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Arnold Suppan

Violence in Western Europe in the 20th century

15 Feburary 2019
  • First World War
  • Second World War
  • violence
  • Western Europe
  • warfare

This is a lightly edited transcript of a lecture given at the symposium ‘Violence in 20th-century Europe: Commemorating, Documenting, Educating’ in Brussels, Belgium on 6 June 2017.

Europe is still suffering from consequences of the First and Second World Wars, which almost resulted in Europe destroying itself. Both wars, the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ of the 20th century, resulted in many millions of killed or heavily wounded soldiers and many millions of widows and orphans. There were almost sixteen million deaths during the First World War and at least sixty million deaths during the Second World War. This included genocides against the Jews, Armenians, Poles, Roma and Sinti as well as Chechens- Ingush and Crimean Tatars. There were more than thirty-five million expellees and refugees (Germans, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Slovaks, Magyars, Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Italians). Economies and societies were destroyed and we still feel the consequences of this destruction up until the present day. On the one hand, after both wars the ‘victors’ made mistaken and illjudged political, economic and social decisions that undermined peaceful developments, particularly in Eastern Europe. On the other, both wars created remembrances that still strongly divide many European nations.1

In the First World War Germany lost 4 per cent of its inhabitants; Russia (without the civil war) 3 per cent; France 5 per cent; Britain 3 per cent; and Italy 4 per cent; but Serbia suffered the death of almost 15 per cent; Romania 5 per cent; and the new Republic of Austria 4 per cent. The war left three million widows, as many as ten million orphans and millions of grieving parents, brothers, sisters, lovers and friends. The names of the dead were listed on tens of thousands of monuments built throughout Europe after the war. In the 1920s and 1930s, Europeans remembered the war in ceremonies that emphasized sacrifice, grief and mourning. A number of remarkable novels and memoirs began to appear about ten years after the armistice (Sheehan 2008, 100–104).

The demographic disaster of the Second World War was even worse, literally the most disastrous in modern history. Rough estimates of military losses and civilian deaths arising from wartime policies, including the Nazi extermination of the Jews and other war-related causes, particularly aerial warfare, expulsions and forced resettlements, gave a different picture. Germany (of 1937) lost more than 10 per cent of its inhabitants, the Soviet Union 15 per cent, Poland even 20 per cent, Yugoslavia 7 per cent, Austria (of 1937) 5.5 per cent. In comparison, Italy suffered ‘only’ 2 per cent, France 1 per cent, Britain even less. In the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ almost six million Jews were murdered, half of them in the Nazi extermination camps in occupied Poland, with more than a million by SS-Einsatzgruppen in the western parts of the Soviet Union (Winter 1995, 289–92; Tomasevich 2001; Gilbert 1995, 364–71).

In comparison, Western Europe suffered more in the First World War than in the Second World War, Eastern Europe far more in the Second World War. No doubt, the Germans fought differently in the East and in the West, and Germany’s enemies did so too. From 1939, Eastern and Southeastern Europe were involved in a total war, and in 1944–45 Central Europe was too. In the First World War all the complex military machines had transformed civilians into soldiers. Citizen soldiers had to fight not through fear but through devotion to their country and commitment to their comrades. For many soldiers the battlefields in Western, Eastern and Southeastern Europe provided the first glimpses of a world beyond their village. Winston Churchill realized very early that ‘this is no ordinary war, but a struggle between nations for life and death’ (Sheehan 2008, 12–20, 55, 60, 73).

Between 1914 and 1918, neither side respected the Fourth Hague International Convention of 1907. However, as the Allied armies hardly ever succeeded in penetrating German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian or Ottoman territory (not before late 1917), foreign occupation, collaboration, resistance, repression and retribution mainly occurred in territories that the Central Powers occupied in Belgium, northeastern France, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Italy and Russia. German troops started executing alleged francs-tireurs (snipers) in Belgium and France; Austro-Hungarians hanged thousands of Serbians and Ukrainian civilians, among them Orthodox priests, suspected of spying for the enemy. Politically, the shootings and lootings benefited mainly the Allies, whose media spread the news of atrocities committed by the ‘Huns’ (Germans) and their allies. The issue of collaboration with the enemy was less of a public concern during the First World War, at least in Western Europe, than it would become during the Second World War. In the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turk government and the army high command suspected the Armenians of siding with the invading Russian enemy and organized the expulsion and massacre of perhaps a million Armenian fellow citizens, including women and children. This was the first true genocide in the 20th century (Naimark 2001, 17–42).

Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was divided along many fault lines – between victors and losers, liberalism and radical nationalism, militarism and pacifism, democracy and dictatorship, capitalism and communism, right and left, ‘but the most important was between those who rejected and those who embraced political violence at home and abroad’. Major components of the comprehensive crisis continued: (1) an explosion of ethnic-racist nationalism; (2) bitter and irreconcilable demands for territorial revisionism; (3) acute class conflict – now provoked by the Bolshevik Revolution; and (4) a protracted crisis of capitalism that culminated in the Great Depression. No doubt, nationalist conflicts and ethnic-racial tensions, greatly intensified by the Paris peace treaties played a much greater role in Eastern than in Western Europe. The alternative model of a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ with the elimination of the capitalist class and a redistribution of land provoked elements of the right to combine extreme nationalism with virulent anti-Bolshevism and to establish authoritarian governments. Often nationalist hatred singled out Jews as special scapegoats for resentment and social misery. At the beginning of the 1930s, in many European countries the men who became presidents or prime ministers had fought in the trenches in the First World War and were more familiar with everyday violence than their predecessors. Violence was central particularly for fascism, National Socialism and communism (Steiner 2011, 167–80; Baberowski and Doering-Manteuffel 2006, 59–79).

Between 1939 and 1945, Europe under Nazi leadership experienced armed conflict, foreign occupation, aerial bombardments, persecution, shooting of hostages, concentration and death camps, as well as ferocious civil and ethnic wars. In many places from the North Cape of Norway to the Island of Crete and from the French port of Brest to the highest peaks of the Caucasus, German soldiers, SS and policemen were numerous enough to rule the land but not plentiful enough to control every town, village and forest. As a consequence, national governments, local authorities, native populations and diverse interest groups, as well as many individuals, were eager, for a myriad of reasons, to accommodate or collaborate with the ruling Germans or to resist them. Only one major group was not able to choose between collaboration or resistance: that is, the Jews. Genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’ on a gigantic scale were an intrinsic part of the meaning of the war to the German leadership and to its subordinates in the military, police and bureaucracy who sought to implement racial policy (Mazower 2008, 259–93; Deák 2015, 1–13).

Although France, Belgium and the Netherlands had enough manpower and possessed immense colonial empires and could have created well-trained and well-equipped armies, they broke down within weeks of the German onslaught from May to June 1940. They had drawn the wrong lessons from the First World War ignoring changes brought about by tanks and aeroplanes, and were caught in a defeatist attitude against Nazi Germany. The leaders of the French army were, in the historian Marc Bloch’s words, ‘incapable of thinking in terms of a new war’. However, the occupying German troops treated Dutchmen, Belgians, Frenchmen, as well as the Danes and the Norwegians, more gently than they did the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Belarusians, the Ukrainians and the Russians. There existed some clear reasons: Hitler had no interest in colonizing the West and the North of Europe; the German war industry needed – and generally received – the willing cooperation of the western and northern Europeans; last but not least, the willingness of the local population and its leaders to cooperate corresponded with the German occupation policy of accepting the race of the inhabitants. The German Nazis were especially keen on seeing the Norwegians as ‘Nordic Aryans’, and therefore admirably suited for interbreeding as well as for participation in the Great Germanic Empire (Deák 2015, 41–47; Sheehan 2008, 122).

After the capitulation of France, the northern and western parts of France and Belgium were ruled as occupied zones by the German military administration. The new French government, settling in the resort town of Vichy in the unoccupied zone, declared that moral decline spread by godless Marxists, liberals, Freemasons and especially the Jews had undermined France. Marshal Philippe Pétain proclaimed after his handshake with Hitler in October 1940: ‘I enter, today, into the way of collaboration.’ Aside from everyday business transactions with the German occupier, such as selling food or transporting them, contacts between the French and the Germans were mostly on the level of a relationship between a man and a woman. With more than two million French soldiers in captivity, German soldiers sometimes took their places in women’s lives; however, similar relationships occurred between German women and French prisoners of war (POWs) in Germany. The Vichy regime also took anti-Jewish measures in advance of German requests. Thousands of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and the East were pushed back across the German border. Then, in 1941 and 1942, the French police arrested and deported many thousands of Jews, many of whom were born in France, to the death camps of Germany (Deák 2015, 50–58).

While in Norway the local authorities and the population were in general uninterested in saving the lives of most of the country’s 1,700 Jewish citizens, in collaborationist Denmark the government and the population – as well as the local German occupation forces – succeeded in protecting the lives of nearly all of their 8,000 Jewish inhabitants. As Queen Wilhelmina and her government fled from the Netherlands to England, the Austrian lawyer Arthur Seyss-Inquart ran the country as Reichskommissar from his seat at Clingendael near The Hague. Among other things, the Germans found in the governmental offices accurate statistics on the country’s Jews, and Dutch exactness and reliability also infected the Jewish Council. Therefore, the Nazis deported 106,000 Dutch Jews, with only 20,000 remaining. The total value of Dutch goods exported to Germany amounted to about 8.5 billion guilders, at the time US $3 billion, of which almost two-thirds was for military goods (Deák 2015, 48–50; Mazower 2008, 271, 397).

Resistance involved illegal activity, illegal not only in the eyes of the German or other occupation forces but also according to international conventions and the laws of one’s country. To fight the occupier, the resisters needed to seize arms from military garrisons. In western and northern European countries – unlike Poland, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Greece – only a small segment of the population participated in the resistance; armed clashes were infrequent and people generally obeyed the rules set up by the country’s German-controlled national government. Nonetheless, resistance groups set up underground newspapers, as in the case of perhaps the most famous resistance group in France, Combat. The group published a sophisticated yet popular clandestine newspaper of the same name, edited by Albert Camus. Although the Combat group never numbered more than a few hundred activists, their newspaper’s print run increased from 10,000 in late 1941 to 250,000 in 1944. Listening to BBC broadcasts was considereda grave crime; but millions of Europeans – even Germans and Austrians – were able to hear its programmes (Dear and Foot 1995, 115–16).

Among the most controversial yet most effective resistance weapons of the Second World War was the legendary Special Operations Executive (SOE), called into being in 1940 by Prime Minister Churchill and his Minister of Economics, whose goal was ‘to set Europe ablaze’. The SOE trained and sent agents to practically every European country with the aim of gathering intelligence, engaging in sabotage and setting up secret radio stations for transmitting information to Britain. Over the course of the war, the SOE employed or directly controlled some 13,000 people and supplied another one million with money, food and weapons. Interestingly, there was no equivalent organization on the German side. However, thousands of Europeans were executed for having helped the SOE men and women, and, in turn, hundreds of SOE agents died because of their own or their superiors’ negligence. Famously, the SOE employed many younger women, who could circulate more easily than men of military age. But when the secret radio operators in the Netherlands were caught by the German intelligence service, and then ‘turned around’ to work for the Germans; flight after flight of SOE agents, who were parachuted into the Netherlands, would first be followed and then arrested, tortured and either killed or also ‘turned around’ to work for the Germans (Dear and Foot 1995, 115–16).

SS-Hauptsturmführer Klaus Barbie was the head of the Gestapo in Lyon from November 1942 to August 1944. In this period he tortured and murdered members of the French Resistance, such as Jean Moulin, the secret delegate of General Charles de Gaulle in France. The circumstances of Moulin’s arrest and death have remained controversial and have typically led to endless speculations, especially with regard to the name of the traitor. Though wanted as a war criminal, Barbie was employed by the US Counter Intelligence Corps in February 1947, which protected him from the French and then helped him reach Bolivia. He was extradited to France in 1983, found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987. In 1990, the aged Barbie pointed a finger at Raymond Aubrac, another famous resister, and his wife Lucie, the no-less-famous resistance heroine (Dear and Foot 1995, 113; Deák 2015, 121–23).

In Rome there was considerable anti-German resistance activity by three groups: the conservative monarchists (Badoglio), the moderates (Christian Democrats, Social Democrats), and the communists and allied socialists. The first major partisan attack was planned and executed by the communists who had noticed that a German military police company marched through central Rome, specifically down the narrow via Rasella, every day and always at the same time. The military policemen were draftees from the South Tyrol, which was Austrian until 1919 and then Italian between 1919 and 1939, and then forced to be German from 1939. The German military police consisted of two companies, totalling 400 men. On 23 March 1944, the partisans, disguised as sanitation workers, hid a bomb in a rubbish cart that killed thirty-three German military policemen and wounded hundreds when it exploded. All sixteen partisans escaped unharmed, and none were ever caught. Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander-in-chief in Italy, recommended that ten Italians be executed for every German soldier who had died. SS Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the SS head of security in Rome, got the order to organize the execution. Kappler took prisoners who were under a death sentence, other political prisoners, common criminals, bystanders from the via Rasella, Italian POWs and seventy-eight Jews. The Pope tried to help some individuals selected by the SS for execution, but for every one released another innocent person was arrested. In the end 335 Italians were killed in the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome by untrained, unprepared and drunken SS men. The question was raised whether the German action was legal. Hostage taking and hostage shooting as well as reprisals had been recognized as perfectly legal by The Hague Conventions and also, somewhat surprisingly, by one of the US-led Nuremberg Tribunals in 1948. Kappler was sentenced to life in prison by an Italian court in 1948, but in 1977 his wife smuggled the then-terminally ill and very thin Kappler out of jail in a large suitcase. She took him to Germany, where he soon died (Deák 2015, 166–71).

On 10 June 1944, four days after the beginning of Operation Overlord, the Allied landing in Normandy, a company (120 men) of the SS Panzer Division Das Reich passed through the historic province of Limousin, in west-central France, on the way to the front. By then, the division had been subjected to guerilla attacks, including the torture and killing of some forty captured German soldiers in the village of Tulle, not far from Oradour-sur-Glane. For that outrage, the division had already taken revenge by torturing and killing ninety-seven Frenchmen in Tulle. Acting on the rumour that a Waffen-SS officer was being held captive by the French Resistance guerilla fighters, the SS company under Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann entered Oradour and within a few hours killed all 642 inhabitants, including even the youngest of children, mostly by burning them alive. It is still unclear from whom the order to kill originated. The majority of the SS killers at Oradour, including their commander, fell in battle a few weeks later. However, at the Bordeaux Trial in 1953 against some survivors of the SS company, it turned out that fourteen of the twenty-one defendants had once been French citizens; they all claimed in court to have been forcibly drafted into the Waffen-SS. Almost as a whole, people in Alsace-Lorraine bemoaned the tragic fate of the poor boys who had to kill so as not to be killed by their own superiors. Therefore, at the Bordeaux Trial the Alsatians were treated mildly (Deák 2015, 171–73; Dear and Foot 1995, 113).

During the Ardennes Campaign, which involved the 6th Panzer Army commanded by Colonel-General of the Waffen-SS, Sepp Dietrich, the founder of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, SS-Standartenführer Joachim Peiper carried out, on 17 December 1944, a mass execution of US POWs and local civilians at Baugnez near Malmédy in the east of Belgium. A number of similar incidents followed. There were forty-three American survivors, but eighty-six were killed. After the war, Dietrich and Peiper were incarcerated at Dachau. At the trial the prosecution admitted that confessions had been extracted by threatening execution, false witnesses and mock trials. Peiper and forty-two others were condemned to death; Dietrich was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, both were released after ten years of imprisonment (Dear and Foot 1995, 713).

In 1946 Karl Jaspers discussed the problem in his book of lectures called The Question of German Guilt: ‘What wrongs did the German people commit?’ He established four categories of responsibility: criminal guilt, followed by political, moral and metaphysical guilt. He found the seeds of collective responsibility in the metaphysical category. But Jaspers was willing to talk only about individual culpability. Hannah Arendt’s series of lectures entitled Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, presented at the New School of Social Research in New York three years after Adolf Eichmann’s execution in 1962, raised questions as to the origins of ‘evil’ and formulated the theory of ‘the banality of harm’. But the deputy prosecuting attorney at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, Gabriel Bach, corrected Arendt: Eichmann had the ‘dreadful inclination’ to destroy the Jews (Humler 2011; Bach 2011, 38–39; Deák 2015, 220). Meanwhile, judicial retribution and political purges were held elsewhere in Europe. The heads of state or prime ministers who were executed after the war included those of Italy, France, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria. The list of non-German Europeans executed for treason, collaboration and war crimes included thousands of generals, police chiefs, city mayors, politicians and journalists. In France intellectuals had played a major role in both resistance and collaboration. Therefore, the debate over French wartime behaviour and the post-war purges has become a veritable national pastime. However, the number of real or alleged collaborators shot, beaten to death or summarily executed reached almost 10,000. In the courts, the prosecutors tended to single out actors, actresses, cabaret singers, writers, poets and philosophers (Deák 2015, 200).

Amazingly, the harshest sentences were pronounced in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. In Norway more than 90,000 people were tried, nearly 4 per cent of the population; thirty were executed. Similar proportions existed in Denmark, while in the Netherlands 150,000 people were detained under the suspicion of collaboration and treason. About 60,000 of them were subsequently convicted, 152 condemned to death, and 40 were actually executed. Norwegian courts dealt harshly with women who had had sexual relations with German soldiers; worse even, the new laws denied citizenship to their children, which amounted to some thousands. In Belgium 53,000 men and women were convicted of collaboration; officials used the phrase ‘la politique du moindre mal’ (the policy of doing the least harm) to cover the ways in which they tried to accommodate German demands: giving way only when they had to. Although in Italy during the last months of the war, or at the moment of liberation, almost the same number as in France were lynched or shot; the courts were relatively mild (Deák 2015, 204–5).

Europe survived the second Thirty Years’ War between 1914 and 1948. Not since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century had such a large proportion of the European population suffered so much from the pains of war. Many Europeans had acted badly – not only as politicians, officers and policemen, but also as economists, technicians, doctors, intellectuals, journalists and even priests. Under the conditions of two world wars and their consequences, as well as the strong influence of several ideologies, there was almost no barrier to violence against ‘the other’. Populist nationalism, nationalist and religious hatred and fighting against the imagined class enemy as well as inter-racial fighting led to a European-wide crisis in compassion and humanity. Not only were most Europeans indifferent to the fate of their Jewish, Roma and other sectarian neighbours, but millions actually participated in manhunts or at least profited from the disappearances and deaths of the victims. There were many who risked their lives for the persecuted, especially priests, nuns, doctors and individuals who did not like to fit into ‘normal’ society. But too many accepted the witch hunts in many cities and towns as well as the deportation of Jews, Roma and political opponents to concentration camps by cattle wagons.

In an address to the United Nations on 7 December 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that ‘force and the threat of force [...] should not be instruments of foreign policy’. Although the German ‘Re-Unification’ and the dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred peacefully, violence diminished but did not disappear from European public life, as experienced in Northern Ireland, the Basque Province, in Cyprus, in Kosovo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Ukraine. So, the main challenge is continuing: how to run Europe without violence? (Cf. Mueller, Gehler and Suppan 2015).



Arnold Suppan, professor emeritus, was born in 1945 in Carinthia, Austria. He received his PhD from the University of Vienna in 1970 and progressed from assistant to associate and full professor of East European History at the University of Vienna between 1971 and 2011. He has been a visiting professor at Leiden, Fribourg, Stanford and Budapest; head of the Austrian Institute of East and South-East European Studies (1988–2002); head of the Department for East European History at the University of Vienna (2002–8); corresponding (1998) and full member (2003) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS), chairman of the Historical Commission of the AAS (2003–11), secretary general (2009–2011) and vice president of the AAS (2011–13); and an honorary member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Suppan has written and edited many books, articles and conference papers. He received the Scientific Award of the University Ljubljana in 1999, the Silver Medal of the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles University, Prague in 2001, the Austrian Honorary Cross for Science and Art First Class in 2001, Wacław Felczak and Henryk Wereszycki Prize, Krakow in 2014 and the Cardinal Innitzer Honour Prize, Vienna in 2015.



1 Cf. Dear and Foot 1995; Flacke 2005; Sheehan 2008; Wehler 2008; Kershaw 2016; Suppan 2017; Naimark 2017.


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Bach, Gabriel (2011) ‘Wenn jemals einer die Todesstrafe verdient hat, dann Adolf Eichmann’ [If anyone ever deserves the death penalty, then Adolf Eichmann does], in Die Presse, 27 November.

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This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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