John Larrysson's Column: White Terror

Many of the political crowd in Hong Kong keep saying that this or that is white terror. Is this true? Does Hong Kong have a white terror? I will not tell you what the answer is, but this week we will examine what the term means. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us two definitions: 

1. French History. The period of violent repression led by counter-revolutionary forces in 1795, in reaction to the First French Revolution; the violence and bloodshed of this period [cf. Red Terror n. at red adj. and n. Special uses 2d(a)]. Also: the (period of) repression following the restoration of Louis XVIII in 1815.

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2. Any of various periods of violent repression, esp. one led by conservative or reactionary forces against a communist or left-wing regime. (Cf. white adj. 6.) Sometimes with specific reference to the persecution of supporters of the revolution during the Russian Civil War (1917-22); to the campaign of violence carried out by counter-revolutionaries in Hungary between 1919 and 1921; or to periods of violent repression in mainland China in the years following 1927 and in Taiwan after 1949.

Since the meaning of the word is directly connected to historical events, we can look at them to discover our definition. I will only cover each example briefly.

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White terror was first called Terreur Blanche, meaning: Terror White1, in 1796-7 during the French Revolution. The revolutionary government had executed thousands of royalists during a period called The Terror. Hundreds of thousands had died during the fighting. After the revolutionary government had been defeated and the king was back in power, royalist supporters wore a white cloth flower, called cockades on their hats. They took revenge and killed many republicans; it was called the White Terror. It is interesting to note that the first White Terror was a reaction to a greater terror by the revolutionaries.2

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Royalist supporters tried to kill off political opponents rather than reach a peaceful, negotiated settlement. During this time people were arrested and executed in large numbers. The government pretended to follow the laws. Many people were arrested and then died in prison. Some people were murdered, but the killers were never found. Many ordinary people took advantage of the chaos to kill people they suspected of being revolutionaries or whom they just did not like. While getting an accurate death toll is problematic, it is likely about 2000 people were killed. Since this mass murder refers to a specific historical event White Terror is capitalised.

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The Second White Terror, Deuxième Terreur Blanche, was in France in 1815, after Napoleon Bonaparte's brief second government was crushed. This time the response was more well planned. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, many were arrested and imprisoned, hundreds were executed. This terror was different, it started to include firing many people, not just killing their leaders. It was thought out and planned, not just the work of angry mobs.

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White Terror was first used outside France to describe the actions of the White Army in Russia. The White and Red Terror happened in Russia, during the Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War of 1918-1920. Here there was no issue of job losses, just the slaughter of people in large numbers. The estimates of the death toll vary from 20,000 to 100,000 innocent people on both sides. The Red Terror was done by the communists' Red Army and the White Terror by the White or Czarist army. A smaller second version of this White-Red Terror happened in Finland. Since white still referred to the name of the White Army, the word White Terror would still be capitalised, it was not yet a general noun.  

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There was a supposed white terror from 1919 to 1921 in Hungary. The government's supporters killed about a thousand people. In theory, they were opposed to the winners of World War I who invaded and occupied Hungary's ethnically mixed border regions and gave them to neighbouring countries. Hungary lost two-thirds of its land area, and one third of its Hungarian-speaking people. However most of the victims were Jewish people; this was really an older type of mass killing called a pogrom. The term white terror was used to describe it, but the killings were not really anything different. 

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In 1923 the Kingdom of Bulgaria had a white terror with close to a thousand deaths as the government hunted communist sympathisers. However here and in Hungary, white terror became a general noun; there was no longer a reason to capitalise it. The key feature of white terror is the mass killing of ordinary people, not soldiers, who supported the communists.  

Spain had a white terror under Franco's right-wing government, they tried to bring Spain back to an ideal past that never really existed. They called it a limpieza social (forgive my pronunciation), a cleansing of society. When they persecuted, imprisoned or killed socialists, liberals, homosexuals, non-Catholics as well as ethnic minorities, such as Jews, Basques, Catalans and so on.... Estimates of the death toll range from 50,000 to 200,000. 

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Lynching in the United States of America was horrific. From the 1830s until the 1960s white supremacists in the US tried to enforce the old racial hierarchy by murdering African American men who were not appropriately submissive. Lynching in the United States of America was similar to a white terror, but the term was not used. The violence was used to brutally control and subjugate former slaves, whereas cases of white terror are against communists, socialists or their supporters.

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China had both white and red terrors. The white terror was also known as the Shanghai massacre of 12th April 1927. The Nationalist Kuomintang attempted the mass killing of the communists and their supporters. Once the Kumingtang retreated to Taiwan, they imprisoned and killed thousands of people suspected of opposing them, disagreeing with them or being communists. Martial law lasted from 1947 to 1987, creating the longest white terror. 

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On the Mainland, the communists had a long lasting red terror known as the Cultural Revolution. It lasted from 1966 until Mao Zedong's death in 1976. The death toll was huge, but many people also died from starvation because of agricultural and economic mismanagement. Note that red and white terrors are different only in who the victims and perpetrators are. Red terrors are done by communists and white terrors are done to communists.

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Greece had a white terror from 1945-46; thousands of people were killed. It was mostly the persecution of members of the Communist Party of Greece, the leftist World War II-era resistance organization National Liberation Front and their supporters in 1945-46. The white terror ended with the start of the Greek Civil War. Which shows us an interesting part of the definition. It is only a terror when it is against non-combatants. The people killed might have fought in WWII and might fight later in the Civil War, however only when they were killed as civilians was it called a white terror. 

In the 1950s United States, the McCarthy Era saw hundreds of Americans accused of being communists. They usually lost their jobs and careers. However people were not killed in large numbers, so it never amounted to a white terror. 

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From the historical use of the word we can create a definition. Events called white terrors are the killings of communists, socialists and other left-wing people. A red terror, such as China's Cultural Revolution, is the mirror image of a white terror. Soldiers killed in war are not part of a white or red terror; white and red terrors are the killing of civilians. The people who do the killings are reactionaries; reactionaries are those who want society to go back to some earlier ideal (if fictitious) time. Communists, socialist and their supporters cannot, by definition and historical use of the word, conduct a white terror, only be the victims of it. Also a White Terror is only capitalised when the sides are named White and Red. 

A white terror is a period of violent and deadly repression, by reactionary forces against civilians who are communists, socialists or their supporters. So has there been a white terror in Hong Kong?

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1. Actually it means White Terror, since French uses the adjective after the noun. This word order is also used in English in special situations. See Post-Positive Adjectives (2020-03-03) and Problems Created by Post-Positive Adjectives (2020-03-17)

2.  It's also interesting to note that the original tune for The Red Flag is called The White Cockade (although nowadays it’s almost always sung to O Tannenbaum) - a socialist song associated with a royalist symbol.

Other articles:

What do political words mean?


Protester, Demonstrator & Rioter

Universal Suffrage &c.

Rotten Boroughs and Gerrymandering

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.

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