Peace is a Relative Term: 'War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War'

On the postwar repercussions of poor diplomacy and inept decision-making in economic and foreign policy that led to the widespread nationalism across Europe during the interwar years.

War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 256 pages
Author: Robert Gerwarth, John Horne editors
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-12
“The war of the giants is over; the wars of pygmies have begun.”

– Winston Churchill, 1919

Rather an undiplomatic diplomat in his early days, Winston Churchill was always known to speak his mind. His disillusionment and anger over the hustling and petty bickering among the major powers at the negotiating tables of the Paris peace conference of 1919 left him feeling that Britain’s victory was a pyrrhic one. France and Italy were clambering for overseas territory in Africa and the Middle East with the former fighting head-to-head with Britain for competing stakes in Southeast Asia. The nearly 20 million dead seemed to be reduced to mere pin-points and lines on a map. The dreams of a liberated Europe, free from sleepy despots and dictators, would wake to the reality of 20 more years of imperial grandstanding from the victors before the next world war.

War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War is a collection of 13 essays from historians and scholars that focus on the postwar repercussions of poor diplomacy and inept decision-making in economic and foreign policy that led to the widespread nationalism across Europe during the interwar years.

All across the Balkans, Poland, and Ireland, home-rule movements were becoming more aggressive and violent in their demands for independence. Russia’s civil wars from 1918-1920 between the fading imperialist White Army and the Bolshevik Red Army left the country in shambles. Germany, forced to pay reparations to the Allies of 132 billion marks ($31.5 billion) -- far beyond its economic possibility (it eventually paid off the debt in 2010) and to give up its colonial holdings and its beloved East Prussia -- adjusted to its dismal economy and postwar stagnation with the rise of various militant nationalist groups, the most notable being the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Italy, which lost about 650,000 men with nearly two million casualties, felt it was shortchanged at the Paris negotiating tables when the territory it claimed along the Dalmatian coast was given to Yugoslavia, as France and Britain amassed the bulk of the former German and Ottoman territories in Africa and the Middle East. As in Germany, a growing discontent nurtured by what the historian Wolfgang Schievelbusch eloquently called “the culture of defeat” took hold in Italy, leading to the rise of fascism.

As the essays in the book explain, “peace” is a relative term. The interwar years in Europe, though officially a time of peace, were fraught with political and social tensions with episodes of violence erupting in sporadic bursts either within a power vacuum caused by unstable governments or in retaliation to imperial power: the Finnish Civil War of 1918, the Christmas uprising of Montenegrin guerrilla fighters against Serbian unification in 1918, the Polish uprising against Germany in 1919, the protracted Basmachi revolt among Muslims in Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1931, the Turkish War of Independence of 1919, and the Irish Civil War of 1922, to name only a few.

The aim of War in Peace is to shed light on the larger, universal issue of the tenuous nature of national stability and indigenous ethnic tensions. Income disparity within social and ethnic groups and issues of cultural integration were pressing problems during the '20s and '30s, just as they are now. The Basmachi revolt among the indigenous Turkic peoples of Central Asia against Soviet rule bears similarities to the problems Russia currently faces with Islamist fundamentalists in Chechnya.

At moments War in Peace reminds me of an academic conference where the overall theme is centered around one or two pivotal buzzwords. Here the buzzword is “paramilitary”. If you can’t comprehend the literal and figurative meaning of the term, then the entire book will fall apart for you. Fortunately, Robert Gerwarth and John Horne define it clearly in their introduction:

By paramilitary violence we mean military or quasi-military organizations and practices that either expanded or replaced the activities of conventional military formations. Sometimes this occurred in the vacuum left by collapsing states… It shared the stage with other violence, such as social protest, insurrection, terrorism, police repression, criminality and conventional armed combat.

The essential takeaway issue is that unresolved economic and political issues within disparate ethnic groups in a country, if unaddressed, can invariably lead to domestic and international violence. From the Armenians of Ottoman Turkey, the Irish of the British Empire, to the current Chechans, Rohingya, Palestinians, and other disenfranchised ethnic groups across the world, the story is essentially the same. Abandonment, poverty, and exile lead to violence and terrorism.

The focus of the essays tend to shift primarily towards a keen interest in the complex politics of the civil war in Bolshevik Russia and conflict within the new countries of the Balkans, of which the strongest essays, in terms of cohesiveness and clarity, are Robert Gerwarth’s “Fighting the Red Beast: Counter-Revolutionary Violence in the Defeated States of Central Europe”, Tomas Balkelis’ “Turning Citizens into Soldiers: Baltic Paramilitary Movements after the Great War”, and Pertti Haapala and Marko Tikka’s “Revolution, Civil War, and Terror in Finland in 1918”. Haapala and Tikka’s essay is a revelation in the sense that relatively little tends to be written about this transitional time in modern Finnish history and its complex political and cultural relationship with Russia.

Regarding the essays on the major Western European countries, those by Anne Dolan, “The British Culture of Paramilitary Violence in the Irish War of Independence”, Julia Eichenberg, “Soldiers to Civilians, Civilians to Soldiers: Poland and Ireland after the First World War”, John Horne, “Defending Victory: Paramilitary Politics in France, 1918-1926”, and Emilio Gentile, “Paramilitary Violence in Italy: The Rationale of Fascism and the Origins of Totalitarianism” are the strongest in explaining the historical factors of the interwar period for those countries; ongoing revolt in colonial violence in Ireland, the rise of fascism in Italy, and colonialism, cronyism, and anti-Semitism in France. It’s perhaps no wonder that the French general Ferdinand Foch said in utter disillusionment of the Paris peace conference that the Treaty of Versailles was not a real peace, but “an armistice for twenty years.” Now with the centenary of the First World War rolling in this summer in 2014, it’s important to remember not only what led to the war but also what happened in its aftermath.

War in Peace is a thorough, incisive read for any scholar and enthusiast of 20th century European history. I’m surprised it hasn’t made it onto more lists for the best books on foreign affairs and military history compiled by the likes of Foreign Affairs and The Council on Foreign Relations. It’s definitely the academic sleeper hit of 2013, an ideal book for understanding more about the internecine politics that led to both world wars.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.