Historical Legacies of Contention and Clandestine Resistance to Violence

By Robert Braun

Outcomes of political violence are often contingent on local collective action in ways that we rarely theorize or study empirically. Collective resistance against mass killing is a good example of this. Although rescue operations have saved lives of thousands of African Americans, Jews, Tutsis, and Armenians who were facing mass-persecution, social movement scholars have largely overlooked this highly localized form of humanitarian mobilization. This can be explained by both theoretical and practical factors.

On a theoretical level, public claim making is often considered the essence of movement activity. Those directly resisting violent persecution on a local level, on the contrary, try to avoid the public realm and rely on covert mobilization, as they cannot exclude their repressive opponents from the areas in which they operate. With few notable exceptions, most scholars of contention tend to shy away from secret organizations and focus on groups that aim to bring about social change by expressing grievances and attracting attention.

In addition to this theoretical bias, there is also a more pragmatic reason that underground resistance to violence tends to be ignored as secrecy poses enormous obstacles for empirical investigation. Social movement scholarship can often rely on activists who are eager to talk or publicly available sources such as newspapers and government statistics. Gathering information about contemporary clandestine cells, on the other hand, is next to impossible, exactly because these cells need to reduce exposure in order to survive.

Archival work on historical cases can alleviate this challenge because it allows you to study groups that are no longer under immediate threat, reducing the urgency of secrecy. Moreover, when political structures open and regimes change, former clandestine networks sometimes go public in order to gain recognition for their fight against foes from the past. This can open up a wide array of archives and testimonies.

Instead of focusing on contemporary cases, a growing body of scholarship in Political Economy and Political Science (including my own) has therefore turned to the Holocaust to better understand local resistance to mass persecution by both victims and their neighbors. Although these scholars differ in methodological approach and theoretical lens, they all exploit this well documented episode of mass killing to do systematic comparative work on violence in a wide range of contexts, using fine-grained data.

As someone who works in both sociology and political science, I am often amazed about how little their literatures speak to each other. Therefore, I considered it worthwhile to use this blog to briefly discus some interesting findings from this slowly growing body of work and see whether it would help us better understand how violence is embedded in the broader context of political contention.

Legacies and Clandestine Capacity

Coordinating illegal evasion of violence while reducing exposure to the outside world is hard as the tools required for communication and recruitment often increase the flow of information and as a result raise the change that operatives get compromised. One key insight from the Holocaust is that maintaining secrecy is something that is learned over time and asks for experience. As a result, successful waves of covert mobilization often combust in communities where people have historically been predisposed to a secretive lifestyle.

In my own work, I study Christian assistance for Jews in the Low Countries. Exploiting a wide range of post-war testimonies, fine-grained data on Jewish evasion and the existence of major religious faultiness in this part of the world, I demonstrate that Protestants were better able at protecting Jews in Catholic areas, while the same was true for Catholics in Protestant parts of the country. The data suggest that minority enclaves had an advantage in setting up secret shelters because its members were more secretive and inward looking. This clandestine disposition was at least in part produced by the fact that these communities had to go underground themselves more than 300 years earlier when the Reformation, one of the biggest social movements in European History, was sweeping the continent.

In addition to activating assistance by neighbors, historical episodes of contention also shape the ability of the victims themselves to resist persecution. In a recent APSR-article, Finkel compares the fate of Jewish resistance groups in the Ghettos of Minsk, Krakow and Bialystok, while keeping constant the ideological background of their local communities. The analysis shows that Jews who were organized in political movements that had historically been exposed to discriminate repression, were better able at sustained resistance against the Nazis as they could rely on a “resisters toolkit” which they had developed during their earlier underground decades earlier.

Legacies and Willingness to Protect

Pre-war mobilization by Jews also affected the willingness of Gentiles to provide assistance to their threatened neighbors, although not necessarily for the better. Based on traditional archival work and a statistical analysis of anti-Jewish violence in over 200 Polish communities Kopstein and Wittenberg show that solidarity with Jews during the war was related to political mobilization of Jews in the 1920s. In places where Jews had supported a party that favored ethnic particularism, the local population considered Jews an obstacle to the Polish nation state and was more likely to condone or even initiate violence.

Economists Voigtlander and Voth, who study the victimization of Jews in Germany, also rely on statistical evidence but go even further back in time to identify causation. Although they do not explicitly investigate rescue operations they do find that Jews were less likely to evade deportation in counties where anti-plaque pogroms had taken place 600 years earlier. They take this and the fact that the correlation was weaker in places where migration was high, as strong evidence that anti-Semitic mobilization has long lasting effects.

Concluding Remarks

The common thread that emerges from this line of work is that violence is even more contingent on contention than we think. Not only does protective mobilization affect victimization directly, it is in itself shaped by historical legacies of long-gone political movements that were active decades or even centuries ago. Historical episodes of mobilization by victims, against victims or even unrelated to victims, shape both the willingness and capacity to resist political violence on a local level. These legacies of contention introduce a new set of historical variables understudied by the movement scholar and highlight the importance of embedding the study of both political violence and collective action in the broader historical context of contentious politics.

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Filed under Civil Wars and Contentious Politics, Essay Dialogues, Uncategorized

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