The Rise of Paramilitaries in CEE

The formation of paramilitary groups can have both positive and negative effects. There is no reason for an automatic alarm if one emerges—but there is always a reason for caution.

A paramilitary group is any group, that is not a proper military unit, but has the culture and organization of one. The checklist of what constitutes it is long, containing points such as military ranks and hierarchy, equipment, training methods and mimicking of other elements of the military. The two most important, however, are culture and organizations. Gaining weapons is relatively easy, and even training can be obtained in a matter of weeks to months, but culture and organization is what makes or breaks a paramilitary group.

Some of the most famous paramilitary groups in CEE were People’s Militias affiliated with the Communist Party, arguably a negative example, or elements of Czechoslovak Sokol or Polish Strzelec, that formed underground units fighting the Nazis. This was a positive role, I would argue. The revival of Strzelec and other paramilitary groups in Poland since 2014 was handled well by Polish authorities and became an asset that is slowly being integrated into the national defense infrastructure. The situation in other parts of CEE is more complicated, and the outcome may not be so positive.

The formation of paramilitary groups can therefore have both positive and negative effects. There is no reason for an automatic alarm if one emerges—but there is always a reason for caution. When it happens, the first point of action of anyone responsible should always be to know why it happened, and where its leadership and membership stand when it comes to motivations, loyalties and values.

Reasons for the Emergence

There is no unified theory or typology when it comes to the reasons why such groups emerge. There is also no single reason that can explain this phenomenon. What I will describe are the reasons me and my colleagues came across when studying historical records, contemporary reports and combining it with our own experience.

Capturing zeitgeist is uneasy and doing so for CEE is further complicated by the fact that the western civilizational context must be adjusted for the post-communist past and often with a heavy dose of nostalgia.

1. Circumstantial

Circumstantial reasons are an umbrella term for individual and local variables that influenced the emergence of a concrete paramilitary group. These may be, for example, a wave of violent crime in the area, or a deliberate political project. A massive migration crisis, such as in 2015/2016, frightened a great number of people and contributed to the revival of some groups in Hungary and the Balkans. The war in Ukraine greatly contributed to the emergence and growth of paramilitary groups in Poland.

Those variables are random. It is always a good idea, however, to ask at least 3 questions, when assessing the circumstantial reasons. The first one is about the leader—is it his influence that started and sustained the whole group, making it a one-man show? Is his high motivation and personality the main force that drives the emergence of this group? This is the shared case in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where paramilitary groups rely on the strong persona of their leaders. Second, we investigated the possible existence of a paramilitary tradition in the area—if there is one, then it can be much more frequent as is the case in Poland.

In Slovakia, if the leader is gone, the group would probably crumble. In Poland, it is more about the tradition that sustains these groups. And the third and most important one—is there a war going on? Because war changes everything. In peacetime, joining a paramilitary group can be a lifestyle choice, and possibly an uncommon one. Motivations can be unclear. In wartime, it can often be a very rational and pragmatic decision to have a paramilitary group around. Ukrainian oligarchs could tell.

2. Zeitgeist

Circumstantial reasons describe variables on the individual and local level. Zeitgeist, or the ‘spirit of the times’, attempts to describe variables on a sociocultural, political, and indeed a historical level. It is an attempt to capture the atmosphere of society, the dominant cultural influences and counter-cultural reactions. You can picture the relationship between circumstantial reasons and zeitgeist reasons as a relationship between the weather and the climate. Both influence each other, both change—one daily, the second generationally—and both matter.

Surveys indicate plummeting trust in all traditional authorities, whether this be the state, science, the church or the media. If there are no trustworthy authorities in society, anxiety and insecurity grow.

Capturing zeitgeist is uneasy and doing so for CEE is further complicated by the fact that the western civilizational context must be adjusted for the post-communist past and often with a heavy dose of nostalgia. I am not far enough in my research and my tour of interviews with CEE historians, politicians, social scientists and philosophers is far from over to provide a comprehensive description, but I am far enough to identify three concrete fragments of zeitgeist that have the most prominent influence amongst members of paramilitary groups, and can be consistently found across all those I met across CEE.

First is the speed of change. The world is changing, and the change is so fast no one can keep up—the best analysts have no idea what effects the massive technologically and socially co-dependent change will bring. We do not know what fully digitalized societies will do to us, or what truly individualist, universal income providing societies with no overarching narrative will do; none of this has precisely existed. Part of society welcomes it as an amazing opportunity, the other part as a potentially mortal threat. As we know, tension between these two tendencies in society is universal. And members of paramilitaries in CEE are predominantly from the more cautious part of the spectrum. They are sceptical about the rapid change and would prefer if it would be slower and more gradual. They view their membership as partial insurance against potential harmful outcomes of uncontrolled and rampant change, since they gain a community of friends that feel the same and can teach them how to be more self-sufficient.

The second one is the crisis of trustworthiness in traditional authorities. Surveys indicate plummeting trust in all traditional authorities, whether this be the state, science, the church or the media. If there are no trustworthy authorities in society, anxiety and insecurity grows. Social capital—and more generally social cohesion and cooperation—is based on mutual trust inside a group. This is the case whether it be the size of an elementary school class or the size of a country. As Robert Putnam has demonstrated in his book Bowling Alone, when mutual trust plummets, so does social cohesion and cooperation. The boom of alternative media, alternative currencies and generally the growth of movements trying to build parallel societies is just a symptom of the mutual trust crisis. Members of CEE paramilitaries generally share the feeling that current authorities are not particularly trustworthy, and that social cohesion is falling apart. This is one of the main reasons why the question of refugees is so sensitive. They believe it is only rational to create their own groups full of people that can be trusted.

And finally—the extreme moralization of differences in opinion. There is a large social and cultural rift across the entire West. If one follows the media with a more leftist and liberal scope like The Guardian, NYT, Respekt magazine or Denník N it seems that the forces of freedom, liberty and human rights are clashing with the forces of bigotry, darkness, patriarchy and oppression. The more conservative and right-leaning sources—The Telegraph, The Atlantic, Reflex magazine or Postoj report that the powers of reason and stability stand against the forces of chaos, decadence, economic irresponsi- bility and dangerous utopic social engineering. And both claim the other one wants to destroy either culture or nature.

The boom of alternative media, alternative currencies and generally the growth of movements trying to build parallel societies is just a symptom of the mutual trust crisis.

What these media report on is differences in the perspective on what values they hold, which of those they believe are in danger, and what threatens them. This is completely legitimate—different people pri- oritize different values and fight over the hierarchy of values. Should we prioritize Mercy or Justice? This is a common dilemma of the justice sys- tem. Both values are considered good and valuable. The trouble starts, when some groups state that the values of other groups are not values at all and should be excluded and discarded. This is where a possibility for pragmatic debate ends.

Most members of CEE paramilitaries feel that the communal values of loyalty, patriotism, self-sacrifice, common decency or survival of a local way of life are under attack from the urban cosmopolitan elite living in a glo- balist culture with an individualist mindset. And this elite does not demand prioritization of their values, but outright claims that the values they hold so dear are not values at all. That they are immoral or outright evil anach- ronisms of a cruel and unjust past and should be abolished. And those who hold them are either bad, mad or sad, and should be retrained or restrained. The reaction is, obviously, outrage.

In my experience, this position is the chief reason behind the growth of anti-system tendencies and growing anger and frustration in society.

3. Human Nature and Psychological Traits

Everyone is different. But, in some ways, every individual is also the same. We are all Homo Sapiens and thus share genetic material. This means there are certain generalizations that are plausible. Some are obvious—in general, we have two legs, two arms and one head. But we also share mental traits that can be found cross-culturally. We call them the anthropological universals. There are several, but the one that is important for this study is tribal mentality. We are all tribal. We are happier, healthier and live longer if we are part of a tribe. Being part of a tribe is so deeply pleasurable, that if there is no tribe around, we create one. Sport clubs, religious organizations, professional associations, political parties—they are all outcome of our genetically inherited and neurologically wired love for the tribal community.

Another fact that has emerged from the last decade of cognitive and neurological study of human behavior is that humans are not born with a blank-slate mind. Our behavior and personality are only partially influenced by our upbringing and education (some 50-70%). The rest is genetic, inherited, and formed in advance of experience. We know those character traits like optimism or pessimism, neuroticism and openness to experience are inherited. This does not mean it is unmalleable. It means, however, that everyone has certain predispositions, and everyone’s inclinations can be formed, but not completely erased or empowered.

As it turns out, caution about the speed of social change is inherited. Anxiety levels are caused by insecurity as well. Both are evolutionary mechanisms that should boost our ability to identify threats, cooperate and survive. To put it simply—some people were born more cautious, which predisposes them to prefer social arrangements with lower risk levels involved. They therefore instinctively oppose anything that increases the risk—and as you can see in the zeitgeist chapter, we live in times which give the more cautious people a proper headache. CEE paramilitaries seem to consist mostly of these people.

Some people were born more cautious, which predisposes them to prefer social arrangements with lower risk levels involved. They therefore instinctively oppose anything that increases the risk.

Personal interviews with members revealed that the main individual motivations to join paramilitary organizations are purpose and adventure. Purpose is a longing to be part of something bigger than oneself. Adventure is a longing for challenges where one can overcome risky obstacles that will help one prove oneself, gain a reputation and grow incompetence. Members agree that their group is providing them with plenty of both. More research will be needed to answer if the paramilitary group was simply the only possible (or most accessible) opportunity where they could entertain their longings, or if other psychological traits are in play that makes a (para)military environment more attractive than the alternatives.

Conclusion

To sum up the reasons I found for the emergence of paramilitary groups in CEE: local circumstantial reasons are combined with the clash of values and crisis of purpose of the present zeitgeist and the eternal needs of human nature. Those who happened to live near places where paramilitary groups originated, or happened to have friends there, and were temperamentally and value-wise prone to enjoy a more collective, purpose-oriented and adventurous environment often considered it beneficial to join.

This is what fits the field research data the best. I do not know yet if it will fit the quantitative data as well. I may have the answer next year, when I will finish polling several paramilitary groups and a representative amount of the Slovak male population in the largest comparative survey that has ever investigated this phenomenon.

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Pavol Kosnáč

is a PhD. researcher at the Department of Political Science, Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied comparative religious studies in Bratislava, Oxford and LSE and eventually focused on overlaps between ideology, religion, violence and war. He spent the last 5 years mapping motivations and values of members of paramilitary organizations and foreign fighters in Central-Eastern Europe and Asia. He also works as a consultant for humanitarian organizations and universities, currently in Slovakia, Iraq and Thailand.

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