White Terror: Paramilitary Violence in Interwar Central Europe
Robert Gerwarth, History, University of Oxford
Research Grant, 2006, 2007
The research grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation enabled me to explore the history of paramilitary violence in Central Europe after the Great War. My aim was to challenge the dominant nation-centric approaches to the history of violent right-wing movements in early interwar Germany, Austria, and Hungary by adopting a transnational approach that conceptualizes post-1918 Central Europe as a “zone of violence” that was conditioned by the experiences of military defeat, revolution, and territorial disintegration (or amputation).
The HFG research grant enabled me to undertake extensive primary research in this field and to test the wider methodological implications of my hypothesis for our understanding of political violence more generally. I undertook several extended trips to various Central European archives replete with documents dealing with the violent aftermath of World War I. In addition to the accumulation of a vast amount of press clippings on the subject matter, I collected memoirs and diaries of over one hundred perpetrators and victims of the so-called “White Terror” from the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv Berlin), the Staatsarchiv Freiburg, the Landesarchivs Baden-Württemberg, the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Munich), the NIOD (Amsterdam), the Special Archive (Moscow), the Hungarian National Archives and the Military Archive in Budapest, and the Österreichische Staatsarchiv, as well as the state archives in Innsbruck, Graz, and Vienna.
This extensive research confirmed my original hypothesis that the three major successor states of the Central European Empires witnessed the emergence of a transnational subculture of paramilitary activists that was shaped by the successive traumatizing experiences of defeat, revolution, and territorial disintegration, experiences which all three countries shared. In that respect, it was not so much the experience of the Great War (an experience also shared by the Western Allies, which managed the transition from war to peace with considerably less bloodshed) as George Mosse famously argued, but the peculiar combination of defeat and revolution that triggered an ultraviolence response from the Central European right.
The counterrevolutionary activists that formed this paramilitary subculture were in direct contact with each other, building on connections established during the war, negotiating ways of co-operation, and exchanging ideas and personnel.
Although important differences existed in terms of individual motivations for joining paramilitary groups, these differences were by no means nation-specific. The activists involved in paramilitary activities in all three countries shared a determination to use ultraviolence in order to suppress the revolutionary threat and to avenge their perceived humiliations at the hands of external and internal enemies. Their ultraviolence, made possible by a temporary breakdown of legal authority, was both destructive and creative as it helped to establish new transnational subcultures of perpetrators and victims within Central Europe.
Despite a high degree of ideological fragmentation within the political right of Central Europe, the counterrevolutionary activists in all three countries agreed on the primary aim of restoring “order” through violence and identified the same groups as their enemies in what was effectively a transnational civil war. Everywhere in the region, anti-Bolshevism, anti-Semitism and antifeminism operated as touchstones for paramilitary movements. Their violent retribution was not merely seen as a politically necessary act of self-defense in order to suppress the communist revolts of Central Europe, but also as a positive value in itself that distinguished the activists from the “indifferent” and “cowardly” majority of bourgeois society unwilling to rise up in the face of revolution and defeat. Ever since the military collapse of the Central European Empires in November 1918 and the subsequent revolutions in Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna, the counterrevolutionary activists that formed this paramilitary subculture were in direct contact with each other, building on connections established during the war, negotiating ways of co-operation, and exchanging ideas and personnel.
What difference do these findings make to our understanding of the history of paramilitary violence in Central Europe after the Great War? Although the concept of “transnationality” has come to dominate the most recent historiography of twentieth-century Central Europe, the vast majority of historians working in the field have focused on the important, but rather obvious subjects of, for example, (forced or voluntary) migration, religion, or tourism as forms of cross-cultural encounter and interaction. Yet, ethnic conflict, war and civil war, were, perhaps, the most defining transnational experiences in the region during much of the twentieth century and they, too, contributed to a vast array of contacts and transfers of ideas and personnel across real or imagined borders. The ultraviolence of the immediate postwar period was instrumental in forging new transnational milieus of perpetrators and victims whose interaction across national borders was an important characteristic of Central European history in the period and would remain so in different guises until the radical reshaping of Central European frontiers and populations in the aftermath of 1945.