Europe's Last Peasant War: Violence and Revolution in Austria-Hungary and its Successors, 1917-1945

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: School of Slavonic & East European Studi


'Europe's last peasant war' aims to reinterpret the most violent decades of European history from the perspective of the countryside. Peasants were not just passive victims of the calamities in the era of World Wars that killed around 30 million people; they helped shape the 'age of catastrophe' with violence and anti-urban political initiatives. East Central Europe, the most volatile region of the continent in the last century, was the most important battleground in this struggle. The project focuses on the area of the Habsburg Empire and its successors since the peasants of these lands shared a common experience of the First World War and found themselves in new and beleaguered interwar states. This makes the peasant histories of this region both connected and consequential; placing them at the centre of Europe's twentieth-century history through transnational research is the project's main goal.

The PI Dr Jakub Benes and Co-I Professor Petra Svoljsak will pursue archival research in four countries formerly in the Habsburg Empire in order to illuminate decisive episodes and paradigmatic fighters in this 'peasant war'. In Croatia, we will investigate the peasant revolt of autumn 1918 that was initiated by deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army and which led to the establishment of local peasant republics and made rural populism into a major force in interwar Yugoslavia. In Slovenia, the team will reconstruct the career of Alfonz Sarh, a peasant leader of paramilitary deserters in the First World War who then oscillated between extreme nationalism and communism and died as a partisan hero in 1943. In Czech Moravia and Slovakia, we will examine the fate of local national guard units and the Slovacko Brigade, a volunteer regiment formed in 1918 of thousands of peasant deserters, in order to understand how peasants could rally to the Czechoslovak cause immediately at the war's end and then embrace anti-state rural radicalism in the 1920s.

These largely forgotten stories will be contextualised in a larger narrative of the countryside in 1917-1945 through extensive literature review and with the help of a Research Assistant (RA) working on Hungarian-language sources. The RA will focus his/her efforts on investigating rural unrest in Hungary in 1918 and on the peasantry's response to the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. An advisory board chosen from prominent historians and cultural heritage experts will help steer the project's research and dissemination strategies.

The team will establish partnerships with museums in Varazdin, Croatia; Maribor, Slovenia; and Skalica, Slovakia in order to organise a traveling exhibition that will highlight how episodes of local history, especially those relating to peasant deserters of the First World War, were actually part of an interconnected and important transnational story. This will allow the project's findings to reach a non-academic audience and help regional museum curators forge international networks. Such partnerships will likely lead to further valuable findings. The project's results will be published in a major single-authored monograph and three refereed journal articles: one co-authored by the PI and Co-I, another co-authored by the PI and RA, and a third single-authored by the Co-I.

After two years of funding, 'Europe's last peasant war' will have: 1. Offered a new peasant perspective on Europe in the era of World Wars; 2. Demonstrated the importance of studying the 'age of catastrophe' from the perspective of peasant villagers; 3. Provided crucial historical perspective on urban-rural divides at a time when they appear to be defining European politics; 4. Shown to east central European audiences that their rural regional histories belong on a broad international canvas.


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