture which lights up. The tar allows the flammable mixture to better stick to its target.
In effect, the more the mixture is volatile (the more it produces vapor), the more it is flammable. The more the mixture is spread out, the briefer is its flame (going out due to a lack of fuel). The quicker the flame lights up (even on a big surface) the less chance it has of starting a fire (remember that we are talking about an armored motor block). To reduce the spread of the flammable liquid after the bottle breaks, the Finnish thus made the mixture viscous with the addition of tar (which allows the combustion to last longer, more surely heating up for a longer time the targeted zone).
Later the recipe would undergo a few amendments. In 1950 the English army (impressed by the Finnish success) recommended the scoring of the bottle with a diamond to better ensure the breakage of the bottle; and to use cinematic film as a wick.
The use of matches had the tendency to be replaced with a wick, generally made up of a fabric drenched in a flammable liquid. This could be very dangerous for the person throwing the molotov cocktail, so later other techniques were invented, using more original wicks (cinematic film by the English army in the ’40s; and more recently, the use of tampons dipped in oil and gasoline). Or they used lighting devices that did not use a flame. Like those refined by the Poles with the introduction of sulfuric acid into the flammable mixture and then dipping the wick in a mix of sodium chlorate, icing sugar and water. This wick, once dry, has no need of being lit: once the bottle breaks and there is the contact of the flammable liquid with the acid inside, the whole thing catches fire.
Gasoline seems to be the one indispensable ingredient of the cocktail (besides the bottle). It is this element which allows the mixture to immediately ignite when in contact with flame. It cannot be replaced with diesel fuel or kerosene, which do not produce enough vapor to light easily. Remember that it is not the flammable liquid which ignites, but the vapors mixed with the air. (Diesel fuel has a flashpoint – temperature at which it emits enough vapor to ignite – above 55°C; kerosene 39°C; gasoline -40°C). (Inversely the wick can be dipped in a liquid less volatile than gasoline: the fabric has the capacity to “distribute” a small amount of combustible, making it more easily vaporized and thus light up. This is why a zippo lighter type of wick works just as well as with high-octane gasoline, low-octane gasoline or even diesel…)
Ultimately the recipes including the following variations: vaseline, liquid laundry detergent (this technique was used by American Marines at Fallujah), egg whites, pieces of tires and whatever would make it create more smoke, be more viscous and sticky, etc.
The American Army created its own recipe with gelled gasoline in 1942: napalm. This was done by mixing naphthalene and palmitic acid. The second version, napalm-B, was created by mixing benzene and polystyrene. In the book and movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden claims to be able to create napalm by mixing gasoline and just a bit of frozen orange juice. The recipes in the book are half false because it would also surely need “a bit of polystyrene”…
Hurling a molotov cocktail is a recurring image which illustrates the story of protests in Greece.
It was also seen during the insurrection in Tunisia. The object was so widespread (or so symbolic of the revolt) that the most recognized children’s magazine had undertaken the detailing of its recipe.
We could have also cited Egypt or Turkey…
And of course there is Kiev [Ukraine}, where the molotov cocktail served their original purpose: against Russian-made armored vehicles. (It is worth noting that most modern tanks now have a composite shell that makes them less vulnerable to molotov cocktail).
An armored transport is ignited in the Ukraine by SpiOn.
But it is certainly in Bahrain where we find the greatest propensity for the massive use of molotov cocktails:
And in France?
You do not need to look very far past September 15th to find the traces of molotov cocktails in the French Press in their use against the police.
In Paris (Ménilmontant), this summer, it was security agents assigned to the homeless who were injured with 1st and 2nd degree burns due to a molotov cocktail thrown directly into their squad car.
A little earlier, at Beauvais two molotov cocktails were thrown at a national-police marked car, without any injury.
Within the context of a protest, you will have to go to Corsica: after a police officer injured a Bastia football club supporter in the eye, a police officer was injured by a molotov cocktail. This video from 20 14 recounts the event:
On the social movement side, the molotov cocktail was used against the CPIE:
And also against the pension reforms in 2010.
We hope that with this article we have been able to harken back in a useful way the history, the make-up and the use of the molotov cocktail. That said, we did not have the time to touch on other important subjects: does the molotov cocktail change the nature of a protest? does it galvanize or split the protestors? what revolutionary imaginary does it call up? does it help unravel that which has transformed over the years permitted marches into insurrectionary riots or strikes?