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).

Paramilitary groups are more structured than vigilante groups and they are often related to the military or police forces. Examples may include the Somatén, the Voluntarios de la libertad, the Citizen Patrols. Most of them are of ancient origins and boast a glorious (mythological) past which contribute to their legitimization and, in some way, to hide their very modern purposes and aims.

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Since the late 19th century, youth and students were organized in  pre-military groups in several countries. Often supported by the military, they would prepare young boys to military service by training them to march and handling firearms, while instilling patriotic and even militaristic values.

Unknown Author: Tyrolese Standschützen.

Shooting clubs had often long traditions. They represented social groups in which the practice of shooting may be only an excuse for social meetings (and drinking sessions) or to practice patriotic values. In both cases, they were not neutral associations, as the practice of shooting was first of all the result of a choice and its effect may affect the political and social life of local communities. In some countries, such as Italy, shooting clubs became incubators of patriotic and nationalistic values and their members were proud to use the same rifles as the Army.

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Strike breaking groups, private police and vigilante groups are devoted to surveillance, enforcement of public order, defence of private property (and therefore of the social order). Their actions are constantly related with the role of the State, its legitimacy and its power to delegate public security functions to other actors. In order to investigate such armed associations, it is crucial to take into account political cultures (related to ideas of private property, social meaning of the defence of public order, conceptions of the social order) and the practices through which such political cultures were implemented.

Colonies and dominions have been generally considered as characterized by high levels of violence. In such contexts, the boundaries between private and state violence were quite blurred and this fuelled the emergence of irregular militias and even police forces, often operating with only unofficial state authorizations. The colonial rule was largely dependent upon the organization and deployment of paramilitary formations. PREWArAs aims to deal with such armed groups in order to find out transfers and contaminations between the colonial and domestic contexts, in terms of both political cultures and practices. Examples include the Pioneer Column, organized by Cecil Rhodes or the militias enrolled by Colonel Villebois-Mareuil.

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Political groups used violence (and organise themselves for violence) as a deliberate course of action to achieve political aims, to get out from a status of inferiority or minority, as a means of propaganda and with performative functions, to strengthen in-group cohesion, resolution and single-mindedness. Examples include: Italian nationalist groups, the French Camelot du Roi and the Spanish Requetés. They acted within an officially legal framework, though their actions were often against the law.

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This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677199).

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