Control and Chaos: Paramilitary Violence and the Dissolution of the Habsburg Empire



This essay analyses the emergence of paramilitary violence as a new form of control regime in two of the collapsed Habsburg Empire’s successor states, Austria and Hungary. It is argued that both societies witnessed the emergence of a sizeable violent subculture of the political right, a subculture that was shaped and radicalized by the successive traumatizing experiences of war, defeat, revolution, state collapse, and territorial disintegration. Physical violence was most marked in those border areas of limited statehood where different ethnic groups with long-standing mutual antipathies suddenly witnessed a redrawing of borders. Members of the male wartime generation active in this transnational subculture fed on a doctrine of hypernationalism and apocalyptic fantasies as they sought to reassert their control over a society which they perceived to be in the midst of total collapse. Fears of a permanent loss of control over formerly subordinate social groups and ethnic rivals went hand-in-hand with a growing determination to avenge their perceived humiliations at the hands of external and internal enemies. Action, not ideas, was the defining characteristic of these groups. They were driven forward not by a revolutionary vision but by a common rhetoric of the reestablishment of “order” and an interlocking series of social and ethnic antipathies. In the absence of a functioning state, paramilitaries of different political convictions sought to fulfill the control functions of the collapsed Habsburg authorities. Their violence was thus at least in part an act of self-empowerment at a time when the social elites of the Habsburg Empire were more powerless than they had been for centuries.


Postwar Period Combat Experience Paramilitary Group External Enemy Paramilitary Organization 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am most grateful for the financial support I received from the European Research Council, the IRCHSS, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. These grants enabled me to work on this essay.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Arts & Celtic Studies, School of History & Archive, University College DublinDublinIreland

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