Paramilitary Organizations Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Prior to the establishment of standing armies, groups of people armed themselves for their own protection, and essentially this is the origin of the many paramilitary organizations that have existed since ancient times.


Prior to the establishment of standing armies, groups of people armed themselves for their own protection, and essentially this is the origin of the many paramilitary organizations that have existed since ancient times. These groups had commanders and “officers” who held military ranks, and they were armed, but the difference between them and armies was that central authorities did not control the paramilitary organizations and they operated on a basis similar to that of some militias today. During the late twentieth century, the term “paramilitary group” tended to be used for armed groupings, which come together for a political purpose, often armed illegally. However, there are many instances in which the division between paramilitary groups, militias, and other armed groups are blurred.Paramilitary organizationsMilitias;paramilitaryParamilitary organizationsMilitias;paramilitary


Throughout history, paramilitary groups have played a major role in determining political control of particular parts of countries, and they have been prominent in local affairs. They have been especially important in Civil wars;paramilitary groupscivil wars, the control of civilians, and keeping some governments in power, as well as unseating (or attempting to unseat) others. In full-scale warfare, they are usually “outgunned” if they are fighting regular armies, although the nature of paramilitaries has often meant that they can blend into the general civilian population, which, in turn, has meant that they have had success in guerrilla warfare, insurgencies, and periods of civil strife.

History of Paramilitary OrganizationsAncient World

In the ancient world, militias and local armies effectively controlled towns. However, with the emergence of large empires, localities continued to have means to protect themselves from local banditry or sudden incursions from their neighbors by raising small forces. Owing to the scanty nature of information from much of the ancient world, there is academic debate over the exact nature of some of the military forces that operated and whether or not they had a degree of central control. An example is the army of Hannibal BarcaHannibal BarcaHannibal (247-182 b.c.e.), which, although it was referred to as the Carthaginian army, may in fact have its origins in a paramilitary force raised by his father, Hamilcar BarcaHamilcar BarcaHamilcar Barca, in Spain. By contrast, the soldiers raised by Crassus, Marcus LiciniusCrassus, Marcus LiciniusMarcus Licinius Crassus in Rome in 71 b.c.e., against SpartacusSpartacusSpartacus, although paid for by Crassus himself, were put at the disposal of the Roman government (admittedly led by Crassus) and were therefore not paramilitaries. There is also clear evidence that some of the armies during the Barbarians;invasions of Rome“barbarian” invasions of the Rome;barbarian invasionsRoman Empire operated with sufficient autonomy to imply that they might also have been paramilitary forces. Indeed the fall of the Roman Empire–essentially with the collapse of central authority–led to the formation of regionally based military groups to protect cities, towns, and villages.

Medieval World

The lack of central authority in the medieval world resulted in the formation of local militia groups and essentially in the paramilitary groups as they exist in the modern world. This occurred in parts of Germany, along the eastern borders of Europe, and for periods in France. In England, the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485)Roses, Wars of the (1455-1485)Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) were essentially a battle between paramilitary forces raised by respective landowners. As the feuding families of medieval and Renaissance Italy needed their own soldiers, their paramilitaries, often augmented by the hiring of Mercenaries;Italianmercenaries and alliances with regional powers, came to dominate Italian politics for centuries. Mercenary bands such as the White CompanyWhite Company of Sir Hawkwood, JohnHawkwood, JohnJohn Hawkwood in the fourteenth century were also paramilitary groups, as were the followers of Borgia, CesareBorgia, CesareCesare Borgia in Italy after the death of his father, Pope Alexander VIAlexander VI (pope)[Alexander 06]Alexander VI. Also in Spain during the ReconquistaReconquista, paramilitary forces operated from regional powers that were involved in alliances with and against the Moors from the twelfth to the fifteenth century.

Modern World

The European voyages of discovery led to the establishment of large colonial empires and powerful chartered companies such as the British East India CompanyBritish East India Company and the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch East India CompanyDutch East India Company). Most of these companies maintained their own armed forces (and navies), which had military ranks and raised soldiers both from the homeland and in their new possessions. These sometimes fought alongside colonial armies. This was particularly the case with the armies and navies of the British East India Company, which did not integrate its armed forces with those of the British Army and British India until 1858. Prior to this, and certainly before the 1830’s, the British East India Company was involved in waging wars of aggression without needing to get prior agreement from the British government.

In the cases of Civil wars;paramilitary groupscivil wars such as aspects of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);paramilitary groupsThirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the English Civil Wars (1642-1651)English Civil Wars (1642-1651), councils and wealthy individuals raised their own forces, which were sometimes put at the disposal of the main commanders but often were involved in local skirmishes or the defense of their own property or town, making them effectively paramilitaries.

The best-known paramilitary forces have operated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In Germany after World War I, there were problems with law and order. The result was that certain groups were formed, the most famous being the Freikorps (Germany)Freikorps, which first appeared in December, 1918, mainly composed of former soldiers and taking the name from a similar force that had appeared in the eighteenth century. Essentially the Storm troopersstorm troopers and the Sturm AbteilungSturm Abteilung (SA) of Ernst Röhm, during the period of the rise to power of the Nazi Party up until 1931 and during the German occupation of much of Europe, operated as paramilitary groups. Certainly the Blackshirts (Italy)Blackshirts in Italy, who helped Mussolini, BenitoMussolini, BenitoBenito Mussolini come to power in 1922, had a similar role. There were also pro-Fascist groups in other countries who marched in uniform and sometimes, when possible, carried weapons. These included the Falange (Spain)Falange in Spain, the Blue Shirts in Ireland, the Blackshirts (Ireland)Blackshirts of Sir Mosley, OswaldMosley, OswaldOswald Mosley in Britain, and possibly even the New Guard (Australia)New Guard in Australia. Certainly not all the paramilitary groups were of the political right; socialist, communist, and anarchist militia groups operating in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) usually supported, and often fought alongside, the Spanish Republican forces but occasionally fought against each other. It could even be argued that the International Brigade (Spain)International Brigade during that war was essentially a paramilitary group, especially given that it drew people of many nationalities and followed various commanders.

During World War II, the Germans sponsored many paramilitary groups who fought alongside them in parts of Russia, the Balkans, and other parts of Europe. Some of these groups, especially in the Baltic, in Poland, and in the Ukraine, became heavily associated with the atrocities against Jews and other people there. While many of the groups fought alongside the German forces, and quite clearly had the support of them, sometimes their exact nature is still debated by historians. Mention should also be made of the Fascist Militia (France)Fascist Militia in France, which operated on a paramilitary basis, again with the support of members of the Vichy government (but often not at its behest). On the opposite side during the war, the partisans in Yugoslavia, Albania, and Italy, as well as other countries, essentially operated as paramilitary groups, as did some Free French forces in 1944 and 1945.

Following the Chinese Revolution (1911)Chinese Revolution of 1911 and the fragmentation of the country, many warlords established their own “armies,” again as paramilitary groups, sometimes allied with the government but often able to control civilians in areas that had achieved a degree of local autonomy. One example is the group led by Zhang ZulinZhang ZulinZhang Zulin Chang Tso-linChang Tso-lin(Chang Tso-lin, also known as the Old MarshalOld Marshal or Mukden TigerMukden Tiger) in Manchuria. His forces were armed and trained, controlled a significant part of the country, but only loosely took orders from the central government. As a result, technically until the Northern Expedition, the armies loyal to the GuomindangGuomindangGuomindang KuomintangKuomintang(Kuomintang) from southern China were also essentially paramilitaries.

In Ireland, there were also paramilitary groups formed along religious and political lines. The Irish Republican ArmyIrish Republican Army, which was led by people holding military rank, and for official occasions dressed in uniforms, was also a paramilitary group–although labeled by its opponents as a terrorist organization. While it served to oppose the British army first in Ireland and later in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Defence AssociationUlster Defence Association was established in 1971 to support British rule in Northern Ireland, and uniquely it was a legal organization with its commanders able to use military ranks, although they were not allowed to use weapons.

During the Civil wars;Lebanoncivil war in Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990)Lebanon from 1975, many militia groups emerged, including Amal (Lebanon)Amal for the Shīՙites, the Druze (Lebanon)Druze militia of Jumblatt, WalidJumblatt, WalidWalid Jumblatt, the Falange (Lebanon)Falangist militia of Gemayel, PierreGemayel, PierrePierre Gemayel and then Gemayel, BashirGemayel, BashirBashir Gemayel, and later HezbollahHezbollah. All these groups were effectively paramilitary groups, as were the Palestine and PalestiniansPalestinians based in Lebanon during much of this time. Discussion of paramilitary groups in Lebanon is also problematic because of the success of some paramilitary leaders who have attained political power. This could be seen with the election of Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Falangist militia, as president of Lebanon and then, after his assassination, the election of his brother Gemayel, AminGemayel, AminAmin Gemayel and the subsequent assumption of power by Aoun, MichelAoun, MichelMichel Aoun. As commanders of one of the most powerful paramilitary groups in the country, they were also heads of the government.

In many cases there are also instances when secretive paramilitary forces have been used to work alongside the official military but in roles from which the military have shrunk. These include militia groups in Indonesia involved in “the Killings” in 1965 and the destruction of East TimorEast Timor in 1999, and the “death squads” in many Central American countries during the 1980’s.

Many paramilitary groups have emerged in Africa. Some have been made up of colonists opposed to independence, such as the Algerian supporters of the 1960 Barricades Revolt (1960)Barricades Revolt in Algiers. In the 1990’s, paramilitary militia-style groups in regions of Africa gained considerable notoriety, among them the Interahamwe (Rwanda)Interahamwe in Rwanda and the Janjaweed (Darfur)Janjaweed in the Darfur region of Sudan. Although both these groups operated with significant support from their local governments, they operated with considerable local autonomy. To complicate matters, attempts for independence by people in Biafra and Katanga led to wars that the central governments in Nigeria and the Congo, respectively, saw as resistance to “illegal” paramilitary groups rather than the suppression of independence movements. Similar arguments can be made over whether the African National CongressAfrican National Congress (ANC), National Union for the Total Independence of AngolaNational Union for the Total Independence of Angola União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola[Uniao Nacional](União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, or UNITA) in Angola, the Mozambican National ResistanceMozambican National Resistance Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana, or RENAMO), and the Polisario FrontPolisario Front are, or were, paramilitary groups. In South Africa as it moved toward majority rule in the early 1990’s, the Afrikaner WeerstandsbewegingAfrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), led by Terre’Blanche, EugèneTerre’Blanche, Eugène[Terreblanche]Eugène Terre’Blanche, which was opposed to the end of Apartheidapartheid, effectively turned itself into a militia, with its supporters wearing military-style clothing, carrying weapons, and becoming involved in events such as driving into Bophuthatswana in 1994 as part of the paramilitary Afrikaner VolksfrontAfrikaner Volksfront. Similarly, it could be argued that the Zulu groups, armed with “traditional weapons,” were effectively a paramilitary group, as possibly were the “war veterans” involved in land seizures in Zimbabwe in the 2000’s.ParamilitaryorganizationsMilitias;paramilitary

Books and Articles
  • Caballero Jurado, Carlos. The German Freikorps, 1918-23. New York: Osprey, 2001. This work covers the organizations formed by returning World War I veterans, who feared a communist revolution in postwar Germany.
  • Flackes, W. D. Northern Ireland: A Political Directory. London: Ariel Books, 1983. Contains a listing of the makeshift organizations that have come and gone throughout the Troubles.
  • Katz, Samuel M., and Lee E. Russell. Armies in Lebanon, 1982-84. New York: Osprey, 1985. Details the history and organization of the various terrorist groups in Lebanon during their time of highest activity.
  • Norton, Augustus Richard. Hezbollah: A Short History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. In addition to providing information on how the organization developed, the book looks at the various military, nonmilitary, and charitable parts of the larger group.
  • Thomas, Nigel. Partisan Warfare, 1941-45. New York: Osprey, 1983. Profiles the various paramilitary groups, such as the French Resistance, that played such an important role during the invasion of Europe during World War II.
  • Windrow, Martin. The Algerian War, 1954-62. New York: Osprey, 1997. Looks at the various groups that fought against French colonialism, eventually succeeding in driving the Europeans out.


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Categories: History