A civil war is an imprecise thing, but the Irish Civil War wasn't the only conflict that could be described as such between 1918 and 1923. John Horne explains what makes a civil war "the worst kind of war" - and how the Irish civil war fits into this wider context

'Civil wars' are imprecise things with a precise history. The Romans invented the term in the first century BCE as the republic suffered internal wars between ambitious generals. It became a byword for the worst kind of war – armed conflict between two camps in the same political community, each claiming sovereign power, and thus unable to grant its enemy quarter. In short, the intimacy of fratricide plus a paradox. Only a civilised people able to create something like Ancient Rome could produce the brutality of a ‘civil war’ –which distinguished it from wars against other states or against ‘barbarians’. An aura of shame hung over it, as if kinship or shared values had been sullied. Its justification had to be all the greater; its memory might be long and divisive but was often also muted.

A group of Republican soldiers talk to journalists during the Spanish Civil War, including the American novelist Ernest Hemingway (seen with his back to the camera). O'Donnell was in Spain when the war broke out (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
A group of Republican soldiers talk to journalists during the Spanish Civil War, including the American novelist Ernest Hemingway (seen with his back to the camera). Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The term has grown. Historians distinguish three kinds of civil war - succession, where the passage of power is contested by armed force in a given state (classical Rome); secession, where one camp seeks to hive off sovereignty into a new state (the American Civil War); super-cession, where two sides fight over incompatible versions of the same state or political community (the Spanish Civil War). Some experts see most wars since 1989 as civil wars, as opposed to the inter-state wars dominant in the earlier 20th century.

But other terms and types of war (revolution, counter-revolution, national liberation, de-colonisation) complicate the picture, since they may take the form of civil wars in part or in whole. What matters here is that this complexity first became fully apparent exactly a century ago, in the aftermath (or extension) of the Great War.

The classic features of civil war

The Irish Civil War is one of several that took place in the period from 1918 to 1923, by which time a weary peace had descended on the globe. Finland and Russia experienced conflicts that garnered the title. Of course, given the complexity just mentioned, we find elements of civil war more widely, just as Ireland took part in other kinds of war – inter-state (the Great War), insurrection, national liberation – from 1914 to 1923. Yet from June 1922 to May 1923, the bitter Irish conclusion to a decade of warfare showed some of the classic features of civil war. In this, it parallels aspects of the Finnish and Russian cases.

An armed group of Red Guards mass in the street near the Bolshevik headquarters in Petrograd during the Russian Civil War.
An armed group of Red Guards mass in the street near the Bolshevik headquarters in Petrograd during the Russian Civil War. Photo: Getty Images

For it was, indeed, a conflict over the succession of power (transferred by the British with the Anglo-Irish Treaty) and also over super-cession – that is, the form the new state should take, territorially and constitutionally. And while preceded by the War of Independence, that conflict also had a civil war element for the British who viewed it as an attempt at ‘secession’ (none other than Lloyd George used the term).

As we know, the Civil War was more concerned with sovereignty than with partition, since what divided the pro- and anti-Treaty sides was the oath of allegiance to the Crown and the pragmatism of accepting Dominion status within the British empire (‘the freedom to achieve freedom’) as against the integral Republic for which all had fought in the war against Britain.

A fratricidal conflict

It was a truly fratricidal conflict. Each side betrayed the best of a shared vision - by constitutional compromise on one side, illegitimate recourse to violence on the other, and the reciprocal spiral of brutality on both. The fact that the Free State government executed more anti-Treaty opponents than did the British in the War of Independence was (by its own lights) logical. Just three years earlier, in 1919, the German sociologist Max Weber (influenced by Trotsky) formulated his famous definition of the state as ‘the monopoly of physical violence’ in response to the multiple conflicts emerging from the Great War. That monopoly is precisely what the Free State enacted. The IRA claimed its own monopoly on violence when it pursued the anti-Treaty cause by urban conflict, guerrilla war and assassination.

Black and white photo of sociologist Max Weber
Sociologist Max Weber. His theory of the state holding "the monopoly of physical violence" was enacted during the Civil War. Photo: Getty Images

There was much else to the Civil War (social radicalism, partition, the sectarian fall-out in Northern Ireland) but fraternal war over shared values was the core. It was this that engendered the bitter political memories, the familial silence over the killings and violence practised in the name of Irish ‘civilisation’ and the Irish ‘race’, and the lingering shame. Both the Free State and Republicanism (in its different forms) looked back elsewhere, to the Rising and the War of Independence, for the title deeds of glory and sovereignty.

Family resemblances

Major differences of kind and scale distinguish the Irish from the Finnish and Russian Civil Wars, but there are also family resemblances. The former lasted six months in 1918 in a country which, having been a devolved Duchy in imperial Russia, was now able to shape its own destiny owing to the Russian Revolution.

Helsinki in Finland, following a period of Civil War, 1918. The Communist Red Guard had captured the city, but were driven out by the White Guard under Mannerheim. (Photo by Kadel & Herbert/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Helsinki, Finland, just after the Civil War in 1918. Photo: Kadel & Herbert/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

However, unlike Ireland, it was subject to the opposed pull of Bolshevism and imperial Germany. With a similar size population to Ireland, one percent died (35,000 people), many of them civilians, compared to an estimated 1600 in the Irish Civil War. In a brutal conflict shaped by the proximity of Bolshevik Russia and fears of class revolution, each side used Terror (Red and White) to impose its will, the latter winning. Yet as in Ireland, a parliamentary democracy emerged. Nowadays, incomprehension (if not shame) attends the memory of the civil war. The real war of Finnish sovereignty (which parallels the Irish War of Independence) is seen as the one against Stalin’s attempt at annexation in 1939-40.

Political terror

In some ways, it is hard to compare the Russian Civil War with any except its Chinese counterpart of the 1930s and 1940s. Both revolutions took the form of civil wars without being totally defined by them while fighting outside intervention and transforming the global language of politics. The radicalism of the Bolshevik project, and its rejection at every level by the ‘Whites’, produced a civil war in which violence against civilians (as class enemies or de-humanised revolutionary vermin) was unparalleled.

It resulted in political Terror and, on the Bolshevik side, the start of wholesale experiments in social engineering. The death toll for soldiers was in the hundreds of thousands and for civilians who died by persecution, displacement, disease or famine, in the millions.

Soldiers of the Volunteer Army before the tank 'General Drozdovsky', Russia, 1919. The Volunteer Army was a White (anti-Bolshevik) army that fought in southern Russia from 1918-1920 during the Russian Civil War. Found in the collection of the State Museum (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Soldiers of the Volunteer Army before the tank 'General Drozdovsky' in Russia in 1919. The Volunteer Army was a White (anti-Bolshevik) army that fought in southern Russia from 1918-1920 during the Russian Civil War. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Yet the sense of fraternal bitterness (and even shame) was apparent, notably in the internecine strife within the socialist camp. The Revolution, not the Civil War, was the defining category of official memory in Soviet Russia. It was the Whites, in their diverse currents, who kept the flame of Civil War memory alive in exile (intransigent Republican memory of the Civil War in Ireland also flourished in the Diaspora).

Moreover, in highly unequal ways, the Irish and Russian experiences, as filtered through local needs and myths, impinged on each other. Lenin and the Bolsheviks appreciated Ireland’s struggle against British imperialism even if it was more about nationality than the global class revolution. Conversely, the class symbolism of the Bolshevik revolution exerted an influence on Irish labour and the more radical currents of the Irish revolution.

Cover of Le Petit Journal with drawing of Terence MacSwiney's deathbed
Ireland's struggle for independence gained international attention – as seen here on the cover of the French publication Le Petit Journal – in a way the Civil War did not. Image: Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

To be sure, that influence spilled over into the anti-Treaty camp in the Civil War. But it also underlines a key point by way of conclusion. What garnered international attention for Ireland was not the Civil War but a war for national independence against the world’s greatest empire. What made Bolshevik Russia the powerful and polarising presence it was across the world between 1917 and 1923 was not the Civil War but the Revolution.

This was a pivotal moment when ‘self-determination’ became the global clarion call to mass participation in politics - whether national, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary (these same years saw the inception of fascism). Civil war alone was not enough. It still carried the negative connotations bequeathed by ancient Rome. It needed the transcendence promised by other agendas (and often an ideological label) to make it acceptable, and all the more so since the reality continued to engender bitter legacies.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.