Political violence in interwar Europe: A lecture by Chris Millington

I gave this lecture to first-year undergraduates at Swansea University (UK) in 2013, as part of a broad survey course on Europe between 1789 and 1989.  In the interests of readability I have removed all the references from the document.  Please scroll to the bottom of the page for a list of some of the sources that I used when writing this lecture.

 Political violence in interwar Europe: A lecture

by Chris Millington

In this lecture, I’m going to introduce you to the topic of political violence in interwar Europe.

To begin with, I’m going to tell you a story about a fight that took place in Swansea in July 1934.  The setting for the fight was a cinema.  But the people involved in the fight were not watching a film.   During the interwar years, cinemas were often used to hold political meetings.  They were large enough to hold a good number of people and there was usually a stage in front of the screen from which speakers could address the audience.  At this particular meeting, the speaker – Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists – took to the stage, which was surrounded by men in black uniforms.  When his speech was over he asked the audience if there were any questions. A man in the audience said: “I work for a Jew.  Should I change my employer?”  The speaker expressed his disgust that anyone should work for a Jew.  He replied “You should find a new employer.”  The man in the audience then stood up – and for the first time showed that he was wearing a dog collar.  He was a priest.  The Jew for whom he worked was Jesus Christ.  Suddenly, members of the audience rushed toward the stage and attacked the black-shirted men.  Mosley was bundled out of the back door and the police were called to put an end to the fight, and the meeting.


The interwar years in Europe were marred by violence.  In Italy, violence claimed the lives of up to 2000 people before Mussolini came to power in 1922.  In Germany, the years between 1928 and 1933 saw approximately 400 communists and Nazis die.  Even in France, a relatively stable parliamentary democracy in comparison with Germany and Italy, about 60 people died in violence between 1934 and 1938.  In fact, throughout the continent, groups on the extreme left – usually the communists – and groups on the extreme right – usually fascists – fought each other with bloody consequences.  Such was the frequency and scale of this violence that historian Ernst Nolte has termed the years 1914-1945 the ‘European Civil War’, while James McMillan has called the period ‘an era of violence and bloodshed’.

If we accept Nolte’s argument that the years between 1914 and 1945 represent a period of conflict, then our stress must fall on continuity throughout the period.  Let’s look then for lines of continuity between the war and the interwar years.

The first point I’d like you to make note, is that fighting in Europe did not end on 11 November 1918.  In fact, if this date marked the end of hostilities on the Western Front, according to John Horne and Robert Gerwarth this was the exception rather than the rule.  In Russia, the Baltic States, the Ukraine, Hungary and parts of Germany, military and paramilitary violence continued as late as 1923, when governments across the continent more or less stabilised.  But even then, 1923 did not mark an end to violence.  The war had changed politics on the continent.  Politics was no longer the preserve of parliamentarians and professional politicians.  Now, gangs of uniformed men entered politics, and they brought with them a new violence in their language and their behaviour.  Of course, the Nazis in Germany are perhaps the best-known examples, but Britain and France too experienced this new style of politics, as we will see.

Let’s look more closely at this argument – that the violence of the First World War spilled over and continued into the interwar years.  To begin with, we’ll examine the violence of the war itself.

Since the 1990s, historians have investigated what they have called the ‘war culture’.  This war culture encompasses all the ideas that soldiers and civilians had about the war, how they interpreted the conflict, and the reasons for which they continued to fight.  The results of these investigations might surprise you.  Historians such as Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, Annette Becker and Alan Kramer have found that the war culture depicted the conflict as a fight for civilisation itself.  Civilians and combatants on both sides believed they were fighting for their very way of life against an uncivilised and barbaric enemy.  This idea was grounded partly in scientific and religious reasoning.  The war was represented as a battle between opposing races, and one fought in the name of God.  It is argued that given that soldiers believed they were fighting not only for their country, but also for their civilisation, their race and their God, extreme violence against the enemy was legitimised.  Furthermore, the distinction between soldiers and civilians became blurred and non-combatants were legitimate targets.  During the First World War. then, the nature of warfare itself had changed.

Next, we must examine how this new attitude to violence and warfare, and how these ideas, managed to bridge the gap between the war and peacetime.  It’s here that I’d like to introduce the ‘brutalisation’ thesis, formulated by George Mosse.  The crux of the thesis rests on the experience of men who fought at the front and how they acted once they returned to civilian society.  It is argued that these men brought the ideas and behaviour of wartime back with them.  To explain the theory, I’ll split it into parts.

The argument begins with the soldiers at the front during the war. Trench soldiers, especially those who took part in attacks, were said to have felt a strong sense of brotherhood and camaraderie with their comrades.    The bonds between men became very strong and they felt that only their comrades – and not those at home – understood the experience of the war.   Soldiers would risk their lives for each other. Yet despite the love for one’s comrades, life at the front was cheap. Soldiers grew used to living amongst unprecedented levels of death and destruction.   They joked about death, used dead bodies as shelters and took clothing and boots from dead soldiers to wear themselves.  The value of human life seemed low.

If death was commonplace, killing had a special status.  When enemy soldiers confronted each other, the result was a brutal fight to the death.  Mosse argues that in battle soldiers became ‘primitive, instinctual and violent.’ We could say that they reverted to an animal-like state.  To kill the enemy was accompanied by strong emotions. One might feel exhilarated at having survived.  Such feelings were mixed with a sense of pride at having done one’s duty and fulfilled your commitment to your comrades.  In a sense, you had proved your worth as a man.

According to the brutalisation thesis, soldiers who returned home from the front continued to think and act as if they were still at war.  They did this in a number of ways.  Firstly, veterans joined organisations in which they could continue to live like soldiers.  These organisations were paramilitary groups, usually belonging to the extreme right.  As a member of a paramilitary group, a veteran could once again wear a uniform, take part in parades, win medals and, most importantly, relive the brotherhood of wartime.  Just as during the war, this sense of belonging to a community, to an elite, was accompanied by a feeling of superiority – or contempt even – for those on the ‘outside’.

Secondly, these paramilitary groups not only allowed men to dress up like soldiers, they allowed them to act like soldiers.  They viewed politics as a battle.  Just as during wartime the enemy was dehumanised and he was to be defeated at all costs, even with force and violence.  As a result, these extreme right-wing groups expressed a deep-seated contempt for democracy.

Finally, the men who joined these groups brought back from the trenches their attitude to life and death – according to Mosse, ‘…a heightened indifference to human life’.  The killing of the enemy was acceptable, if not desirable, and it could be framed – just as in wartime – as one’s national – and manly – duty.

In a nutshell, that is the brutalisation thesis – the theory that veterans transferred the methods and practices of trench warfare into post-war politics and civil society. Brutalisation was sharpest in countries that were on the losing side in the Great War.  Germany is the example that you are probably most familiar with – and the one we will examine – but brutalisation was integral to the rise of communism in Russia too.

But just why did the defeated nations experience brutalisation to a greater extent than the victorious powers?  We’ll answer this question with reference to Germany, Britain and France.  The answer involves a concept called ‘cultural demobilisation’ (John Horne).  What does this mean?

When countries enter a war they must mobilise for the war effort.  Before the Great War, mobilisation usually referred to the army – the process of conscripting men, or appealing for volunteers.  However, as the Great War was a total war – in that it involved more than just the soldiers at the front – countries had to mobilise their economies – converting to a war economy – and their cultures – convincing civilians to support the war effort.  When the war ends, countries have to demobilise their army – which means sending the men back home.  But due to the total nature of the Great War, economic and cultural demobilisation was also necessary.  Cultural demobilisation – what we might think of as the ‘switching off’ of wartime attitudes – was most straightforward in nations that had won the war, such as Britain and France.  Governments could tell their peoples that the war had been great, just and worthwhile, and now it was time to return to normality or the ‘good old days’ of the pre-war era.

This was not possible in countries such as Germany, where the war’s outcome had caused festering resentment.  It was not possible to return to normality – the Kaiser had fled, the government had collapsed and the nation was ruined.  The war had not ended satisfactorily and consequently, the country could not ‘demobilise in a cultural sense’.  For many men returning home, the war continued, whether against the communist or nationalist enemy, or against the Weimar Republic, which was thought responsible for the defeat.

There were two periods of serious violence in Weimar Germany.  The first period was during 1918-1923.  This was a time of civil war and revolution, involving, extreme right-wing paramilitary groups known as the Free Corps, and the extreme left, such as Rosa Luxemburg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartakist league.  The second period of violence was between 1928 and 1933.  Of course, when we think of violence at this time, the Nazi Party immediately springs to mind.  It is indeed true that violence was an important component of Nazi propaganda and street politics.  The party used its street fighters, the SA or Storm Detachment (note the militarised name) to distribute propaganda, stage street marches and beat up rivals.

However, I would like to add that though Nazi violence may be the most well-known to you, it was only part of the picture.  During the 1920s, a variety of armed and uniformed groups fought in the streets of Weimar Germany.  Dirk Schumann has termed them the ‘Combat Leagues’.  There are two points that I would like you to note.  Firstly, veterans played a prominent role in some of these groups, for example, the right-wing Stahlhelm (Steel helmets – founded December 1918).  Yet young Germans, who had not fought in the war, joined paramilitary organisations too – for example, the nationalist Jungdo (Young German Order – founded March 1920), and the communist Rote Jung Front (Young Red Front – founded 1924).  The second point is that even the social democratic party – which was closest to the Weimar Republic – possessed its own paramilitary league called. The Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold (Reich Banner Black-Red-Gold – founded February 1924).  The Reichsbanner was used to support the police against political extremists.

What does this tell us about Germany?  For one thing, each group in some form or another was influenced by the war – whether it be in uniforms, symbols, or their name.  Furthermore, given the number of groups that resorted to violence we might argue, as Dirk Schumann has, that violence ‘took root in the political culture’ of Weimar Germany.  This means that it was not just brutalised veterans who were responsible for violence.  The involvement of young non-veterans and social democrats in paramilitarism hints at the extent to which German society and culture itself had failed to demobilise.  Violence became so commonplace as to become an acceptable tactic for a variety of political groups.

Brutalisation was not confined to Germany, nor was it evident in the defeated countries alone.  To illustrate this point, let’s take the example of Britain.  Of course, Britain ended the war a victorious power.  We might add, then, that the process of ‘cultural demobilisation’ proceeded more smoothly here – at the risk of over-simplification, Britain had no axe to grind and had no unresolved issues arising from the war unlike Germany.  Even so, there were outbursts of violence in Britain immediately after the war and, importantly, they involved veterans.  Firstly, during January and August 1919 riots in cities across Britain saw soldiers and veterans involved.  Secondly, soldiers who had fought in the Great War were involved in the bloody repression of Irish nationalists during 1920-21 – the so-called Black-and-Tans.  But, according to historian Jon Lawrence, the British press and public soon came to reject violence.   It was argued that Britain had fought the war against militarism and in favour of law and order.  Violence was represented as ‘un-British’ and ‘foreign’, and allusions were made to the peacefulness of pre-war Britain as a so-called ‘peaceable kingdom’.

Consequently, no political or social movement arose that sought to legitimise the use of violence as the key to national salvation, as did the groups in Germany.  It is true that there was a British fascist group – the British Union of Fascists – which dressed in black uniforms and fought with antifascists.  The most famous incident was the so-called ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in 1936.   But compared to other groups on the European continent, it did not embrace a cult of violence to the same extent.  Thanks to the satisfactory end to the war, Britain was able to ‘demobilise culturally’ and brutalisation was severely limited.

I’d like to make two further points about cultural demobilisation and brutalisation.  The first point is that the inability to demobilise culturally was not limited to the defeated nations.  Let’s look at Italy.  Italy had entered the war on the side of the Allies, with the promise that if victorious, Italians would receive certain territories on which they had a claim.  However, following the war, the promised lands were not gifted to the Italians.  This gave rise to the idea that, though victorious, Italy’s victory was ‘mutilated’.  Nationalists used this idea to appeal to veterans who felt betrayed by the war’s outcome.  In 1919, Gabriele d’Annunzio invaded and occupied the port city of Fiume in modern day Croatia, with a band of black-shirted paramilitaries known as the arditi – these men were the shock troops of the Italian army.  Mussolini would later base the paramilitary style of the fascists on D’Annunzio’s arditi, whom he called the ‘trenchocracy’.  So, despite Italy being on the winning side in the Great War, the idea of the mutilated victory meant that cultural demobilisation was impeded and brutalisation came to the fore.

The second point is that even in countries that had won the war and managed to demobilise culturally, paramilitarism and political violence could exist.  The example of France is useful here.  Historians (such as Antoine Prost) have argued that France was able to avoid brutalisation thanks to the satisfactory outcome of the war and the fact that, rather than embracing violence, French veterans became pacifists.  Unlike in Germany, where the veteran was hailed as a new breed of violent superman, the French veteran was considered moral and virtuous.

That may be but we cannot ignore the fact that during the 1930s, paramilitary groups enjoyed extraordinary success in France.   In fact, in February 1934, the extreme right rioted in Paris and came very close to overthrowing the democratic regime.  The largest group on the extreme right was the Croix de Feu.  In many ways, it resembled paramilitary groups abroad.  It was anti-democratic and anti-communist.  It staged elaborate parades and ceremonies, was organised according to a military structure, and held the experience of the trenches and war in high regard.  Its membership was one of veterans and young-men (though women could join too).   It engaged in regular violence against its enemies.  Yet the most striking fact about the Croix de Feu was its size – by mid-1936, it had nearly half a million members, making it the largest political movement in France.

All in all, between 1934 and 1938, political violence in France saw approximately 60 people killed.  Now, this number may seem small compared to the approximately 400 deaths in Nazi and communist violence during 1928-1933 in Germany.  Yet compared to Britain, where –  as far as I know – no one died as a result of political violence, French politics seems more violent than one might expect of a parliamentary democracy.

We must now address criticism of the brutalisation thesis.  On the surface, the idea that men who acted violently during the war brought this violence home with them may seem plausible.  Yet we could argue that the origins of interwar political violence were more complex, and we must take into account a multitude of factors.

Firstly, according to Mosse, the reasons behind interwar violence began in August 1914, when the Great War began.  However, a multitude of interwar conflicts had roots that went back further.  This was the case particularly in Eastern Europe, where rival ethnic groups had long contested power in disputed territories.  When the empires in Eastern Europe collapsed after the Great War, these tensions sharpened in what was a power vacuum.  Old linguistic, social and racial differences divided combatants and could lead to what Michael Mann has called ‘ultra-violence’ between ethnic groups.  Violence was most serious in ethnically or religiously diverse regions – 2.5-3.3m deaths in the Russian civil war.  As rival groups attempted to establish new nation-states, it was these older difference, rather than the opposition between ‘fascism’ and communism that could prompt violence.

Secondly, in the case of France, brutalisation and political violence were not necessarily linked.  Paramilitarism could develop as a reaction to political developments.  In France during the 1930s, the extreme right was most successful only when it appeared that communism was gaining ground.  Likewise, during 1919-1920, in the Baltic, the Ukraine, Hungary and Germany, right-wing violence developed in response to the spread of communism.  The point is that brutalised soldiers were not predisposed to act violently – they could do so in reaction to more immediate developments.

My third and final point also takes France as its example.  The high-point of paramilitarism in France came in the 1930s, about fifteen years after the war’s end.  Many, if not the majority of men who joined these groups were young men, not former soldiers.  In Germany and Italy too, paramilitary groups relied to an extent on men who had not fought in the war.  We might question then the importance of brutalised soldiers to interwar political violence.


What I’d like you to take away from this lecture is an understanding of how historians have explained interwar political violence.  We’ve looked at two key ideas: brutalisation and its limits, and the concept of cultural demobilisation.  Whether one accepts these theories or not, it is clear that after the Great War, European politics had changed.   Wartime attitudes survived in many parts of Europe.  Violence was no longer an exceptional political tactic; it was used regularly by an array of groups across the political spectrum.  In countries throughout Europe that were unhappy with the post-war situation, the future seemed to belong to men of action like Mussolini’s arditi and Hitler’s stormtroopers.  The incentive to remain within the boundaries of legality weakened and disappeared in some cases.  Yet uniformed paramilitaries were no stranger to the streets of London or Paris or, as we have seen, Swansea.  This culture of militarised politics, violent language and street-fighting was one of the most enduring legacies of the post-war upheavals.


General Reading : Mosse, George, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (OUP: 1994) / Bloxham, Donald, and Robert Gerwarth. Political Violence in Twentieth-Century Europe. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 2011 / Gerwarth, Robert, and John Horne. “Vectors of Violence: Paramilitarism in Europe After the Great War, 1917–1923.” The Journal of Modern History 83, no. 3 (2011): 489–512 / Gerwath, Robert, and John Horne. “The Great War and Paramilitarism in Europe, 1917-23.” Contemporary European History 19, no. Special Issue 03 (2010): 267–273.

On Germany: Bessel, Richard. Germany After the First World War. Oxford:: Clarendon Press,, 1995 / Evans, Richard J., The Coming of the Third Reich (2004) / Mosse, George, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (1990).

On Britain: Lawrence, Jon. “Forging a Peaceable Kingdom: War, Violence, and Fear of Brutalization in Post–First World War Britain.” The Journal of Modern History 75, no. 3 (2003): 557–589 / -——. “Fascist Violence and the Politics of Public Order in Inter-war Britain: The Olympia Debate Revisited.” Historical Research 76, no. 192 (2003): 238–267 / Pugh, Martin. “The British Union of Fascists and the Olympia Debate.” The Historical Journal 41, no. 2 (June 1998): 529–542.

On Italy: Roberta Suzzi Valli, ‘The myth of squadrismo in the Fascist regime’, Journal of Contemporary History 35.2 (2000), 131-150 / Petersen, Jens. “Violence in Italian Fascism.” In Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Europe. London & Basingstoke: Macmillan Press,, 1982 / Lyttelton, Adrian. “Fascism and Violence in Post-war Italy: Political Strategy and Social Conflict.” In Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Europe. London: Macmillan,, 1982.

On France: Millington, Chris, “Political Violence in Interwar France,” History Compass 10 (2012) 246-259 / Prost, Antoine. “The Impact of War on French and German Political Cultures.” The Historical Journal 37, no. 1 (March 1994): 209–217.


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