Illustration Katrin Stenmark

Reviews Confrontation or compromise? Peasant leaders in interbellum Europe

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 40-42, BW 2010 vol III:3
Published on on september 22, 2010

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People in most places have long had the goal of owning their own piece of land to farm, so that they could feed their families and lift themselves out of poverty. Historically, the farming of private land has also been the means of giving peasants the right to participate in civic life and be considered full-fledged citizens. Demands for land have often been asserted by rural populations in connection with radical social transformations, and have then served as the message around which an agrarian movement has consolidated. Such movements are currently in evidence among peasant workers, particularly in Mexico, India and South Africa, but the notion of the farmer as the backbone of society has been espoused by politicians as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Hugo Chávez.

Even though agrarian forces have had only marginal political influence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region over the last two decades, agrarian parties and movements did play a decisive role in the political developments in these regions in the early 1900s. Ideologically unfettered and rooted in realpolitik, they were able to forge alliances on both the right and the left and, by their actions, overthrow or bolster the prevailing political powers. The peasants also made up the majority of the population in many of these countries following World War I, enabling the agrarian parties to easily amass large blocs of voters.

In contrast to the West European and Scandinavian agrarian parties, which were usually politicized producers’ organizations, most of the parties in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region grew into social reform movements that opposed the structure of the old civil society and viewed land reforms as their primary objective. The agrarian parties favored a loose assemblage of ideologies grounded in the family and in the values of the agricultural society, and they sought to modernize society based on the needs of the peasants. They wanted to offer a third way in the political arena, that is, between the market liberals, who were thought to care only about economic values and to be neglectful of the essential features of agrarian life, and the socialists, whose plans to collectivize the land were viewed as a threat to peasant freedom. With a mixture of individualism and collectivism, they forged an economic policy based on private ownership and farming combined with collective processing and sales through voluntary cooperatives. Well into the interbellum period, most of the parties had to concede that the land reforms they sought to carry out often turned out to be more symbolic than socially transformative. The parties consequently sought various means of survival. The agrarians were also dedicated pacifists, as they realized that it was they themselves, and agriculture, that were hardest hit by war.

The choices in terms of which path to take were often made by the party leaders. Their lives and political achievements have been little delineated by academics, whose works are all too often available only in their native languages. In Anglo-Saxon research, the agrarian leaders and their parties are often viewed as historical footnotes that, in the worst case, paved the way for populism and the disintegration of the democratic systems. However, since the Eastern European archives became available in the 1990s, three more comprehensive biographies have been published in English concerning, respectively, the leader of the Republican agrarian party in Czechoslovakia, Antonín Švehla (1873—1933), the leader of the Croatian agrarian party, Stjepan Radić (1871—1928), and the leader of the Bulgarian agrarian party, Aleksandǔr Stamboliĭski (1879—1923). These three biographies not only offer insight into the roles played by the agrarian leaders and their parties during the interbellum period, but also illustrate how a biography can be used to convey a historical phenomenon.

The leader of the Bulgarian National Union (BANU), Aleksandǔr Stamboliĭski, holds a special place among the interbellum agrarians as a constantly quoted but seldom portrayed figure. Between 1919 and 1923, Stamboliĭski headed a peasant government with an independent majority, and succeeded during that period in pushing through a host of wide-reaching political initiatives. A radical land reform was planned, and foreign trade in agricultural products was centralized with a view to protecting the peasants. The status of those living in rural areas improved as the agricultural cooperatives were built up. Cooperative solutions were also used in the cities to take over companies, and a civic duty to work was introduced to dig ditches and build roads in the countryside. Heavy blows were also directed against what BANU viewed as a corrupt bureaucracy, the court system, and the Church. The university was closed for a while so that the students could devote themselves to physical labor in the countryside. Stamboliĭski was pushed out of power and murdered in 1923 during a coup d’état initiated by the army, the traditional power elites, and the Macedonian liberation organization known as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO).

British historian R. J. Crampton has used Stamboliĭski as the starting point for his account of Bulgaria’s turn-of-the-century history in general. His book is part of the “Makers of the Modern World” series, which focuses on the results of the Peace of Versailles for various European countries. Crampton recounts the sequence of events in terms of foreign policy, with an emphasis on Bulgaria’s role in both the Balkan War and World War I, and discusses the issue of Macedonia’s national allegiance. The person of Stamboliĭski figures in the first part of the book mainly as an agrarian ideologue, but otherwise appears only sporadically.

BANU’s path to power is given a convincing social explanation in the poverty in the Bulgarian countryside, but the personal traits that made Stamboliĭski the strongman of the movement are never really made clear. He was certainly a gifted fellow, who left his village school and ventured out into Europe to seek an education, and he was clearly both charismatic and idealistic, but none of these factors fully accounts for his success. The author is fairly uncritical of Stamboliĭski’s political achievements: how realizable were his policy programs, and what consequences did they have for those outside the aegis of agrarian good will?

Questions such as these have major significance, given the accusations that the agrarian movements paved the way for the disintegration of democracy. The groups that supported the coup included officers, academics, bureaucrats, the Church, the court system, the monarchy, conservatives, liberals, communists, and Macedonia nationalists, with all of whom BANU and Stamboliĭski had crossed swords during their four years in power. Crampton overlooks the importance of foreign policy in this context. His book is consequently not coherent, nor does it provide any deeper insight into Stamboliĭski or political life in Bulgaria during the interbellum period than does his summarizing work on Bulgaria and its history.

The foregoing is in distinct contrast to John D. Bell’s classic 1977 study, which is another biography and social monograph in one. For Bell, it is in particular the inability to manage foreign policy that, along with Stamboliĭski’s collision course with the traditional power elites, explains his downfall. Crampton does do us the service of tying Stamboliĭski into a lengthier historical context that includes the years both before and after his political career.

The Croatian Stjepan Radić was among the most prominent peasant leaders in the Balkans. Together with his more soft-spoken brother, Antun, he dominated the Croat Peasant Party during the interbellum period. Radić’s brief but intense political career has been outlined by Canadian historian Mark Biondich, from his time as a schoolboy in a poor village and as a student activist in Prague, to his further studies in Russia and France, and on to his role as a leading figure in Croatian and Yugoslavian politics. Radić’s life came to an abrupt end in August 1928, when he died of complications following an assassination attempt two months earlier at a session of the Yugoslavian parliament. His death made him into an almost mythical symbol of Croatian nationalism, and 300,000 people attended his funeral.

In the first two chapters of his book, Biondich provides a broad background depiction of conditions in the Balkans and Austrian-Hungarian politics around the turn of the century in 1900. Croatia belonged to the Hungarian part of the dual monarchy, and Biondich touches upon Hungarian chauvinism and the tax burden imposed on the peasants. As one of the founders of the party, Radić worked methodically to convince and win over the often illiterate peasants in the villages and build a mass movement. Grassroots initiatives and resistance to the Hungarian authorities resulted in the peasants aligning themselves heavily with the agrarian party once they were given the right to vote. Prior to 1918, Radić had eagerly supported the notion of a shared Serbian and Croatian culture as a counterweight to the Hungarians, but after 1918 his distrust was instead redirected against the Serbian rulers in Belgrade and the new Yugoslavian federation. Despite his distrust of Serbs, Radić always championed the rights of Serbs living in Croatia, and staunchly opposed the use of conquest and violence to advance the Croatian cause. Radić’s Pan-Slavism cooled after the Russian Revolution, which he viewed as a political mistake and a threat to the peasantry.

The land reforms implemented in Yugoslavia after World War I never attained any pervasive social significance; access to land was too limited for that to happen. The agrarian party’s key issue during the interbellum period thus shifted from the future of agriculture to the future of the Croatian people. If the party was skeptical of the urban population at the start of the interbellum period, that skepticism faded with the advent of nationalism. The party equated the Croatian spirit with peasant culture, out of which everything truly Croatian had grown. Political acrimony was often directed against Jews as the primary representatives of capitalism and urban decadence.

Unfortunately, Radić vanishes more and more as a person in the chapters in which we follow him into Yugoslavian national politics. The book transitions from biography to political history, but without bringing the entire agrarian party along, and we learn little about the local party functionaries that kept the party afloat. This is regrettable, because such material could have reflected not only Radić the political entrepreneur, but also his role as an administrator. From a broader perspective, a more in-depth approach could have shed light on one of the more interesting mysteries in peasant politics during the interbellum period: why such hordes of peasants accepted the renunciation of agrarian self-interest and aligned themselves with abstract nationalism. King Alexander’s authoritarian tactics and the political intrigues within the Yugoslavian parliament led the Croatian peasant party to emphasize its nationalistic message. Radić became more and more politically radical during the last years of his life, and took more and more control of the party and its politics.

Biondich describes Radić as a man with intuitive political gifts, and with a unique personal charm as both a leader and an orator: a person one would readily associate with the Weberian concept of charismatic authority. But as a person, Radić also presents many paradoxes. He was a devout Christian but, like many prominent agrarian leaders, also a staunch opponent of the power of the Church and of the Church as an organization and, despite his nationalistic message, he opposed the national chauvinism of both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches. Even as he fought for the rural poor, he had very little interest in the less advantaged urban inhabitants. Where Bell’s book on Stamboliĭski reflects the 1970s interest in social issues, Biondich’s book can be seen as a response to the 1990s interest in ethnic relations and radicalization. However, Biondich stays within the historical realm, and with the nationalist message espoused by the agrarian movement. Radić’s role as a martyr in the Fascist Ustasha movement and among Croatian nationalists in the 1990s is touched upon only briefly.

If Stamboliĭski and Radić represent agrarian movements with political or nationalist radical positions, then the reform-oriented Czechoslovakian agrarian party under Antonín Švehla represents the opposite pole.

The main subject of American historian Daniel Miller’s Forging Political Compromise is the creation of politically sustainable compromises, with Švehla and political developments in Czechoslovakia serving as the central illustrative example. This is a topic of major general significance in that Czechoslovakia was, along with Finland, one of only two new nations formed after World War I in which democracy survived up until the outbreak of the next major war.

Švehla played a key role in the development of both the party organization and the parliamentary system during the first post-war decade. He served as Home Secretary from 1918 to 1920, and as Prime Minister from 1925 to 1929. His ability to bring different interests together had a major impact in terms of the political coalitions that governed the country and continued to impact its political life and culture even after his death. The introduction to the book paints an excellent picture of the dominant parties and political issues in Czechoslovakia up until 1938, and reveals how the politics reflected the ethnic and social dividing lines in the country, as well as the differences between the urban and rural areas. When the agrarian party was formed in Bohemia prior to the war, it was more in the nature of a producers’ party than a land reform one.

This must be viewed as a natural consequence of the fact that Czechoslovakia was far more economically advanced and diverse than, say, Croatia or Bulgaria, and as an explanation for why the party evolved into a parliamentary party rather than a reform movement.

Miller expresses great admiration for the politician, but he is by no means blind to the fact that Švehla was also a master of working behind the scenes and exploiting corruption, although only to achieve political aims, not personal ones. In contrast to Stamboliĭski and Radić, Švehla was neither an outstanding orator nor a public personality, but he nevertheless earned respect in most political situations. Švehla’s successes were based on the culture of compromise that characterized the entire formation of Czechoslovakia as a nation.

Miller offers few insights into the life that Švehla lived as a private person. As a result, this book also slowly moves away from being a biography to become an in-depth party history, with Švehla as the central figure.
Despite individual differences among the portrayed agrarian leaders Stamboliĭski, Radić, and Švehla, it is the similarities between them that stay with the reader. They were all gifted sons of the peasantry who received an education, even if Švehla may be considered more trained than educated, and the talents they possessed took them abroad to study. Like other contemporary agrarian leaders such as Estonia’s Konstantin Päts or Latvia’s Kārlis Ulmanis, they spent their young, active years educating the peasants and modernizing both their thinking and the agriculture itself. This flies somewhat in the face of Eric Wolf’s familiar dictum that peasants need leaders from without in order to be radicalized, notwithstanding that these peasant sons did receive their impulses from the non-agrarian world.

The agrarian movements and their political agendas usually bore a local stamp, even though their ideologies were rather similar, and even though attempts were made at the international level to unite them into a common front against socialism via the so-called “Green International” in Prague, initiatives in which all of the leaders in question were involved. Each of the books addressed here has difficulty lifting its perspective out of the local context, from the party it concerns, and from the country in which that party was active. This is regrettable because, viewed in this light the agrarian movements appear as footnotes, rather than as political forces that had a major impact on the development of interbellum Europe. ≈


  1. R. J. Crampton, Bulgaria, Oxford 2007. A short but clarifying section on Stamboliĭski’s political thinking constitutes an exception.
  2. John D. Bell, Peasants in Power: Alexander Stamboliĭski and the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, 1899–1923, Princeton, N. J., 1977.
  3. Päts and Ulmanis have not had their political achievements studied from a scholarly or otherwise critical perspective, with the exception of Martti Turtola’s Presidentti Konstantin Päts: Viro ja Suomi eri teillä, Helsinki 2002, and Edgars Dunsdorf’s, Kārļa Ulmaņa dzīve: Ceļinieks, Polītiķis, Diktātors, Mockeklis, Stockholm 1978.
  4. Eric R. Wolf, Peasants, Prentice–Hall 1966.

Mark Biondich, Stjepan Radić, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization, 1904–1928, Toronto. University of Toronto Press 2000, xi, 344 pages + R. J. Crampton, Aleksandǔr Stamboliĭski: Bulgaria. London, Haus Publishing 2009, xi, 192 pages

+ Daniel E. Miller, Forging Political Compromise, Antonín Ŝvela and the Czechoslovak Republican Party, 1918–1933, Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Press 1999, 323 pages