Violence as a Community Experience – paramilitary organizations in East Central Europe in the interwar period

Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Peter Haslinger
Project Staff:
Dr. phil. Vytautas Petronis, Wojciech Pieniazek M.A., Mathias Voigtmann M.A.

Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) Forschergruppe
Duration: 2010-2016

Violence is a fundamental human experience. Even in modern society it seems pervasive and is often carried out by groups. These range from gangs of young violent offenders in cities to political militias and rebel groups in the crisis areas of the world to terrorist groups. In communities of like-minded individuals, inhibitions to violence appear to decline.

But how do these violent groups function exactly? How are they structured? What role does violence play within them? Is it just an expression of spontaneous outbursts of emotion, almost of blind rage? Or are there rules and goals, is violence used in a calculated way? Is it always about power and money, or do other driving forces play a role? These questions are addressed by the research group “Communities of Violence” at the Justus Liebig University, an initiative funded by the German Research Foundation.

Paramilitary Organizations in East Central Europe (1918-1944) – self-image, practices of violence, and social dynamics in the example of the “Iron Wolf” in Lithuania

Researcher: Dr. phil. Vytautas Petronis

In December 1926, in response to a crisis within Lithuania’s domestic political sphere, the central and right-wing
opposition carried out a coup d’état. The junta responsible for the revolt named Antanas Smetona as the new President and Professor Augustinas Voldemaras as Prime Minister. Smetona and Voldemaras quickly
distanced themselves from other right-wing parties; only their own party – the “Union of Lithuanian Nationalists” (“Tautininkai”) was allowed and had the backing of the military. Both men were aware of the fact
that a new coup was possible and therefore took preventative action: in January 1927, the “Iron Wolf” was established as “Lithuania’s National Defense”. The main purpose of the group was to protect the newly formed

The Iron Wolf was organized according to military principles. At the very top were the nation’s leaders who had seized power by force – a double position held by Smetona and Voldemaras – together with their general staff. Under them were groups that functioned at a district level, and, in the lower ranks, were squads who operated within districts and municipalities. The Iron Wolf grew very rapidly to the point where, in 1929-1930, the general staff made plans to legalize the organization. However, disagreements between Smetona and
Voldemaras led to a split in the autumn of 1929. Voldemaras was deprived of power and his supporters attempted to return him to political life by using violence, which led to the organization being completely banned in May 1930. From this time onwards, Voldemaras’ supporters and the whole Iron Wolf became an underground movement and continued to carry out plots, murders and coups.

The goal of the project is to investigate the social dynamics that were inherent to the Iron Wolf as an organization. The investigation will involve an analysis of the Iron Wolf’s membership structure, its activities as a community of violence and its connections to other underground movements, and to paramilitary or radical

Paramilitary Organizations in Interwar East Central Europe: communities of violence in conflict over Upper Silesia after the First World War – a German-Polish comparative study

Researcher: Wojciech Pieniazek M.A.

During the peace negotiations that followed the founding of the state in 1918, the Polish delegation asserted a claim to the Prussian province of Upper Silesia. The Allies agreed on a referendum in March 1921 due to the multi-ethnic make-up of the region. The Upper Silesian population, it was decided, should vote on whether they wanted to belong to Germany or to Poland.

After 1918, war fatigue and socio-cultural tensions led to increasing unrest in the coal mining areas of Upper Silesia and outbreaks of rioting, which were suppressed by the German border guards and volunteer corps. It is here that the roots of Upper Silesia’s “territory of violence” can be found, but even prior to the First World War the region was afflicted by a high crime rate.

During the voting period, the day to day situation in Upper Silesia resembled civil war conditions, culminating in three pro-Polish insurrections in 1919, 1920, and 1921. Young men on both the German and Polish sides formed violent groups, whose actions were centered solely around the referendum campaign. In the small-scale war that developed, these paramilitaries formed their own unique dynamic of violence – one that is worthy of research.

Many of the German paramilitaries had previously served as soldiers in the voluntary corps and were deeply affected and influenced by brutal battles in the Baltic States and the German civil war. The same was true for the Polish side, where the men had first-hand experience of fighting in the imperial armies, years of involvement in conspiratorial operations as well as guerilla warfare in the east. The German fighters had to operate underground at first in order to acquire the skills and tactics of undercover warfare. In this, the Poles were more experienced, owing to their years of experience in underground operations. However, the German “communities of violence” were clearly successful in copying this new form of violence and entered into bloody guerilla warfare with the Polish commandos. Ultimately, the victims were the civilians of Upper Silesia, who were overrun with terror and violence.

To date, there has been no conclusive analytical research done on the paramilitaries involved in this conflict. The majority of studies that do exist address, in a rather out-of-date way, aspects of military or diplomatic history. In this project, the aim is to systematically investigate the communities of violence that operated in Upper Silesia. With a view to closing gaps in the existing research, the study will include an analysis, both of the internal structures of these paramilitaries and the dynamics that emerged in their use of violence.

Paramilitary Organizations in Interwar East Central Europe – violence as a communal experience in the example of the Baltic volunteer corps

Researcher: Mathias Voigtmann M.A.

When we consider the overall political situation in the Baltic region after the end of the First World War, several different spheres of interest present themselves. Alongside the efforts of Latvia and Lithuania to strengthen their own nation states, the goal, both of the German military forces still operating in the Baltic and of the German imperial government, was to block the advance of Bolshevik troops who were intent on re-establishing their pre-war spheres of influence in the region.

Consequently, a German voluntary corps network had already begun to form by the end of 1918. It was made up of groups that had initially been set up as security units for the retreating German forces. Before long, they became involved in active fighting, mounting offensives against Bolshevik units as well as Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian forces. Some of the key players who distinguished themselves in these battles, the so-called “Baltikumer”, would later attain leading positions under National Socialism.

The fighting attracted thousands of volunteers from Germany, who were lured by the promise of land to settle in Latvia. There they joined forces with members of local networks, whose violent modus operandi often served as a survival tactic in a region where law and order was breaking down completely and where the security and supply situation had become extremely precarious. The major importance of the group dynamics within these violent organizations, and the effect those dynamics had on the way in which violence was deployed, are topics that have remained, until now, a desideratum in scholarly research.

The aim of this project is to analyze and clarify the internal structures of the voluntary corps organizations as communities of violence, and to investigate the dynamic relationship took shape between the group image and the violent behavior as well as between the groups’ adherence to rules and their excessiveness in the use of violence. The study will also illustrate the degree to which particular emotions and a sense of honor influenced the actions and conduct of key participants, and, finally, will analyze the use of violence through the lens of the perpetrator-victim relationship. It will end with an inquiry into how these voluntary corps dissolved or were disbanded as organized communities of violence and how their members became reintegrated into the regular, structured systems of civil society. This last section of the investigation will be based, not least on analysis of numerous ego-documents and an extensive range of remembrance literature and personal memoirs, for example that of Ernst von Salomon, which helped to create the so-called “Freikorps-Mythos” (“legend of the voluntary corps”), a myth that was used by the National Socialists for propagandistic purposes.