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The Dark Side of the Belle Époque. Political violence and Armed Associations in Europe before the First World War

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - PREWArAs (The Dark Side of the Belle Époque. Political violence and Armed Associations in Europe before the First World War)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-03-31

The Dark Side of the Belle Époque. Political Violence and Armed Associations in Europe before the First World War’ (ERC-StG 2015 - PREWArAs) is a five-year comparative project led by Professor Matteo Millan and based at the University of Padova (Italy). The project investigates armed associationism and political violence in Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) that occurred about 30 years before the outbreak of the First World War.
Too often, the period before the Great War has been characterised by reassuring images of optimism and abundance associated with the Belle Époque, in sharp contrast with the carnage of the trenches. The goal of this project is, instead, to investigate how and to what extent organised political violence and armed associations permeated European societies even before the outbreak of the Great War, which is precisely where (Central-Western Europe) and when (the so-called Belle Époque), allegedly, they should not have been present. From long-established shooting clubs to militia in fancy uniforms, from strikebreaking gangs to private and corporate police corps, armed associations were a familiar presence in Europe. Groups were newly established to pursue vigilante activities, while long-established militias or shooting clubs were reactivated around new and very contemporary objectives. Handling weapons was a vehicle for defending social hierarchies, order and productivity as well as for instilling patriotic values and preparing young men for the defence of the country. The argument put forward in the project is that, despite some continuities, private police, strikebreaking and crime control groups as well as many patriotic groups were largely new forms of organisations established to face the challenges of mass politics; in other words, they were not fossilised remains from the past but a product of new times characterised by rapid and profound changes in social, political and cultural contexts.
Such ambitious tasks are being pursued by establishing a coherent comparative framework for considering the main European states of the time using a multi-scale approach. This approach is allowing the project team to carry out extensive comparative research and consider various armed associations in relation both to their discrete national and local environments and to the wider European contexts.
The objectives are twofold. On one hand, the project is aimed at filling a gap in current scholarship by investigating the role, membership, patterns of action and impact of armed associations throughout the continent. Familiar armed associations, such as traditional shooting clubs, will be compared and related to less familiar ones, such as private police or civic militias. On the other hand, the project is aimed at employing armed associations as an angle to think afresh crucial issues in the current historiographical agenda, such as the crises of liberal democracies, the relationship between the democratic system and organised violence, the implementation of so-called state monopoly over physical violence and the causes and effects of WWI. Such a joint approach promises to reshape our current narratives, which view the nineteenth century as the favourite playground for stories of progress and the twentieth century for atrocities: the Belle Époque comes as a compelling phase of transition on whose dark side armed associations shed new light.
The project implementation has been divided in two phases. During the first phase, the research team (4 postdocs and 1 PhD student) worked on the legal framework within which armed associations operated and groups involved in labour and social conflicts, ranging from armed strikebreaking groups to private and corporate police. The postdoc researchers took several research trips throughout Europe to collect sources from national and private/corporate archives. The results were then shared and discussed among the project team members to identify differences and commonalities as well as transnational patterns. For example, the team was able to investigate patterns of action and organisational collaborations among strikebreaking gangs operating across the Austrian–German border or international employers’ associations devoted to strikebreaking, as in the case of the International Shipping Federation and the Yellow Federation. This joint effort originated important publications, which are available in open access.
A second phase of the project started in 2019 and is still ongoing: in this phase, members of the project team are working on aspects related to patriotic and shooting associations and on the preparation of further publications, including edited volumes and monographs.
In the meantime, the PI and project team members pursued extensive scientific dissemination, delivering papers in seminars series (e.g. Sorbonne University Paris, Institute of Historical Research London, University of Oxford) and at conferences (e.g. Annual Conference of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies – Boston; European Consortium for Political research – Hamburg; American Historical Association annual meeting - New York). A series of workshops have been organised to discuss specific aspects with international scholars working on similar fields.
The project is aimed at challenging two main historiographical narratives. On one hand, it aims to offer a nuanced image of the period before the Great War by looking with scepticism at the conventional images of the ville lumière and unstoppable progress, technical developments and processes of democratisation which usually characterise the period and emphasising the constitutive role played by violent practices in the everyday lives of thousands upon thousands of European citizens. On the other hand, the project aims to reconsider the connections between the pre- and post-WWI periods. Historians have spent at least the last three decades stressing the crucial role that WWI played in unleashing – and basically creating – unprecedented levels of political violence across the continent. First, the so-called brutalisation theory and, more recently, more articulated and convincing approaches have underlined the impact of WWI and its aftermath on making Europe a violent continent well beyond the signing of the armistices. The joint approach which views, on one hand, 1914 as an epochal watershed affecting almost all aspects of society and politics and, on the other hand, pre-WWI Europe as a place and time of peace and progress or, at most, cultural decadence has brought about an underestimation of the organisation of violence in Europe during the so-called Belle Époque.
In contrast to current interpretations, which see organised violence as a product of state weakness and collapse or a culture of war, the argument in this project is that armed associations were a response to processes of reconfiguration of traditional social and political balances.
At the end of the project, the team will produce a series of monographs on armed associationism in various countries, while the PI will work on a comparative book presenting the phenomenon in its entirety. Articles and edited books are currently under preparation.
Volontari ciclisti e automobilisti, paramilitary corps
Church Lads brigade
Cittadini dell'ordine, private police