Dr Matteo Millan is Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Padova (Italy).
In pre-WWI Europe, an armed association may be defined as non-state organisation of male civilians that acts publicly and in which the practice of violence is a legitimated course of action. Violence may be experienced as either an actual or potential practice.
Often, violence is implemented and put into effect (e.g. against opponents); other times, it is simply experienced as a possibility and potentiality, albeit a fully legitimate and plausible one (e.g. through military training). The practice of violence is able to shape attitudes, influence perceptions and fears, forge long-lasting behaviours and outlooks. Armed associations were the result of wider political cultures and social movements, but they shared forms of organisations in which political violence was a legitimate course of action. Therefore, despite their different origins, organisations and purposes, armed associations may be compared and considered as a historical subject in their own right.
The stress on the legal organisation and public actions of armed associations is important because it enables us to distinguish armed associations from illegal terrorist groups. Another central element in this definition is its gender-oriented character: early 20th century Europe was an almost exclusively male dominated society and the practice of violence was a source of masculine authority and activity. Masculinity and male cultures are key elements which influenced the individual and collective identity, practices, and political cultures of the members of armed associations both in their direct expressions (beatings, patrols, counter-strike activities, and so on) and indirect manifestations (i.e. in bars and brothels as well as religious ceremonies).