The aftermath of the First World War is most often discussed as a way to divine the causes of the Second, particularly in terms of creating the conditions for the rise of Nazism in defeated Germany. In the current TORCH Graduate Seminar series, ‘Globalising and Localising the Great War,’ students and researchers are coming together to expand the frame of reference for this period; pushing back against the incessant examination of the Treaty of Versailles, and looking further afield at lesser known areas of the conflict. The lecture provided by Dr Jakub Beneš (University College, Oxford) regarding revolutionary peasant groups in Eastern Europe, which arose during 1918, was an exhilarating example of this diversification of focus in action.
Though there were many more informed members of the audience at this seminar, I for one knew nothing of ‘Green Cadres’, nor much about the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was to his credit, then, that Beneš managed to satisfy the intellectual demands of the eminent historians in attendance, whilst also providing the ignorant with a clear and deeply fascinating overview of a now almost forgotten movement. ‘Movement’ might actually be a descriptive leap for the motley and disparate collection of bandits, deserters and peasant factions which spread across vast swathes of the former Yugoslavia and Central Europe between 1918 and 1920, policing and pillaging in equal measure. In fact the Green Cadres gained a quasi-mythic reputation for being groups which eschewed the bureaucracy and organisation befitting a ‘movement.’ As such, their nature and impact on wider events during the break-up of Austria-Hungary seemed difficult to ascertain.
Beneš’ solution to this difficulty was to begin by focusing on the lives of three very different members of Green Cadre factions, in order to elucidate their broader collective identity. In Andrej Zlobec, Jozef Ferančik and Jovo Stanisavljevic, the audience were introduced to a tenacious peasant soldier, an anti-Semitic socialist revolutionary, and a glorified highwayman who all traded under the same banner in very different ways, and for very different ends. What linked these figures was their local status as Robin Hood-style folk heroes, who stood up for the rural peasantry against the exploitation of the aristocrats and Jews who they perceived had enslaved them. This status became a major force in the culture of the region, with at least eight major novels being written in the 1920s regarding the exploits of such individuals.
The view of Green Cadres as Romantic heroes resisting the onset of modernity and the chaos of war must be tempered by the concession that these were not pleasant people. Indeed, they divided communities as much as they unified them, with many urban populations fearing and hating them in equal measure. However, their important role in shaping the emerging nationalisms of Slovakia, Croatia, and Serbia among others is apparent in the appropriation of their image by nationalist parties and revolutionary groups across the stricken empire.
As Beneš noted, the Green Cadres could not be said to possess a rational or cohesive political ideology. They mixed disturbingly popular anti-Semitic sentiments with vague policies regarding the redistribution of wealth, and the celebration of US President Woodrow Wilson as a minor deity. Instead of an ideological identity then, these groups assumed five different roles depending on the local context they found themselves in. As deserters, bandits, avengers, national heroes, or social revolutionaries, peasants from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire were able to seize agency in a political context of decentralisation and confusion.
That significant evidence remains of these partisan armies calling themselves Green Cadres during the Second World War (on both sides of the conflict) is testament to the previous cultural significance of figures such as Zlobec, Ferančik, and Stanisavljevic. It also points to the relevance of this kind of increasingly diverse research. As was pointed out during the Q&A session following the lecture, one can identify the involvement of similar factions in the Russian Revolution, and subsequent Civil War, as well as in Italy and France during the Second World War. Examining the impact of such groups brings a new dimension to the post-Great War narrative, showing how people with seemingly little or no political power could seize agency on a regional basis, affecting national developments as they did so. This surely indicates the rich vein of untapped understanding that historical enquiry on a local level (away from high political or diplomatic decision-making) can access. The rest of the seminar series promises to continue this insightful and exciting change of direction, although Beneš and his lecture will take some beating.
For more information about the ‘Globalising and Localising the Great War’ network, and for their future events, please visit their website.