This is the way a Mezővári (Vary) resident who was returning home from Budapest in November 1918 interpreted the fact that the Aster Revolution won in Hungary and Károlyi Mihály formed a new government. As a result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the ubiquitous chaos in the social life of north-eastern Hungarian counties after WW1 adversities caused even more miserable conditions.
In the last years of his life Lehoczky Tivadar, an ardent researcher of the history of North-Eastern counties, understanding the importance of those times, collected in his diary the experience obtained at the beginning of the Great War. His notes reveal that enthusiasm about war, now seeming totally incomprehensible, did not bypass our region. In August 1914 Hungarian and Ruthenian soldiers that had been called up for military service, full of brandy, were happily singing the Kossuth tune on Munkács (Mukachevo) streets with new war lyrics: „Ferenc József’s message was…”. The cataclysm that buries empires soon showed there were no reasons for celebration either in the battlefield or in the hinterland. The north-eastern counties turned to theatre of war already at the turn of 1914-1915. The infantrymen, enlisted predominantly from counties belonging to Kassa (Košice) military headquarters, faced the wartime horror in the eastern theatre of war and in the Balkans. It is estimated that over ten thousand Ung, Bereg, Ugocsa and Máramaros (Maramureș) soldiers were victims of the WWI. However, not only those families whose members were killed in the war suffered loss. The majority of those returning home from the war were physically and mentally disabled and were no more able to work. The daily experienced consequences of WWI determined the lives of thousands of Transcarpathian families in the twenty years between the two world wars. According to Czechoslovakian official data 18000 Transcarpathian families have the right for relief due to casualties between the two world wars.
All manifestations of an international conflict, closeness of the front line, the Russian army’s invasions, the movement of military formations, the epidemics that increased in frequency by the end of the war: first cholera, then the Spanish flu, and finally typhoid epidemic intensified the latent tension in the counties, thus making the poor population’s condition even more difficult. The situation deteriorated due to the internal conflict series of the counties’ political elite, misappropriation of wartime relief scandals, as well as the ever-weakening public administration. In autumn 1918, when the long-suffering soldiers returned home, they were not happy about the end of the war, the majority of Transcarpathian settlement were later on characterized by violence arising from the soldiers’ dissatisfaction and utter bitterness.
The 1918 autumn events showed a similar scenario in North-Eastern Hungarian settlements. National councils were established in the regional centres; not even a heavy rain could stop the expression of political will in Beregszász (Berehove). Social democrats and movements for women’s equal rights were most active. Part of the soldiers, who were despondently returning home from the battlefield in an organized or disorganized manner, brought their guns. One Bereg County teacher described the home-coming soldiers’ mood in the following way: “The soldiers, despondent about the battlefield events, did not care about anything, they returned home in a careless manner, with or without their guns and were looking for those whom they blamed for their own and relatives’ misery.” The soldiers’ anger was first of all directed against public officials, Jew shopkeepers, and tradesmen. Kozma György, who had several administrative posts in Bereg County until 1919, wrote that the residents drove away twenty-four notaries from his county only. In some cases when they shot notaries in the head, drove their families away, while in others state representatives were lucky enough to escape before the population’s vengeance could reach them. The notes and recollections of those who witnessed these events reveal that they interpreted the deeds of soldiers returning home in the following way – they were furious for while they were experiencing the hell of the war, some privileged ones stayed at home and grew richer. Nowadays it is well-known from various historical researches that the lower level public administration officers often abused their authority, misappropriated the wartime relief and the news of their family members’ grievances reached those serving at the fronts. After overturning notary offices and groceries in the commoved villages, the rage reached pastors and teachers; gendarmes were driven away, and the wine-cellars were occupied at once. Fortunately, the alcohol-driven rampage did not affect each settlement, however stopping it was not a quick and successful task. In most cases the events usually calmed down, while in others gendarmes came to put an end to vehemence, but instead continued to drink in an unrestrained manner, to plunder and abuse the peaceful population.
However, the early November events were just the beginning of the chaos that characterized North-Eastern Hungarian highland in 1918-1919. Side by side with the lack of police force, weakening of state sovereignty, and the start of administrative reforms, seizures of land, plunders, food smuggling to Galicia, and foreign agitators’ activity became routine. The sources from which we could obtain information on these events included in the majority of cases people participating in state administration, notaries, county state officials, teachers, therefore it is from their point of view that we can see degradation at the end of 1918. These documents reveal that many of them did not know what to do with the lower class that lived in deep poverty and expressed its demands uproariously and often violently. Some of them could hardly understand the notion of the People’s Republic proclaimed on 16 November 1918. There were people who were afraid that the majority of the population would understand that from now on there would be “no differences between people”. Many people would say, “A strange world has started”. They could hardly, if at all understand that emotions were not caused by defeat in the war. The wartime suffering and the weakening of state power resulted in the emergence of social contrasts and tensions that had been developing for decades. The historical whirlpool brought about changes in North-Eastern Hungary as well; this feeling paralysed some people, but encouraged others for action.
historian, lecturer, research staff member
Ferenc Rákóczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education
This work is the second part in the collection of articles “The hundred-year-old Transcarpathia” initiated by Tivadar Lehoczky Social Sciences Research Centre of Ferenc Rákóczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian College of Higher Education.