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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Scott, James C. “Foreword.” In Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, ix–xiv. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

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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.


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]



Alder, Ken. The Measure of All Things: The Seven-year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World. New York: Free Press, 2002.

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.

Fureix, Emmanuel, and Jarrige, François. La modernité désenchantée: Relire l’histoire du XIXe siècle français. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2015.

Ginderachter, Maarten Van, and Beyen, Marnix, eds. Nationhood from Below: Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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.

Weber, Eugene. Peasants into Frenchmen the Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1976.

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.


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

FamilySearch (Genealogical Society of Utah). Last accessed on 23 May 2023 https://www.familysearch.org.

DGS 004704131–32: Belsőbőcs (Borsod). Calvinist registers, 1714–1895.

DGS 004838079–81: Belsőbőcs (Borsod). State registers, 1895–1908.

Magyar Mezőgazdasági Múzeum és Könyvtár [Hungarian Agricultural Museum and Library] (MMgMK)

IV. Collection of personal memorabilia

456. Helle János feljegyzései [János Helle’s records] [1821–1870],


Sárospataki Református Kollégium Tudományos Gyűjteményei. A Nagykönyvtár [Scientific Collections of the Reformed College of Sárospatak. Grand Library]

Kt. 3635. Öreg Gyüker József krónikája 1787–1866 [The chronicle of József Gyüker the Elder, 1787–1866].

Szeghalmi Könyvtár és Közérdekű Muzeális Gyűjtemény [Szeghalom Library and Museum Collection of Public Interest]

T.86.84.1. id. Arató Lajos visszaemlékezése [Lajos Arató, Sr.’s memoirs].


Primary sources

“Gyüker család feljegyzései: Évszázadok történetei [The records of the Gyüker family: Stories of centuries.] Külsőbőcs, 1787–1944.” Collected by Mária Igaz. In Néprajzi közlemények 52, edited by Ibolya Forrai, 11–120. Budapest: Hungarian Museum of Ethnography, 1979.

Mándoki, László. Ormánság népéletéből: A Kiss Géza Ormánsági Múzeum állandó kiállításának és szabadtéri bemutatóinak vezetője [From the popular life of Ormánság: The guide of the permanent exhibitions and outdoor presentations of the Kiss Géza Ormánság Museum]. Függelék: A vajszlói krónika (1830) [Appendix: Vajszló Chronicle (1830)]. A Janus Pannonius Múzeum Füzetei 18. Sellye: Janus Pannonius Múzeum, 1978. 47–72.

Paraszti egodokumentumok [Peasants’ first-person accounts]. MTA BTK Lendület Tíz Genráció Kutatócsoport Last accessed on 23 May 2023 https://10generacio.hu/hu/eredmenyek/paraszti-egodokumentumok

S. Püski, Anna. “Kátai Gábor krónikás könyve” [Gábor Kátai’s chronicle book]. In Néprajzi tanulmányok [Ethnographic studies], edited by Iván Balassa, and Zoltán Ujváry, 539–50. A Hajdú-Bihar Megyei Múzeumok Közleményei 39. Debrecen: Hajdú-Bihar Megyei Múzeumok Igazgatósága, 1982.


Secondary literature

Csukovits, Enikő. “Órahasználat a középkori Magyarországon” [Clock use in medieval Hungary]. In “Atyám megkívánta a pontosságot”: Ember és idő viszonya a történelemben, edited by Zoltán Fónagy, 21–50. Budapest: Hungarian Historical Society–Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of History, 2016.

Danto, Arthur. Analytical Philosophy of History. London: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Fónagy, Zoltán. “‘Minden helynek megvan a maga ideje’: Ember és idő viszonya a 19. századi Magyarországon” [“Every place has its own time”: The relationship of man and time in nineteenth-century Hungary]. In “Atyám megkívánta a pontosságot”: Ember és idő viszonya a történelemben, edited by Zoltán Fónagy, 75–100. Budapest: Hungarian Historical Society–Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of History, 2016.

Forrai, Ibolya. “Tájékoztató a kötet tartalmáról” [Information on the contents of the volume]. In Néprajzi közlemények 22, edited by Ibolya Forrai, 5–6. Budapest: Néprajzi Múzeum, 1979.

Frisnyák, Zsuzsa. “Időzavarban: a vasút és a helyi idő” [Time confusion: the railways and local time]. In “Atyám megkívánta a pontosságot”: Ember és idő viszonya a történelemben, edited by Zoltán Fónagy, 123–32. Budapest: Hungarian Historical Society–Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of History, 2016.

Gellériné Lázár, Márta. “Előszó” [Foreword]. In Időben élni: Történeti-szociológiai tanulmányok [Living in time: Historical and sociological studies], edited by Márta Lázár Gellériné, 7–14. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

Gellériné Lázár, Márta, ed. Időben élni: Történeti-szociológiai tanulmányok [Living in time: Historical and sociological studies]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990.

Granasztói, Péter. “Munkaidő, szabadidő, szórakozás: A társadalmi idők átalakulása a 19. században és a 20. század első felében” [Working time, leisure time, entertainment: The transformation of social times in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century]. In “Atyám megkívánta a pontosságot.” Ember és idő viszonya a történelemben, edited by Zoltán Fónagy, 101–22. Budapest: Hungarian Historical Society–Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of History, 2016.

Gyáni, Gábor. Az elveszíthető múlt [The past that can be lost]. Budapest: Nyitott Könyvműhely Kiadó Kft, 2010.

Gyáni, Gábor. “A történés ideje – a történész ideje” [The time of the story – the time of the historian]. In “Atyám megkívánta a pontosságot”: Ember és idő viszonya a történelemben, edited by Zoltán Fónagy, 9–19. Budapest: Hungarian Historical Society–Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities, Institute of History, 2016.

Gyenis, Vilmos. “Emlékirat és parasztkrónika” [Memoirs and peasant chronicles]. Irodalomtörténeti Közlemények 69, no. 2 (1965): 152–71.

Hareven, Tamara K. “Family Time and Historical Time.” Daedalus 106, no. 2 (1977): 57–70.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. Europäische Revolutionen: 1789 bis 1848. Zurich: Kindler Verlag, 1962.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. Die Blütezeit des Kapitals: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Jahre 1848–1875. Zurich: Kindler Verlag, 1977.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. Das imperiale Zeitalter. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1989.

Hoppál, Mihály. “Horoszkóp” [Horoscope]. In Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon, vol. 2, (F–Ka), edited by Gyula Ortutay, 579. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1979.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Elmúlt jövő: A történeti idők szemantikája [Futures past: On the semantics of historical time]. Budapest: Atlantisz Könyvkiadó, 2003.

Kovács, I. Gábor. Kis magyar kalendáriumtörténet 1880-ig: A magyar kalendáriumok történeti és művelődés-szociológiai vizsgálata [A brief history of Hungarian almanacs until 1880: A historical and sociological study of Hungarian almanacs.] Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1989.

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.


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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Radić, Stjepan. “Čim je hrvatsko seljačtvo preraslo školanu gospodu, radničtvo i gradjanstvo” [When the Croatian peasantry outgrew the educated gentlemen, the working class and the urban bourgois]. In Seljački pokret u Hrvatskoj, edited by Rudolf Herceg, 49–54. Zagreb: Naklada Piščeva, 1923.

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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.


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]


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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.

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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.


World War I as a Historical Divide

Béla Tomka
University of Szeged
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 11 Issue 4  (2022):675–701 DOI 10.38145/2022.4.675

While World War I certainly represents a historical rupture in Europe and many parts of the world, there are diverging views in scholarly literature and broader historical discourse regarding its character as a dividing line between historical periods. The essay identifies three main positions within the debate and elaborates on the broader consequences of these interpretations. Several scholars consider World War I as the end of an earlier, longer historical era. According to another periodization, the two World Wars and the two decades separating them make up an era together, which is distinct from the pre-1914 and post-1945 periods. Finally, a third major current interprets World War I as the overture to a new epoch. Each of the three approaches can be relevant to research on World War I and the twentieth century, but there are considerable divergences between the interpretations thus produced. If we regard World War I as the endpoint of the previous era, then great emphasis should be placed on the road leading up to the war. If we conceive of the two World Wars and the decades between them as a single unit, then we should focus on violence as a defining feature of the periodization, and short-term factors should be highlighted. Finally, if we understand the Great War as the beginning of a new period which lasted until the end of the twentieth century or beyond, World War I will be seen as the Urkatastrophe (primordial catastrophe) that set the stage for World War II and, indirectly, for the Cold War, while also generating seminal long-term processes in politics, society, and the economy.

Keywords: twentieth century, Europe, World War I, historiography, periodization

From the 1880s onwards, well before the actual outbreak of World War I, several leading personalities of the age began expressing their views on the character of a future war to be fought by the European great powers. Helmuth von Moltke Senior, the victorious German commander-in-chief of the Prussian-French war, warned the Reichstag in 1890 that if a war were to break out in Europe, neither its duration, nor its end could be foreseen. The losing great powers would not accept defeat or the peace terms. This situation would soon generate another, prolonged conflict, Moltke Senior predicted, which could last for seven years or even 30.1

Other predictions were made in a similar vein, but it would be highly misleading to consider these seemingly prophetic insights as universally shared. In fact, many contemporaries, although they feared a potential war, hardly shared anything resembling the aforementioned Moltke’s views, nor were they in any way able to foretell the specificities or significance of any impending conflagration. Quite symptomatically, instead of heeding Moltke’s admonition, the German military leadership relied on the somewhat modified version of Alfred von Schlieffen’s notorious plan, which anticipated a brief conflict. This plan entirely miscalculated the importance and the limits of contemporary innovations in the field of transport and military technology, which provided a much wider range of options for the defenders against the attackers than in earlier or subsequent wars. But Germany was not the only country to cherish such unrealistic ideas about the war. Ferdinand Foch, who eventually became the commander-in-chief of the Allied troops in France in 1918, published books in 1903 and 1904 that were reprinted several times over the course of the following years. In these works, Foch voiced his conviction that the future war would be a tremendous clash that could and would be decided swiftly, i.e., in a single gigantic battle.2

When the war broke out, it quickly became evident to contemporaries that it was a conflict of special intensity and significance corresponding much more to the vision of Moltke Senior than to the ideas of Schlieffen or Foch. This dawning realization turned out to be all the more valid when it came to the consequences of the war.3 Although Europe and the world were affected by numerous other major events throughout the twentieth century, the Great War constituted a significant caesura in European history. The present study explores the specificities as well as the long-term effects of World War I to determine the place occupied by the war in historical periodization.4

World War I can be regarded as a global conflict for several reasons. The origins of the war can be traced back to the unparalleled surge of globalization in the last third of the mid-nineteenth century. Europe was in the center of this process, and the European colonial powers controlled massive overseas territories, which made it nearly inevitable that a conflict involving them would reach a global scale. Thus, the actual hostilities stretched well beyond Europe, with crucial battles taking place in the Atlantic, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Moreover, during the war, the mobilization of human, natural, and other resources took place in a global dimension. In particular, the Allies relied on their overseas colonies in that respect, but other nations, such as the United States, also marshalled overseas resources. In addition, the war had an impact on international trade and other global connections even in areas such as Latin America, which did not take part in the actual struggle. Finally, the war was a series of global events that were intensively covered, debated, and analyzed by the media all over the world.5 Admittedly, this paper mainly focuses on the war and the historiography of the war in Europe, and thus it cannot do full justice to the global dimension of the war. Since there is no full congruence between national, continental, and global chronologies, and in Africa and the Far East, World War I constituted a less important rupture than it did in Europe, I cannot claim global validity for the results presented here, even if Europe was epicenter of the conflicts leading to the war and the major theater of warfare.6

While World War I undoubtedly represents a historical rupture in Europe and many parts of the world, there are diverging views in scholarly literature and broader historical discourse regarding its character as a dividing line between historical periods. There are three main currents within the debate. According to the first school of thought, World War I meant the end of an earlier, longer historical era. This interpretation prevailed, for instance, in the interwar French and British historiography, while today, some authors regard World War I as the end point of the “long nineteenth century.”7 According to another periodization practice, the two World Wars and the two decades separating them make up a single period which is distinct from the pre-1914 and post-1945 periods.8 Finally, a third major current interprets World War I as the overture to a new era.9 One idea that is frequently ventured is that the latter historical epoch came to an end in 1991, i.e., with the fall of the European Communist regimes. This notion is also captured by the concept of the “short twentieth century,” but there are some who would argue that we still live in the age that began with World War I.

Drawing distinctions between these periodization efforts and their analyses is not a self-serving exercise. As I shall show, a preference for one over another has serious implications for an interpretation of the entire twentieth century, as proponents of the varying periodizations lay emphasis on different elements of the period.

End of an Era

The first periodization, according to which the war was the end of a historical era, recognizes the extraordinary importance of World War I because it brought about new dimensions of violence in both qualitative and quantitative terms. However, changes of such historical significance usually do not result from a single event or series of events, i.e. they are not determined by short-term factors. According to this approach, the roots of the violence seen in the war went back to distant times.10

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Europe was the stage for comprehensive structural and ideological transformations which triggered changes in the nature of political violence manifested in a spectacular form during World War I. New forms of state power emerged, and this power began to penetrate geographical and social spheres where, earlier, it had had only moderate influence. In other words, governments exercised more and more control over their citizens and their citizens’ everyday lives. There were substantial shifts in the power relations of the individual European states, especially in the eastern and southeastern part of the continent. The Ottoman Empire was dwindling, and its place was taken over by new, virulent nation states in the Balkans. This launched a new wave of ethnic and diplomatic conflicts that had a strong impact on Central and Western Europe. Forms of mass politics also began to evolve in Western and Central Europe. As a result of this, the masses ceased to be an occasional force in political processes and started to be a major determinant.11

These political changes were accompanied by economic and social trans­formations. Industrialization strengthened the abovementioned administrative and military capacities of the state everywhere, and the organization of industrial workers into a social class also posed a threat to the ruling elites. Urbanization also facilitated the emergence of mass politics. The uneven pace of economic development decisively contributed to shifts of power among the European states.12

As researchers of political violence have pointed out, the general attitude toward violence had begun to change well before the war in Europe and elsewhere. The American Civil War was a totalizing war, as it blurred the borderlines between the military and the civilian population, warfare and the home front, and it also advanced the concept of unconditional surrender.13 A conspicuous sign of this change was the widespread conceptualization of war as a desirable and noble activity, a phenomenon also referred to as the glorification of violence. The intensification of political violence in the first decades of the twentieth century can be put down to numerous sources. In particular, three major political-ideological currents of the nineteenth century contributed to the explosion of political violence: nationalism, colonial imperialism, and communism.14

The most significant factor was the linkage of popular sovereignty and nationalist ideology.15 This became a quintessential force primarily in contested regions with heavily mixed ethnic compositions, most notably the Balkans and East Central Europe. As the emancipatory character of nationalism began to fade, the subordination of ethnic minorities increasingly came to be coupled with aggression at the end of the nineteenth century.16 The primary catalyst of violence was the Eastern Crisis, which began to flare up in the mid-1870s and which involved an intricate web of international, imperial, and ethnic conflicts. It was followed by outbreaks of brutal ethnic violence in the Balkans up until 1914. These bursts of violence were not entirely new, but the arsenal of the opposing parties became more powerful and the actors more intransigent. As has been noted by scholars of late nineteenth century political violence, “[t]he pattern of state oppression, terrorism, revolt, ethnic conflict, international intervention, forced resettlement of populations and ethnic cleansing and genocide was one that had already been established in Europe long before 1914.”17

From the end of the nineteenth century, radical national groups gained ground in Western and Central and Eastern European states as well. They not only put pressure on their own governments to force them to take more aggressive stances in international politics, they also intimidated foreign governments and public opinion in other countries. The diplomats closely monitored the radical nationalist demands and the xenophobic articles published in the press. The French and the Russians feared the Pan-German movements, while the Germans were alarmed by the Pan-Slav initiatives. The activism of the nationalist agitators produced arguments for similar groups in other countries and contributed to the development of an atmosphere of distrust in international politics.18

Another important political-ideological current which influenced the dynamics of political violence was colonial imperialism.19 The governments of colonizing countries could be relatively nonviolent when it came to domestic affairs but repressive and even brutal when it came to colonized populations. Clearly, several factors were at play, including racism, the effort to spread Christianity, and the pursuit of imperial territorial expansion. Material interests played a secondary role in colonization efforts. Most the colonies, with India being the most important exception, demanded more investment from the colonizing country than the revenues produced. This was true even when the balance was positive for certain business groups which tried to drive imperialist policy forward. Richard Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke also emphasize that in the globalizing world economy at the end of the nineteenth century, there were no antagonistic conflicts between the great powers that would have demanded a military solution.20 Therefore, colonial imperialism can be traced back primarily to ideological and political factors. Nonetheless, the imperialist attitudes were quite clearly detectable in the European escalation of violence after World War I, too. It was with reference to the British and Belgian colonies that the Nazis demanded similar territories outside Europe and on the old continent as part of their project to create a so-called “living space” for themselves, one that would clearly be based on racial discrimination.21

Finally, communism and bolshevism can also be classified among the key ideological sources of violence.22 Where authoritarian regimes blocked the gradual emancipation of the working class (particularly in Russia), revolutionary ideas in the labor movement became dominant. Long before the Russian revolution of 1917, Lenin and other Bolsheviks were of the view that profound social change could be achieved in Russia only by unrelenting terror.23 The Russian revolution, which broke out after three bloody years of war, turned into a brutal civil war which soon exported revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence beyond Russia’s borders.24

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to regard the pre-1914 period as a mere prelude to World War I. The war was not inevitable. International relations of the time were not characterized exclusively by conflict, and significant efforts were made to maintain peace. It is no accident that after 1871, Europe experienced one of the longest periods in its history without wars between the great powers. There were several factors that prevented the outbreak of major armed conflicts. Most of the statesmen knew that a war would cause social upheaval and revolutions, and they were also aware of the additional political, financial, and economic risks. Although the military leaders of the great powers had called for an armed solution on several occasions before the World War, they were always restrained by the politicians, who knew that wars needed justification and that waging a comprehensive modern war was only possible with broad social support. The biggest political parties in Europe, the German Social Democratic Party and the British Labour Party, were unambiguously anti-militarist. Radical nationalism was an important factor, but it was hardly the only factor that influenced foreign policy in the countries of Europe.25

Era of World Wars

Moving on to the other periodizations of the twentieth century, works that consider World War I not as the endpoint of one era but rather as the beginning of a new one are in fact more common in the historical literature. As noted above, the decades between 1914 and 1945 were a period which was referred to as “another Thirty Years’ War” (Winston Churchill), the “Thirty Years’ War in the 20th century” (Raymond Aron), “the age of the European civil war” (Ernst Nolte), or simply “the era of violence” (Ian Kershaw).26 These decades were connected by the explosion of violence: well over 100 million people perished in wars, civil wars, Nazi extermination camps, and Soviet labor camps.27 According to the advocates of this type of periodization, this era differed fundamentally, at least in Europe, from the previous decades and especially the second half of the century, which brought a longer period of peace again.

Within the immense literature dealing with the causes of World War I, the revisionist approach that evolved around the turn of the millennium calls into question the idea that the outbreak of the war was somehow inevitable or highly likely because of the prewar tensions, crises, and pressures created by nationalist agitation. Instead, this approach assigns a greater role to the contingent incidents or unfavorable coincidence of specific events, especially during the July crisis. It accepts, however, the crucial role of World War I in the long-term escalation of political violence.28

World War I not only increased the number of the victims of political violence, it also signaled the beginning of a new quality of violence. This novel quality was the result of the combination of modern industrial technologies with the new conception of war, one that was reminiscent of the sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century wars of religion. Such clashes were conceptualized as battles between “good” and “evil.” Unlike the conflicts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which had comparatively limited aims (for instance, the preservation or fall of a given dynasty), the aim of the major powers in World War I was to destroy the enemy utterly.

The new culture of war involved, first, the cultural mobilization of the population for violence and, second, the changing practice of war.29 On all sides, the dehumanization of the enemy was a primary tool of cultural mobilization (some refer to this as psychological mobilization).30 This was greatly facilitated by the fact that, in the age of mass media, the governments had efficient tools at their disposal to distort information and widely disseminate such news reports. Initially, they exercised censorship only over news directly related to the military situation.31 Later, however, information regarding prevailing general sentiment and especially views of the war and also critical remarks made by politicians and politically exposed persons were also considered relevant from the perspective of military considerations, so they too were submitted to censorship. Accordingly, while in 1914, there was only one press officer in the German army, there were more than 1,000 of them by 1916.32 The expansion and modernization of the propaganda activities are demonstrated by the fact that, in early 1917, a Photo und Film Office (Bild- und Filmamt, BUFA) was set up within the military department of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in early 1918, Great Britain set up a Ministry of Information.33 Priority was accorded to the presentation of sexual violence perpetrated by the enemy.34 Serbian newspapers contained reports concerning rapes allegedly committed by members of the Austro-Hungarian army, and the Austrian press provided broad coverage of the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Russian troops against women in Galicia. The aim was not simply to report on the assaults committed against women. The propaganda suggested that if men were unable to defend their women (and by implication their country), their masculinity itself would be endangered.35

However, the demonization of the enemy was not simply the product of censorship and propaganda. As recent research on World War I has pointed out, civil society also took an active part in this campaign.36 In October 1914, 93 prominent German intellectuals, including Max Weber and Albert Einstein, published a manifesto entitled “Appeal to the Civilized World.” In it, they rebuffed all accusations against the German army, from the violation of Belgium’s neutrality to the cruelties allegedly committed by German troops, and insisted that the German army was, in fact, the defender of German culture and, hence, the culture of the world. Attacks on the German army, they contended, were also attacks on German culture. In response, French scholars published a manifesto in which they argued that German culture and military aggression were closely related: the former bred the latter. As Henri Bergson, perhaps the most renowned philosopher in France at the time, put it, war was “the fight of civilization against barbarism.”37

As these examples make clear, the basic function of the culture of war was the creation of an antagonistic opposition of collective identities. Although critical voices eventually became louder, a markedly antiwar attitude was characteristic only of a rather small fraction of intellectuals throughout the war. These opinions were expressed most noticeably in Russia, Great Britain, France, and to a lesser degree in Germany and Austria-Hungary.38

Two important elements of the other key component of the new war culture, the change in the practice of war, merit particular emphasis here. Over the course of the war, military actions against civilians and the destruction of the memorial sites crucial to the cultural identity of the enemy became an increasingly standard tool in the arsenals of the opposing armies.39 To cite one example, one might think of the act of arson committed in Leuven in the first weeks of the war. The University of Leuven Library, which held a collection of precious codices and incunabula, was set aflame by the German army, an act without military justification.40 The tremendous fire power in the battlefields was another major element of the new practice of war which, not surprisingly, shaped the culture of war.

As the above makes clear, the war was waged not only in the battlefields by soldiers but also on cultural fronts involving the civilian populations, which is why it has come to be referred to as a total war in the historical literature.41 Since the conflict was a war of nations and empires with the participation of entire societies, acts of violence could be perpetrated in the name of the people, and violence could be deployed against the civilian populations. In other words, the enemy was no longer states and their armies, but the entire populations of other countries.42 The totalization of the war led to brutalization both in the ranks of the military and within the wider society, because it made ever increasing levels of aggression socially acceptable, arguably preparing the way for World War II.43 This process can be described not only as a transformation of the culture of war but also as a change in the prevailing political culture.

The use of physical violence evolved into an intrinsic instrument of partisan actors in the new order of the interwar decades, in which physical assaults were considered a legitimate means of political struggle. Therefore, the formal end of World War I did not mean an end to political violence. On the contrary, between 1917 and 1923, revolutions, counterrevolutions, civil wars, and violent ethnic conflicts shattered many parts of Europe.44 The process of brutalization was especially striking in Russia during the revolution and civil war and in Germany in the revolutionary period and during the moments of diffuse political violence of the 1920s and 1930s.45 In Russia, World War I was instrumental in the brutalization of politics, but often in a more indirect way. Violence did not simply originate on the battlefield. Rather, it had a more complex genealogy. The institutional weakness of the state had permitted cultures of violence to flourish before the Great War. The war destroyed the old state structures and state authority, releasing the preexisting propensities for violence, which started to feed on themselves. Many instances of violence (White, Green, criminal, and mob violence) were devastating but were employed mostly tactically. In contrast, the Bolsheviks practiced violence and the threat of brutality in a strategic way to transform society and create a new state. The strategic use of force helped them defeat their opponents, and it also led to the institutionalization of violence in the newly established communist state.46 Central and Eastern Europe was also highly affected by political violence after the war. In Hungary, the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary terror and the intense everyday violence that evolved in the early 1920s (which included, for instance, the beating of Jews at universities) were all manifestations of the above. However, compared to Russia or Germany, the situation was consolidated relatively soon, within a few years.47

The revolutions, counterrevolutions, and paramilitary violence showed that although Europe was exhausted by 1918, there was no general cultural demobilization after World War I.48 Not even the Paris Peace Treaties managed to lay down the foundations of an enduring peace or an era without violence on the continent. This failure should be put down less to a lack of wisdom among the diplomats and more to the fact that “the war in people’s heads” continued, i.e., wartime attitudes continued to live on in broad spectrums of European societies, even if significant differences could be observed across Europe. Mobilization for political violence began to decline in the 1920s, especially in the victorious countries (such as Great Britain and France), but demobilization was hardly complete there either.49 The change is well illustrated by the transformation of depictions of war in France. While before 1914, images of war were dominated by heroic cavalry attacks and the figure of the noble and self-sacrificing soldier, after the mid-1920s, heroism disappeared for the most part from these depictions, and war was often presented as a filthy and vile act. Thus, it has been suggested that the increase in political violence as a formative experience of the post-World War I order depended less on the experiences of the war and more on how a specific country had fared in the peacemaking processes after the war. Accordingly, recent studies underline the confusion and humiliation brought about by defeat, which played a key role in the eruption of violence in Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Here, a “culture of defeat” emerged which, as a symptom of enduring cultural mobilization, prevented many war veterans and civilians from coming to terms with the war’s outcome and demobilizing themselves internally.50 However, even in the “cultures of victory,” political violence was an essential constituent of the interwar order. The task of securing the new borders in the context of ethnically and religiously diverse societies created considerable conflicts and violent excesses in countries as such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Ireland.51

In addition to this absence of cultural demobilization, the two World Wars were also connected to each other by the armed conflicts that broke out shortly after the end of World War I. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, Italy launched an attack against Abyssinia in 1935, the Germans and the Italians intervened in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, and war broke out between Japan and China in 1937.

Beginning of a New Era

There is another widespread position concerning World War I as a historical divide which considers the Great War as the overture to a new era that lasted not simply until the end of World War II, but much longer than that. Reference has already been made to the well-known concept of the “short twentieth century,”52 meaning the period between 1914 and 1991, but several works have chosen World War I (its beginning or its end) as the starting point, and they trace historical trends which lasted until the turn of the millennium or up to the present day.53 According to these works, the twentieth century was essentially a period of historical continuity, as the historical trends sparked or ignited by World War I were decisive even after World War II.54

According to historians who see World War I as the beginning of a new period stretching until 1991 or beyond, this continuity can be detected with regard to violence as well. Once the war culture and other characteristics of World War I have been acknowledged, and in particular the practices of demonizing the enemy and committing acts of violence against civilians (such as shelling and aerial bombardment, U-Boat attacks, requisition of food and labor, mistreatment and abuse of allegedly suspicious members of minority communities, etc.), these phenomena lose their distinct quality and become integral elements of war.55 The conscious application of this type of periodization to European history acknowledges the key importance of World War I and the extreme brutality of World War II, but it also points to widespread political aggression in the second half of the twentieth century. Globally, many wars were fought after 1945, and European powers were directly involved several of them. The colonial wars offer an obvious example, but the export of violence from Europe can be observed in other respects as well. The two superpowers (the United States and the Soviet Union) and their allies often instrumentalized local conflicts in the third world for their own purposes and clashed with each other in proxy wars.

Moreover, political violence, though it may have lost some influence and resources, never ceased to exist entirely in Europe itself. From the 1960s, terrorist movements repeatedly committed violent acts, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s involved mass violence and ethnic cleansing again, and recently, Russia has come into armed conflict with its neighbors on several occasions, disregarding international law time and again. In the decade after the turn of the millennium, nationalist mobilization took place in several other countries as well, such as Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.56

For decades after World War II, the threat of political violence was moderate. Underlying factors included the ethnic homogenization of the nation states resulting from large-scale forced resettlements and assimilation. The threat of mutual nuclear destruction as a deterrent during the Cold War and the process of European integration were even more important reasons for the absence of major wars in Europe. Today, however, tensions are no longer bottled up by the logic of Cold War, and European integration is affected by centrifugal forces more than ever. The reappearance of security issues invites interpretations that draw connections between the current era and the age of the World Wars and promotes the related historical periodization.

However, World War I ushered in a long-term transformation that stretched beyond the mid-twentieth century not only in terms of political violence, but in international politics, social and economic affairs and ideologies. A crucial international and geopolitical consequence of the war was the termination of the classic European pentarchy. The empires of Central and Eastern Europe disintegrated, and the borders drawn by the peace treaties stabilized for the most part in the long run. The colonial system was seemingly only restructured, but the imperial overstretch of the British and the French accelerated the emancipation of their colonies. The imperial state as a form of territorial governance came under attack and began to retreat as the concept of the nation state continued its advance across the globe. Several decades and another brutal war between 1939 and 1945 were necessary to accelerate the course of imperial decline, but World War I was the starting point of this process and, thus, a global watershed.57

The victory of the Bolshevik revolution kicked off the evolution of the communist world system, and the rivalry between communist and capitalist countries left its mark on international relations throughout the century.58

Among the economic changes, increased redistribution and state control of business stands out.59 Government agencies and other authorities appeared in each belligerent European country. These bodies oversaw the allocation of raw materials, controlling finances and distributing food and other everyday necessities. As the war progressed, they became more and more powerful, indicating that the government had acquired competencies that would have been inconceivable previously and that they had undertaken a degree of responsibility for the living standards of citizens that had been essentially unheard of. After the war, these authorities were only partially eliminated, as illustrated, for instance, by the continued operation of the Center of Financial Institutions (Pénzintézeti Központ) in Hungary.60

The use of war loans to finance the war and precipitous inflation caused by the manipulation of state finances devastated the economies of the belligerent countries, but a similar fate awaited pre-1914 international commercial and financial relations as well. In some areas, war damages already hindered economic performance, and reconstruction also demanded considerable resources. Overseas investments had to be sold to finance the war. The bulk of the wartime investments flowed into the armaments industry, which later became redundant. There were excess capacities in other branches, too, and the human capital suffered heavy losses. These factors contributed to the Great Depression and thus to the political instability of the 1930s.61

The economic weight of the United States and Japan grew in the west and in the east, respectively, with long-term consequences. This was clearly indicated by the fact that while before 1914, the key currency of the international capital markets had been the British pound sterling and Great Britain had been the leading international creditor, insurer, and investor, after 1918, these functions began to be filled by the United States and the US dollar.62

As far as the broader social implications are concerned, it deserves to be mentioned that World War I brought a breakthrough in the development of mass democracies. In the previous era, parliamentary systems existed all over Western Europe, but only a small percent of the population had voting rights. However, during the war, the biggest sacrifices were made by the excluded groups, so they demanded their political rights. The introduction of women’s suffrage also picked up speed. This was due in no small part to the ever-larger presence of women in the workforce and, notably, in positions requiring forms of skilled labor. This process accelerated over the course of the twentieth century, becoming perhaps the single most important factor in women’s growing political and economic emancipation.63 However, the large-scale extension of the right to vote and the simultaneous spread of parliamentary systems also created some measure of political turmoil in the short run. While Great Britain managed to stabilize its democracy in the 1920s, most liberal democracies collapsed or had been overthrown by the early 1930s, and this contributed decisively to the escalation of international conflicts.64

With regards to long-term social processes, the war did not so much bring about a breakthrough as act as a catalyst which accelerated shifts already underway. The working class continued to grow during the war. In some countries, it increased by one third over the four years in question. Parallel to the expansion of the economic role of the state, social policy was also given greater emphasis. The war uprooted millions, thus contributing to the spread of new habits and attitudes. Relatively insulated peasant communities were increasingly exposed to urban values. The changes which took place to the roles that were played by women in society (particularly but not exclusively with regards to the presence of women in the workplace) are also a significant indication of changes in and challenges to social values. In the 1920s, the sight of a woman on her own in a cinema and another public place of entertainment became customary in European cities, while only a few decades earlier it would have constituted a rare incident.65


All in all, each of the three approaches presented above can be relevant for research on World War I and the history of the twentieth century, but there are considerable divergences between the interpretations they produce. If one regards World War I as the endpoint of the previous era, then strong emphasis should be placed on the road leading up to the war, or in other words the conflicts in Europe and the prevailing ideologies of the last third of the nineteenth century: how were the structural and cultural preconditions created that eventually led to the outburst of violence in 1914?

If one conceives of the two World Wars and the decades between them as a single unit, then the focus shifts to violence as a defining feature of the periodization, and emphasis falls on short-term factors. War is traced back to war in many respects, with World War II being seen as a consequence of World War I. This approach furthers an understanding of the dynamics of violence. It also highlights the relative peace prevailing in Europe for several decades after World War II and encourages one to explore the reasons for this peace. At the same time, this interpretation is Eurocentric and can barely account for long-term social and economic changes.

Finally, if we understand the Great War as the beginning of a new period lasting until the end of the twentieth century and even beyond, emphasis is placed on World War I as a defining watershed—even in comparison with World War II—which generated massive long-term political, social, and economic processes. Thus, World War I is to be seen not only as the prelude to World War II, but as an Urkatastrophe (primordial catastrophe) or “the great seminal catastrophe of this century,” (George F. Kennan) which triggered a series of conflicts.66 From the perspective of Central and Eastern Europe, this approach is particularly relevant, as World War I initiated the breakup of empires in the region and the rise of a new system of nation sates, and the common thread of the ensuing short twentieth century for Central and Eastern Europe was the dominance of authoritarian systems.

In contrast with total war, total history is unfeasible, as historians cannot consider the all the existing sources and research findings in their works. The approaches discussed above cannot be merged into one seamless narrative either. Instead, we see changing foci in the historiography of World War I, and this affects the assessments of the place of World War I in any historical narrative of the time.

Between the two World Wars, historians paid greater attention to the events leading up to World War I than they did to its immediate consequences, but they usually focused on relatively narrow issues. They were intrigued by the question of war guilt, in particular the responsibility of governments, which corresponded to the traditional view that placed the nation at the center of its narratives.67

In the 1950s and 1960s, concern with the events of World War II among both historians and the general public largely overshadowed interest in the Great War. Still, several excellent scholarly works were written on World War I in which the focus shifted to the masses affected by the war on the front and in the hinterland. This contributed to discussions of the long-term effects of World War I and new considerations of how the war had arguably shaped the whole of the twentieth century (some of which have been presented above).

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the new Europe was born and the interpretations of international relations based on the nation state principle seemed narrow or even obsolete, the concept of a “European civil war” gained popularity. As we have seen above, this notion included World War I. One of the key promoters of this idea was the Museum of the Great War, which was opened in 1992 in the Château de Péronne in the town of Péronne, France (the site of the Somme battles).68

This proved to be a temporary change. The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War coincided with growing international instability, which once again encouraged a search for correspondences between the age of World War I and our own days and thereby placed emphasis on long-term perspectives. But the larger framework for understandings of past events has not changed: interpretations of World War I continue to be shaped by historians, members of the public, and their broader social contexts.69



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Wróbel, Piotr J. “Foreshadowing the Holocaust: The Wars of 1914–1921 and Anti-Jewish Violence in Central and Eastern Europe.” In Legacies of Violence: Eastern Europe’s First World War, edited by Jochen Böhler, Włodzimierz Borodziej, and Joachim von Puttkamer, 169–208. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2014.

1 Krumeich, “The War Imagined: 1890–1914,” 5.

2 Ibid., 7.

3 Winter, “Historiography 1918–Today”; Borodziej and Górny, Forgotten Wars; Leonhard, Die Büchse der Pandora; Gyáni, “A Nagy Háború: Kinek a háborúja?” 82–91; Clark, The Sleepwalkers; Horne, “Introduction,” xvi–xxviii; Winter, The Legacy of the Great War; Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction; Braybon, Evidence, History and the Great War; Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 1914–1918; Chickering and Förster, Great War, Total War; Winter et al., The Great War and the Twentieth Century; Keegan, The First World War; Horne, State, Society and Mobilization in Europe during the First World War; Winter and Baggett, 1914–18: the Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century; Geyer, “The Militarization of Europe, 1914–1945”; Winter, The Experience of World War I.

4 The literature on historical periodization is rather scarce: Karner et al., Epochenbrüche im 20. Jahrhundert; Stearns, “Periodization in Social History”; Koselleck, Zeitschichten: Studien zur Historik; Jordanova, History in Practice; Green, “Periodizing World History”; Besserman, “The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives.”

5 On the global dimension of the war, see Winter, “General Introduction”; Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global History; Gerwarth and Manela, “The Great War as a Global War”; Janz, “Einführung: Der Erste Weltkrieg in globaler Perspektive”; Lakitsch et al., Bellicose Entanglements.

6 Segesser, “1918, a global caesura?”

7 Blackbourn, History of Germany 1780–1918.

8 Wehler, “Der zweite Dreißigjährige Krieg,” 32.

9 Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, ix.

10 Fischer, Griff nach der Weltmacht; Reimann, “Der Erste Weltkrieg.” For interpretations claiming that the Great War constituted the end of an era, see Osterhammel, “In Search of a Nineteenth Century”; Osterhammel, Die Verwandlung der Welt; Leonhard, “Legacies of Violence.”

11 McMillan, “War.”

12 Carreras and Josephson, “Aggregate Growth, 1870–1914”; Halperin, War and Social Change in Modern Europe, 51–143.

13 Leonhard, “Legacies of Violence,” 321.

14 Kershaw, “War and Political Violence in Twentieth-Century Europe,” 112.

15 Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1870, 22, 84; Mann, The Sources of Social Power, 730–32; Mann, “A Political Theory of Nationalism and its Excesses.”

16 Kershaw, “War and Political Violence,” 111.

17 Bloxham et al., “Europe in the world,” 39.

18 Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War, 233–234; Rauchensteiner, The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1914–1918, 34–35.

19 Dwyer and Nettelbeck, “‘Savage Wars of Peace’.”

20 Findlay and O’Rourke, Power and Plenty, xxiv–xxv.

21 Kershaw, “War and Political Violence,” 112; Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence.

22 Ryan, “‘Revolution is War’: The Development of the Thought of V. I. Lenin on Violence, 1899–1907.”

23 Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, 8–10.

24 Kershaw, “War and Political Violence,” 112; Beyrau, “Der Erste Weltkrieg als Bewahrungsprobe.”

25 Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War, 227–29.

26 Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 12; Aron, Peace and War, 297; Nolte, Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, 1917–1945; Kershaw, “War and Political Violence,” 112.

27 For different estimates, see Leitenberg, Deaths in Wars and Conflicts in the 20th Century, 3–15.

28 Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War, 16–17.

29 Becker, “Faith, Ideologies, and the »Cultures of War«,” 234.

30 Wehler, “Der zweite Dreißigjährige Krieg,” 32.

31 Demm, “Propaganda at Home and Abroad”.

32 Kruse, Der Erste Weltkrieg, 84.

33 Tworek, “Bild- und Filmamt (BUFA)”; Kruse, Der Erste Weltkrieg, 87.

34 Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction, 244–46; Morrow, “A Theory of Atrocity Propaganda.”

35 McMillan, “War,” 62; Steffen, “Othering/Atrocity Propaganda.”

36 Purseigle, “Warfare and Belligerence.”

37 Mulligan, The Origins of the First World War, 4; Irish, “Petitioning the World.”

38 Kramer, “Recent Historiography of the First World War. Part II,” 169.

39 Kramer, “Combatants and Noncombatants”; Watson, “‘Unheard-of Brutality’: Russian Atrocities against Civilians in East Prussia, 1914–15”; Gumz, The Resurrection and Collapse of Empire in Habsburg Serbia, 1914–1918, 44–59.

40 Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction, 6–30.

41 Strachan, “Total War in the Twentieth Century.”

42 Horne, “War and Conflict in Contemporary European History, 1914–2004,” 5.

43 Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, 162.

44 On the conflicts in the immediate post-war years, see Böhler, Civil War in Central Europe, 1918–1921: The Reconstruction of Poland; Gerwarth, The Vanquished; Gerwarth and Horne, War in Peace; Révész: “Post-war Turmoil and Violence (Hungary)”; Balkelis, War, Revolution, and Nation-Making in Lithuania, 1914–1923; Bodó and Prónay, Paramilitary Violence and Anti-Semitism in Hungary, 1919–1921; Wilson, Frontiers of Violence; Stephenson, The Final Battle; Hart, The IRA at War, 1916–1923; Davies, White Eagle, Red Star; Roshwald, Ethnic Nationalism and the Fall of Empires.

45 Jones, “Political Violence in Italy and Germany after the First World War.”; Voigtmann, “The Baltikumer.”

46 Beyrau, “Brutalization Revisited.”

47 Gerwarth, “The Central European Counterrevolution.”; Gerwarth and Horne, “Paramilitarism in Europe after the Great War: An Introduction.”; Sammartino, “Paramilitary Violence.”

48 Geyer, “The Militarization of Europe, 1914–1945.”

49 Laurence, “Forging a Peaceable Kingdom”; Schumann, “Europa, der erste Weltkrieg und die Nachkriegszeit.”

50 Schievelbusch, The Culture of Defeat; Edgecombe and Healy, “Competing Interpretations of Sacrifice in the Postwar Austrian Republic.”

51 Eichenberg, “The Dark Side of Independence”; Kučera, “Exploiting Victory, Sinking into Defeat.”

52 Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, ix.

53 Krüger, “Der Erste Weltkrieg als Epochenschwelle.”

54 James, Europe Reborn: A History, 1914–2000.

55 For contributions that in specific aspects consider World War I a precursor to World War II, see, for example, Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front; Winter, America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915; Prusin, Nationalizing a Borderland; von Hagen, War in a European Borderland; Liberman, The Holocaust and Genocides in Europe; Wróbel, “Foreshadowing the Holocaust.”

56 For example, see Feischmidt and Majtényi, The Rise of Populist Nationalism.

57 Gerwarth and Manela, “The Great War as a Global War.”

58 On the social consequences of the war, see Marwick and Purdue, “The debate over the impact and consequences of World War I”; Wall and Winter, The Upheaval of War; Winter and Robert, Capital Cities at War.

59 Winter, War and Economic Development; Hardach, The First World War 1914–1918; Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation; Wrigley, The First World War and the International Economy; Strachan, Financing the First World War.

60 Tomka, A magyarországi pénzintézetek rövid története, 1836–1947, 81.

61 Jolanta and Harrison, “War and disintegration, 1914–1950”; Capie, “Inflation in the twentieth century,” 164–66.

62 Broadberry and Harrison, “The economics of World War I: an overview.”

63 Grayzel, “Women and Men,” 263.

64 Reynolds, The Long Shadow, 39–83.

65 Marwick and Purdue, “The debate over the impact and consequences of World War I,” 113–21.

66 Kennan, The Decline of Bismarck‘s European Order, 3; Schulin, “Die Urkatastrophe des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts”; Mommsen, Die Urkatastrophe Deutschlands.

67 Winter and Prost, The Great War in History.

68 For recent examples of this view, see several contributions to Pennell and de Menese, A World at War, 1911–1949.

69 Brandt, “The Memory Makers.”


A World Lifted off Its Hinges: The Social Impact of World War I on Hungary

Zsombor Bódy
Eötvös Loránd University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 11 Issue 4  (2022):702–732 DOI 10.38145/2022.4.702

As was true virtually everywhere, World War I brought about significant social changes in Hungary. As a consequence of the wartime mobilization of the economy, the relationship between employers and workers in industry was transformed, as was the relationship between owners of different sizes of estates and farms and agricultural workers in rural areas. In both spheres, groups emerged which were much better organized than before. Some of them were capable of coordinated political action, and the balance of power between them changed rapidly over time. The wartime government tried to ensure continuous coordination and reconciliation of interests between the various ownership and labor groups in agriculture and industry, but it ultimately failed. Beyond the military defeat, this failure was the primary determining factor of the events of 1918–19 in Hungary. By analyzing the group dynamics of wartime society and the wartime economy in Hungary, this paper seeks to outline the social and historical background of the political struggles that came in the wake of the war. It ventures two core contentions. First, the emergence of various agricultural and industrial interest groups and their coordination with one another and with the government in the aftermath of the war constituted mechanisms of integration that had not existed before the war. As a result, the diverse socio-professional groups in Hungary became more integrated into one society within the framework of the state. The second finding contention is that the counterrevolutionary regime that took over in late 1919 was more successful than previous governments had been in establishing a balance between the different groups of owners and workers and learning from previous experience, and this was why it was able, ultimately, to consolidate its hold on power.

Keywords: World War I, Hungary, social history, labor history, history of rural society

Research on World War I and its immediate aftermath has gained new momentum in Hungary in the last half decade. Many works have been published on the specific processes and consequences of the territorial changes that occurred in the aftermath of the war, such as the refugee question.1 Works on the military-political situation at the end of the war have offered convincing and nuanced answers to old questions.2 Substantial volumes and studies have been published on the fluctuations of public opinion and events in 1918–1919 and on the politically motivated violence which came in the wake of the war.3 Much less attention has been paid, however, to the social consequences of the war, which were crucial to the events of the period from 1918 until roughly the mid-1920s.4 The concrete social effects of the war were not so much the result of military operations as they were of mobilization and, even more so, of the economic processes involved. Some understanding of the history of the war economy is crucial not only because the military strength of the powers that met on the battlefields depended to no small extent on the performance of their economies. According to international research, the mobilization of the war economy, intertwined with and interacting with cultural transformations, led to profound changes in all the European societies that were engaged in some way in the war.5 These changes altered the balance of power among social groups and political forces and also changed the relationship between employer and employee, the political system in some countries, and the position of women in society.6

The Effects of Wartime Mobilization on Social Groups in Industry and Agriculture and Their Political Consequences

World War I ignited or added kindling to several transformations within Hungarian society. The war and the mobilization of society and the economy radically increased the role of government institutions in the management of social conflicts as well as of everyday life (e.g., production, food supply, housing and workplace conditions). At the same time, it also restructured relations among social groups, which led to a dramatic transformation of political power relations in 1918. After the war had come to a close, it took many years and several political turnabouts for the administration to withdraw adequately from the management of everyday life in the hinterland and for the relative position of major social groups to stabilize. In the course of these processes, the situation of peasants, workers, employers, members of the middle class, and even women underwent radical changes.

This paper examines the impact that the social changes generated by the war exerted on the status and self-identification of the major social groups in Hungary and on their perception of one another. It also considers the ways in which the political behavior of these groups was determined by these transformations. I offer a dynamic tableau of the changes that occurred in the relationships among various social groups active in industry and agriculture, including changes that affected consequent access to power, as well as the ways in which party politics responded to and were shaped by these changes. The war also had a profound impact, of course, on the middle classes and on the situation of women, but for reasons of space and to maintain the focus of the study, these issues are not discussed here. I concentrate on the (re)emergence of groups and conflicts in industry and agriculture, which were the most decisive factors in setting the framework conditions for the political processes of the early interwar period.

Industrial Society in Hungary during and after Wartime Mobilization

The war placed industrial labor in an entirely new context. As was true in the other countries involved in the war, in Hungary, wartime production demanded centralized management of the labor force. In the relatively liberal labor market that had dominated Hungarian industry until then, there were two operational strategies for advocating the interests of workers: the individual and the collective. On the individual level, workers could change their workplace on a daily basis, since this practice was not substantially restricted by labor legislation. Collective advocacy was assured by the trade unions. Although they operated in a legally deregulated zone, the authorities did not effectively prevent them from organizing strikes. As a result of this, collective agreements were introduced in more and more branches of industry to regulate labor relations, at least in the urban agglomeration of Budapest and in some of the larger cities and towns. Although they did not have any legal weight, the compromises between the trade unions and the employers’ associations often worked because the strength of the organization on the opposing side made the other party and the individual stakeholders in the market comply with the agreement.7

The war, however, put an end to this liberal order of labor relations. Strikes were banned, and the labor force was tied to factories connected to the war industry. Individuals were no longer allowed to quit their jobs. This quickly led to friction, which the Hungarian government attempted to handle in a manner very similar to efforts in Germany and Austria. So-called “complaint committees” were established during the war, which were supposed to manage the conflicts arising in industry. These committees were trilateral bodies composed of the delegates of the state (civil servants and soldiers) and representatives of both employers and employees. However, there was an essential difference between Hungary and the abovementioned countries and the countries of the Entente: the Social Democratic Party of Hungary was not present in the National Assembly due to significant restrictions on suffrage.8 In this situation, the fact that the trade unions (related to the party) were involved in the management of labor conflict was especially significant. It signaled acknowledgement on behalf of the government, i.e., a drastic improvement compared to the earlier situation, and it was by all means a more significant step than something similar would have been in the countries in which the social democratic parties were already active parliamentary political forces.

The government made a strategic and deliberate decision to involve the institutions of the social democratic workers’ movement in the management of war mobilization, and this was manifest not only in the domain of labor issues in a strict sense. The other area was public food supply, with regard to which the government was obliged to take into account the consumer cooperatives organized on the basis of the trade unions. This institution was quintessential in the context of centralized food management because there was no other entity that would have been able to manage distribution based on the ration system in the districts inhabited by workers. Organizations related to the Social Democratic Party were also given a role in the administration of housing issues. The liberal tenement-markets that had functioned in Hungarian municipalities until 1914 had collapsed at the beginning of the war. First, the families of soldiers who had been drafted were exempted from paying rent, and since this measure had numerous additional implications that generated conflict, rents in general were regulated by the authorities. During the second half of the war, housing authorities were set up that were supposed to assign apartments under private ownership to those who applied to live in them. This measure was also necessary because industrial cities and towns were under increasing migratory pressure as a result of the wartime boom. At the housing authorities, litigation was decided by parity bodies that were usually presided over by a retired jurist and composed of representatives from the association of real estate owners and the association of tenants. The latter association was a satellite organization of the Social Democratic Party of Hungary.

It followed from the above that, as a result of the war, the Social Democratic Party was treated by the government in a way that would have been previously inconceivable. From the beginning of the war, the party itself demonstrated its willingness to cooperate with the government (like its sister parties with parliamentary representation in other countries), and when the war broke out, the party prompted its press to support the war (the party’s press had struck a pacifist tone in the period of diplomatic crisis prior to the declaration of war).9 The most important element of the pro-war position was that until the 1918 collapse, the social democratic leadership tried to prevent all strike initiatives and suppress all strikes that did break out, which was not unusual during the second half of the war. In exchange for this cooperative attitude, the Social Democratic Party hoped that it would gain the expansion of voting rights from the government and would thus win its place in the National Assembly. The party tried to take advantage of war conditions to keep the government under pressure so that it would be rewarded for its cooperative stance. For instance, workers employed in a whole series of war factories sent a telegram to the government demanding the expansion of voting rights.10 Their demands were repeated several times in the form of petitions addressed to the government. Below is the text of one such petition:

The workers of this factory can declare with a clear conscience that they have honestly and completely performed the duties imposed upon them by the war from the outset until now. They have been aware of the great significance and value of their work; they know that even though they have no weapons other than the tools in their hands, they have still been standing in the trenches; they know that with every strike of the hammer, they have been forging the weapons of national defense: they have defended their homeland with every breath.

This conviction boosted their sense of duty and their readiness to make sacrifices. It was this conviction that made them capable of putting up with the suffering and want that the war imposed on them particularly. It was this conviction—and only this!—that persuaded them as well as workers employed at all other factories that they should tolerate political disenfranchisement and the humiliating status of being excluded from suffrage. [...] The war cannot end without the homeland that they helped save and preserve with their lives and labor granting the most elementary yet most important right to them as citizens.11

The government appreciated the activities of the Social Democratic Party and the organizational network connected to it, and as noted above, the party was accorded a role in the management of everyday life in society, from the housing issue through public food supply and labor affairs.

At the same time, the changes affecting the workers’ organizations had an impact on the middle strata of society as well as employers. For the latter, the recognition of the trade unions represented a shock-like overturn of earlier power relations. The secretary of the National Association of Metallurgy and Machine Factories—the biggest employers’ organization in all sectors of the economy—made the following declaration with regard to this transformation:

It is enough to consider what it would mean if the trade union secretary whom hooligans would have driven away from even the neighborhood of a factory were to roll onto the premises through its wide-open gates in the four-horse carriage of the lofty factory owner as the supreme judge [...] so that he could pass judgment against the owner after having studied the most confidential books of the latter, interrogated him as the accused, and confronted him with workers whom he had previously treated with disdain. No momentous editorial or fiery agitation could measure up to its propagative effect.12

Membership in trade unions grew during World War I, and by the end of the war, they had established organizational networks among people working in the most important occupations in Budapest and some industrial cities. Parallel to this, membership in the associations and consumer cooperatives connected to the trade unions also increased significantly. The latter grew into a presence that was influential in multiple branches of business.13 The trade union treasuries were full due to rises in membership and membership fees, which were paid according to higher wages, and the trade unions continued to develop their infrastructure during the third and fourth years of the war as well, purchasing or building new headquarters, etc.

In contrast to this strengthening of the organizations of the workers, employers were on the defensive. They felt that the complaint committees were unable to make decisions that were unfavorable to workers because the authorities feared that such decisions would be unenforceable or would even provoke riots. In their view, the incompetent interventions by the civil and military authorities disrupted the internal balance at the factories and the previously healthy functioning of the labor market. As a matter of fact, their frequent complaints were not unfounded, because the military authorities overseeing the war economy were often inclined to support the interests of workers and wanted to avoid even the appearance of taking sides with “capital.”14

All in all, employers often contended that the government was trying to buy the loyalty of workers at the expense of employers. In certain areas, they tried to resist these efforts. In the war economy, food distribution became an issue of power, so employers did not want it to be turned over entirely to the social democratic cooperative. The National Federation of Industrialists established its own public supply cooperative and managed to have the government create a special body to coordinate food supply for workers. Representatives of each side served on this body on a parity basis, and the body managed the issue of food supply for workers through the two cooperatives. As far as this this organization was concerned, workers should always occupy a position of priority with regard to food supply: in other words, workers had to receive at least their official food quotas, even if the authorities were unable to ensure the originally planned food supply for the municipalities.15 This stood in stark contrast to the food scarcities suffered by the urban middle-class, which were alleviated only if a given family had relatives in the countryside who could provide them with agricultural produce.

Although the Social Democratic Party of Hungary struggled to keep workers under its control during the last year of the war, and the party had to walk a thin line between the increasingly radical demands of the workers and its policy of cooperation with the government, it finally managed to tackle the problem. The party was able to prevent the government from banning the trade unions and extending its direct control over its other institutions. And while numerous sources indicate that there were dissatisfied voices within the ranks of the workers regarding the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, the scope of the social authority of the institutions and organizations it ran still continued to grow. Although during the second half of the war the government elaborated plans regarding measures that would be necessary were it to switch to a hardline and oppressive policy toward the workers, these plans remained in the drawer.16 Certain politicians suggested—particularly after the big strikes in March 1918—that previously exempted trade union leaders and officials should be drafted into the military and that discipline should be restored by organizing the workers into military units. However, the government disregarded these proposals. It feared that these measures, which would also have included the closure of printing presses so that workers would not be able to disseminate their message on leaflets, would generate unmanageable resistance. It is quite remarkable that these sorts of ideas were supported mostly by bourgeois politicians, and the representatives of the army were more cautious in this respect. Thus, although the government realized that the social democratic organizations could not completely control the workers as it would have liked to have controlled them, it upheld its integrative policy to the end of the war. As a consequence of the above, by the end of the war, the position of workers employed in major industries was significantly strengthened (mostly as a result of their concentrated location in the urban agglomeration of Budapest).17 This was equally true with regard to changes in real wages: the situation of members of the middle class who earned fixed salaries deteriorated dramatically in comparison to workers, as did their political weight. Employers believed that certain trades, as “beneficiaries of the war boom,” had become excessively assertive, especially when the workers realized that the authorities did not dare curb their demands.18

The situation outlined above was neither peculiar nor unique in the European context. The war economy and the mobilization of society created a plethora of new forums of control elsewhere as well, and representatives of the working class played a role in all of them. Due to the boom in the military industry, the standard of living among workers often rose elsewhere too, while that of the middle class became relatively worse.19 At the same time, the level of organization of the working class grew to an immense degree throughout Europe, and employers became more organized in opposition to them. In most belligerent countries, the war entailed the recognition of workers’ parties as partners in the political arena, which also meant that they could become part of the expanding institutional network of organs representing labor and welfare issues and offering more and more services. The creation of ministries for social and labor issues in several countries was one symptom of this process.20 The idea of creating such a ministry in Hungary was entertained in 1917–1918, but it was implemented only after the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Kingdom of Hungary within it.

Changing Social Power Relations in Industry in the Immediate Aftermath of the War

When Hungary collapsed at the end of the war, political power fell almost automatically into the hands of the Social Democratic Party as a result of the earlier widening of the party’s base. Thanks to a political transformation that changed Hungary’s form of government from a monarchy to a republic, a coalition government came to power during the winter of 1918–1919 in which the Social Democratic Party was the strongest member.21 However, more important than power relations within the government coalition was the fact that social democratic organizations could reach out to society more effectively than ever, especially in Budapest and the communities in its vicinity. While the key ministries pertaining to industry were all in the hands of social democratic parties, the trade unions managed to sign extremely favorable collective agreements for workers and at the same time made trade union membership compulsory for every worker, because the factories were not allowed to employ workers outside the organization.22 Moreover, the consumer cooperative linked to them could procure goods under especially good conditions, which was a valuable advantage in light of the general scarcity of food and fuel. Meanwhile, the middle-class consumer cooperatives complained about the difficulties they faced when trying to obtain such things.23

At the beginning of 1919, workers began to exercise control over certain factories beyond the scope of the collective agreements, including the management of production. The owners and the company boards felt that the factories were simply slipping out of their control. At that point, the leadership of the trade unions did not even attempt to go against the radicalizing workers, but rather took the lead concerning the initiatives aimed at getting rid of the employers altogether. Then, with the rise of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in March 1919, the social democratic institutional network did try to take over the management of everyday life in every domain. The factories were nationalized. The representatives of employers were simply ousted from the national social security institutions that previously had functioned on a parity basis. In theory, the trade unions’ consumer cooperative was supposed to assume control over the administration of trade throughout Budapest, and its leader was appointed people’s commissioner for public supply.24

This extension of the institutional network organized around the workers’ party was a unique occurrence in the wave of European social and political crises following World War I. Although parties that had espoused Bolshevik ideology tried (at times successfully) to seize power in other countries as well, the social democratic workers’ parties and trade union movements made no attempt to extend the system of institutions related to the social democratic parties and the trade unions in the realm of social and political power on such a scale. Elsewhere in Central Europe and especially in Germany and Austria, the workers’ organizations encompassed and integrated the industrial workers as a counter-society vis-à-vis the bourgeoisie. And the functioning of this organizational network was assured by the presence of the workers’ parties in the political arena. However, in those countries, the organizational network connecting the workers did not try to eliminate the market economy or exclude the representatives of the non-worker social groups from the economic and political decision-making processes.25

In Hungary, the organizational network that had originally been built around the workers overstepped its boundaries with this attempt. When it became possible in the aftermath of the war, the Social Democratic Party tried to improve the situation of its base, not through labor legislation or social policy regulations, as was the case in European countries at the time, but by reinforcing the power position of its organizations. This, however, did not prove enduring, and the excessive attempts of the party to enhance its power led to failure.26 When the Hungarian Soviet Republic collapsed in the second half of 1919, the institutional system that had originally underpinned working-class society took some heavy blows. Although at the time of the Great War, workers had represented a considerable weight in the urban agglomeration of Budapest, Hungary was still an agrarian country, and this made it impossible to stabilize the political rule of the organizations connected to industrial workers.

Rural Society during and after War Mobilization

The war led to new trends in rural society too, the nature of which was significantly different from the predominant trends in industry. The war and attendant mobilization contributed massively to the decay of the earlier peasant way of life (which had already been undergoing a dramatic process of transformation). A distinguishing characteristic of Hungarian agrarian society was that, due to the small size of their farms, relatively few of the many people who earned their living via agriculture could sustain themselves and their families on the bases of their own farming. There were many penniless day laborers and manorial servants, as well as farmers with only one or two hectares of land. The tensions arising from this situation had been evident for more than 25 years before the war. The root of the problem was of a demographic nature: with the broadening of the demographic transition, the village population began to grow, while the amount of arable land and the number of employment opportunities in agriculture did not increase in the first half of the twentieth century. On the contrary, ambitious infrastructural developments, railway construction, and flood relief work that had provided employment for the redundant agricultural labor force came to an end by the end of the nineteenth century. The so-called agrarian socialist movements—harvest strikes, local riots, etc.—had preoccupied state authorities for more than two decades before 1914. These authorities attempted to subdue these actions partly through social policy measures and partly by force.27

War mobilization had an ambivalent effect on the circumstances of the agrarian population. This group was heavily affected by the draft, since industrial workers, as a result of the interests of war production, were frequently exempted from military service (or they were ordered to work in their original factory). The lack of men caused serious disturbances to farming and family life in village society. At the same time, food requisitions—which were, in fact, the reverse side of the urban ration system—undermined the prospects of farmers.28 The shortage of labor, the military use of draught animals, and the reduction in manure application led to drops in average yields.29 Nonetheless, the war was still profitable for agriculture. The sale of produce in addition to the requisitions provided both big and small landowners additional revenues, and many contemporary articles reported on the high earnings made on the black market.30 At the end of the war and in the period following it, many farmers were able to pay back their earlier debts in the devalued currency. This all gave the landowning peasantry greater self-confidence and room for maneuver, and it also motivated them to assert their interests independently, an act that had been previously unknown to them. As a result of this, the Smallholders’ Party, the roots of which had extended to the period before the war, grew increasingly strong and became an important player by the end of the war.31 Much as workers and employees were flocking to the organizations of the Social Democratic Party, the peasants lined up behind the Smallholders’ Party.

However, the Smallholders’ Party and, behind it, the peasantry and rural intellectuals were certainly not the only important strata within rural society. The broad spectrum of landless social groups, which included servants and day laborers, faced a different situation than that of the independent farmers, and they were able to profit much less from the agricultural boom during the war. At the same time, they were hit severely by the loss of human lives in the cataclysm. Moreover, the big landowners tried to counterbalance the expansion of the organizations of the Smallholders’ Party in order to preserve their influence over the rural population. It was with that purpose in mind that they created the Farmers’ Party, which attempted to establish organizations to rival those of the Smallholders’ Party.32

However, the broad masses of the agrarian population that had only modest means or were poverty-stricken and sustained themselves from day labor could not automatically join either party. They constituted the most discontented group of the rural population.33 The soldiers in their ranks, who poured back into Hungary in November 1918 and were often armed and accustomed to violence, would regularly instigate the acts of unrest that were breaking out all over the country.34 These uprisings targeted the local administration, which had lost the sympathy of the locals—including the middle and big landowners—due to the requisitions and the draft. War losses, forms of the war economy that were seen as dubious, and the crumbling of the power hierarchy in rural society fed a strong sense of discontent that found expression not exclusively in diffuse movements, but sometimes also in more organized forms as well. As a result of the propaganda spread by the agitators associated with the Social Democratic Party, those involved in the uprisings tried to take over big estates as a whole and run them without redistributing the land. An especially acute conflict developed in Somogy County, where this movement was aimed specifically at the Smallholders’ Party.35

A long series of negotiations was held in the winter of 1918–1919 in an attempt to settle the conflicts connected to the problems of agrarian society. The talks were initiated by the government and held with the involvement of all the interested parties that had a politically meaningful structure. The intention was to arrive at acceptable and realistic land reform legislation and a comprehensive agricultural policy for the postwar period.36 The success of these negotiations and of the settlement of the land question as a whole would have contributed greatly to the stabilization of the republican government of November 1918.

The meeting, which was unprecedented in the twentieth century, brought together all the actors in the field of agricultural policy, including representatives of various organizations and agricultural experts with a diverse array of orientations, as well as several former and future ministers of agriculture. The necessity of implementing a large-scale transformation of the existing estate structure that would take into consideration the social status quo and the given political situation was acknowledged by all the participants, including those that stood to lose through such reform. However, the scale and the manner of the reform were subject to debate. Advocating the interests of the landed peasantry, the Smallholders’ Party sought to strengthen the peasant-owned small estates at the expense of the bigger estates in order to create as many stable and viable small estates in the country as possible. Their most important argument was that the peasants should pay compensation to the landowners who needed to be remunerated for lost land, and they had the financial means to make such payments. This was an indirect admission of the fact that the peasantry had also been among the beneficiaries of the wartime boom. In contrast, the representatives of the large estates spoke about the economic advantages of large estates, stressing that in some sectors, they are more productive than small estates, a fact which, they insisted, should not be underestimated, given the need to supply food to cities and the need for exports. But they also recognized that for social peace, a more equal distribution of land ownership was needed. The representatives of the Social Democratic Party agreed with the economic arguments put forward by the large landowners. They agreed that the big estates should be preserved in an integral form because they were advantageous from an economic perspective. The Social Democratic Party members were afraid that with the introduction of universal suffrage, they would become a minority in the next elections, and the representatives of the peasantry would prevail in the new National Assembly. They were therefore quite opposed to the further strengthening of this social group. One of their representatives said what the others had only implied, namely that the parceling out of land would only make the people concerned “reactionaries,” and that as much land as possible should be kept in public ownership.37 Although the debate formally ended with a compromise law—while bigger estates were the sites of violent clashes in numerous parts of the country—it was never implemented.

With the establishment of the communist dictatorship in March 1919, it was the ideas of the radical groups of the Social Democratic Party—and a handful of communists—that were temporarily adopted. This meant the expropriation of the big and middle-sized estates, but strictly without dividing them up: they still needed to be managed as single estates. In addition, as had been done by previous governments in earlier years, the government of the Hungarian Soviet Republic tried to requisition food in the villages at a fixed price so that it could feed the urban population. This, however, made the animosity that had existed between cities and villages since the war years worse than ever. Already during the war, the image of the peasant hiding food and exploiting the vulnerability of the middle class and the working class became widespread. This image was countered by the image of urban power exploiting the producers through requisitions that the peasants felt to be unjust. The Hungarian Soviet Republic only aggravated this conflict when it attempted to pay for the requisitioned food with so-called “white money.” The peasants did not consider these banknotes, which were printed only on one side (thus leaving the other side blank), to be of any value, although the value of the earlier currency (the crown) was rapidly plummeting. In a certain respect, the Hungarian Soviet Republic could also be interpreted as the dictatorship of the towns over the countryside or as the dictatorship of the organized urban food-consumers over the agricultural producers. This opposition—augmented by several other religious and political conflicts—was expressed in the form of local armed clashes and contributed significantly to the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, which was, of course, accelerated by other external factors as well. The lack of land reform in the months of the dictatorship ensured that the issue would remain on the political agenda after the fall of the Soviet Republic, as tensions in rural society did not ease.

Managing Social Tensions during Consolidation after 1919

The downfall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic signified a turning point in the social dynamics triggered by the war. From that point on, the organizations which represented the working class, which had become strong enough during the war to serve as the base of a dictatorship, began to wither. It was not clear, however, how a stable equilibrium could be established between the workers, the middle classes, the peasants, and other smaller social groups in the towns and in rural society. For the most part, the elections of January 1920 propelled into the National Assembly representatives who bore the desires and fears of the middle classes and the peasantry—representatives who regarded the workers’ organizations, big industry, and often Jews with hostility, albeit to varying degrees. It was questionable how the slowly consolidating new state power would handle social conflicts, how it could strike a more or less reasonable balance between the bigger groups of society, and at what point the pendulum would swing back following the marked rise to (and then fall from) excessive power by the workers’ organizations. In addition to the loss of the earlier state framework, the sentiment of general uncertainty characterizing all of Hungarian society was heightened by the weakening of the currency as a measurement of value, which had far-reaching consequences in the midst of continuous inflation.

Inflation as Solution

In retrospect, the devaluation of the currency in the second half of 1919 and the first half of 1920 had numerous economic advantages. In fact, until the end of the war, inflation had been reined in. In October 1918, one golden crown was worth 2.32 paper crowns, though it should be noted that there was a bigger rise in the prices of primary commodities.38 Inflation began to accelerate in the spring of 1919, and from then on—with a brief pause and at a varying pace—it continued in two-digit monthly figures (and sometimes even higher) until April 1924.

For contemporaries, this inflation resulted in shifts in relations among the various elements of society: their circumstances became uncertain relative to one another. Most people questioned the value-measuring function of money that they had previously used to identify the relative worth of different products and social positions. All elements of society longed for inflation to come to a halt, because they saw it as a moral issue.39 The various urban groups wanted to stop “food usury,” while village society demanded the stability of the prices of goods. In the midst of continuously increasing prices, commerce became a scapegoat (a phenomenon which corresponded closely to the spread of anti-Semitism). Paying heed to general demand, the legislative body passed a law in 1920 against usury and profiteering, but this law did little more than expand the authority and duties of the Price Examination Committee, which had been created during the war. The law was intended to allow only “justified prices,” and it entrusted committees with the task of price monitoring.40 This system was in operation for some time, but it was extremely cumbersome and bureaucratic, and it generated constant tension because it was unable to keep up with the rapidly changing inflation and market trends.

The general plea for the stabilization of prices derived from the frustration that characterized several groups of society. Those who lived off their wages or fixed salaries were worried about the value of their earnings, while agricultural producers were anxious about the real price of their produce, and those who had savings feared that their savings would lose all their value. The members of the middle class were traumatized by the fact that they had to exchange their family “silverware” (jewelry, tableware, etc.) for food due to the unpredictability of cash flow.41 This explains the extremely austere proposals with regard to price monitoring.42 Within the context of the existing inflation, there was a general demand for the authorities to provide a steady supply of basic commodities—especially food—and to ensure that the most important living expenses, such as rent would not be subject to market price changes. Thus, the food supply allocated through the ratio system was maintained for industrial workers and public employees (the latter included a significant proportion of the middle class), as well as for war invalids and war widows, for a long period of time.43 The representatives of the trade unions and the manufacturing industry also made this demand. They feared that if food prices were deregulated, they would be forced to raise wages dramatically. And they were joined in this effort by members of the middle class who were affected by the continuous rise in prices.44 In 1920, bread prices in Hungary were a fraction of the prices in the neighboring countries. At the same time, agricultural producers demanded the free circulation of the food supply. This was gradually put into practice by the Bethlen government, and by September 1921, the free market circulation of foodstuffs was restored, although the workers were still guaranteed a cheap supply of flour by the authorities for another year, for obvious political reasons. The subsidized official supply of flour for war invalids, war widows, and civil servants continued until the summer of 1924.

With the free market of foodstuffs, the government induced agricultural producers—primarily the owners of the bigger estates who were producing for the markets (and not only to feed themselves)—to feel that their situation was tolerable under the new social conditions of the country within its new, significantly smaller borders. The gradual reestablishment of a free domestic food market remained bearable for social groups that did not produce food. Paradoxically, the reinstatement of the free circulation of food could be attributed to the inflation boom that most social groups considered almost unbearable.

For industrial companies, the free circulation of foodstuffs was made bearable by the fact that the government attempted to expand the internal market by squeezing out foreign consumer goods and created, through inflationary policy, resources for new investment.45 Representatives of big industry enjoyed a moment of symbolic recognition when Prime Minister István Bethlen attended their banquet organized in 1922 on the twentieth anniversary of the foundation of the National Federation of Industrialists. Bethlen reassured them that the government’s customs policy would support industry. The prime minister also made it clear that they could count on the government’s support against the far-fetched initiatives of the workers

Balance between Workers and Industrials

One of the cardinal points in the restructuring of social power relations was how to fit the industrial workers and their organizations into the new order after the war. The middle-class associations and political movements that sprouted up in 1919, which were meant to provide a kind of national and middle-class self-defense, attempted to build their own network of consumer cooperatives, and they sought to extend their control over the General Consumption Cooperative connected to the trade unions. They considered this necessary in order to break the power of the workers, reduce trade that was taking place on a non-cooperative basis (primarily identified with Jews), and, finally, to protect their interests from agricultural producers. These efforts were crowned with only partial success. The membership in middle-class consumer cooperatives rose sharply, but this was only temporary, as membership had declined significantly by the second half of the 1920s. There were several attempts by extreme right-wing middle-class movements to take over management of the General Consumption Cooperative, and these attempts enjoyed the support, to some extent, of the government. However, the General Consumer Cooperative remained under the social authority of the trade unions. The only thing to which the trade unions had to agree was that the board of the General Consumer Cooperative would also include representatives from the relevant ministry, which would make it possible for the government to supervise its activities. Following the agreement concerning cooperatives, the Bethlen government managed to reach a general settlement with the trade unions and the Social Democratic Party. According to the compromise concluded at the end of 1921, the so-called Bethlen-Peyer Pact, the trade unions could work freely in the domain of private industry, but they had to stay away from agriculture, state factories, and railways. Strikes again became an approved tool with which to negotiate labor conflicts if they revolved only around economic issues (such as wages, work hours, etc.) and not party politics.

Initially, this agreement, the details of which were not made public for a long time, caused a minor panic among the leaders of the manufacturing industry. They were afraid that it would trigger a tide of strikes which would enable the trade unions again to gain at least partial control over the factories, as had happened at the beginning of 1919, before the declaration of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. They feared that, just as during the war, the government was trying to pay for the support of the workers with their money.46 The government, however, managed to calm the industrialists. At the abovementioned banquet, Bethlen personally reassured the industrialists regarding the protection of private property, and he explained that, in his opinion, the lure of socialist thought had already been shattered, and socialism no longer carried the promise of radical changes, even in the eyes of its adherents: it was no longer seen as a solution to the ills of society.47 Its appeal had dimmed compared to what it had been before 1918. The fact that Bethlen was sitting between the two best-known Jewish businessmen in Hungary, Manfréd Weiss and Ferenc Chorin Senior, at the banquet held by the National Federation of Industrialists carried symbolic meaning with respect to the status of Hungarian Jewry: it signaled that from then on, the government would not pursue anti-Semitic policies. With these agreements, the government has managed to strike a balance between trade unions and the representatives of employers and at the same time to situate itself as the mediating party that would arbitrate between the two sides.

Consolidation in Rural Hungary: Land Reform and the Organization of Chambers of Agriculture

It was not only with regard to the conflicts between industry and agriculture and urban society and rural society that a balance somehow had to be struck. The internal power relations of rural society, which had been disturbed by the war, also cried for consolidation. However, by 1920, the question of how this should be accomplished was being examined in a different light than in the winter of 1918–1919. The leadership of the Smallholders’ Party, which had a substantial voice in the National Assembly after the elections, advocated the same ideas it had at the end of 1918; namely, that the land reform should serve to enhance the viability of the peasant-owned farms. Their opponents in 1920, however, were no longer the social democrats, who in the winter of 1918 had spoken on behalf of the landless agrarian laborers and had partly mobilized them for action. Rather, they now found themselves facing the representatives of big estates, who were fundamentally against land reform.48 They did not, however, deny the necessary of land reform, but they also did not hide their conviction that they considered land reform economically harmful and not necessarily reasonable even from a social point of view. It was unavoidable, in their eyes, only as a result of political pressure and as a means of mitigating internal conflicts within rural society and managing expectations and demands regarding land redistribution.49 Therefore, they wanted to make sure that landless agrarian laborers would be made the beneficiaries of the land redistribution. Of course, the latter could not be turned into peasants who would be able to sustain themselves from farming, as mere land redistribution would not have been enough to have achieved this goal. These landless agrarian laborers lacked both the expertise and the capital necessary to begin farming. This was precisely the argument in favor of the position of the smallholders, i.e., that the latter had both the necessary expertise and capital. However, the conception of land redistribution that corresponded to the interests of the big estates did not advocate the creation of viable farms. The act of giving a few acres of land to a pauper in the form of a small plot and a vegetable garden, for instance, was of great significance even if it did not provide a livelihood, because for those who had not owned any property before, this act already signified a radical transformation of their way of life and increased their prestige within rural society.

With these considerations in mind, a law was passed regarding the redistribution of plots as an urgent task to be completed before a more complex land reform would be elaborated. This, however, determined the direction for the planning of the land reform. The position of the landed peasantry was barely represented at the meeting at which the text of the law was discussed in detail. According to the overwhelming majority of those present, the law had to allow only for minor allocations. Archbishop of Esztergom János Csernoch, who represented the hundreds of thousands of acres of land belonging to the Roman Catholic Church (although he himself was born to a penniless family), specified that the maximum size of land allocated should be big enough to graze one or two goats, i.e., domestic animals of modest needs and proportions. Thus, they did not intend to create farms that would have cattle, which would have required the growing of fodder as well. The representatives at the meeting also deemed it important that the law should not precisely define who would be entitled to receive a plot. They feared that if they tried to stipulate this in a legal text, it would spark an endless debate that would serve only to increase tension among those concerned. Therefore, they put the decision regarding whose lands should be included in the land redistribution and who should receive land in the hands of the so-called “land re-allocation committees.” When the law was drafted, they muffled all opposition to the idea that only the chambers of agriculture should delegate members to the land redistribution committees. They wanted to avoid disputes regarding which organizations of the parties involved would be entitled to take part in the land redistribution through their delegates.50

The chambers of agriculture were created parallel to this as brand-new organizations. They were established with the specific objective of ensuring oversight for the bigger landowners and members of the middle-class and not leaving any room for the initiatives of the smallholders or day laborers. Membership in the chambers established via legislation was mandatory for the landowners and all groups of agricultural workers. The internal structure of the chambers was made up of various categories, and it was crucial where the boundaries of the categories would be drawn. The legislators made sure that “demagogue, revolutionary tendencies” could not become dominant within the chambers. They thought that the “conservative, state-preserving course” would not have a secure majority even in the category of landowners with 10 to 20 acres of land, because the latter had not opposed the land redistribution initiatives in 1918–1919 and had even supported them. Therefore, the categories were finally established within the chambers so as to ensure that the “reliable” strata would hold a majority in the landowners’ categories, and the agricultural workers were all put into a single category. Thus, the landowners’ categories—though much fewer in number—could force the former into a minority position because the law stipulated that each category had one vote on at each level of the chamber hierarchy.51

By setting up the chambers of agriculture in this manner and by granting them a role in the management of the redistribution of land, the government managed to restore the authority and influence of the middle and big landowning class in rural society. During the implementation of the land reform, it managed to determine quite precisely the smallest area of land to be redistributed, which could be sacrificed to satisfy the demands of the agricultural laborers. Thanks to the allocation, the position of the local élites was firmly reinforced, as they were the ones who could make decisions regarding the size of the lands distributed to individuals. While no self-subsistent farms were created, the possession of land still signified a much higher degree of integration for agricultural laborers in local society than they had previously enjoyed. As a result of this, there were no agrarian socialist movements in Hungary between the two World Wars of the kind that had existed in the period of slightly more than two decades preceding World War I, despite the fact that, due to natural population growth in the villages and the unfavorable international food market, living conditions in rural areas were worse than before. This change was one of the paradoxical outcomes of the social trends triggered by World War I. The so-called counterrevolutionary regime was thus able to stabilize the political balance of power in rural society in a way that was favorable to itself and which showed little change until the outbreak of World War II.52


During World War I, in Hungary, as in many other European states involved in the war, the existing social balances were upset and the scope of state activity in the economy and society was greatly expanded. The change in the balance of power was reflected in social policy and labor law measures in England, France, and Germany, where the Stinnes-Legien agreement between employers and trade unions was concluded at the end of 1918.53 These measures enabled industrial workers and, in many cases, the lower social strata in rural areas not only to achieve a formal extension of their political rights but also to attain a relative elevation of their social status and emancipation from the classical bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century. At the same time, their political representation, usually through left-wing parties (social democratic or socialist) was consolidated, which guaranteed their social advancement and facilitated the further development of social rights. In Hungary, however, although the war also upset the balance of social power and contributed primarily to the increase in power of the industrial workers, there was nothing resembling the waves of institutionalization of social rights in the Western countries.54 The political elite groups that had benefited from the shift in the balance of power resulting from the war did not seek to establish social rights or to entrench extended political rights in late 1918 and the first half of 1919. Rather, they sought simply to gain raw power. The transitional dictatorship in the Soviet republic was made possible by the strengthening of workers’ organizations, thanks to economic mobilization, and it rose and fell without bringing about any substantial social transformation through, for instance, the institutionalization of social rights or changes to the prevailing conditions in rural society.

After the fall of the dictatorship, the workers’ organizations lost their positions of power because they were no longer backed by the wartime economic mobilization which had given them so much room for maneuver. This allowed the government to return, to a significant extent, to pre-war liberal practices in the treatment of trade unions by European standards. It was also the reason why the old-new political establishment in 1920 was able to restore the previous order of rural society and to preserve the previous estate structure against all claims for change. Paradoxically, the social order of the counterrevolutionary regime, which was anti-liberal in its political language, remained much closer to the liberal social model of the nineteenth century in both rural and industrial terms in the early 1920s than was the practice in countries where the social impact of World War I had led to greater steps towards the development of the modern welfare state and labor law. 55

The Ministry for Public Welfare and Labor (the creation of which had been envisaged during the war) coordinated relations between the trade unions and employers in the 1920s. This development conformed completely to the situation in Austria.56 In 1927, Albert Thomas, the head of the International Labor Office, described the status of the Hungarian trade unions as follows:

The Hungarian cyndicalists seem to me to be in a similar situation to the German trade unionists before the war. Of course, they are not officially recognized by the state, I mean, they exist legally, but one doesn’t deal with them under any circumstances. And yet my comparison is imprecise: They were invited to two or three lunches or dinners by the ministers who received me. They were invited to the reception of the House. [...] One can compare their situation to that of the German trade unions before 1914. Let us say more, they are in the process of conquering those possibilities of contact with the government, those official receptions, which the German trade unions demanded in vain at the time.57


Although the operations of the trade unions were not legally regulated, the unions were allowed to work freely, as long as their efforts were not aimed directly at political objectives but rather focused on achieving economic goals concerning the employers. The government regarded them as partners in this task. Overall, Hungarian society became much more integrated after the war in the sense that under the expanding scope of government management, coordination among interest organizations of the most diverse social groups (owners and workers from the spheres of industry and agriculture) became permanent. The conditions for this were not equal, of course, because the mechanisms of interest coordination favored groups of a higher social status and limited room for maneuver of those who were interested in changing the social status quo. At the same time, this system, which emerged in the aftermath of World War I, proved surprisingly stable. It withstood the social tensions of the Great Depression around 1930, unlike the social and political systems of many other Central and Eastern European countries.

Archival Sources

Hadtörténelmi Levéltár, Budapest [Archives of Military History] (HIM HL)

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

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K 184 Földművelésügyi Minisztérium [Ministry of Agriculture]

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Értekezlet a birtokreformról: A földművelésügyi minisztériumban 1918. november 20-tól november 29-ig [Conference on land reform: At the Ministry of Agriculture from November to 20 to November 29, 1918]. Budapest: Pátria, 1918.

Soós, Gyula. Húsz esztendő: Az Általános Fogyasztási Szövetkezet fönnállásának 20 éves története [Twenty years: The 20-year history of the General Consumption Cooperative]. Budapest: Álltalános Fogyasztási Szövetkezet, 1924.

Szterényi, Baron József, and Jenő Ladányi. A magyar ipar a világháborúban [Hungarian industry in the World War]. Budapest: Carnegie Alapítvány–Franklin társulat, 1934.



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1 Ablonczy, Úton; Ablonczy, Ismeretlen Trianon; Bencsik, Demarkációs vonaltól államhatárig.

2 Révész, Nem akartak katonát látni?; Simon, Az átmenet.

3 Hatos, Az elátkozott köztársaság; Hatos, Rosszfiúk világforradalma; Bödők, “Politikai erőszak”; Bodó, The white Terror.

4 Bódy, Háborúból békébe.

5 Two volumes on the subject of economic processes and their social impact in a German-French comparison: Boldorf, Deutsche Wirtschaft; Boldorf and Joly, Une victoire impossible?

6 Basic work on the social history of war: Kocka, Klassengesellschaft im Krieg. Provides a multifaceted overview of the findings of older research based on a cultural-historical approach: Michalka, Der Erste Weltkrieg. Analysis of war experiences: Hirschfeld et al., Kriegserfahrungen and Flemming and Bernd, Heimatfront. For an overview of the industrial policies of all Western countries involved in the war, see Geary, European Labour Politics. On the impact of the war on German and British society, see Chickering, Imperial Germany and Gregory, The Last Great War. For cultural history approaches, see Werber et al., Erster Weltkrieg. For a comparative cultural history enterprise, see Bauerkaemper and Julien, Durchlalten! especially Bauerkaemper and Julien, “Einleitung: Durchhalten!” 7–28. For a gender perspective on everyday life during the war, see Hämmerle, Heimat/Front. For a comparative analysis of the social and political effects of war, see März, Nach der Urkatastrophe; and Mommsen, Der Erste Weltkrieg. See also Barth, Europa nach dem Großen Krieg. Aulke offers a particularly interesting discussion of the cultural history of postwar political processes: Aulke, Räume der Revolution.

8 With regards to Germany, see Feldman, “Kriegswirtschaft und Zwangswirtschaft.” For a survey of all western countries involved in the war, see: Geary, European Labour Politics.

9 Litván, “A sajtó áthangolódása 1914 őszén.”

10 “Az élet és a halál demokráciája,” Népszava, December 1, 1915, 1–2.

11 PIL 658. f. 38. ő.e. Double-page printed matter with the signature of all workers employed at the factory dated May 2, 1917, which was sent to the government by the party via a number of organized workers from several factories.

12 Méhely, “A munkásügyi Panaszbizottságokról,” Munkásügyi Szemle, April 25, 1917, 204.

13 Soós, Húsz esztendő.

14 HIM HL I. 28. 1916. 4/a. eln. 473. doboz. K.u.K. Kriegsministerium’s letter to the Ministry of Defense on August 8, 1916, regarding the recommended policy regarding complain committees].

15 Magyar Gyáripar, January 1, 1917, 3. In his general order, the president of the Office of National Food Supply (Országos Közélelmezési Hivatal) stated that ensuring adequate food supplies for workers was more important than providing food for other inhabitants of Hungary. According to the order, workers had to receive their full rations even if this meant that the local authorities had to reduce rations for others.

16 On the preparations for martial law, see the following source: MNL OL K 578 94. doboz. Ig. min. 1918 – Bi – 143.

17 Bódy, “Szociálpolitika és szociáldemokrácia.”

18 According to various contemporary calculations, skilled workers involved in sectors vital to the military industry did not experience a substantial decrease in real wages until the end of the war. Indeed, the monthly wages of workers were nominally higher at the end of 1918 than the monthly pay of those engaged in typical middle-class employment. On the whole, average skilled laborers also had lower real-wage losses than military officers, civil servants, and white-collar company clerks. Furthermore, the real-wage losses of unskilled workers, especially industrial workers, were also lower than those of middle-class people in general. Szterényi and Ladányi, A magyar ipar a világháborúban, 223; Dálnoki Kovács, “A megélhetés drágulása a háború kitörése óta.”

19 Gregory, The Last Great War.

20 Schönhoven, “Die Kriegspolitik der Gewerkschaften.”

21 According to Tibor Hajdu, the Social Democratic Party of Hungary had one million members at that time. Hajdu, Az 1918-as magyarországi, 151–52. This high number could be primarily attributed to a rapid inflow of workers into trade unions, since the party had a relatively low number of members. However, the new members of trade unions practically became members of the party as well, and they also paid party dues.

22 For the collective agreement made by the National Association of Metallurgy and Machine Factories (Vas- és Gépgyárak Országos Egyesülete) in March 1919, see the following source: MNL OL Z 435. 2. cs. 19. t. Additional collective agreements from other economic branches were published in Munkásügyi Szemle 1919, 103–4, as well as in György, “Kereskedelmi alkalmazottak,” 33–36.

23 On the difficulties faced by the middle-class Household Consumption Association (Háztartás Fogyasztási Szövetkezet) with regard to procurement from central sources, see Háztartás Szövetkezet MNL OL Z 816 Vol. 2. 2. t. Igazgatótanácsi ülés, December 21, 1918. January 3, 1919.

24 Bódy, “Szociálpolitika és szociáldemokrácia,” 1457–75.

25 Angster, Konsenskapitalismus und Sozialdemokratie; Chickering, Imperial Germany; Horne, Labour at War.

27 Gyáni, “Nyugtalan századvég.

28 Bódy, “Ungarn als Sonderfall.”

29 The same thing happened in Germany. Müller, “Landwirtschaft und Agrarpolitik.”

30 Csíki, “Piac és feketepiac.”

31 Krusenstjern, Die ungarische Kleinlandwirte-Partei.

32 Sipos, A pártok és a földreform, 116–19.

33 Király, Nagyatádi Szabó István.

34 Révész, “Soldiers in the Revolution.”

35 Sipos, A pártok és a földreform.

36 Értekezlet a birtokreformról.

37 The debate also touched on a number of other detailed issues concerning the possibility or necessity of using large estates of joint-stock companies, churches, aristocrats, and medium-sized estates in the property reform.

38 Botos, “A fizetőeszköz inflációja”; Cagan, “The Monetary Dynamics of Hyperinflation.”

39 On similar tendencies in Germany, see Geyer, Verkehrte Welt.

40 For the opinion of the National Federation of Industrialists regarding the draft bill on profiteering, see Magyar Gyáripar, June 1, 1920, 15–16.

41 On similar traumas faced by the German middle class, see: Stibbe, Germany 1914–1933; Pogány “Két szempont.”

42 Károly Dietz, the ex–chief commissioner of Budapest police, urged in an article published in Nemzeti Újság the establishment of a board of inquiry composed of refugee civil servants and military officers. The members of this public body were to supervise all larger enterprises on a daily basis. OMKE 4. évf. April 15, 1920, 132.

43 A similar system existed in Germany, which also meant that the ratio of state expenditures compared to GDP increased dramatically. Before the war, it was 15 percent, while by the end of the war, it had reached 77 percent. März, Nach der Urkatastrophe, 114.

44 In addition, the National Federation of Industrialists expressed the opinion in the autumn of 1921 that state flour provisions needed to be extended. According to this association, in addition to workers and public servants, employees of private firms and shop assistants should also receive flour provided by the state. Magyar Gyáripar, October 16, 1921, 5. For their argument against the liberalization of trade of agricultural products, see: Magyar Gyáripar, June 1, 1922, 4–5.

45 Pogány, “A nagy háború hosszú árnyéka.”

46 From an article written by National Federation of Industrialists President Ferenc Chorin in the January 6, 1922, issue of the newspaper Budapesti Hírlap.

47 Magyar Gyáripar, June 1, 1922, 13–14.

48 Bódy, “Weder Demokratisierung noch Diktatur.”

49 Information from the periodical associated with large and middle-sized estate owners: Köztelek, April 24, 1920, 304 and Köztelek, June, 12, 1920, 443–44. According to the argument advanced in this article, the redistribution of every 100 acres of large and middle-size estates would result in the loss of 10 workplaces, and the smallholding family farms established on these lands would produce for the market and especially not for export. See also Czettler, “A birtokreform.”

50 The minutes of the preparatory meeting of legislation can be found at: MNL OL Belügyminisztérium K 148 BM elnöki iratok, 693 cs. 19. t. See also Gunst, “Az 1920. évi földreform.”

51 Preparatory materials of legislation related to chambers of agriculture can be found at: MNL OL Földművelésügyi Minisztérium K 184 2422. cs., K 184 2423. cs.

52 Bódy, “Weder Demokratisierung noch Diktatur,” 242–46.

53 Tennstedt, “Der Ausbau der Sozialversicherung”; Conrad et al., “Die Kodifizierung der Arbeit.”

54 Ritter, Der Sozialstaat.

55 For an analysis of similar processes in Germany, see Mai, “‘Verteidigungskrieg’ und ‘Volksgemeinschaft.’” For a comparative analysis on the subject, see Zimmermann et al., “La Première Guerre mondiale.”

56 Gutheil-Knopp-Kirchwald, Vom K.K.Ministerium.

57 “Les syndicalistes hongrois me semblent être dans une situation à peu près analogue à celle des syndicalistes allemande avant la guerre. Évidemment, ils ne sont pas officiellement reconnu par l’Etat, je veux dire que s’ils vivent légalement, on ne traite cependant avec eux en toutes circonstances. Et cependant ma comparaison même est inexacte: Ils ont été invité à deux ou trois déjeuners ou dîners par les ministres qui me recevaient. Ils ont été invité à la réception de la Chambre. [...] On peut comparer leur situation à celle des cyndicats allemands avant 1914. Disons plus, ils sont en voie de conquérir ces possibilités de contactes avec le gouvernement, ces réception officielles, que les cyndicats allemand réclamaient en vain à ladite époque.” L’Archives de B.I.T. Cat/1/27/2/1.