Paramilitary Violence after the Great War, 1918-1923: Towards a Global Perspective

Paramilitary Violence after the Great War, 1918-1923: Towards a Global Perspective

Robert Gerwarth (University College Dublin) John Horne (Trinity College Dublin)
Clinton Institute, University College Dublin
Vom - Bis
05.12.2008 - 06.12.2008
Centre for War Studies (TCD/UCD), Dublin

This conference is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is the opening meeting of a two-year major research project, and is intended to explore issues that will help set the parameters and define the major themes of the project. For this reason, it will adopt a workshop format, allowing the maximum time possible for discussion, and not be looking for definitive answers. The conference is open to a scholarly audience of academics, postgraduate students and independent researchers in the field.

The conference will explore the often neglected history of paramilitary violence after the Great War from an international comparative perspective. Although the history of the Great War itself can hardly be described as a neglected area of historical research, this is not true of the violence that followed this first truly global conflict. Violent conflicts erupted across Europe and further afield between 1917/18 and 1923, most notably, but by no means exclusively, in Russia, Finland, the new Baltic states, Ireland, Central Europe, Northern Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus. Where it has been dealt with this topic has usually been looked at in the context of the individual countries in which the violence occurred, but it has not received sustained, comparative attention

Three decisive and often overlapping developments contributed to these conflicts: the impact of class war in the form of Bolshevism as a factor in international relations; the collapse of multi-national dynastic empires (Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Russia) along with the often violent attempts to create new nation-states; and the experiences of defeat and territorial disintegration. Paramilitary violence was a central feature of all these conflicts. By paramilitary violence we mean the violence exercised by unofficial or quasi-official formations of volunteers who were highly ideologically motivated and who took the military force usually monopolized by the state into their own hands, whether to oppose or support the existing order or to create a new order in a power vacuum. Typically, though not inevitably, they drew on the experience and weaponry of the Great War, and in many cases perceived their struggle as a continuation of the war or the issues that it had raised but not settled.

Paramilitary forces often had a sharply-defined and violent political culture which became in turn one of the means by which the violence of the war was transmitted to the post-war world. Not infrequently, the legacy of this paramilitary culture lasted until the Second World War and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, fell victim to this wave of paramilitary violence, which was generally most marked in ethnically or religiously diverse regions and borderlands and/or the shatter-zones of multi-ethnic empires. The traditional single-country focus makes it difficult to establish the extent to which the common wartime experience and – in some geographical areas - the shock of revolution and defeat contributed to the trans-national creation of cultures of violence that survived the end of the Great War.

Consequently, a major hypothesis proposed by the conference is that the First World War left overlapping geographical and political footprints that resulted in the three different zones as far as the emergence of paramilitary violence is concerned.

1) Zones of victory (non-violence): United Kingdom (minus Ireland), France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the United States and the ‘white’ colonies.
2) Zones of defeat (violence): Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Russia.
3) Zones of ‘mutilated’ or ‘ambivalent victories’, in which the contested legacy of the war (victory and defeat), in association with social and other stresses caused by the war, also resulted in paramilitary violence: Ireland, Italy, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Finland, the Baltic States.

By focusing on both geographical ‘zones’ and also cultures of paramilitary violence, the conference aims to overcome a nation-centric approach to paramilitary violence, explore the forms, cultures and patterns of emerging paramilitary violence in order to ascertain the similarities, differences and connections between the different cases, and explain why some countries managed the transition from war (1914-18) to peace more successfully than others and why other regions and countries experienced major waves of violence

For the purpose of the conference, we would be grateful if you could bear the following general questions in mind:
1) What are the common patterns (and structural differences) in the emergence of postwar paramilitary violence from 1918 to 1923?
2) Did paramilitary actors draw on a common ‘repertoire of action’ (Charles Tilly), i.e. were there common rituals of violence, similarities of victim groups etc. in different geographical settings?
3) Were there distinctive cultures of paramilitary organizations, and if so were there similarities between them?
4) Did violent activists in different areas know about conflicts in other geographical settings and were there processes of emulation and transfers of knowledge and personnel?
5) Why were some geographical areas less affected by paramilitary violence than others?
6) How was paramilitary violence absorbed into normal politics and with what consequences?
7) Which control mechanism (state, social, moral, legal) fail and why?
8) How did the definitions of ‘legitimate targets’ (particularly with respect to women and children) change in the transitional years of 1917-1919?

There will be two or three presentations of not more than twenty minutes per panel in order to allow the maximum time for discussion, and speakers are asked to adhere strictly to this time-limit. There will be two key-note addresses to stimulate debate on key over-arching issues.
Robert Gerwarth and John Horne

Advance booking. Please let the organizers know of your intention to participate by Monday, 24 November. There will be a small conference fee of € 50 to cover coffee, lunches and the buffet supper on Friday. The fee does not apply to those speaking or chairing a session.

Dr. Robert Gerwarth
School of History and Archives,
University College,
Dublin 4, Ireland.

Prof. Dr. John Horne
Trinity College,
Department of History,
Dublin 2, Ireland.


Friday, 5th December:

8:30 – 9:00 Registration

9:00 – 9:15 Introduction – Robert Gerwarth (UCD)

9:15 – 10:30 Class War and Revolutionary Violence: the Bolshevik Project.
Chair: Judith Devlin (UCD)

Peter Holquist (UPenn), Reflections on the Russian Civil War
Peter Gatrell (Manchester), The Russian Revolution and Europe: 1917-1923

11:00 - 12:30 Eastern Europe: Nation, Ethnicity, Class and Violence.
Chair: John Horne (TCD)

Piotr Wróbel (University of Toronto), The Seeds of Violence: Wars and Ethnic Conflict in Poland’s Eastern Borderlands, 1914-1921
Serhy Yekelchyk (University of Victoria, Canada), The Original Failed State: Nationalism, Chaos, and Violence in Ukraine in the Aftermath of WWI

12:30 – 1:30 Lunch

1:30 – 3:00 South-Eastern Europe: Nation, Ethnicity, Class and Violence.
Chair: William Mulligan (UCD)

Paul Newman (UCD), Paramilitary Violence in the Balkans
Michael Reynolds (Princeton), The Caucasus Army of Islam and Ottoman Policies in 1918: The Utility of Paramilitaries in a New World Order

3:30 – 5:00 Declining Empires: Ireland in Context
Chair: Michael Laffan (UCD)

Peter Hart (University of Newfoundland), The IRA in Comparative Perspective, 1914-1923
Anne Dolan (TCD), The Culture of Violence in Post-war Ireland
Julia Eichenberg (TCD), Decline of Control, Rise of Brutality: Comparing Military Violence in Poland and Ireland, 1918-1923

6:00 Buffet supper

7:30 Public Lecture. Emilio Gentile (University of Roma, La Sapienza), Paramilitary Violence in Post-War Italy. (Followed by wine reception)

Saturday, 6th December:

9:00 – 10:30 Defeated Empires: Germany and Austria-Hungary
Chair: Bernd Weisbrod (Göttingen)

Mark Cornwall (Southampton), The Disintegration of the Habsburg Empire and Paramilitary Violence: the Czechoslovak Case
Robert Gerwarth (UCD), Counterrevolution in Central Europe – Austria, Hungary and

11:00 – 12:30 Ambivalent Victors: Italy
Chair: Alan Kramer (TCD)

Mark Jones (EUI), “The officers are frightfully sick”: Wartime Experiences and Post-War Violence in a Comparative Perspective
Sven Reichardt (Konstanz), Paramilitary Violence and Fascism – Long Term Trajectories

12:30 - 2:00 Lunch

2:00 – 3:00: Michael Geyer (Chicago), Revolutions, Defeat, and Imperial Disintegration: How Europe entered the 20th century and stepped back

3:00 – 3:30: Conclusions. John Horne (TCD)


Julia Eichenberg

Centre for War Studies, Trinity College Dublin

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