Special Issue: Civil Wars in 20th-Century Europe: Comparative Perspectives

Edited by Martin Conway and Robert Gerwarth

In the first half of the twentieth century, Europe experienced a wave of civil wars, unparalleled since the French Revolution, from Finland in the North and Ireland and Spain in the West, to Ukraine and Russia in the East and Greece in the South.

This special issue of the Journal of Modern European History sets out to explore the usefulness of the concept of civil wars and to explore how we can explain the proliferation of civil wars in this period. Was it a coincidence that Europe became the epicentre of civil war violence in those decades while civil wars remained the exception outside Europe (with Mexico and China as the most significant cases)? Moreover, how should one explain that the opposite was largely the case in Europe during the second half of the 20th century, when civil war disappeared as a phenomenon within Europe until the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, while civil wars multiplied outside of Europe, notably within the former territories of European empires? 

Our approach to civil wars as multi-layered conflicts in which different socio-economic, political, ethnic, and religious tensions coalesced informs the contributions to this special issue, from Bill Kissane’s essay on the successor states of Europe’s imploded land empires (and specifically the Anatolian heartland of the imploding Ottoman Empire between 1919 and 1923) to Jochen Böhler and Barbora Fischerová’s comparative article on the violence that the Second Polish Republic and the First Czechoslovak Republic experienced during their early independence after 1918. 

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, there was a second wave of civil wars in Europe which intensified between 1938/39 and 1949. In that period, large areas of the continent were under foreign occupation, prompting the collapse of pre-existing structures of government and violent clashes between rival political projects. As Franziska Zaugg and Iason Chandrinos argue in their essay in this special issue, the Balkans during the Axis occupation in the early 1940s witnessed overlapping, multi-directional conflicts. Focusing on Kosovo/Serbia and Albania/Greece they illustrate the complex interrelation between ethnic tensions and political imperatives on local, national and transnational scales.

Although the defeat of Nazi Germany allowed the victorious partisans across Europe to settle scores with their erstwhile enemies, it did not bring an end to the logics of civil war. The conflicts between the new Communist rulers of the Baltic States, and of Poland and their nationalist opponents continued after the formal end of the war, while the civil war in Greece developed (with international stimulus) into a major conflict during the immediate post-war years.

One of the major merits of a focus on civil wars is therefore that it renders less clear cut the beginnings and ends of the era of World War II. Indeed, seen through the prism of its constitutive civil wars, it often seems more appropriate to propose a re-periodization of the conflict as one that stretched from 1936 to 1949After such a long period of sustained community violence, any victor of a civil war would struggle to establish a stable peace and Greece was no exception, when its civil war ended with the military defeat of the Communist forces in 1949. As this special issue’s comparative essay on the aftermaths of the Russian (1918-1921) and Greek (1946-1949) civil wars by Yiannis Kokosalakis makes clear, both states emerged weakened from their civil wars. In both cases, civil war had not emerged as a result of functioning states splitting into two or more competing authorities. Instead, they were the product of a multifaceted fragmentation of political power into a wide ranging competition for control over both its territories and its administrative resources. 

As the two emergent superpowers – the Soviet Union and the USA – tightened their grip on their respective spheres of influence in the later 1940s, Europe’s ‘Age of Civil Wars’ came to an end. Yet, if 1949 marked the beginning of the decline of civil wars in metropolitan Europe, the opposite is true for the non-European world. As Pierre Asselin and Martin Thomas show in their contribution, civil-war violence was a frequent element of the ‘end of empire’. Using the examples of two French colonies, Vietnam and Algeria, during and immediately after 1945, they explore the dynamics of local, often intra-ethnic contests among anticolonial oppositionists and argue that elements of civil war pre-dated the supposed outbreak of decolonisation conflicts – 1946 in Vietnam and 1954 in Algeria.

In sum, the essays brought together in this special issue showcase new perspectives on the near-simultaneous and historically unprecedented proliferation of civil-war violence in Europe (broadly defined to include the Ottoman Empire and the territories of European empires) and how they related to other forms of political violence. In doing so, we hope that this collection will contribute to scholarly debates about the ‘place’ of civil wars in Europe’s turbulent twentieth century.

View online at sagepub.com