‘Treason’ seems to be an ubiquitous concept in human history, stretching from the ancient world through to the present day. While it is sometimes thought of as an anachronistic term associated with past despotic governments, it is very much alive in our contemporary world. In Russia, the journalist Ivan Safronov was recently accused of treason. From the USA, the cases of the ‘traitors’ Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are well-known. Repeatedly the term ‘traitor’ is used rhetorically in political debate in an excoriating fashion, to condemn opponents who have supposedly violated a perceived moral bench-mark. A new high point is marked by the insinuations of Donald Trump’s supporters that his election defeat was due to the fraud of traitors. Rarely has an election in the Western democracies of the 20th and 21st centuries been so characterized by a rhetoric of betrayal. ‘Treason’ adds an ethical dimension to any political power contest, with an individual labelled as ‘traitor’ who has allegedly broken trust with his peers.
In a more concrete way, however, ‘treason’ is the ultimate political crime in any state. Through the centuries it has been codified in criminal law in a tradition passed down from Roman and Germanic law; traitors have warranted the harshest punishments - such as hanging, drawing and quartering - in order to eliminate their traces from society. Essentially, the crime of treason involves a violent attack on the fundamentals of the state, threatening the security of the regime and the state community. The ‘traitor’ may be seeking to kill or incapacitate the ruler, or to overturn the form of government by plotting a violent revolution. But he – and traitors have usually been male – may also be consciously working to undermine public security through collaboration with a foreign enemy, through betraying state secrets to an alien body. Treason has always involved dimensions of domestic and foreign security, often with corresponding terminology to match (for instance, Hochverrat and Landesverrat in German).
Although in the modern world it is the dangers of state betrayal through espionage which seem more prevalent, the intertwining histories of domestic and foreign treason have been present throughout the centuries under many varied types of regime. As this implies, there are consistent threads running through the history of treason, even if it has manifested itself differently through the prism of different regimes and ideologies. The methodology used to commit treason has certainly changed (bombs, cyber-warfare) and the legal parameters have constantly shifted – but has the essence of treason also endured down the centuries?.
Despite its ubiquity in political rhetoric and the law, treason is a surprisingly under-researched phenomenon. It is an interdisciplinary subject, approached variously by historians, political philosophers, linguists, lawyers and dramatists. The history of treason is also fragmented, usually broken down into case studies to match particular eras, with some historical periods far more richly researched than others. There have been few attempts to provide overarching conceptual histories of treason.
This pilot-project therefore aims at a conceptual and comparative history of treason, beginning with an initial online international workshop in September 2021 at which historians with different disciplinary approaches will start to map out a framework for deeper research. Treason will be examined across time periods and regimes, but also transnationally in order to understand its history as a truly global phenomenon. Alongside this global treatment in the longue durée, our conceptualisation will focus on a number of key interdisciplinary themes. These are: (1) cultural representations of treason; (2) treason in criminal law; (3) the practice and punishment of treason; (4) the impact and heritage of treason. Within these themes we will pose some essential research questions:
1. Cultural Representations
- How has a language of treason evolved under different regimes and societies? Transnationally, what are the linguistic similarities and differences?
- How consistent or variant has the trope of the traitor been, in visual or written representation, or in the public imagination? How were traitors linked to concepts of gender?
- When and why has the concept of ‘treason’ been exploited in political discourse or manipulated in order to shape public behaviour? In what ways did the concept also meet with criticism?
- In which cases did the invective potential of accusations of treason develop a dynamic all of its own, so that the accusations ‘stuck’ even if they could not be legally substantiated?
- How has the moral dimension of treason been re-interpreted across the centuries in divine and secular ways? In what ways were ideas and languages of treason framed by religion? Did they pass through a process of secularization from the eighteenth century?
- How has the language of treason structured the grand narratives of societies or nations (e.g. Poland as ‘the betrayed country’')?
- What are the legal definitions of treason and in what ways have they evolved and interacted transnationally?
- Why and under what circumstances have different legal interpretations or ‘constructions’ of treason surfaced?
- What legal measures were taken in response to treason? Were there special rules for traitors or were they subject to the regular rules of procedure? Were extrajudicial measures (e.g. lynching) used and were they accepted? How have legal procedures increased or diminished the possibility of a fair trial for alleged traitors?
- To what extent are age-old concepts of treason still present in modern laws on terrorism, espionage, etc? (i.e. is treason still relevant?)
3. Practice and Prosecution
- Why, when and where have regimes sought to prosecute traitors?
- How have ‘traitors’ interpreted their own treasonous behaviour vis-à-vis those in power? How easily have their voices been silenced?
- How has the ‘power of procedure’ shifted - inside and outside the courtroom – to advantage or disadvantage the traitor? In what way could the trials also serve the self-representation of the accused? How were the trials and judgments perceived, published and discussed?
- How severe were the sentences passed? To what extent could authorities enforce an interpretation control during and after executions? Were there counter-interpretations that presented the convicted traitor as a martyr?
- What role have reprieves and amnesties played in the state management of the aftermath of treason?
4. Impact and Heritage
- What are the short-term and long-term repercussions of prosecuting traitors?
- What factors ensure that historic cases of treason have an ephemeral or lasting impact in society?
- Why have some treasons had a transnational or global resonance (e.g. Vidkun Quisling) – producing a heritage of treason beyond the locality where it took place?
For the initial online conference on 23-24 September 2021 we are looking for papers which fall under one of the four themes above. They can be case studies, but should also engage more broadly and theoretically along the lines of the questions posed above. There is no limit as to time period or geographical location in terms of discussing the parameters of treason. Please submit an abstract of your paper proposal of up to 300 words by 31 March 2021 to either
At the online conference we are expecting papers to be summarized in 15 minutes. We will therefore ask for a paper to be submitted for pre-circulation by 1 September 2021 (maximum 7 pages).
We then plan to hold a second, funded conference in 2022 at the University of Southampton (UK), building on the materials and ideas analysed in the online conference. This will then form a major volume of essays on the history of treason.
Professor of Modern European History
Leverhulme Major Research Fellow,
School of Humanities
University of Southampton
D- 48143 Münster