State Terror in the Twentieth Century, I: The Century of Terror

This is the first in a series of essays that will explore the use of terror by states in the 20th century. This week will begin with a brief overview of twentieth-century state terror in theory; subsequent essays in this series will look more closely at how states all over the world applied terror to specific problems, in both foreign and domestic policy. In the US, since the spectacular mass atrocity of 9/11, consciousness of terror in both concept and practice has become a dominant element in public discourse, yet overall knowledge of the topic is still lacking. The subsequent decline and fall of the post-World War II international system, wars, and the normalization of terror as overt public policy in the West all followed. Obviously, it is difficult to overstate the potential power of a well-conceived and well-executed terrorist attack; therefore, it should not be surprising that a weapon of such potential power has also long been embraced and used by states.

Most terrorism studies cast the terrorist in an anti-state role, in an ascending hierarchy of terrorist-guerilla-soldier. This convenient shorthand does roughly describe many of the terrorist campaigns of the twentieth century, especially in the wars that followed the breakup of the colonial empires, and as this narrative makes useful grist for state propaganda, it is often repeated as conventional wisdom. However, the reality is far more complex. While protracted terrorist campaigns have been fought against states by independent organizations, in many if not most cases, these organizations were bankrolled and supported, if not created and organized, by states; in other cases, independent terrorist organizations were infiltrated by state agents, who then used the supposedly independent terrorist organizations as proxies. As commercial enterprises, drug cartels are in a different category, self-supporting but largely apolitical. In general, state terror in the twentieth century took two forms: terror as a method of governance and internal security, and terror as a foreign policy option. Terror in foreign policy can further be subdivided into two more subcategories: terror as a weapon in time of war, and state-sponsored terrorism against nations with whom the sponsor publicly claims to be at peace.

Terror in time of war in the twentieth century, again, was carried out with one or more of three general goals in mind: terrorizing an enemy into a quick surrender, terrorizing an enemy into passively accepting occupation, and/or terrorizing an enemy’s population into fleeing entirely, a process called ethnic cleansing. Terror as a weapon of war is almost as old as warfare itself, yet even here the twentieth century put a characteristic spin, both through the force-multiplication effects of the industrialization of technological warfare on the capabilities of the individual soldier, and through the development of the twentieth century’s most characteristic form of wartime terror, strategic aerial bombing of civilian populations. We will look at examples and implications of both, including the nuclear weapons and nuclear testing regimens that grew out of the strategic bombing doctrine of the Second World War.

State terror was practiced by almost every major nation in the twentieth century, from beginning to end, a fact that may come as a surprise to some. It should not; the evidence is ubiquitous and overwhelming, from the Herero genocide in Africa at the beginning of the century, or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans at its end. In the use of terror, twentieth century states are united. What differentiated them from one another was the degree to which they were willing to use internal terror against their own citizens, since practically every international power used terror in the conduct of its foreign policy. The extremes were seen in the Soviet Union, which used mass terror as a central organizing principle of its domestic policy, and in the Western democracies, where uses of internal terror were usually covert and were most often denied, justified, or explained away as something other than the exercises of state terror they were.

This need for secrecy was dictated by the need for the US to maintain the perception that it did not engage in state terror. The overt use of terror, antithetical to the Constitutional and human rights laws and traditions that are the bedrock of the US’s founding principles, established traditions, and settled law, undermined the very ideology the US claimed to be defending. Secrecy therefore became paramount in Western state terrorism, both internal and external, a problematic notion at best. The resulting conflict between Western ideology and propaganda and their observed behavior required the creation of a massive, subsidiary propaganda apparatus, to manage perception and “manufacture consent,” and to maintain the fiction that democratic governments don’t do this sort of thing.

I’m looking forward to this series. I hope you find it informative, and that it helps throw into sharper relief how our world got to be how it is today, well into the second decade of the 21st century. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at regimes who made terror a defining characteristic, and especially Stalin’s Soviet Union. See you next week-


3 thoughts on “State Terror in the Twentieth Century, I: The Century of Terror

  1. Pingback: State Terror in the Twentieth Century, II: Internal Security | Everblog

  2. Pingback: State Terror in the Twentieth Century, III: Foreign Policy | Everblog

  3. Pingback: State Terror in the Twentieth Century, IV: Beyond the Century of Terror | Everblog

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