The Uses of Treason: Legitimacy, Identity, and Insurgency in Europe and the Americas

AHA Session 1
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Continental A (Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level)
Tamara L. Hunt, University of Southern Indiana

Session Abstract

This panel advances the contention that charges of treason serve less to define the outer bounds of belonging in a state or insurgent group, than to refigure identities within it in complex ways. While individuals and groups accused of treason are said to have colluded with the enemy, they are not rendered as enemies themselves but rather as proxies for the values and agendas of those who hold political power within the group. Through a series of case studies ranging from eighteenth-century Northwest Mexico to the late twentieth-century prisons of Northern Ireland, and from World War II-era France to Argentina’s “Dirty War,” panelists interrogate the notion of treason by exploring the political work it performs in specific temporal and geographic contexts, addressing a series of overarching questions. What aims motivate actions subsequently designated as treasonous? Whom do charges of treason legitimate? Who is marginalized by such accusations? And whose interests do these charges serve?

The four papers that constitute this panel explore ways that both states and insurgents have used the concept of treason to shape identities and legitimize or delegitimize actors in conflict situations, while also delineating power relationships between and within the groups involved in the conflict. Myers examines treason in eighteenth-century Northwest Mexico as a label that distinguished the actions of various ethnic groups from each other, while creating new and counterintuitive categories of belonging to the state. Carnaghi focuses on the Vertrauen Männer or “men of confidence” in Vichy France, who infiltrated Resistance networks and denounced their members to the Nazis but were arrested and charged with treason against the French state after 1945. Accusing the Vertrauen Männer of treason meant branding them as enemy tools, but some of those spies attempted to legitimate their actions by arguing that they had simply obeyed Vichy France’s spirit of “collaboration.” Oppenheimer’s comparative study of the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panther Party between 1968 and 1973 shows that the respective states’ use of undercover agents to infiltrate both of these groups led their leaders to suspect members of treason; at the same time, these agents abrogated the law, thereby delegitimizing the actions of the state. Katz’s exploration of debates surrounding torture and treason within the Montoneros, an insurgent group in Argentina in the 1970s, shows that the tortured bodies of combatants accused of collaboration with the enemy emerged as intense sites of contention over the causes and meanings of the organization’s broader defeat.

Taken together, the panelists’ contributions provide a nuanced examination of treason as a tool, one used both to challenge and empower the state. The panel thus explores this dynamic function of treason while providing meaningful comparisons across space and time, illuminating a construct of ongoing political relevance in many parts of the world. We believe this panel will be of interest to a wide range of scholars, and in particular those who work on state formation, resistance, and the history of the left.

See more of: AHA Sessions