More soldiers fought in the First World War than had fought in any previous war in human history. An astonishing seventy million had been mobilized, of whom nearly ten million were killed, while another fifty million had been wounded. For those men who survived the war, the resumption of a peacetime existence posed enormous problems. The wounded and disabled required continuing medical care, shelter, and financial support to compensate for lost earning power. Those who had emerged unscathed struggled to find and keep jobs in a fluid and uncertain postwar economy. And all fighting men had to readjust to the conditions of civilian life, as well as come to grips with a drastically altered moral, political, and cultural landscape. For many, collective action seemed the best response to these challenges. The moral and political leverage of sixty million veterans was potentially enormous. And with the expansion of the modern interventionist state and the rise of special-interest politics during the war, the need to form tight political organizations was stronger than ever. Organizations of veterans, of every size and political orientation, emerged in virtually every belligerent country.
It is widely accepted that veterans played a significant role in the emergence of radical political movements throughout Europe during the interwar period. Their importance to this process, and to politics in general, is sometimes overstated, however. In every major belligerent, only a minority of soldiers joined veterans' groups at all. When faced with the difficulties of demobilization, most looked to familiar sources of support—political parties, churches, local organizations—rather than seek new ones. If war made soldiers more politically active, they tended to become more active within their established set of allegiances rather than radically changing them. When ex-servicemen did join veterans' associations, they joined those that shared their prewar political outlook. Despite veterans' almost universal claims that they stood above politics, veterans' movements inevitably fragmented along recognizably partisan lines. The overall effectiveness of veterans was thus diminished by organizational division and rivalry. This also meant that, among those veterans who did organize, most joined politically moderate groups linked to large, mainstream political parties. Radical and paramilitary organizations never attracted more than a minority. Moreover, most extremist organizations were not conceived of as strictly veterans' associations. While soldiers often constituted much of their original membership, non-veterans made up an increasingly large share as groups looked to broaden their appeal, and as the front generation aged and died. By the 1930s, youth had decisively replaced veterans as the most dynamic element of the radical fringe.
Veterans' organizations could only exert direct, decisive political influence where the state was already in crisis, as in Italy, or where catastrophic conditions drove enormous numbers to radical action, as in Russia. Where state power was more established, and conditions more tolerable, veterans' power was correspondingly less. Veterans' organizations were more often significant as indirect destabilizing agents than as political actors. Their demands for increased benefits strained already depleted treasuries, reducing room for social and political compromise. At the same time, the adoption of political violence among extremist organizations created a climate of perpetual instability which left populations vulnerable to demagoguery and ultraconservative reaction.
French veterans organized at a higher rate than did the soldiers of any other major belligerent. Over three million of the seven million soldiers who survived the war joined veterans' organizations. Yet despite their size, these organizations never became as disruptive as their German and Italian counterparts, primarily because the political and economic situation never became so dire in France as it did elsewhere in Europe. Radical fringe elements held less appeal for French servicemen than they did for their Italian and German counterparts. Those who did join extremist movements were far less likely to engage in political violence. Outbreaks of violence, while not unknown, were sporadic, small-scale, and resolutely contained by the government. The sense of perpetual upheaval and impending collapse that characterized Weimar Germany was notably absent in France.
The first mass veterans' organizations began to form in 1916 and 1917, as societies for the wounded and disabled. The largest was the Socialist-leaning Union Féderale (UF), with a membership of nine hundred thousand, but a number of other organizations succeeded in carving out their own niches. These included the Féderation Nationale (FN) and the Union Nationale des Mutilés et Réformés (UNMR), each with around one hundred thousand members. After the Armistice, organizations for the nondisabled began to form. The foremost was the center-right L'Union Nationale des Combattants (UNC), which enjoyed the sponsorship of both the army and the Catholic Church and rivaled the UF in membership. The primary function of these groups was to provide moral and material support at the local level. They were concerned with politics only secondarily. A coalition of major organizations, including the UF and the UNC, was formed in 1927, but intervened in parliamentary politics only sporadically. They claimed to aim at a higher politics, above the sordid party political world. Their aim was to make war unthinkable and to prevent the recurrence of this scourge if it all humanly possible.
From the mid-1920s, right-wing veterans' leagues emerged with another agenda entirely. Some flirted with fascism; others were the legatees of strident prewar nationalist movements. These leagues first emerged as national organizations in 1924, in response to the election of a socialist-led coalition government. Their combined strength of 140,000, mostly ex-soldiers, was divided among three major organizations: the Jeunesses Patriotes, the Faisceau, and the Legion. All embraced a similar but slightly different brand of nationalism and anticommunism. These leagues entertained a variety of schemes for the transformation or overthrow of the republic, but their relative weakness and inability to cooperate precluded their success. With the rise of the conservative Poincaré government in 1926, the opportunity to strike seemed to have passed. The leagues were revived in the early 1930s by the deepening depression and a renewed leftward shift in the government. This revival saw the emergence of new organizations—notably the Croix du Feu and SolidaritéFrançaise—and the growth of the movement to 340,000 members, though youth were increasingly displacing veterans as the membership base. This "second wave" peaked on 6 February 1934, when street demonstrations by a combination of leagues turned violent and forced the resignation of the government. These extreme right-wing leagues never mounted another such attempt. The Right fizzled and largely disappeared during the late 1930s, though some elements would collaborate with the Vichy regime after June 1940.
Radical veterans' organizations attracted a larger following in Germany than in any other belligerent save Russia, as a result of the combined effects of defeat, severe economic disruption, an unstable political structure, and an arbitrary and heavily bureaucratized welfare system. The extremist fringe never mounted a military threat to the state. Though large in comparison to other radical movements, in absolute terms it still constituted a clear minority of all organized veterans. But with its wholesale adoption of political violence, the radical veterans' movement played a critical role in destabilizing and discrediting the republic. And this, in turn, made the rise of National Socialism possible.
In 1914, Germany already possessed a well-established system of veterans' organizations, dating back to the wars of unification. In 1900, the various organizations had been welded together into the vehemently nationalist and pro-monarchist Kyffhäuser Bund, which, with a peak membership of almost three million, was the largest German veterans' organization. Its chief rival was the Socialist-dominated Reichsbund, with a membership topping 830,000. Founded in 1917, it was the main association of the war disabled, and it campaigned extensively for social and economic reform. Following the formation of the Weimar government, however, both organizations declined in relevance; the Kyffhäuser Bund's pro-monarchist stand now appeared obsolete, while the progressive Weimar constitution fulfilled, in principle, the Reichsbund's reformist demands.
Alarmed by widespread left-wing unrest in the aftermath of the war, many veterans sought out conservative paramilitary organizations. The two largest were Der Stahlhelm, a voluntary association of front soldiers, and the Freikorps, a government-sponsored paramilitary force directed against further left-wing violence. When the government was forced to disband the Freikorps in 1919, its units either formed independent local organizations or merged with other small underground organizations, such as the National Socialist Sturmabteilung (SA). Despite a combined strength of six hundred thousand, the right-wing paramilitary leagues were too divided to overthrow the government. At the same time, they were wary of direct involvement in parliamentary politics. Their primary focus was the harassment and violent intimidation of leftists, which reduced many urban areas to a state of virtual civil war. Violence intensified further once leftists formed their own veterans' organizations. These included the Socialist Reichsbanner, with a membership of over one million, and the largely Communist Rote Frontkämpferbund, with a membership of some seventy-five thousand. The rise in violence helped the National Socialists to win broad electoral support in the 1930s, by labeling themselves as "the party of order."
Among veterans, the National Socialists garnered significant but not overwhelming support among veterans. Most conservative organizations supported the Nazis. Der Stahlhelm joined the Nazi-led Harzburger Front in 1931, and its leader, Franz Seldte, was appointed to Adolf Hitler's first cabinet. But the leftist associations unanimously opposed Hitler, and some moderately conservative organizations considered the Nazis crass and excessively radical. After the Nazi victory in 1933, independent existence became effectively impossible. The leftist organizations were dismantled along with the rest of the Social Democratic Party apparatus, while the right-wing leagues were gradually subsumed into a single, state-controlled umbrella organization, the NS-Reichskriegerbund.
Among the major powers of postwar Europe, Italy possessed one of the smallest and, ostensibly, least politically potent veterans' movements. Despite the common conception of the defeatist and revolutionary Italian soldier, the proportion of ex-servicemen who joined radical organizations was about the same as in other countries. And yet it was Italy in which veterans would become the arbiters of national politics. Their extraordinary success was due primarily to the weakness of the state. Discredited by its disastrous intervention in the war and rendered effectively inoperable by the emergence of mass political parties, the old-style parliamentary system was in severe crisis by 1919. The government was unable to check the rise of political violence, and its conservative elements in fact became increasingly reliant on the paramilitary right to maintain their position. Further strengthening the position of the paramilitary right was the existence of a revolutionary, radical-dominated left wing. Rather than balance out the power of the Right, this ultimately played into its hands, by arousing widespread fears of leftist revolution.
All of the major veterans' organizations emerged in the first year after the war. By far the largest was the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti, a moderate, left-center organization, committed to a program of democratic reform and comprising a broad, multipartisan membership. The orientation of the smaller, more radical organizations was initially much more fluid and complex. Both the Arditi, the association of stormtroopers, and the Fascists, combined vague, quasi-leftist rhetoric of sweeping reform and social renewal with annexationist demands and antisocialist violence. They attracted a motley crew of conservative nationalists, leftist interventionists, and anarchosyndicalists. The "Legion"—a paramilitary force dedicated to the annexation of the disputed town of Fiume (which was currently in Yugoslav territory)—embraced a similar combination of nationalism and reformism, but with a more idealist and utopian bent.
The wave of labor violence in 1920 plunged Italy into a virtual civil war between conservatives and leftists. Paramilitary veterans' organizations, increasingly forced to abandon multipartisanism and commit to one side, formed the dominant component in both blocs. With the government on the point of dissolution and the state seemingly up for grabs, it was the paramilitary groups that became the true source of political power. The Associazione, still committed to purely political reform, receded into irrelevance. Within the rightist bloc, the Fascists—having taken a decisively reactionary and authoritarian turn—were the dominant organization, absorbing much of the Arditi, and conservative elements of the Associazione and the Fiuman Legion. By 1922, the Fascists counted some two hundred thousand members. In response, a loose alliance of left-wing veterans' organizations emerged, encompassing the bulk of the Fiuman Legion, the remnants of the Arditi, and various splinter groups such as Italia Libera. Outnumbered and outgunned by the Fascists, who enjoyed the open support of the military and local police, this alliance was rapidly crushed. Its collapse left the Fascists as the most powerful faction in the country, on which Benito Mussolini was quick to capitalize. In 1922, the Fascists secured a dominant stake in the government, following an elaborate display of strength known as "the March on Rome." By 1926, the Fascists has completely taken over the government and installed a dictatorship.
There were other veterans' organizations in interwar Europe, but they did not have the mobilizing power of the ones surveyed above. In Britain, Oswald Mosley tried to adopt some of the strategies and choreography of Continental veterans' movements, but his black-shirt movement failed to attract any widespread support, and he and his movement faded into well-deserved obscurity.
After 1945, veterans' organizations continued to lobby for the material and moral welfare of their members, but they were by and large apolitical. Some were simply arms of the regime, as in Francisco Franco's Spain. Soviet war veterans were staunch supporters of the Soviet system, but their loyalty was more to the homeland than to the regime. Even after the end of communism, they still commemorate with great feeling the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945 that cost the lives of perhaps thirty million of their countrymen. Their outlook is very different from that of French veterans between the wars, who waged war on war, or Italian and German veterans, who waged war on the Treaty of Versailles. Militant veterans' politics is by and large an interwar phenomenon, without parallel later in the century.
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