Timothy Wilson. Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia, 1918-1922. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 288 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-958371-3.
Reviewed by Peter Polak-Springer (Qatar University)
Published on H-Poland (June, 2015)
Commissioned by Paul Brykczynski
Violence in Europe’s Peripheries in the Aftermath of World War I
The end of World War I meant an end to official hostilities between the Great Powers but the beginning of new conflicts in parts of Europe’s periphery. Characterized as “wars of the pigmies” by Winston Churchill, these conflicts began when violence erupted in the “shatterzones” of the fallen Habsburg Empire, and Timothy Wilson’s book examines one of its most important episodes: the German-Polish struggle over Upper Silesia. Yet one of the highly original features of this work is its comparison between the postwar violence in East-Central and Western Europe—more specifically, Upper Silesia and the British-Irish conflict in Ulster. Rarely does the expertise of specialists of East-Central Europe extend to beyond the core areas of Western Europe, and this is the case in my situation. I was asked to review this book as a specialist of Central Europe and because of my own extensive research on Upper Silesia, and so apologize in advance to those more interested in the Ulster case if in the text that follows, I shortchange the extent and quality of my focus on it.
Wilson’s discussion of local-level episodes of violence, or what he calls “plebeian violence,” which he defines as “violence that was committed by or ostensibly on behalf of non-state constituencies,” marks another feature of the book’s originality (pp. 8-9, 17). He criticizes previous works as being too focused on the macro-level and official picture. For Upper Silesia, this means that he hardly mentions the official battles and skirmishes that took place between German and Polish paramilitary forces during the “Third Silesian Uprising,” which scholars, such as Jim Bjork, have referred to as an “undeclared conventional war.” Instead, he addresses single episodes of assassinations and attacks against ordinary individuals or agents of political factions. In the case of Ulster, the focus is on similar hit-and-run cases of violence.
This type of violence is one of the “shared foundations” on which Wilson justifies the comparison of the two cases (p. 2). Other “shared foundations” include ideology, time period, and context: both Ulster and Upper Silesia were borderlands in which nationalism and the desire for national self-determination served as—at least in official terms—a cause of conflict during the time period Wilson focuses on, 1918-22. However, the more important reason for his choice of comparison is that the nature of violence and identity was quite different in these two regions. While he draws the line of conflict as that between the pro-British and pro-German camps (“loyalists,” according to Wilson) and their opponents (Irish and Polish nationalists), its shape was distinct for each case. Ulster represented the more classical case of “sectarian violence” (p. 215), in which a religious boundary—namely, Protestant loyalists versus Catholic Irish nationalists—delineated the two conflicting sides and kept this division consistent between them. In Upper Silesia, hardly any line of division of any type separated one group of locals from the other. Even language marked a weak and porous mark of difference, since most locals tended to be multilingual (German, Polish, Silesian dialect).
The difference between the cases raises the question of why Wilson chose to compare them. As he even mentions, on first thought, the choice of the Posen/Poznania region seems more fitting than Silesia, since in the former the German-Polish armed conflict that took place after the war was based on religious division between Protestant Germans and Polish Catholics, similar to the Ulster case. Yet, for the questions he poses, a comparison between Ulster and Upper Silesia turns out to be quite fitting. Wilson is interested exactly in the extent to which this difference shaped what turned out to be the distinct character of the grassroots violence in each case. Working within a well-developed political science-based theoretical framework, he points out that “political scientists tended to assume that communal boundaries operate in a similar fashion across deeply divided societies” (p. 13).
The conclusions of this book and the various well-documented examples it offers problematize this assertion. Wilson’s clearly stated argument throughout is that the “fluid” nature of national identity in Upper Silesia accounted for, in comparison to the clearly drawn sides scenario of Ulster, the distinct character of the violence there. According to Wilson, it was not only more extensive in terms of resulting in around four times more casualties but also more “grotesque” in that “rape, torture, mutilation of the dead, denial of proper burial and massacre were all far more common practices in Upper Silesia than in Ulster” (pp. 222, 5). In Ulster, clear-cut communal boundaries created an equilibrium between the two sides and thus a “politics of deterrence.” According to Wilson, Ulster experienced “tit-for-tat” cycles of “zero/sum” conflict, which were often predictable in terms of their character, targets, and the place of occurrence. Such order and restraint were absent in a violence Wilson characterizes as “transgressive” in Upper Silesia; he explains this by asserting that violence was used in an effort to “create” and maintain boundaries in a conflict in which they were unclear and constantly shifting (p. 213).
To support these arguments, Wilson draws on an impressive range of sources. For both cases, in addition to secondary sources, which include Polish works from the Communist era, he makes extensive use of local, national, and for Upper Silesia, international (British and American) archives; the press; unpublished material; and, particularly for the Ulster case, even interviews he conducted. Indeed, he taps into a broad range of sources in three relevant languages, English, German, and Polish. He analyzes much of the evidence in two core chapters, one of which focuses on the “loyalists” in both regions and the second on Irish and Polish nationalists. The final chapter before the conclusion synthesizes and adds more analytical depth to the previous chapters’ analysis of the violence, with a focus on factors that include: its quality and character; the places in which it occurred within both regions; and evaluation of evidence that serves as an exception to Wilson’s argument, for example, an isolated area in Upper Silesia (Anhalt in Kreis Pless) where an existing religious boundary made it more similar to Ulster than other areas, and a similar boundary-less conflict within the Irish nationalist camp that to some extent resembled the fluidity of the Upper Silesian conflict.
It is worth to point out some of Wilson’s interesting and valuable findings in these chapters. In the chapter on loyalism (chapter 2), he argues that loyalists in Ulster were integrated into and bound to their community, and as a result, their violence was more restrained than in Upper Silesia, since “their wider community would not tolerate it.” According to Wilson, in Upper Silesia, the paramilitants’ extremism alienated them from their nationally uncommitted local communities and thus they “stood outside the circle of communal restraint” (p. 110). They carried out brutal attacks against locals with whom they shared a language, culture, religion, and often even familial ties, in a futile struggle to draw and maintain boundaries between friend and foe. Yet these “freelancers”—as Wilson characterizes them—themselves were often unstable with regard to their choice of sides, and tended to switch in pursuit of material gain and other opportunities. In his analysis of the quality of the violence, Wilson demonstrates that unlike in Ulster, where militants commonly displayed the corpses of those they killed publicly, since they acted with local support, in Upper Silesia militants “operated in secret,” often dumping the severely mutilated corpses in the forest (p. 108).
In the following chapter (chapter 3), Wilson argues that the Polish nationalists were hardly different in their behavior from their “loyalist” opponents in Upper Silesia. In his words, “the mercenary motivation of many was unmistakable,” and “the lines separating banditry and Polish paramilitary activity were extremely fluid” (p. 147). His analysis points out that similar to pro-German militants, those fighting for the Polish cause used a discourse that depicted the enemy as an internal one, a fifth column agent, traitor, or “renegade,” which all the more reflects that in Upper Silesia this was a “fratricidal conflict” without clear or stable boundaries (p. 98). The case of Irish nationalists differed from the Upper Silesian case in that despite their internal divisions, they were conscious of who their enemies were, as these came from outside of the fixed religious boundary.
This is a remarkably well-developed work that gives almost equal attention to both case studies in terms of length and in-depth analysis. With a well-developed theoretical framework and comparative methodology, it combines the approaches of various disciplines, including history, political science, sociology, and anthropology. Certainly one of the book’s overarching strengths is Wilson’s detailed and substantial demonstration of the different patterns of divisions and antagonisms as well as the character and range of violence in the two cases. This work will remain a pioneering comparative history of everyday life in Europe’s violent peripheries in the aftermath of World War I. With regard to Upper Silesia, very little has been written about the nature of this violence, which was an absolutely pivotal marker of this area’s twentieth-century history.
Turning to a deeper evaluation of the Upper Silesian case study, I believe Wilson’s strength here is his application of the findings of current research on postwar violence in the region. The work of Bjork (Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference in a Central European Borderland ) and Tomasz Kamusella (Silesia and Central European Nationalisms: The Emergence of National and Ethnic Groups in Prussian Silesia and Austrian Silesia, 1848-1918 ) has demonstrated the lack of consistent national identities in the region, a phenomenon often referred to as “national indifference.” Without explaining why, Wilson tends not to use this term but nevertheless paints a portrait of the region that is consistent with its character. His assertion that national identity among locals was a question of degree—or in other words of “gradations of Germanness” or Polishness (p. 110)—confirms the findings of a more recently published German study by Andrzej Michałczyk, Heimat, Kirche und Nation: Deutsche und polnische Nationalisierungsprozesse im geteilten Oberschlesien (1922-1939) (2010). None of the recent scholarship allots much attention to the postwar violence. In his focus on the latter, Wilson undermines the often positive light in which “national indifference” is painted, namely, as a deterrent of conflict: on the contrary, he argues that rather than halting it, the absence of national boundaries in the region actually exacerbated the intensity and brutality of violence.
This very interesting viewpoint raises a number of questions that are left unanswered. Who were the paramilitants who carried out much of the atrocious violence he describes in his study? Polish scholars assert that the majority of militants in the postwar years were locals themselves, and Wilson’s interpretation supports this view. In that case, why were they so adamant on participating in such gruesome violence, particularly if they—as he clearly notes—shared ties of culture and kinship with the very community they were waging violence against? Wilson underscores the role of opportunism, and argues particularly that these were “mercenaries” offering their services to the highest bidder (p. 147). Yet it is hard to believe that this was the sole motivating factor for the thousands of participants in this “fratricidal war.” The absence of statistics or even a clearer picture regarding how many fought for cash rather than other reasons cannot be blamed on the author since this evidence is hardly available. Yet perhaps Wilson’s focus on the “plebeian violence” is a bit too cut off from the larger political context that could shed more light on issues such as motive (p. 8). For example, in the midst of his narrative, Wilson hardly takes into account the various causes and identities that became politicized in the midst of the conflict, such as the widely popular regionalist cause and separatist movement.
These critical remarks are not meant to depreciate the valuable and original contributions of this comparative study. This work certainly paves the path to new scholarly interest in communal violence across Europe’s peripheries in the aftermath of the world wars. Moreover, it points out that factors, such as religion, played an important role in shaping the nature of this violence. To what extent can violence around the “shatterzones” of imperial monarchies and imperial nation-states in twentieth-century Europe be compared with violence arising from the collapse of Europe’s global colonies? What role did conflicts such as these play in the (re)construction of group identities and the reconfiguration of nation-states? These are some of the larger questions inspired by this pathbreaking study.
. The discussion of these peripheries of fallen monarchical empires is certainly current. See Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz, Shatterzones of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).
. Jim Bjork, Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference in a Central European Borderland (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 256.
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Peter Polak-Springer. Review of Wilson, Timothy, Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia, 1918-1922.
H-Poland, H-Net Reviews.
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