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Posted 29 May 2009

UCD Historian Robert Gerwarth awarded largest European Research Council personal grant in the Humanities

Paramilitary violence, demobilization and the paths to peace in Europe and the wider world from 1917 to 1923

Dr Robert Gerwarth, UCD School of History & Archives, has been awarded a European Research Council personal grant of between €1.2m and €1.5m for a ground-breaking 4-year project on the transnational history of failed demobilization and paramilitary violence from Ireland through Europe and across the wider world after the Russian revolution and the end of the Great War.

This is the first time that such an award has been made to a humanities scholar in Ireland. It is also the largest EU research grant ever made for a humanities project in Ireland.

The Chair of the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Maurice Bric puts Robert Gerwarth’s achievement in context. “The ERC award is the highest accolade which any scholar can achieve in the European Research Area. I congratulate Dr Gerwarth on his achievement. It is a testament to his originality as a humanities scholar and establishes him among the most elite of European academics. It is a great honour for him, for Ireland and for UCD".

The project builds on a substantial seed funding grant of €300,000 awarded to Dr Gerwarth by the IRCHSS after a rigorous peer-review process last year. The grant will boost research activity at Dr Gerwarth’s Centre for War Studies at UCD and intensify collaboration with national and international partner institutions.

The European Research Council Independent Researcher Grants are the most competitive academic awards worldwide. They are designed to support internationally recognised research leaders from across the globe to undertake pioneering frontier research in Europe and to create new research centres of excellence.

The academic excellence of the academic and the project are the sole criteria in the two-step selection process of 464 short-listed proposals from over 2,500 applications from all disciplines for the 2009 Scheme. The evaluation of proposals lies in the hands of 25 peer review panels covering all disciplines, from the natural and social sciences to the humanities. Each of these panels is composed of 10-15 distinguished senior specialists from across Europe. Each individual proposal is also peer-reviewed by additional external expert reviewers.

Dr Gerwarth is about to complete his second monograph and has published six edited volumes. His work has been translated into German and French. He has also written fifteen peer-reviewed articles, both in edited volumes for leading publishers and top international journals.

Speaking about his work Dr Gerwarth explains that it takes a transnational approach to understand the often violent (and sometimes peaceful) global paths of transition from war to ‘peace’ during the period 1917 – 1923.

“The global transition from war to ‘peace’ between 1917 and 1923 was as often violent as it was peaceful. The impact of the Russian Revolution, the destruction of frontiers especially in Eastern Europe but also in the shatter zones of the Ottoman Empire created zones of limited statehood, often without order or definite government authority.

My research focuses on the eruption of violent paramilitary conflicts in the immediate aftermath of the Great War by looking at geographical zones of victory, defeat, and mutilated or ambivalent victories rather than the traditional national boundaries approach.”

The research goes beyond Europe in an attempt to understand the implications of paramilitary violence in the context of imperial decline and expansion, revolution and demobilization on a global scale.

Alongside new and often violent forms of nation-building in the shatter-zones of former empires, armed conflicts erupted on their peripheries, from the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-20 to the so-called Basmachi revolt in Central Asia, the violent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Grecco-Turkish war in Anatolia, and the Arab revolts in Hejaz, Mesopotamia and Syria.

“Given the global nature of the First World War, it is indeed surprising how few studies have attempted to explain its effects in international frameworks of analysis. The study of history in this period requires an acute awareness of the permeability of Europe by influences from the world beyond and vice versa.”

Dr Gerwarth believes that it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend European history in this period without considering the colonial dimension.

“If Britain, for example, managed to avoid bloodshed at home, the same can certainly not be said about its empire. In Egypt, demands for independence led to a violent wave of strikes and demonstrations in the summer of 1919, culminating in roughly 1,000 deaths during the British military intervention. The revolt in Iraq in the following autumn claimed the lives of perhaps 8,500 Iraqis and 2,000 British soldiers, while the British intervention in neighbouring Hejaz paved the way for the subsequent creation of Saudi-Arabia. In India, where 70,000 British soldiers were stationed, the end of the war, broken promises of national self-determination helped to inflame nationalist sentiment, leading to tensions that culminated in Amritsar massacre of April 1919 and the resurgence of the Khalifat movement, backed by 10,000 guerrillas, of which the British commanding officer, Major General John Burnett-Stuart, had 2,300 executed.

In adjacent parts of the empire, too, such as Afghanistan and Burma, the British faced armed resistance which has never been investigated from an international perspective, even though many of the officers involved had gained experience in ‘anti-guerrilla warfare’ in many of these post-war trouble-spots. The British Black and Tan, for example, a remarkably understudied paramilitary formation used by Britain (rather unsuccessfully) as an imperial para-police formation, travelled a number of post-war battlefields, from Ireland during the War of Independence to conflict-ridden Palestine where Jewish settlers and Arab inhabitants started a conflict which has essentially lasted to the present day.”

Another global connotation is the inclusion in the research project of returning soldiers from the armies of the colonial powers. The often neglected fate of non-European combatants returning to their home countries and the ways in which they were de- (and sometimes re-) mobilized will be of key importance for this study. France alone recruited more than 555,000 African troops and 49,000 from Indochina. British India enlisted 877,000 combatants and 563,000 in non-combatant roles. The British dominions dispatched a high proportion of their male population - 20 per cent in New Zealand, and 13 per cent in Australia and Ireland. The reintegration of these ex-soldiers into their respective post-war societies was a major issue, as unemployment and domestic violence soared even in countries that had been on the winning side of the war. Yet it is an issue that still awaits detailed empirical and comparative investigations.

The research project challenges both traditional nation-centric approaches to the history of post-war violence and the conventional wisdom that the Great War ended on 11 November 1918, an interpretation which largely results from an exclusively Western European focus. In many ways, the official end of the Great War on the Western Front did not make the post-war world a peaceful place. Parallel to the conflicts on the colonial periphery, violence erupted across Europe and the Eurasian rimlands, in Russia, Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic States, Ireland, large areas of central Europe, Northern Italy, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

For many communities around the globe, the years immediately after 1917-18 were indeed among the bloodiest of the twentieth-century.

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