How to Study Early Popular Engagement with Nationalism: Sources, Strategies, Research Traditions

Ágoston Berecz
Central European University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 12 Issue 1  (2023):3–36 DOI 10.38145/2023.1.3

The article combines methodological considerations with an overview of the literature on early popular nationalism, in which studies on Central and Eastern Europe occupy pride of place. Within these thematic confines, my aim is to give a broad sense of the methodological challenges of writing history from below. After a brief sketch of the problem area, I pass to the question of demarcating and contextualizing modern nationalism and discuss a few conventionally used indicators of national allegiances (tax discipline, draft evasion, turnout at national festivals, abidance by linguistic standards). Subsequently, the major part of the paper is organized according to the source types that historians have utilized to explore the relationship of the lower classes to the national paradigm: archival sources, folklore and ethnographic material, various kinds of egodocuments, press reportage, readers’ columns, and non-narrative sources. I address the interpretive issues that each source type raises, citing abundant examples from the literature, including my own research.

Keywords: bottom-up history, Central and Eastern Europe, egodocuments, long nineteenth century, popular nationalism

The social history of nationhood has been a busy and innovative field since the late 1990s, and a significant chunk of it has dealt with early popular responses to modern nationalism. “Early,” in this case, could embrace several generations. The spread of national loyalties and national mindsets was less straightforward, more elusive, and perhaps lengthier than initially thought, and the sources often present contradictory evidence on how far national frames mattered to people in the past. The question of when people began to feel and behave as conscious nationals has remained relevant for the specific nations, but historians are now also interested in how and in what contexts they did so and how far the nationalisms they embraced were the same as the nationalisms of the elites.

The adoption of bottom-up perspectives has been the most consequential thing in the historiography of nationalism, as it has opened up the field for anthropological approaches and reclaiming agency for the people. Whereas intellectual and political histories of elites and counter-elites had dominated research until the 1990s, today’s historical accounts of nationalism also feature middle-class and lower-class men and women as full actors and often give prominence to their everyday culture, practices, and perceptions. And conversely, engaging with the question of what sense ordinary people made of nationalist messages and how these messages resonated with them has been among the most prominent uses of the bottom-up perspective. My article provides an overview of the field from a methodological angle, focusing on scholarship about the lower classes and incorporating relevant work from other research agendas. My goal is to give a broad sense of the methodological challenges of writing history “from below” within the narrow thematic confines of my survey.

I give pride of place to the literature on Central and Eastern Europe, which I know best and which has been one of the powerhouses of innovative research, and I limit myself to the long nineteenth century, ending with the First World War—a convenient time limit for the early phase of most nationalisms in the region. Therefore, peasants—understood in the minimalist way as people doing agricultural labor for a living—will be my main protagonists. Some would argue, and with good reason, that state-backed and minority, oppositional national projects marked out two separate pathways to nationhood; the two had different channels at their disposal, and the latter could better exploit social and other grievances. I will cover both types. The distinction between the two is often lost on historians from other parts of the world, who may even associate nationalism with independent statehood. More importantly, a closer look at nineteenth-century Central and Eastern Europe also shows that this distinction was not always a sharp one, and national projects are better placed on a continuum according to the state power they could wield.

Ordinary people’s adherence to (or rejection of) state nationalisms and national movements in this early stage is a subject bound up with the question of their involvement in high politics, which creates a close affinity with the research paradigm sometimes referred to as “the politicization of the countryside,” harking back to Maurice Agulhon. Another conceptual framework with overlapping interests, focusing on “political cultures,” is also relevant here, because András Cieger sketched out a survey of source types on the political culture of Dualist Hungary (although largely disregarding the peasantry).1 On the other hand, the bundle of problems described here stands distinctly apart from the field marked by such diverse names as Hermann Bausinger, Orvar Löfgren, Arjun Appadurai, and Claude Karnoouh, which explores how national cultures were canonized and everyday cultures were nationalized by drawing on elements from folklore and folk life.

At the foundation of all histories of becoming national stands Eugen Weber’s magisterial Peasants into Frenchmen from 1976, the story of how peasants in the backwaters of France came to feel and think of themselves as French and, indeed, learned French between 1870 and 1914. The book met with instant criticism for its narrow and late dating of the process, propped on Weber’s foregrounding of the most backward regions.2 This was a legitimate objection, but the book also came too early and did not have much influence in continental Europe until the 1990s. Only after seminal intellectual and macrohistories of nationalism had prepared the way did historians truly appreciate its focus on the nationalization of the masses, which offered a corrective to the reigning elite-centered view.3 Then, as Weber’s book had started to inspire research on nineteenth-century national integration, the same impetus towards bottom-up perspectives ended up challenging it from a new angle.

New social histories of nationhood built on history-writing from below, a trend popular since the 1960s.4 The representatives of this trend—British Marxist historians like E. P. Thompson, the Alltagsgeschichte movement, and the Subaltern Studies group—were interested in retrieving popular agency and showing that ordinary people played an active role in shaping their world.5 From their perspective, then, Weber’s book portrayed peasants as pawns of forces beyond their control. In line with modernization theories, Weber understood nationalization as a top-down process, with peasants soaking up readymade ideology and culture transmitted to them through the agencies of change around which he structured his book: compulsory schooling, military service, economic progress, centralized administration, better communications, and cheap reading material. Studies in the 1990s and 2000s gradually transformed this explanatory model of one-way indoctrination and trickle-down into one in which the non-elites negotiated their national membership. In more recent understandings, people could appropriate nationalist messages on their own terms, turn them to their own ends, and even reinterpret them, upending upper-class meanings. In concert with the new focus on how the nationalist paradigm had been received and reproduced, there has also been a shift towards sources that can illuminate people’s experiences. Weber based his tableau of a modernizing countryside on external accounts and statistics. Newer scholarship has sought to complement such sources with egodocuments, long exploited in social histories from below.6

Since nationalism was originally constructed by the elites, the top-down view has not lost its legitimacy. In this vein, some research traditions that rose to prominence in the 1990s set out to unpack the nationalist discourses encoded in textbooks, monuments, architecture, pageants, etc. These subjects are still popular today, but rather than tacitly assume that people interpreted them according to the deciphered meanings, historians have realized the need to capture people’s reactions.

This task requires a focus on the micro scale. Although the books in this category can span several decades, they often consist of a string of local-based stories interspersed with analyses and narrative passages written from a bird’s eye view. At the same time, microhistories confined entirely to specific localities are rare, mainly because the body of high-quality or eloquent evidence needs to be pieced together from various places. Another popular strategy is the complex analysis of text corpora, and there have also been sporadic studies analyzing datasets.

In the last 15 years, two new approaches have emerged. Drawing on theories proposed by Rogers Brubaker and Michael Billig, the paradigm referred to as everyday nationalism emphasizes the contextual, dynamic, and contingent nature of nationhood. Membership in a national category does not matter equally across social domains and roles. Further, nationhood “happens”: national frames are recreated in specific situations; this aspect was arguably even more relevant as long as national categories and symbols could not be taken for granted. The other trend is to look for instances of “national indifference.” In Tara Zahra’s formulation, this concept is built around the idea that in the era of clamoring nationalism, the lack of national allegiances was necessarily a reaction against nationalist agitation. In practice, however, the label refers rather freely to non-national behavior or any behavior that did not comply with upper-class creeds of national orthodoxy. To some extent, it applies the reverse of everyday nationalism’s interpretive matrix, but it holds more appeal for historians interested in demystifying nationalist narratives.7

Following a section on a few conventional indicators of national allegiances, the central part of this paper will be organized according to the source types that historians of the long nineteenth century have utilized to explore the changing relationship of the lower classes to the national paradigm: archival sources, folklore and ethnographic material, various sorts of egodocuments, press reportage, readers’ columns, and non-narrative sources. I will address the interpretive issues that each source types raises, featuring methodological reflections by other historians and giving abundant examples from the literature, including my own research.

Identifying Nationalism

No matter what sources are being studied, their significance for the field lies in what they reveal about people’s actions, thoughts, and emotions. Historians have privileged certain kinds of behaviors, thought patterns, and symbols as signs of national allegiances, many of them now contested or fallen out of favor. Before I move on to the sources, let me dwell on some of these customary indicators. Since they tend to go together with specific source types, it often makes better sense to postpone discussion of others for a later section. Voting for nationalist parties, for example, will be discussed together with electoral data among non-narrative sources.

Short of further evidence, popular support for nationalist discourse or politics does not necessarily imply national feelings or thinking. Especially where class, status, or religious boundaries concurred with the ascriptive national categories, it is hard to disentangle the exact role that the various factors played in collective action.8 However, some forms of action seem more straightforward. For instance, the fact that most Volga German emigrants headed to the Americas between 1870 and 1917 and few settled in the German Empire speaks to the weakness of sentimental ties to their aspiring kin state.9

The study of rumors furthers an interpretation of this kind of collective action by placing it in context and offers a rewarding view of vernacular political imaginaries, as well as people’s fears, hopes, and expectations. The local grapevine is of particular importance in the lives of communities with very low literacy or scarce access to reliable news, where strangers are regularly debriefed on what they heard elsewhere and the scraps of information about designs of “the lords” often change beyond recognition as people try to reassemble them. The rumors British officials in the Raj had heard were a staple part of their reports, and they are also found in administrative reports from nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, particularly in moments of tension.10 Such references in the archives help Irina Marin depict Romanian peasants’ knowledge of the outside world at the time of the 1907 peasant revolt in amusing and disturbing detail, and Andriy Zayarnyuk also uncovers the reasons why Greek Catholic peasants from the Sambir District stayed away from the 1846 Galician uprising by studying sources containing alleged rumors among the members of this community.11 (Rumors are foregrounded in Veronika Eszik’s contribution to this thematic bloc.)

Devotion to the homeland may stand behind titular majorities’ voluntary compliance with the state’s requirements, but the relationship is too messy to be used as a measure. For Bourdieu, “the progressive development of the recognition of the legitimacy of official taxation is bound up with the rise of a form of nationalism.”12 Eugen Weber indeed utilized tax dodging as a negative indicator of patriotism, but later authors did not make much of it.13 On the other hand, Weber’s recourse to draft evasion figures was picked up in similar studies of the 1990s, even though they are of questionable value: self-mutilation and escape from the draft were old strategies mostly without political motives, and compliance certainly should not be taken as a sign of patriotic devotion.14

Until recently, turnout at national festivals counted among historians as another favorite indicator of national affinities, and with better justification. Alon Confino dedicated a large portion of his book on Württemberg under the Second Empire to exploring what groups celebrated Sedan Day and the meanings they attached to it.15 Some studies even focus on peasants. Thus, Patrice Dabrowski gives an insightful account of the religion-imbued Sobieski bicentennial in 1883, which attracted to Cracow over twelve thousand peasants with Polish cockades from all corners of Galicia.16 The initiative still came from above. By 1903, Polish peasant activists were organizing reenactments of a 1794 battle to highlight the role of peasant insurgents in the Kościuszko uprising.17

Xenophobia is by no means unique to the national paradigm. Indeed, strangers to be feared or held in contempt could appear more numerous until the national paradigm imposed at least a modicum of solidarity with millions of personally unknown fellow-nationals and blurred some dividing lines. In his nationalist chef-d’oeuvre, Gandhi described the hatred between Hindus and Muslims as an evil to be cured for the good of the nation, but he nevertheless urged his readers to “go into the interior that has yet not been polluted by the railways, and to live there for six months” in order to learn Indian patriotism.18 And yet, peasants in the back country were more likely to harbor deep aversions to the opposite religion than to share Gandhi’s vision of an Indian nation.

Likewise, confessional endogamy does not have anything inherently national about it. The same goes for language loyalty, but it gained in importance as literacy boosted exposure to nationalist content, and the withdrawal of public recognition from the standard language that people could handle stoked frustrations.19 Depending on the context, the domain, and one’s language repertoire, language choices can signal nationalist dispositions. Martyn Lyons’ idea of considering conformity with abstract linguistic authorities a benchmark of national solidarity is also not without some worth, given the alliance between nationalism and standard language ideology. Nevertheless, it is easier to explain the difference between French and Italian soldiers’ facility with the linguistic standards, which Lyons noted, by the French Third Republic’s relative success at mass schooling over prewar Italy.20 Moreover, some other, typically Lutheran regions had already achieved high literacy rates by the time the age of nationalism set in, which loosened the association between nationalism and the standard language. Finally, it is also not uncommon for standard languages and linguistic authorities to straddle national lines (e.g., English in Ireland, German in Switzerland).

The criteria of nationalism must be contextualized on a case-by-case basis, and ethnonyms highlight this fact more than any other subject. Some ethnonyms on which modern nationalists seized as national epithets had already enjoyed a wide currency for centuries, despite the occasional ambiguities and regional differences. For instance, the “Romanian lads” and “Romanian girls” that turn up in Romanian folk songs from Transylvania are nothing unusual or unexpected.21 Other new or reinvented ethnonyms, on the other hand, index engagement with the modern nation. Such is the case with calling oneself ellin (“Hellene”) in the nineteenth-century Balkans, an identity label that radically rebranded Greekness and inadvertently redefined membership in it. Another example is polák (“Pole”), until the nineteenth-century a status-exclusive category largely referring to nobles. Catholic, Polish-speaking former serfs of Galicia called themselves mazur (“Masurian”), and in his own words, the future Dzików mayor Jan Słomka did not know he was a Pole until he started to read books.22

But even national ethnonyms that had been applied to commoners for centuries may have mattered only to make some contrasts and coexisted with sundry regional labels. Regional self-identifications were more common in a world in which the boundaries of a district often marked one’s widest circle of solidarity, and regional labels also hinted at alternative paths. According to Fred Stambrook, for example, the survival of Bukovinan identity in the Canadian diaspora indicates the distance that Orthodox Ukrainians in Bukovina felt from Galician Uniate Ukrainians.23


Despite the appreciation for egodocuments in the field and the premium on exploring new source types, historical work on nationalism and the masses still most often draws on archival material and the local press. Whether they derive from government or minority agencies, archives are home to secondhand sources that typically cover ordinary people “from above” in one of three ways: they report on their actions, quote them, and assess their mood, feelings, and ideas. Significantly, archival sources on national minorities can provide key evidence on the forms that state policies took on the ground beyond the information they contain on minoritized people’s reactions to these policies. Finally, in the minutes of local governments, parishes, and associations, ordinary people also come to the fore as empowered agents.

The Subaltern Studies Group’s famous appeal to read government sources about the people “against the grain” boils down to interpreting such sources within the ideology and communicative situations in which they were grounded.24 Government administrators’ views on minorities were influenced by contradictory and situational tropes. On the one hand, the self-legitimizing vision of the state made them prone to depict minorities as peaceful and immune to the siren calls of national movements. On the other hand, law-enforcers often attributed deep-seated, formidable national solidarity to minoritized people in order to raise moral panic, buttress lobbying efforts for resources, or justify harsh measures. The categories they used in that regard can detract from the value of their reporting. A case in point might be the insistence of Dualist Hungarian authorities on labeling Slovak cultural and political initiatives misleadingly as “Pan-Slavic” and thus obscuring important differences.25 Further, it should also matter whether the narrators related firsthand experiences and whether their stakes are identifiable.

Historians may find government officials’ views sufficiently convincing to quote or embrace them. Andrei Cuşco contends, on the basis of secret memos by Russian officials, that Romanian nationalist or separatist resistance was insignificant in Bessarabia before 1905, although at the same time he cautions that one can only draw tentative conclusions from this corpus.26 In another typical example, Nenad Stefanov quotes the Serbian governor from 1878 on the confusion and opportunism that reigned over questions of nationality in the Pirot region.27

Most of the relevant government files, however, do not pass such judgments but deal with ongoing or looming conflicts. His archival finds on the conflicts between the Bosnian population and the Habsburg authorities convinced a reluctant Siniša Malešević, who a few years earlier had still found “no evidence” that Serbian nationalism “was widespread among Serbs living outside the Serb state,”28 that popular resistance to government policies had “attained proto-nationalist and in some cases fully fledged nationalist contours.”29 Contested linguistic attributions in censuses and the ensuing recounts are the topic of Emil Brix’s monograph from 1982, which paved the way for a slew of research on how ethnic classification used in censuses inadvertently reinforced self-identification with the categories on offer.30

Interrogations and witness testimonies are privileged places of reported speech in the archives and have been a popular hunting ground for historical anthropologists. They require caution and must be read in context, since people, especially peasants, could go to great lengths to dissimulate, feign ignorance, and find out what the interviewer wanted to hear. Zayarnyuk retrieves the rumors circulating among Galician Greek Catholic peasants in 1846 from what they later told investigators.31 Confidential administrative and police reports often informed higher authorities about the general mood, the rumors that were circulating, and the popularity of national movements. In early twentieth-century Hungary, the police officers overseeing minority political rallies often wrote down the speeches in shorthand and described the audience’s reactions, which elevates the surviving reports to the status of first-rate sources.32

Historians of oppositional nationalisms, in particular those biased towards them, have tended to underplay the sources coming down from antagonistic governments and rely on the self-documentation of national movements: the nationalist press, accounts by activists, and the paper trails left by ethnic associations, churches, and parties. Of these, activists’ correspondence is especially worth revisiting in a critical light for the references these activists make to their claimed constituencies. In a confidential letter to the Greek consul of Philippopolis/Plovdiv from 1862, a Greek nationalist from Stanimaka (today Asenovgrad in Bulgaria) recalled unsentimentally and perceptively how local people had received Hellenism twenty years earlier, after a Greek school had opened in the town:

The first ideas about Greek nationality were, so to say, romantic, they were pleasant to hear, but they were immediately considered mere ideas, theories of teachers not having any weight (…) any idea of a close relation of the local population to Independent Greece, of a real kinship and familiarity, was either absent at all or it was a misty and indiscernible one.33

In their letters, nationalists often aired frustration over the alleged lack of responses from the people. Such complaints, however, should be read in their psychological and rhetorical context. Moreover, as Laurence Cole warns, even if the people in question truly felt indifferent to the given aims and efforts, this does not mean that they were simply “non-national.”34

To the extent that local councils were autonomous, democratic bodies, the minutes of their meetings can represent voices from below. Florencia Mallon makes use of such sources to reconstruct alternative, “subaltern” forms of nationalism in two regions of nineteenth-century Peru and Mexico.35 I studied local protests against the Magyarization of locality names in the 1900s partly based on the transcripts of council meetings. Since the dust had long settled over the renaming law, the actual measures caught ethnic Romanian local councils off guard. They did not try to hide their outrage, but their protests were improvised and seldom drew on nationalist (pre-)historical narratives or etymologies.36


Apart from government officials, occasional visitors like travel writers and academics also commented on the national consciousness of specific local communities, and sociologically-minded intellectuals increasingly made it an object of scholarly investigation. In particular, historians can tap into a rich source base of ethnographic writing. Early ethnographic descriptions, of which Eugen Weber already made abundant use, raise other problems than the interwar trend of village monographs. While the former frequently arose from or were based on accounts of local priests and schoolteachers—participant observers but not full members of their subject groups—the latter were typically the work of outsiders with a more systematic approach, not shy of interviewing all grownup members of a community in the space of a few weeks. The Gusti school’s 1934 fieldwork in Clopotiva provided the most tangible piece of evidence of status-based Hungarian national loyalty among the Byzantine-rite, Romanian-speaking former nobles of the Haţeg Basin.37 Around the same time in Transdanubia, a collective of young “village researchers” documented how the Calvinists of Kemse felt superior to their Croat neighbors but had neither an appreciation for Hungarian state nationalism nor respect for national holidays, which they believed were a stratagem invented by the “lords” for an unknown purpose.38

Past identifications and attitudes are not a subject where oral history can yield valid results beyond the informants’ lifetime. Even so, Edit Fél and Tamás Hofer’s participatory fieldwork in the 1950s and 60s managed to recreate a plausible picture of political culture in Átány around 1900, one decidedly more in line with upper-class trends than that of interwar Kemse. Locals had been avid supporters of the so-called forty-eighter Independentist party, which they considered the patriotic choice. Átány peasants, however, for the most part prosperous smallholders from the most Independentist-leaning county of Dualist Hungary and many of them with noble titles, were not necessarily representative of the Magyar peasantry, all the less so as they lived near a prominent lieu de mémoire, the site of an important battle from 1849.39

E. P. Thompson advocated the use of folklore collections to probe oral worlds of “customary culture.” But the extent to which folklore material can and should be used to study social imaginaries is a question dividing historians working on different contexts. Thomson himself quotes second-rate poetry and church hymns more often than anonymous, orally transmitted lower-class creations in his Making of the English Working Class.40 For Ranajit Guha, ostensible folkloric evidence presents insurmountable interpretive problems in a thoroughly illiterate culture, where whatever survives in written form is by definition privileged and tainted by an elitist point of view.41 His blanket skepticism, however, already met with an objection in James C. Scott’s preface to his book.42

While some folklore genres, such as dance shouts, better reflect actuality, others are more refractory to change, can preserve pre-national patterns, and are slow to herald peasants’ engagement with the national paradigm.43 Both Jaroslav Hrytsak’s analysis of Ivan Franko’s folklore collection from Nahuievychi and Sorin Mitu and Elena Bărbulescu’s cursory analysis of Romanian folk lyrics from Transylvania reconstruct pre-national mental maps, symbolic geographies, and ethnic labels.44 When it comes to the inroads of nationalism, however, the problem of source criticism risks becoming circular, since it is precisely the occurrence of national motifs that raises a red flag.

The main problem is how closely what collectors recorded reflects what lower-class people consumed and reproduced for their own purposes. From the perspective of the discussion here, the age of the folklore material and the question of peasant or “bookish” origins are irrelevant, but these were not irrelevant details for the collectors, who chased a different kind of authenticity and thought that external accretions could be separated from genuine folklore. Early, Romantic collections, notorious for their authorial interferences and mystifications, are the hardest nut to crack.45 They sneaked national or prehistoric content into folklore texts or created the sense that national history deeply mattered for the people, as Vuk Stefanović Karadžić did, for instance, by transferring to Herzegovina the epic songs he collected about Prince Lazar near his burial site much farther north.46 If the goal is to spot the early emergence of nationalist themes, comparing different variants to filter out such interventions can be of little help, since it is precisely the eccentric variants that are the most likely to turn up evidence.

These issues do not devalue the testimony of folklore, especially if taken in a loose sense. Some relevant folk creations can be dated with more or less precision. For instance, one song recorded from Volga German transatlantic migrants in the 1870s praises Russia as the “dear, dear Fatherland.”47 Then, there are observations made on the margins of folklore. At the end of the nineteenth century, one historian from Mostar noted that the same stories told by the surrounding Orthodox population about Saint Sava had been attributed to Saint Martin, Saint Nicholas, or even Archangel Michael a couple of generations earlier. This statement is significant for what it tells about the penetration of the nationalist cult of Saint Sava.48 Finally, there is the testimony of local communal memory and mnemonic cues, such as minor place names. Investigating Frigyes Pesty’s toponymic survey from 1864, I found that the learned Romanian tradition of descent from Trajan’s legions had only entered local memory where people could attach it to nearby ruins.49 This chimes in with the opinions of some rural intellectuals, according to whom what they called history (strictly chronological history in national frames) had little place in the world of Romanian peasants.50 However, local tradition could no doubt sustain the memory of battles or military campaigns at a distance of a hundred years or more, as Guy Beiner shows in his analysis of the “folk history” of the 1798 Irish rebellion and French military intervention.51


As the rise of history from below and Alltagsgeschichte revalued lower-class egodocuments, several collections and archives of popular writing came into being in Western and Southern Europe.52 With the exception of Poland, the situation is worse in the states of Eastern Europe, not only because historians have paid less attention but also because, until late, fewer people knew how to write. Entire genres that Western European historians have used prominently to inquire about lower-class loyalties (pauper letters, nationalization applications) are missing or hard to come by, and the surviving material mostly comes from males. The task of finding relevant egodocuments becomes especially hard with a half-illiterate peasantry. The volume of eyewitness accounts written about nineteenth-century peasants dwarves that of the surviving material written by them. The voices of peasant communities were for a long time mediated by the priests, teachers, village notaries, and clerks who wrote requests on their behalf, recasting their utterances in a middle-class language and logic. But even in the rare cases when they wrote personal letters, they did so because of a disruption in their everyday world. Pervasive illiteracy or half-literacy also raise an important but ultimately unsolvable dilemma: to what extent can the literate few, who had readier access to reading matter, be assumed to represent an illiterate majority?

Collective petitions in support of oppositional nationalist causes, drafted by priests or other rural notables and signed on behalf of the illiterate locals, linger somewhere on the margins of egodocuments.53 They reveal little about their signatories’ worldviews or values, even of those who signed them themselves but under pressure from religious authority. At a minimum, however, they probably imply some knowledge of the cause, and their language is often suggestive of the framing that the priests used to promote it. Parish diaries (historiæ domus), supposedly also representative of their communities, reflect the priests’ viewpoint but often chronicle local events and rumors, with varying depth and regularity. Testing the established narrative about the tug of war over Old Slavonic liturgy that unfolded between the Ricmanje parish (near Trieste) and the Trieste bishopric in the 1900s, Péter Techet turns to the historia domus. He shows the limitations of the nationalist interpretation but suggests that, as the fight for Old Slavonic liturgy escalated, it transformed local mindsets.54 In a 1991 edited volume on “national differentiation processes,” the study of the parish and school diaries in two Carinthian market towns affords a close view of the sudden breakup among the locals into Catholic Slovenes and anticlerical Germans.55

The revaluation of egodocuments has entailed revisiting lower-class memoirs that had already achieved the status of classics in their national historiographies. Tara Zahra and Jakub Beneš, for example, draw conflicting conclusions about the brick factory worker and poet Heinrich/Jindřich Holek’s and his father Wenzel/Václav’s linguistic identities from their oft-quoted memoirs.56 A masterpiece of Polish autobiographical writing, also available in English, is Jan Słomka’s gripping and wonderfully detailed portrayal of peasant life in nineteenth-century Galicia. His organizing principle is the contrast between past and present, including an opposition to the bygone times of national apathy, when peasants harbored dislike for the idea of Polish independence.57 Słomka’s memoir fits into a large body of peasant autobiographies from interwar Poland, more than 1,500 of them written in response to a call.58 Alongside readers’ correspondence, these autobiographies provide the material for Jan Molenda’s monograph on the nationalization of the Polish peasantry.59

Egodocuments are not unmediated sources. Between the historian and the remembered, external or inner experiences stand the autobiographer’s memory, their permanent quest to reproduce an integral self, and the rhetorical devices required for storytelling. Quite independently from self-fashioning, autobiographers cannot escape making sense of, interpreting, and imposing coherence on their lived experience. In addition, the political and communicative context also influences what kinds of selves they want to present to themselves and their audiences. Since most surviving egodocuments originate from the elite, for example, descriptions of childhoods spent in peasant milieus increase the value of social risers’ autobiographies. In the new or newly enlarged interwar states, however, this comes at the price that the authors often owed their careers to the change of sovereignty, and thus were particularly likely to emplot their life stories in the master narrative of national suffering and fulfillment. At any rate, interwar memoirists had to reposition themselves with regard to a changed category of the nation, a process that Stefan Berger analyzes in the published autobiographies of nine prominent German and seven British Socialist activists.60 Evaluating the details in the context of the whole and looking for content that deviates from the master narrative can help bypass the resulting interpretive dilemma. Besides, social historians seldom study such sources in isolation for what they reveal about past experiences.

The narrative (re)production of the self necessarily relies on the prop of authorized discourses, but peasant and working-class writers sometimes adapted the language of the authorities or their superiors, even when they otherwise remained strangers to it. Although it is not a foolproof measure, historians are then on solid ground to prefer more elaborate formulations or ones that suggest personal involvement against ritualized, formulaic writing that rehashes clichés from above. Clear contextualization thus entails an interpolation with upper-class discourses.

Distance from the recalled past presents problems of its own. In oral interviews conducted between the 1950s and 1970s, some former British working-class volunteers in the First World War apparently projected their experiences of the Second World War.61 David Silbey probes a total of 1,702 egodocuments in search of reasons why working-class men rushed to colors in 1914, combining this set of egodocuments with statistical evidence. Silbey acknowledges that patriotism could serve as a justification for other reasons or a convenient gap-filler for memory, but he insists that dismissing these accounts as false patriotism is like fitting them to a paternalistic preconceived theory.62

Historians sometimes fall back on recollections compromised by the immediate purpose they were meant to serve. Among the 110 autobiographies investigated by Wiktor Marzec from the perspective of the politicization and nationalization of the Polish industrial working class before and during the 1905 revolution, there are semiofficial autobiographies of party cadres, including some written in Soviet exile. In the latter case, however, Marzec argues that the early, “‘Polish’ part of the memoir was relatively free from the direct constraints put on writing.”63 To investigate the life world of rural Macedonians around 1893–1903, Keith Brown draws on a sample of 350 pension applications that self-claimed participants in the Ilinden Uprising filed between 1948–54. Although these applications were written with an obvious agenda, Brown justifies his choice with reference to the lack of a canonical narrative about the uprising at the time and the diversity of the recollections. Moreover, he uses entire dossiers complete with witness testimonies, rejection letters, appeals, and reviews.64

Alongside autobiographies and interviews, letters and diaries are also widely used types of egodocuments. Diaries were a largely middle-class genre, but literate peasants in nineteenth-century Western and Central Europe (including Banat Germans) kept livres de famille. These served the chief function of recording loans and borrowings but were interspersed with notes on the harvest, natural catastrophes, and occasionally political news.65 Peasants also left miscellaneous manuscripts. A local musician’s manuscript from 1858–1869, for example, testifies to the “Romaic” (pre-national Greek) identity in Arbanasi above Veliko Tirnovo.66 Rarely conceived as diaries in the strict sense, these manuscripts often mix in borrowed texts alongside chronicles and personal utterances, and not everything copied into them necessarily reflects their creators’ beliefs. One Romanian manuscript history of Transylvania from 1836 mentions Romans without linking them to Romanians, laments the depredations wrought by Wallachian armies, and does not feature Transylvanian Romanians until 1763. All this may sound unexpected, as it was written by a Uniate village schoolmaster, were it not clear from the consistently applied Transylvanian Saxon viewpoint that he copied or compiled Saxon sources.67

Very little of ordinary people’s epistolary activity has come down to us. Illustrated postcards (on the market since the 1890s) had a better chance of surviving, and Karin Almasy shows that they offered novel ways to index self-identifications.68 However, aside from the problem of disentangling contemporary markings from the later additions of collectors or traders, most peacetime postcard senders were also members of the middle class.

Work migration and military service provided occasions to sit down and write private letters, with or without recourse to a collection of letter samples. William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki purchased a corpus of Polish peasant letters written during the First World War and addressed to transatlantic migrants, and they wove these sources into their monumental narrative about the breakup of old solidarities and the transformation of social norms. This five-volume classic also includes a chapter on the integration of peasants into national life.69

An unusual number of egodocuments from World War I have survived thanks to censorship bureaus and POW camps. Since the front experience, war economy, and special measures on the home front heightened the relevance of national frames, wartime egodocuments are not necessarily indicative of prevailing attitudes in earlier decades. The correspondence between soldiers and their families went through open censorship, which imposed conformism, meaning alignment with official patriotism and the avoidance of oppositional nationalist statements. On the other hand, intercepted letters show an obvious bias towards politically subversive content, although many letters were withheld for other reasons, most notably for data on the positions of troops.

Investigating a vast body of intercepted letters and censorship records from the later years of the war, Péter Hanák found that by a long shot, Serbs, Italians, Romanians, and Czechs were the most likely among the Austria-Hungarian nationalities to air secessionist views and approve of desertion. Nationally subversive Italian letters stand out from the rest for the high percentage of middle-class senders. Hanák compares intercepted letters in Czech, more than three quarters of which expressed sympathy for Czech independence, with the hundreds of letters that Czech POWs sent to destinations outside of the Monarchy but that were misdirected and landed in the hands of the K.u.K. military censorship. Among these latter, 40 percent contained Czech nationalist views and 13.5 percent voiced support for Czech independence.70 At the same time, the Austro-Hungarian POWs in Russia who wrote home were more likely to manifest what Alon Rachamimov calls “civic spirit” and criticize “specific practices and specific policies of the Habsburg state.”71

Andriy Zayarnyuk explores a rare and serendipitous find from Austria-Hungary, namely a deposit of letters by soldiers on the frontlines and POWs that were actually delivered to the village of Zibolky, to the north of Lemberg. The authors had clearly paid deference to the censors, but also to the priest, who read the letters out to their illiterate families. According to Zayarnyuk, they expressed little anti-Russian sentiment and tended to define themselves as Galicians and members of the local community.72

The Italian front was best studied from this point of view. Scholarship on letters written by Italian soldiers in the First World War started in real-time, as the Graz philologist Leo Spitzer, employed as a military censor, utilized them to reconstruct the Italian “national psyche.”73 More critical of national categories, historians since the 1970s have drawn on this example many times to show how little ordinary Italians had assimilated the ideals of the Risorgimento.74 Compared to the letters that the French intercepted from their troops in Alsace, who seem to have imbibed the lesson of revanchism, Martyn Lyons finds that soldiers of the Kingdom of Italy were quite confused about their country’s war aims, their allegiances lay firmly with their home towns, valleys, and regions, and their patriotic slogans often appear insincere.75 The situation was none too different among the Italian-speaking Tyrolese. The Archivio della Scrittura Popolare in Trento stores a large collection of war memoirs-cum-diaries written in the Kirsanov POW camp in Russia. Although Italians from the Tyrol spontaneously separated in the camp from other nationalities of the Dual Monarchy and later developed a new national attachment thanks to the cultural activities organized in an Irredentist spirit, this attachment remained utilitarian. It expressed POWs’ need for strong solidarity under extreme living conditions and was conditional on the better treatment and provision one could receive as an Italian and the prospect of returning home, while POWs also feared for the safety of their families from the retaliation of Habsburg authorities.76

Press Coverage and Readers’ Correspondence

In his discussion of how German and Czech journals in late Habsburg Bohemia blew up mundane conflicts and twisted them into national frames, Pieter Judson discreetly cautions against historians’ all-too-convenient reliance on newspaper reporting. Rather than first-order sources, he suggests, press reports should be seen as propaganda tools aimed at nationalizing a-national populations: “complicated, messy events were reduced to their most recognizable elements and compressed into intelligible stories about battling nations.”77 A piece of news run in 1908 in two German nationalist papers (Deutsche Volkszeitung from Reichenberg and Bohemia from Prague) alleged that German gymnast-activists had faced aggression crossing Czech-speaking Stachy:

Attack on German gymnasts. As the Bergreichenstein [Kašperské Hory] gymnasts returned from their Easter excursion to Eleonorenhain through the Czech Stachau, the Czechs attacked them. Only the gymnasts’ levelheadedness prevented a bloody brawl from breaking out.78

After the Ministry of the Interior launched an investigation into the affair, the local authorities cut this story down to size. They found that the gymnasts had been drunk and had picked a quarrel with passers-by shouting anti-Czech slogans. Furthermore, only a few children and one adult had run after their wagon throwing pebbles at them, without actually hitting anyone.

I need not dwell on Judson’s choice of an example where the two renditions do not contradict each other in substance. The German informant may have fancied that the Stachy people should have swallowed their pride and let them get off scot-free with their affronts, but he certainly did not cross “the line between strategic exaggeration and outright lying.”79 It would not be difficult to quote similar, more egregious bending of the truth by the contemporary press. We know this because, although Judson is right that the German and Czech press could reinforce each other’s nationalist framing, journals of opposing ideological stripes sometimes carried conflicting descriptions of the same event. There is often little way of knowing which account was closer to the truth, but the gap between them could be quite big. The catch is that when a story emerged from various sources in a single version, this could also cast a shadow of doubt on its authenticity, especially when there was a high chance that no eyewitness from the supposed scene of the incident would read the coverage.

More problematic is Judson’s assumption that the contrasting accounts can be verified against an objective benchmark to be found in the archives; as if the local authorities conducting the investigations had been impervious to national and other biases or, should the question be whether an incident took place at all as if they could have no interest in hushing it up. To the extent that the imperial authorities were involved, this belief may have some basis regarding Dualist Cisleithania. But it becomes untenable where, as in most contexts, the authorities had an ideological axe to grind in nationalist incidents or were typically involved in them. In 1910, for instance, one Romanian newspaper from Hungary published an official press release on an incidence of bloodshed in a Transylvanian village only to rebut it with a different, purportedly the local, narrative.80 Despite the differences between the two accounts, both boiled down to gendarmes killing two peasant boys who wore belts with the Romanian colors, hence there is no reason why Judson would not extend his skepticism of nationalism from below to the official account, which reproduced the gendarmes’ side. In fact, reports on gendarmes seizing “foreign symbols” in the villages were a regular feature in both Hungarian and minority papers, often with mention of the fines levied on the offenders and references to the administrative officials in command.

Press coverage should be compared with archival evidence whenever it is accessible, not losing sight of the ideological positions and power interests behind both types of sources and the censorship that occasionally restricted press coverage. In practice, and not just since the advent of searchable online collections, news items lead researchers to archival files more often than the other way around. Measured in the sheer number of references, the local and regional press is the bread and butter of the field. This also holds true for Jeremy King’s seminal book on late Habsburg Budweis/Budějovice, which relies mostly on local German and Czech papers to craft a narrative akin to Judson’s about an ethnically ambiguous middle class that separated into Germans and Czechs over the span of two generations.81

Readers’ correspondence, sometimes published in a separate column, is hardly safer terrain for the unwary historian. Ideally, it contains genuine first-person utterances by ordinary people, but ostensible readers’ letters were at times cut out of whole cloth. Between these two extremes, editors probably interfered with the content and the style in most cases. It is hard to make guesses about their procedures in the absence of the original documents. At best, the context of the given journal might offer clues.

According to Ostap Sereda, the editors of Galician Polish and Ukrainian papers routinely fabricated letters under peasant-sounding names in the 1860s and 70s to lure literate peasants to their fold until real peasant correspondents turned up on the horizon.82 In later decades, the Polish peasant movement of Galicia produced its own crop of populist journals under the editorship of peasant-born activists. With these, the question becomes the representativeness of the peasant correspondents’ views. Aside from manuscript memoirs, Keely Stauter-Halsted’s splendid The Nation in the Village uses the testimony of such journals, especially readers’ correspondence, to explore how Polish-speaking Roman Catholic peasants emancipated themselves by subverting nationalist discourses about peasant values and constructed a peasant identity in parallel with a national one.83 Against the background of similar developments in the Galician Ruthenian political field, Andriy Zayarnyuk foregrounds one regular peasant correspondent, also making use of his letters surviving in manuscript collections.84

For his monograph on Flemish workers’ political loyalties between 1880 and the First World War, Maarten Van Ginderachter unearthed a rare format that transmits readers’ voices in an unaltered form and thus comes closest to an egodocument. In exchange for donations beyond membership dues, Belgian Labor Party members from Ghent could place so-called “propaganda pence” in a dedicated column of the local party newspaper: short messages of unrestricted content which came out anonymously. Ginderachter calls them “proletarian tweets.” It is well-known that the Socialist movement provided alternative forms of sociability beyond and perhaps even above ideology. It can be nonetheless surprising to learn that the abstract political values touted on the first pages did not find much echo in these tweets. Even fewer workers thought to share their views related to Flemish or Belgian identity, the center of Ginderachter’s interest, with their comrades. Only 305 in Ginderachter’s sample of 27,500 “tweets” made references to a national, linguistic, or ethnic category. The overwhelming majority engaged in promoting identity as organized Socialist workers (what Ginderachter calls Organisationspatriotismus), confirming their authors’ solidarity with the movement and slamming class enemies and Catholics.85

Propaganda pence offer a unique angle on the views of their authors, and one can only wish for similar sources in other research contexts. Like so many other kinds of sources, however, they do not provide an unmediated view. Genre constraints appear loose at first glance, but a consensus had clearly formed that this column was to be used as a site for “grooming talk,” communication with a primarily bonding function. The fact that patriotism and ethnicity were not themes that Dutch-speaking organized Ghent workers would often bring up at leisurely party meetings may be significant, but that does not necessarily imply they had no feelings and (admittedly less articulate) ideas on the matter. To identify these feelings and ideas, Ginderachter complements the testimony of propaganda pence with more conventional sources.

Non-narrative Sources

Quantitative evidence can be broad in its sweep but tends to be reticent and vague. The print runs of newspapers and magazines, for instance, have long been used as indicators to assess the spread of nationalist ideas. As much as the evidence they provide is extensive, however, it is also circumstantial and shallow, primarily because people may not have read a certain paper for its nationalist content, and even when they did, the size of a readership reveals nothing about its reactions to specific messages. To the extent that reliable circulation figures are available, they gain a real significance when compared across multiple press organs in the same market.86 But circulation figures are often elusive and inconsistent, based as they were on the editors’ own reporting. State regulation and technological aspects also need to be taken into account. The fact that minority papers were not sold at newsstands in Dualist Hungary, for example, limited their outreach. On the other hand, Linotype machines drove down production costs around the turn of the century, which led to skyrocketing print runs and the mushrooming of “penny papers.” Most significantly, newspapers reached a much broader audience than the number of copies sold, as people passed them on and, in the countryside, read them aloud to others in evening gatherings.87

Membership counts of associations, which scholars have often used as a means of gauging the followings of national movements, are perhaps even more ambiguous. High enrollment figures in the Polish cooperatives of Prussia on the eve of the First World War suggest that a large segment of the peasantry had recognized the economic benefits these cooperatives offered and that the Polish minority elite had established one massive channel to communicate with the masses. Taken by themselves, however, it is doubtful how far they can demonstrate the popularity of national ideas.88

The extension of male suffrage in nineteenth-century Europe coincided with the rise of nationalist politics, making electoral data an easily accessible gauge of the support that nationalist ideas received from large populations. On this basis, Abigail Green concludes that no more than one-quarter of the German male population shared the enthusiasm for unification under Prussian auspices in the immediate aftermath of the victory over France, since of the 50 percent who bothered to vote at the first Reichstag election, only half voted for parties aligned with this solution.89

The fact that electoral data are available in successive and often comparable data series invites longitudinal treatment of such data. Reconstructing the failed Polish attempt at national mobilization in Upper Silesia, James E. Bjork regularly revisits electoral outcomes.90 In most contexts, however, some parties with pronounced nationalist profiles came to enjoy massive popular support, which is very hard to disregard. In southern Bukovina, for instance, 95 percent of Romanians voted for a Romanian nationalist (although typically not irredentist) ticket on the eve of the First World War. In his doctoral dissertation, political scholar Ionaş Rus follows the spread of national consciousness among them with the help of electoral results, but he complements these with “qualitative” data.91 Recently, a cross-sectional analysis of the 1907 Reichsrat election results in the Czech lands has challenged revisionist accounts of Czech and German nationalization campaigns. Looking at the strategies used by nationalist parties to attract voters, a team of political scientists established a correlation between the share of peasants and the nationalist vote, with rural districts being the most likely to vote for nationalist parties. This suggests that by 1907, nationalist ideas had resonated widely with the peasantry.92

This said, engagement with nationalist politics must be differentiated from nationhood understood as a habitus, i.e., the tacit and routine acceptance of national categories. The latter crystallized more linearly through the succession of life cycles, an incremental change that built up the possibility for national frames to congeal into action.93 Engagement with nationalist politics, on the other hand, could undergo sudden surges, breaks, and relapses. Moreover, the perceived stakes of an election, the availability of potent non-nationalist alternatives, and the messaging of the given party must also be taken into consideration. The nationalist outlook of a party or a candidate was not their only potential appeal; nationalist parties often adopted leftist or pro-smallholder economic platforms, defended traditional religious values, etc. Local developments could also favor their popularity, and it would be instructive to juxtapose voting behavior with communal action, social trends, and civil society in small sets of well-documented localities.

Most national movements introduced a string of historical or invented given names to index their vision of national history. The spread of such names among the people can thus serve as a rough proxy for the gradual embrace of this vision, at least in the first couple of generations, until their novelty value wore off and they became normalized or discarded. Choosing such a “national” name for one’s child, with cultural allusions graspable only for the initiated, entailed a radical break with local custom and could expose the family to ridicule. Such names typically lacked patron saints, a big hindrance in contexts where peasants baptized their children according to the day they were born. Worse still, Ruthenians of Galicia attached a stigma to rare first names, which were traditionally reserved for illegitimate children.94

Jürgen Gerhards compared trends in baby naming in selected Protestant and Catholic German towns from the nineteenth century down to the Nazi times by occupational categories.95 Stefano Pivato studied the frequency of republican versus dynastic first names in northern Italian towns of the liberal era to gain a general picture of the population’s political sympathies.96 Jaroslav Hrytsak dealt more specifically with new names of nationalist inspiration, charting the popularity of given names taken from the Rurik dynasty and the Cossack hetmanate in the families of nineteenth-century Ruthenian (Ukrainian) national awakeners and in a few parish registers. Judging by his sample, such names did not catch on in the Galician countryside before the First World War, apart from in one village, where they received a boost from the local landlord and the priest.97

I analyzed the diffusion of Latinate Romanian, medieval (including “pagan”) Hungarian, and reinvented Germanic male given names in Transylvania and eastern Hungary between the 1840s and the 1900s based on a near-complete database of grammar school graduates and a massive collection of birth registers. I confirmed that peasants started to adopt the new names decades after the elites in all three contexts. Among Romanians, the first non-elite adopters were people who lived side by side with Magyars: craftspeople in small market centers, miners, and the personnel on aristocratic manors. In contrast, several Romanian-inhabited valleys located far in the outback registered no Latinate names until after the First World War. This finding highlights the role of boundary maintenance in the appropriation of nationalist content.98

Two exhibitions at the Hungarian Ethnographic Museum (from 1989 and 2016) displayed datable objects of known provenience featuring patriotic or national symbols and inscriptions, most of them fashioned or decorated by their lower-class owners.99 The Hungarian colors and other patriotic imagery seem to have picked up in popularity after the defeat of the 1848–49 revolution, and a wooden cupboard from 1861 even had a Slovak inscription asking for God’s blessing on the homeland around a carved and painted Hungarian coat of arms.100 Such visual clues, as well as the many early-twentieth-century references to peasant women who wore ribbons with the Romanian colors, suggest that the spaces on garments, accessories, and household objects that had been traditionally decorated, and likely with changing motifs, were also an obvious site to introduce national marking.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

This panorama may have left readers with a giddy feeling of uncertainty. The sources are ambiguous, each source type comes with a proviso about its limitations, and, to restate, they often contradict one another. The same people seem to have been drawn to the call of the nation on the basis of one kind of source but were oblivious to it according to another. What does all this add up to? The name of the game is, as always, contextualizing, juxtaposing various kinds of sources and different perspectives, and comparing the same source types across contexts. This article has taken conceptual clarity and terminological precision somewhat lightly (let me offer as an excuse the explanation that I tried to avoid imposing my theoretical preferences on other people’s works). But beyond familiarity with the historical setting under study, we, researchers, must also untangle, in light of our favorite theories, what the given evidence is supposed to reveal, and we must be specific about our assumptions. The dilemmas of interpreting early responses to nationalism force us not only to refine our methodological toolkit, but also to ground our analyses in a theory of social behavior, beliefs, and emotions and rethink what we are talking about when we talk about nationhood and nationalism.


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1 Cieger, “Magyarország politikai kultúrája.”

2 Cabo and Molina, “Long and Winding Road of Nationalization,” 267–70.

3 Ibid., 270–74.

4 Beyen and Van Ginderachter, “General Introduction,” 4.

5 Eley, Crooked Line.

6 Cabo and Molina, “Long and Winding Road of Nationalization”; Van Ginderachter, “Nationhood from Below,” 127–30.

7 Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities.”

8 Himka, Galician Villagers and the Ukrainian National Movement, 205.

9 Long, From Privileged to Dispossessed, 55.

10 Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, 252.

11 Marin, Peasant Violence and Antisemitism, 28–72; Zayarnyuk, Framing the Ukrainian peasantry, 1–34.

12 Bourdieu, “Rethinking the State,” 7.

13 Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, 106.

14 Lyons, Writing Culture of Ordinary People, 136.

15 Confino, Nation as a Local Metaphor, 30–93.

16 Dabrowski, “Folk, Faith and Fatherland,” 397–404.

17 Struve, “Civil Society, Peasants, and Nationalism,” 28–29.

18 Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, 70.

19 Leerssen, “Medieval heteronomy, modern nationalism.”

20 Lyons, Writing Culture of Ordinary People, 91–112, 136–43.

21 Mitu and Bărbulescu, “Romanian Peasant Identities in Transylvania,” 274.

22 Słomka, From Serfdom to Self-Government, 171.

23 Stambrook, “National and Other Identities in Bukovina,” 199.

24 Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, 15–17.

25 Vörös, “‘Veszedelmes pánszlávok’,” 184–85.

26 Cusco, Contested Borderland, 214–15.

27 Stefanov, Die Erfindung der Grenzen auf dem Balkan, 141.

28 Malešević, “The Mirage of Balkan Piemont,” 142.

29 Idem, “Forging the Nation-Centric World,” 685.

30 Brix, Umgangssprachen in Altösterreich.

31 Zayarnyuk, Framing the Ukrainian peasantry, 1–34.

32 Several such reports are found in Romanian National Archives, Bucharest, Cancelaria CC al PCR, Arhiva CC al PCR, fond 50, Documente elaborate de organele represive.

33 Lyberatos, “The Nation in the Balkan Village,” 172–73.

34 Cole, “Differentiation or Indifference?,” 106–7.

35 Mallon, Peasant and Nation.

36 Berecz, Empty Signs, Historical Imaginaries, 225–29.

37 Conea, “Nemeşi şi rumâni în Clopotiva.”

38 Elek et al., Elsüllyedt falu a Dunántúlon, 53, 91.

39 Fél and Hofer, Proper Peasants, 370–78.

40 Thompson, “Folklore, Anthropology, and Social History”; Thompson, Making of the English Working Class.

41 Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, 14–15.

42 Scott, “Foreword,” xiii.

43 Mitu and Bărbulescu, “Romanian Peasant Identities in Transylvania,” 273.

44 Hrytsak, Ivan Franko and His Community, 103–20; Mitu and Bărbulescu, “Romanian Peasant Identities in Transylvania.”

45 E.g., Bîrlea, Istoria folcloristicii româneşti, 27, 36, 49, 95–100, 135–49, 198–200.

46 Pavlović and Atanasovski, “From Myth to Territory.”

47 Long, From Privileged to Dispossessed, 54.

48 Grunert, Glauben im Hinterland, 124.

49 Berecz, Empty Signs, Historical Imaginaries, 78–82.

50 E.g., Mărăscu, Monografia comunei Sudrigiu, 63.

51 Beiner, Remembering the Year of the French.

52 Burnett et al., Autobiography of the Working Class; Lyons, Writing Culture of Ordinary People.

53 Josan, Adeziunea, 115–304; Hull, Malta Language Question, 46.

54 Techet, Umkämpfte Kirche, 126–68.

55 Moritsch, “Der nationale Differenzierungsprozess,” 58; Kuchar et al., “Nationale Differenzierung als Ausdruck ‘ungleicher Entwicklung’,” 192.

56 Zahra, Kidnapped Souls, 27–22; Beneš, Workers and Nationalism, 51–52, 60–61, 66.

57 Słomka, From Serfdom to Self-Government, 171–73.

58 Struve, “Polish Peasants in Eastern Galicia,” 48–49.

59 Molenda, Chłopi, naród, niepodległość.

60 Berger, “In the Fangs of Social Patriotism.”

61 Silbey, British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 6.

62 Ibid., 5–10.

63 Marzec, Rising Subjects, 212.

64 Brown, Loyal unto Death, 35–40.

65 Lyons, Writing Culture of Ordinary People, 222–44; Siebold, Deutsches Bauernleben im Banat.

66 Kitromilitides, “In the Pre-Modern Balkans,” 26–28.

67 Coman, Hronica Ardialului.

68 Almasy, “Linguistic and Visual Portrayal of Identifications.”

69 Thomas and Znaniecki, Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 1, 432–63.

70 Hanák, “Die Volksmeinung.”

71 Rachamimov, “Imperial Loyalties and Private Concerns,” 91.

72 Zayarnyuk, “‘The War Is As Usual’,” 200.

73 Spitzer, Italienische Kriegsgefangenenbriefe.

74 Lyons, Writing Culture of Ordinary People, 118–19.

75 Ibid., 91–112, 136–43.

76 Ibid., 143–52; Mazzini, “Patriottismo condizionato”; Bellezza, “From national indifference to national commitment.”

77 Judson, Guardians of the Nation, 178.

78 Ibid., 183–84.

79 Ibid., 183.

80 Anonymous, “Martirii tricolorului.”

81 King, Budweisers into Czechs and Germans.

82 Sereda, ‘“Whom Shall We Be?,” 210.

83 Stauter-Halsted, Nation in the Village.

84 Zayarnyuk, Framing the Ukrainian peasantry, 215–316.

85 Van Ginderachter, The Everyday Nationalism of Workers, 125–43.

86 As seen in Himka, Galician Villagers; Lorman, Making of the Slovak People’s Party.

87 Stauter-Halsted, Nation in the Village, 193; Fél and Hofer, Proper Peasants, 182.

88 Lorenz, “Civil Society in Polish Cooperatives,” 40.

89 Green, Fatherlands, 298–99.

90 Bjork, Neither German nor Pole.

91 Rus, “Variables affecting Nation-building,” 45.

92 Howe et al., “Nationalism, Class, and Status,” 846–47.

93 Brubaker, Reframing Nationhood, 19.

94 Hrytsak, “History of Names,” 171.

95 Gerhards, The Name Game.

96 Pivato, Il nome e la storia.

97 Hrytsak, “History of Names.”

98 Berecz, Empty Signs, Historical Imaginaries, 25–44.

99 Selmeczi Kovács, Nemzeti jelképek a magyar népművészetben.

100 Ibid., 34.


Time in Villages: Timekeeping and Modernization in Rural Communities in the Long Nineteenth Century in Hungary

Gábor Koloh
Research Centre for the Humanities
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 12 Issue 1  (2023):66–86 DOI 10.38145/2023.1.66

The study explores the changing perception of time through the records of a multi-generational peasant family. By comparing several rural manuscripts from different times and places, the study traces the refinement of the way time is thought, its new meanings, and its emergence in farming and family life. The appearance of the clock plays an important role in the analysis. The clock, first as a prestige object in the household, gradually becomes a tool for the modern use of time. The replacement of calendars by newspapers in the first decades of the 20th century is also a decisive factor in the perception of time. The world expands and information about more and more distant lands is brought into peasant households. The study places important emphasis on the idea that rural households are the last base for the spread of globalization phenomena. What is already occurring at this level within each country is where the spread of the phenomenon has come to an end.

Keywords: rural history, globalization, family history, use of time, peasant traditions

Background and Proposition

Concepts and understandings of time are a research problem on which spans generations of historians have touched. This is hardly surprising, since the passage of time itself sets the coordinates, to use a metaphor, of a historian’s propositions. As a straining dual system of cognition, the narrowness or vastness of space and time determine our everyday lives, just as they did for those living in times past. This is one of the reasons why the endeavor to arrive at a grasp of time has become a fundamental human undertaking. Of the relevant examples, it is worth highlighting the abstraction already indicated in the subtitle: the arrangement of time in a framework defined by centuries. A century is not in itself an abstract period of time developed organically from the use of calendars.1 It is, rather, a solution that stems from the need of the human mind to organize and structure. It is a clue which has provided a more precise demarcation and nuance to an earlier approach, which was based on massive blocks of epochs in the professionalization of historiography.2 And this is precisely why its use should not be regarded merely as a factor of “convenience,”3 but rather as a logical necessity, much like historians’ narrative constructions and deconstructions over the past half century or so are also logical necessities. The difficulty lies in further abstracting the century as a clue, since the adaptation of the century (for instance, stretching it to cover a set of allegedly epoch-making events and thus reducing the time and, by implication, significance of other centuries) is a practice that partly forms the coherence of an epoch, and it generates problems.4 The use of Koselleck’s Sattelzeit or the fin de siècle is scale-specific and thus is at best a point of reference for the time concept of a micro-level study rather than a framework for interpretation. The concept of the “prolonged turn of the century,” as proposed by German historians and dated to the period between 1880 and 1930, may be a wiser choice. For Central and Eastern Europe, however, this is true only because this was also a major period of demographic change, which is interpreted as an important indicator of economic and cultural changes. Indeed, the last third of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth were times of demographic transition, even if it is clear that the people living at these times were not aware of this. Attempts to grasp traditional life-worlds and document the transition have given rise to several methodological approaches, of which microhistory, born out of disillusionment in the wake of the quantitative revolution, serves only as an illustration of the one extreme. However, even with its exceptionally normal objective, microhistory has led to a kind of loss of hope, to which first postmodern historiography and then, more recently, globalization history have been trying to provide an adequate answer. The increasingly greater availability of sources as historians find themselves closer in time to the periods they are studying increases the number of problem-oriented questions. So the continuous return to the individual and her everyday life and experience provides inexhaustible opportunities. Pushing the peasant into the spotlight thus also implies the masses (or the statistical majority), and we can boldly hope to grasp this peasant as an individual while also getting a broader picture of the general population and the world in which this population lives.5

The foregoing justifies an attempt to outline the conceptual journey of the peasant approaching the regime of time from the perspective of everyday life, using a multi-generational chronicle, or the so-called Gyüker Chronicle. For this chronicle provides a tangible point in the source material where the variability of individual and social perceptions of time are clearly expressed in contrast to the constancy of physical or natural time.6 According to the entry made by József Gyüker (1862–1932),

they started in [19]28 to fly over the sea from Europe to America or from one country to another, and travel under water and powered cars and powered ploughs that had no horses in front of them were not new by then, and bicycle riders were also abundant; and the wireless telegraphs, they talked from one country to another as if they were sitting in front of each other.7

In my view, this is the point where the chronicler becomes aware that his own time is no longer the same time as his father, grandfather, and earlier ancestors had lived it (presentism), so this is where he begins to reflect consciously on the fact that his life is different from the lives of his predecessors.8 The quote, taken out of context, is the result of a longer process of inquiry, a continuous opening to the events of the world. It also implies thinking in a global perspective. It is a summary in which production conditions, weather, and trade also play important roles textually, but the mentions of world events become increasingly frequent and detailed. The significance of the passage lies in its concentration on emblematic events.9 The documentation of change seems relevant from multiple angles. As a basis for the comparison, in order to formulate the question, it seems appropriate to include another quote, this time from the grandfather, József Gyüker the Elder (1799–1874): “István Kovács the Elder was the first to buy a clock. He did so in Bőcs around 1840. Nobody had had one before. I bought mine around 1850.” By 1860, after a year of a bountiful harvest, he continued, it had become common to own a clock in the village. In Gyüker’s writing, the clock first appeared as an object of prestige.

By comparing the entries written by the grandfather with those written by the grandson and also with other entries written by other villages, one can examine the impact of modernization across generations. But how can we grasp the changes in the prevailing understanding of time in a peasant family? How does acceleration appear? To what extent did technological progress and in particular the spread of the clock as a device play a role in the transformation of the understanding and structuring of time in a peasant world? In the chain of influence, the strong natural determination of the agricultural world, marked by the seasons, and the important feast days of Christian culture are present at the same time. Alignment with these appears regularly from generation to generation in the chronicle, dating back to the end of the eighteenth century and lasting until the min-twentieth century. In addition, however, to the cyclical nature of seasons, feasts, agricultural tasks, and rites, as well as life events,10 new points of time were slowly appearing too. József Gyüker the Younger records three different times when recording the birth of his daughter: “Zsófi Gyüker was born on the third day of August 1890, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, under the sign of the Pisces.”11 When specifying the time of birth, Gyüker makes no mention of Christian feast days. Rather, he refers very specifically to the moment of time as specified by the calendar and the clock. In 1887, Gyüker the Younger also recorded a moment in time with reference to a clock when there was a fire in the village. References to the signs of the zodiac also became recurrent elements in the chronicle as a means of indicating the date of a birth. Taking these references to new methods of specifying and structuring time as my point of departure, I seek an answer to the following questions: what role did different aspects of the understanding of time have, and how did this vary across generations? And on the basis of this, what can we say about prevailing perceptions of time among peasants in light of the Gyüker Chronicle?

Source, Data, Method

To begin venturing answers to the questions raised above, it is worth considering the understanding of time and methods of managing time from a bottom-up perspective. Historical time is considered personal time when the individual interprets the age in which he lives in light of her own circumstances. Changing concepts of time in peasant communities are the last stage in the spread of modernity.12 Given the scarcity of intermediary channels, it is in these communities that we can hope to find the endpoint. This approach is more exciting when analysis is possible across generations. From the viewpoint of the availability of sources, however, we must consider ourselves lucky to have even a single source on which to rely. So far, only one such source is known in Hungary.13 A peasant chronicle, written by multiple generations, has survived from the village of Bőcs, more specifically a part of this village called Külsőbőcs, near Miskolc in northern Hungary. József Gyüker is thought to have begun recording his memories and what he had been told of the decade or so preceding his birth in 1863. In the late 1880s, his grandson, also named József Gyüker, wrote his notes in chronological order as a convenient means of linear narration.14 His son and grandson later wrote a few entries of their own. In the absence of a comparable source spanning multiple generations and a century and a half, I find it worthwhile to compare this chronicle with records that cover the same period and the roughly same territory of the country and relate to rural, specifically village communities. The selection was based on two data banks. In addition to the database of more than 600 items compiled by György Kövér, Zsuzsanna Kiss, and Anikó Lukács, I browsed the nearly 250 annotated first-person accounts written by peasants and published by the Lendület Ten Generations Research Group at the Research Centre for the Humanities.15 In the selection process, territorial representativeness and the connection to the periods were important criteria. The main parameters of the selected sources are summarized in Table 1.

Reliable records produced by members of the peasantry and suitable for deeper analysis began to be kept in greater quantities in the mid-twentieth century. The stratum-specific nature of literacy means that there are relatively few sources available from earlier periods. In any case, the diversity of village life justifies the need to focus not only on serfs and peasants, but also on the local intellectuals, clergymen, and schoolmasters, who were also an integral part of this life.




Date of origin

Covered period


Vajszló Chronicle

Dániel Kis Tóth





(Baranya County)

Gábor Kátai’s chronicle

Gábor Kátai





(Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County)

The records of the Gyüker family

József Gyüker the Elder; József Gyüker the Younger



1863–1866; 1889–1933; 1940–1944



(Borsod-Ababúj-Zemplén County)

János Helle’s memoirs

János Helle





(Tolna County)

Lajos Arató’s memoirs

Lajos Arató





(Békés County)


Table 1. The source material providing the basis for the analysis


Source: Mándoki, Ormánság népéletéből; S. Püski, “Kátai”; “Gyüker család feljegyzései”; MMgMK IV. 456. Helle János feljegyzései; Szeghalmi Könyvtár és Közérdekű Muzeális Gyűjtemény T.86.84.1. id. Arató Lajos visszaemlékezése.

In terms of geography, the sources are from the northern region of Hungary, the Great Plain, and the southern parts of Transdanubia. In terms of farming opportunities, arable farming and animal husbandry predominate, especially as, in addition to Karcag and Szeghalom, which belong to the Great Hungarian Plain, Alsónyék and Vajszló, although Transdanubian villages, belong to the same lowland landscape structure (the former as part of the microregion known as Sárköz, the latter as part of the microregion known as Ormánság). Their economic profiles included trade, which is emphasized in all the sources except Arató’s recollections, and also trade to distant commercial posts, such as market towns in Hungary and abroad. A further direction for research could include discussion of sources from northern Transdanubia.


The multi-generational Gyüker Chronicle of the peasant family that forms the backbone of the analysis here starts with an entry which is relevant to the life in the village and the local church and which and which touches on events which predated the birth of the author by more than a decade and thus were clearly descriptions offered by him based on second-hand information, presumably accounts given by his older family or community members.16 Among the comparable nineteenth-century chronicles, the Vajszló Chronicle by Dániel Kis Tóth, which was written in 1830, and the chronicle by Gábor Kátai of Karcag, which was written in 1860, precisely define 1700 as the starting point of the narratives they offer. For these narratives, this year is presumably a reference point, namely a year which, in the perception of the authors, had been a very specific watershed moment for their own age. If interpreted in a flexible way, 1700 in Hungary means the post-Turkish period, which meant the reorganization of economic and social life. In the areas depopulated during the period of Turkish occupation, such as Karcag in the Great Plain, this was also a difficult period of resettlement. Kátai starts with this:

In the year 1700, Karcag was captured by the Tatars; those who escaped went to Rakamaz and lived there for nine years, and the town was burned and destroyed by the Tatars; in the year 1710, those who were in Rakamaz came home […]. And the Church was finished in 1797, it was consecrated on All Saints’ Day in the same year.17

For Dániel Kis Tóth, who lived in Vajszló in southern Transdanubia, where the Turkish occupation affected the lives of the locals but did force the continuity to flee, this year was notable in other ways: “I begin to count the origin and history of this clan from 1700; it was then when our forefather István Kis Tóth was born; his two sons were György and János.” The Tatar armies devastated Karcag a few years earlier, in 1697,18 while the exact date of the birth of Dániel Kis Tóth’s forefather cannot be determined due to the lack of birth records, although it can be assumed that it dates back somewhat earlier.19 Their concept of time is thus strongly based on the memories (if second-hand in some cases) of the life and history of the settlement or the family, but the fact that the local residence was also decisive for Dániel Kis Tóth is indicated by his remark about the place of his ancestor’s birth. He notes that István Kis Tóth was born in Haraszti, which was already part of Vajszló when he was writing his narrative in 1830. An important difference between the two is that Dániel Kis Tóth wrote a family chronicle, the basic organizational principle of which is the succession of generations, while Kátai followed a chronological order in his chronicle. The generational narrative is only present in Kis Tóth’s writing. Reflections on the lives of ancestors is at most a minor element in the other narratives. József Gyüker the Elder, like Kátai, starts his chronicle with an event relevant to the settlement:

The writing of Stories Worthy of Memory; the order of priests and schoolmasters was established in 1787 by the venerable Ecclesiastical See; in 1788, the reign of Emperor Francis I of Austria began, the first French war started with his reign, lasting four and a half years […], 1793 was the great lean year, which some of the old may remember, it is said, that 1794 was also such a year, until the harvest came.

The events mentioned by Gyüker can be interpreted in several ways. The determination of the order of priests and schoolteachers meant the determination of salaries, presumably due to the lack of extra-parish minutes, especially the presbyter’s minutes. The income of Calvinist priests and schoolteachers depended to a considerable extent on the number and financial situation of the members of the church community. However, this was before his birth, so his source must build either on the accounts of members of the community in which he lived or the local historical sources already mentioned. The latter seems more likely. Gyüker relies, presumably, on inherited oral accounts to date the “Great Tribulation,” a difficult period that left a deep imprint on the memories of older people. However, the definition of the pastoral and teaching order would not have been a similarly traumatic event and thus was unlikely to have survived as part of the recollections of members of the older generations. Gyüker was presumably drawing on information found in a written source, which may have been a late eighteenth-century record. As the village’s magistrate as of 1836 and therefore a lay magistrate, he would have had the opportunity to consult this kind of source, since he had access to the village’s official records. Either then or later, but knowing the source, he learned of the event which had taken place in 1787. We can assume that his source may have been a contemporary record since, in the case of a village history or similar compilation, medieval or early modern references would presumably not have been missed. In connection with Bőcs, there are no surviving accounts of tragic events resembling the accounts of events that had taken place in Karcag. There are no indications that the inhabitants were driven away or that those who remained at home were deported at the end of the seventeenth century. In Kátai’s writing, this is a traumatic point, which was of great importance and also stood out in the chronological narrative, since the account of the period of resettlement is followed by a mention of 1772 as the year in which the three-field system was established, followed by the consecration of the church in 1797. From this point of view, there is no significant interval in the historical time as seen by Kátai and Gyüker the Elder, which undoubtedly focused on important events in the life of the settlement and reflected the division of time into periods in the accounts handed down from one generation to another in oral narratives.20

In Gyüker’s entry, however, the monarch is also named. In this respect, of course, his memory is not flawless. In 1788, Joseph II was still on the throne, but even Leopold II, who reigned for two years, was no longer remembered. Although Francis was the first emperor of Austria, he began his reign as Holy Roman Emperor, numbered Francis II. And the French War which Gyüker called the first, began not in 1788 but in 1792. But for Gyüker, who was 64 years old in 1863, the beginning of his personal time was marked by Emperor Francis (emphatically not named as king of Hungary) and the war with the French, which meant that Gyüker placed himself in both local and, in his conception, global history. The latter, that is, a concept of time that goes beyond the local as global, should not be mistaken for a sign of the global impact of the French War, even if one can argue from the perspective of later events that this war did have a significant impact, but rather is better understood as an indication of the size of the world conceivable by Gyüker. The period during which Emperor Francis sat on the throne, who was also King of Hungary between 1792 and 1835, may have been an early time for him because of the length of Francis’ reign. The memory of Francis as a ruler was also deeply imprinted in public consciousness visually because of his portrait on coins, where for much of this time the following inscription was running around his head: FRANCISCUS I D G AUST IMPERATOR. In Gyüker’s entry, therefore, only the “by the grace of God” part was omitted with regard to the monarch. In Helle’s case, the beginning is in medias res:

In 1821, towards the end of August, the water, which had already prevailed, flooded so much that, as travelers from Pest said, the whole Pest market, the part towards Pest, Óbuda, the lower part of Buda, the “water city” was completely submerged; consequently, it also took the embankment of Nyék, and entered Déllő and the courtyard of the school house. The cattle have also been displaced from the inner pasture, from the forest. According to residents, the last time the water was this high was eight years ago.21

Helle’s opening does not create a historical context. He was the village pastor, and he had come to this village from far away (his birthplace, Nagyharsány, is half a day’s walk from Alsónyék). He may have made these notes not only because the events described seemed worth remembering to him but also perhaps as a way of identifying a possible explanation for any shortfall in the benefits he was given by the congregation. Compared to the first passages of Helle’s notes, Arató’s recollections tell of experiences. He was associated with several municipalities, and these associations indicate the places where he served in addition to his place of birth. For him, too, regional and personal time takes on a different reading, as in Helle’s case.22 Arató spent most of his time in Szeghalom, but his municipal history cannot be compared to that of Gyüker or Kátai. He presented the years and events in which he personally played a part or had a particularly formative role (such as the improvement of the May Day celebrations or the unveiling of the statue of Kossuth). The temporal structure of his narrative is therefore peculiar compared to the temporal structures of the previous ones, because he focuses on turning points, on the “outliers” of memory. Kis Tóth saw his life as a parallel to that of the biblical Job:

It is true (says Solomon the Wise) that the light is sweet, and it is delightful for the eyes to see the Sun; but I can write for myself what Job the patriarch says in Job 3:11. Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb; you will find in this Book all the great details of my life, my condition, my sufferings, and my complaints; each epistle is numbered and can be found on the index table; (though it is too late for the remnant, that if God hath pleased me to be).

Arató’s stories, however, seem more to follow the Solomonic approach, as the motto introducing the manuscript makes clear: “Joyful years and happy days. Oh, when I think of you! You have drifted away like the waves of spring!” In contrast, the two Gyükers (especially the elder) and Kátai do not discuss the events of each year from an emotional perspective. Rather, they focus on the circumstances that provide the framework for peasant and everyday life.

In the entries composed by Gyüker the Elder, the interplay of family, local, national, and sometimes European events are sometimes captured, even when these events all took place in a single year:

In 1809, my elder sister married András Bényei, who was with us until Saint Michael’s Day, when he was drafted as a soldier and served for a year and a half. As a child, I was so shy, and we managed to make do with the help of others. In the same year, in anticipation of the fourth French war, the emperor ordered military mobilization for the nobles, which they did, and they assembled in camp near Komárom; France broke through the greater part of Hungary at Győr, and here the armies and nobles engaged them, but fortune favored the French; and then having made peace, the German emperor suffered a great loss; the nobility dispersed in the same year, each to his own place.

The close temporal connection also suggests causal links, which may well have been one of the principal aims of the author. András Bényei, who had recently married into the family, demonstrates the labor organization in extended families, and the war primarily represented damage and loss (as was later the case for his grandson with the outbreak of World War I), as was evident in the corruption of the family labor organization. In addition to the indirect mention of Napoleon as a historical figure of global significance, the reference to the Battle of Győr also reveals the violation of the foundations of the feudal order and a gradual awareness of this. After half a century, the disgraceful flight of the nobility at Győr, who were doing military service instead of paying taxes, remained an integral part of memory even after the dismantling of the legal framework of the feudal order. Of course, the comparatively small town of Bőcs found itself on the stage of global history not only because of the French wars but also because of the arrival of the potato, which originated in South America. This was also a significant event that transformed the culture of consumption.

Festivals and saints’ feast days are regularly mentioned by the authors of the sources under study. In fact, mentions of these occasions can be seen as indications of moments of normality, whereas everything else that happened was a representation of the extraordinary. It is not my aim to describe the festivals and the rites associated with them, which have been thoroughly studied by scholars of ethnography,23 but only to give a brief overview of the significant days that the authors whose recollections I am using as sources chose as recurring points. The chronological order is not linked to the start and end dates of the agricultural year (traditionally the feast days of Saint George in April and Saint Michael in September), which is why the year-start entries in the Gyüker Chronicle were linked less frequently to the Epiphany or to the feast days of Saint Vincent and Saint Paul (if not to a specific day). The two feast days are mentioned only in Gyüker the Younger’s entries, while the Epiphany or Russian Christmas was used by his grandfather. Saint Vincent’s Day (January 22) is recorded as being consistently foggy, while Saint Paul’s Day (January 25) was sunny. The saints’ feast days at the end of January were followed by the feast of Candlemas (February 2) and the feast of Saint Gregory (March 12), which marked the beginning of plowing for both the older and the younger generation. On Saint Joseph’s Day (March 19), still in keeping with tradition, sowing began so that it would be finished by Saint George’s Day.24 In the records composed by János Helle, Saint Joseph’s Day is mentioned as a recurring event because of the fairs in Pest. The Easter holidays were mentioned less frequently, not appearing at all in the case of Gyüker the Elder, but mentions of Saint George’s Day (April 24) were all the more prominent, for the reasons indicated and not merely because of its role in the agricultural order. According to the recollections of József Gyüker the Elder, in 1814, his brother was taken away as a soldier under orders. The importance of the feast day is underlined by the fact that it still had its gravitational force from the Middle Ages:25 the events before and after it were related to this day. For example, in 1863, “[a]fter good weather in March, April came with cold winds, which didn’t grow but rather spoiled everything, the vines were worked in the weeks before Saint George’s Day, in cold winds.” Saint John’s Day (June 24) was also, if not to the same extent, an important part of the task-oriented annual rhythm.26 In 1831, it was the spread of cholera that made this feast day memorable for the Gyüker the Elder:

On Saint John’s Day, we started to hoe on Batka, but already then cholera had appeared in many places; it started in Lucs sooner than in Bőcs, it was impossible to go straight to the fields, there were guards, but one had to go a roundabout way to the wild waters; it appeared in our village too after a short time, and in two months, 65 people died, not children, but men and women; one was not allowed to go from one village to another, there were guards everywhere.


The prominence of the feast day as a marker of the passage of time is evident in several entries, not only in the case of Gyüker the Elder but also in the case of Gyüker the Younger, for instance in one entry writes, “starting on the day of Saint John, it was very hot for three days.” The fact that József Gyüker the Elder’s records may have been based on almanacs or other earlier records is, however, suggested by the passages in which the days before or after the feast day are not necessarily mentioned in the context of the feast but as independent days.27 Saint Martin’s Day, in contrast to Saint Michael’s Day (which brought the agricultural year to a close), seems to be more significant for the chronicle and was observed by both generations in their lives. After Saint Martin’s Day, only Christmas appears, with Saint Andrew’s Day (November 30) going essentially unmentioned (except in 1928). The special days of the agricultural year were major events in the lives of members of both the older and the younger generations, or at least these days are frequently mentioned in the source. Particular feast days remained points of reference even for the grandson, even though by the time he was writing the use of the month and the day was a more widespread method of indicating a date. A noticeable change, however, took place in the naming of the feasts. References to Saint Martin’s feast in the entries composed by Gyükér the Elder always included the word “saint,” while this word is found in this context in entries by his grandson only until 1889, and from 1910 to 1927 he simply called it Martin’s Day (in 1927, he again referred to it as Saint Martin’s Day). Saint Andrew’s Day, only mentioned in 1903, is also given without the word “saint.” Mentions of Saint George’s Day and Saint John’s Day consistently include the word “saint,” while Saint Paul’s Day is called by various names, but again only by Gyüker the Younger. Obviously, this might suggest a slight degree of laicization, but given the frequent expressions of gratitude to “God Almighty” and assurance of trust in God, this seems unlikely.

The accounts of individuals’ lives included mention of major events, namely marriage, birth, and death. Women and girls were mostly mentioned in these contexts and less often in connection with a vacancy in the family labor organization. There is a marked difference in the recording of births between Gyüker the Elder and Gyüker the Younger. József Gyüker the Elder considered it important to record his and his wife’s birth dates (although he never referred to his wife, Erzsébet Makláry, by name), and so did his grandson (but he referred to his wife, Julianna Almási, by name). Gyüker the Elder did not record the dates of the births of any of his children, while Gyüker the Younger wrote them down one by one: József in 1885, Julcsa in 1888, Zsófi in 1890, and Julianna in 1894. Death in the family played a more important role for Gyüker the Elder. He noted that his father died in 1802, his paternal uncle, the bell founder János Gyüker, in 1831, his brother, István, in 1849, and his son, Samu, in 1850. Apparently, József Gyüker the Elder’s attention was essentially directed towards the older members of the family, and his son was an exception only due to his tragically premature death. In the case of his grandson, József Gyüker the Younger, the deaths of his parents, his wife, and his younger brother are listed, as well as the deaths of his daughters Julcsa in 1889 and Zsófi in 1893. In his case, even the children were given more attention. Their births and deaths were milestones in his understanding of personal time. This tendency to devote greater attention to the fates of his offspring may be reflected in the practice (also only observed by József Gyüker the Younger) of indicating the astrological sign of his children at birth. When it came to this, however, his references were inaccurate. He thought that his son József, who was born on November 8, was a Sagittarius, his daughter Julcsa (born on February 8) a Capricorn, Zsófi (born on August 3) a Pisces, and Julianna (born on December 29) an Aquarius. Not only was he consistently wrong, his blunders were sometimes quite notable (for instance, the notion that someone born in August is a Pisces), so it is different to imagine that he drew on the almanacs. Regardless of this, however, his interest in the signs of the Zodiac as a means of structuring time offers some indication of his interest in the eventual fates of his offspring, since he presumably hoped to learn something of his children’s futures from these signs, for instance, whether they were born under a so-called lucky star.28

Although astrology emerged as a new marker in the concept of time among peasants, the spread of the clock brought about a more significant change. According to an entry by József Gyüker the Elder, the clock first appeared in Bőcs around 1840, he himself bought one around 1850, and then, “in 1860, as there was a very abundant harvest, everyone could afford anything, so others bought them too, as the price was not much. One could be bought for five or six silver coins, whatever kind the poor farmer needed; thus began the clock in Bőcs.” What could he have meant by the phrase “whatever kind the poor farmer needed?” In his 1864 entries, he repeatedly describes events to the nearest hour. For instance, he notes that on March 13, at 4 p.m., there was a strong, cold wind and sleet, and on June 11, around 5 or 6 o’clock, there was a strong wind with little rain. On October 24, 1866, at 11 p.m., there was an earthquake. It is unlikely that it was some need to record these kinds of events that made the clock important to the farmers. Beyond the fact that it was obviously a prestige object, the clock may have had a more practical use as well. Gyüker the Elder began his account of the events of 1859 with the construction of the railway, which played an important role in the life of the village in the development of both trade and employment. And keeping up with the train now required the precise measurement of time to the minute.29 In the case of József Gyüker the Younger, documentation up to the hour is, understandably, much more frequent. In addition to the weather events, he also recorded family events mostly to the hour. For example, his daughter Zsófi is known to have been born on August 3, 1890, at 2 p.m. and to have died on March 19, 1893, at 10 p.m., and his mother, Zsuzsanna Nagy, died at 10 p.m. on June 7, 1913. Consequently, the emergence of the clock had not only an economic role, either as a prestige object or as a means of keeping up with the train schedule. It was also a means of experiencing certain events, especially family events, in a deeper way. In 1830, the clock is mentioned in the Vajszló Chronicle more as a hoarded prestige object,30 while in the case of Arató’s narrative, the exact or approximate time of certain important events was kept rather as part of the flashbulb memory. In Helle’s records, an indication of the time of an event that was precise to the hour was exceptional, but in these cases, one can assume that Helle used the time signals of the church. Gábor Kátai gives the first exact time when recording the earthquake of July 1, 1829 (8 p.m.). He writes, “at the town hall the bell rang and the sheep bells on the nail rang.” It can be assumed that here, as in the case of the fire at noon on May 23, 1831, the tolling of the bells drew attention to the clock tower, if there was one (further research is needed to determine this).31 The clock was also a sign of modernity in contemporary society. The clock represented both the figurative and the concrete sense of the passage of time in the home. More abstract units of time than the hour itself, such as the minute and the second, become part of life in rural homes. They were given form and sound by their structural carrier, or in other words, modernity itself became a tangible, rapidly running, ticking experience for rural society.


József Gyüker the Younger learned of the events described in the proposition, such as the possibility of flying in 1928, the spread of the bicycle and the powered plough, and many other pieces of information from the newspaper rather than from the almanacs.32 He had access to more information and apparently thought it important to write down more things than his grandfather had. Price statistics appear in his entries more and more frequently, which must have become increasingly important for him because of purchasing and especially selling. The question is whether this greater amount of information, which took more time to absorb and process, was worth the time spent. I believe that Gyüker the Younger’s aim by following price movements was to make more money by selling and to get a higher return on the time invested. This was probably facilitated by local rail transport, but it required keeping up with rail transport. Exposure to the natural environment continued to play a significant role in the perception of time for members of Gyüker the Younger’s generation, but more efficient management also required more efficient time management. The spread of the clock and the way it became an integral part of the main areas of life definitely furthered this. Regardless of this, however, the regular use of references to exact years, months, and days and the occasional use of the clock as ways of marking the time of an event indicates a modern concept of time in the case of József Gyüker the Elder. Not only is this practice refined in his case of his grandson, who notably indicated the very hour of an important event, but there are also more frequent moments, in his narrative, of retrospection. While József Gyüker the Elder looks back on the events of the past by writing the chronicle itself, his grandson repeatedly reflects on earlier events even within the very text. Indeed, this becomes quite common in entries written after World War I. We do not know why József Gyüker (1836–1897) (the son of Gyüker Elder and the father of Gyüker the Younger) did not continue his father’s chronicle, but we do have information about why the youngest József Gyüker (1909–?) abandoned it: “he has no time to write.” In other words, for Gyüker the Elder, the time he spent writing was understood as leisure time, not work time, while for his grandson, Gyüker the Younger, this time was work time, as it facilitated work and productivity. From this point of view, this time lost its purely leisure-time character. Instead, the importance of time as a means of keeping accounts became more and more important. In time, Gyüker the Younger devoted even this time spent on writing to work, which is one more indication of the disappearance of traditional peasant life.33


The study of larger-scale processes of modernization and globalization at the local level has been a long-standing interest for me. For a long time, however, I had had trouble finding suitable source materials. György Kövér, My Ph.D. supervisor, helped me overcome this when he recalled a seminar he held more than ten years ago in which we also studied the Gyüker Chronicle. For the scanned copy of the original manuscript, I would like to thank the staff of the Scientific Collections of the Reformed College of Sárospatak. I would also like to thank the director of the Szeghalom Library and Museum Collection of Public Interest, Klára Hajdú, for providing the transcription of Lajos Arató’s memoirs. I am grateful to Gábor Gyáni and Veronika Eszik for their suggestions and comments regarding the manuscript.

Archival Sources

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Kövér, György. Biográfia és társadalomtörténet [Bibliography and social history]. Budapest: Osiris, 2014.

Küllős, Imola. “Parasztkrónika” [Peasant chronicle]. In Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon, vol. 4, N–Szé, edited by Gyula Ortutay, 186. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1981.

Mitterauer, Michael, and Richard Sieder. Vom Patriarchat zur Partnerschaft: Zum Strukturwandel der Familie. Munich: Beck, 1977.

Nolte, Paul. “Gibt es noch eine Einheit der neueren Geschichte?” Zeitschrift für historische Forschung 24, no. 3 (1997): 377–99.

Osterhammel, Jürgen, and Patrick Camiller. The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Paládi-Kovács, Attila chief ed. Magyar Néprajz. Vol. 2, Gazdálkodás: A vetés idejének meghatározása [Hungarian ethnography. Vol. 2, Farming: Determining the time of sowing]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 2001.

Roberts, John M. Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901–2000. New York: Viking, 1999.

Romsics, Ignác. “A gazdagparasztság és a forradalmak kora (Két forrás a XX. századi magyar parasztság politikai tudatához)” [The rich peasantry and the age of revolutions: Two sources for the political consciousness of the twentieth-century Hungarian peasantry]. Történelmi Szemle 22, no. 1 (1979): 127–44.

Takács, József Péter. “A toronyórák története” [The history of tower clocks]. Theologiai Szemle 33, no. 6 (1990): 352–56.

Tátrai, Zsuzsanna. “Jeles napok – ünnepi szokások” [Special days – festive customs]. In Magyar Néprajz, vol. 7 [Hungarian ethnography], edited by Attila Paládi-Kovács, 102–264. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

Thompson, Edward P. “Az idő, a munkafegyelem és az ipari kapitalizmus” [Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism]. In Időben élni: Történelmi–szociológiai tanulmányok [Living in time: Historical and sociological studies], edited by Márta Gellériné Lázár, 60–116. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

Tóth, István György. “Harangkongás és óraketyegés: A parasztok és kisnemesek időfogalma a 17–18. században” [Tolling of bells and ticking of clocks: Peasants’ and lesser nobles’ concept of time in the 17th and eighteenth centuries]. In “Atyám megkívánta a pontosságot”: Ember és idő viszonya a történelemben, edited by Zoltán Fónagy, 51–74. Budapest: Hungarian Historical Society–Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of History, 2016 [1993].

Varga, János. “Öreg Gyüker József krónikája 1787–1866” [The chronicle of József Gyüker the Elder, 1787–1866]. Agrártörténeti Szemle 6, no. 3–4 (1964): 453–54.


1 Osterhammel and Camiller, Transformation, 45–49.

2 Gyáni, Az elveszíthető múlt; Gyáni, “A történés ideje,” 10.

3 Roberts, Twentieth Century, 3.

4 Osterhammel and Camiller, Transformation, 45–49; Nolte, “Einheit”; Hobsbawm, Europäische Revolutionen; Hobsbawm, Blütezeit; Hobsbawm, Zeitalter.

5 See Hareven, “Family Time.”

6 Gellériné, “Előszó,” 7–14.

7 “Gyüker család feljegyzései,” 110.

8 Koselleck, Elmúlt jövő.

9 Osterhammel and Camiller, Transformation, 45–49.

10 Fónagy, “Ember és idő,” 78.

11 “Gyüker család feljegyzései,” 43–44.

12 Mitterauer and Sieder, Vom Patriarchat, 72–99.

13 Forrai, “Tájékoztató,” 5; Romsics, “Gazdagparasztság,” 128; Küllős, “Parasztkrónika,” 186; Kovács, Kalendáriumtörténet, 333; Varga, “Öreg Gyüker,” 453–54; Gyenis, “Emlékirat,” 157–58.

14 Danto, Analytical.

15 Kövér, Biográfia, 100–1; Tíz nemzedék és ami utána következik... Vidéki társadalom az úrbérrendezéstől a vidék elnéptelenedéséig, 1767–2017. Paraszti egodokumentumok. https://10generacio.hu/hu/eredmenyek/paraszti-egodokumentumok

16 Gyüker József the Elder’s diary. 1787–1866. Original manuscript. This peasant chronicle from Bőcs was donated by József Gyüker, a peasant from Külsőbőcs, to Dr. Géza Hegyaljai Kiss, who gave it to the College of Sárospatak. Sárospataki Református Kollégium Tudományos Gyűjteményei, Kt. 3635. The source is a diary in name only. It is in fact a memoir.

17 S. Püski, “Kátai,” 541.

18 Ibid.

19 No age was given at the time of death on March 1, 1753, but the fact that he was listed as an independent taxpayer in 1715 suggests that he was slightly older than 15.

20 Tóth, “Harangkongás,” 51.

21 MMgM IV. 456.

22 Osterhammel and Camiller, Transformation, 45–49.

23 See Tátrai, “Jeles napok,” 102–264.

24 Paládi-Kovács, A vetés idejének, 359.

25 Tóth, “Harangkongás,” 57.

26 See Thompson, “Az idő, a munkafegyelem,” 60–116.

27 Kovács, Kalendáriumtörténet, 11–25; Tóth, “Harangkongás,” 59.

28 Hoppál, “Horoszkóp,” 579.

29 On the role of modern society in the education for time, see: Fónagy, “Ember és idő,” 87–88; Frisnyák, “Időzavarban,” 123–32.

30 “Now where is my Father, he was even a juror for two or three months, he had two pocket watches, but the wall clock is now broken, [now] the estate is in decay, his passing glory is about to be lost.”

31 On the spread of clock towers in Hungary, see Takács, “Toronyórák,” 352–56; Csukovits, “Órahasználat,” 21–50; Tóth, “Harangkongás,” 68.

32 In 1929, for example, he wrote, “The paper reported 45 degrees below zero in Poland.”

33 On working time, see Granasztói, “Munkaidő,” 101–22.


Milk and Laboratories in Urban-Rural and State-Society Relations: The Case of Hungary from the Beginning of Wartime Shortages until the Great Depression

Róbert Balogh
University of Public Service, Institute of Central European Studies
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 12 Issue 1  (2023):118–146 DOI 10.38145/2023.1.118

The paper analyses the roles of milk production and milk supply in the changes of the state-society relations and knowledge production in 20th early century Hungary. It places laboratories and the perception of milk as material in the centre of analysis prompting a narrative that takes account of the hybrid nature of milk. Building on arguments that Bruno Latour and Timothy Mitchell formulated, this study reveals key aspects of government, economy and modernity by using the notion that there are no clear boundaries between culture and nature. Hybridity also refers to the impossibility of controlling for all aspects of “nature.” The first part of the paper takes laboratories as junctures of legislation and urban-rural relations. The second part highlights the urban conditions as well as the local political contexts of milk consumption and milk shortage in the World War I and post-World War I period. Overall, the paper is a case for why food history is one of the ways to take research beyond methodological nationalism without having to ignore the realm of politics.

Keywords: Food shortage, urban-rural relations, milk history, history of science, history of cooperatives, interwar Hungary

Introduction: The Political Implications of Milk as a Hybrid in Modernity

This paper is about the ways in which the social meanings of urban milk consumption and the testing of milk in laboratories influenced relations between urban and rural areas, and also between the central state and local society in Hungary during World War I and in the interwar period. Hungary in this period offers a particularly good case for linking political history to the developments of the milk economy, which was a global history.

Largely due to the fall in grain prices in the second half of the nineteenth century, when World War I broke out, the milk economy had already been expanding rapidly for more than half a century in Europe.1 From being a niche market in the early nineteenth century, it grew into one of the major economic activities and markets. It is indicative of the timing of the surge in Hungary that, in 1905, the eminent educationalist László Mócsy (1871–1955) published an educational parable titled “The Good Cow,” in which he offered farmers advice on how to select cows that would have plenty of milk.2 Mócsy mentioned the presence of official advisors in rural areas the importance of knowledge about proper stable conditions, and he also noted that there was a state-run breeding campaign.

The history of milk brings together the history of science, agriculture, and agrarian policy. There would be no processed milk without human intervention, and there would be no milk to pasteurize, homogenize, and consume without the animals in the background. Research concerning animal nutrition, the genetic qualities of various breeds, and milk quality were all important aspects of this encounter among the sciences, livestock practices, and state policy over the course of the twentieth century.3 Building on arguments put forward by Timothy Mitchell and Bruno Latour on the historical implications of such hybridity, I show how incessant efforts to draw boundaries between culture and nature and the repeated failures of these ultimately hopeless efforts shaped the perceptions of urban consumers, rural suppliers, the physical constellations of marketplaces, and state presence in the marketplace between the second half of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression ten years later. Summarizing the historical research in biotechnologies, Helen Curry posits that the backbone of experimental biology was the belief in technological control throughout the twentieth century.4 Mitchell points out that the idea that control was possible was a grave error. He offers the following somewhat cautionary remark:

Instead of invoking the force and logic of reason, self-interest, science, or capital and attributing what happens in the world to the working of these enchanted powers and processes, we can open up the question […] of what kinds of hybrid agencies, connections, interactions, and forms of violence are able to portray their actions as history, as human expertise overcoming nature, as the progress of reason and modernity, or as the expansion and development of capitalism.5

Focusing on Louis Pasteur’s experiments and discoveries, Latour came to a similar conclusion, and he demonstrated that the encounter of germs, scientific experiments and demonstrations, scientists’ ambitions, specific agricultural practices, and the culture of public spaces ended up changing many aspects of rural and urban life in France and, then, worldwide.6 In the period discussed here, milk traveled through society impacting and triggering responses in many different milieus and power relations. Monographic studies by Peter Atkins and Deborah Valenze on the economy, politics, and knowledge production behind the rise of milk economy and its globalization in the late nineteenth century show that the history of the interaction between the human on the one hand and the material on the other is one of the ways to take research beyond methodological nationalism without having to ignore the realm of politics in a specific state.7 As Atkins puts it,

As a commodity, [milk] became a site of politics as different groups vied to have their interests protected or their solutions implemented […] Milk was never the same materially, socially, culturally, economically, or politically after its entry into the networks that provisioned cities. These were not just systems of delivery but vast engines of transformation. They nourished bodies; they spread disease; they encouraged the make-over of agro-ecosystems and landscapes in the distant countryside; they enabled a re-imagining of cities as spaces without farming; they transformed food economies; and they encouraged a new form of food politics.8

Indeed, there are at least four specific contexts in which the realm of high politics and milk met in the period under study. First, there is the impact of wartime food shortages and rationing imposed by the state on citizens, which often pitted urban and rural communities against each other.9 Second, the sate attempted to bring milk cooperatives within the supply chain that was under its control. Third, one has to consider the regional specificities of the place of milk-cooperatives outside the most developed core of Europe. Fourth, one also needs to take into account the municipal level of politics.

Regarding the first two points, Tiago Saraiva’s work on the importance of agriculture in establishing interwar regimes in Europe is immediately relevant theses.10 Saraiva shows that there was a close relationship between authoritarian control and agriculture. In Hungary, the central state was not able to alter the shortage economy in the immediate post-World War I period, but by the mid-1930s, it gradually overtook and established control over the network of milk cooperatives.

While there is a rich secondary literature on milk cooperatives in Europe, there is hardly any work discussing Central Europe. Most of the existing studies foreground the political aspects of the realm of cooperatives in general and of milk-cooperatives in particular. Csekő Ernő offers a skeptical view and casts doubt on the notion that the milk market was beneficial for inhabitants of rural communities.11 With regards to Estonia and Greece, which, like Hungary, were also semi-peripheral countries, Johan Eellend, Dimitris Angelis-Dimakis, and Catherine Bregianni emphasize that access to credit was the main factor when it came to the potential success of the milk cooperative movements, and that comparatively easy access to capital gave leverage to states and prevented an autonomous cooperative realm from emerging. Eellend suggests that this influence of states was in tension with another defining feature of cooperatives. As he observes,

By demanding participation and responsibility from the members and demanding that the farmers put a great portion of their production in the hands of the cooperatives, the cooperatives had a comprehensive impact on the farmer’s life and the local community. This created an alternative rural public, which ideals were based in economic efficiency and cooperation within the community.12

In his discussion of various cooperative networks in Hungary, Attila Hunyadi places the cooperative movements of the late nineteenth century in the context of nationalism, and he characterizes them as venues for learning and developing political culture in terms of attitudes towards the state and the act of voting. Attila Vári frames the cooperative movement in Hungary quite differently, situating it within Agrarian politics and the struggle for primacy within or control over the National Hungarian Economic Association (Országos Magyar Gazdasági Egyesület, OMGE) and influence over its membership. Agrarians in Hungary promoted the modernization of machinery and tools as well as the cooperative movement. At the same time, they were hostile to trade unions and other nations in the region. Many Agrarians held various anti-Semitic views, seeing land-owning Jews and the alleged mass immigration of Jews as one of the elements that went against the formation of a wealthy Hungarian class of landowners. OMGE and the Alliance of Farmers formed within it in 1896 were the major force behind the cooperative movement in Hungary.

At least one contemporary popular didactic short story made it clear that the relationship between anti-Semitism and OMGE’s support for the spread of cooperatives was strong at the local level already in the early 1900s. László Salgó told a fable about how activists from Budapest used the influence of the local Church personnel to trick local wealthy farmers into forming a cooperative shop in order to get rid of the local grocery shop, which was fun by a Jewish couple.13 Salgó’s story ended with a scene of farmers going bankrupt due the cooperative’s irresponsible business practices. The ending even suggested that the activists from Budapest and big time Jewish traders eventually benefited and perhaps even planned the whole trap together. This association between cooperatives and anti-Semitic thought is potentially relevant to the milk economy. For example, based on contemporary municipal business directories of Debrecen published in the interwar period, most milk sellers in the city were likely to be persons who had Jewish backgrounds (Sándor Lefkovics, Klára Schenk, Manó Gottlieb, Mózes Steinmetz, József Glück, Mrs. József Popper, and Erzsébet Werner).14 Krisztián Ungváry suggests that anti-Semitism is a key to any nuanced understanding of economic policy in interwar Hungary, while other overviews of the period see the character of these policies differently.15 No one has yet offered substantial support for the hypothesis according to which there were anti-Semitic motives behind the formation of milk cooperatives or behind state intervention in this area. An analysis of the withdrawal of permits for milk trade in 1938 and thereafter would likely indicate political motives behind this form of state intervention in the field in the post-Depression period. The data about the issuance and withdrawal of permits to sell milk would also tell a great deal about the roles of women in the milk economy.

In any discussion of the milk economy, one needs to include the municipal level, too. Laura Umbrai’s research on the milk market of Budapest shows the importance of municipal institutions and decisions in establishing a balance between the demand for milk on the one hand and the public health risks of permitting milk to be sold on the market on the other.16 This will come up in more detail in a later section of this paper. Miklós Szuhay was the first agrarian historian to explore the background to the attempt of the central government to reorganize the supply chain of milk in the Budapest market in the early 1930s. Since the goal of governmental decrees was to eliminate small producers and make price depend on agreement reached between large stakeholders who would negotiate within a board chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture, the episode points out the growing ambition for direct state control over the economy as well towards corporatism.17

In order to address the implications of the various contemporary under­standings of the milk trade for urban-rural and state-society relations, I have broken up my discussion into four section. The first section introduces state authorized quality testing of milk in laboratories in Hungary. It outlines how the laboratory environments interacted with various practices of rural and urban communities. It shows how, furthermore, as a result of these intersections, laboratory testing was the meeting point of top-down and bottom-up understandings of a modern economy. The second and third sections turn to a selected region in western Hungary. By focusing on tensions and discourses caused by the shortage of milk in an urban context (that of the city of Szombathely) and on the history of the milk cooperatives that were to supply this city, I show how the shift from low to high food prices and the history of food control are essential factors if one wishes to arrive at an adequately nuanced understanding of the relationship between rural and urban areas as well as between state and society. The choice of a border area as a case study (specifically, Vas County in western Hungary) means putting some emphasis on the role of smuggling in the post-World War I economy. This does not mean, however, that this case is so particular that it is not relevant to the broader discussion. Rather, this case shows that the presence of a regulatory state should not be taken for granted, and it also integrates geographical concerns into the picture. Milk cooperatives in the region enter the framework as scapegoats for shortages, but their story is also about the emerging agenda of the expanding state in the interwar period in Hungary.

Milk Testing in Laboratories as the Meeting Point of Top-down and
Bottom-up Understandings of Modernity

As the secondary literature has shown, milk was a prime target of control and was something beyond control at the same time. Contemporaries attempted to commodify a hybrid: milk was a natural-cultural phenomena with which both people with medical and engineering expertise and administrative bodies struggled. This section examines the ways in which laboratories can be seen as sites which yield insights into the ways in which local rural society responded to the rise of milk consumption and new institutions it brought with it.

Research on the history of the emergence of scientific institutions in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Hungary makes it clear that the idea that the state needed to control food quality and develop food items for the international market was a large part of the motivation for the establishment of laboratories and the justification for providing them with funding.18 However, laboratories are not neutral sites of scientific inquiry and experiment: they transform the materials with which they work and, in turn, influence the outer world. Milk products had several social meanings, each of which was influenced by the state, scientists, and local communities. First, as urban poverty and the vision of a demographic crisis arising from the (alleged) waning capacity of women to be good mothers caused moral panic, milk became a key commodity of urban economy and urban governance.19 In an article published in Orvosi Hetilap (Medical Weekly) in 1890, Ede Egán, the inspector general of the milk industry, who had British origins and a well-functioning estate in Vas County, emphasized the importance of milk as a commodity in increasing demand.20 He claimed that ensuring safe milk at affordable prices had motivated him to set up a milk cooperative structure (Budapesti Központi Tejcsarnok Szövetkezet or Budapest Central Dairy Cooperative) in Budapest.21 Outstanding contemporary researchers, such as Ernő Deutsch (1875–1944) and Salamon Székely (1860–1936), focused their efforts on making cow milk safe for consumption by newborns.22 According to Székely, the main challenge was to reduce the proportion of casein, and he believed that carbonic acid was the key to this. Infant mortality due to the inability of young babies to digest milk substitutes indicated that cow milk could save or kill children. In the interwar period, as eugenics continued to gain sway among some circles of scientists and in the public mind, the political meaning of children gained a new significance: national revival. Accordingly, several national-level organizations (such as Magyar Asszonyok és Nők Nemzeti Szövetsége, or the National League of Hungarian Wives and Women, Országos Stefánia Szövetség, or Stefánia League, which was named after Rudolf Habsburg’s widow, and the Zöldkereszt Mozgalom, or Green Cross Movement) disseminated knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding and the feeding of small children.23

As historian Peter Atkins and veterinarian Ottó Fettick (1875–1954) amply demonstrated, milk was both a potential carrier of deadly diseases and a key to feeding urban populations. In 1931, Fettick and another leading researcher, Lajos Szélyes (1885–1963), wrote a paper about the possible causal relations between anthrax in cattle and human illness. Referring to a case from 1928, the paper contained a passage about the potential economic impact of the decisions of scientists concerning the existence of links between disease in humans and milk produced by sick cows: “This question was not fully clarified, thus, the expert is puzzled when having to give an opinion as to whether milk produced during an anthrax infestation in stables should be offered to the public. With regards to such questions, interests of public health confront economic interests.”24

The social implications of the quality of milk also shifted in part because, by the 1910s, scientists had rediscovered cow milk as a nearly perfect food that contained enough calories and minerals to sustain a human being even if nothing else were available. It seemed especially advisable for children and sick adults to consume milk. As medical researchers and chiefly American biochemist Elmer V. McCollum began to discover the role of vitamins as an important part of a healthy diet, cow milk looked even more essential.25 This knowledge became common in the Western World and began to spread to areas known as colonies. In Hungary, the most spectacular example of the campaign to spread this new understanding of milk as an essential part of a nutritious diet was the poster emblazoned with the words “Milk is Life, Power, and Health” (A tej élet, erő, egészség), which was designed by Greek-born Hungarian athlete and artist Miltiades Manno in 1927.26 The poster was part of the efforts of the government to increase demand for milk, which was such an important policy objective that a specialized committee, the Milk Propaganda Committee (Tejpropaganda Bizottság), was set up in 1927 to achieve it. 27

Finally, dairy products, especially butter, emerged as an important item of international trade. The international congresses of various experts taking part in the milk economy were important sites of standardization of procedures, quality, and required stable conditions. These meetings had been taking place since 1903 under the umbrella of the International Dairy Federation. The aforementioned Fettick published a detailed report about one such congress in 1907.28 The key point in this transnational commodification of milk and dairy products came in 1925, when the standards for butter were accepted and márkázott vaj (branded butter) appeared in Hungary. Indeed, as Fettick’s report demonstrates, scientific research on the health effects of permissible and non-permissible technologies of milk processing fed into the ongoing process of international standardization. Prospectively, becoming part of the international supply chain of butter was one of the ways to achieve prosperity in rural settings. Archival sources indicate the importance of the British market for Hungary in the post-Depression period.29 How such prospective markets influenced rural milk producers in the 1920s or in the prewar period remains to be answered.

Laboratories and stable inspections were junctures for revealing and altering the social meanings of milk, and they also provided insights into the daily workings of the milk economy in rural and urban contexts. The Permanent Supervisory Council (Állandó Felülbíráló Tanács), which was one of the key institutional bodies of the milk economy of the first half of the twentieth century, relied on the results provided by local laboratories. The council was one of the agents of continuity between the interwar and postwar periods. This committee had the right to overrule decisions of first-level authorities about the quality of food items and refer decisions to the minister of agriculture. The surviving resolutions of the committee are held at the archives of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Budapest.30 The documents show the criteria used, the testing procedures, and the uncertainties surrounding these procedures, and they contain some indications about the provenance of samples, despite general anonymity. Most reports date from the years between 1911 and 1914, thus they took the 1896 regulatory provisions as their basis. The cases that came to the attention of the council due to appeals mainly concerned small-scale sellers who brought the milk from a single cow to the market and other retailers who sold the milk from three or four cows. In each cases, the suspicion was that the milk which had been brought to the market by these vendors was mixed with water and/or at least partially skimmed. The appeals show that the local authorities who did the testing often claimed to have found proof that these suspicions were founded even when several uncertainties remained unresolved. The most common problem with their testing method was that they did not control the stables or did not test milk milked in the morning and milked in the evening separately for fat content. In one of its decisions, the council also remarked that there was no single decree regulating the method to be used during stable inspections, though there were in fact several circulars regarding the issue. Moreover, the variance of chemical qualities of the samples that were compared to standards was sometimes so small that it might have been due to local specificities and not any process of dilution, as the first level authorities assumed. Overall, the number of cases in which the council felt it was not possible to make a statement about whether the milk had been diluted is remarkable and shows that the precise definition of milk as material and hybrid often defied scientific expertise. Unfortunately, only three milk related appeals are documented for the period after 1920. The first of these appeals was lodged in 1921. This appeal may offer a good introduction, for us, to a typical profession related to the production and sale of milk in the early twentieth century. It concerned a young woman bringing a family milk that had been diluted with water. The young woman who brought the milk and her mother had only one cow. The council ruled that the decision concerning the milk, according to which it had indeed been diluted with water, was not valid, since the cow’s milk had not been tested on two separate occasions that day and the environment in which it had been produced had not been inspected. The description in the appeal of the circumstances make it clear that the women were so-called “milimári.” This word is no longer in everyday use in Hungarian. In the first half of the twentieth century, it referred to milkmaids who brought milk to Budapest in small quantities, often directly supplying certain families or selling milk on Budapest markets.31

The University of Veterinary Medicine in Budapest was home to the Milk Hygiene Laboratory, which was one of the major laboratories for milk testing in the early twentieth century. The registry of the laboratory shows that the institution was a center from which knowledge and technologies were disseminated across the country.32 Despite the diversity of themes on which the various surviving documents touch, the bulk of entries in the registry of the laboratory concerning testing milk produced in or transported to Budapest. According to the registry, most of the samples came from a very limited number of places. The private company called Central Milk Market-Hall Co. (Központi Tejcsarnok Rt., hereafter KT) frequently asked the lab to test whether its products were sterile. The results show that the company often experienced quality issues during milk processing in the years from which records related to the interwar period survived, that is, 1921–1929 and 1935–1937. Another milk-processing firm that often turned to the laboratory was Count Imre Károlyi’s private company, which was located in the northeastern fringes of the city. In addition to these companies, the National Child Shelter was the most frequent client. In their case, there were hardly any occasions when the milk that was tested proved problematic. These records suggest that most milk processing enterprises outside the capital were not interested in having the quality of their milk monitored by the laboratory at the university. The firms that sprung up during the 1920s, such as the ones in the towns of Eger and Nyíregyháza, were monitored by another institution, the Royal Milk Product Testing Station, which was set up in 1928.33 This institution was the only one authorized to allow firms to use state authorized stamps on their products. Due to the international standardization of butter in the mid-1920s, without such certification, export was no longer possible.34

The Milk Hygiene Laboratory frequently provided advice on issues concerning the handling of milk, suggested reasons why milk went bad, and offered guidance concerning how to stop contagious disease in stables. In doing so, it came into contact with local veterinary doctors and inspectors of agricultural establishments and also with managers. Thus, the laboratory was a key agent in identifying sites infected with forms of animal tuberculosis. Moreover, through quality testing, it indirectly defined who had done their job well locally. In fact, at times, science became a direct part of labor relations. When the management of one estate suspected that one of the maids had been pouring water into the milk on a regular basis, for example, it asked the laboratory to test a sample. The result of the test, however, was negative,35 the maid presumably kept her job. The documents offer no further details, but it was presumably the maid who asked for the test to be carried out. It is remarkable that the manager of the estate did not make a decision without certification from the laboratory at a time when labor was no longer a scarcity.

Indeed, the milk industry was a field in which women could have careers. The career of Lídia Nagy is a case in point. She managed one of the small Transdanubian centers of Count Pál Eszterházy’s Milk Firm.36 When she was about to be promoted, she recommended, as a potential replacement, another woman who had completed the same specialized school as she had, probably the one in Sárvár (a town in Vas County). Besides keeping track of the amount and provenance of milk that reached the skimming station in Középbogárd (a village in Fejér County), Nagy was in charge of taking measurements with thermometers and butyroemeters, and she also monitored and adjusted butter production to meet demand and to address complaints about quality. She submitted reports in writing on a weekly basis and sometimes more frequently. Although her manager scolded her at times for not keeping proper count of the milk cans used for transportation, she had considerable responsibilities. The manager entrusted her with assessing possibilities for the expansion of the range of the station and attracting vendors from the nearby milk cooperative.

The laboratory was an agent of changing tastes. In 1932, at one of the meetings of the National Milk Economy Committee, Lajos Gerlei, general manager of the Budapest General Central Dairy Hall (Budapesti Általános Központi Tejcsarnok Rt.), which at the time was the major producer of milk products alongside the large state-run network known as the National Hungarian Center of Milk Cooperatives (Országos Magyar Tejszövetkezeti Központ, OMTK), remarked that Hungarians were not willing to eat real yoghurt because they could not digest it.37 Letters exchanged between the laboratory and other institutions disprove this point. The Milk Hygiene Laboratory provided cultures necessary for yoghurt production to various parts of the country and even beyond the borders. This was the case, for instance, with the so-called milk bar at the Central Hotel in Kolozsvár (today Cluj, Romania. Before 1919 it was located within Hungary. In the later 1920s, it still had a significant Hungarian population), which was run by nuns.38 The milk hygiene laboratory played a role in influencing customs among the Jewish community of Szerencs, a town in northeastern Hungary. In February 1934, the local milk producer was eager to convince the Orthodox rabbi about the compatibility of the organic culture required for producing Kosher butter. In his reply, the head of the laboratory indicated that the Orthodox rabbi of Budapest had already accepted the recipe.39

Milk testing laboratories were not simply state agents entrusted with the task of ferreting out illicit economic activities or pointing out failures and impurities. Rather, the daily activities of laboratories were interwoven with the ways in which the different types of milk producers responded to the emerging milk market, including work relations, new ventures, social care, and tastes.

Milk Shortages and the Dysfunctions of Modern Institutions: Szombathely in Vas County

The milk shortages in post-World War I Szombathely, the seat of Vas County in western Hungary (close to the interwar border with Austria), offer a telling case of how urban-rural exchanges intertwined with state-society relations and the role that laboratories played in these relations. The case also offers insights into local, urban perceptions of the essence of a modern economy and a modern state.

Just before World War I, Vas County and its seat were in a state of transition. The northern areas of the county were among the developed regions of Hungary, so much so that Szombathely was seen as the model of the emerging modern city. At the same time, the southern areas were closer to neighboring Zala County in their outlook, and they were among the markedly underdeveloped zones of the country. The developed parts of Vas County along with the areas neighboring it to the north were the first centers of the milk economy in Hungary. This had to do with the closeness of Vienna as a large market, but this factor would not have been sufficient for the first milk cooperatives to emerge. As agrarian historian Antal Vörös has pointed out, Vas County was among the first areas where a rural economy based on the practice of keeping livestock in stables and fodder production replaced the previous system of three-year agriculture. One of the main conditions of this shift was an adequate output of cereals so that there would be land available for fodder to grow. In this regard, it is important that in Vas County fertilizers came into the picture as early as the 1880s.40 While before the 1920s the impact of fertilizers in Hungary was overall not comparable to what was seen, for instance, in the Alps, in this particular region, manuring coupled with fertilizers brought about significant changes.41

After World War I, western Hungary and Vas County within it remained an area with distinct characteristics in terms of its economy. Smuggling became one of the key activities at a time when food shortage was a major political factor. The geographical proximity of Vienna was yet again a decisive factor. Several recent studies have pointed to the importance of food in interwar international politics between Austria and Hungary as well as between Austria and the Western Powers.42 Having studied nearly a thousand cases of smuggling, Adrienn Nagy concluded that, in a few years, smuggling became a part of everyday livelihood locally and regionally. Moreover, these kinds of activities were not stigmatized by local communities and at times received forms of support from the authorities, including the police.43 Nagy did not mention dairy products among the prevalent items in terms of volume, but in times of shortages, even small amounts of butter were of high value.

To assess the position of Szombathely and its inhabitants within the context described above I relied on news reports in dailies. This type of source is biased in terms of the voice to which it gives space. It reflects the point of view of mainstream urban society and of the authorities. News reports dwelt on vendors in the market and milk producers, but they did not report the points of view of these actors in a direct form, if at all. Documents about actual cases of alleged infringements might counterbalance this bias, but I have not yet managed to locate the reports on infringements in any of the archives I have consulted.

As the fluctuations in the numbers of news reports published in any given year indicate, the social and political importance of milk was at its height during moments of shortage. In 1916, dailies operating in Szombathely published 19 news items related to milk, compared to 28 in 1917, 13 in 1918, 18 in 1921, 37 in 1922, and 31 in 1923. These figures then dropped drastically. Between 1916 and 1924, most of the news reports concerning milk focused on the question of dilution, processes used to monitor the quality of milk, the punishments meted out for infringements. They also touched on instabilities in the supply chain of milk and dairy products.

In Szombathely, milk shortages reached a critical level almost three years into the war, in April 1917. From that date, it was prohibited to serve milk in the restaurants and cafes that were still open. A few days before the ban, the deputy head of the county administration (alispán) made an exception for businesses serving coffee, which were able to offer 100 liters of milk for public consumption daily, but even these enterprises failed to manage to set aside this relatively meager quantity, and this clearly reflected the extent of the shortage. Rationing of milk at the municipal level only began in early 1918 and lasted until September 1919. By the spring of 1920, news reports concerning milk lamented the outflow of dairy products to Vienna and Budapest, where significantly higher prices were offered. It was at this time that the state secretary for public supply, Rezső József Temple, toured the region. The accompanying public events reflected the gravity of the situation. Temple announced a large-scale plan to resolve the milk question, but the situation became even worse in the winter. In January 1921, Vasvármegye (Vas County), the leading daily, published a lengthy report on how butter was allegedly being smuggled across the Austrian border, which according to the article was the main cause of milk shortage. The proposals that appeared in the news centered around regulating the price and establishing a well-controlled milk market hall under municipal supervision. Indeed, the idea of such a market hall was first raised in the summer of 1916, but in May 1920, it began to reappear more and more frequently in the news. Yet, in July 1922 it suddenly seemed as of the plan, which had almost been accomplished, was going to fall apart. The article published in Vasvármegye on July 13, 1922 offers insights into perceptions of the working of the economy:

The value of the korona [the legal currency in Hungary until 1926] is falling, and prices are rising. Let’s just take one item from the horrible complex: milk. It is the food of the sick and children. It is indispensable. Today, it costs twenty to twenty-two koronas per liter. Some months ago, when the price of milk was just half what it is today, we were shocked, and we hoped that eventually they would create the municipal milk market hall that has been on the table for so long… [but] given the current monetary situation, all hopes are in vain… It is so difficult to buy milk, we actually need to know someone who has some influence to get some… If authorities began controlling the market today, even the most reliable milk traders would leave Szombathely for good.

Contemporaries believed that, in addition to the depreciation of the korona, the cause of the milk shortage was that milk suppliers would not be willing to submit themselves to quality control. Let us look at the latter part of the equation and focus on the reasons for the behavior of suppliers and the processes used to try to control the market.

According to news published in the dailies, the main actors on the milk market in Vas County were the Milk Cooperative of Sopron (Soproni Tejszövetkezet) and the Milk Business Co. of Sopron County (Sopronmegyei Tejgazdasági Rt.). Since the demand for dairy products in Vienna was virtually unlimited given the production capacity of western Hungary, these entities were primarily interested in exporting dairy products to Austria. Thus, they offered a higher price to cattle owners in villages of Vas County than the price cap used on the markets in Hungary. In the spring of 1923, one of the actual responses of the farmers of Vas County was to form their own county-level cooperative business, and they allowed the cooperative in Sopron County to buy a large share. However, this did not alter the export-oriented strategy of the existing companies, and prices soon began to rise. Eventually, a solution was reached thanks to a merger of a milk processing firm with a large enough consumer base (that of the public servants) and another local milk processing business in Szombathely, so-called Dömötör’s. As a result, milk became accessible at four different market points of the city, and by 1924, the issue of milk shortages had disappeared from the news.

As Laura Umbrai has demonstrated in her discussion of the milk market in prewar Budapest, quality control and testing were essential and decisive preconditions for the creation of a viable milk market hall. Umbrai added, however, that testing mostly did not go beyond finding out how much water had been added to the milk.44 This was also true of wartime and interwar Szombathely. Despite the legal channels that the Law on Food Adulteration created in 1895 and concerns about communicable diseases that can spread via milk and the diversity of chemicals that milk suppliers sometimes added to dairy products to make them look fresh, the testing determined only whether milk had been diluted with water. This is clear from the reports that were published in dailies following so-called milk raids. Milk that was regarded as suspicious had to be transported to the testing station in Mosonmagyaróvár (more than 100 kilometers to the north), as Szombathely did not have its own laboratory until 1930. Testing itself was carried out by a chemist from the laboratory station in Mosonmagyaróvár, which had gradually reached independence from the prestigious Academy of Agriculture operating in the same town. Based on the reports published in the dailies, there were at least 14 such raids in Szombathely between early 1916 and the end of 1923. The raids did not take place at equal intervals. Seven were held in the first year, between January 1916 and March 1917, but we know of only one more that was definitely held before the end of the war. There were four testing operations between April 1921 and October 1922 and two more in 1923. Generally, the reports noted that some 4,000 to 5,000 liters of milk were tested, which must have meant hundreds of barrels. In comparison, very little milk was found to have been diluted: between three and 15 barrels. This is surprising in light of newspaper accounts, according to which virtually all the milk on the market contained added water, sometimes (allegedly) as much as 50 percent.45 The punishment for dilution was usually a fine, though it was legally possible to send perpetrators to prison for half a year. Thus, we can conclude that there was a large variation of milk quality on the market over time, and shortages were continuous for at least seven years. During this period, the business behavior of milk cooperatives remained in the spotlight.46

Milk-cooperatives between Autonomy and Centralization

Despite the fact that milk cooperatives had something of a dubious reputation in interwar Szombathely, around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, many economic thinkers believed that these cooperatives could serve as adequate vehicles for improving welfare in rural areas in Europe and, more narrowly, Hungary.47 Moreover, processes of testing, certification, and centralization of the milk economy brought distant rural localities into the national economy. In Hungary, yet another factor should be added: the expansion of the role of state in the supply chain of milk.

Vas County was one of the first centers of the milk cooperative movement in Hungary. Szombathely (as noted above, the seat of the county) was the site of the very first milk cooperative in 1881. Two decades later, the county bore witness to a second wave of establishing cooperatives. According to the registry of businesses in the county, there were at least 80 cooperatives registered that operated for various lengths of time.48 Reports in the local dailies also indicate that the number of cooperatives underwent a boom in the first years of the twentieth century, although the numbers reported differ from the registry.49 After World War I, the Kingdom of Hungary had to cede more than 70 percent of its prewar territory to the newly established or considerably enlarged neighboring countries, including ten of its biggest cities and millions of inhabitants, not to mention human and natural resources. Due to the accompanying economic crisis, many of the milk cooperatives ceased to operate. There was a new wave of establishing such entities in the early 1930s.

According to an economic historian, in Hungary, in 1935, there were 429 cooperatives operating as members of the aforementioned OMTK, which had been established in 1922. In addition to the cooperatives in the OMTK network, there were around 100 independent ones in Hungary.50 In the state-centered structure that emerged in the early 1930s, it seemed necessary to bring every local cooperative into a state-controlled network to ensure a well-functioning milk economy.51 The idea of cooperatives gained a new meaning and new prominence. 1934 was something of a turning point in the history of milk cooperatives. In that year, OMTK provided a template for the rules and procedures for cooperatives that were to become members of the network. Many cooperatives reestablished or refashioned themselves accordingly. In 1935, Miksa Düsing, the director of OMTK, boasted about the rate at which the network of cooperatives was growing.52 In 1934, the network produced and handled 82 million liters of milk, which constituted 20 percent of the national total. Moreover, by this time OMTK had become part of the administration of the milk market as one of the authorities responsible for issuing new licenses.53 In his talk, Düsing spoke of the need for a comprehensive law on cooperation and specific regulations for the relationship between the center and members of the network of milk cooperatives. Although such a law was not passed until the end of World War II, the ministerial decree 131.380/1937 FM. about regulating voting rights in OMTK cooperatives issued in December 1937 made it clear that the course of policy was centralization and expansion. According to standardized statutes, as of 1934, OMTK had the right to preview and modify the decisions proposed by the management of local cooperatives to the general assembly. The trajectories of the development of milk cooperatives converged towards a uniform structure between 1934 and 1947 and especially after 1942.

Due to the number of entities, Vas County offers a revealing case study on how milk cooperatives figured in the autonomous economic life of rural communities and how these cooperatives impacted the relationships between the state, society, and the economy in the interwar period. I will focus on the cooperative in Acsád because it formed comparatively early, was reestablished in the early 1930s, and has left enough traces in the archival documents to allow for calculations related to its business ventures. However, before turning to the specific cases, I must offer a few notes concerning the nature and content of the available sources.

Despite the comparatively large number of available sources concerning milk cooperatives in Vas County, it is not easy to interrogate these archival traces. Without analysis of intra- and extra community networks and the statuses of the founding members of cooperatives, there is little to say about the social capital behind them.54 The statutes that applied to the milk cooperatives simply stated that members came together to form a cooperative to collect and collectively sell milk produced in individual households. The most important condition was that a member could not sell milk to anyone privately, only to the cooperative. The doors for membership were open both to women and to men. The statutes required respectability and trustworthiness as conditions to join. A board was responsible for taking care of the capital of the cooperative and for negotiating contracts for the sale of milk at reasonable prices. The size of the board varied between three and six people. There were no specific laws regulating the business undertakings of the cooperatives, so the same economic regulations applied to them as to companies. Before standardized OMTK statutes became the order of the day in the 1930s, the scope of milk cooperatives varied significantly. Sometimes clauses about the cooperatives’ rights to regulate the composition of fodder or stable conditions appeared in the draft statutes but were removed from the final versions. Most cooperatives had their own hall where basic processing could take place. Milk cooperatives were to submit quarterly reports and lists of members to the court, and they were compelled to hold general meetings each year to authorize the accounts. The call for this meeting had to appear in a newspaper to assure the authorities that it was well-advertised.

The papers of the cooperatives do not allow too much insight into possible conflicts or negotiations within the cooperative. Regarding the political culture within the entities, it is important that through having to fulfil requirements that regulation demanded, and courts enforced, members of the board regularly encountered the rule of law. Office bearers also became acquainted with the link between financial accountability and the rule of law. This experience differed from seeing power and prestige ruling social life that were characteristic features during the interwar period in Hungary. Experiencing the power of abstract notions about rights and obligations carried a democratic potential.

We learn a bit more about the economic aspects of cooperative life even if we need to start with a caveat even in this sense: official documents that cooperatives produced do not tell where they sold milk. However, a questionnaire in the archives of the Ministry of Agriculture informs that in 1935 the authorities of the municipality of Szombathely believed that milk is brought to the city from a range of 25 kilometers. We may add to this figure that the availability of railway transport was an important factor in determining the range.

In fact, part of the reason why the milk cooperative in Acsád was one of the few that existed both in the early years of the twentieth century and during the Great Depression was that it had railway station and that the stop was close to two other neighboring villages. Acsád is a village of around 600 inhabitants 16 kilometers to the northeast from Szombathely. The milk cooperative began to operate in March 1905. Its statutes did specify that all milk produced shall be offered to the cooperative but did not set any criteria for the quantity. This suggests that the board of the cooperative could estimate the quantity of produce and that it did not expect changes in the varieties that villagers kept.

In the first year of its operation, the cooperative sold 140,000 liters of milk to an unspecified butter making factory, probably the one in Sárvár. They received 11,500 koronas in return, meaning a price of eight fillérs per litere (one korona was 100 fillérs). This price is nearly equivalent with the conditions in contemporary Budapest, where producers received 40 percent of the retail price, which was 21 fillérs shortly after the turn of the century.55 The members of the cooperative received slightly more than the price of the milk. This was possible because the cooperative also sold fodder on the market. In 1907, the price fell to 7.7 fillérs, but cooperative members continued to receive as much as they would have had the price remained at eight fillérs. In these two years, the butter factory paid an additional 589 and 629 koronas, respectively, for low-fat milk it sold consumers. Yearly profits were meager, and it clearly made sense to join the cooperative because it guaranteed a flow of income and not simply for the money received after shares at the end of the financial year. Regarding shares, we know that there were 166 shares for 79 members in 1906. In the first year, 104 members joined the cooperative and four left. In the second year, seven new members joined and five left. In the course of these changes of membership, every member had one or two shares. These figures also mean that one cow provided 860 liters of milk per year on average. If we take 270 as the figure for the number of days in a year when the cows were milked, this means hardly more than three liters per day per cow. Unfortunately, very few records were kept or have survived after these relatively detailed accounts.56

Although the cooperative in Acsád continued its activities for some time in the 1920s, it had to be reestablished in 1934. The total number of shareholders in the cooperative rose from 46 to 74 by the end of 1935. These members held 177 shares in total. The cooperative in Acsád was unusual because it had a respectable urban member who was also of Jewish origin. In 1934, the largest shareholder was Dr. Ernő Pető, a medical doctor known as the first director of the hospital in Szombathely and also for his experiments and efforts to rehabilitate disabled veterans of World War I.57 Dr. Pető registered as a member of the cooperative in Acsád because he married Georgina, the daughter of the aristocrat Count Szegedy family, which had their base in Acsád. Georgina had 10 shares in the cooperative,58 but a list prepared by the Cattle Breeders’ Association of Vas County shows that the Mrs. Ernő Pető’s herd was large: it was the eighth largest in the county, and she had 69 livestock in total.59 In 1936, the cooperative sold 182,240 liters of milk and produced only 48 pengős of profit. (On January 1, 1927, the pengő replaced the korona as the currency in Hungary. In 1936, 1 US dollar was worth 5.2 pengős. The korona was exchanged at a rate of 1 pengő for 12,500 korona.) Although there is not enough data to calculate milk prices for the latter period, the basic formula does not seem to have changed: a relatively continuous flow of income and cash were the main advantages of being a member of the Acsád milk cooperative.

Overall, taking the example of the Acsád milk cooperative, these types of entities do not look as frightening as the inhabitants of Szombathely probably imagined them to be. Although we do not have data for the immediate interwar years, neither in the years around 1905 nor in the 1930s does the cooperative seem to have been tremendously profitable. As an institution, the cooperative simply added a new way of ensuring milk-producing households with a relatively steady flow of cash as well as some experience with the rule of law, cooperation, decision making, and the nature of markets.


In this essay, I have examined the political role of the sciences, commodities, and the idea of cooperatives in the local forms of the modern food economy and its supply chain in the interwar period in Hungary. I highlighted the importance of dense networks of both local and central institutions and rules in the milk market. In Vas County, a combination of these networks and the pressures of a shortage economy changed the social and political meanings of milk and dairy products in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Milk became a necessity for those perceived as the most vulnerable groups within the local society, such as mothers and children, and it also became a sign of dysfunctional rural-urban relations, individual behaviors, markets, and administration.

The news reports related to milk that were published in dailies reflect the ways in which a local urban community perceived the shortages and entertained ideas concerning their root causes and possible remedies. The persistence of shortages shows the inability of the post-World War I Hungarian state to intervene effectively and the impact of the behavior of businesses operating in the region, as well as the relevance of popular expectations faced by the municipality to provide a solution locally. In this situation, concerns regarding the stability of the milk market in the interwar years exerted an influence on ideas related to the design of markets and the physical spaces in which milk was produced and sold and even on the international (transboundary) political situation. In these spaces, bottom-up responses proved more significant than the efforts of the state and municipal administrations in determining the local conditions surrounding the supply of milk.

While many news reports suggested that the aggressive business strategy of milk cooperatives were at the heart of milk shortages, in fact these cooperatives were rather humble entities with very limited scope for profit both before World War I and in the years when the state-owned cooperative network began its expansion at the cost of the autonomy of milk cooperatives. Nonetheless, milk cooperatives provided a way to engage rural communities in the emerging milk market, allowing them to experience aspects of modern production and democratic forms of decision making and collaboration.

By the time of the outbreak of World War I, laboratories were junctures which brought top-down and bottom-up notions of modern food production together. They contributed to the emergence of the national economy in the interwar period by bringing the idea of scientific measurement and quality testing to rural areas and by inducing firms to experiment with new tastes. The introduction of scientific knowledge and expertise had the potential to modify local hierarchies, such as the hierarchies in labor and gender relations. Moreover, quality testing was important in redrawing boundaries and channels between localities. However, as the sources concerning laboratory analyses revealed, despite decades of research and practice, there remained uncertainties concerning the quality of the testing processes used to prove dilution.

In terms of its contribution to the secondary literature, this paper offers a case study applying Peter Atkins’ notion of milk as material and Timothy Mitchell’s thesis concerning the relevance of hybridity. While milk defied engineering and scientific expertise, the attention given to the viruses that milk might carry dwindled, while sensitivity to the sale of diluted milk increased in the interwar period as a consequence of food shortages. Milk shortages were a cause and vehicle of public dissatisfaction. In line with Tiago Saraiva’s point, starting from the early 1930s, the expansion of state control over the food economy was intertwined with the expansion of the supply chain of milk.

Archival Sources

Állatorvostudományi Egyetem Hutyra Ferenc Könyvtár, Levéltár és Múzeum [University of Veterinary Medicine Ferenc Hutyra Library, Archives and Museum], HU-ÁOTKLM

III.075.a Élelmiszerhigiéniai Tanszék [Department of Food Hygiene]

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives] (MNL OL)

Archives of the Ministry of Agriculture (1885–1945)

K 184 Általános iratok [General holdings]

16. t Tejgazdasági ügyek [Issues related to the milk economy]

32. t. Élelmiszerek és mezőgazdasági termények vegyvizsgálata

[Chemical analysis of food items and agricultural products]

K 208 Tejpropaganda Bizottság iratai [Papers of the Milk Propaganda Committee]

K 551 Országos Tejgazdasági Bizottság (1932–1935) [National Council of Milk Economy]

Gazdasági Levéltár [Economic Archives]

Z 41-10730.t. Pesti Magyar Kereskedelmi Bank Rt. Okmánytár [Papers of the Hungarian Commerical Bank of Pest Co.] Országos Magyar Tejszövetkezeti Központ és Butyryl Magyar Tejtermékkiviteli Szövetkezet (1933–1938) [National Hungarian Center of Milk Cooperatives and Butyryl Cooperative for the Export of Milk Products]

Z 839 Országos Magyar Tejszövetkezeti Központ [National Hungarian Center of Milk Cooperatives]

Z 1307 Gróf Eszterházy Pál Bakonyi Tejgazdasága (1935–1939) [Papers of the estate of Count Pál Eszterházy]

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Vas Megyei Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives Vas County Archives] (MNL VaML)

VII/1/h Szombathelyi Törvényszék iratai, Cégbírósági iratok [Papers of the Court of Szombathely, papers of the Court of Businesses]


Primary sources

[S.n] A “Hangya” Termelő-, Értékesítő- és Fogyasztási Szövetkezet, a Magyar Gazdaszövetség Szövetkezeti Központja első 25 éve [The first 25 years of producing, marketing and consumer cooperative called “Ant” which is the cooperative center of the Hungarian Farmers’ League]. Budapest: Hangya, 1923.

[S.n.] Magyarországi rendeletek tára, 1935 [Registry of Decrees issued in Hungary in 1935]. Budapest: Magyar Királyi Belügyminisztérium, 1935.

Diczig, Alajos, ed. Debrecen címtára [The directory of the city of Debrecen]. Debrecen: Magyar Nemzeti Könyv- és Lapkiadó Vállalat, 1931.

Düsing, Miksa. A tejszövetkezetek jelentősége és jövője [The importance and future of milk cooperatives]. Budapest: Stádium Nyomda, 1935.

Egán, Ede. A tejgazdaság terén az 1886. évben tett intézkedésekről ... beterjesztett jelentése [Report about the activities in the field of the milk economy in 1886]. Budapest: Pesti Könyvnyomda, 1887.

Egán, Ede. A tej a fővárosban [Milk in the capital]. Az Orvosi Hetilap különlenyomata. Budapest: [S.n], 1890.

Fettick, Ottó. A III. Nemzetközi Tejgazdasági Kongresszus. Hága – Scheveningen, 1907. szeptember 16–20 [3rd International Congress of the Milk Economy]. Budapest: Pátria, 1908.

Fettick, Ottó. A fertőző tőgygyulladások, különösképpen a streptococcusmastitis jelentősége a hygienés tejtermelés nézőpontjából [The importance of infectious inflammation of the udder, particularly streptococcus from the point of view of hygienic milk production]. Budapest: Pátria, 1929.

Fettick, Ottó. A tejgazdaságok vizének ellenőrzése és vizsgálata [Control and analysis of the water in milk producing estates]. Budapest: Hauptmann, 1931.

Fettick, Ottó, and Lajos Szélyes. Tejgazdaságokban észlelt lépfenejárványok jelentősége a tejhygiene nézőpontjábólgálata [Anthrax epidemics in milk producing farms from the point of view of milk hygenie]. Budapest: Pátria, 1931.

Mócsy, László. A jó tehén: Ambrus gazda meg János gazda beszélgetése a tejelő marha vételéről [The good cow: Conversation of Farmer Ambrus and Farmer János about purchasing a cow that gives much milk]. Budapest: Szent-István Társulat, 1904.

Salgó, F. László. Egy fogyasztási szövetkezet története [The history of a consumer cooperative]. Budapest: Sachs, 1902.

Székely, Salamon. A gyermektej: előadatott a K. M. Természettudományi Társulat Élettani Szakosztályában 1902. február 4-dikén, továbbá a német természettudósok és orvosok karlsbadi congressusán 1902. szeptember 23-dikán [Child’s Milk. Paper presented at the Section of Life Sciences of the Society of Natural History on February 4, 1902 and at the Congress of the German Natural Scientists and Medical Doctors on September 23, 1902]. Budapest: Pesti Lloyd, 1903.

Szepesházi, Róbert, ed. Szombathely története, leírása, statisztikája, cím- és névtára [History, description, statistics, and registry of Szombathely]. Szombathely: Állástalan Ifjak Munkaközössége, 1937.




Szombathelyi Ujság




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Balatoni, Mihály, and Sándor Szakály. “Tejipar” [Milk industry]. In Jenő Sík, and István Tóth-Zsigó, A magyar élelemiszeripar története [History of the Hungarian food industry], 297–322. Budapest: Mezőgazda Kiadó, 1997.

Bednárik, János. “A budakeszi milimárik” [The milimári of Budakeszi]. In Jászberényi huszár: Hallgatói tanulmányok Kocsis Gyula 60. születésnapjára, edited by Gabriella Hubai, 131–50. Budapest: ELTE BTK Néprajzi Intézet, 2009.

Beltran-Tapia, Francisco. “Commons, Social Capital and the Emergence of Agricultural Cooperatives in Early Twentieth Century Spain.” European Review of Economic History 16, no. 4 (2012): 511–28. doi: 10.2307/41708743

Bender, Daniel. American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Bódy, Zsombor. “A World Lifted off Its Hinges: The Social Impact of World War I on Hungary.” Hungarian Historical Review 11, no. 4 (2022): 702–32. doi: 10.38145/2022.4.702

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Csekő, Ernő. “A tejszövetkezetek kedvezőtlen hatása a parasztgyermekek tejfogyasztásának alakulására. (Egy múlt század eleji szociológiai felmérés tanulságai)” [Unfavourable impact of milk cooperatives on milk intake of rural children]. In A fogyasztás társadalomtörténete [The social history of consumption], edited by József Hudi, 139–58. A rendi társadalom – polgári társadalom 18. Budapest: Hajnal István Kör Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület; Pápa: Pápai Református Gyűjtemények, 2007.

Curry, Helen Anne. Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Eellend, Johan. “Community Resting on Butter: Agricultural Cooperatives in Estonia in the Beginning of the Twentieth Century.” In From local champions to global players: Essays on the history of the dairy sector, edited by Paulina Rytkönen, Luis Arturo Garcia Hernandez, and Ulf Jonsson, 73–94. Stockholm Studies in Economic History. Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2013.

Fehér, György. A mezőgazdasági kísérletügyi állomások szerepe a dualizmuskori agrárfejlődésben [The role of agricultural research stations in agrarian development of Hungary within Austria–Hungary]. Budapest: Mezőgazdasági Múzeum, 1994.

Garrido, Samuel. “Plenty of trust, not much cooperation: social capital and collective action in early twentieth century eastern Spain.” European Review of Economic History 18, no. 4 (2014): 413–32. doi: 10.1093/ereh/heu013

Gingrich, Simone, Christian Lauk, Fridolin Krausmann, Karl-Heinz Erb, Julia Le Noe. “Changes in energy and livestock systems largely explain the forest transition in Austria (1830–1910).” Land Use Policy 109 (2021). doi: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2021.105624

Hunyadi, Attila Gábor. “Az agrártermelés értékesítési láncai Magyarországon és Erdélyben 1945 előtt” [Value chains of agrarian production in Hungary and Transylvania before 1945]. Gazdálkodás 57, no. 3 (2013): 22438.

Kaposi, Zoltán. “A nagybirtok és az agrárszegénység kapcsolata Magyarországon” [The relationship between poverty in agriculture and large estates]. In Bűnbak minden időben: Bűnbakok a magyar és az egyetemes történelemben [Scapegoats at all times: Scapegoats in Hungarian and global history], edited by György Gyarmati György, István Lengvári, Attila Pók, József Vonyó, 264–84. Pécs–Budapest: PTE–BTK TTI, 2013.

Kelbert, Krisztina. Dr. Pető Ernőné Szegedi Georgina [Mrs. Ernő Pető, née Gerogina Szegedi]. Szombathely: Szülőföld, 2014.

Kelbert Krisztina. “‘Társadalmi anyaság’ és a Magyar Asszonyok Nemzeti Szövetsége karitatív-szociális tevékenysége a két világháború közötti Szombathelyen” [“Social Motherhood” and the care giving activities of the Szombathely chapter of the National League of Hungarian Women]. Savaria 35 (2012) 347–69.

Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Mitchell, Timothy. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Murber, Ibolya. “Az osztrák–magyar határvita gazdasági aspektusai az első világháború után” [Economic dimensions of the border dispute between Austria and Hungary in the post-World War period]. Világtörténet (2022): 207–24.

Nagy Adrienn. “A feketézés évtizede (1916–1926): Csempészek és fináncok harca az osztrák-magyar határ mentén” [The decade of smuggling (1916–1926): The struggle between smugglers and excisemen]. In Határ, határhelyzet, határátlépés [Border, frontier, and border-crossing], edited by Zsuzsanna Kiss, and Zsolt Szilágyi, 365–80. Szeged–Eger: Hajnal István Kör, 2022.

Orland, Barbara. “Producing a Competitive Animal in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century.” In Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History, edited by Susan R. Schrepfer, and Philip Scranton, 167–89. New York–London: Routledge 2003.

Richardson, Matthew. The Hunger War: Food, Rations and Rationing, 1914–1918. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2015.

Saraiva, Tiago. Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.

Smith-Howard, Kendra. Pure and modern milk: an environmental history since 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Surányi, Béla. “A hazai korszerű tejgazdaság kialakulása (1867–1945)” [The emergence of modern milk economy in Hungary]. Agrártörténeti Szemle 57, no. 1–4 (2016): 25–47.

Szuhay, Miklós. Az állami beavatkozás és a magyar mezőgazdaság az 1930-as években [State intervention into Hungarian agriculture in the 1930s]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1962.

Tarnai, Eszter. “‘Lesz mivel berántani a levest, egy kis tésztát is ehetnek már’ – Budapest élelmezési helyzete az 1945. január–február hónapokban egy fővárosi hivatalnok visszaemlékezésében” [“There will be substance to make the soup thicker and they can also eat some dough” – Food supply in Budapest in January, February 1945 in the memoirs of a bureaucrat]. Archivnet 21, no. 2 (2021): 1–14.

Tomka, Béla. “A Horthy-korszak társadalom- és gazdaságtörténetének kutatása: újabb eredmények és viták” [Research on the social and economic history of the Horthy Era: new results and debates]. In A Horthy-korszak vitatott kérdései [Debates about the Horthy Era], edited by Béla Tomka, 17–32. Budapest, Kossuth Kiadó, 2020.

Ungváry, Krisztián. A Horthy-rendszer és antiszemitizmusának mérlege: diszkrimináció és társadalompolitika Magyarországon, 1919–1944 [Reappraising the antisemitism of the Horthy Era: discrimination and social policy in Hungary, 1919–1944]. Budapest: Jelenkor, 2016.

Umbrai, Laura. “A fővárosi tejmizéria: Budapest tejellátása az első világháborúig” [The milk issue in the capital: Milk supply in Budapest until World War I]. Agrártörténeti Szemle 62, no. 1–4 (2021): 195–214.

Valenze Deborah. Milk: a local and global history. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Vörös, Antal. “A tejgazdaságok kialakulása a Dunántúlon 18801895” [The emergence of milk producing estates in Transdanubia]. Agrártörténeti Szemle 7, no. 4 (1965): 471–95.

1 See Kaposi, “Nagybirtok és agrárszegénység”; Orland, “Turbo-Cows.”

2 Mócsy, A jó tehén.

3 Orland, “Turbo-Cows.”

4 Curry, Evolution Made to Order, 6.

5 Mitchell, Rule of Experts, 53.

6 Latour, The Pasteurization of France, 140–45.

7 Atkins, Liquid Materialities; Valenze, Milk.

8 Atkins, Liquid Materialities, XIX and XX.

9 Richardson, The Hunger War; Bódy, “A World Lifted off Its Hinges.”

10 Saraiva, Fascist Pigs.

11 Csekő, “A tejszövetkezetek kedvezőtlen hatása.”

12 Eellend, “Community Resting on Butter,” 85.

13 Salgó, Egy fogyasztási szövetkezet története. Interestingly, statistics published about the social composition of officials in Hangya consumer cooperatives in 1920 and 1921 confirm that Church representatives played a key role. See A “Hangya” Termelő-, Értékesítő- és Fogyasztási Szövetkezet.

14 See Diczig, Debrecen címtára, 289 and 441.

15 Ungváry, A Horthy-rendszer mérlege. See different views emphasizing aspects of modernization in Zsombor Bódy, “Társadalomtörténeti észrevételek” and Béla Tomka, “A Horthy-korszak társadalom- és gazdaságtörténetének kutatása.” See also Szuhay, Az állami beavatkozás és a magyar mezőgazdaság az 1930-as években, 262–65.

16 Umbrai,” A fővárosi tejmizéria.”

17 Szuhay, Az állami beavatkozás és a magyar mezőgazdaság az 1930-as években, 129–36. For the political importance of municipal food policy, see also Tarnai, “‘Lesz mivel berántani a levest, egy kis tésztát is ehetnek már.’”

18 Fehér, A mezőgazdasági kísérletügyi állomások, 28-40, and 90–95.

19 On moral panic over urban conditions, see Bender, American Abyss. On the issue of breastfeeding around the turn of the century, see Smith-Howard, Pure and modern milk, 12–35.

20 Egán, A tej a fővárosban. For Ede Egán’s views, see also, Vörös, “A tejgazdaságok kialakulása a Dunántúlon 1880–1895.”

21 Egán, A tejgazdaság terén, 1887.

22 Székely, A gyermektej, 1903.

23 Kelbert, “Társadalmi anyaság.”

24 Fettick and Szélyes, “Tejgazdaságokban észlelt lépfenejárványok.”

25 Valenze, Milk, 235–50.

26 See the poster “Élet, erő, egészség,” National Széchényi Library: PKG.1927/123.

27 Papers of the Milk Propaganda Committee (Tejpropaganda Bizottság), MNL OL K 208.

28 Fettick, “A III. Nemzetközi Tejgazdasági Kongresszus.”

29 MNL OL Z 41.10730

30 HU-ÁOTKLM III.075.a box no. 2.

31 Bednárik, “A budakeszi milimárik.”

32 HU HU-ÁOTKLM III.075a. vol. no.1.

33 See Balatoni, A magyar élelemiszeripar története.

34 See Löcherer, “A tejtermékek m. kir Ellenőrző Állomása létesítése és működési jelentése 1929–1930,” and Géza Pazár’s summary of the International Milk Congress in Rome, Italy, 1934. MNL OL K 184-16-15050.

35 HU-ÁOTKLM III.075a box 1, 1929.

36 MNL OL Z 1307. item no. 6. vol. no. 2.

37 MNL OL K 551 vol. 2. 30 May 1930.

38 HU-ÁOTKLM III.075a box 1, 1929.

39 HU-ÁOTKLM III.075a box 1, 1934.

40 Vörös, “A tejgazdaságok kialakulása.”

41 See Gingrich, S. et al, “Changes in Energy and Livestock Systems Largely Explain the Forest Transition in Austria (1830–1910).”

42 Murber, “Az osztrák–magyar határvita gazdasági aspektusai az első világháború után.”

43 Nagy, “A feketézés évtizede (1916–1926).”

44 Umbrai, “A fővárosi tejmizéria.”

45 Vasvármegye, April 28, 1923.

46 In terms of supply, there were relatively few independent retailers involved in the milk economy in the 1930s. Szombathely’s directory published in 1937 lists nine of them, although the questionnaire mentioned above noted 16 license holders. Apart from retailers, István Csere had a small milk processing factory handling 200 liters per day, and OMTK had a major firm in Szombathely which processed about 14,000 liters of milk, most of it in the form of cream, daily. The report listed the estates that sent milk to Szombathely but did not list the cooperatives that supplied the city with milk.

47 See for example “A tejszövetkezetek 1900-ban,” Köztelek, March 9, 1901.

48 MNL VaML VII-1/h.

49 See related articles in the dailies: Vasvármegye, June 21, 1900; Vasvármegye, July 5, 1900; Vas, April 7, 1901; Szombathelyi Ujság, February 9, 1902.

50 Hunyadi, “Az agrártermelés értékesítési láncai Magyarországon és Erdélyben 1945 előtt.”

51 Balatoni and Szakály, “Tejipar,” 304–5; Surányi, “A hazai korszerű tejgazdaság kialakulása,” 36.

52 Düsing, A tejszövetkezetek jelentősége és jövője.

53 See Decrees no. 6860/1935 M.E and no. 8200/1935 F.M.

54 Garrido, “Plenty of trust, not much cooperation”; Beltran-Tapia, “Commons, Social Capital and the Emergence of Agricultural Cooperatives in Early Twentieth Century Spain.”

55 Umbrai, “A fővárosi tejmizéria.”

56 MNL VaML VII/1/h T-1037 Papers of the Milk Cooperative in Acsád.

57 Kelbert, Dr. Pető Ernőné Szegedi Georgina.

58 MNL VaML VII/1/h T-1037.

59 Kelbert, Dr. Pető Ernőné Szegedi Georgina. See also MNL OL K 184 issue no. 16, bundle no. 4762, year 1937. Államsegély a szarvasmarhatartó egyesületek részére a törzskönyvezett állomány után.

* I am grateful to Krisztina Kelbert and Ferenc Pál for their help in locating sources about Szombathely and Vas County.


Stjepan Radić and Nikola Pašić as Heralds of Liberal Democracy in Croatia and Serbia: Historiographical Myths and Reality

Alexander Silkin
Russian Academy of Sciences
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 12 Issue 1  (2023):87–117 DOI 10.38145/2023.1.87

Historians from the former Yugoslav republics traditionally participate in ongoing political discussions about the ways in which their homelands should progress. Referring to their knowledge of the past, scholars indicate certain historic phenomena and time periods that should serve as ideal models that should be “reproduced” by modern societies in the near future. With regard to the Serbian historiography, the late Belgrade professor Miroslav Jovanović detected several “restoration ideas,” the implementation of which, according to their adherents, would allow modern society to “revise the mistakes of history.” In today’s Serbia and Croatia, certain historical figures, with real and imaginary virtues, are presented as role models and heralds of everything progressive in the field of politics and state building. In particular, in the works of many authors, Nikola Pašić, the head of the Serbian People’s Radical Party (PRP), and Stjepan Radić, the chairman of the Croatian (Republican) Peasant Party (C(R)PP), appear as the “founding fathers” of liberal democratic traditions in the late nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth. The “golden era of Serbian parliamentarism” (1903–1914), which was characterized by the dominance of the PRP and the virtual “Croatian Neutral Peasant Republic,” a program that allowed the C(R)PP to consolidate the Croatian people in the 1920s, are worthy candidates of “restoration.” In this article, I consider whether there is any substantial historical truth to these images. I conclude that neither the PRP nor the C(R)PP (and neither Pašić nor Radić) espoused liberalist tendencies, which would have favored individualist ethics and respect for the rights of minorities. Both leaders and their parties adhered to the principle of majority dominance and were intolerant of anyone who did not belong to this majority, whether for ethnic, social, or other reasons. The PRP and C(R)PP could be described as the patterns of the same socio-political phenomenon, separated by several decades. They shared and made use of common ideological roots, social bases, organizational structures, self-perceptions among the leadership, slogans, and other strategies and tools of mass manipulation. These factors and also the influence of the nineteenth-century Russian narodnik movement on both parties during their formative periods make them typologically more related to the Russian Bolsheviks than they ever were to Western liberal trends.

Keywords: Serbia, Croatia, Yugoslavia, republic, parliamentarism, liberal democracy, Nikola Pašić, Stjepan Radić, politics of memory, historical myths

“Restoration Ideas”: Present-day Serbian/Croatian Historiography and Myth-construction

Twelve years ago, Miroslav Jovanović, a university professor in Belgrade, wrote in his book Kriza istorije (Crisis of History) about the “transformation of the historical consciousness”1 of the Serbs resulting from the upheavals of the 1990s and the early 2000s. What happened at the time prompted historians to think about the changes in the social roles they had to play in the countries that emerged from the ruins of Yugoslavia. Both the book cited above and the works by Dubravka Stojanović published at about the same time can be considered attempts at such rethinking. In their reasoning, both researchers relied on the postulate of Lucien Febvre, who insisted that the sciences are not created in ivory towers. Therefore, the task of overcoming “the gap between science and society that feels the need both for history and for understanding historical subjects”2 was considered relevant by Jovanović. Agreeing with Jovanović, Stojanović argued that the mission of a scholar was “to look in the past for answers to the questions asked by the present, help society arrive at rational interpretations of contemporary events, and provide knowledge about the causes of phenomena and their origins.”3

However, involvement in the vicissitudes of public life inevitably brings Clio’s servants into collision with “epic and mythological as well as ideological abuse of history, which, as a rule, is carried out in order to legitimize some political idea.”4 This compels the historian to confront the following dilemma: should she “agree with the actualization of the past events that are imposed by non-scientific centers of power or fight for the emancipation of knowledge, rational understanding, and interpretation of this past.” What choice did Serbian historiography tend to make in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century? Not the one that Jovanović considered right, judging by the title of his book, which offers several examples of how, “instead of performing its main function—the formation of rational historical consciousness—historical science spoon-feeds public memory, which is already traumatized and drugged by myths, with mythological constructions.”

The search for conditionally positive episodes of history that could serve as “support” for the Serbian people who had gone astray was one of the trends of such retrospective “constructing.” It was supposed to “draw readymade solutions from the ‘past,’ to find in it preferred models of social behavior and value systems that would make it possible to lay the foundations for the present-day collective self-identification of the Serbs.”5 In other words, looking back, it was necessary to determine “the point to which the modern Serbian society could ‘return’ in order to ‘correct the mistakes’ of history.” Jovanović points out several “restoration ideas” of this kind, from “Saint Sava” (svetosavska), which suggests “a direct connection to and continuity with ‘glorious’ medieval Serbian history and the self-perception of modern Serbs,” to “četnik,” “Ravna Gora” (ravnagorska), which implies breaking with the socialist past and returning to bourgeois monarchist values.

Those who are convinced that Serbia’s belonging to the European political and cultural tradition needs “historical” confirmation profess the “Pašić–Karadjordjević” restoration. It is based on the myth of the “golden era of Serbian democracy (1903–1914),” according to which “from the moment of its inception, the Serbian state was open to Western concepts of liberalism, parliamentarism, and democracy, and the political elite, educated at western universities, fully accepted the Western model of development and modernization.”6 According to this interpretation, after gaining independence in 1878, the Principality of Serbia was transformed into a “modern European state” in two decades despite the absence of the social prerequisites for such a transformation. In a few years, the environment in the country became favorable to the formation of political parties and the introduction of parliamentarism, and by the beginning of the century “the British two-party model of democracy had almost been put into place.”7 The process of Europeanization allegedly reached its climax during the reign of King Petar Karadjordjević (1903–1914), when Serbia could be considered “an advanced democracy, one of the most developed in Europe.”

Stojanović, Andrei Shemjakin, and Olga Popović-Obradović8 devoted several works to a demonstration of the inconsistency between this speculative representation and the real state of affairs in Serbia in 1878–1914. However, the complimentary view of the political development of Serbia is not limited to the specified chronological framework. When it comes to the interwar period (1918–1941), some historians tend to interpret the aggravation of interethnic relations in the Kingdom of SCS / Yugoslavia as a consequence of the confrontation between the advanced Serbian intellectual/political elite and the inert and retrograde representatives of the Yugoslavs from the former Austria–Hungary. According to Ljubodrag Dimić, “the Serbian dynasty of Karadjordjević adopted Western European liberal civil ideology,” and “the political forces of the former Kingdom of Serbia advocated liberal civil solutions in the new state.”9 It was seen as a “parliamentary democracy based on European standards and Serbian experience.”10 His colleague Djordje Stanković was of the same opinion. Stanković attributed such a “vision” to Nikola Pašić, head of the PRP, who allegedly “envisaged the Yugoslav state as built on the liberal principles of the civil state.”11

The espousal by the majority of Serbian politicians to their “modern political integrating Yugoslav idea” was a manifestation of their progressive views. As Dimić continues, “cherishing the Yugoslavs’ awareness of ethnic proximity, common language and territory of residence, its followers sought to overcome the fragmentation and barriers that had been left behind by the previous centuries.”12

The failure of the implementation of the “modern idea” is explained by the fact that it “was counteracted by the particularistic consciousness of agrarian society, which had deep-rooted national ideologies that were clerical, conservative, and authoritarian by nature.”13 Catholic Yugoslavs, whose centrifugal aspirations became the main cause of the crisis of the first Yugoslavia, are proclaimed the bearers of those ideologies. As Stanković wrote, “The energy directed at the ‘political exhaustion of the opponent’ led to a waste of the time and creativity that were necessary for the modernization of society. Even more regrettable is the fact that it was organized according to modern European liberal principles.”14

How does contemporary Croatian historiography assess the 1920s? There is a dominant view which is the opposite of the one cited above but is no less “convincing.” In particular, it was expressed in the edited volume Hrvatska politika u XX stoljeću (Croatian Politics in the Twentieth Century, Zagreb: Matica hrvatska, 2006), which crowned the project “Twentieth Century” of Matica Hrvatska. Ljubomir Antić, the editor of the publication, also interprets the events that happened in the first Yugoslavia as a confrontation between backwardness and progress. He explains the defeat of the latter by the fact that “the hopes of the Croatian and Slovenian ‘Yugoslavs’ that Croatia and Slovenia, with their developed societies, economies, and cultures, would Europeanize the remaining part of the new state did not come true. On the contrary, [the remaining] part Balkanized them.”15

The assertion of forced “Balkanization” is one of the elements of the “mythological construction” that has been present in socio-political discourse for more than a century. According to this notion, Croatia was originally destined for the role of “the last detachment of the European front against the Balkans.” In 1918, the “front” was forced to retreat, and “the vanguard” became “the rearguard”:

For Croatia, the interwar time passed under the sign of breaking the age-old alliance with Austria and Hungary and the subsequent entry into the first Yugoslav state. Although geographically Croatia remained in the same place, it turned from a Central European outpost in relation to the Balkans into the last frontier separating the Balkans from Central Europe. The consequences of this change were fatal.16

Nikša Stančić agrees with this assessment. However, he does not write about the “Balkanization” of Croatia. He contends, rather, that as a result of the dissolution of Austria–Hungary, Croatia had to vegetate on the “periphery of European modernization.” To denote the inappropriate geographic object within which Croatia ended up, the euphemism “Yugoslav state with its center in Southeastern Europe” is used instead of the term “Balkans,” which has so many negative connotations.17 To show the extent to which being part of this Yugoslav state was “fatal,” Stančić mentions that Croatia joined “Southeastern Europe” for the first time in the sixteenth century as a result of the Ottoman conquest.

Only “five centuries later, Croatia again joined the development of the part of Europe that we refer to as the European West, of which it was left out in the modern era.”18 Namely, it joined the European Union in 2013, having preliminarily carried out “advanced democratization” in order to become “acceptable” to the European Union. Naturally, democratism in Croatia today did not appear out of nowhere. Its roots go back to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which, according to Stančić, were marked by “the formation of Croatian civil society and national integration.”

Stjepan Radić as the Founder of Today’s Liberalism in Croatia: Between Myth and Historical Accuracy

To whom does Croatia owe these achievements? Many historians and publicists credit Radić first and foremost. The prevailing attitude towards Radić fully fits Jovanović’s formula of “restoration ideas.” In the modern socio-political arena, Radić’s apologists occupy a place between two extreme camps: nostalgia for the communist Yugoslav past on the one hand and the legacy of the Nazi-like Ustaša on the other. An article by journalist Zvonimir Despot (whose name bears an unfortunate but purely coincidental resemblance to the English word “despot”) offers an example of the conventional democratic “restoration” of Radić’s type:

Today, Radić should have been one of the main role models in the process of building a democratic society. Instead, being divided into those who are for Tito and those who are for Pavelić, the Croats have been engaged in daily internecine slaughter for many years. Radić’s legacy is above routine politics and any political orientation. What he said a century ago matters to this day.19

Hrvoje Petrić is in full agreement with Despot: “Stjepan Radić and his brother Antun outlined what Croatia should be like and the values on which it should be based.”20 Branka Boban sums up her text in Antić’s aforementioned collection in the following words: “He made a substantial contribution to the development of modern Croatian national consciousness, which is inextricably linked with democratic principles.”21

In order to fill in the gaps in the political education of his compatriots, Marijan Lipovac started a page on Facebook under the title “Daily Dose of Stjepan Radić.”22 Lipovac gives the leader of the Croatian People’s Peasant Party (C(R)PP) the flattering title of “the greatest Croatian politician and educator of the first half of the twentieth century,” as he was “the first to raise the topic of human rights, the first to talk about women’s rights… the first among Croatian politicians to advocate European integration, the first to touch on environmental issues.”23

According to Despot, today, the main obstacle to the realization of the “ideals” is the adherence of many Croats to far-left and far-right views. Explaining what counted as such in the 1920s, the authors bring us back to the myth of “Balkanism” that Radić faced in Serbian politicians: “intoxicated with victory in the war, they [the Serbian politicians] were not even ready to talk about his demands.” Boban laments that, as leader of the C(R)PP, Radić “had to defend his democratic and liberal principles in a state that had nothing in common with either a rule-of-law state or a democratic state.”24 Antić, coauthor of the collection, echoes these views. According to Antić, the atmosphere in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes “was poisoned by political primitivism, alien to the part of the state that was located in Austria–Hungary. We are talking about violence, vulgarity, manipulations during elections, nepotism, corruption.”25 As an expert on the nineteenth century, Stančić does not go into such gloomy details and simply states that the Serbian political elite “lacked established democratic traditions.”26

Since “democratism” is presented as the main attribute of Radić’s theory and practice, it is reasonable to ask what kind of “democracy” is meant. I repeat the question posed by Stojanović with respect to the so-called “golden era of Serbian democracy”: “What exactly is the meaning of this concept, which is accepted all over the world, to which everyone swears allegiance, and which, after everything that happened in the twentieth century, has so many mutually contradictory meanings that one can speak of the victory of the word over its meaning?”27 However, before trying to arrive at an answer to this question, let us evaluate the reliability of some of the assessments quoted above of the context in which the C(R)PP had to operate.

As for the lack of democratic traditions among the Serbs, it is possible to talk about this alleged lack only if we are guided by the Western European standard. By Balkan standards and in comparison with what the Yugoslav subjects of the Habsburgs had been able to venture, pre-war Serbia experienced a triumph of democracy in 1903–1914. The country had a constitution, the parliament, upon which the throne could not impose its will, was formed on the basis of universal suffrage (for men), and rival parties succeeded each other at the head of the government.

One can hardly object to Antić’s enumeration of the unattractive aspects of Serbian “Balkanism.” But was Croatia itself free of nepotism and corruption, vulgarity and “primitivism”? Not quite, as follows from the pre-war texts written by Radić himself. Addressing the Sabor in May 1910, he names social ailments which his party promised to address with its “peasant policy”: “We want to free our people from the horror of the bureaucrats, the horror of the priests, and the horror of the Jews.28 We resolutely oppose bureaucratic arbitrariness, priestly brainwashing, and Jewish exploitation.”29 The atmosphere was even more poisoned by the fact that the Jews allegedly did not limit themselves to economic exploitation only. “Their slyness merged with boldness and meanness into a single property of their soul,”30 which enabled the “foreigners” to bend ministers of the Church and some local politicians to their will, in particular Ante Starčević, the founder of Croatian nationalism, who purportedly “obeyed a Jew,” 31 namely, Josip Frank. As far as the clergy was concerned, “it has succumbed to the Jews today, and together they go to dinner with those in power in order to get themselves red cardinal belts.”32

Obviously, Radić’s anti-Semitism is not something his panegyrists would like to bring to light. For example, Lipovac and Petrić, in order to confirm that, for Radić, democratism was above nationalism, cite the following phrase: “If the peasant continues to be beaten in free Croatia […] this is not the Croatia we want.”33 In the article by Boban, we find what the authors hid behind the ellipsis: “If the peasant continues to be beaten up in free Croatia, if counts and priests with Jews continue to play the master [italics added, A.S.], this is not the Croatia we want.”34 While acknowledging that Radić hated Jews, Boban nevertheless insists that he was “an outspoken supporter of a tolerant attitude towards other nations.” She does not explain how the one could be combined with the other, but we should read the following between the lines: even the sun has the occasional dark spot, and the peasant tribune always denounced the aristocracy and the clergy together with the “Jews,” which allegedly indicates Radić’s commitment to social equality and democracy.

Returning to the question of the nature of the latter, national tolerance is not the only virtue that can be found under the guise of xenophobia if desired. Radić is described as a politician with a “European outlook,”35 a man “of European format, our first educated modern political scientist.”36 As a graduate of the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris, he was “especially inspired by democracy in Britain.”37 “Having organized a modern political party” (with a program that was “modern in every respect”),38 according to Boban, Radić “believed that all goals should be fought for by democratic means within the framework of the system of parliamentarism.”39

According to Boban, the “cornerstone liberal democratic principles” were embodied in the Constitution of the Neutral Peasant Republic of Croatia (1921), which provided for “the highest (even for today) standards for the observance of rights and freedoms.”40 Hodimir Sirotković concurs. According to Sirotković, the constitution contained “solely liberal positions.” Ivo Goldstein writes about the “liberal-democratic positions” of the C(R)PP’s program documents and cites “social justice, broad public education, the rule of law, and control of the executive and legislative power through referenda” as examples of these alleged positions.41

Is the above interpretation of the constitution credible, and did Radić really take a stance resembling the intransigence and commitment of Martin Luther when he purportedly said, “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”? It is possible to answer in the affirmative only if we ignore the general context of the activities and propaganda of the C(R)PP before and after the adoption of the document. However, before considering the image of the state and power that emerged from Radić’s speeches and texts from various years, let us pay attention to a circumstance that in itself demonstrates the implausibility of the position cited above. In the 1920s and 1930s, the “heyday of peasant policy,” the C(R)PP did not display interest in the work of the parliament, nor did it seek to exert much influence on its decisions, as one would have expected from a “modern party” with a “modern” program.

Members of Radić’s party appeared in the Belgrade Skupština only in the spring of 1924, i.e. five years after the foundation of the state and a year before they recognized the monarchy and abandoned republicanism. The party returned to the policy of boycotting the parliament after the assassination attempt on Radić, which took place in the parliament on June 20, 1928. As a result of the establishment of the regime of King Alexander Karadjordjević on January 6, 1929, the C(R)PP was banned, like all other “tribal” Yugoslav parties. After the death of Karadjordjević in 1934, the party took part in the elections twice (in 1935 and 1938) but abstained from going to Belgrade. Following the signing of the Cvetković–Maček Agreement in August 1939 and the formation of Banovina Hrvatska, the new government, with the participation of the C(R)PP, dissolved the parliament without calling new elections. The Croatian Sabor was not convened either, although the agreement specifically provided for this.42

Radić’s party ignored the Skupština for years while still participating in six elections (in 1920, 1923, 1925, 1927, 1935, and 1938). This can hardly be interpreted as convincing evidence of a commitment to liberal democracy, a fact which prompts some of his apologists to resort to sophistical argumentation. For example, S. Leček justifies the tactics of the C(R)PP by the fact that the Yugoslav parliamentarism of the 1920s (“imaginary” or “pseudo-parliamentarism”) and of the second half of the 1930s (“tolerated parliamentarism”) was far from the original Western model. Therefore, Radić’s choice in favor of “extra-institutional ways” and “alternative methods” is presented as justified.43 At the same time, the fact that these “ways” and “methods” largely determined both the shape of the representative bodies and the state structure of the Kingdom of SCS / Yugoslavia as a whole goes unmentioned. In particular, Radić’s party’s failure to participate in the work of the Constituent Assembly in 1921 facilitated the adoption of the Vidovdan Constitution, which infringed upon the interests of the Yugoslavs of the former Austria–Hungary.44

In 1923, the C(R)PP made a secret deal with the Serbian Radical Party (the so-called Markov Protocol), according to which Radić’s followers promised to continue the boycott of the parliament so as not to prevent the radicals from forming the government majority. In return, the radicals promised to suspend administrative centralization in Croatia. In 1928, a year before the establishment of the dictatorship, Radić was the first Yugoslav politician to propose that the king appoints an “extra-parliamentary person” at the head of the government, namely, a general who would be “against large Serbian parties that had placed themselves outside the parliament, the state, and the will of the people.”45 Finally, in 1939, Radić’s successors neglected their obligations to the Serbian opposition, with which they were united by the demands for democratization, a return to genuine parliamentarism, etc., and concluded a separate deal with the “bearer of military force,” that is, with the authoritarian regency regime.

To return to Radić’s constitution, it is worth noting that indeed, démocratie libérale cannot be built without many of the things it stipulated. At the same time, some of its provisions poorly correlate with liberalism and any “modern” vision of the legal structure of the state in general. Therefore, the text in question could equally reflect Radić’s eclectic but progressive views and the desire to meet the expectations of the widest possible target audience at home and abroad. It is indicative that the description of the national flag of Croatia is immediately followed by a list of the “world factors that made small nations subjects of international law.” Gratitude is expressed “first of all to the great republican Union of North America, […] equally to the Russian Revolution, which overthrew Russian militarism forever,” and then to “the two largest Western European constitutional democracies.”46 The leadership of the C(R)PP did not abandon all hope for some form of external intervention in internal Yugoslav affairs until 1925, when it dropped the letter “R” from its name and recognized the monarchy and the existing constitution. Before that, Radić went to Moscow and joined the Peasant International (1924). Earlier (1919–1924), the C(R)PP counted mainly on the help of the West, and therefore the articles on the separation of powers, the rule of law, etc. could not but be included in the constitution.

Furthermore, earlier texts and speeches show that Radić did not consider himself a liberal:

It is known that the first democracy arose in France, its economic name was liberalism or […] free competition. Jews were very fond of it. The second democracy is workers’ or socialist democracy. Its economic name is confiscation […] And the Jews supported it, hoping that confiscation would not be from them but from someone else. The third democratism is peasant democratism, which is called production or economy. While we are on this soil, we do not need liberalism and competition. How can you compete when you have nothing?47


As a summary of this lecture on political economy, which Radić delivered to his fellow deputies in 1910, let us quote what he had written five years earlier under the pseudonym Baćuška: “Liberalism does not recognize the soul of the people and at the forefront it puts itself rather than ‘body of the people.’ Therefore, it is far from Slavic democracy and from the Croatian People’s Peasant Party.”48

According to Mark Biondich, behind such claims there was a view that

the most salient characteristic of liberal ideology was the state’s dissociation from society. According to Radić, “the state had no obligation to help its citizens, and Jewish liberals also teach that it is not in the state’s interest to help the poor people, the peasant or pauper, but that everyone must be left to his fate.”49

Biondich contends that the C(R)PP’s program “differed from liberalism in its emphasis on the whole peasant community as opposed to the individual and in its opposition to the economic principle of laissez-faire.”

Choosing between the rights and freedoms of an individual on the one hand and the collective interests of the “agricultural estate” on the other, Radić was guided by the idea of “five-fold superiority” of peasants over other social groups:

1. Superiority in numbers, because the peasantry constitutes the overwhelming majority of the people (more than 80 percent); 2. In labor and acquired property, since the peasant works from dawn to dusk, and the peasantry owns a large part of the total national property; 3. In honesty and morality; 4. In political stability and ability to sacrifice, loyalty to the national language and folk customs, that is, to everything that constitutes the Croatian nationality and the Croatian fatherland; 5. In humanity.50


It is not surprising that Radić considered the peasantry the only “political factor” capable of “putting in order our domovina—the state that we all want.”51 The latter appears as an enlarged model of a peasant home (homestead) and at the same time as the totality of such homesteads: “Our first task is to protect and develop these homes, and the second task is to turn the large domovina consisting of small homes, maybe, not into Belgium or Switzerland, but into Denmark.”

The high mission of the villagers was dissonant with their political position, in which they suffered discrimination. It was the responsibility of the educated urban strata to correct this. Radić appealed to the deputies in the Sabor: “Knowing what the people are, what their physical and moral strength is, we are obliged to embody it properly. Because if the people do not have that strength, the intelligentsia will remain without a cause.”52 The explanation of what this “cause” consisted of demonstrates that La science politique is not the only root of Radić’s ideology: “This is most clearly written in Russian literature, which, in fact, is peasant literature. Russian writers profess that they are in debt to the people, but not the people to them.”53

“The value of Russian literature lies not only in its artistic merits,” wrote Antun Radić (1868–1919), Stjepan’s brother and cofounder of the party. “For us,” Antun insisted,

it is even more important because it offers a solution to two problems […] folk culture and the attitude of the intelligentsia towards the people. Having rapidly adopted Western European education and alien customs, the intelligentsia became a stranger to its people. Thus, a chasm started to yawn between the educated people and the common folk. The best Russian people struggled to overcome it, and Russian fiction acted as an assistant in that.54

This explains why, according to historian Stipe Kljaić, the profile of the political and ideological world of the Radić brothers was shaped by the Russian narodniks and Russian literary realism. “Following the example of the Russian narodniks,” Kljaić writes,

the Radić brothers were going to liberate the intelligentsia that was “alienated from the people” from servility to the West and offered the cult of the people, the village, and the peasantry instead […]. Copying the contemporary Russian experience, the Radić brothers also embraced the anti-Western Slavic myth. Western culture is presented as the destroyer of the autochthonous Croatian peasant culture […] Rejecting western civil modus vivendi, the Radić brothers chose peasant existence as the source of their ideology.55


Bridging the “chasm” in Radić’s way meant the implementation of the “concept of peasant right,”56 which was supposed to protect against “atheism and clericalism, revolution and bureaucracy, as well as today’s socialism and capitalism—the apostle of state omnipotence and the tyranny of money over labor.”57 Industrialization posed a particular threat to peasant homesteads, for “large-scale industry turns broad strata of the people into real slaves, and the agricultural system makes the man a giant.”58 Taking this as a point of departure, the C(R)PP insisted on “expanding the electoral legislation,” guarantees of “protections for the peasant’s plot of land,” the organization of self-governing economic and administrative communities, etc.

The post-war period raised new harsh demands formulated in the constitution. The “government of the peasant majority” was to become an obligatory attribute of the “republic,” and the “peasant homestead” was to be its lower administrative unit.59 Apparently, the abolition of universal conscription and the regular army, the abolition of customs duties, and the “establishment of cooperatives instead of capitalist banks”60 were provided for in the interests of the “majority.” In addition, it was supposed that the university and gymnasiums with lyceums and non-classical secondary schools should be closed down. Large land holdings should be expropriated.61 In general, the document described the state as if to make it seem as little burdensome as possible for its citizens.

Such an evolution of views was caused by the radicalization of the sentiments of the Croatian peasant, who, according to Radić, “during the four war years […] was not only a real slave of the state but was also exploited by all masters in a manner worse than any draft animals were.”62 That is why after the war this Croatian peasant “demands the same freedom and rights for which his peasant brothers are fighting in Russia.”63

In 1924, Vitomir Korać, the leader of the Yugoslav Social Democrats, shared the following recollection of the pre-revolutionary situation in the Croatian lands in 1918–1920:

The psychological condition of the masses was dangerous. Exhausted by the difficult war, they hoped for immediate changes for the better as soon as the war ended. But the hardships of the war continued. Captive soldiers of the former Austro-Hungarian armada were returning from Russia and preaching “the dawn from the East.” Psychosis spread through the masses. And then “saviors” of all kinds appeared; they promised deliverance in 24 hours. Thus, demagoguery of any kind fell on fertile soil.64


However, of all the “saviors,” the peasant masses chose Radić, which Korać explained as a consequence of his “virtuosity in demagogy,” i.e. his ability to articulate the entire wide range of ethnic, social, and political phobias of a potential voter:

If there are supporters of Charles I of Austria nearby, he appears to be a real Caesarist; if someone supports the pravaši, he is for the Croatian state right; if someone hates the Serbs, he starts to disparage them […] if someone doesn’t like priests, neither does he; if someone is a republican, so is he; if someone is against the war, he is a pacifist […] if someone is against military service, he is against the army; if someone does not want to pay taxes, here he is. In short, he did not disdain any propaganda slogans and managed to catch every bluster of discontent in his sails. No one could compete with him in demagoguery—neither the communists, nor the Catholic clerics, nor Frank’s followers.


Dragoljub Jovanović, a Serbian left-wing politician expressed a similar opinion:

Stipica knew that the peasant soul is not a monochord, that it has more than one string. And it would not be enticed by agricultural communes (zadruga), politics, Croatian identity, or the republic taken separately. […] There were always several strings on his harp, and many arrows in his quiver. With them, he captured the hearts of his supporters and hit his opponents.65

Radić himself confirmed the validity of those characterizations in 1925:

The masses were seized by the spirit of the losers. On the one hand, the supporters of the Habsburgs. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks. We had to act quickly, and it took a strong “schlager.” We seized on the republic because of Wilson, America, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. If it hadn’t worked, we would have to look for something else. However, now we can be satisfied. We finished off the Habsburgs and stopped the spread of Bolshevism. Another cause is the danger of clericalism.66


To achieve such results, it was necessary not only to present oneself to the public in a favorable light but also to discredit competitors. The party’s awareness of the masses’ hostility to their newfound “brothers,” the Serbs, was an a priori advantage over many of its competitors. As Ante Trumbić recalled in 1932, “Radić comprehended the soul of the Croatian peasant, who returned home after four years of suffering […] and was filled with rage, having found the country under Serbian occupation.”67

In the early 1920s, anti-Serbian rhetoric allowed Radić’s followers to outrun the communists (who preached ideas of international solidarity that were strange to the average peasant) in the struggle for the sympathies of the villagers. As for the urban parties that were represented in the Croatian Sabor and later in the People’s Assembly of SCS, they became an even easier target for defamation. For the most part, they recognized Yugoslavia and the theory of national unity among the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes underlying it, which made it possible to accuse them of betraying Croatian national interests. Of significance in this respect is Rudolf Herceg’s description of the electoral victory of the C(R)PP in the election to the Constitutional Assembly in Croatia in November 1920: “It was being decided whether the Croatian people wanted to vest rights in Radić or in those of their gentlemen who […] had decided to hand power over Croatia to Belgrade.”68

Against those who could not be accused of loyalty to the “occupiers,” the thesis of the exploitation of the Croatian peasant by all sorts of kaputaši69 and cilindraši was effective, regardless of their political orientation and the position they held during and after the war. Therefore, as Radić said in the autumn of 1918, “having become a full-fledged person as a result of the war,” in the upcoming elections to the Sabor or the Constituent Assembly, the peasant “will no longer vote for gentlemen who have broken all their promises, […] but will vote only for people from the plow and hoe.”70 In order to “finish off” those who were nostalgic for the Habsburgs or were associated in the public mind with the nobility, the higher clergy, and the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy in one way or another, the C(R)PP ideologists explained that the “rulers and their first assistants—bishops and noblemen” are to blame for all troubles and misfortunes.

Eliminating “the danger of clericalism,” the C(R)PP took advantage of the popular perception of the priesthood as an accomplice of the violent state on the one hand and the stable patriarchal piety of the villagers on the other. Appealing to this, Radić emphasized that “for us, the peasantry is not a class, but […] the people of martyrs.”71 Party propaganda promised them brilliant prospects: “The peasant procession goes forward and, without turning off the path, to the paradise of the peasant republic.”72 The procession was headed by the C(R)PP, “the bearer of the peasant movement, which is outgrowing the narrow class frame and transforming not just into a popular (Croatian) movement but also into a universal one.”73

What were these ideals of universal significance? We find the answer in Herceg’s work cited above: “And among the Croatian people there appeared a revived Christian religion, faith in rights and truth, goodness and the man—the person who is righteous, courageous and wise.” This did not mean abstract Homo sapiens, but a concrete man of flesh and blood: “This person is not a thief, not a coward, not overly smart, like those who believe that they are smarter than all the people and are therefore insane. In 1918, all the leaders could be reproached for this, but not Radić.”74 Who this “righteous man” considered himself to be can be seen from his letter to Tomasz Dąbal, an activist of the Peasant International, sent in May 1924: “Agitation in the ordinary sense of the word does not exist in our country. We do not have any agents at all. Everything is done in the most ideal way—by means of apostolate, that is preaching the liberation of the peasant people.”75

The way in which Radić’s associates conducted themselves after his death in 1928 offered clear proof of the quasi-religious nature of the C(R)PP ideology. The heart and the brain of the deceased “high priest” were removed from his body by his orphaned “apostles.” They were supposed to be put on display in a special mausoleum, where they would offer exaltation of “Radić’s epistle to the people and maintain his cult.”76 Stipica Grgić contended that this plan (which remained unfulfilled) bore the strongest affinities with “the concept of Lenin’s mausoleum, where the mortal remains of the leader were kept.”

Of course, even during his lifetime, fellow party members and supporters did not treat Stjepan Radić as

the chief of some Western European party. He is the leader whose decisions are carried out unquestioningly […] even when he expels someone from the party, from the ranks of the Croatian people. Like a patriarch, he exercises his power, which was vested in him by the people by plebiscite. He instructs, threatens, punishes, praises, but at the same time he always remains a good father at heart.77


This passage from the party’s press organ not only confirms Radić’s high status but also makes one wonder who deserves “expulsion from the people.” Apparently, the answer to this question was anyone who did not support the C(R)PP or, as Radić wrote, “that gentleman or worker who is outside the peasant circle, and therefore outside and against the [Croatian – A.S.] people.”78

Thus, Radić’s adherence to the principle of the majority dictatorship and his intolerance of those who didn’t fit into this majority for ethnic, social, or other reasons (in the spirit of “whoever is not with us is against us”) give reason to assume that he was very far from liberalism, which inherently has an ethics of individualism, pluralism, and reverence for the rights of the minority. However, those who consider the patriarchal traditionalist elements of the theory and practice of the C(R)PP to be a manifestation of their “modern” essence would hardly agree with this statement. For instance, reproducing Radić’s thesis about “the identity of the republican system with the organization of the traditional Croatian zadruga,” Ivo Banac argued that the “republican model proposed by him had much in common with western parliamentary systems.”79 Sirotković, whose reasoning went along the same lines, believed that the definition of the republic as “the association of the homes and the people” was an “exclusively liberal provision” of the constitution.80

Nikola Pašić as the Historical Predecessor of Stjepan Radić: Similar Ideas, Similar Policies, and Contemporary Perceptions

As noted at the beginning of this article, Radić is not the only figure in the modern and contemporary history of the southern Slavs who tends to be portrayed as a forerunner of modern “European modernization,” as Stančić put it. The results that historiography has produced in connection with historical problems similar to Radić’s controversy are important for our polemic. This involves the contradictory assessments of Nikola Pašić and the Radical Party headed by him. According to Holm Sundhaussen, “its demands were similar to those stated in the Radić brothers’ program.”81 Similarities between the programs were due to the identical base of Radić’s and the radicals’ supporters. In the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, peasants of approximately equal income comprised nearly 90 percent of the population of Serbia, and the lion’s share of them followed the PRP shortly after its formation in 1881.

The social homogeneity of the Serbian people is seen by some researchers as a factor in the formation of a “politically progressive system.”82 Almost echoing Radić, Banac felt that the zadruga and Western parliamentarism shared common features. Slobodan Antonić, a Belgrade political scientist, refers to the illiterate peasant majority as “the middle class” in the collective monograph Srbi 1903–1914. Istorija ideja (Serbs, 1903–1914: The History of Ideas, Belgrade: Clio, 2015). Therefore, a society in which it dominates “is ideal for the introduction of democracy in terms of classical concepts.” Apparently, he was thinking of liberal democracy, judging by the fact that Miloš Ković, coauthor and editor-in-chief of the publication, titled his chapter “The Time of King Petar: The Victory of Liberal Democracy.”83

During the reign of Petar Karadjordjević and earlier, under the last rulers of the Obrenović dynasty, the Radical Party played first fiddle on the Serbian political stage. In Academician Milorad Ekmečić’s view, it was established “on the model of modern European parties,”84 and according to Milan Protić, it “had a decisive influence on the transformation of Serbia into a democratic European state.”85 As the late Dušan Bataković wrote, the radicals “advocated democratic ideals and strictly parliamentary procedure in political struggle,” “defended the principles of modern parliamentarism, universal suffrage, and individual freedom.” The authors cited above retrace the ideological roots of the party exclusively in the western direction, or in other words, they find these roots in British parliamentary theory and French radicalism, which had a decisive influence on “the political program and organization of the movement.”86

It is difficult to agree with this point of view. Pašić’s growing popularity in the 1880s reflected the refusal by the masses to accept the very intentions that the above-cited authors attribute to him. Namely, these are the attempts “to make a European people […] out of the Serbian people, and to turn Serbia into a European state.”87 According to Stojan Novaković, the Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska napredna stranka), which formed the government in the 1880–1887s at the behest of Prince/King Milan Obrenović, was faced with this task. To address it, the ruling circles had to adopt the basic principle of European liberalism: the state exists for the man but not for itself. According to Milan Piroćanac, another prominent naprednjak, the man “is free and has the right to use and improve all his abilities with which he is endowed by nature.”88 However, there is no rose without a thorn, so “the man,” i.e., the Serbian peasant, was required to learn “the state’s discipline.” This meant, as Shemjakin wrote, transforming himself “from a former insurrectionist against the Turks into a disenfranchised subject of his state, from a guerrilla rebel into a regular soldier, from a self-sufficient producer into a taxpayer with an ever-growing tax burden.”89

Such a “metamorphosis” imposed from above could provoke only one response from the closed agrarian society. This response was described by an astute contemporary: “The instincts of the masses increasingly rebelled against the modernization of the state.” The opposition radicals managed to “catch, articulate, and transform them into the form of a powerful people’s movement.”90 Pašić opposed Europeanization of the naprednjak type with reference to the importance of protecting Serbian identity:

The main aspiration was to preserve good institutions, consistent with the Serbian spirit and hinder the introduction of new Western institutions that could bring confusion to the people’s development. The Serbian people have so many good and healthy institutions and customs that the only thing to do would be to protect them and supplement them with the wonderful establishments that the Russian and other Slavic tribes have.91

In the parliament and outside of it, the party sabotaged government-proposed reforms by rejecting the laws concerning the railroads, banks, and the regular army, by opposing the attraction of foreign capital into the country, etc.

What the radicals termed “native Serbian institutions” were the zadruga and the community consisting of several zadrugas.92 For Pašić, the latter was “the soul of the Slavic world. It is its origin, and modern social science considers it the crowning achievement in the development of the existing Western European social order.”93 Therefore, the community served both as a micro-model and as the primary self-governing unit of the virtual entity that Pašić proposed as an alternative to the naprednjak project of a “European” Serbia. It was called the “people’s state” or the “people’s homestead,” the inhabitants of which were not divided into those who govern (bureaucracy) and those who were governed. “It is built and developed on the basis of a fraternal agreement,” and the master in it is the people, who “have created […] everything that we now have” and therefore have the right to “dispose of everything as of their own property.”94

Shemjakin describes the ideological background of the conflict between the radicals and the naprednjaks as follows: “Favoring of the individual and the apology of the community came to grips: personal freedom was opposed to the sovereignty of the people; the whole society was opposed to the individual; individualistic values were opposed to collectivism and solidarism.”95 Being embodied in the “people’s state,” those principles provided protection against capitalism, with its militant individualism and stratification of society into hostile classes, against industrialization, against alien non-Serbian “culture,” and, in general, against the “infection” coming from the West. According to Pašić, the West “had exalted money above everything else on earth,” above peasant “virtues and dignity-honor, labor, and morality.”96 Spreaders of the “infection” in Serbia are listed in a song sung by the radical crowd:97


Против бога и владара,

Против попа и олтара,

Против круне и скиптара,


За радника, за ратара

Боримо се ми!

Устај сељо, устај роде,

Да се спасеш од господе...

Чиновнике, бирократе,

Ћифтарију, зеленаше,

Цилиндраше и сабљаше,

Који газе право наше,

Гонићемо сви.

Against god and rulers

Against the priest and the altars,

Against crown and scepter,

For the worker, for the plowman,

We fight!

Rise, peasant, rise, people,

To escape from the masters...

Officials, bureaucrats,

Merchants, moneylenders,

Cilindraši and sabljaši,

trampling on our rights,

Let’s drive them out together.


Those listed above who managed to seize power and pursue state policy in their own interests instead of the interests of the peasant majority dwelt in Belgrade and other cities. According to the memoirs of the radical mouthpiece Samouprava (1941), in the 1880s, the cities were “swept over by foreignism,” which resulted in the “alienation of urban residents from the peasants, from the people.”98 Who expresses the people’s will? The People’s Party, of course. It appears as both an instrument of struggle for the “people’s state” and its supporting pillar. At the same time, the PRP was viewed by its members as a “movement.” As Miloš Trifunović, a member of the PRP’s Central Committee wrote many years later, its essence “is not expressed in the party structure and charter because it [the movement – A.S.] lives in the soul of many people. It is more than just a party, more than a doctrine or an idea. The movement exists as a deep feeling which has acquired the power of a religion, a deep political faith.”99

The radicals owed the acquisition of this faith to the same “prophets” as the Radić followers did twenty years later. As Pera Todorović recalled, “the living example of Russian nihilists has influenced us most of all. Faith is contagious, and when we saw how our Russian comrades unreservedly believe in socialism, we also believed in it.”100 Shemjakin continues:

In their project of the “people’s state,” they did not go beyond the system of narodnik socialism. Among their main guidelines, which return to the ideological stock of this system, were the denial of capitalism and bourgeois civilization, the perception of the people as a single and integral organism, the construction of a cult around the properties of the communal (collectivist) mentality, the concept of a “people’s party,” etc.101

The “faith” certainly had a universal character, which is why the radicals viewed their fight against Milan and the naprednjaki as a struggle to protect the entire Slavic tribe, “Slavic culture,” and the coming “Slavic era” against the Western Drang nach Osten. The adepts were tied by bonds that were stronger than those of ordinary political associates. According to the memoirs of a younger contemporary of the PRP’s founders, its structure “very much resembled the army and the church at the same time.” Shemjakin agrees: “It is exactly so, in fact, the party was a symbiosis of this kind. Hierarchy and discipline lent it the features of a military unit; ideology and its exalted perception added the character of a religious order.”102 Naturally, Pašić was its grand maître and commander in chief. He had no less authority among party members and sympathizers than Radić did thirty years later. Shemjakin offers an example of reliable testimony given by a European observer: “Pašić created an aura of legend around himself, having become a personification of some terrible force among the people. If something is wrong, you can hear from everywhere, ‘Ah! If only Pašić were here. When will he be here? Fortunately, Pašić remains!’”103

The PRP’s interpretation of its own role as a sacred mission resulted in its claim for political hegemony, a claim and aspiration which it continued to cherish for decades. Its validity was confirmed by the fact that, for the radicals, the meaning of democracy was reduced to the right of the majority to monopolistic power. “Considering themselves the exclusive spokesmen for the interests of the whole people,” they viewed parliamentarism not as a mechanism for alleviating social contradictions but as “the institutionalization of such a right.” Accordingly, those who thought differently “were perceived not as political opponents but as irreconcilable adversaries and therefore enemies of the people.”104 As they were averse to pluralism, the radicals rejected “the very essence of the liberal ideology and hence the doctrine of parliamentarism that ‘was growing’ directly from it.”105

Indeed, not much in the appearance of the radicals corresponded to the “model of modern European parties.” In what capacity did the PRP achieve total superiority over its opponents and mobilize the majority of Serbia’s population? Popović-Obradović offers an answer to this question. According to her, “in parallel with the first steps towards modernization, a mass populist socialist party was founded in Serbia with the type of organization that would come into practice only with the emergence of totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century.”106 Shemjakin gives more details concerning the type of organization that was meant: “Principles of organization, strict hierarchy, an outright cult of the leader, a political culture based on the rejection of political pluralism and on the principle ‘whoever is not with us is against us!,’ obvious messianism and one-dimensional thinking—all these ‘generic’ features make them related to ‘the party of a new type’—the Russian Bolsheviks. And this similarity does not appear accidental at all if we bear in mind the common narodnik basis on which (obviously, at different times and under different conditions) both parties grew.”107


Are the above findings of any importance for an assessment of the C(R)PP? Before we answer this question, it is worth reminding ourselves of the tasks this article tackles. The evident commitment of Serbian and Croatian historiographies to similar mythological constructions which reduce the course of interwar history to the struggle of “our” liberalism/progress against “their” tyranny/regression prompted us to compare and verify the authenticity of the politically colored historiographic images of two key Serbian and Croatian figures (and the parties they formed) and to establish the nature of their ideological similarity. We have shown that, despite the 23-year age difference, both parties shared common ideological roots, a common social base, similar organizational structures, similar self-perceptions among the leadership, common slogans, and other means of mass manipulation.

There is no reason to believe that Radić and his followers succeeded by imitating the radicals or deliberately copying their experience. Much as had happened in Serbia, which gained independence after two wars with the Turks (1876, 1877–1878), small rural proprietors and producers constituted the lion’s share of the electorate in Croatia in 1918–1920. As the members of the population who were least inclined to bear the burden of state building, they were prepared to accept populist recipes to get rid of it. In this situation, the PRP and the C(R)PP, armed with the arsenal of narodnik socialist propaganda, were “doomed” to succeed. Branko Bešlin, a historian from Novi Sad, describes the formula of this success as follows: “The illiterate and backward peasantry could only be led by a firmly organized party, whose members devoted themselves to political work entirely and were ready for any sacrifice.”108

The PRP and the C(R)PP were arguably examples of the same socio-political phenomenon, separated by two and a half decades. The study of the former furthers an accurate, more subtle “diagnosis” of the latter. Even a cursory glance at Radić’s activities reveals that he was not a forerunner of liberal democracy. However, it is easier to substantiate this by relying on the precedent that is already known to history. Thus, the overwhelming evidence of anti-liberalism and anti-Westernism among the radicals and their typological kinship with the Bolsheviks “works” in relation to the Radić-followers. And we have the right to address the contemporary apologists for the latter with a critical remark that Shemjakin made in his polemical exchange of ideas with the adherents of the “Pašić–Karadjordjević restoration”: “The radicals’ ideas of ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ etc. could not be identical to the modern meaning of these concepts (in a liberal spirit), which is used by some Serbian historians writing about Pašić and the radicals. Thus, they [Pašić and the radicals] are far more ‘Europeanized’ than they deserve.”109

Archival Sources

Arhiv Jugoslavije, Belgrade [Archives of Yugoslavia] (AЈ)

80 Jovan Jovanović-Pižon, Fasc. 31-151.

305 Djura Popović. Fasc. 4.

335 Vojislav Jovanović-Marambo, Fasc. 6.

Hrvatski Državni Arhiv, Zagreb [Croatian State Archives] (HDA)

Ante Starčević. Kutija 1. Pismo Stjepana Radića Marku Došenu. 27. I. 1919.

Rossijskij gosudarstvennyi arhiv social’no-politicheskoj istorii, Moscow [State Archives of Social-Political History of Russia] (RGASPI)

535 Krestjanskij Internacional [Peasant International] 2-190-19.


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1 Jovanović and Radić, Kriza, 139.

2 Jovanović and Radić, Kriza, 9.

3 Stojanović, Ulje, 25

4 Jovanović and Radić, Kriza, 141, 9, 106

5 Jovanović and Radić, Kriza, 160.

6 Stojanović, Ulje, 26.

7 Shemjakin, “Osobennosti,” 172.

8 Popović-Obradović, Parlamentarizam.

9 Dimić, Žutić, Rimokatolički, 15.

10  Dimić, Istorija, 50.

11  Stanković, Sto govora, 314.

12  Dimić, Srbi, 108.

13 Dimić, “Srbija,” 68.

14 Stanković, Istorijski, 63.

15 Antić, “Nacionalna ideologija,” 53.

16 Ibid.

17 Stančić, “Hrvatska nacionalna integracija,” 13.

18 Ibid., 11, 31.

19 Despot, “Ono što je Radić govorio.”

20 Petrić, “O braći Radić,” 542.

21 Boban, B., “Stjepan Radić,” 158.

22 https://www.facebook.com/StjepanRadicDnevnaDoza/

23 Petrić, “O braći Radić,” 540–41.

24 Boban, B., “Stjepan Radić,” 152, 158.

25 Antić, “Nacionalna ideologija,” 53.

26 Stančić, “Hrvatska nacionalna integracija,” 28.

27 Stojanović, Srbija, 19.

28 Radić uses the word čifut, which has an insulting connotation. The word žid is translated from Croatioan as “Jew.”

29 Radić, Hrvatska seljačka politika, 10.

30 Radić, Frankova politička smrt.

31 Radić, Hrvatska seljačka politika, 9.

32 Ibid., 30.

33 Petrić, “O braći Radić,” 541.

34 Boban, B., “Stjepan Radić,” 147.

35 Petrić, “O braći Radić,” 586.

36 Sirotković, “Radićev ustav,” 306–7.

37 Leček, “Priča,” 30.

38 Ibid.

39 Boban, B., “Stjepan Radić,” 148.

40 Ibid., 158, 152.

41 Goldstein, Hrvatska, 74, 45, 46.

42 Ljubo Boban, an influential Croatian historian, argued that the Serbian parties (both governmental and oppositional) that were unsure of their electoral prospects opposed the elections to the Skupština. As a hegemon in the Croatian political arena, the C(R)PP, in contrast, insisted on holding the elections (Boban, Kontroverze, 240–45). As for the elections to the Sabor, according to Marijan Maticka, Radić’s successor Vladko Maček “did not consider them a priority.” (Maticka, “Hrvatska,” 182).

43 Leček, “Priča,” 30. In his work (Leček, “Priča,” 29), Leček erroneously points out that the “boycott” of the parliament by the C(R)PP lasted from 1920 to 1925. In 1925, Radić recognized Yugoslav unification and the monarchical system, after which the C(R)PP made a government coalition with the PRP. However, as early as March 1924, the C(R)PP decided to participate in the work of the Skupština and sent it the demand to “verify” the mandates received in the elections. On May 27, 1924, the Skupština unanimously confirmed the powers of the C(R)PP’s deputies who took the oath. After that, the parliamentary session was adjourned. In addition, Leček incorrectly (1925–1926) indicates the chronological framework for the existence of the government coalition of the Radić’s party and the Serbian PRP (Leček, “Priča,” 30). In fact, in April 1926, Radić ceased to be a minister, but members of his party participated in the formation of cabinets until February 1927.

44 If the deputies of the C(R)PP had been present at the Constituent Assembly, the government parties—radicals and democrats—would not have been able to win approval for their draft rules of the Skupština in December 1920–January 1921. According to this draft, to adopt the constitution, a simple majority of the votes cast by the total number of deputies (419) would suffice, not the 2/3 majority desired by Croats and Slovenes. Finally, 223 deputies voted for the Vidovdan Charter (Gligorijević, Parliament, 91). I dare say that by the time the final vote was cast in June 1921, the government would not have been able to secure even this much support for its draft constitution if the opposition had been stronger by 50 votes cast by Radić’s followers.

45 Gligorijević, Parlament, 251.

46 Radić, Politički spisi, 367–68.

47 Radić, Hrvatska seljačka politika, 2.

48 Petrić, “O braći Radić,” 581.

49 Biondich, Stjepan Radić, 76.

50 Radić, “Seljački socijalni pokret,” ix–x.

51 Radić, Hrvatska seljačka politika, 17–18.

52 Ibid., 32.

53 Ibid.

54 Kljaić, Nikada, 85.

55 Ibid.

56 Biondich, Stjepan Radić, 67.

57 Petrić, “O braći Radić,” 580.

58 Radić, Hrvatska seljačka politika, 28, 24, 19,

59 Sirotković, “Radićev ustav,” 301, 304.

60 It is written in the official interpretation of the constitution by one of the C(R)PP Rudolf Herceg (Herceg, Seljački pokret, 36).

61 Radić, Politički spisi, 370.

62 Banac, Nacionalno pitanje, 194.

63 Radić, Gospodska politika, 27.

64 AJ. 305. Fasc. 40.

65 Јovanović, Političke uspomene, 47.

66 АЈ. 335. Fasc. 6; Krizman, “Dva pisma,” 136.

67 Boban Lj., Kontroverze, 29.

68 Herceg, Seljački pokret, 33.

69 From Serbo-Croatian kaput, a coat. Kaputaš was a derogatory nickname used by the rural population of Yugoslav countries to denote a city dweller. It can be translated perhaps most simply as “a man wearing a coat.”

70 Radić, Gospodska politika, 26, 29, 19.

71 RGASPI 535 Krestjanskij Internacional

72 Herceg, Seljački pokret, 47.

73 Ibid., 34, 35.

74 Ibid., 31, 32.

75 RGASPI 535 Krestjanskij Internacional

76 Grgić, “Radić,” 737, 746.

77 Horvat, Politička povijest, 249.

78 Radić, “Čim je hrvatsko seljačtvo,” 49

79 Banac, Nacionalno pitanje, 194.

80 Sirotković, “Radićev ustav,” 306.

81 Zundhausen, Istorija, 276.

82 Antonić, “Demokratija,” 69, 75.

83 Ković, “Liberalizam,” 185.

84 Ekmečić, Dugo, 323.

85 Shemjakin, “Partija,” 322.

86 Ibid., 322, 328.

87 Shemjakin, Politicheskie, 202.

88 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 151.

89 Ibid., 23–24.

90 Shemjkin, “Osobennosti,” 2014, 563.

91 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 291.

92 The Serbian zadruga corresponded to the Russian community and the Serbian community corresponded to the Russian rural volost (Shemjakin, Ideologija, 309).

93 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 358.

94 Ibid., 206.

95 Ibid., 155.

96 Ibid., 283.

97 Pavlović, Vojislav, 56.

98 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 38.

99 АJ. 80. Fasc. 31–151.

100 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 339–40.

101 Ibid., 36.

102 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 342.

103 Shemjakin, “Partija,” 325.

104 Ibid., 331, 328.

105 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 329.

106 Popović-Obradović, Kakva, 331.

107 Shemjakin, “Partija,” 332–33.

108 Bešlin, Evropski, 864.

109 Shemjakin, Ideologija, 155–56.


Rural Reactions to Modernization: Anti-Modernist Features of the 1883 Anti-Hungarian Peasant Uprising in Croatia

Veronika Eszik
Research Centre for the Humanities
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 12 Issue 1  (2023):37–65 DOI 10.38145/2023.1.37

In the post-Compromise Croatia–Slavonia (1868–1914) several peasant uprisings indicated a deep crisis in the rural world. Previous literature abundantly discussed the economic and social motives of these protests and interpreted the tensions as signs of the peasantry’s national awakening. In the present article, through a rereading of archival documents related to the 1883 protests, I draw attention to the perplexity of peasants when they should have identified national symbols. I argue, that the attitude of the peasants towards symbols turned against every kind of power symbol regardless of its link to a given nation. Adding a layer of nuance to the canonical explanations of peasant unrest allows us to draw attention to popular sensibilities to the ever-expanding state’s intrusion into rural areas and to the state’s modernizing interventions perceived as coercion. The ways in which the peasantry responded with hostility and violence to spaces, symbols, and figures associated with modernization make it very clear that modernization was seen by the peasantry as a potential danger (hence the anti-modernist epithet of the 1883 events). Thus, we should abandon the assumption that elite imaginations of modernity and modernization simply trickled down to the peasantry or that peasants accepted the teleology of modernization without criticism or anxiety. This article is also an attempt to read peasant rumors as historical sources independently of their truthfulness at the factual level, concentrating rather on what they tell us about the peasants’ fears and motivations and the strategies they used to cope with rapid changes in their lifeworld.

Keywords: Croatia–Slavonia, Hungarian Kingdom, peasant movements, rural history, anti-modernism, rumor theory

Austria–Hungary’s autonomous kingdom, the post-Compromise Croatia–Slavonia experienced peasants’ protests, a clear indicator of a deeply troubled agrarian society,1 roughly once every decade (namely in 1871, 1883, 1895/97, and in 1903). Given its broadness and supposedly nationalist undertones, the 1883 uprising, which has been characterized as both anti-Hungarian and anti-modernist,2 stands out in terms of historiographical discussion. The seminal monograph by Dragutin Pavličević3 and two exhaustive articles by László Katus4 have meticulously reconstructed the social insecurities and the political loyalties that motivated the uprising, but none of the discussions in the secondary literature attempted to analyze the so-called anti-modern origins of what happened or, in a broader sense, peasant perceptions of change. In the present article, I intend to complement the abovementioned aspects and identify rural reactions to modernization5 through a rereading of archival documents related to the 1883 protests.6 With modernization, a greater emphasis is put on the state’s presence in the rural context.7 It is also an attempt to read peasant rumors as historical sources independently of their truthfulness at the factual level, concentrating rather on what they tell us about the peasants’ fears and motivations and the strategies they used to cope with rapid changes in their lifeworld. As Irina Marin put it in relation to protesting Romanian peasants in 1907, “Many peasants may have misunderstood rumors/news, but that is not the point. The point is how they used this information to serve their own purposes.” Peasant mythologies, Marin argues, facilitated coping and control and helped members of the peasantry reclaim at least a sense of agency in a situation of extreme vulnerability.8 Reports about allegedly irrational peasant behavior fueled by rumors, alcohol, and the psychosis of mass violence have long been considered unusable for historians, which gives us a chance to make a contribution about bottom-up perceptions of and fears related to modernity, as well as resistance to it.

The 1883 Anti-Hungarian and Anti-modernist Peasant Uprisings

The 1883 uprisings started in Zagreb following the violation of the language use terms of the Hungarian–Croatian Compromise of 18689 by Antal Dávid, head of the Zagreb Finance Directorate, who changed the coats of arms on the fronts of the buildings under his authority from an exclusively Croatian version to a bilingual Hungarian–Croatian one. He also organized quasi mandatory Hungarian language training courses for officers, and in the meantime, the Hungarian State Railways introduced Hungarian as an official language on its lines on Croatian soil, claiming that it was, although owned by the Hungarian State, a private company, and as such, it could decide freely about issues of language use.10 The conflict around language brought to the surface various political grievances and social tensions. The protests soon spread to rural areas, where several suppressed tensions came to the fore. The rural population was also able to use the issue of the coats of arms as a pretext for expressing profound dissatisfaction and despair. The protests took months and eventually were put down by military forces.

In 1883, peasant violence was aimed mainly at big, modern national networks (railway, telegraph, and post and finance offices), symbols of urban lifestyle and culture (urban clothing, books, new measures and meter sticks, and members of the local intelligentsia, who were regarded as alien to the village), or other symbols of state control (coats of arms, flags, civil registers, and other official documents). In spite of the clear complexity of the phenomena, historians often saw these acts of aggression exclusively as signs of the national awakening among the peasantry,11 and they assumed that the peasantry’s former, spatially narrower but in its content broader set of identities was gradually replaced by a dominant attachment to the nation. This vision of the nationalization of the peasantry has since been nuanced and criticized in many ways,12 though the Croatian and Hungarian secondary literature has yet to consider the relevance of historiography concerning doubts about popular nationalism in relation to peasant uprisings in Croatia. This consideration would have two major benefits: first, we could reintroduce aspects that have been excluded by the nationalist explanation, such as, in this case, the popular sensibilities to modernization, and second, we could use the vast range of methodological findings and ideas offered by the highly productive “history from below” approach.

If we cannot be sure about the level of the peasantry’s allegedly rising national consciousness, it is safer to declare that by 1883 modern mass politics started to reach the villages. First, the so-called Party of Right (Hrvatska stranka prava), the main opposition party in the Zagreb parliament by the 1880s, and twenty years later the Croatian Peasant Party (Hrvatska seljačka stranka) gradually engaged non-voting masses in political activities. In a future broadening of this research to subsequent events, the latter is of particular importance, since the Croatian Peasant Party’s ideologues, Stjepan and Antun Radić, built up a worldview that was based on the sharp separation of urban and rural societies, and this vision deeply influenced the Croatian public and political discourse in the first quarter of the twentieth century. According to Marc Biondich, Stjepan Radić’s biographer, the most striking feature of late nineteenth-century Croatian society was the popular assumption that political or economic oppression was always a form of aggression by the city against rural communities, with the underlying belief that this happened because the city was alien to the people. This anti-urban agenda was of course intrinsically a part of a nationalist one, as the tax collector, the recruiter, the officer, or the railway official were seen as embodiments of both the cruel economic exploitation and the main obstacle to Croatian national unfolding: the Hungarians.13 My intention, again, is to highlight the anti-urban traits of these intertwining factors, without questioning however the relevance of the national agenda.

Although the perception of the city as alien to the “authentic” national culture of rural communities was a common phenomenon in the multinational Habsburg Lands, one rarely finds discussion, in the secondary literature, of the fact that uneven urbanization among the nations of the empire meant uneven access to modern achievements, and this inequality led to the crystallization of the idea that modernization is not only a privilege but also an instrument of power. Because of this spectacular nature of modernization’s political implications, we can assume that popular critics of the ideas of progress and the teleology of modernization were more frequently and clearly formulated in contrast to the general view that modernization is such a complex phenomenon that it could be grasped exclusively by high intellectuals, if ever. Our task is to distinguish between overlapping anti-urban, anti-Hungarian, and anti-modern feelings in order to become better acquainted with popular perceptions of modernity.

Although the real electoral success did not come for the Croatian Peasant Party until after World War I, this was due to the fact that, before the introduction of universal suffrage, it was simply not possible to see or gauge the extraordinary popularity of the party. The party program, however, was formulated in 1903, hence the two-pole vision of society was built on experiences of the Settlement period. Rural hostility to urban modernization is thus a factor that has a real significance in political and intellectual history, a significance comparable even to the significance of nationalism.

The available sources pose a common problem of rural history: the reports about the peasants’ dissatisfaction do not offer the peasants’ voices directly. Rather, these voices are mediated by government and military officials who were appointed to visit the rebellious villages and gather information about the details, actors, and motivations behind the events. The act of recording accounts (allegedly) given by peasants means filtering, reorganizing, and thus distorting the information. I would contend, however, that these sources still offer some insights into the prevailing mindset among the peasantry, even if with some inaccuracy and bias. In order to provide some balance and compensate for the fact that the reports were authored by representatives of power, I gave credit to statements allegedly made by peasants and described in the reports as irrational, and I attempted to draw clear distinctions between the information provided by the reporter on the one hand and speculation on the other. By focusing on pieces of information considered insignificant and irrational by the authors of these reports, I was able to distance the narrative somewhat from the interpretive schemes provided by the contemporary bureaucracy.

Also, some outstanding figures among the officials in charge seem to have made a palpable effort to understand villagers instead of simply judging or lecturing them, and they thus probably gained more trust in the community. (As will be detailed below, it was rare for villagers to show much trust in an urban and/or power figure, particularly after the protests were suppressed by the military.) One agent who managed to win some trust among the villagers was Ognjeslav Utješenović Ostrožinski (1875–1885), count of Varaždin county and government commissioner delegated to investigate the origins of the unrest. Due to his long conversations with peasants, in which he showed honest interest, Utješenović’s reports which reconstruct these conversations are of a particular importance to this investigation. He was convinced that if the administration had turned “to the poor peasantry of Zagorje [region surrounding Zagreb] with an open heart and gentle soul,” further violence could have been avoided.14 He insisted on informing insecure villagers about delicate questions which were central to the conflicts, such as taxation, coats of arms, and laws and decrees, in order to dissipate unfounded concerns about them. According to a document in which he requested the reimbursement of his travel costs, Utješenović visited 21 villages and spent time among the inhabitants of each.15

Utješenović’s sensitivity to the worries of the peasant world is also proven by the books he had previously consecrated to rural phenomena, such as the dissolution of the zadrugas16 and the special status of the peasant soldiers living in the so-called Military Frontier (see footnote 1).17 In her monograph on the beginnings of the processes of modernization in Croatia, Mirjana Gross describes Utješenović’s favorable judgment18 of zadrugas as a manifestation of a traditionalist mindset, and she is perplexed by the fact that this “great modernizer” could have held such a view. She explains this contradiction as a consequence of inner dilemmas, and she describes these alleged dilemmas in a dramatic way, offering a portrait of Utješenović as an intellectual and practicing politician who was “crucified” between modernity and traditions. Gross’s perspective, however, magnifies this contradiction, as she considers the belated spread of capitalism the main reason why Croatia was “backward,” and the only salutary way out of this backwardness, in her assessment, would have been to adopt Western patterns of modernization. According to her model, land ownership in these communities was a striking example of the periphery’s backwardness.19 Utješenović, however, wasn’t convinced that catching up to Western standards was a must, and thus he was free to choose which features of modernization were desirable and which were better avoided. This explains why he was tireless in his struggle for railway and highway connections for his county, on the one hand, but was against the unrestrained modernization of agricultural production on the other. Although his reports about peasant turmoil cannot reflect his vision of the changing world in the same depth as his books, it is interesting that he could be on the same platform with peasants when they resisted the efforts of the modernizing elites and wished to find their own ways between conserving the old and adopting the new. Utješenović, who seems to have had something of an idealistic view of the peasantry, can be seen as the opposite extreme from the mighty bureaucrats. His often biased and paternalistic comments still help balance the images offered in the other sources.

On the basis of the aforementioned sources and keeping in mind their different authorships, I defined three overlapping domains that give us the opportunity to reconsider the events from the perspectives outlined above. First, I consider rural uncertainties with regard to national symbols.20 This disorientation in the use of symbols sheds light on the general (that is, independent of national bonds) despair against political power. In the two following sections, I investigate two sub-cases of this general animosity towards the prevailing power relations, namely anti-urban feelings based on the perception of the city as a space of dominance and fear generated by big national networks, which were increasingly intruding into the rural sphere.



“The peasants shout themselves/their selves […] in the diatribes against Hungary.”21 The Symbols and the Rhetoric of the 1883 Uprising

At first glance, 1883 was the year when Croatian peasants started to use political and national symbols (mainly flags and coats of arms) as clear signs of their engagement with the national paradigm. This vision was reinforced by the fact that the spark that inflamed the smoldering tensions was the placement of bilingual coats of arms on the facades of public buildings. As a reaction to this (according to the secondary literature), first city dwellers and later the peasantry also attacked visual symbols of Hungarian rule, destroyed bilingual inscriptions, tore apart Hungarian flags, and shouted anti-Hungarian rhymes.

As Stefano Petrungaro stresses, archival documents give a very different picture about the visual coding and decoding of symbols among peasants.22 The most striking feature of the reports is indeed the highly ambivalent behavior and perplexity of peasants when they should have found the right targets of their anger. In the vast majority of villages, not a single Hungarian coat of arms, inscription, or flag could be found, and when peasants invaded cities, they had difficulty identifying ideal or typical national symbols which would have represented a national “other.” In the overwhelming majority of the cases, what protesters found was the so-called common coat of arms, a state symbol that contained both Hungarian and Croatian iconographical elements (most strikingly, the Croatian “chessboard” and the crown of Saint Stephen), but in several cases, the coat of arms that was destroyed was exclusively Croatian. Considering that the official Croatian coat of arms contained the crown of Saint Stephen and the Hungarian coat of arms contained Croatian–Slavonian heraldic elements, it wasn’t all that easy to differentiate between the two. As far as flags are concerned, it seems clear that the Croatian national colors were not yet identifiable for many in 1883. Even a decade and a half later, in 1897, orthodox ecclesiastical flags were sometimes torn to shreds, even though these flags had the same colors as the Croatian tricolor. In 1883, we see no trace of the common practice of 1903, when peasants wore ribbons and cockades with the Croatian national colors and carried around red, white, and blue flags.23 In a rather confusing manner, peasants frequently vandalized flags that they had found in churches and sometimes (though less often) also icons and sculptures that they also identified as symbols of power and dominance.

In Hrastovica, the mob broke into the church because they assumed that the priest was hiding Hungarian flags inside, but when they didn’t find any, they broke a statue of Saint Florian because they thought it was holding “some kind of coat of arms.”24 The report from Gornja Stubica suggests that the peasants tried to destroy any and all objects that had possible symbolic meanings. A group of approximately sixty peasants pulled down the common coat of arms from the municipality’s facade with bars and then demanded that the official turn over the Hungarian blazon, which they claimed he had hidden. In other words, they were perfectly aware of the fact that the coat of arms they had destroyed was not the Hungarian one. They then tore the signboards down from two local shops and the tobacconist’s store, smashed them, and claimed that they were also blazons (“grb,” in Croatian). This vandalization of symbols of power was topped by the fact that the protesters confiscated not only the shopkeeper’s money and cigarettes but also a portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph.25 Common coats of arms were damaged in Dubrave, Gomirje, and several other villages. One of the reports written by Utješenović constitutes a particularly telling source about a peasant community that had reached the limits of its tolerance for change. Utješenović claims in his account to have calmed the dwellers of Sveti Križ who had gathered around him on the church square only by assuring them that there would be nothing new regarding the blazon-issue and that “no one intends to place any other coat of arms than those that have already existed here.”26

In Marija Bistrica on August 26, 1883, peasants from the region tore down the official Croatian-language signs and the blazon after the Sunday mass because they were, the peasants insisted, “practically the same as the Hungarian coat of arms.”27 This reflection suggests that the attack was more than some irrational act of the illiterate masses and that the logic behind it was not strictly or exclusively of a “national” nature. The remark indicates, rather, that peasants identified every state symbol as Hungarian, and by “Hungarian,” they meant a distant, hostile center of power, drawing upon a significant distortion and broadening of the original term to express a wide range of phenomena that were troubling to them.

The high number of attacks against local Croatian officials and members of the rural intelligentsia also indicates that any member of the state bureaucracy could be targeted, regardless of the person’s nationality. This is all the more striking when hostility was aimed at people who in no way could have been linked to Budapest, such as local teachers, priests, and popes. In the case of these members of the rural communities, it is not always easy to understand the logic according to which they were on occasion called Magyar or magyarón (a pejorative term referring to politicians and people who were seen as being friendly to Hungarians or Hungarian interest) or how it would have been possible for Hungarians to bribe or corrupt them.

In this context, the term “Magyar” or “Hungarian” became so widely used that it almost lost any real meaning. It becomes impossible to say if it actually referred to a specific national affiliation—in which case its use to denominate local Croatian elites or the Croatian coat of arms would have been absurd—or was simply a general label applied to comparatively unfamiliar people who exercised some authority over the peasantry. For the latter, an extra term was available, the expression “magyarón,” which a priori made it possible to use it for people of any kind of nationality. As the two terms were used in very different contexts, we can also assume that state symbols, such as coats of arms, were not always simply misinterpreted by accident, but rather were deliberately labeled Hungarian to place a clear emphasis on the perceived widening gap between the rural world and the ruling circles.

The term “Magyar” was turned upside down in the most ironic way in Senj, a little town on the Croatian littoral. The town had no Hungarian inhabitants and was renowned for its struggle to remain an economic equal of Fiume (Rijeka, Croatia), the only seaport that belonged directly to Hungary in the era. For this reason, Senj was a notorious hub of political opposition.28 According to a report by Major Izidor Vuich, an adherent of the Party of Right, Josip Gržanić “inflamed people against every bureaucrat, and he did so by revealing the addresses of all those who respected or agreed with the laws of the great government, and said that they are all Hungarians, and he denigrated with this name every peace-loving and honest citizen who did not desire any turmoil.”29 The insinuation that people who had a history of fighting Hungarian rule were somehow “Hungarian” themselves shows once again that the term was malleable. The report then declares that the main motivation for the uprising was “hatred of the laws.” In other words, there seems to have been a general hostility towards the governing circles.

This widening and distortion of a term is not a unique phenomenon. According to the research of Irina Marin, early twentieth-century peasants in North Romania called themselves “students” due to a similar distortion of the expression. The participants in the 1907 jacquerie, many of whom were illiterate, defined students as urban rebel elements and identified themselves with them in turn, which led them to recite chants like “we are the students.”30 Similarly, workers on strike in Lower Austria in 1905 called the workers transported from today’s Hungary and Slovakia to break the strike “Krowoten” (that is, Croats). In the given context, Krowoten was definitely a derogatory term to designate transitional dwellers in the city who spoke a Slavic language.31 This latter example clearly shows the nationalist logic of the scapegoating process, but it also reveals how unelaborated these terms were at that stage. The same can be said about the peasants protesting in Croatia–Slavonia: nationalism’s vocabulary came to them via the press or agitation led by the Party of Right, but they also used this new vocabulary to narrate social collisions.

To the extent that one can venture conjectures concerning peasant experiences, while the state was increasingly becoming visible (and threatening) in rural life through tax collection and cadastral surveys, the government’s Magyarizing policies (which started becoming stronger in 1879) couldn’t really be perceived in rural areas. Local representatives of the state were not Hungarians, in large part because tax collection was made a municipal duty, and the financial authorities also employed locals. Therefore, when people identified state power with Hungarians, there was a missing link in the chain, replaced sometimes with the use of the term “magyarón,” but more often, the equation was completed with the help of rumor and insinuation.

There were plenty of rumors that spread wildly throughout the weeks of the protests. These rumors were in general a specific mixture of pieces of accurate information, elements of popular imaginary, wishful thinking, and, in contrast, the greatest fears of the peasantry. Independently of their content, we can see these rumors as collective interpretive frameworks which gave a rationalizing opportunity in a situation of uncertainty and crisis. As sources, they reveal how peasants interpreted their reality, and thus their level of “truthfulness” matters little. Given that one of the functions of rumors was to inflame peasants and legitimize violence, it is not surprising that many of the rumors concerned the new, unbearable taxes.32

In 1883, the most common rumor besides concerns over taxes33 was that local bureaucrats and intelligentsia would sell the village to Hungarians and sell the church, the belltower, the lands, or even the villagers. This fear is such a recurrent element in reports that Stefano Petrungaro called it the silver thread of the movements.34 This rumor created a direct—however imaginary—link between local representatives of the power structure and the distant center in the Hungarian Kingdom, and it made it possible for the peasantry to organize its hostile feelings towards symbols and persons in a logical arrangement. According to the rumor, the sign that an alleged sale was going to take place would be a flag hung out during the night on a public building, from which Hungarians would recognize that they were free to seize the village. Destroying flags thus seemed a preventive act of self-defense.

This rumor not only thematizes the dependent status of the Croatian (and Serbian) nation, it also links betrayal to cash flow and reduces it to an act of sale, ignoring the various real ways in which Magyarization could have been taking place around them.35 The agrarian society, which was being forced to adopt capitalist practices, experienced a rise in its costs since they were counted in cash. This rise in costs had various reasons, including excessive taxation, economic crisis since 1873, and a lack of financial infrastructure, which thus made the peasantry vulnerable to usury. A specific factor among these causes was the introduction of a new system of measurement and new scales. The peasantry saw the literate upper class, to which it most frequently referred as Hungarian (and sometimes Jew—see the discussion below), as responsible for these changes.

In conclusion, the attitude of the peasants towards symbols either turned against every kind of power symbol regardless of its link to a given nation or was simply anti-Hungarian, if with a very broad understanding of “Hungarian” as a term that applied to every kind of power perceived as hostile. Nationalist motivations were still a relevant factor, but they were less relevant than the secondary literature has tended to claim.

Finally, the wave of protests gave the peasants an opportunity to express their frustrations with specific acute problems. In these cases, the act of pulling down the coats of arms served as a well-known choreography to express dissatisfaction. In Nova Gradiška for instance, the turmoil was stirred by a fire that destroyed the beech forest which had been set side to be cut down for the benefit of the villagers. In his report, the municipal officer shared his view that the otherwise peaceful people, who were loyal to the dynasty, became agitated by the news arriving from Zagreb and then were further distressed by the disastrous fire. Thus, when they pulled down blazons and flags, they imitated the events in Zagreb, about which they had read in newspapers, but the true reason for their despair was the very real financial consequences for them of the fire.36

Adding a layer of nuance to the canonical explanations of peasant unrest, which have tended to see this unrest as a symptom and proof of national awakening, is not my ultimate end in this inquiry. In the discussion below, I examine how political measures regarded as novelties and political actors regarded as alien to the village gave an anti-modernist and anti-urban tinge to the protests.

Anti-urban Peasant Violence

In the summer of 1883, several people were insulted or even attacked because of their clothing. The prefect in a village of the former Military Frontier named Gora was said to have embezzled money collected as taxes and used it to purchase boots.37 Boots were considered a privilege enjoyed by urban people, and the reports frequently mention that wearing boots might well make one a potential target of violence. In the neighboring village, Maja, a person was killed because he was wearing a specific urban coat, the so-called kaput. Kaputaš, the term derived from the name of the coat, became a derogatory term with which to refer to city dwellers, and the kaputaši were often simply identified as tax collectors. According to one report about the new tax burdens, “All of this feeds upon the wretched peasant, and he, therefore, sees every civilized person as his enemy and torturing demon. That is why one heard the slogan during the disorders that all kaputaši should be killed.”38

The opposition of the “wretched peasant” and the “civilized person” shows that the traditional divide between the rural and the urban population took on a new meaning with the acceleration of urban modernization and the increasing social value of cultural habits associated with “civilization” towards the end of the nineteenth century. This divide was defined not only by the stark difference between urban and rural lifestyles and values, the differences between a close community in rural settings and a looser urban society, or the disparities in the occupational sector, but increasingly by uneven access to innovation and by the resulting economic inequalities and differences in mentality. For this reason, in this section, I consider attacks against members of the village intelligentsia as expressions of anti-urban resentment. Partly because they had been educated in urban environments, all educated people were treated as alien to the village community, and they were also seen as personifying the city’s dominance over rural communities because they were able, thanks to the new social capital and technical skills they had acquired in the city, to assert a significant measure of control over villagers. Furthermore, they represented the intention or need to change the traditional lifeworld of the peasantry, or in other words, they were seen as embodiments and tools of a process of modernization, threatening to many members of the rural communities.

In addition to violent acts committed against people dressed in urban attire, the reports also mention urban figures who allegedly appeared in villages as instigators and occasions when peasant masses intruded into the city. In each case, these figures—the urban gentleman on the one hand and the enraged peasant on the other—serve to shift responsibility. When peasants claimed to have seen “gentlemen” who manipulated them, their allegations also served to assert their innocence and legitimize acts of violence, much as allegations by the burghers of the city concerning angry peasant mobs served essentially the same functions.39 What is important here is not whether there was any truth in these allegations so much as the logic behind them: the actors found the other party deserving of blame according to the rural-urban opposition.

Peasants who went to fairs in cities around August 20 broke things in urban space and sometimes used violence to intimidate or rob citizens. According to one report, “The disturbance, which at first was against the coats of arms, has begun to have a dangerous communist-like character. Instigators, who are said to be from Hungary, agitate people to commit crimes against property.”40 In such cases, the urban-rural opposition was also aggravated by the cooperation of the burghers with the authorities, for instance in Krapina, where “a couple hundred peasants wished to pillage, […] but the citizens [of the city] stood up against them, supporting the gendarmerie. One of the gendarmerie patrols clashed with the mob, and the rebels ran away as a result.”41 The gunfire of the gendarmerie killed a peasant, and the city dwellers feared vengeance as the news spread that “the rest of them escaped to the mountains, as it is said, to gather and attack Krapina when there are several thousands of them.”42 The story illustrates that rumors had a role in urban contexts as well. An essential element of any rumor is an exaggeration, such as the vision of thousands of angry peasants, as well as unfoundedness: the peasants did not return to Krapina. The atmosphere of mutual fear between the rural and the urban population, however, is palpable.

In the villages, elegantly dressed, literate, educated people were seen as hostile strangers who because of their professions had contacts with the city, such as the teacher,43 the priest, the pope, the bureaucrat, and the merchant. These people were accused of being traitors who shared sympathies with the Hungarians, they were searched through when protesters were searching for objects that were symbolic representations of power. The latter included the aforementioned coats of arms and flags, any kind of written documents (often decrees and orders), maps, and the newly introduced scales and tools used to measure things (new weights and measuring sticks).

The destruction of the new measuring instruments seemed the most barbarian and irrational act in the eyes of the elites, who believed unconditionally in progress. One senses the tone of indignant incomprehension in the words of Frigyes Pesty, a contemporary historian, politician, and public intellectual. His comments are worth citing because they reflect the force of the dominant discourse about modernization and progress:

It is truly great naivety to presume that the Croatian people’s spirit was disturbed by the sight of the Hungarian state coat of arms and Hungarian inscriptions. These people pulled down Croatian coats of arms, and those without any inscription. […]—this is a sign of the fact that the capability of reading has not yet spread enough among these people, and also a sign that they have long been manipulated by instigators. These people even revolted against the metric system and want to return to the old measures. I’m wondering if these people even know what they want.44


The opinion detailed by Pesty was far from unique. In a travelogue, one finds a similar judgment about Bosnians who were not impressed by the civilizing Austro-Hungarian administration: “They don’t need culture forced onto them, they are averse to the inventive efforts of progress.”45 The belittling of the peasants as people who were allegedly unable to recognize their own interests in progress and thus unable to show self-determination is a gesture that can be linked to the modernizing elites in general.46

Hatred of the metric system posed a problem for historians as well.47 Even those who approached the subject with empathy assumed that ignorance played a role in the rejection of the new system of measurement. This kind of interpretation developed by Rudolf Bićanić in 1937 was reiterated in Dragutin Pavličević’s aforementioned monograph. According to the explanations offered by Bićanić and Pavličević, the rejection of the metric system was motivated mainly by fears of an economic nature, as peasants were convinced that taxes would further rise with the introduction of the new system of measurement. As the “Hungarian” system of measurement was introduced at a time when taxes were already going up, the erroneous conclusion was that the new system was itself the cause of this financial burden. Also, the agrarian crisis resulted decreasing crop prices, which were also mistaken for a consequence of the use of a new system.48 The illiterate peasants, furthermore, couldn’t doublecheck or monitor the process of conversion, and as they lacked trust in the authorities, they assumed that they were being constantly duped.

However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the act of breaking of measuring sticks and scales wasn’t isolated from other acts, including the destruction of maps and documents of the cadastral surveys and attacks on surveyors and engineers if they happened to be present in the village. The stakes of destroying measures were higher than the mere tension release, as indicates a telegraph from Zlatar that urged reinforcements. The document reveals that when protesters clashed with the police, four peasants were killed, but the peasant mass stayed together and remained determined to search for and destroy every measuring stick in Zlatar and its surroundings.49

As a matter of fact, measuring things was a peasant experience way more complex than the impression of being deluded by the conversion or damaged by the change. The ongoing cadastral surveys resulted, mainly in the territories where these surveys were completed by 1883, in a new kind of tax and ever greater financial burdens. The basis of tax assessment was defined by surveyors who frequently abused of their influence over vital issues (namely, they could be bribed to rank lands into lower categories of tax assessment).50 In the process of dissolving zadrugas and administering land titles, these officials had the same role and the same opportunities to use corrupt methods in order to fill their own pockets. According to Antun Radić, who would have preferred to conserve common property, peasants couldn’t benefit from the dissolution of zadrugas, only “the engineers, the merchants, the creditors, and the bureaucrats.”51 Obviously, engineers are on this list not as technical professionals, but as potential exploiters.

The peasantry thus saw for themselves that cadastral surveys were not merely technical or scientific processes. On the contrary, they were tools with which the centralizing state extended its control over rural areas. Given the lack of suitable sources, it is not easy to study the history of emotions related to measuring things in general and cadastral surveys in particular. However, the vehemence of reactions to land surveys suggests that the very process of measuring land was seen as an infringement on an intimate attachment to this land. A report from Ogulin written by an especially emphatic official begins with more emotion than usual official records. “I came among them, and I have to say that I was deeply moved by the sorrow of these people, how they admit their mistakes and beg for pardon.” The author of the report then gives an account of the burdens, unbearable difficulties, and fears of the peasants. The fears primarily concerned the new taxes, and the report emphasizes one such concern in particular: the peasants claimed that a new kind of tax would be introduced. “Taxes will come,” they claimed, “that no one has ever heard of before, they will measure our dead, and we will have to pay according to the weight of the body.”52 The anxiety expressed through this rumor is not only of a financial nature. It is a symptom of the pervasive fear that the state, through its rationalizing and measuring practices, was going to intrude violently into the private sphere of families, including the intimate process of grieving. This rumor clearly indicates that, even if exaggeration is an inherent characteristic of rumors, the ever expanding state’s modernizing campaigns provoked fearful and hostile reactions.

The peasant reception of the idea that the engineer is an iconic figure of modernization also has to be taken into account.53 Given that mass media frequently made progress a theme, it is ironic to assume that propaganda succeeded in making peasants realize their identities as members of a nation while somehow failing to affect their knowledge of technical and scientific developments and ideas of modernization. As it so happens, this was the era in which technical drawings and engravings were often published in popular newspapers as visual markers of engineering performance. These drawings were accessible to the illiterate public. Technical innovation was spectacularly managed by a group of intellectuals of a new type, as much in rural areas as in cities. The tools they used, which were frequently seen as diabolical wands, became targets of violence in various localities in Europe.54 At the turn of the century, a newspaper titled Dom (Fatherland), which was expressly published for a peasant public, lamented the alleged overuse of the term “progress.” According to an article authored by Antun Radić and published in Dom, this word was used over and over again in every book and paper, and people educated and illiterate, intelligent and ignorant alike were speaking about it, and everything that wasn’t seen as progressive was instantly judged as wild and backward. Radić described modern man as a figure “with a telegraphy on his one ear and a telephone on the other,” but that didn’t mean that he was good in spirit. While Radić considered the ubiquity of ideas of progress evident in peasant circles, with regard to modern achievements, he concludes that “we, peasants, readers of Dom, can remain humans without them.”55 Sloboda (Liberty), a newspaper made partly responsible for the spread of the ideas of the Party of Right, wrote at length about “soulless engineers” (bezdušni inžiniri). Unfortunately, the editorial was heavily censored.56

Thus, when Pavličević affirmed several times that the metric system was rejected because everything that came from the Hungarian Kingdom was rejected regardless of the progressiveness of the phenomenon,57 he overlooked something important. Namely, the peasants were not at all indifferent to the question of whether something was or wasn’t modern or progressive. On the contrary, the peasantry was at times particularly sensitive to anything new on the one hand, while it used the symbols of modernity (e.g. new measuring implements or engineers) for its own purposes on the other. The agrarian society at the end of the nineteenth century clearly realized that the new things that were being introduced (whether something as concrete as a new kind of scale or something abstract, like a new system of measurement) radically transformed its lifeworld, and the peasantry experienced modernizing intervention as a form of coercion. The assumption that villagers misunderstood the significance of the metric system is no more convincing than the assumption that they simply reinterpreted this system and its uses with respect to their own interests. The reception of the symbols of modernity, like the reception of the symbols of “national” belonging, was also a negotiation over the benefits and utility of this “modernity” in rural areas. The destruction of measuring instruments allowed peasants to express their distrust for the new, which, as Peter Burke suggests, was not at all irrational or extremely conservative. Rather, it was a strategy based on the bitter experience that the price of change is often paid by common people.58

While historians have had little access to peasant emotions of the nineteenth century towards surveys and measurements (acts of aggression against engineers, for instance, were not considered as expressions of critical attitudes towards modernity, but rather merely as a sub-case of irrational hostility against the intelligentsia), contemporary officials and authors of fiction59 may have been more sensitive to feelings of loss related to modernizing campaigns. The district official in Nova Gradiška, for instance, openly warned the newly arriving financial officer to respect local traditions and “not to introduce any innovations, because there had been already enough of them, and I know well that people have not been able to get used to the previous ones.”60 Clearly, the tolerance of change of communities in rural areas had its limits.

A specific sub-case of aggression against a local intelligentsia is the great number of assaults against Jews. Antisemitic aspects of the 1883 uprising were often regarded as marginal, and they were explained by the impact of a significant antisemitic wave in the Hungarian Kingdom,61 namely the notorious Tiszaeszlár lawsuit, a blood libel which ended with the acquittal of the (Jewish) defendant but nevertheless fueled hostility towards Jews all over the country and maybe even beyond. Amongst the archival documents, I have found three pamphlets that refer to the Tiszaeszlár lawsuit, one of which was printed, so it could have been spread in large numbers.62 However, it seems unlikely that flowing against anti-Hungarian (and anti-modernization) sentiments, there was any widespread sympathy for Hungarians as victims of the supposed crimes committed by Jews. This implausible interpretation would rest on an overestimation of the information flow between Hungarian and Croatian rural communities, which were separated by a serious language barrier, as well as an overestimation of the solidarity between these two populations. It seems far more likely that the antisemitic acts of violence, which were not exactly sporadic, were manifestations of anti-capitalist, economic arguments used to blame and vilify the Jewry.

In addition, as Christhard Hoffmann stated in his study “‘The New’ as a (Jewish) Threat: Anti-modernism and Antisemitism in Germany,” this was the very historical moment when the Jew became the symbol of modernity and the urban type.63 Stereotypes about the Jewry had long been dominated by notions of backwardness and poverty, but the second half of the nineteenth century brought change. The threats posed by modernity came to be seen as threats posed (at least in part) by the Jewry. As Hoffman shows, of the elements of modernity, three in particular were identified as Jewish in the antimodernist and antisemitic intellectual discourse in Germany. The Jew became the personification of the capitalist, the urban archetype, and the intellectual.64 The medieval figure of the usurer was complemented by the latter not only in intellectual narratives but also among those who were the losers in the processes of industrialization (artisans, craftsmen, peasants, retailers) in general.65

Many antisemitic atrocities committed in 1883 were claimed to be acts against usury, but they also seem to have been fueled by the anger of those who felt excluded from the benefits of literacy, as writing was in their eyes an instrument used by the powerful to dominate the powerless and pervert the truth.66 As Utješenović detailed, the vulnerability of the debtor was further reinforced by the fact that documents concerning loans were written and certified by the money lender, often a Jewish person, while the people borrowing money (namely, members of the peasantry) had no control over the process. In disputed cases, the mere word of a peasant was countered with written and signed documents, so the peasant could never win.67

It is telling that in a world turned upside down, where peasants could assert control over the intelligentsia of the village, these peasants seized the power of the written word in symbolic ways and thus created new power relations related to literacy. These symbolic acts frequently consisted of imitations of everyday acts of writing, but under the control of the peasantry. In Stubica, for instance, angered villagers made the instructor Vjekoslav Satler write and sign a document in which he declared himself Croatian and promised to serve only Croatian interests.68 Priest Andro Čižmek was also made to sign the same paper, as were the officials of the municipal office and the tax collector, who happened to be there that day. The peasants then went to the bar, where they forced the barman to give them drinks and sign the document.69 A similar effort was made to reach all the literate inhabitants in the community of Zlatar, and according to the same choreography. In the morning, villagers made the notary, the village doctor, and the prefect sign a document confirming that they were Croatian, and then the villagers scattered. Peasants gathered again that afternoon and dragged the teacher from the schoolhouse to make him sign the declaration, and later, two other clerks from the municipality had to do the same.70

Forms of behavior discussed in this section reveal that modernity’s distinguished space (the city), distinguished figures (engineers, educated people, bureaucrats), and distinguished symbols (maps, written documents, measuring tools) had complex interpretations among the peasantry that offer a perspective from which we can arrive at a “from below” understanding of shifting attitudes towards the processes of modernization in the late nineteenth-century rural sphere in Central Europe.


Enmeshing the Countryside: The State’s Intrusion into the Rural World

Finally, the state appeared in rural spaces not only through its human agents but also through its new networks, which were increasingly enmeshing the whole country. While treated as a different case in this study, as symbols of state power, networks were in reality part of the context outlined above. A telegraph officer could have easily been an educated person from the city, was certainly a man of letters, and wore clothes with strong symbolic meanings (a uniform), and the railway was obviously also a newly (and rapidly) emerging way of creating and maintaining direct ties to political and economic centers, i.e., cities. One finds evidence of anger against state networks in the sources, mixed together with a number of other sensibilities, resentments, and hostilities. In Ivanca, for instance, where peasants vandalized the telegraph wire, they also planned to expel Jews from the village on December 24 and attack anyone who was wearing black boots.71 Ivanca peasants committed or planned to commit acts of physical aggression against networks, urban people, Jews, and clerks at the same time. In this section, I shed light on the irritation felt, in rural communities, at big state networks. As attacks against the extensive state networks were a far more significant part of the 1903 uprising, this section confine itself to evoke the possible roots of the acts of violence committed in 1903.

Three features of the growing state networks seem to have been significant in relation to the malcontent among the peasantry: the often uniform elements of these networks were seen as instruments of the homogenizing nation-state; in networks, the mutual dependence of network nodes reduces autonomy;72 finally, in regions where agrarian mechanization did not even start to unfold,73 the networks were often the only visible technical innovation. These three features were, of course, preceded by the practical benefits of damaging networks: breaking the flow of information to the political centers and also the impeding troop movement facilitated the maintenance of a state of emergency.

The railway and the telegraph were often targeted even in 1883, as were post offices. These three networks had a role in the question of language use as well (Magyarizing tendencies affected these institutions first). Moreover, the railway policy became a neuralgic point in Hungarian–Croatian relations. Railway lines built according to the interests of Hungarian foreign trade and the consistent disregard of Croatian traffic and trade needs made the railway a real emblem of exploitation. Damaging railway lines thus had practical, economical, and national motivations, added to which the railway network was a spectacular modern achievement, and a strong visual marker of the homogenizing state.

Railway buildings were constructed according to a type design, and they thus became the first public buildings that created uniformity in the countryside throughout Transleithania. They represented state presence and were not adjusted to local architectural or spatial arrangement traditions. On the contrary, they exhibited the superiority of the (modernizing, homogenizing) center. The contrast was often spectacular between local conditions and the railway buildings, as expressed by Rezső Havass, president of the Hungarian Association of Geographers and main theorist of Hungarian imperial ambitions towards the Balkans. When traveling to Fiume by train, Havass found the countryside uninteresting: “Dugaresa is […] an insignificant little place. Houses are built of wood and covered by reed. The next station is Generalszki Sztol. Also an insignificant place. […] Third station, Touin. Small place. Next station Ogulin, a town with 2,000 inhabitants.” The unique things that caught his eye were railway buildings, which, in contrast were all “built with charm, taste, and show cleanliness and practical arrangement,”74 that is, they reflect the achievements of the modern state in the fields of culture, hygiene, and engineering. This contrast was obviously perceived by locals as well, but they presumably had emotional attachments to the wooden houses (their homes) and certainly some resentment for the railway stations.

Infrastructural networks not only represented the state in rural areas, they also re-hierarchized rural space. Distance to smaller or larger centers became a determining factor in the prosperity of different localities. This dependence on infrastructure became spectacular with the rearrangement of transport routes and the decline of certain towns as a result. By damaging railway lines, villagers could find temporary relief from this increased dependency. The direct link to the center, however, sometimes gave hope. The aforementioned inhabitants of fire-damaged Nova Gradiška, for instance, expressed several times their hope that the emperor Franz Joseph would indemnify them “once the train arrives.”75 Whether it was threatening or promising, infrastructure that created direct links to centers made it obvious that innovation was also an instrument of power, and this may explain, at least in part, why elements of this infrastructure often became targets of discontent.

When networks recreated relations of dependency and hierarchies, they required mental adaptation and flexibility. This was just as true on the national level, as it was related to interurban public transport, which, as András Sipos notes in his introduction to an almanac of Hungarian urban history, was “not only a technical and institutional innovation but also a social one. Infrastructure meant greater comfort, saving time and labor, but it also required manifold learning processes and adaptation. An attitude had to be formed, […] which accepted as natural that everyday life depends on centralized supply systems, and this went hand in hand with unprecedented bureaucratic regulation and control of individual life.”76 This control of individual life by increasingly influential urban centers found concrete manifestation in networks and the roles these networks played in the regulation and homogenization of everyday life were often rejected in rural areas. In the microcosm where bureaucrats had already been seen as personifications of a hostile power, new networks with their employees in uniforms became easily identifiable with the same concepts of the enemy.

In conclusion, networks became irritating factors due to their symbolic role in making the state present in rural areas, due to their symbolic importance as embodiments of modernity, and also because they increased ways in which a given locality was dependent on other communities and, in particular, urban centers. The spread of these networks did not simply mean the growing presence of technical innovations in the rural sphere, but also “decisions made between alternatives in the specific fields of influence,”77 or in other words, the new hierarchies. In 1883, the construction of these new networks had only just begun, so the reactions of people in rural areas to their presence were rather vague. Further research is required to follow the future development of these feelings and responses.


The 1883 peasant uprising in Croatia has been described in the secondary literature by two main attributes: anti-Hungarian and anti-modernist. In this essay, I add a layer of nuance to the former and complexity to the latter. Stresses affecting the peasantry were partly caused by modernizing campaigns, and the struggle to cope with modernization was a social process with a significance comparable to the significance of processes of national awakening and the transition in rural communities to capitalist practices. The archival documents suggest that these three processes were deeply intertwined. This intertwining was reinforced by the ways in which modernizing elites were regarded as representatives of a national other, and the separation of the anti-Hungarian and the anti-modernist features of the uprising served exclusively analytical purposes. Anti-modern gestures were indeed often dressed up in romantic anti-capitalist or, more frequently, nationalist costumes, partly because the vocabulary and the symbolism of nationalism was accessible and made it easier to grasp complex phenomena of other nature as well.

The archival documents concerning the peasant uprising in Croatia in 1883, which offer first and foremost insights into the state’s perspective on the events, can also be read for the glimpses they provide into prevailing perceptions among the peasantry concerning modernization. Rumors and behaviors mentioned or described in these documents and characterized, both in the documents and in the secondary literature, as irrational can be interpreted as reasonable responses to the very real threats of modernization for rural communities. Specifically, the ways in which the peasantry responded with hostility and violence to spaces and figures associated with modernization and various symbols also associated with this process make it very clear that modernization was seen by the peasantry as a potential danger. Thus, we should abandon the assumption that elite imaginations of modernity and modernization simply trickled down to the peasantry or that peasants accepted the teleology of modernization without criticism or anxiety.

Archival Sources

Hrvatski Državni Arhiv [Croatian National Archives], Zagreb

HR-HDA-78 Zemaljska vlada, Predsjedništvo. 1881–1883 [Documents of the government’s presidency]



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Andrić, Ivo. The Bridge on the Drina. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Biondich, Mark. Stjepan Radić, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization, 19041928. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: Torchbook/Harper & Row, 1978.

Eszik, Veronika. “A Small Town’s Quest for Modernity in the Shadow of the Big City: The Case of Senj and Fiume.” Hungarian Historical Review 10, no. 4 (2021): 752–82. doi: 10.38145/2021.4.706

Fónagy, Zoltán. “Kollektív erőszak az 1848-as paraszti mozgalmakban: Tipológiai kísérlet” [Collective violence in the 1848 peasant movements: A typology]. Századok 154, no. 6 (2020): 1165–86.

Friel, Brian. Translations: A Play. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.

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Gras, Alain. Grandeur et dépendance: Sociologie des macro-systèmes techniques. Paris: PUF, 1993.

Gross, Mirjana. Počeci Moderne Hrvatske: Neoabsolutizam u Civilnoj Hrvatskoj i Slavoniji 18501860 [The beginnings of modern Croatia: Neoabsolutism in civil Croatia–Slavonia 1850–1860]. Zagreb: Globus, 1985.

Havass, Rezső. “A károlyváros-fiumei vasútvonal ismertetése tájképi szempontból” [Description of the landscapes on the railway line Karlovac–Fiume]. Földrajzi Közlemények 6, no. 5 (1878): 153–65.

Hoffmann, Christhard. “‘The New’ as a (Jewish) Threat: Anti-modernism and Antisemitism in Germany.” In Forestillinger om “Den Andre”-Images of Otherness, edited by Line Alice Ytrehus, 99–114. Kristiansand: Hoyskoleforlaget AS, 2001.

Katus, László. “A mezőgazdaság tőkés fejlődésének főbb vonásai az Osztrák–Magyar Monarchia délszlávlakta területein” [Main features of the capitalist development of agriculture in Austro-Hungarian territories inhabited by South Slavs]. Történelmi Szemle 2, no. 3–4 (1959): 354–404.

Katus, László. A Tisza-kormány horvát politikája és az 1883. évi horvátországi népmozgalmak [Croatian politics of the Tisza-government and the popular movements of 1883]. Budapest: Századok Különlenyomat, 1960.

Kehlmann, Daniel. Die Vermessung der Welt. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2009.

Marin, Irina. Peasant Violence and Antisemitism in Early Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Meißl, Gerhard. “Hálózatok és a városi tér: A technikai infrastruktúra modernizálása és szerepe Bécs fejlődésében a Ferenc József-i korban” [Networks and the urban space: Modernization and role of the technical infrastructure in the development of Vienna during the reign of Franz Joseph]. URBS magyar várostörténeti évkönyv 4, no. 1 (2007): 63–80.

Morelon, Claire. “Social Conflict, National Strifle, or Political Battle? Violence and Strikebreaking in Late Habsburg Austria.” European History Quarterly 49, no. 4 (2019): 650–76. doi: 10.1177/026569141987556

Moser, Peter, and Tony Varley. “The state and agricultural modernisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe.” In Integration through Subordination: The Politics of Agricultural Modernisation in Industrial Europe, edited by Peter Moser, and Tony Varley, 13–39. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. doi: 10.1484/M.RURHE-EB.5.106191

Pavličević, Dragutin. Narodni pokret 1883. u Hrvatskoj [National movement of 1883 in Croatia]. Zagreb: Sveučilišna naklada Liber, 1980.

Pesty, Frigyes. Száz politikai és történeti levél Horvátországról [A hundred political and historical lettres about Croatia]. Budapest: Akadémiai könyvkereskedés, 1885.

Petrungaro, Stefano. Kamenje i puške: Društveni protest na hrvatskom selu krajem XIX. stoljeća [Rocks and rifles: Social protest in the Croatian countryside at the end of the nineteenth century]. Zagreb: Srednja Europa, 2011.

Petrungaro, Stefano. “Popular Protest Against Hungarian Symbols in Croatia (1883–1903): A Study in Visual History.” Cultural and Social History 13, no. 4 (2016): 503–20. doi: 10.1080/14780038.2016.1237441

Radić, Antun. “Što je ‘napredak’?” [What is “progress?”]. Dom, December 27, 1901.

Sipos, András. “Bevezetés” [Introduction]. URBS magyar várostörténeti évkönyv 2, no. 1 (2007): 9–11.

Sokcsevits, Dénes. Horvátország a 7. századtól napjainkig [Croatia from the seventh century to our days]. Budapest: Mundus Egyetemi Kiadó, 2011.

Solymossy, Sándor. “Úti rajzok” [Travel pieces]. In Adriai képek: Magyar útirajzok [Images from the Adriatic: Hungarian travel pieces], edited by Csaba Kiss Gy., 271–310. Budapest: Új Palatinus Könyvesház Kft., 2008 [1901].

Utješenović, Ognjeslav Ostrožinski. Die Hauskommunionen der Südslaven: Eine Denkschrift zur Beleuchtung der volksthümlichen Acker- und Familienverfassung des serbischen und des kroatischen Volkes. Vienna: F. Manz & Compagnie, 1859.

Utješenović, Ognjeslav Ostrožinski. Die Militärgränze und die Verfassung: Eine Studie über den Ursprung und das Wesen der Militärgränzinstitution und die Stellung derselben zur Landesverfassung. Vienna: F. Manz & Compagnie, 1861.

Volkov, Shulamit. The Rise of Popular Antimodernism in Germany: The Urban Master Artisans, 1873–1896. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

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Župan, Dinko. „Kulturni i intelektualni razvoj u Hrvatskoj u ʻdugomʼ 19. stoljeću” [Cultural and intellectual development in Croatia in the long nineteenth century]. In Temelji moderne Hrvatske. Hrvatske zemlje u “dugom” 19. stoljeću [The bases of modern Croatia: Croatian lands in the long nineteenth century], edited by Vlasta Švoger, and Jasna Turkalj, 273–308. Zagreb: Matica hrvatska, 2016.

1 The transformation of the rural world of late nineteenth-century Croatia included the dissolution of the so-called zadrugas, farming cooperatives on estates owned commonly by extended families, as well as the abolition of the Military Frontier and the privileged status of soldier-farmers with it in 1881, the introduction of more capitalistic practices in agriculture, and new cadastral surveys along with a new tax system. As the list suggests, an extreme level of adaptation was required to make rural life endurable.

2 This term is used but not explained in the secondary literature in Hungarian about the 1883 events. See Sokcsevits, Horvátország, 392–94.

3 Pavličević, Narodni pokret.

4 Katus, “A mezőgazdaság,” and Katus, A Tisza-kormány.

5 One cannot shirk the task of providing some sort of definition of the polysemous and overused term “modernization.” As my research interest concerns the experiences and emotional responses of peasants to the new, however, I do not need precise conceptualizations. I argue, rather, as Shulamit Volkov did in her seminal The Rise of Popular Antimodernism in Germany. Volkov claims that “popular antimodernism emerged as a reaction to the process of modernization, not to one or another of its manifestations,” and that it was a profound and “generalized hostility towards all forces that seemed to weaken the traditional economy and society and threaten old life styles and values.” I will argue that the ideas of modernization, first and foremost the salutary nature of progress, had an analyzable reception among members of the peasantry. However, to narrow the scope of the investigation in order to ensure that it remained feasible, I concentrated on reactions to urban modernization (urban–rural controversies) and reactions to spectacular technical modernity. Volkov, The Rise of Popular Antimodernism, 10.

6 HR-HDA-78-6 Zemaljska vlada. Predsjedništvo. 1881–1883: Boxes 181–84. In the following: HR-HDA-Pr.Zv.

7 I borrow in this essay an idea found in a volume of the series Rural History in Europe, according to which the state’s attitude towards the agrarian world can be described as “integration through subordination,” given that subordination “to the values and production logic of manufacturing industry is a major consequence for the farming population and agriculture of the state’s modernising efforts.” Moser and Varley, “The state and agricultural modernisation,” 26.

8 Marin, Peasant Violence, 42.

9 Like the Austro-Hungarian Settlement of 1867, the Hungarian–Croatian Compromise was also concluded to redefine the legal statuses of nations within the Empire. Although the document recognized Croatia–Slavonia as an autonomous political nation with its own territory, it granted limited home rule to Croatia mainly by the fact that the country’s finances were controlled by Budapest. Internal affairs were autonomously managed, while foreign and military policy were integrated into the dualist system of post-Settlement Austria–Hungary.

10 Sokcsevits, Horvátország, 392–94.

11 As described in Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen.

12 See most importantly: Van Ginderachter and Beyen, Nationhood from Below.

13 Biondich, Stjepan Radić, 21–25.

14 Report of Ognjeslav Utješenović to the government from the village of Zlatar. September 2, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3653/1883.

15 HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 4580/1883.

16 Utješenović, Die Hauskommunionen.

17 Utješenović, Die Militärgränze.

18 Utješenović considered the zadrugas beneficial, and he regarded the introduction of capitalist practices into the world of agriculture rather dangerous, given that—he argued—it had led to extreme polarization and pauperization in Western Europe. The lack of Croatian industrial sites alarmed him less than the way in which Western industrialization had taken place. All in all, private property in his eyes was not a guarantee of greater productivity. On the contrary, he believed that zadrugas could provide shelter against pauperization and thus lead to better economic performance. According to him, Western civilizers threatened traditional community bonds and morals and were toxic to South Slavs in general.

19 Gross, Počeci Moderne Hrvatske, 216–19.

20 In this, an article by Stefano Petrungaro provided the model for me: Petrungaro, “Popular protest.”

21 “Távirat Zágrábból” [Telegraph from Zagreb], Nemzet, September 3, 1883.

22 Petrungaro, “Popular protest.”

23 Petrungaro, “Popular protest,” 509–10. Contemporaries emphasized mainly the nationalistic hatreds, but the disorientation of peasants was also clear to them. See the below the citations from Frigyes Pesty. Pesty, Száz politikai, 33.

24 A press report is cited in Pavličević, Narodni pokret, 265.

25 Report of the Stubica prefecture to the sub-county of Zlatar. August 29, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3454/1883.

26 Report of Ognjeslav Utješenović from Zlatar relating to the events of several villages. September 2, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3653/1883.

27 Pavličević, Narodni pokret, 265.

28 Eszik, “A Small Town’s Quest.”

29 Izidor Vuich’s report about the conditions in Senj. August 29, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3442/1883. My emphasis.

30 Marin, Peasant Violence, 39.

31 Morelon, “Social Conflict,” 661.

32 On the role of rumors in peasant movements see Marin, Peasant Violence, 39–41.

33 Sometimes even fears concerning taxes fears also suggest anxieties concerning the state’s intrusion into the countryside. Especially after 1897, when the news about the law of civil marriage spread in the villages, rumors about taxing marriage, birth, and other family events circulated in great numbers. Clearly, the fear was about the state invading the private sphere. Petrungaro, Kamenje i puške, 46–50; 68.

34 Petrungaro, “Popular protest,” 506.

35 We can assume that if the real reason for fear had been Magyarization, the subject would have been education and language use. I have not found a single sign of this kind of fear in the archival documents. Admittedly, this may be a consequence, at least in part, of widespread illiteracy. Around 1880 in Croatia–Slavonia, ca. three quarters of the population was illiterate. Under such circumstances, everything unknown coming from urban centers or any kind of (state) power could be understood as some form of Magyarization. Župan, “Kulturni i intelektualni razvoj u Hrvatskoj,” 273.

36 Report of the municipal officer from Nova Gradiška. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3072/1883.

37 Report from the villages of Gora, Kraberčan, Klasnić, Maligradac, and Maja. September 9, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 183. 3821/1883.

38 The report is cited in Biondich, Stjepan Radić, 25.

39 Two examples from Nova Gradiška and from Zlatar: The prefect’s report from Nova Gradiška. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3072/1883; Ognjeslav Utješenović’s report from Zlatar. September 2, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3653/1883.

40 One should not miss the irony of the fact that, according to the author of the report, anti-Hungarian riots were provoked by Hungarian instigators. “Zágrábból jelentik” [Reported from Zagreb], Nemzet, September 2, 1883. A

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid.

43 The foreignness of teachers in rural communities is illustrated by a Croatian text in which only the word “teacher” is written in German: “Da sam ja vlada, ja bi objesio i Lehrera i popa i sve činovnike […]!” That is: “If it were up to me, I would hang the teacher, and the pope, and all the bureaucrats […]!” The source cites a peasant from the small village of Brđani, a certain Filip Pavlović. The district prefect’s report to Ramberg, Petrinja. September 22, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 183. 3983/1883.

44 Pesty, Száz politikai, 33.

45 Solymossy, “Úti rajzok,” 309.

46 This attitude is also present in the multitude of sources in which instigators (students from Zagreb, activists of the Party of Right, foreigner socialists, etc.) have the leading part. The underlying idea of these texts is that the peasantry was not able to make its own decisions. See also Marin, Peasant Violence, 50.

47 An outstanding exception—although in a very different, West European context—is Alder, The Measure of All Things.

48 Pavličević, Narodni pokret, 14.

49 Telegraph from Zlatar to ask for reinforcements. August 26, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 181. 3306/1883.

50 Pavličević, Narodni pokret, 60.

51 Cited in Pavličević, Narodni pokret, 38.

52 Report of the district authority from Ogulin. August 30, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 181. 3457/1883.

53 According to François Jarrige, the engineer, the scientist, and the industrial entrepreneur were the “heroes of progress.” Fureix and Jarrige, La modernité désenchantée, 57.

54 As has happened a century earlier in France: Alder, The Measure of All Things.

55 Radić, “Što je ‘napredak’?,” Dom, December 27, 1901, 424–25.

56 Sloboda, September 19, 1883, 1.

57 Pavličević, Narodni pokret, 67, 94.

58 Burke, Popular Culture, 209.

59 Although I cannot, in this essay, offer anything resembling a thorough discussion of the questions that arise here as they are treated in works of fiction, it is worth noting how measuring things is a recurrent subject of writings dealing with conflicts over civilizational processes. In the Austro–Hungarian context, the best known example is the Nobel-prize winning novel by Ivo Andrić, The Bridge. I would also mention Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World and Brian Friel’s Translations.

60 Ladislav Mihanović district prefect reports from Nova Gradiška. October 8, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 183. 4320/1883.

61 Pavličević, Narodni pokret, 80.

62 Handwritten pamphlets: HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3072/1883. The printed one is the attachment of a county report, which dwells on the fears of Jews in the region, and in addition to the pamphlet, it contains a local Croatian-language paper that reports the Hungarian legal case. The count proposes the confiscation of the latter. Also attached was an antisemitic comic which arrived from Hungary in a great number of copies but was confiscated by the authorities. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 184. 4580/1883.

63 Hoffmann, “‘The New’,” 105.

64 Ibid., 101.

65 Jews, of course, could be made scapegoats for practically anything. One finds a telling example in the village of Slunj, where peasants claimed that the attack on the local post office was the idea of a certain David Rendeli. Rendeli himself lived in the same building and also kept a shop and a bar in it, but by a distorted logic, he was said to have invented the attack so that he would be able to call for military help, and the soldiers arriving to restore order would eat and drink and spend their money in his shops. Report of the district authority of Slunj to Ramberg. September 21, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 183. 3981/1883.

66 Fónagy, “Kollektív erőszak,” 1179.

67 Utiešenović, count of Varaždin reports to the government, Krapina. September 18, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3866/1883. In the same report a suggested solution is cited: “The village of Ivanca humbly asks for the creation of saving banks in villages, where it would be possible to obtain a loan with moderate interest.”

68 It is worth treating the ethnonym “Croatian” with caution. As in the case of “Hungarian,” it could mean many different things. One plausible solution is that it meant simple people as opposed to members of the middle or upper classes.

69 The municipality of Stubica reports to the sub-county of Zlatar. August 29, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3454/1883.

70 Telegraph from Zlatar. August 29, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 181. 3313/1883.

71 Report to the Royal Telegraph Directorate. August 29, 1883. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 184. 5582/1883.

72 The sociologist Alain Gras describes these increased dependencies in relation, for instance, to the electrical grid: Gras, Grandeur et dépendance.

73 Katus, “A mezőgazdaság.”

74 Havass, “A károlyváros-fiumei vasútvonal,” 156–58.

75 Report of the municipal officer from Nova Gradiška. HR-HDA-Pr.Zv. 78. 6. Box 182. 3072/1883.

76 Sipos, “Bevezetés,” 11. On urban spaces and networks in late nineteenth-century Vienna see Meißl, “Hálózatok és a városi tér.”

77 Sipos, “Bevezetés,” 11.


From the Austrian-Hungarian Point of View: An der schönen blauen Donau and the Accursed Black Mountain Wreath in the Balkans

Albert Doja
University of Lille
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 11 Issue 4  (2022):824–869 DOI 10.38145/2022.4.824

In this paper, I contribute to the debate about hegemonic relations between the West European “core” and southeast European “margins” by showing the links between political institutions and knowledge production in the metropolitan Austrian-Hungarian areas on peripheral southeast European societies, including Albania. In particular, I address new aspects of a continuous resonance in the politically instrumentalized theories of the Illyrian origins of the Albanian language and the traditional tenets of Albanian history, culture, and society. In the course of discussion, I address their promotion in the works of key scholars from Leibniz to Thalloczy and Nopcsa serving the pervasive hegemonic and expansionist interests of Austrian-Hungarian imperial colonialism. Arguably, the effects of methodological imperialism are reproduced later to legitimate other, similar purposes of political, economic, and social control by means of cultural and political engineering in national-communist and post-communist Albania.

Keywords: knowledge production, Illyrian theory, Albanian studies, history, cultural traditions, Leibniz, Thalloczy, Nopcsa, Austria-Hungary, Albania


The focus on the history of institutions, the careers of particular individuals, and intellectual biographies, trajectories, and followers is crucial to understanding scholarly networks between metropolitan Austrian-Hungarian areas and peripheral southeast European societies, including Albania, much as it is similarly indispensable to any discussion of the relations between mainstream and local traditions. The number of solid studies that address the ideological foundations and political practices of scholarly production in and on southeast Europe has also been rising steadily, at least since the 1990s. The critical handling of ethnographic-historical sources and the actual contributions by practitioners in the discipline produced within certain methodological and theoretical frameworks involving Austrian-Hungarian intellectual influence may also be of equal importance in assessing the development of Albanian studies.1

Despite the absence of an actual West European colonial presence in southeast Europe and Albania, the expansion of the parameters of imperialism and colonialism are nevertheless applicable and, if contextualized, they are useful and fruitful categories of interpretation. The many arguments for a “metaphorical” or “surrogate” understanding of colonialism and pseudo-imperialism demonstrate the rich symbolic possibilities of a specific political system which in its very development points immediately to manifest Western imperialist moorings.2 Often such arguments have contextualized the disguised “supra-colonial,” “crypto-colonial,” or “self-colonizing” conditions,3 which are arguably new terms for the old concepts of internal colonialism, post-colonialism, and neo-colonialism, which elsewhere I have shown to have permeated public life in Albania and Kosovo.4 Such a contextualization is crucial in the historical and the current production of any knowledge at a given time and in a given place, as any knowledge or “theory is always for someone and for some purpose.”5 This can also contribute substantially to a more nuanced understanding of how Austrian-Hungarian colonialism maintained and continues to maintain a surprising degree of cultural and political influence far beyond its official spheres of power.

The critical review of the scholarly production on Albania and southeast Europe offers a reconstruction of the shifting ideological foundations of the cultural particularism and cultural determinism in the writings of Austrian-Hungarian scholars on Albania and the Albanians. As with German-writing “non-traditions” more specifically,6 the task is therefore not simply to summarize previous and established insights and opinions, but rather to question the previously established opinions that today seem to be one-sided or condemnable. Ultimately, we need to consider how to engage constructively with the past in ways that may develop a vision for renewed approaches within Albanian studies from the perspective of those critical and internationally oriented positions that we need to strengthen and promote today.

Illyrian Theory of Albanian Ethnogenesis

Among the classical earlier cases are the reflections of prominent polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), who, with a show of unusual intuition, first speculated on the Illyrian origins of the Albanian language. He showed sporadic interest in Albania and Albanians since his first writings, namely in March 1672, in relation to his broader encyclopedic interests.7 He involved himself more directly in Albanian issues during his first stay in Vienna (1688–1689), when he tried to attract the attention and interest of the Austrian emperor. The fall of Ottoman-captured Belgrade to the Austrian imperial army on September 6, 1688, gave him the opportunity to address Emperor Leopold I with a memorandum known as De Albania occupanda,8 in which he advised the continuation of the military offensive until the Ottomans had been forced out of the Balkans.

In his later writings, Leibniz was interested and participated in the intellectual discussions regarding philological and historical issues about the Albanian language. Namely, he was in doubt about the Slavic origins of the Albanian language. “As this language prevails along the Adriatic coast, it is incorrectly called lingua illirica [i.e. Slavic language],” whereas the language of the ancient Illyrians must have left a mark in the Epirus highlands.9 He then assumed an Illyrian origins of Albanian, “from where we learn what the language of the ancient Illyrians was,”10 “whose remains survive in the today’s special language of the Epirots.”11 He preferred to refer to Albanian as an Epirotic language, i.e. the language of inhabitants of Epirus.12 Current critical readings often notice the formulation in less than a single line of Leibniz’s assumption of the Illyrian origins of Albanian language as an opinio communis of the intellectual quarters of the time, which must have led Leibniz to a “pseudo-identification of Albanian as an Illyrian language.”13 It was also considered “an extraordinary intuition of the genius Leibniz” in the history of Albanologie,14 which “might be weighed up to be correct according the standards of today’s knowledge.”15

Leibniz inferred his assumptions from a polyglottic situation in which Albanian-speaking people lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under Ottoman rule. Though largely confined to the domain of oral expression, since at least the sixteenth century, Albanian language nourished several ecclesiastical literatures.16 Writings in Albanian were more frequent in the North, facilitated by the major Catholic evangelization efforts launched under the patronage of Propaganda Fide. They included publications in Albanian of a Catholic Missal by Gjon (John) Buzuku in 1555, the Christian Doctrine by Luca Matranga in 1592, and another Christian Doctrine and the Roman Ritual and Mirror of Confession by Peter Budi in 1618 and 1621. In addition, a first Albanian Dictionary was published by Frank Bardhi in 1635, and a first substantial work of religious literature not translated but originally written in Albanian was published by Peter Bogdani in 1685.

Despite their limited dissemination, texts written in Albanian at that time may have stimulated the cultivation of the Albanian language, which, in combination with ecclesiastical rivalries and a differential opposition to Ottoman rule, must have promoted an inherent cultural process of differentiation among Albanian speakers in the western Balkans. I have argued elsewhere that the contradicting motivations of language politics, political resistance, Enlightenment ideas, Orthodox evangelism, ecclesiastical friction, and missionary confrontation must have created the conditions for a boundary work of the social reorganization of linguistic and cultural differences.17 From the second half of the sixteenth century, this boundary work may have placed great value on belonging to a linguistic-cultural community, engendering a distinctive consciousness that the Catholic missions deliberately strengthened.

Leibniz addressed his memorandum known as De Albania occupanda18 in these circumstances, just as he anticipated later his assumption of the Illyrian origins of Albanian based on the Albanian linguistic material produced precisely in this context. He clearly stated this when he showed particular pleasure concerning “a book and a dictionary of Albanian language, from where we learn what the language of ancient Illyrians was.”19 Leibniz must have based his speculations about Albanians and the Albanian language on Albanian texts by authors like Peter Budi in 1621 and Frank Bardhi in 1635, who considered Albania and Epirus, Albanians and Epirots, or Albanian and Epirotica language as simply one and the same country, people, and language.

At that time, the modern term “Epirus” was used as a synonym for “Albania” (Epirus sive Albania, or Epirus hodie Albania). More precisely, before 1622, “Upper Albania” was identified with “Western Macedonia” and “Epirus” was identified with “Lower Albania,”20 which was used as an alternative to Epirus until the nineteenth century,21 while the Epirots and the Epirotica language were identified with the Albanian people and Albanian language. In Skanderbeg’s own words in October 1460, “se le nostre croniche non menteno noy ne chiamamo Epiroti.”22 In 1483, the main Epirot character in a Venetian play used swearwords in native Albanian (Epirota 11.803).23 In 1593, Pope Clement VIII equated Epirots with the Albanians (opera Epirotarum, quos vocant Albanenses).24 Again in 1685, Peter Bogdani equated Epirus with Lower Albania (Arbëni Poshtërë).25

The marginal annotations on the linguistic material that Leibniz thumbed through in the Albanian text of the Christian doctrine by Peter Budi were taken, quite literally, from the “Remarks on the Epirotic, i.e. Albanian, Language and Letters” introducing the Latin-Albanian Dictionary by Frank Bardhi.26 Among the first texts, Leibniz observed undoubtedly Bardhi’s remark that “the special idiom of the Epirotic people or Albanian language is different in the way of speaking both from the Greek and from the Illyric, or Slavic, even though it spread out between the two; people’s boundaries and the environment seem to have been obtained [from it].”27

While in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the term “Illyrian” remained distinct from “Albanian” as a people and language name, and was rather used as a synonym for “Slavic,” Albanian prelates and intellectuals forcefully insisted on the distinction between the Albanian language and people on the one hand, and the Greek and Illyrian (i.e. Slavic) languages and peoples on the other. In addition, Albanian linguistic and cultural distinction grew stronger through the more political rather than the religious resistance among Albanian-speaking Catholics to Dalmatian bishops,28 which is clear evidence of a boundary work of opposition to both Slavic Catholicism and Orthodox Slavic speakers.

Alongside the observations noted by Leibniz in the Dictionarium Latino-Epiroticum (seù Albanesiarum), Frank Bardhi also published a substantial apology of Skanderbeg in 1636, intended against Slavic megalomaniac and brash historical fabrications, in order to restore George Kastrioti the Epirot, known as Skanderbeg, as the invincible Epirotic prince of Albania.29 At the same time, Peter Mazreku, Albanian archbishop of Antivari (1624–1634) and apostolic administrator of Serbia (1634–1642), called on the Holy See for a full mission program, including the establishment of an Albanian college, distinct from the “Greek” (Orthodox) and “Illyrian” (Slavic) colleges in Rome.30 He clearly advocated the construction of Albanian Catholicism in connection with the Catholic universality and in distinction and separate from the Slavic Catholicism known at that time as “Illyrianism.”31 In turn, as Albanian Catholic Archbishop of Skopje Peter Bogdani reported, Slavs denounced the Catholic religion as arbanaška vjera, the “Albanian faith.”32 Overall, similar ideas and actions set the conceptual and substantial framework for how to think about Albanian linguistic and cultural distinctiveness in the seventeenth century.

At about the same time as Leibniz, the learned Father Giorgio Guzzetta (1682–1756), who was from Piana degli Albanesi near Palermo in Sicily, made similar assumptions about Albanians and their language.33 He used the same texts written by these North Albanian authors such as Peter Budi, Frank Bardhi, and Peter Bogdani, whom he called “modern Macedonians,” while Frank Bardhi identified as “Epirot” (Franciscum Blanchum Epirotam) and Peter Bogdani as “Macedonian” (Pietro Bogdano Macedone) to distinguish themselves from the Slavs and from the Greeks. They were well educated in Latin at the Propaganda Fide College, and they took the initiative to write many books in their own langauge.34 For Guzzetta, modern Albanian was a mix of Latin and ancient Albanian, which he identified with Ancient Macedonian,35 while he insisted that Albanians should be distinguished from the Greeks and from the Slavs and be recognized instead as the direct descendants of ancient Macedonians and Epirots.36

In his earlier memorandum De Albania occupanda, Leibniz highlighted with sound arguments the appropriate geostrategic position and the political and economic advantages of the Habsburg House, were this superpower of the time to orient its expansion toward the Albanian-speaking areas in the Balkans.37 In addition, according to Leibniz, the Habsburg Empire would be welcome as a liberator, not an invader, because the Austrian possession of the western part of the Balkans would enable and ensure in compensation the much sought freedom and prosperity of these areas. At first glance, Leibniz acted as an encyclopedist, but he also believed that “close to the very mighty there are various opportunities for useful enterprises.”38 Actually, his intention was to gain the sympathy of the Austrian Emperor, as well as a suitable position as a political advisor to the Habsburg court, which he ultimately obtained in 1712.

Leibniz’s speculations coincided with the political and military developments experienced by the central and western Balkans at the end of the seventeenth century during the Great Turkish-Austrian War. It is perhaps not a mere matter of coincidence that just one year after his memorandum, in September 1689, the Holy League army established its main military camp in Kosovo.39 This also coincided with the Albanian anti-Ottoman movements of the seventeenth century, which culminated in the important part played by the aforementioned Archbishop of Skopje Peter Bogdani (1630–1689), who had already organized anti-Ottoman resistance among the Albanian Catholics during the 1684–1687 Morean Ottoman-Venetian war. In 1689, the Albanian archbishop was again at the head of the North Albanian Catholics who joined the Austrian army in Kosovo against the Ottomans.40

Current critical readings often make note of Leibniz’s interests in and speculations on the Illyrian origins of the Albanian language, focusing only on his interest in Albanian from the perspective of language history,41 while ignoring the political implications. These implications are treated simply as the “personal traits of any human character,” as is assumed for instance with his intention to obtain a promotion in his personal career as political advisor to the mighty ruler of the time, which would enable him to fulfill his long-term plans in his intellectual-scientific career.42 This kind of intellectual-scientific collusion with “the personal interests of a human character” is ignored as being necessarily oblivious to the ways in which it serves the hegemonic political aspirations of the superpower of the time. In addition, these issues are deemed as overcoming the limits of a very albanologische research discussion, as long as the social engagement and intellectual activity of the scholar remains within the parameters of the moral and ethical code of scientific research of the time.

Viewed from this perspective, the hegemonic policies of any European great power at any time might have supported in one way or another speculations similar to those by Leibniz on the future of Albanian-speaking areas after his suggestion of their inclusion within the Habsburg Empire. Of course, Leibniz cannot be faulted if the speculations he ventured for the sake of his own personal career contributed to the tragic exodus of Christian populations from Kosovo and North Albania during the Turkish-Austrian War. Nor can he be faulted for the future relationships between the possible instrumentalization of Austrian-Hungarian Albanologie and the hegemonic policy of political, military, economic, and cultural expansion of the Dual Monarchy in the Albanian-speaking areas in the second half of the nineteenth century until its dissolution after the end of World War I. Again, it is not Leibniz’s fault if his assumption on the origins of the Albanian language as the “language of the ancient Illyrians” is stigmatized in our time as the “official thesis” that is said to have shaped the cultural-mythological foundations of albanologische studies.

Austrian-Hungarian Kulturpolitik and the Foundation of Albanologie

The context of Habsburg Austria-Hungary shows clearly the extent to which imperial interests informed the politics of knowledge on southeast Europe. The particular Habsburg brand of imperial expansionist energies were of short distances,43 and they were projected into the Ottoman territories in southeastern Europe rather than overseas. In the nineteenth-century context of the hegemony of Russia in Eastern Europe, the displacement of Austro-Hungarian political and economic interests out of Germany and Italy brought the concentration of the foreign policy of the Habsburg Monarchy on southeast Europe as the only way to resist Pan-slavism and Italian imperialism.

A premier “colonial situation” for Austria-Hungary was located in the former Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were occupied in 1878 and finally annexed by the Monarchy in 1908. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decade or so of the twentieth, the continued weakening of the political and economic position of Austria-Hungary in the other southeast European states, which were becoming increasingly independent, fostered a particular interest among Austro-Hungarian policy makers and thinkers in Albanian-speaking areas. Austria-Hungary played an important role in the formation of an Albanian independent state in 1912, and Albania acquired political independence only at the cost of massive economic dependence.

Surely, Austrian-Hungarian objectives were hidden behind a discourse of a “duty” to “civilize” the southeast European peoples, “improve” their living conditions, and bring the region “back” to Europe.44 The Monarchy had carefully worked out a strategy to survey Albanian natural and cultural resources, as evidenced, for instance, by typical actions of a policy of colonial rule at the initiative of the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Balkan-Kommission was founded in 1897 at the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Academy, followed by an Albanien-Kommission in 1914. In 1904, the Institut für Balkanforschung was established in Sarajevo Landesmuseum (Zemaljski Muzej) under the leadership of Carl Patsch. While it was a “domestic” institution in the Monarchy’s occupied territory, the Sarajevo institute focused its research attention on Montenegro and Albania rather than on Bosnia. With the joint sponsorship of Foreign and Trade Ministries, an Albanerkonvikt was founded in 1908 in Vienna, followed by an Albanien-Komitee in 1913 within the Österreichische Verein zur Förderung Albaniens. The General Staff of Austro-Hungarian Armies in the occupied territories finally urged a census in Bosnia in 1879 and Albania in 1918. After all, the annexation of Bosnia in 1908 was “justified” by the considerable investment in infrastructure and education, and the railway of the Balkanbahn project in the late nineteenth century was intended to include northern Albania in the Austrian-Hungarian expansionist policy.

In addition, regular research expeditions were organized by the Austro-Hungarian Academies of Sciences,45 and several scholars traveled to southeast European territories to explore the countries and the peoples. They took an interest in medieval Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, including the supposed ancient features of the history and culture of the Albanian-inhabited areas. The intensive exploration of southeastern Europe must be seen as an expression of the Austrian-Hungarian claim to face competition from Italy and take the leading role in southeast European studies, which came to be branded Balkanologie. It was influenced by the discursive conjunction of nationalism and linguistics and was dominated by philological approaches. The so called “Balkanologists” were mainly concerned with ethno-linguistics and historical linguistics, as the languages of southeastern Europe were still in a process of standardization as part of the process of linguistic nation-building. Additionally, through the de-hierarchization of culture in romantic nationalism, folk literature and customs became a legitimate subject of academic research, and in the late 1800s, folklore studies had become the major part of Balkanologie.

At the same time, the intensification of Austrian-Albanian relations in the fields of politics, commerce, culture, education, and research contributed to the emergence of a network of maritime lines, railway projects, post offices, consulates, trade companies, social welfare institutions, and credit banks. It is argued that this was a form of informal imperialism based on structural violence.46 Structural violence affects people differently in various social structures, and it is very closely linked to social injustice, widely defined as the systematic ways in which some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from achieving their full potential. It seems more persuasive to see here a form of “cultural imperialism,”47 the main thrust of which is “cultural violence.”48

Habsburg aspirations and actions intended to secure and strengthen Austrian-Hungarian political, economic, and cultural influence over Albania are a good indication of the creation and maintenance of unequal civilizational relationships. They put emphasis on the practice of promoting and imposing aspects of culture that could be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. Methods of Austrian-Hungarian cultural imperialism and cultural violence included the instrumentalization of religion, ideology, language, art, research, and education. These methods took various forms, such as an attitude or a formal policy of academic influence and research preferences aimed at reinforcing the cultural hegemony of Austrian-Hungary, which would then determine Albanian cultural values (Volkskultur) in the margins of Europe and modern civilizations (Kulturvölker).

The Monarchy had earned the right to provide religious and cultural protection (Kultusprotektorat) to Ottoman Catholics in general and more specifically to North Albanian Catholics in successive agreements with the Ottoman Sublime Porte in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the mid-nineteenth century also in agreement with the Vatican and the Propaganda Fide.49 The main target of religious, educational, and cultural activities under the cover of Kultusprotektorat was to empower a wide emancipatory and civilizational process among Catholics in North Albania. Especially after the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the political and diplomatic engagement of the Austro-Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs intensified in order to strengthen religious and cultural identity politics and promote an Albanian Catholic unit under an Austrian protectorate. Since “Albanians are a strong and totally anti-Slavic people,” they could be united into a Catholic Albanian block, which, together with Muslim Albanians, could be used as a stronghold to prevent the expansion of the Slavic Orthodox block on the eastern shores of the Adriatic.50

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Austro-Hungarian Kultusprotectorat played a prominent role in the Albanian national awakening and in expanding its own vital interests in the Balkans. However, Russia also aimed to expand in the Balkans as a protective power of the Orthodox Slavic population. With the ongoing weakening of the Ottoman Empire and growing opposition to Russia and Serbia, the Albanian question became the main objective of Austria-Hungary, which had to rival with Pan-Slavism and Italy, which since 1891 had become a new power interested in the Balkans.51 At the turn of the twentieth century, internal and international political and economic reasons to preserve its vital interests prompted the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to take an active and increasingly prominent role in the Albanian nation-building process.52 From 1896 onwards, inspired by the same cultural and religious policy applied earlier to Bosnia, the Ballhausplatz (Foreign Office) regularly elaborated various so-called Albanische Aktionspläne.53

These massive action plans went beyond the Kultusprotektorat mandate over the Catholic Albanians and sought to foster and strengthen a common historical consciousness among both Christian and Muslim Albanians with the intention of securing and strengthening the political, economic, and cultural influence of the Dual Monarchy over the whole Albanian population. They would help foster, it was hoped, a preference not only among Catholics but also among Muslim Albanians for the Habsburg Monarchy over other Powers, as both Christian and Muslim Albanians may appreciate Austro-Hungary for its religious tolerance and its resistance to Pan-slavism. By means of extensive financial support of educational and cultural activities, Austro-Hungarian policy seemed to boost the strong sense of honor and the national consciousness among Albanians, which generated a general and superficial perception that Austria-Hungary would be one of their main supporters when Ottoman rule had eventually to crumble. As a result, Albanians would have a sense of gratitude toward the Habsburg Monarchy, which in turn could give Austrian interests in Albania an advantage over other political and economic competitors, including Italy.

These plans included the development of a subset of Balkanologie, known as Albanologie, which encompassed research on Albanian history and language, including the folkloric studies (Volkskunde) of people’s culture and life worlds. A group of Austrian and Hungarian writers, with a strong interest in Albanians and their history, language, and culture, mobilized themselves to this end, and this led to the emergence of the founding generation of Albanian studies. Research expeditions in Albania undertaken by several of these scholars were intended to provide a clear picture of cultural, social, economic, and political life in the region, which could then be exploited for investment opportunities by the Dual Monarchy. Surely, there was no concrete political program for instrumental research but rather a generous stimulation of Albanologische studies, so that in a more serious situation, such as World War I, the leaders of this field of study and their findings could be put at the disposal of the Austrian state interests.

Austrian and Hungarian research institutions exploited every possible way to promote themselves systematically as the future centers for the study and presentation of southeastern Europe and Albania. They presented an agenda for continued research that promised the production of knowledge that would be useful to the military, economic, and political interests of Austria-Hungary.54 Research and publishing activity by the leading figures of Austro-Hungarian balkanologische and albanologische studies experienced a boom that paralleled the political interests of the Dual Monarchy in the height of its political and commercial rivalry with Italy and in the course of World War I, which bore witness to the military occupation and administration of the region.55 With an implicit attempt to gain recognition by the state and achieve a footing as a university discipline, the leading scholars of this movement showed an intensive interest in the study of the occupied territories in southeastern Europe, including Albania.

Albania itself as a political entity was the joint success of the Ballhausplatz Foreign Office and the Austro-Hungarian pioneers of albanologische studies, who functioned as an Albania lobby to train and prepare activists for the Albanian national movement to establish an independent Albanian nation state. The importance of the Austrian and Hungarian pioneers of albanologische studies in the imperial periphery, however few in number, together with other adventurers, travelers, traders, soldiers, and colonial consuls, is reflected and, indeed, was intensified by the development of the imperial center. Their influence can be shown not only on local people, especially the elites, but also in their decisive influence over imperialistic processes.56 The structural character of this influence reflects, as elsewhere, a growing unease with the moral, economic, systemic, cultural, and temporal facts of imperial powers.57

Scholarship went hand in hand with collaboration, if not collusion, with the military occupation and political administration of these areas, and some renowned Austrian, Hungarian, and other scholars worked on Albanian issues both for academic research and for the expansionist policy of the Dual Monarchy. Unlike Leibniz, who was an independent intellectual hoping to gain the attention and support of the Habsburg Crown, the same cannot be said of many diplomats, politicians, civil servants, and secret agents.

Among them, Johann Georg von Hahn (1811–1869) was the first but not the last diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian foreign service to work extensively on Albanian history and the Albanian language and cultural traditions.58 He was followed by a number of learned diplomats, such as Theodor Ippen (1861–1935), Alfred Rappaport (1868–1946), and August Kral (1869–1953), but also high-ranking officials of the Dual Monarchy, such as Ludwig von Thalloczy and his associates, who published the first major research and source collections on Albania.59 Others, such as Ferenc von Nopcsa (1877–1933), Carl Patsch (1865–1945), and Franz Seiner (1874–1929), were in constant contact with Habsburg political, diplomatic, and military authorities as intelligence/liaison operatives on the ground. The work of many others may also have been exploited for political and commercial strategic objectives.60 Some eminent scholars, such as Gustav Meyer (1850–1900), professor of comparative linguistics at the University of Graz, may have continued undisturbed academic research on Albanian language history. In turn, Norbert Jokl (1877–1942), senior librarian (Oberstaatsbibliothekar) at the University of Vienna, was persecuted as a Jew, discharged from his job, arrested, deported, and ultimately perished in a Nazi concentration camp. Conversely, Maximilian Lambertz (1882–1963) managed to become a member of the East German Communist Party and thrived as a professor of comparative linguistics and dean of the Faculty of Education at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig.

From the 1830s to the aftermath of World War I, many of these scholars dealt with language history and archaic cultural features of the Albanian society, including customary behavior and the so-called tribal organization. Their preferred topic was Albanian ethnogenesis, which included the question of Illyrian heritage and the extent and results of successive processes of the Hellenization, Romanization, Slavicization, and Islamicization of present-day Albanian-inhabited areas.61 In the German-speaking tradition of folklore studies (Volkskunde), they often investigated buildings, costumes, implements, customary laws, and archaic structures to elaborate survivalist theories of historical continuity and autochthony.62 Among the pioneers of Albanologie, prominent Hungarian scholars and officials such as Ludwig (Lajos) von Thalloczy and Baron Ferenc von Nopcsa were the most active Albanian lobbyists, and they both played significant roles in Austrian-Hungarian politics in the Balkans. As they became leading theoreticians of both Austro-Hungarian Albanologie and the Albanian nation-building process,63 they both represent typical cases of the speculations that were ventured on Albanian history, Albanian culture, and the Albanian state and society.

Albanian Medieval History

Lajos Thalloczy had wide-ranging Balkan interests and collected significant historical sources on the Balkan peoples, especially on Bosnian medieval history, at a time when securing Bosnia, after its occupation in 1878, became a central aim of Austro-Hungarian Balkan policy.64 From the outset, he took over covert spy missions, first in Russia and then, in the spring of 1882, in Serbia, Bulgaria, Istanbul, Greece, and finally coastal Albania. Thalloczy was sent on behalf of Hungarian political circles who were concerned by the increase of reports on foreign agitations that appeared between 1878 and 1882 in these areas. Under the cover name of a travel correspondent, he was charged with the task of providing intelligence about the attitudes of Albanian highlanders and sending secret political and economic reports, primarily to the Hungarian Minister of Trade in Budapest.65 He seems to have successfully incited several Catholic and Muslim groups in the North Albanian Highlands to revolt in 1883 against Ottoman rule, which further complicated Austro-Hungarian status quo policy in the aftermath of the fall of the Albanian League of Prizren.66 This mission nevertheless allowed Thalloczy to take a liking to the Albanians and start collecting historical data about them.

Educated in history, economy and law, Thalloczy became a history professor at the Theresianum in Vienna and the University of Budapest, and he became a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He also served in multiple positions as a senior court official (Hofrat) and director of Hofkammer archives, which came under the jurisdiction of the joint Ministry of Finance and Bosnian Affairs. From this privileged position, he pursued his interest in the medieval Balkans by publishing and analyzing document records. He was most interested in medieval Bosnia and Dalmatia, and he started to deal with Albanian issues only as a result of his interest in medieval Bosnian studies.67 At the time of the massive Albanian action plans launched by the Ballhausplatz Foreign Office at the turn of twentieth century, he may have not participated in the secret ministerial meetings, but he may have read the records and he clearly took part in the implementation of the planned actions.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there was no comprehensive overview of Albanian history and therefore no interpretation of Albanian identity from the perspective of its history from Antiquity to modern times. In the framework of the Albanian action plans developed by the Dual Monarchy with the intention of furthering the cultivation of an Albanian historical consciousness, Thalloczy was recommended by his fellow scholar and diplomat Theodor Ippen, who at the time was serving as the Austro-Hungarian consul in Shkodra, to write (anonymously) the first history book in Albanian.68 The task was to provide an easy reader that could create a unified understanding of the history of the Albanian people and a common framework of reference for the Albanian-speaking community as a whole.69 By July 1897, Thalloczy had completed the German-language manuscript, which he identified as a Populäre Geschichte der Albanesen.70 It was translated into Albanian as T’nnoλunat e Scćypniis (or “Albania Events”) by Stefan Zurani, a well-known agent of the Dual Monarchy and at that time a subordinate of Thalloczy in the Hofkammer archives.71 A few months later, 600 copies were printed under an unnamed North Albanian identified as a “Gheg who loves his country” (prei gni Gheghet ći don vênnin e vet) in a printing place with a fictitious name.72

The Ballhausplatz Foreign Office approved of and supported the plan on the provision that the history book must not be anti-Ottoman and must contain nothing suggesting that the Monarchy was in any way involved.73 In his narrative of Albanian history, Thalloczy replaced the myth of Pelasgian origin with a notion of Albanian descent from the Illyrians and created a history of the Albanians as a distinct people. He explicitly affirmed that Albanians had always had their own individual identity (selbstständige Entität), a strong “community awareness” (Stammesbewusstsein), a pronounced need for autonomy, and even a glorious history, which should make them hope for a political future.74

While it is impossible to know how this book affected the Albanian national movement, it was certainly quite popular as a product of “literary propaganda.”75 To facilitate its reception, Thalloczy explicitly adopted the Albanian perspective and deliberately used a declamatory and sermonic style of moral exhortations to national unity, which in principle would be quite unexpected of a history book. He managed to write a history book in a popular style, acceptable both in content and in form to all Albanians. The writing and publication of the history book in Albanian was seen as stepping stone in a broader literary movement to accelerate the recognition of a unified Albanian alphabet,76 which the Ballhausplatz Foreign Office would later continue with the establishment and organization of the Literary Commission of Shkodra in 1916–1918 for the promotion of a common standard Albanian language.77 More importantly, to transcend religious, regional, and dialectal divisions in Albanian society, which was particularly heterogeneous at the turn of the twentieth century, Thalloczy combined in a coherent whole the different historical perceptions of both Christian and Muslim Albanians in both North and South. To this end, he focused on periods in which there were shows of national unity and provided illustrations of a common Albanian history, common ancestry and origin, a common language, common Christian and Muslim heroes, and common Albanian virtues of bravery and heroism. He aimed to fabricate common national symbols and principles of common belonging and togetherness, which could be utilized to create social cohesion and further a modern nation-building process.

Consistent with the recommendations of Ballhausplatz Foreign Office, Thalloczy did not narrate the events of the recent past, and he did not even mention the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy among the great powers with an interest in the Balkans. In turn, he provided a clear periodization of Albanian history, insisting on Albanian autochthony, historical continuity beginning with the era of the Illyrians, and steady relations with western realms in order to show a sense of belonging to the West and a possible backup that would bring an advantage to Austria-Hungary. In doing so, he offered a brief outline of the connections between Hungarian and Albanian history, emphasizing the Illyrian presence in the Carpathian Basin and identifying the Hungarian Janos Hunyadi and his son Matthias Corvinus as allies of the Albanian Skanderbeg in the hard times fighting against the Ottomans.78

Thalloczy may have played an important role in restoring the historical Skanderbeg to a respectable position among the Albanians as the founder of a medieval independent Albania, a builder of the modern state, and a representative of European civilization who made Albania the last European defensive bastion against the Ottomans.79 He also described Ottoman rule with emphasis on the freedom fighters in Catholic North Albanian areas, and he replaced the lack of an independent Albanian state tradition with the biographies of noble families and the rise of outstanding Albanian individual personalities in the Ottoman military and political elite. This is congruent with his own view, according to which the continuity of statehood in Hungarian history was due primarily to the steadiness of the Hungarian aristocratic families and the traditions they had cultivated.

Thalloczy had begun collecting primary data in 1882 which he intended to use to prepare a definitive Albanian history for a scholarly audience, and he sought financial support for the publication of a collection of sources on medieval Albanian history, without which the history of Albania could not be written.80 The successive tenants of the Ballhausplatz Foreign Office took a considerable interest in his work, and when Austro-Hungarian interests in Albania increased during World War I, Thalloczy again hit the mark with the publication of two monumental and unsurpassed collected works of Albanian-related medieval sources and historical research.81 These works are considered the first scientific collective works on Albanian historiography, and they remain the most important and most influential works of Austro-Hungarian Albanologie.82 While he paid painstaking attention to professional aspects, supplying his edition of primary sources with a modern critical apparatus and applying the highest methodological standards of the era, the positivist spirit in which Thalloczy worked made historical synthesis a task for later generations.

Albanian Archaeology and Lifeworlds

Another remarkable record of this period came with the work and activity of Ferenc Nopcsa, who spent much of his time in northern Albania at the beginning of twentieth century. He provided a myriad of fascinating observations on Albanian life and customs, most of which were recorded in his memoirs, which are recently published both in German and in English translation.83 A Hungarian nobleman and secret agent of the Dual Monarchy, he was also active in politics, and he interfered actively in Austrian-Hungarian foreign and military affairs.

Among many things, he took an active part in the so-called Albanian campaign of 1908–1909 in the course of the annexation crisis, which was intended to relieve Austro-Hungarian troops in Bosnia and Dalmatia by helping Albanian armed bands break into Montenegro.84 In the years to come, while for Ottoman authorities he was an Austrian-Hungarian spy and agitator, he exploited any opportunity offered by Ballhausplatz Foreign Office, always pursuing his own aims, however, which made the opponents of the Monarchy see him as one of their most dangerous agents. Nopcsa had become an influential person in the political forces in North Albania, which also facilitated his research work because of the support he enjoyed among the local population. He became an Albanophilic hero for most North Albanians, and in 1913, he even self-nominated himself for the selection of a European peer to become the crowned head of the newly independent Albania.85

As a Hungarian nobleman apparently with distant kinship relations to the old Hunyadi family, Nopcsa made frequent references to the historical alliance between Skanderbeg and Hunyadi, if for no other reason than to build his own personal following among the Albanians.86 In 1916, when the Army Supreme Command needed to appoint Austro-Hungarian officers with language skills and knowledge of local life and traditions, Nopcsa served as a military officer to recruit and command the Albanian volunteer forces in the course of Albanian operations.87 He received a military decoration “in recognition of the excellent services executed in front of the enemy,” even though his military service was ultimately a total failure,88 as his plan was rather to get back his position as an intelligence officer, which was more suitable for him.

Nopcsa excelled in paleontology and geography, he established a genuine archaeological interest in the Balkans, and he is often lauded as the leading scholar of the albanologische studies of his time. His heartfelt love for the Albanians made him an important and romantic chronicler of Albanian people’s lives and archaeological heritage, and he provided important and ambitious works of a sound scholarly quality in the fields of geology, natural history, prehistory, medieval history, geography, and ethnology.89 They focus on the remains of monumental architecture and the Illyrian origins of domestic implements, cultural traditions, and customary laws. As a whole, they were meant to surpass the Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen published by Thalloczy in 1916, to which Nopcsa, to his frustration, had not been invited to contribute.

Nopcsa was the first scholar to draw attention to the similarities between the Albanian Koman culture and the Transdanubian Keszthely culture in the Carpathian Basin, and he was also first to recognize the late Antique Illyrian features that appear to be related to the tenth-century Byzantine items recovered in Albania.90 Nopcsa left a number of substantial ethnological works unpublished which were probably completed before 1923 in manuscript. Focusing on the Highland communities of North Albania and their customary laws and religious beliefs and practices, they are widely used by Albanian scholars in early Albanian translations which are only recently published.91

Whereas Hahn focused his investigations on southern and central Albania,92 the Highland areas of North Albania were central to Nopcsa and his generation of scholars. Since the mid-nineteenth century, several diplomats pursued cultural and research activities in the northern areas, after the Monarchy installed constant representation in Shkodra, the intellectual and political center of North Albania and the center of Albanian Catholicism, in which Austro-Hungarian foreign policy took an increasingly prominent part, culminating in 1916–1918. In this context, Nopcsa secured the support of the Austrian government, after explicit intervention by the Hungarian government, to have full access to official documents and a free hand in his research.93 His focus on North Albanian Catholic areas may also betray an earlier inducement of Austro-Hungarian policy aimed to separate Catholic Albania and create out of it a distinct political unit as a protectorate of the Dual Monarchy.94

However, taking into consideration his wide academic interests and his systematic publications, it can be assumed that Nopcsa might have planned to extend similar investigations in central and southern Albania.95 In addition, he based his findings on actual observations of people’s behavior, rather than on scholarly presumptions and conclusions concerning religious identification. Furthermore, the religious indifference of both Muslim and Christian Albanians on the ground offered a strong argument against the idea of some isolated Ballhausplatz officer for installing a Catholic Albania in a northern restricted territory. More importantly, Nopcsa’s efforts as an agitator in the planed Albanian campaign of 1908–1909 in the course of the annexation crisis of Bosnia were based precisely on the coordination of Muslim and Catholic Albanian communities, which the Austro-Hungarian Consul of Shkodra in charge of this operation supported explicitly in terms of the future autonomy of a larger territory regardless of religious denominations.96 Definitely, from today’s perspective, Nopcsa provided a valuable contribution to Albanian ethnography, the importance of which lies not only in the empirical evidence he recorded but also on his well-grounded comparative analyses.

Disaffected Austrian and Hungarian Albanologische Studies

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Albanian studies were shaped by a deliberate effort to involve them in the successive cultural-ideological programs of imperial-colonialist and national-communist state propagandas. They were fueled first by the decisive claims to colonial expansion and the influential rivalry between Habsburg Austria-Hungary and other great powers97 and later by the affirmative determination of national state regimes in Albania.98 They have been dominated progressively by the obsessions of antiquarianism, autochthonism, continuity, authenticity, antecedency, and exclusive idiosyncrasy, and they have elaborated several theories on Albanian history, language, culture, and society.

In this context and for that purpose, Lajos Thallocy, Ferenc Nopcsa, Theodor Ippen, Carl Patsch, and many other Austrian and Hungarian scholars traveled in Albania and the Balkans. Their inquiries were closely linked to the diplomacy and politics of the Dual Monarchy, which encouraged and funded them in the hopes of acquiring better knowledge of the Albanian language, history, culture, and tradition. This research activity was part of the Austro-Hungarian political project to strengthen its influence on Albanians and anticipate expansion into the Albanian areas under Ottoman administration. The programmatic and theoretical limitations of these studies can also be explained as a consequence of Austro-Hungarian vital interests, which expected research assistance in fulfilling the political project for Albania and Albanians.

In the work in which Thalloczy saw himself and his contemporaries engaged in, the goal he set more narrowly for himself was to establish the sources illuminating Hungary’s relations with its Balkan neighbors,99 and one of his main editorial series covered sources and documents about the territories annexed to the kingdom of Hungary.100 Thalloczy shared the Hungarian patriotism and the dual allegiance of Hungarian-minded Habsburg officials in the attempt to make the Balkans a source of strength rather than a potential threat for their dual loyalty. He saw history as an important dual task, both Hungarian (national) and Austro-Hungarian (imperial).

His historical work later came to acquire almost prophetic power as the record of a Magyar empire, and he is often accused of having espoused and expressed historical views that have no validity beyond Hungarian national narratives and are little more than historical justifications for Hungary’s political claims in the Balkans.101 Thalloczy may have stressed his doubts about the late nineteenth-century imperialist school or the glib nationalism of Hungarian celebrations. He nevertheless remained the Hungarian who best understood the Balkans, acknowledged the valor of the Balkan peoples, and, in no small part out of his sympathy for them, served as “our man in the Balkans” in the sense that the nationalist age required “experts” for the areas that nationalists sought to hegemonize.102 Even shorn of the semi-fascist rhetoric with which they were later invoked, Thalloczy’s Balkan studies show the patriotic self-absorption of the age, in which a Hungarian geopolitical vision dominated.

In Thalloczy’s hands, Bosnia appeared as a triangle between the Adriatic and the Danube, its more densely populated northern lands opening towards the Danube plain of the Hungarian “mother territory,” while Croatian and Serbian noble lineages were of interest chiefly for their loyalty to their Hungarian and later Habsburg sovereigns. Similarly, his Albanian concerns were bound up with the question of Albanian viability as a barrier to Serbian designs. Namely, in the words of his Croatian associate Milan Sufflay, as part of a “high Catholic living dam” along the Adriatic against the assaults of both Slavic and Greek Orthodoxy.103 All this does not quite harmonize with the repeated “appeals to the tremendous substantial knowledge, critical method, and strict objectivity of his scientific activity” that are usually claimed by Austrian and Hungarian historians.104

At the time of the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia in 1908 and again during the Balkan Wars in 1912, Thalloczy submitted proposals to the Hungarian government recommending state-organized academic research in order to improve cultural communications with the peoples of the Balkans. He contended that the primary prerequisite was an excellent knowledge of local languages, and he urged for the compilation of modern, up-to-date dictionaries of Balkan languages as a best possible reaction in order to profit from the new political and economic conditions. The first Albanian-Hungarian dictionary published in 1913 harmonized both with Thalloczy’s relevant recommendations and with Hungarian imperialistic aspirations,105 clearly acknowledging the role played by the Dual Monarchy in Albanian nation building and state formation.

In that mixed nationalist and imperialist age, Thalloczy’s historical research was characterized above all by a conjunction of positivist method and ingrained bias.106 Objectivity became a grim readiness to recognize obstacles to national and imperial goals, not an attempt at emotional distance from them. Undoubtedly, however, like Leibniz in his time and despite the possible interests of their intellectual and professional career, Thalloczy and his fellow scholars working on Albanian history, language, and society were not colonialist collaborators, and they may not have been aware of the political purpose and motivation of their theoretical and methodological choices. Nevertheless, the formation and development of their intellectual-scientific convictions were necessarily enabled within a philosophical and worldview framework that was defined by the fundamental premise of Austrian-Hungarian imperial-colonialist policies.

The ideological premises and the political conditions of this framework dictated both research issues and their theoretical and methodological choices. These choices limited the methods used for research, in particular the methods used for collecting, identifying and outlining the empirical, factual, philological, and folkloric data that were needed for the verification or the opposition of some readymade arguments and not others. In this context, sociological imagination, comparative research, and critical analysis as foundations to theoretical explanations were not necessary. As had been true in the case of Leibniz, ideological premises and political conditions motivated assumptions and arguments about the Illyrian origins of the Albanian language and Albanian history and culture, obviously regardless of whether these arguments proved misleading or mistaken after further research or whether they would be regarded as useful findings in the present-day state of research.

The Illyrian theory of Albanian origins was promoted in the nineteenth century by the Austro-Hungarian pioneers of Albanologie, who aimed to make it possible, as Leibniz had done in his time, to extend a direct link with the provinces already placed under the supervision of the Dual Monarchy. Like the encyclopedic and intellectual speculations of Leibniz and his contemporaries, the Illyrian assumption of Albanian origins is not merely a matter of research, but above all a political issue, conditioned by imperial-colonialist aspirations. In the context of Austro-Hungarian vital interests, which sought to counter Pan-Slavism and compete with Italy in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the Illyrian theory was endorsed as a reaction to the Pelasgian theory initially supported by Greek and Italian politics. It emerged in the lively intellectual atmosphere of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, when Austro-Hungarian political aspirations inspired the first workshops of Balkanologie and Albanologie107 and the joint Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the first research expeditions in the Balkans.108 Definitely, the Illyrian theory of Albanian ethnogenesis, forcefully established in the history book written by Lajos Thallocy and translated into Albanian by Stefan Zurani and as well in the ethnological investigations by Ferenc Nopcsa, must have served Austro-Hungarian politics of colonial expansion, which sought to gain supremacy over Italy and oppose Slavic penetration into the Balkans.

That this research activity evolved within the same framework of Austro-Hungarian vital interests in the Balkans is not a value judgement but a fact claim. Within the context of political utilitarianism, the passion for research among Austrian and Hungarian scholars like Thalloczy and Nopcsa and their genuine sympathy for Albanians are out of the question. Their writings remain a serious and important contribution to highlighting Albanian linguistic, historical, cultural, and social issues. In addition, the merits of their theories are beyond the framework and aspirations of the inquiry here, especially as contemporary historical-philological accounts have accumulated sufficient empirical evidence to assess the probabilities of the Illyrian origins of the Albanian language and Albanian history and culture. The evidence for a comprehensive picture is primarily linguistic, and its significance became clear only with the development of modern historical linguistics in the second half of twentieth century.109 Long before that, however, theories and arguments of the Illyrian origins of the Albanian language and the traditional tenets of Albanian history, culture, and society served the hegemonic and expansionist interests of Austrian-Hungarian imperial-colonialism, just as they are embraced later for other, similar purposes.

In the aftermath of World War I, although Austrian scholarship claimed scholarly hegemony in and on southeastern Europe, the demise of the Dual Monarchy can be seen as the demise of the regional scope of Austrian scholarship, which was now compromised by a new political order.110 Professional institutions such as the Balkan-Kommission and Albanien-Kommission of the imperial Academy and the Balkan-Abteilung of the Museum für österreichische Volkskunde became relics of a bygone imperial past.111 Their fate is indicative of what was left of the great Danube Monarchy, politically unstable, suddenly of marginal international influence, and without any of the pomp of empire.

The contexts of the geopolitical position of Austria-Hungary towards Albania and southeastern Europe in the decades before World War I and the position of Austria towards this area in the interwar period and during World War II shaped respective research activities and public opinions. Scholars, travelers, adventurers, and experts either followed or furthered the multilayered economic and political interests of their state community. Austrian interests in southeastern Europe, including Albania, lost priority due to differing geopolitical contexts and a reshaping of the state’s character and size. They never totally broke down, however, and the same experts and officials remained in place until the late 1930s. Parallel with Nopcsa, a new generation of albanologische scholars, such as Norbert Jokl and Maximilian Lambertz, were active in Vienna in the interwar period and expanded the focus of research on Albania.

In this context, the scientific approach rebranded under the more sanitized term “Southeast European Studies” (Südostforschung) was transformed “from a discipline of Austro-German national revisionism into a tool of National Socialist geopolitics” in which Austrian expertise also played a considerable role.112 In particular, Albania seemed to become a refuge where one could escape the sad realities of interwar and Anschluss Vienna. No longer the victim of a Byronic fantasy of an untamed wildness, interwar Albania emerged as a projection screen for nostalgic fantasies of any number of disaffected Austrian and German writers, a miniature of either a great imperial past or a grand European future.113 The production of fictional literatures set in the Balkans, featuring Balkan and Albanian protagonists, or otherwise concerned with southeastern Europe was a means whereby the Austrians and Germans, like their fellow British and French, supplied their literary entertainment industries and their political ideologies through the “imperialism of the imagination.”.114 Now, the interest in Albania increasingly shifted from imperial expansionism and acquired the character of a pure exoticism.

Nopcsa traveled to North Albania at practically the same time as Edith Durham (1863–1944), a Victorian British traveler and human-rights activist, and Margaret Hasluck (1885–1948), a Scottish scholar and British intelligence operative from World War I to World War II. They all selected and reported observations exclusively from the North Albanian areas, and they all singled out certain seemingly “archaic” phenomena, which they labeled and reified as “Albanian.” In particular, they provided important and easily accessible ethnographic sources of interesting information on Albanian life worlds and the functioning of customary laws, more specifically about the North Albanian variant known as the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit. They all regarded these local customary laws based on blood relations, known in a short-cut designation as Kanun, as the very essence of the Albanian Volksgeist, though very different genres are represented in the multifarious works that resulted from their documentation.115 In particular, they all addressed the sustainable archaic structures, although they often recorded the eclectic nature of customary laws and insisted on identifying elements of Illyrian origins and any association with Roman law and with certain traditions of various German tribes.

Native Albanian Studime Albanologjike

The overall picture of ambivalent and conflicting perceptions of customary laws in North Albania, together with readymade arguments about Illyrian heritage and Illyrian-Albanian continuity, are taken over by native scholars to boost an intellectual discourse of national pride. In particular, many members of the Franciscan and Jesuit monastic communities in North Albania felt attracted to the past and made it their personal mission to save and collect archaeological items. They facilitated archaeological activity to record and collect antiquities in the Catholic schools and monasteries in Shkodra and often took an active role in searching for promising findings. Among them, Father Stephen Gjeçov (1874–1929) was an Albanian Kosovo-born Franciscan priest and freedom fighter who dedicated himself at the turn of the twentieth century to recording North Albanian traditions and collecting archaeological artifacts, which Nopcsa also processed for his own research.

In Nopcsa’s footsteps, Gjeçov began to publish his research from 1913 onwards in the Franciscan journal Hylli i Dritës, which was printed in Shkodra. After his tragic death at the hands of nationalist Serbs in Kosovo,116 the stylized text of customary law based on his research was published in 1933 by his fellow Franciscans of Shkodra.117 The Albanian native movement culminated in this traditional collection of revitalized customary law and the writing of Lahuta e Malcis by Father Gjergj Fishta (1871–1940), a major national epic poem of Albanian literature published in 1937 and also promoted by Maximilian Lambertz among German-speaking audiences.118 They both glorified the customary practices of North Albanian Highlanders as a strong element of identity, especially alongside the century-old Albanian resistance to Slavic penetration. While Nopcsa, Durham, and Hasluck left a series of travel writings of genuine value to posterity,119 Gjeçov and Fishta provided remarkably authoritative works in which customary social institutions are either described with textbook precision or idealized with epic poetry heroism.

Another part of the Monarchy’s heritage was the so-called Albanien-Komitee founded in the summer of 1913, which was reestablished in the early 1920s and continued to bring together the social, political, and economic groups that took an interest in Albania. In addition to organizing the education and accommodation of Albanian students who enjoyed state scholarships, they paid attention to their personal development, enabling them to know the old historical traditions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in Albanian nation building and state formation, including albanologische studies.120 Among them, Alex Buda (1910–1993) and Eqrem Çabej (1908–1980) would later become the emblematic figures of native Albanian studies. Even a graduate engineer in botany like Ilia Mitrushi (1904–1986) was encouraged by Norbert Jokl to compile a dictionary of Albanian plant names recorded in the regional variations of their taxonomic, morphological, anatomical, and ecological aspects.121 As a result, the topics of Balkanologie and Albanologie broadened in southeastern Europe and in Albania.

Notwithstanding the authorship, imperial-colonialist purposes, and literary propaganda upon which Austrian and Hungarian works of albanologische studies were produced, they provided an archetype model for Albanian studies both in interwar and in communist Albania. Thalloczy, in particular, is considered to have proposed and laid down with scientific rigor the most important views of Albanian history and the fundamental perspectives and tenets of the historical myths from which Albanian historiography has not yet deviated. It is possible that not all the Albanian historical theories can be found in his work, but it seems certain that Thalloczy listed most of them for the first time together.122 Although some of his observations may have turned out to be wrong, biased, or misleading, his contributions still provide a short expedient for further speculation by native scholars in Albania. Similarly, Nopcsa’s intuitive insights have led Albanian historiography to identify early medieval Albanian culture with Koman culture and to focus on the Illyrian heritage and early medieval research with the aspiration of proving on archaeological grounds the existence of Illyrian-Albanian continuity into the early Middle Ages.

At the turn of twentieth century, the rapid and unquestionable adoption of Austrian and Hungarian theories and arguments of Illyrian origins of Albanian language and the antiquated traditions of Albanian history, culture, and society were clearly a reaction to Slavic nationalism, which eventually contributed to reifying the opposition between Slavs and Albanians.123 In the second half of twentieth century, the communist regime adopted and supported the same theories with the explicit aim of relocating the center of Albanologie from foreign figures and institutions to local scholars in Tirana, which was nothing than the capitalization on imperial-colonial albanologische studies, now transformed into national-communist studime albanologjike.124 Notwithstanding the introduction of a sense of academic distance and professional discourse structured by the jargon of Marxist-Leninist ideology and methodology, a significant number of these studime may have served largely as propaganda for Albanian public opinions rather than as actual research for academic audiences. They aimed to glorify and further mystify a narrative of Albanian history punctuated by continuous revolt and uprisings against foreign despotic rule and by the role of the Albanian working masses as freedom fighters and state makers.

More than anyone else, the faithful native epigones of Austro-Hungarian Albanologie applied Marxist-Leninist premises and methods in line with Party directives to create a salvation Albanologji, provide a uniform framework for existing historical and linguistic topics, and propose a system the substance and concepts of which are still present in Albanian studies. Aleks Buda is believed to have established a historical tradition that had been virtually non-existent, while he is also argued to have heavily based this tradition on the historical patterns established earlier by Thalloczy in his anonymous Albanian history published in 1898.125 Similarly, Eqrem Çabej moved backward to Indo-Europeanist historicism and the descriptivist regularities of diachronic sound changes (Lautgesetze) advocated by the old school of Junggrammatikers. The historicism of this methodological choice reduced linguistic investigation to the descriptivist empiricism of surface phenomena, such as an essentialist description of the historical changes that the Albanian language underwent. This proved essential for compromising Albanian studies as a whole in order to comply with party ideology, which aimed at the essentialization of Albanian ethnogenesis.126

Even the myth of Skanderbeg differed slightly from the original archetype of a unifying national hero in order to highlight his leadership abilities as a terrific military commander, a virtuous cultivated leader, and a great politician and diplomat, which was meant to parallel the communist supreme leader and legitimate the communist regime. More importantly, versions of the Illyrian theory of Albanian origins developed in competition with other hypotheses, some of which are revitalized anew in the social and political conditions of post-communist Albania.127 Readymade theories concerning the Albanian language and Albanian history, culture, and society still provide a short expedient for further studies by native scholars in Albania, which continue both to dominate academic efforts and to exacerbate interethnic and international relations in the Balkans.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Austro-Hungarian efforts to promote Illyrian theories of Albanian ethnogenesis might have served as an effective obstacle to the Illyrianism of Slavic nationalism. At the same time, Slavic nationalism and chauvinism adopted more exaggerated, more aggressive, and more virulent strategies against Albanian identity politics. In turn, it can be argued that the overthrow of Pelasgian theories gradually facilitated the conventional use of the ancient term “Epirus,” which replaced and obscured the historical concept of “Lower Albania” in the modern historiography. After the fabrication of modern Greece out of the joint efforts of German, European, and Greek “megali ideas,” the language, people, and country names “Epirus” and “Epirotic” increasingly signified the Grecized habitat of the area. The homogenizing identity politics that followed was intended to root out the Albanian people as a cultural entity, the Albanian language, and Albanian history and cultural heritage from the border areas of Epirus in present-day northern Greece, while the irredentist claim of Greek nationalism over so-called “North Epirus” in present-day southern Albania still prevent emancipation from old Balkan megalomanias.

In backlash, many publications by professional and amateur historians and linguists revitalize again the Pelasgian theory, first among the Albanians of Greece (Arvanites) and then in the Albanian context of the 1990s and 2000s. They are widely read and commented on, linking in various ways Pelasgians, Epirots, Illyrians, Etruscans, Greeks, and Albanians in a single historical genealogy, according to various motivations and using various kinds of evidence,128 most of which is nothing more than fanciful linguistic acrobatics intertwined with folk etymologies. Pelasgian theories clearly play the role of a counter-discourse in opposing mainstream and well-established views of origin and ethnogenesis, which allow Albanians to transform their actual socioeconomic and geopolitical marginality into an imagined cultural centrality and superiority.129 In turn, they prove again that ideological premises and political conditions dictate both research issues and the choice of theoretical and methodological approaches.

Imperial Exoticism and Distortion of Life Worlds

The funding of religious, literary, educational, and publication activities for a long time and the intensification of research inquiries and expeditions in Albanian areas may reveal another specific methodological disaffection with many imperial writers of the old generation of albanologische studies. They were supposed to discover and domesticate the Albanian “noble savage,” which was barbarized in the Oriental reality of Ottoman rule but was waiting to be emancipated, transformed, and civilized in a new Euro-centered Austro-Hungarian reality. More importantly, they considered their own reconstructions and descriptions organized and codified in collected texts as a hardly reasonable but given evidence of life practice and historical continuity.

In particular, they consciously or unconsciously promoted the idea that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the “unknown” Albanians were still at the stage of the last “undiscovered” people in the Balkans. They lived in “Accursed Mountains” (Bjeshkët e Nëmuna), or like their fellow Montenegrins surrounded by a “Black Mountain Wreath” (Crna Gorski Vijenac).130 They were so close geographically to mainstream Europe and yet so distant culturally, relegated to the southeastern “margins of Europe,” to recall a phrase coined to refer to Greece, the other southeastern European neighbor.131

As current critical approaches to German-speaking Albanologische studies acknowledge,132 the Orientalizing and Balkanizing images of former Austrian and Hungarian writers put emphasis on the so-called Albanian “tribes” and their primitive laws, archaic blood revenge, the primitiveness and purity of indigenous people, Spartan simplicity yet incomparable hospitality, and so on. In particular, a special genre of accounts on blood feuds developed. These narratives were inspired in particular by the Austrian and Hungarian travelers whose writings, typical of a travelogue, were primarily aimed not at providing information or conducting scholarly work, but at making sensational discoveries,133 which could be brought back “home” to satisfy the insatiable desire to acquire artificial prestige similar to what is known today in network ratings.

Some of these writers depicted Albanians as “tribesmen” in their “Accursed Black Mountain Wreath,” either as savages and barbarians or as outstanding virile and heroic “sons of the eagle.” The impression was always given that the Albanian life was one of “barbarism,” concerned with blood feud and nothing else. Otherwise, a very appealing sentiment of heroism was used as part of a definite tendency towards an idealization of Albanians, especially the northern mountaineers, depicting local life and customs in a heroic and glorious light, idealizing patriarchal society and its manly features, such as bravery, honor, and hospitality. A well-known example from the nineteenth century is the portrayal of Albanians by Gustav Meyer, one of the most important representatives of Austrian Albanologie. “No one should be surprised that among Albanian people, where writing and reading is a rare luxury, and where rifle—and what an ancient and adorned flint-lock rifle—is often the most precious possession of a man, a Dante or a Luther has not yet emerged to bring them the benefits of a written language.”134

Similarly, Thalloczy ironized after a Sarajevo conference with Bosnian educational officials in 1907, wondering why Bosnian youths did not learn more. He commented sourly that liberal views would be fine somewhere in southern Germany, and he believed that in Bosnia “the fist was more appropriate than the pen.”135 Again, in the final stage of his career as Civil Commissar in the Habsburg military occupation of Serbia in World War I, his goal for the occupation was to show Serbs how much better Habsburg administration was than their own, an aspiration and arrogance which anticipated the racial arrogance to come.

More seriously, Nopcsa embarked to investigate and promote the special values of “the free but savage people of North Albania,” whom he considered a distinct “highland people with a specific character developed outside the modern world.”136 Arguably, his detailed descriptions of cultural traditions, customary laws, and life worlds were intended to represent a typical Albanian “noble savage” who needed to be discovered, domesticated, and emancipated once entering the works of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. As such, they offer a direct link of Austro-Hungarian albanologische studies to the Albanian policy of the Dual Monarchy, especially with regard to the typical imperial-colonialist representation of “other” peoples as subjects of Austro-Hungarian investigation and civilization.

In the second half of twentieth century, native studime albanologjike in Albania followed in the same footsteps to justify the class struggle launched by the communist regime against the “backward customs” of a certain people.137 In their rush to obey party directives in adopting a socio-class exclusive understanding of the “people,” these studies must have inadvertently paved the way to the much-abused considerations of much Albanian history, culture, and politics. As a result, many simply believe or deliberately assert that in Albanian society, customary laws, archaic structures, patriarchal gender relations, and religious and regional divides necessarily play important roles.

Many of the social, economic, demographic, cultural, educational, and gender transformations in Albania under socialism, including the folklorism of cultural traditions and Albanian studies,138 in spite of their achievements, must have had a devastating effect for many people. Much of Albania was depopulated and repopulated, north and south, rural and urban, pa dallim krahine, feje dhe ideje “notwithstanding regions, religions, and convictions,” as the watchword of the time went, along with a full and open-ended “circulation” policy (qarkullimi) that in many ways kept all the people under the control of the regime. The social and cultural agendas adopted by the communist regime were by no means selective, and the often violent programs to modernize whichever people were deemed less culturally or ideologically advanced cannot substantiate the perception and specific isolation of a “backward” rural, tribal, patriarchal, and customary Catholic North.

Rather than specific North Albanian traditions that are often said to rely on parallel legitimacy structures or be the source of resistance to the communist regime, it can be argued these traditions are the unintended consequence of the imperial-colonialist representations of North Albanian society and culture that were first worked out by Austro-Hungarian albanologische studies. As mentioned earlier, Thalloczy presented his wide-ranging Albanian history as a work written by an unnamed North Albanian “Gheg that loves his country,” while Nopcsa regarded the image of Catholics in North Albanian Highlands as a “free, but savage” people. Prototypical backward representations of North Albanians were adopted by communist policies, and they were further reified in the ideological struggles against supposedly “conservative” and “regressive” perceptions of people’s culture that are legitimated in the discourse of native studime albanologjike.139 By promoting the national-communist “further revolutionization” and cultural engineering campaigns to build the “New Man” in Albanian socialist society, these studies may have been responsible for the further reification of many essentialist views on Albanian history, culture, and social behavior.

As I showed elsewhere more specifically in relation to the “instrumentality of gender and religious categories,”140 generalized views on Albanian society came all too often to essentialize gender relations and regional differences between life worlds shaped by different religious cultures, between North and South, between mountains and plains, and between urban and rural settings. They reify gender relations and customary behaviors, they alienate so-called “backward” people, and they act as instrumental political resources with which to establish hierarchical relations.

The Rediscovery of a New Exoticism

After World War II, the early twentieth-century image of the Albanians, mainly elaborated within a German-speaking tradition of Austrian and Hungarian scholars,141 was frozen until about the end of the century. Like other East European countries that were rediscovered as “new exotic lands” in the aftermath of the demise of socialism,142 the exotic image of Albania and the Albanians was reasserted when the country opened again to foreign travelers. The mountains in North Albania were exploited from the early to the late twentieth century in very similar ways, open to discoverers and adventurers.143 Reports of a traditional social structure based on kinship, together with the blood feud and the archaic customary and legal institutions, aroused the enthusiasm of many Western scholars and journalists.

Many of these scholars are contemporary experts and commentators within what I refer to as the New German-speaking School of Balkankompetenzen.144 Some of these writers put under the spotlight and conventionally describe purported Albanian customary laws, blood feuds and honor killings, religious beliefs, hospitality, marriage codes, archaic family structures, sworn virgins, and patriarchal customs.145 Others do not hesitate to mount virulent rhetorical attacks of denigration and vilification on the ground of a presumed “irrationality” of a “culture-bounded” people who are believed to be caught into their supposed tribal organization and tribal laws.146 They continue to flock to the highlands of North Albania, ready and willing to believe that Albanians still live by the strict laws of the Kanun. They are in search of what they imagine, again, to be the distilled essence of the mountain spirit, a barbarous and splendid anachronism embodied in a sort of primitive and fearless mountain people living according to an ancient code of honor enforced by “tribal” law on the margins of modern Europe.

The continued strength of this kind of imperial exoticism in Western scholarship is shocking. Since the 1950s, as I have shown in detail elsewhere,147 Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Tristes Tropiques bitterly deplored similar stances in travel writing and anthropology.148 To borrow his terms, the literature on Albania and the Balkans would represent another instance of the same mistake of an entire profession or an entire civilization in believing that humans are not always humans. Some of these humans, by implication, are more deserving of interest and attention merely because in the midst of Europe they seem to astonish us, if not by their “monkey tails” then by the apparent strangeness of their customs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Many accounts produced in the modern Balkankompetent tradition of the New German-speaking School may show a great concern for ethnographic approach and historical source-criticism or a high level of academic sophistication. Yet, as I have shown in detail elsewhere, they are characterized by inner mechanisms of exclusion and hierarchies, which necessarily reproduce substantive empirical and methodological flaws in research outcomes, yielding to strategic othering, methodological essentialism, dubious deconstructionism, and outright misinterpretation of Albanian foundational myths, national history, social structures, and cultural behavior.149 Arguably, this methodological imperialism reproduces a discourse of Western superiority that serves to legitimate political, economic, and social control.

A curious mixture of identification and exoticization has characterized depictions and descriptions of Albanian culture, history, and society from an external Western point of view, as for instance in the case of pervasive German-speaking traditions. In turn, the foreign attitude became crucial from a native point of view, since there was both an unequal power balance and an internalization of external ideas. Ultimately, Albanian culture and self-image are very much influenced by a fundamental division between what is associated with the civilized world and what is associated with a peripheral position within the Western system, and thus Albanian culture and society are compelled to navigate between the two. The outcome culminated in a conflict between the idea of the Illyrian ethnogenesis and the eternal nation, embedded in Albanian nationalism, and the actual shortage of political sovereignty for much of Albanian history. This meant that the focal point of the constrained nation became an aggressive negotiation of the political supremacy of Western ideas about the validity and free development of what is conceptualized as national culture and heritage.

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Österreichisches Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv (ÖStA HHStA) Vienna

Politisches Archiv (PA)

Kriegsarchiv (KA)


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1 I am grateful to Krisztián Csaplár-Degovics and Gábor Demeter for their invitation to write this article for the Hungarian Historical Review and for constructive comments and suggestions helping improve my arguments and bringing to my attention a number of Hungarian details.

2 Fleming, “Orientalism.”

3 Pandolfi, “L’industrie humanitaire”; Herzfeld, Anthropology through the looking-glass; Kiossev, “Self-Colonizing Metaphor.”

4 Doja, “Démocratie et stabilité.”

5 Cox, “Social Forces,” 128.

6 Gingrich, “The German-Speaking Countries.”

7  Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, vol. 4, Politische Schriften, part 1, “Consilium Aegyptiacum” 15, “Justa dissertatio” II, “De Zaimis et Timariotis,” 318–21; “De primo Visiro,” 324–26; “De Christianis in Turcico Imperion agentibus,” 331–37. https://leibniz.uni-goettingen.de/files/pdf/Leibniz-Edition-IV-1.pdf.

8 “Leopoldus Primus Austriacus Imperator turcas Europa divulsos opprimet armis,” Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, vol. 4, part 3, 27–38.

9  “Quant à la langue des Albanois j’ay peur que ce ne soit une espece d’Esclavon; car cette langue regne le long de la mer Adriatique. On l’appelle par abus linguam illyricam. Mais je crois que la langue des anciens illyriens estoit toute autre chose s’il y en avoit un reste dans les montagnes de l’Epire, cela seroit tres curieux, et tres digne de nostre recherche.” Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, vol. 1, part 24, 414. Leibniz to Maturin Veyssiere De La Croze, Hanover, June 25, 1705, 736. https://leibniz.uni-goettingen.de/files/pdf/Leibniz-Edition-I-24.pdf#414.

10 “Vous m’avez fait beaucoup de plaisir, en me mandant d’avoir reçu un livre & un Dictionnaire de la Langue Albanoise; par là nous apprenons quelle étoit la langue des anciens Illyriens.” Leibniz, Opera Omnia, vol. 5, 36. Lettres à M. Maturin Veyssière La Croze, Lettre XV: De la langue albanoise, Hanov. 10. Decemb. 1709, 494. https://books.google.fr/books?id=KWxkAAAAcAAJ.

11 “Et credibile est, ejus reliquias in peculiari quâdam linguâ Epirotarum hodiernâ superesse, cujus specimina edita vidi.” Leibniz, Opera Omnia, vol. 6, Epistola insigni viro Johanii Chamberlaynio, Vienna, 13 Januarii 1714, 197. https://books.google.fr/books?id=B-o8AAAAcAAJ.

12 B. Demiraj, “Si ta lexojme Lajbnicin,” 166.

13 Reiter, “Leibniz’ens Albanerbriefe,” 88.

14 Kastrati, Historia e albanologjise, 171–72.

15 B. Demiraj, “Si ta lexojme Lajbnicin,” 164.

16 Hetzer, Geschichte des Buchhandels.

17 Doja, “Ecclesiastical pressures.”

18 Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, vol. 4, part 3, 27–38.

19 Leibniz, Opera Omnia, vol. 5, 494.

20 According to Philip Cluver (1580–1622), “Albania distinguitur in Superiorem, quae Macedonia pars occidentalis; & Inferiorem, quae olim Epirus & exigua pars Helladis.” Cluverii, Introductio in universam Geographiam, 361–62. https://archive.org/details/philippicluverii00clve_7/page/360/

21  Lorentis, Νεωτάτη Διδακτική Γεωγραφία, 434; Aravantinos, Χρονογραφεια της Ηπείρου, vol. 1, 121.

22  Arch. St. Milano, Carteggio Sforzesco, Albania, cart. 640. Published in Monti, “La spedizione”, 159.

23  B. Demiraj, “Mallkimi i epirotit (1483).”

24 Brief from Pope Clement VIII to Felipe II, March 27, 1593. Published in Floristan, “Jerónimo Combis”, 179. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=5709678.

25 For more details and related sources, see Xhufi, Arbërit e Jonit, 10–21. I am also grateful to Kosta Giakoumis for providing further information in a personal email communication, November 6, 2021.

26 Reiter “Leibniz’ens Albanerbriefe”; B. Demiraj, “Si ta lexojme Lajbnicin.”

27 Annotationes de lingua, & litteris Epirotarum, seù Albanesiorum: “Proprium Epiroticae gentis idioma, seù Albanesia lingua à Graeca, & Illyrica, seù Slavonica loquendi ratione planè diversa est, licèt inter vtriusq; gentis confinia veluti media constituta conspicitur.” Bardhi, Dictionarium latino-epiroticum, BKSH An.IV.R.1. https://books.google.fr/books?id=EPtJAAAAcAAJ.

28 Molnár “The Catholic Missions,” 76–77.

29 Bardhi, Georgius Castriottus.

30 APF, SOCG, vol. 263, fol. 266r-284v.

31 Fine, When ethnicity did not matter, 255–61.

32 “Schiete per antonomassi Feesse Cattoliche i thone arbanasca vera,” Bogdani, Cuneus prophetarum, BKSH An.V.a.10, https://www.bksh.al/details/113182.

33 Guzzetta, L’osservanza, 45.

34 “Da lodare sono quindi i moderni Macedoni che, ben istruiti nelle lettere latine nel Collegio de Propaganda Fide, presero l’iniziativa di scrivere in questo idioma piissimi libri ad uso della loro gente e di consegnarli ai nostri tempi nei caratteri tipografici noti.” Guzzetta, L’osservanza, 42.

35 “Stando così le cose, una sì grande varietà di voci, sia latine sia barbare, di cui è ricca l’odierna lingua vernacola degli albanesi, si andò componendo a tal punto che noi diciamo che essa non è del tutto latina, ma un misto di latino e di macedonico antico.” Guzzetta, L’osservanza, 45.

36 While a hostage in the Ottoman court, George Kastrioti had chosen the name Iskander (Skanderbeg) as a reference to Alexander the Great of Macedon, whose mother hailed from Epirus, and as noted above, he used to call himself Epirot (“noi ci chiamiamo epiroti”).

37 B. Demiraj, “De Albania Occupanda,” 65–66.

38 “Bey einem grossen Potentaten sich weit andere Gelegenheiten zu nützlichen Verrichtungen finden.” Hirsch, Der berühmte Herr Leibniz, 221.

39 Bartl, Albanien, 71.

40 Malcolm, Kosovo: a short history, 140–47.

41 B. Demiraj, “Si ta lexojme Lajbnicin.”

42 B. Demiraj, “De Albania Occupanda.”

43 Feichtinger et al., Habsburg postcolonial.

44 Stachel, “Der koloniale Blick.”

45 E.g. Haberlandt, Kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge.

46 Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft, 17–26.

47 Tomlinson, Cultural imperialism.

48 Galtung, “Cultural Violence.”

49 Deusch, Das k.(u.)k. Kultusprotektorat.

50  ÖStA HHStA, PA XII/256 Türkei IV, “Denkschrift über Albanien,” Memoir by F. Lippich, Consul in Shkodra, Vienna, June 20, 1877.

51  ÖStA HHStA, PA I/473 Botschaftsarchiv Konstantinopel, “Die albanesische Action des k.u.k. Ministeriums des Äussern im Jahre 1897,” Memoir by Zwiedinek, Albanien-Referent in Ballhausplatz, Vienna, January 11, 1898.

52 Toleva, Der Einfluss Österreich-Ungarns.

53  ÖStA HHStA, PA XIV Albanien.

54 Marchetti, Balkanexpedition.

55 Schwanke, “Zur Geschichte.”

56 Mommsen, Theories of imperialism.

57 Proudman, “Words for Scholars.”

58 Hahn, Albanesische Studien.

59 Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen; Acta et diplomata res Albaniae.

60 Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft, 244–45.

61 E.g. Hahn, Albanesische Studien; Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen.

62 E.g. Nopcsa, “Beiträge zum Vorgeschichte”; “Die Herkunft”; Albanien; Pikëpamje fetare; Fiset e Malësisë.

63 Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld; Csaplár-Degovics, “Ludwig von Thalloczy.”

64 Okey, “A Trio of Hungarian Balkanists.”

65 Csaplár-Degovics and Jusufi, “The Birth of the First Hungarian–Albanian Dictionary (1913),” 259–60.

66 Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft, 333–37.

67 Takács and Langó, “Archaeologia Hungaroalbanica,” 314.

68 Hetzer, Geschichte des Buchhandels, 129; for more detail see Hetzer, “Ludvig von Thalloczy.”

69  ÖStA HHStA, PA XIV/20, General Consul Ippen to Foreign Minister Goluchowski from Shkodra on the “Abfassung einer albanesischen Geschichte,” May 18, 1897.

70  ÖStA HHStA, PA XIV/20, Thalloczy to Finance Minister Kallay from Vienna, July 10, 1897.

71  ÖStA HHStA, PA XIV/20, note of the joint ministry of finance on Thalloczy’s “Geschichte Albaniens,” September 15, 1897; Finance Minister Kallay to Foreign Minister Goluchowski from Vienna on the printing costs of the book and invoices paid to Thalloczy, February 16, 1898; PA XIV/22–23, copies of the book; PA I/8/774, on regular secret payments to Stephan Zurani.

72 [Ludwig Thalloczy], Të ndodhunat e Shqypnis, prej nji Gege që don vendin e vet [translated by Stefan Zurani], Skenderie [Vienna: Adolf Holzhausen], 1898; new edition by Raim Beluli, Shkodra: Botime Françeskane, 2008.

73 Csaplár-Degovics, “Ludwig von Thalloczy und die Albanologie,” 145–46.

74  ÖStA HHStA, PA XIV/20, Thalloczy to Finance Minister Kallay from Vienna, July 10, 1897.

75 Hetzer, “Die Funktion des Skanderbeg-Mythos”, 112.

76  ÖStA HHStA, PA XIV/20, Thalloczy to Finance Minister Kallay from Vienna, July 10, 1897.

77 Omari, “Çështja e gjuhës.”

78 Csaplár-Degovics, “Lajos Thallóczy and Albanian Historiography,” 128.

79 Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft, 380.

80  ÖStA HHStA, PA XIV/21, Thalloczy to Foreign Minister Aehrenthal from Vienna, July 21, 1911.

81 Thalloczy, Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen; Acta et diplomata res Albaniae.

82 Csaplár-Degovics, “Ludwig von Thalloczy und die Albanologie,” 148.

83 Nopcsa, Reisen in den Balkan; Nopcsa, Traveler, Scholar, Political Adventurer.

84 Robel, Franz Baron Nopcsa und Albanien, 48–69.

85 Elsie, “The Viennese scholar.”

86 Csaplár-Degovics, “Introduction,” 10.

87 Pollmann, “Baron Ferenc Nopcsa’s participation.”

88  ÖStA HHStA KA, Neue Feldakten, K.u.K. XIX. Korpskommando Op. Nr. 727/13 (March 30, 1916; May 31, 1016). See also ÖStA HHStA KA, Neue Feldakten, K.u.K. AOK Op. Nr. 24112 (April 20, 1916).

89 Nopcsa, “Beiträge zum Vorgeschichte”; Nopcsa, “Die Herkunft”; Albanien: Bauten, Trachten und Geräte Nordalbaniens; Geographie und Geologie Nordalbaniens.

90 Takács and Langó, “Archaeologia Hungaroalbanica,” 311–13.

91 Nopcsa, Pikëpamje fetare; Fiset e Malësisë.

92 Hahn, Albanesische Studien.

93 Nopcsa, Fiset e Malësisë, 67.

94 Krasniqi, “Oscilimet e identitetit shqiptar,” 15–16.

95 Eberhart, “Von Ami Boué zu Hugo Adolf Bernatzik,” 17–18.

96 Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft, 656.

97 Doja, “The Beautiful Blue Danube”; Doja, “From the German-speaking point of view”; Doja, “Lindja e albanologjisë.”

98 Doja “From the native point of view”; Abazi and Doja, “From the communist point of view.”

99 Okey, “A Trio of Hungarian Balkanists,” 256.

100 Magyarország Melléktartományainak Oklevéltára. Codex Diplomaticus Partium Regno Hungariae Adnexarum, 4 vols., edited by Lajos Thallóczy, and Antal Áldásy (Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, 1903–1915).

101 Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft, 174.

102 Okey, “A Trio of Hungarian Balkanists,” 258.

103 “Die Kirchenzustände im vortürkischen Albanien,” in Thalloczy, Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen, 189.

104 E.g. Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft, 174.

105 Csaplár-Degovics and Jusufi, “The Birth of the First Hungarian–Albanian Dictionary (1913),” 267.

106 Okey, “A Trio of Hungarian Balkanists,” 259.

107 Illyrisch-Albanische Forschungen; Acta et diplomata res Albaniae mediae aetatis illustrantia.

108 Haberlandt, Kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge; see Marchetti, Balkanexpedition.

109 Hamp, “The Position of Albanian”; S. Demiraj, Prejardhja e shqiptarëve; Matzinger, “Die Albaner als Nachkommen der Illyrer.”

110 Gruber, “Austrian contributions.”

111 Marchetti, Balkanexpedition.

112 Promitzer, “Austria and the Balkans.”

113 Hemming, “German-speaking travel writers.”

114 Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania.

115 Reviewed in detail elsewhere, Doja, “Customary laws.”

116 Mata, Shtjefën Gjeçovi.

117 Gjeçov, Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit.

118 Lambertz, Gjergj Fishta.

119 Durham, High Albania; Durham, Some tribal origins; Nopcsa, Fiset e Malësisë;Die Herkunft”; Hasluck, The unwritten law in Albania.

120 Csaplár-Degovics, “Lajos Thallóczy and Albanian Historiography,” 142.

121  I was a young, aspirant scholar in the 1980s, but privileged that late in his life Ing. Ilia Mitrushi trusted me to publish his dictionary, which unfortunately remains unpublished as I handed it down to his family after his death.

122 Csaplár-Degovics, “Lajos Thallóczy and Albanian Historiography,” 137.

123 Doja, “From the native point of view.”

124 Abazi and Doja, “From the communist point of view.”

125 Csaplár-Degovics, “Lajos Thallóczy and Albanian Historiography,” 113–20.

126 Abazi and Doja, “From the communist point of view,” 174.

127 Doja, “Customary laws.”

128 B. Demiraj, “De Albania Occupanda.”

129 Gefou-Madianou, “Cultural polyphony”; Rapper, “Pelasgic encounters.”

130 The “Balkans” are first a geographical notion of a mountain range on the Balkan Peninsula that comes in a variety of forms, including the “Accursed Mountains” (Bjeshkët e Nëmuna), a local term for the mountain range in North Albania, and the “Black Mountains” (Crna Gora), the name of Montenegro alluded to in the “Mountain Wreath” (Gorski Vijenac), a masterpiece of Montenegrin literature written and published in 1847 by the Prince-Bishop of Montenegro Petar II Petrović-Njegosh.

131 Herzfeld, Anthropology through the looking-glass.

132 E.g. Gruber, “Austrian contributions”; Kaser, “Albania: Orientalisation and Balkanisation”; Hemming, “German-speaking travel writers”; Marchetti, Balkanexpedition; Promitzer, “Austria and the Balkans”; Gostentschnigg, Wissenschaft.

133 Kaser, “Albania: Orientalisation and Balkanisation.”

134 Meyer, “Della lingua.”

135 Okey, “A Trio of Hungarian Balkanists,” 262.

136 Nopcsa, Fiset e Malësisë, 19.

137 Abazi and Doja, “From the communist point of view.”

138 Doja, “Évolution et folklorisation”; Abazi and Doja, “From the communist point of view.”

139 Abazi and Doja, “From the communist point of view.”

140 Doja, “Instrumental borders.”

141 Doja, “The Beautiful Blue Danube.”

142 Skalnik, “West meets East.”

143 Kaser, “Albania: Orientalisation and Balkanisation.”

144 Doja, “The New German-speaking School of Balkankompetenzen.

145 Kaser, “Albania: Orientalisation and Balkanisation”; Kaser, “Family and Kinship in Albania.”

146 Krasztev, “The price of amnesia.”

147 Doja, “From Neolithic Naturalness.”

148 Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques.

149 Doja, “The New German-speaking School of Balkankompetenzen.


The Urban Space Through the Eyes of Women: The 1849 Siege of Buda in Women’s Ego-documents*

Emese Gyimesi
Research Centre for the Humanities
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 11 Issue 4  (2022):789–823 DOI 10.38145/2022.4.789

This study examines how female city dwellers experienced the siege of Buda Castle, a crucial event of the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849, and the image of the city in their writings. The analysis focuses on three women’s ego-documents: the autobiography of Emília Kánya, the first female editor in the Habsburg Empire, the letters written by a young actress, Lilla Bulyovszky, to her husband and a letter by Anna Glasz, a resident of Buda Castle. I explore the kinds of mental map that emerge in the ego-documents in which the authors reflect on the urban experiences during the siege and the emotions that dominate their writings.
Keywords: Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849, urban history, female use of space, city representations

In her 1903 autobiography, Emília Kánya, writing in Fiume, offers the following recollections of the bombardment of Pest in 1849:

Back in the first half of May—I don’t know the exact date when—Hentzi, the governor of Buda Castle, began to besiege our beautiful young city. I was a very ignorant and gullible little woman, and so I didn’t even think that this would turn into a siege of Pest, but with my childish mind I believed that these bullets were just misdirected shots sent from Svábhegy to Buda Castle by our soldiers and that they were just whistling in front of our windows in Zrínyi Street by chance. But then I was informed: this is the siege of Pest, a soulless, cruel siege, a testimony to the mindless and heartless fury that Hentzi wanted to unleash on the innocent capital. It was an ignoble revenge for the many defeats the Austrian army had suffered at the hands of our lads lately.1

Although the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849 has long been a focus of study as one of the most important topics of Hungarian historiography, the history of women’s experience in the event has so far been relegated to the background. Apart from the biographies of a few prominent female figures (such as Mária Lebstück, who fought in men’s uniform and was appointed lieutenant, and Lajos Kossuth’s sister, Zsuzsanna Kossuth, who is regarded as the first Hungarian nurse),2 this question has hardly been addressed, although many surviving ego-documents would allow us to examine it. While there have been studies on the involvement of women in public affairs, the first efforts to gain women’s suffrage, or the manifesto “To Patriots!” demanding equality for women, written in April 1848 by Blanka Teleki, head of the famous girls’ school in Pest,3 individual stories, the private sphere, and everyday experiences remain almost entirely unexplored. The literature on the relationship between the 1848 revolutions and women is also characterized by a focus on issues in the public sphere, such as women’s emancipation, and how these issues were reflected in the writings of the women writers of the time.4

There is also a lack of fundamental research on how female city dwellers saw Pest-Buda5 in the mid-nineteenth century and how their writings reflected on their uses of urban space.6 In my study, I link these two issues through an analysis of three women’s ego-documents. I look first at the autobiography of Emília Kánya, quoted above. I then consider the letters sent by Lilla Bulyovszky, an actress working at the National Theatre, to her husband. I conclude with an examination of a letter by Anna Glasz, a resident of Buda Castle, which Glasz wrote over the course of several weeks during the siege, thus transforming it into a kind of diary, even if it remained addressed to someone else. I will analyze, on the basis of these sources, how these women experienced the siege of Buda Castle, a crucial event of the Revolution and War of Independence. I also consider the image of the city in their writings, that is, how they create an impression of the war-struck city while recording their experiences.

The concept of the mental map is linked to the name of urban planner Kevin Lynch, who studied the interaction between the urban environment and the individuals living in the city. In his iconic book The Image of the City, he studied American cities (Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles) on the basis of the mental maps of their inhabitants.7 He distinguished five defining elements of the urban image (paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks). The first category includes paths, streets, and promenades, that is, the transport channels that a city dweller follows, the second includes major borderlines (edges), and the third includes quarters or areas (districts).8 The fourth category is made up of important junctions (nodes), which can be strategic places, as they can be the centers of life in a neighborhood, and the fifth category consists of major mileposts and signposts (landmarks), which are external reference points that help orientation (mostly physical objects that are easy to identify and that are highlighted in a given context because of their specificity).

I focus primarily on the ways in which the authors of the aforementioned sources write about nodes and districts, as their narratives offer examples of the ways in which urban spaces were put to new uses by inhabitants of the city during the extraordinary circumstances of the siege of Buda in May 1849. I seek to identify the kinds of mental maps that emerge from the reflections in these ego-documents on the urban experiences during the siege. I also explore, on the basis of comments made in the three ego-documents, the ways in which the social status of the people fleeing the siege influenced their choices (and by implication, options) of mode and route of flight, and I consider the emotional tones of the three narratives of the events.

In recent decades, approaches to analyzing ego-documents have changed radically. With the foregrounding of the lives of common people and the increasing presence in the secondary literature of the perspectives of microhistory and Alltagsgeschichte, analyses of individual experiences and motivations have become more and more important in historiography.9 Since the 1960s, the term “experience” has become a key concept in social history, incorporating the processes by which individuals attribute meaning to and thereby essentially construct the events they experience.10 The case studies and the selected sources presented in this inquiry represent diverse modes of such meaning-making. Thus, they offer examples of how interpretations of events and perceptions of the city were influenced by the genre of the ego-document in question and the worldview of its author.

The Siege

The siege of Buda Castle from May 4 to 21 was an important stage in the 1848–1849 Revolution and War of Independence. Pest-Buda had been occupied on January 5, 1849 by the imperial commander-in-chief, Prince Alfred zu Windisch-Grätz. The Hungarian government and parliament retreated to Debrecen in the Trans-Tisza region, where on April 14, the dethronement of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine was proclaimed and Lajos Kossuth was elected governor. After the successes of the spring campaign, the Hungarian government considered the recapture of the capital of paramount importance, both in terms of foreign policy and because of the symbolic power of the liberation of Buda.11 Thus, after the victory at Komárom, one of the most important battles of the war, the Hungarian armies, led by Artúr Görgei, marched towards Buda instead of pursuing the fleeing imperial troops. This decision was criticized afterwards from both military and political points of view. In 1869, Mór Jókai reflected on this in his iconic novel, The Baron’s Sons (A kőszívű ember fiai), discussing why the recapture of Buda was so vitally important to the Hungarians: “What to the Punic people was Carthage, to Israel, Jerusalem, to Christianity, the Holy Land, to the French, Paris, to the Russians, Moscow, to the Italians, Rome—it was to us Buda Castle.”

The commander of Buda Castle was Major General Heinrich Hentzi von Arthurm.12 On May 4, Artúr Görgei demanded that he surrender the castle, and Görgei warned Hentzi to spare the Chain Bridge and the city of Pest on the left bank of the Danube. He also promised not to launch an attack from this direction.13 In his reply, however, Hentzi made it clear that he would not abandon the castle, and he warned that he would shell Pest.14 In the following weeks, the imperial army aimed artillery fire at the beautiful row of mansions on the banks of the Danube from Buda Castle, as well as many other buildings in the downtown area and the Lipótváros (Leopoldstadt), and Terézváros (Theresienstadt) districts.15 The unified neoclassical townscape of Pest, built in the Age of Reform (1825–1848),16 was severely damaged. The only purpose of Hentzi’s action was to instill fear. He had no legitimate military motives, as the castle was not under attack from the Pest side of the Danube. Given the main targets of the bombardment, Hentzi seems to have wanted to teach a lesson to the people of Pest, who had shown their devotion to the revolutionary cause. The National Theater, the Redoute (which had been home of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly in the second half of 1848), and the Hall of Commerce (in which István Széchenyi had established the National Casino) were among the buildings hit.17 Although the recapture of the capital was a great success for the Hungarian army, the inhabitants of Pest were shocked by the many deaths and injuries and the destruction of the architectural environment, which left many people homeless. Those who suffered Hentzi’s bombardment saw him as “the cannibal-hearted commander of Buda Castle.”18 The shock endured by the townspeople may have been exacerbated by the fact that they had not had to endure such a siege for as long as anyone could remember. The War of Independence, which began in the autumn of 1848, was the first truly significant conflict involving armed violence in the country since the end of Rákóczi’s War of Independence in 1711.

The Mental Map of Contemporary City Dwellers: Urban Architecture and the Perception of the City in Pest-Buda in the Age of Reform

Before analyzing the ego-documents and presenting Kánya’s, Bulyovszky’s. and Glasz’s experiences of the siege, it is worth providing some context by giving a description of the Age-of-Reform city that was so severely damaged by Hentzi’s artillery fire. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Pest was one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. Around 1800, it was still a predominantly German-speaking city, provincial and backward by European standards, but in the 1830s, it began to develop rapidly, and the Hungarian-speaking population grew dramatically.19 The neoclassical townscape and increasingly metropolitan physical environment were, curiously, the result of a disaster, as most of the buildings in the city center were built or rebuilt after the great flood of 1838.20 The inundation destroyed almost two-thirds of the buildings in Pest, so the building regulations that were adopted included strict criteria concerning the quality of building materials, wall thickness, façade design, and public health requirements.21 In the following years, fast-paced and massive construction projects led to the urbanization of the suburbs, which had previously had a rural atmosphere. The city began to shed its provincial character both in terms of architecture and transportation, and it began to resemble other European metropolises,22 emerging as a major European trade junction, political center, and cultural hub by 1900 (by which time it had become part of the city of Budapest, officially created in 1873 with the unification of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda).

The significant shifts in demographic figures left its mark on the cityscape. The proportion of housing areas increased, and the first planned district, Lipótváros, became Pest’s most elegant quarter, characterized by a uniform style of multi-story houses and linearly designed streets.23 These features were also noteworthy because in 1832, 80 percent of the buildings in Pest consisted only of a ground floor.24 In the 1840s, the first public transport vehicles, omnibuses, appeared in the streets, connecting the inner parts of the city with the popular excursion sites in Buda and Pest. This can also be seen as an indication that the city’s inhabitants no longer considered their city traversable on foot.25

The first urban planning concept had been drawn up in 1808, when the Pest Planning Committee was established under the chairmanship of Palatine Joseph von Habsburg of Pest. During the Commission’s term of office, the National Museum,26 the German Theater,27 the National Theater,28 the so-called Vigadó (Redoutensaal),29 and the Lloyd Palace, home of the National Casino, were built.30 In addition to the plans for public buildings, the Commission also gave approval for private construction projects, thus contributing to the development of a unified neoclassical urban landscape in Pest, mainly thanks to the work of two particularly outstanding architects, Mihály Pollack and József Hild.31 This cityscape was drastically altered (at some points of the city, virtually destroyed) by the bombardment ordered by Hentzi.

For some more decades, Terézváros, Józsefváros (Josephstadt), and Ferencváros (Franzstadt) would continue to count as suburbs with a rural atmosphere. According to Emőke Tomsics, even in the mid-nineteenth century, most of residents of the downtown area perceived the city as a closed unit encircled by the mediaeval city walls (which, however, no longer existed at the time), and many people thought of the areas beyond as rural or countryside.32 This peculiarity of the mental map of the city’s inhabitants is well illustrated by an anecdote according to which the German actors of the Deutsches Stadttheater of Pest in Theater Square (present-day Vörösmarty Square) often exchanged banter with and mockingly asked the members of the National Theater (located at the point corresponding to the southeast corner of present-day Astoria): “well, how are you faring—out there”?33

One of the prominent goals of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century was to make Pest-Buda the capital of the country. As part of this, the idea of uniting the twin cities was suggested as early as the 1830s, primarily as a vision of the most influential reformer of the era, Count István Széchenyi.34 In June 1849, the Hungarian government decreed the unification of Pest and Buda, but after the defeat of the War of Independence by the Habsburg dynasty, this was annulled.35 In the following decades, the grand visions of the Hungarian nationalist movement and urban development became closely intertwined.36 Nevertheless, Pest, Buda, and Óbuda would not be united until 1873 (six years after the 1867 Compromise establishing the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy), when the city was officially renamed Budapest.

“What had become of our beautiful city!” The Autobiography of Emília Kánya

According to Pierre Bourdieu, the biography is merely a rhetorical illusion, since real life is always chaotic. Different events, emotions, and actions become a logical and coherent whole only in the mind of the individual writing the biography, who constructs a destiny out of a life, a coherence out of coincidences. In the case of Emília Kánya’s autobiography, this process of construction is emphatically and clearly perceptible in several respects. First, the text was written more than five decades after the events, by which time the memory of the Revolution and War of Independence had been transformed to a considerable extent and become cultic. Second, in her narrative, Kánya foregrounded her identity as a woman, portraying herself in a way that was as consistent as possible with the norms and social expectations of the time. Third, she wrote her autobiography primarily for her children and consequently seems, on the basis of the text, to have paid particular attention to crafting the image of the loving mother.

Emília Kánya’s autobiography is a treasure trove for researchers in many respects. Several studies and a doctoral dissertation have already been written about her career as the first female editor in the Habsburg Empire, her role as a female patriot,37 and her time spent in Fiume (today Rijeka, Croatia),38 but her reflections on the War of Independence and the urban spaces of Pest-Buda at the time have never been analyzed. She led a life of norm transgression: as a mother of four, she divorced her husband, and in 1860, she founded Családi Kör (Family Circle), a journal that would be published successfully for the next twenty years. In her autobiography, however, she does not emphasize the unusual and norm-breaking nature of her career. On the contrary, she offers an exquisite balanced of the image of a dutiful, modest, norm-following woman in traditional female roles on the one hand and her pioneering enterprise on the other. Even in terms of the few weeks addressed by the present study, a traditional female role, that of the mother, is dominant in Kánya’s description of the siege in May 1849, alongside her personal experiences of Hentzi’s bombardment. Although Kánya was 21 years old at the time of the events, her memoir was written fifty-four years later, in 1903, so they must be treated as the recollections of a 75-year-old woman.

Born in Pest, Emília Kánya knew the city well and had followed its changes since her childhood. She had been barely ten years old at the time of the great flood of Pest in 1838, she had attended the opening of the National Theater, and she had witnessed the laying of the foundation stone of the Chain Bridge. Her father, Pál Kánya, was a prominent teacher at the Lutheran Grammar School. He was closely associated with many members of the contemporary intelligentsia in Pest and with the family of the then Palatine Archduke Joseph, who was very active in the development of the city. As a child of a Lutheran family, Emília Kánya grew up in the area of Kohl Markt Square, now Deák Square, known as “Insula Lutherana” because of its Lutheran institutions (church, grammar school, etc.). In 1847, she married Gottfried Feldinger, the son of an iron merchant from Temesvár (today Timişoara, Romania). Their first child, Irén, was born on October 23, 1848, so Kánya went through the siege of Buda Castle with her then barely seven-month-old daughter. The latter fact, which provided a way of focusing on the image of the mother fleeing with her daughter in the commemorative act, fundamentally determined the narrative of the parts of the autobiography that relate to the period of the War of Independence.

Kánya notes in her narrative that she is not writing with the intention of documenting military and political events, but rather to record her personal experiences: “I’m not going to talk about the facts, which are historical and which are now etched in the memory of generations, I just want to give an account of the prevailing mood a little.” At the onset of the siege, she was visiting her relatives in the Nákó House, on the site of present-day Gresham Palace, in the immediate vicinity of the Pest end of the Chain Bridge.39 She soon had to flee, as this area was particularly exposed to the artillery fire from Buda Castle. She was assisted in her escape by János Balassa, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine, whose sister also lived nearby:

He had already arranged that we should not spend the night in this exposed house, we should pack the most necessary things and he would take us all to a safer place in the evening, but we should not go by carriage, which would be an easier safer target for the shooters, but should escape on foot, remaining near to the buildings.40

They went to the Medical University, confident that the building’s thick walls would provide enough protection. They holed themselves up in the vast halls of the university in Újvilág (now Semmelweis) Street in the city center, while outside, the volley of cannonballs was incessant. As even this area was considered an especially high-risk zone for shelling, the next day, they moved to the “then newly built and still uninhabited” Commercial Hospital in Hársfa Street in Terézváros.41

Due to the bombardment, most people were on the run from the city center. Those who could sought refuge in the suburbs or the surrounding villages. The mental map described above, centered literally on the narrow urban core, was transformed in a flash by the emergency. Suddenly, the outlying neighborhoods offering hope for refuge were given special attention. Although Terézváros already counted as a suburb, it was not a danger-free zone. Many of the people in the area perished in their beds or at their desks from the shells hitting the buildings. Almost all the ego-documents written during the siege or in retrospect recounted tragedies of this kind, either personally experienced or heard second-hand. Emília Kánya’s autobiography captured the constant stream of horrific news of burnt buildings and shells crushing the legs of people walking by or smashing their heads. She also made a special note of the tragedy suffered by the young son of an acquaintance, Lutheran minister János Melczer from Rákoskeresztúr. Melczer’s son’s legs were mangled by a shell.42

Hársfa Street was located in the outer part of Terézváros, closer to the City Park, bordered by gardens and grassy areas. However, Hentzi did not spare this part of the city either. Kánya vividly describes both the sight of the shells drilling into the ground nearby and the thick black smoke billowing from the roofs of the city buildings, as well as the terrible sounds of the “infernal whistling,” a more “hideous” noise than anything she had ever heard.43 One night, after the bullets had come so close to the hospital building in which they had taken shelter that the windows had cracked and shattered in the courtyard, she decided to leave Pest behind altogether. “Away from here, away from the city, to where the fiery embers of hell do not reach! I was haunted all the way by the fiery shreds of paper and bullet fragments. I ran all the way through the City Park and only stopped at the Hermina Chapel.44 There, I collapsed on the steps of the chapel, took my dear little Irén [her daughter] in my arms, and wept bitterly. I could hardly recover my senses.”45

The modes and destinations of the flight of the inhabitants were fundamentally determined by their social status. The poor and less well-off fled to the City Park to escape the danger, creating a kind of “tent city” or refugee town, as this area was out of the reach of the castle artillery. In 1903, Kánya, who did not flee to the City Park with her family but only passed through it, penned the following recollections: “Where there are buildings around the chapel now, there were trees and lawns then, and many thousands of poor people huddled under tents made of tarpaulins. All that misery! They were selling food, making noise, bargaining, crying, swearing. And the cannons just roared on and on!”46 In Kánya’s mental map of the city at the time of the siege, then, the City Park was, in Kevin Lynch’s terms, a landmark of sorts, an area sharply separated from its surroundings.

Wealthy citizens tried to leave the city behind them completely. This is how the Kőbánya railway became a particularly important node for them. Kánya’s family had only one goal in mind: no matter where they were going, they should be heading for the railway at all costs, and so they went to Kőbánya, where a multitude had already gathered, presumably following a similar strategy. In the crowd, Emília Kánya spotted the aforementioned author Jókai and his famous wife, actress Róza Laborfalvi. The importance of social status was also evident here. The Kánya family was having lunch in the garden of a tavern, as were many others waiting for the train. Emília Kánya was accompanied not only by her husband and child, but also by a nanny, who had tied some essential items of clothing into a large shawl before leaving Terézváros and who had carried the little girl in her arms during the journey.47 Some important attributes of the bourgeois mentality were thus retained even in the times of greatest emergency. The family finally managed to leave the city. They fled to the village of Pilis, near Pest, where Sámuel Sárkány, a good friend of Kánya’s husband, served as the Reformed pastor.48

Kánya’s narrative puts considerable emphasis on her role as a mother. The description of their flight contains numerous references to the presence of her daughter. With regard to the night spent at the Medical University, Kánya noted that the little girl had been the only one among who had been able to fall asleep. The adults had stayed awake on the hard benches at the university. References to the daughter remained prominent in the description of the subsequent “stations” of their flight. This may be related to the fact that, in contrast with many other ego-documents about the siege, fear is the most dominant emotion in the description of the events, more specifically, the fear of a mother concerned for the safety of her child. The decision to leave Terézváros is also presented along similar lines: “folding my husband’s arms in mine, I escaped from the hell that I could not possibly endure any longer, so overwhelmed was I by the horror, the danger threatening my child’s life.”49 Thus, Kánya’s recollections of the events, at least according to the autobiography, were fundamentally determined by the fact that she had experienced the threat of Hentzi’s bombardment as a mother. The presence of her infant daughter influenced her decisions (at least according to her autobiography) and greatly heightened her fears, but the girl also represents, in the narrative, the perfect counterpoint to the horrors. Recalling the lunch in the garden of the restaurant in Kőbánya, Kánya writes, “I reveled in the cooing of my dear little child: she cooed so sweetly as if there were nothing wrong with the world, with the sweet sun of God and the cloudless blue sky upon us.”50

If we consider the autobiography as a whole, it is striking that Kánya’s references to use of space in peacetime revolved around the downtown area of Pest, the Buda Hills (Svábhegy, Városmajor), and the city’s “green salons,” i.e. the parks that functioned as important catalysts for social life in the period. Thus, the mental map that emerges from her writing does not focus on the different districts so much as on nodes, such as the Insula Lutherana, which provided her with a family home during her childhood and after the breakup of her first marriage. During the siege of Buda, however, she was forced to flee into and move over urban spaces that had previously been and, for the most part, would also remain completely indifferent on her mental map. Such was the case with Hársfa Street in Outer Terézváros and Kőbánya, which provided an opportunity to leave the city by way of the railway network. The only station of their flight that she had known and loved since her childhood was the City Park. This may be why, in her memoir, she highlights the sad, strikingly unusual appearance of the park, which had become a refugee camp. Even more emotional and astonishing, however, is her description of the demolished city:

My God! What had become of our beautiful city! Danube Lane had become almost unrecognizable. The great Redout building had been ruined by shells, its great columns lay on the ground, its windows like the sockets of blinded giant eyes, staring darkly ahead. And Nagyhíd Street [present-day Deák Street], the streets and squares nearby! So moved was I by this horrible sight that I burst out crying, shedding hot tears, which were tears not merely of pain, but of unbridled disgust and contempt at such a barbarous display of revenge! What crime had that poor town and its peaceful inhabitants committed! How many people were made homeless, whose homes and property were now in ruins!51

The Redoute, or Vigadó, had played an important role in both the cultural life of the Age of Reform and the political life of the War of Independence. The building, considered a pinnacle of neoclassical architecture in Pest, was inaugurated in 1833. Its concert hall had hosted such notable musicians as Johann Strauss and Ferenc Liszt. In July 1848, the first National Assembly of the People was also held here, at which Lajos Kossuth asked for 200,000 soldiers to continue the fight for freedom. The destruction of the building was thus symbolic, as was its reconstruction in 1865, albeit in a different form.52

Most of the city’s inhabitants were confronted with the scale of the devastation of Hentzi’s bombardment when they returned to the areas of the city that had been deemed particularly dangerous during the siege and therefore had been abandoned by many. Kánya, who had fled to Pilis, returned to Pest on the second day after the Hungarian victory, but even during her absence she was preoccupied (at least according to her later recollections) with the losses suffered by the city and its inhabitants: “The bombardment of my dear native city continued on and on, and night after night we heard every single shot, destroying who knows whom and what that we loved!”53 It was upon her return that it became clear to her that many of the imposing buildings of Age-of-Reform Pest, which had flourished in her childhood, had been destroyed. The shocking sight of the Vigadó in ruins was also mentioned in the writings of many of her contemporaries and in the contemporary press. In her memoirs, Kánya emphasizes both the destruction of the city’s architectural environment and the desperate plight of the its homeless. In contrast with the impressions shared in the writings of many of her contemporaries, in her case, the strong emotions (“unbridled disgust,” “contempt”) aroused by the sight of the destruction were explained with reference to purely humanitarian considerations. Although in other parts of her autobiography the role of patriotism is also very prominent, she does not describe the siege of Buda from the perspective of a Hungarian citizen impassioned by nationalist sentiments, but rather as a mother fearing for the wellbeing of her family and her hometown.

According to Liz Stanley, a biography shows ever different elements of a life actually lived, so it can be interpreted as a kaleidoscope.54 From the same elements of a story, new configurations may emerge each time we look at them. In Kánya’s autobiography, the interpretative framework of events was determined by the maternal role above all else. She weaves her personal experiences of the siege of Buda into the narrative of an escape. This procedure had a fundamental impact on her mental map as well. As the inner city of Pest constituted a site of danger for and therefore threat to her family’s life, her primary goal was to search for a suitable escape route. All the while, she used a kind of biblical allusion. Her writing shaped the autobiographical self with the help of the Virgin Mary’s topos: the tone of the text is set with allusions to the plight of the prototype of the mother who is looking for safety and seeking accommodation for her child.55 Kánya is cast (casts herself) in the role of the mother fleeing in times of distress with her baby of only a few months of age.

“Not for all the treasures in the world would I trade having been present at the magnificent capture of Buda Castle”: Lilla Bulyovszky’s Letters

Lilla Bulyovszky, a sixteen-year-old actress of the National Theater,56 lived through the siege as a young wife. In November 1848, she married Gyula Bulyovszky, one of the chief protagonists of the revolutionary events of March 15 who worked in the Ministry of the Interior in the spring of 1849.57 Thus, the young couple did not go through the siege together, as Gyula had moved to Debrecen with the Hungarian government in January 1849, while Lilla was tied to her acting job in Pest.

When examining correspondences, it is worth bearing in mind one of the most important characteristics of this type of source; namely, that the person writing the letter formed their narrative and self-image for the addressee. Letters, which provide space for self-reflection, are a particularly important part of the narrative that the person has created about their own life.58 At the same time, the writer constructs an image not only of themselves but also of the addressee and their relationship.59 In Lilla Bulyovszky’s letters, the images of the devoted, bold woman patriot and the loving wife are prominent.

As Bulyovszky wrote her letters at the time of the events, they offer impressions of the excitement surrounding the siege, which had not yet been decided. She wrote the following lines at 9 o’clock on the morning on May 14:

Back on the ninth, the daily bombardment made me, like everyone else, move out of the city, although the suburbs are even more expensive than the city center on such occasions. … The city is bombarded every day, sometimes in the evening, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, countless houses have already burnt away, as they say, there was a fire in Sip Street, and even our belongings may have been burnt.60

In the above sentence, Bulyovszky is referring to their residence in Pest, Síp Street, which was close to her workplace, the National Theater. As for the location of her temporary accommodation, she wrote merely that it was “towards the small woods,”61 presumably referring to the area around the City Park, which her contemporaries would call the Stadtwäldchen (Városerdőcske, Small City Woods).62 In the weeks of the siege, the post office in the casern on Üllői Road was the most important node on her mental map because it was here that she was able to stay in touch with her husband. As she wrote at 6 p.m. on May 18, “At the moment, the post office is in the casern at Ülle, a good one hour’s walk from my present dwelling, but I still went twice a day until I finally received your two letters, to my great joy.”63 The Üllői Road casern was built between 1845 and 1848.64 It is entirely typical of the mental map of Pest in the Age of Reform that Lilla Bulyovszky did not consider this part of Pest part of the city. The following remark from the same letter testifies to this: “I cannot even read the newspapers, because there is no one to bring them to me, I dare not go into the city, because my life is very dear after reading your letter.”65

From the outset, the relationship between Lilla and Gyula was coupled with a zealous love of their homeland. Lilla initially explained her attraction to Gyula, for instance, as the fervor felt by a patriot girl long before she had become aware of her love. Her journal entries provide a detailed description of how they met and how their love developed.66 They met at several balls in early 1848 and danced together on each occasion. March 15, 1848 was important emotional milestone for Lilla, when she listened to Gyula’s speech in front of the Landerer printing house, a venue crucial for the Revolution: “many beautiful and true words had parted from his lips, at which I felt a special affection for him that I would decipher thus: who would not love and respect this enthusiastic patriot?”

In recent decades, the secondary literature has gradually stopped treating nationalism as mere ideology or discourse and has begun to consider it the sum total of lived feelings, experiences, and personal memories.67 Approaching the question of nationalism in everyday experience from an innovative perspective, Anthony P. Cohen began to use the term personal nationalism to refer to the active role played by members of a nation as individuals in their own right as they personalized their sense of nationhood and created their own meanings.68 Cohen’s concept was further elaborated by Raúl Moreno-Almendral, who focused on nation-building from a micro-historical perspective.69 As sources, ego-documents offer opportunities to examine how individuals experience their national identities, how they tailor these identities to their life situations, and how they use the concept of nation to make sense of their life experiences and life events. They thus offer insights into the ways in which national identity influences how people think, how they understand their destinies, and their perceptions of the world. This approach, as exemplified by Reetta Eiranen’s research, can be useful in examining the correspondence of engaged and married couples at the time, as it offers some grasp of why a commitment to the national ideal provided a fundamental bond between couples that cemented romantic feelings.70

In the letters written by Lilla Bulyovszky to her husband, the description of the besieged city is also tinged with national sentiments. In both Lilla’s letters and the letters written by her husband to her, the recapture of Buda Castle is presented as a great event which was an exceptional and sublime happening to experience personally. This perspective even overrode their sense of fear. Lilla offers the following description of her experience of the conclusion of the siege on May 24:

My Gyula, I am poor, but not for all the treasures in the world would I trade having been present at the magnificent capture of Buda Castle. From two o’clock until the morning I sat on the sandhills, listening to the constant sound of rifles, and with every shot a deep prayer flew from my bosom to heaven for the life of our honvéd [Hungarian soldiers] fighting for freedom; how my soul rejoiced when I spotted the first national flag! Later, I went to the banks of the Danube, I saw how the Croats were thrown down from the battlements, but, alas, I also saw how the soldiers, holding the Nádor-Kert [Palatine’s Garden], fighting for their fatherland and honor, were floating down, some dead, some wounded. I could not keep watching, I left the banks of the Danube and walked the streets of our shattered city with tears in my eyes. Only here and there are windows to be seen in the houses, the new market houses all stand mute, as if the inhabitants had died, some in Leopoldstadt look as if they were about to fall apart within a minute.71

The sixteen-year-old actress had such a strong desire to see the events from up close that she watched the siege unfold from the banks of the Danube. Her curiosity was not unique. In a letter written on May 21, the newspaper writer and editor Richard Noisser marveled that “people are so used to the shooting that thousands of curious people are standing on the Pest banks watching this history [sic].”72 Even more astonishing to him was the fact that three-quarters of the crowd were women, undeterred by the fact that shots were occasionally fired from the castle in the direction of the onlookers for “private amusement.”73 In this situation, the Danube constituted a borderline (or edge, to use one of Lynch’s terms) separating Buda and Pest and at the same time functioning as the “stage” for the events as seen from Pest and thus becoming an “auditorium.”

In an earlier letter, dated 18 May, Lilla Bulyovszky had already mentioned that her only “amusement”74 in her solitude was watching the artillery shells being launched at the castle and at Pest. However, it is clear from her writings that she did not watch the siege closely out of sheer curiosity, but rather out of patriotic fervor. She was aware of the symbolic significance of Buda, of the fact that the siege of this city was one of the most important events in Hungarian history. Nor can we overlook her remark that she had also watched “how the Croats were thrown down from the battlements,”75 and it was only the sight of the corpses of the defenders of the Hungarian cause that was so unbearable to her that she felt compelled to leave the scene.

In the couple’s correspondence, it is also worth noting how the husband, Gyula Bulyovszky reacted to his wife’s experiences of the siege at close quarters, while he himself was far away from the events. On May 6, when the news reached him that the imperial army was shelling Pest, he wrote the following lines:

The news is just beginning to spread here that Henzi [sic] is having Pest bombarded, believe me, my angel, if it is true, my Lord Henzi’s bullet shocks my heart no less than the windowpanes of the buildings on Danube Lane. My soul trembles at the knowledge that my only treasure, my wife, is so exposed to this terror, and I am, in turn, exalted in the knowledge that, if I have been kept from the glory of our fight, at least you, the better half of my soul, share in it, though not with a weapon that belongs in the hand of man, but with the secret fervor of your heart, which is the purest prayer before God, who watches over nations with His omnipotence.76

And at the end of the siege, he wrote the following:

Your trembling and the struggle between life and death since Buda was taken are now over, and you who have stood heroically near the danger will ever remain in the great memory of the days to come. You were witnesses of what centuries would not bring us, if we could live to see it. The more I trembled for you, the better it feels now that, beyond the horriblenesses [sic] of danger, you at least, my sweet Lilla, have been an eyewitness to this sublime event, and you shall tell me many a good and great tale among your kisses.77

Although Lilla, having experienced the events at first hand, frequently referred to the significance of the successful siege, the rhetoric in her letters contains less pathos than the writings of her husband, who observed the developments from Debrecen. Rather, her letters contain information that is interesting from the point of view of the history of lifestyles. She regularly wrote, for example, about the high prices in the city, both for accommodations and for food. During the siege, the suburbs became more expensive than the city center, which everyone was trying to flee. She described how much she paid for a bed in her temporary accommodation in the suburbs, where there were six people to a room, so there was constant chatter and noise, and in the next room “singing and shouting, as is customary in a public house.”78 Nevertheless, she stayed there even after the siege had ended because, as she wrote on May 24, there were no accommodations in the city “even at a good price.”79 Her letters show that the National Theater, which was closed during the siege and reopened on May 23, could not pay her wages that month. She had to deal with a significant rise in prices. In addition to rent, bread, pork, and beef were also, she writes, “super expensive,” and the price of shoes and clothing had also increased.80

In her description of the conditions following the recapture of Buda, Lilla Bulyovszky not only reflected on the physical environment of the city but also described how the citizens of Pest tried to get to Buda as quickly as possible to purchase possessions that had been looted from the destroyed buildings in Buda, which the soldiers sold for trifling amounts.81 Those who got from Pest to Buda as quickly as possible got the best prices, but transport between the twin cities was not easy:

Those who went to Buda in the morning, clinging on the Chain Bridge ledge, risking their lives, got everything cheap; in the afternoon, we too wanted to cross, my mother was already in the boat, the crowds were overflowing, I luckily could not go in, the boat turned upside down and only eight people who fell on their feet were able to escape, thank heavens my mother was among those eight…82

At the point of the siege when the Hungarian soldiers had broken into the castle, Hentzi ordered the Chain Bridge to be blown up, but the attempt made by his aide, Alois Alnoch von Edelstadt, failed. Although the bridge was not officially opened until after the defeat of the War of Independence in November 1849, it was used by the military on occasion from January that year, and on May 27, 1849, Pál Hajnik, the newly appointed police chief of the city, allowed civilian pedestrians to cross. According to Lilla Bulyovszky’s description dated May 24, the most determined inhabitants of Pest attempted the crossing immediately after the siege in the hopes of material gain. The young actress would not have rejected the chance to purchase stolen “goods” sold by the soldiers at low prices had her mother’s accident on the Danube, mentioned above, as well as a lack of funds, prevented her from crossing the river to “shop.” Thus, she could only report on her landlord’s acquisitions (silver cutlery, a pocket watch with a large chain, a gilded mirror, etc.).83 The joy of the siege, which ended in a Hungarian victory, the pain of wandering in a shattered city, the absence of her husband, and the problems of everyday life all feature prominently in Lilla Bulyovszky’s narrative. As a result, her letters paint a nuanced picture of the period of the siege and of everyday life in the weeks that followed, both in terms of emotional history and in terms of lifestyle and urban history.

“Our fortress is also heavily damaged”: Anna Glasz’s Letter from Buda Castle

A viewpoint radically different from the writings of Emília Kánya and Lilla Bulyovszky emerges from a letter written in German by Anna Glasz, during the siege, addressed to Mrs. Ignác Andrássy, née Mária Végh.84 The only certain information about the writer is that she was a resident of Buda Castle. In the press of the 1820s and 1830s, the name “Glasz Anna, született Anchély Aszszony [Anna Glasz, née Mrs. Anchély],” who “has been engaged in the education of adolescent maidens for several years” at Szervita Place, Pest, appeared several times.85 Although there is no clear evidence that this Anna Glasz was the same as the Anna Glasz who lived in the Buda Castle in 1849, the fact that at that time there was a daughter named Anna in the Anchely family (ennobled in 1801) suggests that she might well have been.86

The address on the inside page of the letter reads “Nach Martonvásár. St. Péter.” The latter may refer to Kajászószentpéter, located near Martonvásár, Fejér County, 36 kilometers from Budapest. The estate of Kajászószentpéter came into the possession of the Andrássy family around 1790. In the 1830s, Ignác Andrássy served as a Lieutenant Colonel (Oberstleutnant), a rank higher than major and lower than colonel.87 When he died in 1837, the estate passed through his wife to the gentry Végh family.88 The addressee of the letter, Mária Végh (1799–1876), had been a widow for twelve years at the time of the siege of Buda in 1849. She had turned fifty that year. She would die childless. In 1846, she established a foundation for the poor in Kajászószentpéter.89 In 1875, a year before her death, she donated the family’s valuable library of nearly 400 volumes to the National Library.90

Compared to the sources analyzed so far, Anna Glasz’s letter shows the perspective of the “other side,” both geographically and politically. As a resident of Buda Castle, she (unlike the previous two women) was afraid not of Hentzi’s bombardment but of the cannons of Artúr Görgei besieging the castle. Some of her comments also show that she was not exactly pleased with the Hungarian victory.

Of the city’s inhabitants, those living in the Buda Castle district were the most directly affected by the siege.91 Hentzi had warned them as early as April 23 that he would defend the castle to the last, and he advised them to leave their homes or to have enough food on hand for two months. Although this caused considerable alarm among the inhabitants of the district, very few people heeded his advice, as they did not want to leave their valuables behind, even though they could not afford to buy large quantities of food at short notice.92 During the siege, those who remained in the castle were plagued not only by food shortages, but also by fear of diseases, with epidemics of cholera and typhus both breaking out within the castle walls. On top of all this, they were forced to live in cellars, and even then they were not really safe, because shells would often break through the ceilings of the cellars.93

Anna Glasz started writing the letter on May 11 and finished it on May 26. In a sense, it thus became a diary of sorts (if addressed to someone else), because during the two weeks between the two dates, she repeatedly recorded current events along with her emotional responses to these events. A sentiment of uncertainty pervades her letter, and she hints several times that she cannot tell what the next minute will bring. The very first sentence of the letter alludes to this: “I am still alive.”94 Like Lilla Bulyovszky, Glasz dated the events to the hour. In the first section of her letter, dated May 11, she looks back on the first moments of the siege, which had begun a week earlier:

Eight days ago today, that is, at noon on the fourth, a dreadful shelling began, which continued uninterruptedly for 24 hours and lasted for a total of six days, with but a few quieter interludes; the most terrifying moment, however, was the night of the eight, when the Castle was bombarded with red-hot bullets, one of which set fire to a large building in Herrengasse, which burned to the ground. Earlier, several buildings, including the i[mperial] palace, caught fire, though fortunately the fire was put out.95

In the above passage, Glasz referrs to two significant features of Buda Castle: one of the key mediaeval streets in the area, Úri Street (Herrengasse / Gentlemen’s Street), which runs from Dísz Square to Kapisztrán Square and the royal palace at the southern end of Castle Hill in Buda. In the rest of the letter, she mentions other streets, squares, and buildings damaged by the shelling.

The description of Pest in her letter dwells on the destruction (or, rather, the incoming news of the destruction) in the areas affected by the bombardment. It is worth noting the buildings she highlights. First on the list were the Redoutengebäude and the Trattner-Károlyi House (which had burned to the ground). Emília Kánya also mentioned the Redoute of Pest, while the Trattner-Károlyi House was home to a major printing house of the Age of Reform, as well as the Hungarian Scientific Society.96 The two-story building, which had survived the great Pest flood of 1838, had been extended with the addition of a third story in 1846–1847. Its roof structure was completely burnt down in the bombing, but it was later restored.

Although the bombardment of Pest was portrayed as a terrible event in Anna Glasz’s letter, unlike many of her contemporaries, she did not interpret the act as a barbarous crime committed by Hentzi, but rather as a “terrible consequence” of the attacks launched by Artúr Görgei, who laid siege to the castle. She was referring shelling which took place on the night of May 8, which caused considerable damage to the castle buildings: “Even then, the commander here thought he would take revenge on Pesth if such events were repeated. This was done in the night [from the eighth to] the ninth with shells, which caused terrible destruction [in Pest].”97 Although the letter is rather imprecise in its timing (Hentzi had started shelling Pest on the fourth and had kept the barrage of shells going almost every day),98 it clearly shows that Anna Glasz accepted Hentzi’s justification for the retaliation. Thus, in her eyes, Hentzi was not “the cannibal-hearted commander of Buda Castle,” but a leader who acted to protect the castle and did exactly what he had threatened to do because his earlier warnings had been ignored. As far as her perspective is concerned, it is also worth noting that Glasz called it her “last joy” that Norbert Andrássy, a family member of the addressee, was appointed aide-de-camp to Ludwig von Welden, the commander-in-chief of the Imperial and Royal Hungarian Army.99 This remark suggests that Glasz was loyal to the imperial court, as does the fact that, unlike many other townspeople, she seems, on the basis of her letter at least, to have taken no joy in the end of the siege as a moment of liberation, but rather was only relieved that she was no longer in any direct danger.

Anna Glasz’s letter mentions the name of another person who remained loyal to the empire. Her entry of May 14, in which she recounts the events of the previous two days, again highlights the houses on fire in Úri Street and on Dísz Square, (to which she had referred in earlier passages), but she mentions other Buda districts (Víziváros / Water Town, Krisztinaváros / Christinenstadt), mainly in connection with acquaintances living there: “The night before yesterday, there was a fire in the Wasserstadt [Víziváros], in Landstrasse [Ország Road], and in two places in Christinenstadt very close to Wirozsil’s, with a rather violent wind; and yesterday at around 10 o’clock at night, several buildings in the fortress in Herrengasse and on Paradeplatz [Dísz Square / Parade Square] caught fire.”100 The name Wirozsil probably means the family of Antal Virozsil, a university professor and jurist who had been styled Rector of the University of Pest in 1841.101 In July 1848, he requested permission to retire, after which he moved to Krisztinaváros.102 When the siege of Buda Castle ended with the victory of the Hungarian troops on May 21, 1849, Anna Glasz fled to Virozsil’s family. This personal acquaintance is why Krisztinaváros occupied a prominent place on her mental map.103 Her address there is given at the end of the letter thus: “Aldásisches Haus, Nro. 227,” referring to the so-called Áldásy House, commissioned by master butcher Antal Áldásy in the early 1840s.104 In a refashioned form, this building still stands on Krisztina körút 57. It houses the Museum of Theater History.

Glasz’s letter not only gives us a bird’s-eye view of the twin cities, the descriptions of which are fundamentally influenced by the news of the destruction caused by shells and cannonballs, it also features a poignant, personal experience of the city, which affects the writer’s own home:

Our fortress has also been heavily damaged. In the square in front of my windows, some 40 shells fell; two of them broke through the roof of our house, two others ricocheted off and exploded in the courtyard, a glowing twelve-pounder grazed the window of my back room, where I had retreated and where I was still lying in bed at 3 o’clock in the morning half asleep, and fell down just in front of it. So far, however, God has protected me wonderfully! As I write this, a rather violent volley of cannon fire has just begun.105

These lines are found in the first entry of May 11, which describes the events of the night of May 8. The entry on the morning of May 14 begins thus:

Oh, Marie, what scenes of horror! The shelling of the fortress and the assault on the waterworks continue with short intervals almost all the time. (…) Altogether, yesterday was probably the most terrible day for the fortress; innumerable shells were fired in, so that we hardly pay attention to grenades or cannonballs anymore.106

The pumping station, the “waterworks” which supplied the castle with water from Víziváros, near the Buda end of the Chain Bridge, was of strategic importance to both Görgei and Hentzi, as there was no well inside the castle.107 Thus, Hentzi, thoroughly preparing for the siege, reinforced the weak points of Buda Castle, which had previously fallen into decline, and had a palisade built to protect the waterworks, which he connected to the Buda bridgehead of the Chain Bridge.108 Görgei hoped that by storming and destroying the waterworks, he would be able to force the surrender of the castle, since the garrison could hold out for no more than a few days without water. To his surprise, however, the first major assault on May 4 failed under fire from the castle cannons, and the siege was thus considerably delayed compared to his preliminary plans.109

Alongside the descriptions of her feelings of fear and uncertainty, Anna Glasz’s letter also contains accounts of everyday life in the besieged castle. When there was no cannon fire, she suffered from a lack of food. Food supplies were evidently not unlimited in the besieged castle. The rations ordered for civilians were limited, and meat ran out as early as roughly May 8, so they could only get supplies from the soldiers’ stocks. Glasz offers the following description of the “daily routine” of the inhabitants of the castle and those that chose to flee:

The morning is usually fairly quiet, but around noon, the shooting starts with increasing intensity and usually lasts until after midnight. From 6 to 7 o’clock in the evening, all those who want to leave the fortress may do so, but only at the Water Gate. Mostly, it is women and children who leave. They are escorted by an officer to the palisades at the waterworks, which the Croats occupy. Beyond them stand the Hungarians, and the fugitives are left to their fate.110

 The Water Gate (St John’s Gate in the Middle Ages), which made it possible to leave the castle, stood on the eastern side of the southern end of Dísz Square (towards the Danube). A week earlier, on May 7, a delegation from the city council had approached Hentzi with a request to permit elderly men, women, and children to leave the castle. Although he had allowed this, he had also tried to persuade those who wished to leave to stay in order to avoid demoralizing the soldiers defending the castle. He had promised to do his utmost to protect them and compensate them fully for any losses they might incur. Nevertheless, hundreds of Buda Castle denizens left their homes from May 8 onwards.

Only two days after the end of the siege, on May 23, did Glasz move to the residence of the aforementioned Virozsil family in Krisztinaváros. She did not write a word about May 21, the day on which the Hungarians triumphed and recaptured the castle and Hentzi was mortally wounded. For Glasz, the end of the siege did not bring liberation. Her last entry, dated May 26, begins with the same words as her first, on May 11: “I am still alive.”111 This similarity does not put what had happened into a reassuring framework. Rather, it reveals a state of anxiety that was still unabated. All the more, since, at the end of the letter, the repeated sentence no longer figures as a single, simple assertion, but rather is accompanied by the following explanation: “I am still alive; that is, I walk around, eat, drink, sleep; but my spirit is broken…”112 During the siege, her home was half destroyed, and many of her possessions were lost.113 The metaphor can refer both to the destruction of the belongings in the badly damaged buildings by the impact of the cannonballs and to the idea that those belongings fell prey to the soldiers who, as Lilla Bulyovszky’s letter indicated, sold the objects looted from the buildings in the castle at a low price after the siege had ended. The letter concludes with a condensed summary of events. Having lived through the siege and having spent seven days and nights in a cellar, Glasz considers it a miracle that she survived.114


My study presented three different women’s accounts of the siege of Buda Castle in 1849: three different accounts in which, despite the different backgrounds and perspectives of the authors, there are many common elements. During the siege, the roles of the various districts became much more important on the mental maps of these three authors than in peacetime. The question of whether a given point in the city was within firing range of the Buda Castle, i.e. how much of a target it could be, how easily it could be hit by shells, became a fundamental issue. As many of the city’s inhabitants were forced to flee, the focus in Pest-Buda shifted from the downtown area to the suburbs.

One essential consideration when using ego-documents as sources is the relationship between experience and text. In other words, one must remain aware that the events originally experienced and their narrated, constructed versions are never identical. When examining a mental map, this is a particularly pressing issue, since one cannot ignore which kind of source a given description of a cityscape is found in. Thus, research on the uses of space is closely linked to research on the uses of writing.

Emília Kánya remembered her 21-year-old self at the age of 75 and described her experiences of the city at that time in the framework of a narrative that she shaped into a story of escape. Her mental map is largely determined by a self-image centered on her maternal role and, as a result, her writing focuses on how she and her child sought escape routes in the menacing urban environment and how she tried to stay out of the siege’s reach. The direction of escape through the different parts of the city (the downtown area, Terézváros, the City Park, and Kőbánya), with the movement flowing towards the suburbs, can be considered typical, but the choice of the nodes within these spaces (the medical university, the Commercial Hospital) was made possible by Emília Kánya’s individual network of contacts. Her narrative also draws attention to the fact that social status fundamentally influenced the mode and destination of flight. She was able to leave the city as a wealthy bourgeois woman. Her child was looked after by a nanny, and they merely passed through the tent camp in the City Park, which for poorer townsfolk was a destination. New nodes appeared on the mental maps of the authors of the analyzed ego-documents, depending on their life situations and objectives. For Emília Kánya, who wanted to leave the city, the railway junction at Kőbánya became important as a means of escape, as was true for many other wealthier citizens, and in her autobiography this featured as the site of an impressive mass scene. For Lilla Bulyovszky, who wished to correspond with her absent husband, the post office in the Üllői Road casern was a key node for communication. For Anna Glasz, in whose letter it was the friendly rather than the familiar ties that dominated, the Krisztinaváros residence of the Virozsils meant a crucial node and refuge.

The ego-documents on which I have based this discussion contain descriptions of a wide range of emotional responses to the events, which were experienced differently, depending on the varying family roles and political visions of the authors. When considered at the intersection of the study of nationalism and of emotional history, the texts emerge as expressions of three radically different mentalities. Emília Kánya, who went through the events as a mother, did not focus on her national identity during the siege, but rather on her family and urban identity. Her descriptions of the neighborhoods through which she traveled while fleeing are imbued with dread. She regarded every part of Pest as dangerous terrain in which the safety of her child was threatened, which is why she wanted to leave the city. However, her first impressions of her return after the siege were fundamentally shaped by her identity as a denizen of Pest and the pain she felt at the sight of the destruction of her native city. Although other parts of her autobiography show that she sympathized with the cause of the Hungarian War of Independence, she recalled the events of May 1849 without nationalist overtones, adopting a purely humanitarian stance.

In contrast, Lilla Bulyovszky’s letters seem to offer the perspective of a young actress who prioritizes her patriotism and national identity and who considers the siege of Buda one of the most sublime and outstanding experiences of her life. Of the three ego-documents examined, hers is the only one in which positive emotions predominate. She addressed her letters to her husband from the position of a young, loving wife and a bold patriot fervently committed to the fight for freedom. For her, the city was the “stage” of a historic national event, which she wanted to follow as closely as possible, so the excitement and then the sense of joy at the Hungarian victory overwrote all other emotions. She used the banks of the Danube as an “auditorium” in order to see herself as part of the extraordinary event. And for her, Lipótváros, which she roamed after the end of the siege, was the sad “backdrop” that made her realize the serious damage caused by the bombardments.

The depiction of the city in the German-language letter by Anna Glasz, a loyal imperial subject residing in Buda, was shaped by a mixture of hearsay, incoming news, and the author’s own experiences. The imagined and the experienced images of the city became intertwined in the letter. As she herself resided in Buda, the descriptions of Pest are more imagined, while the descriptions of Buda are drawn on experience. Unlike Kánya and Bulyovszky, Glasz was in her home in Buda Castle throughout the siege. She also had to experience the destruction of a large part of her home, and she was compelled to seek shelter at a time when many other city dwellers were able to return to their homes. In her letter, which records the events of the siege simultaneously, as a series of signs, there is a constant shift of scale as she paints an image of the city. In one passage, we see the city and the castle in “extreme long shots,” while in another, we are given intimate “close-up,” but every passage contains references to the enormous scale of destruction.115

Although there is a rich literature on the military history of the 1849 siege of Buda Castle, an analysis of the ego-documents of women who lived through the events furthers a significantly more nuanced grasp of individual experiences of this phase of the War of Independence. The fact that these writings focus not on the frontlines but on the everyday problems in the “hinterland” (high prices, lack of food) is but one consideration. An examination of these women’s perceptions of the city and the emotions expressed in their ego-documents reveals how the unprecedented experience of war affected the mental maps of civilians. It also reminds us that research on the experiences of the denizens of the city does not exclusively belong to urban history. Any study of the theme of the “lived city” would ideally be connected with discussion of the “lived family” and the “lived nation.”

Archival Sources

Magyar Tudományos Akadémia Könyvtár és Információs Központ, Kézirattár [Manuscript Archive of Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences] (MTA KIK Kt.)

Kiscelli Múzeum, Térkép-, Kézirat- és Nyomtatványgyűjtemény [Kiscell Museum, Collection of Maps, Manuscripts and Prints]


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1* Supported by the ÚNKP-20-4 New National Excellence Program of the Ministry for Innovation and Technology from the National Research, Development and Innovation Fund.

Kánya, Réges-régi időkről, 107.

2 Deák, “Ha nő kezében a zászló,” 100–6; Kapronczay, “Kossuth Zsuzsanna, az első magyar főápolónő tevékenysége a szabadságharc idején.”

3 See, e.g., Nemes, “Women in the 1848–1849 Hungarian Revolution”; N. Szegvári, “Út a nők egyenjogúságához”; Zimmermann, “Ne így, hazám hölgyei!”; Zimmermann, Die bessere Hälfte?, 19–22.

4 See, e.g., Walton, “Writing the 1848 Revolution”, Boetcher Joeres, “1848 from a Distance: German Women Writers on the Revolution.”

5 Budapest was not established until 1873, with the merging of Pest, Buda, and Óbuda, each of which had been an independent town until then. Regarding the urban history of the period preceding that date, several names are used. Most Hungarian historians use “Pest-Buda,” which I also keep in this study when referring to the twin cities in the Age of Reform. (Robert Nemes used “Buda-Pest,” which is also found in works by many Hungarian, German, and English authors from the 1830s onwards. Nemes, The Once and Future Budapest, 10.)

6 On the mental map of city dwellers of Budapest at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, see, e.g., Gyáni, Identity and the Urban Experience: Fin de Siècle Budapest.

7 Lynch, The Image of the City, 2.

8 Ibid., 46–90.

9 Kövér, Biográfia és társadalomtörténet, 65–96; Gyáni, “Az ego-dokumentumok történetírói haszna.”

10 Canning, “Feminist History after the Linguistic Turn,” 376–77.

11 Hermann, “Buda bevétele, 1849. május 21.,” 97–98.

12 Hermann, “Heinrich Hentzi, a budavári Leonidász,” 34–60.

13 Ibid., 55.

14 Ibid.

15 Bácskai, “Budapest története 1686–1873,” 114.

16 In Hungarian national memory, the two decades preceding the 1848–1849 Revolution and War of Independence have been labelled the “Age of Reform” since the early twentieth century. The main strivings of the period focused on the establishment of a modern Hungarian nation and bourgeois society, stressing the necessity of radical reforms. Most national symbols crucial for the Hungarian national identity in literature, architecture, and politics emerged during this era.

17 Spira, A pestiek Petőfi és Haynau között, 530.

18 Lutheran minister János Melczer used this epithet for Hentzi after a shell severed his eleven-year-old son’s legs. The event is mentioned in Emília Kánya’s memoir.

19 Nemes, The Once and Future Budapest, 8.

20 Bácskai, “Budapest története 1686–1873,” 97.

21 Ibid., 97.

22 Nemes, The Once and Future Budapest, 108.

23 Bácskai, “Budapest története 1686–1873,” 96.

24 Ibid., 99.

25 Ibid.

26 Sisa, Motherland and Progress, 90–94.

27 Ibid., 86–89.

28 Ibid., 78–79.

29 Ibid., 86–89.

30 Bácskai, “Budapest története 1686–1873,” 97.

31 Ibid., 114.

32 Tomsics, Budapest Atlantisza, 77.

33 Ibid., 77.

34 Nemes, The Once and Future Budapest, 55, 58.

35 Ibid., 167.

36 Ibid.

37 Török, “Kánya Emília szerkesztői és írói pályája”; Bozsoki, “Egy női karrier elbeszélésének nehézségei”; Bozsoki, “Editorial Strategies of Hungarian Women Editors”; Bozsoki, “A honleányság mint női emancipáció. Kánya Emília alakja és munkássága.”

38 Fábri, “Egy XIX. századi írónő Fiume magyarjairól”; Kiss Gy., “Fiumei képek Kánya Emília idejéből.”

39 Kánya Emília, Réges-régi időkről, 106.

40 Ibid., 107.

41 Ibid., 107–8. On the history of Commercial Hospital, see, e.g. Liptay, “A pesti kereskedelmi kórház,” 116–18.

42 Ibid., 108.

43 Ibid.

44 Through her father, Emília Kánya was on friendly terms with Palatine Joseph, who had built the chapel in honor of his daughter, the charitable Hermina, after she died as a young nun. The Hermina Chapel was still under construction at the time: the foundation stone had been laid in 1842, but the shrine was not consecrated until 1856.

45 Kánya Emília, Réges-régi időkről, 108–9.

46 Ibid., 109.

47 Ibid., 108.

48 Ibid., 109.

49 Ibid., 108.

50 Ibid., 109.

51 Ibid., 110.

52 On the history of the Vigadó, see Holló, The Vigadó: A Fairy-tale Palace on the Danube; Sisa, A magyar művészet a 19. században, 69–70; Sisa, Motherland and Progress, 86–89, 300–7.

53 Kánya, Réges-régi időkről, 110.

54 Stanley, The Auto/biographical I, 158.

55 Bozsoki, “A honleányság mint női emancipáció,” 115–16; Bozsoki, “Sokat tehet a nő a társadalomban.”

56 Her original name was Lilla Szilágyi. After her marriage, however, she appeared in public as Lilla Bulyovszky, both as an actress and as a writer. In 1859, she left the National Theater in Pest, and over the course of the next fifteen years, she enjoyed a distinguished international career. In Germany, she became known as Lilla von Bulyovszky, and her greatest successes came at the Court Theater in Munich.

57 Péchy, Hűséges hűtlenek, 36.

58 Eiranen, “The Narrative Self,” 90–91.

59 Ibid., 91.

60 V. Waldapfel, A forradalom és szabadságharc levelestára, vol. 3, 350–51.

61 Ibid., 359.

62 Magyar, “Kertek, parkok Buda-Pest társaséletében a 19. században,” 145.

63 V. Waldapfel, A forradalom és szabadságharc levelestára, vol. 3, 359.

64 Sisa, “Az Üllői úti laktanya”; Sisa, A magyar művészet a 19. században, 218. It was later known as the Maria Theresa Barracks and then, later, as the Kilián Barracks. It played a key role in the 1956 revolution, as it was located at an important strategic point in Budapest, at the corner of Üllői Road and Ferenc Boulevard, near Corvin Alley, which by then had become a gateway to the city center. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the same area occupied a very different position in relation to the contemporary center.

65 V. Waldapfel, A forradalom és szabadságharc levelestára, vol. 3, 360.

66 MTA KIK Kt., Ms 2442/8. The journal has not yet been published in its entirety; excerpts have been published in Blanka Péchy’s novel about Mrs. Lilla Bulyovszky, née Szilágyi: Péchy, Hűséges hűtlenek.

67 See, e.g., Kivimäki, Lived Nation.

68 Cohen, “Personal Nationalism,” 808. Quoted in: Kivimäki et al., “Lived Nation: Histories of Experience and Emotion in Understanding Nationalism,”8.

69 Moreno-Almendral, “Reconstructing the history of nationalist cognition and everyday nationhood from personal accounts.” Quoted in Kivimäki et al., “Lived Nation: Histories of Experience and Emotion in Understanding Nationalism,” 8.

70 Eiranen, “Personal Nationalism in a Marital Relationship.”

71 V. Waldapfel, A forradalom és szabadságharc levelestára, vol. 3, 387.

72 Ibid., 371–72.

73 Ibid., 372.

74 At the time, the Hungarian term “mulatság” meant not (only) entertainment but also pastime in a broad sense.

75 The garrison led by Hentzi numbered some 5,000 men. An infantry battalion consisting of one Italian and one Ukrainian-Polish battalion of regulars and two Croatian battalions of border guards made up the bulk of the castle’s defenders (Hermann, “Heinrich Hentzi, a budavári Leonidász,” 55). Lilla Bulyovszky presumably believed that the vast majority of the soldiers fighting against the Hungarian soldiers were of Croatian descent.

76 V. Waldapfel, A forradalom és szabadságharc levelestára, vol. 3, 309.

77 Ibid., 394.

78 Ibid., 351.

79 Ibid., 388.

80 Ibid., 350.

81 Ibid., 387.

82 Ibid., 387–88.

83 V. Waldapfel, A forradalom és szabadságharc levelestára, vol. 3, 388.

84 Kiscell Museum, 27066. The letter was published by Ervin Seenger. Seenger, “Levél Buda 1849. évi ostromáról,” 479–80.

85 Hazai’ s Külföldi Tudósítások, August 25, September 1, September 12, 1821. Hazai’ s Külföldi Tudósítások, October 15, October 19, 1831.

86 Her father, János Anchely, who had been promoted to the nobility, served first at the Court Chamber and later at the Governor’s Council between 1769 and 1786, and then as the director of the Episcopate of Vác. On December 4, 1801, his wife, Anna Sagmiller, and his five children, Károly, Ferenc, Dávid, Anna, and Mária, were ennobled together with him.

87 Farkas, “Andrássy Ignác Thuróczy-krónikája,” 226.

88 Czanik, Kajászó(szentpéter) község és református egyháza története, 31.

89 Farkas, “Andrássy Ignác Thuróczy-krónikája,” 226.

90 Ibid, 226.

91 See Spira, A pestiek Petőfi és Haynau között, 518–26.

92 Ibid., 518.

93 Ibid., 521–22.

94 Seenger, “Levél Buda 1849. évi ostromáról,” 479.

95 Ibid., 479.

96 H. Boros, “A Trattner-Károlyi ház Pesten,” 150.

97 Seenger, “Levél Buda 1849. évi ostromáról,” 479.

98 Hermann, “Heinrich Hentzi, a budavári Leonidász,” 56.

99 Seenger, “Levél Buda 1849. évi ostromáról,” 479. Although von Welden held the post of commander-in-chief for a short time, from April 12 to May 30 only, Norbert Andrássy remained the aide-de-camp to Julius Jacob von Haynau, von Welden’s replacement, too. Thus, it fell to him a few months later, in September 1849, to accompany the vanquished Artur Görgei, who had taken Buda Castle, to Klagenfurt, the place of his exile, after Hungary’s surrender at Világos had ended the War of Independence. (Görgey, Életem és működésem Magyarországon 1848-ban és 1849-ben, vol. 2, 435.)

100 Seenger, “Levél Buda 1849. évi ostromáról,” 480.

101 On the career of Antal Virozsil, see Szabadfalvi, Múltunk öröksége, 9–19.

102 His retirement was only temporary, however, and a new phase in his career began after the defeat of the War of Independence. When the university authorities were dissolved by Karl von Geringer on August 20, 1849, Antal Virozsil was appointed President of the provisional University Council. He was appointed Rector in 1850 and Imperial Councilor in 1851.

103 Krisztinaváros was the youngest suburb of Buda, founded in the early 1770s. Although the city magistrate had originally intended to settle vineyard workers without possessions there, the area soon became a popular elite quarter for wealthy citizens. By the early nineteenth century, it had taken on a suburban character with gardens. Some of its newer buildings served as summer resorts for people who owned houses in Buda Castle (Gál, “Kétszáz éves a Krisztinaváros I.,” 20–22).

104 Gál, “Kétszáz éves a Krisztinaváros II.,” 19.

105 Seenger, “Levél Buda 1849. évi ostromáról,” 479.

106 Ibid., 480.

107 Hermann, “Heinrich Hentzi, a budavári Leonidász,” 55.

108 Ibid., 55.

109 Ibid., 56.

110 Seenger, “Levél Buda 1849. évi ostromáról,” 480.

111 Ibid., 479–80.

112 Ibid., 480.

113 Ibid.

114 Ibid. No accurate register of the number of civilian victims during the siege has survived. One of the most “renowned” victims was Mrs. Ferenc Bogács née Barbara Payerl, daughter of Royal Councilor Franz Payerl von Perleberg, retired director of the Registry of the Hungarian Royal Court Chamber; she was sitting by her breakfast table when she was killed by a grenade hitting her house (Spira, A pestiek Petőfi és Haynau között, 524).

115 Little research has been done on the sensory experiences of people who lived through or died in the wars of the nineteenth century. On the sensory history of the American Civil War, see Smith, The Smell of Battle. (One of the chapters analyses the reflections of a volunteer nurse, Cornelia Hancock, on the sense of smell.)