State Terrorism in early Twentieth-Century Europe

Authored by: Paul M. Hagenloh

The Routledge History of Terrorism

Print publication date:  April  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415535779
eBook ISBN: 9781315719061
Adobe ISBN: 9781317514879


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Assessing the nature of state terrorism in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century is difficult. The terms “terror” and “terrorism” were in wide use in this period but had varied meanings, not all of which correspond to the way we think about the term today. Even if we accept current definitions that focus on violence committed by (or supported by) governments and directed at non-combatants with clear political goals, often related to national security, we are still left with fundamental questions of definition and scope. Early twentieth-century states, especially dictatorships, mobilized a stunning variety of forms of violence against their populations – structural, paramilitary, legal, extra-legal, often genocidal. Which aspects of this violence qualify as “state terrorism”? Does terrorism occur by definition only in times of peace, or can it occur on the battlefield? Can one state practice “terrorism” vis-à-vis another or only vis-à-vis non-combatant populations (its own or another’s)? Does spontaneous ethnic, religious, or class-based violence count as state terrorism if supported, initially or eventually, by a state? What, if anything, is gained by thinking in terms of “state terrorism” in regards to regimes that operate almost exclusively through violence, intimidation, and fear, or that take genocide as a primary policy goal? One might argue that all violence committed by a genocidal dictatorship should be construed as terroristic, but doing so provides little analytic help in understanding the nature and causes either of state terrorism or of modern state violence in general.

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