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.

“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.

RATING 9 / 10