Stjepan Radic, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization, 1904-1928

Stjepan Radic, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization, 1904-1928

By Mark Biondich

University of Toronto Press, 2000

Originally reviewed by Chris Deliso on April 26, 2005 here.

This invaluable contribution to Croatian political life in the early twentieth century, centered on the towering figure of Stjepan Radic (1871-1928), chronicles the development of Croatian political and national identity from the waning years of the Hapsburg Empire and the Great War through the first decade of the fledgling Yugoslav kingdom.

Throughout this comprehensive work, the author relies on numerous primary as well as secondary sources, some unpublished, including copious excerpts from the writings of Stjepan Radic and his brother Antun, close partners in the making of the Croat Peasant’s Party that would dominate the nation’s political imagination following 1918.

Who was Stjepan Radic? For non-Croats, he might be just another one of those obscure and forgettable Balkan politicians of yesteryear who met a violent death owing to his political beliefs. For Croats, however, he is considered as a national father, an eloquent statesman and passionate proponent for Croatian independence during the complex period of transition between Austro-Hungarian domination to the Serb-dominated Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after 1918. In fact, as author Biondich notes, Radic proved so popular throughout the twentieth century that his legacy was re-appropriated several times by subsequent (and diametrically opposed) political players in Croatia, sometimes in defense of deeds that would have had Radic spinning in his grave.

A Helpful Introduction

The book is divided into seven chapters and a conclusion, which lay out in a generally chronological fashion Radic’s personal and political development, as he went from poor village boy to student activist to opposition party leader, and finally to the central figure in Croatian politics before his untimely death in August 1928, two months after an assassination attempt in Belgrade’s parliament.

Compared to the following chapters, the first introductory chapter is quite compressed, necessarily so, as it endeavors to summarize the entire 19th century history of Croatian nationalist currents, starting with the inclusive Illyrianist movement of Ljudevit Gaj (1836-49), which climaxed with a rousing call for “…a single culture for the South Slavs under the neutral Illyrian name” (p. 7) before fizzling out under Austrian centralization efforts.

This movement, and the literally “Yugoslav” one of Josip Juraj Strossmayer and Franjo Racki that followed in the 1860s, were primarily supported by Croats and arose in reaction to aggressive assimilation attempts by the Hungarians (whom the author somewhat strangely refers to throughout as ‘Magyars,’ though no other peoples mentioned are referred to as they call themselves).

The other strain of Croatian political thought, exclusive nationalism, emerged in 1861 with the creation of the Party of Right by Ante Starcevic and Eugen Kvaternik. These essential two positions on Croatia’s political future would remain at the forefront of the debate throughout Radic’s life, and at different times he would embrace both possibilities while remaining committed to Croatian self-determination, and especially increasing the leadership and rights of the peasant class whose support he sought above all.

Besides continuing to lay out the political background for 19th century Croatia in its relations with the Hapsburgs and neighboring states such as Serbia, this first chapter also creates a context in which the later Radic phenomenon can more easily be understood. Biondich discusses the anger caused by Hungarian chauvinism and oppression of the local population through tax increases, political decisions, voting manipulation and manufactured animosities between Croatia’s Croat and Serb populations. The author associates much of the villainy with the reign of the Hungarian Ban, Count Károly Khuen-Héderváry (1883-1903), and presents economical statistics that show a growing rate of peasant indebtedness wedded with distrust of the urban elite created the right conditions for a viable (and previously unexploited) populist movement – that of Stjepan Radic – to emerge at the turn of the century.

The Formation of a Political Visionary: the Early Years

Chapter 2, which concentrates on Radic’s early education, travels and political development, is perhaps the book’s most interesting segment. We are treated to the unlikely story of how a boy from an impoverished peasant family in the Croatian hinterland developed an insatiable desire for study and travel. Radic’s lifelong dream of peasant emancipation from foreign overlords and the Zagreb intelligentsia alike, and for national self-determination on a political level, was propelled by an invincible, sometimes naive sense of self-belief and a restless need for constant action. From an early age, Radic was certain both of the righteousness of his quest and of the head-on way in which he would achieve it.

The detailed summary of the young and poor Radic’s determination to get an education and travel throughout Europe, all in the name of fulfilling a grandiose national ambition, a scenario so incongruous with the modern Western world, is very revealing. When he first came to Zagreb against his family’s wishes in 1883, to study in the gymnasium, he was so poor that he was often found “…obtaining his daily meals from the public kitchens of Zagreb’s charitable institutions” (p. 29).

Despite the hardships of living in orphanages, fainting from hunger and suffering beatings and run-ins with the powers-that- be, Radic finished his schooling and went on to enroll in the Zagreb law faculty in 1891. During this time he also tapped the pulse of the peasantry by traveling extensively throughout his native Croatia. He also satisfied his somewhat starry-eyed Pan-Slavic dreams with trips to far-away place such as Ukraine and Russia.

Indeed, there was no doubt that young Radic was precocious; however, it is pushing it a bit to say, as Biondich does, that the ardently nationalistic youth “broke with” the veteran politician Ante Starcevic in 1892 (p. 33). Whoever heard of a 21 year-old “breaking with” anyone? This is to look at things a bit in retrospect.

Stjepan Radic developed a reputation as a nationalist student agitator through acts like his public denunciation of Hungarian Ban Károly Khuen-Héderváry, a deed for which he was rewarded with 4 months in jail and termination from the university. Never to be deterred, Radic decided to continue his studies in Prague, where he would, in his own words, prepare to one day “…unify and liberate Croatia with the help of the just and eternal God and sincere and faithful friends” (p. 35).

In Prague, Radic would develop a strong admiration for the Czechs (and corollary dislike of the Germans). Before being expelled yet again for agitating and sent home, Radic made a fateful meeting with a young village schoolteacher – his future wife, Marija.

Back in Zagreb, Radic continued to demonstrate his flamboyance by leading a group of student demonstrators to burn a Hungarian flag before the grand appearance in Zagreb of the Emperor Franz Joseph. While the stunt got Radic jail time yet again, it also increased his stature as a future political leader.

After more travels abroad, and studies in Russia and France, Radic began working with his student peers to realize some of their political goals. Turning from his earlier, hardline nationalist pro-Starcevic orientation, Radic and his peers embraced the concept of narodno jedinstvo (national oneness) so as to include the Serbs in their anticipated project of “political education and practical work” (p. 44) for improving the condition of the rural population.

Indeed, national or religious affiliation mattered far less for Radic than did one’s place in society (which is why his party was originally mistakenly condemned as Socialists). His view of the peasantry as the core of the Croat nation and the upholders of the nation’s culture, traditions and identity versus the foreign overlords and disaffected intellectuals/bureaucrats in Zagreb was romanticized, but there was a ring of truth to this contrast. Yet despite its vibrancy, the electorate Radic chose for himself had its limitations. As the author notes,

“…Despite his emphasis on realism, he tended generally to idealize the peasantry. This romanticized vision of the village in turn led him grossly to exaggerate the peasantry’s potential and actual political strength” (pp. 56-7).

By the end of the second chapter, we reach the point at which Radic’s political career can really be said to begin in earnest – the creation of the Croat People’s Peasant Party (HPSS) in December 1904. Although the party would, always under Radic’s control, undergo various permutations of doctrine and tactical shifts, it was essentially committed to a certain set of political values in vogue at the time in Europe’s growing agrarian and populist movements.

Paradoxes of Political Belief

The remainder of the book is devoted to chronicling the ups-and-downs of Radic’s 24-year career as a political leader, in terms of his party’s successes and failures. The author always sets the narrative in the context of larger regional events, which means that the reader learns quite a bit also about Austro-Hungarian policy and Serbia under Nikola Pasic, Radic’s more famous contemporary. The topic that provides the thread of the narrative is the attempt to elucidate Stjepan Radic’s sometimes almost paradoxical political views, and how he sought to make them conform into one platform.

For example, Radic was a devout Christian, and based his politics in Christian ethics, but he was equally adamant in his opposition to clericalism, opposing cultural chauvinism and conversion tactics, whether they come from the Croatian Catholic clergy or that of the Serbian Orthodox. He was also friendly to certain forms of capitalism, strenuously defended the right to private property, and opposed statism.

Yet at the same time, Radic also sought various protective measures to be enforced so that economic manipulation of the peasantry would be lessened. And though he lobbied in defense of the rural poor, Radic did not give much thought to the urban poor or workers; indeed, he spoke out harshly against Communism, which he distrusted for its opposition to private property, the lifeblood of the landed peasantry.

Radic was also an anti-imperialist, yet at various points he proposed, in vain, a settlement with the mortally wounded Austria for Croatia to remain part of the empire as an autonomous republic. He instinctively sensed imperialism behind Serb attempts to dominate the first Yugoslav kingdom. Yet despite many of his countrymen, he was not anti-Serb, and sought to protect the rights of Serbs living in Croatia.

Indeed, in a 1902 riot, Radic had even prevented a mob of angry Croats from gutting the store of his neighbor (a Serb). Rather uproariously, he then suggested that the real enemies of the Croatian people were not the Serbs but the Hungarians, and could the mob please follow him along to the railway station where they could protest against the latter (p. 59). Once again his zealousness was rewarded with a short trip to jail.

At various times throughout his life, Radic looked favorably on the idea of Slavic national unity. However, during his whole life there were certain peoples who were not seen as being friendly: the Hungarians, as we have seen, and the Germans, whom Radic feared for their perceived expansionist desires. The author does also consider at various points apparent anti-Semitism in some of Radic’s proclamations, but notes that this attitude is part of a larger denunciation of all those connected with the kind of urban capitalism and liberalism that was ruining the peasantry (p. 76).

He also echoed a common view that the Jews were the agents of “Magyarization” (p. 110). And some of Radic’s anti-Jewish statements were made specifically in the case of Josip Frank, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who bizarrely enough went on to become the head of Starcevic’s Party of Right. Radic, along with many others, observed that it was somewhat remarkable for a non-Croat religious convert to be leading the ultra-nationalistic Croat party. In the end, what the HPSS claimed to stand for was for the Croats “…to work alone, and without the Jews… that is our anti-Semitism” (p. 77). Radic was also motivated by an interesting passage, Radic contrasts this position “…we cannot be anti-Semites like the Germans” (p. 53).

A Commitment to Peace

Finally, the mature Radic’s most attractive quality was his firm commitment to non-violent change. He condemned any attempts to change the Croatian political situation through violent means, even in the post-WWI years when the situation became much more tense due to the Serbian King Aleksandar’s centralizing proclivities, as well as the fact that more extreme youth elements were emerging from among the ranks of the HDSS peasant poor.

It was no accident that Radic’s pan-Slavism cooled after seeing the revolutionary events in Russia. He was firmly set against Bolshevism, and more often than not his proposals were for how to realize his dream of national self-determination within a larger confederation, whether it be the Austrian Empire, a Yugoslav state, or even something more fanciful such as a “Trans-Danubian Federation” of Central European countries stretching as far as Poland.

It is a real testament to the man that, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never counted on war or ethnically chauvinistic views to sell his agenda. After 1918, when the HPSS started polling well for the first time (eventually becoming the second-largest party in the whole Yugoslav kingdom), the authorities became more and more anxious about the party’s potential for revolt. Clampdown tactics such as banning rallies, dissolving meetings and electoral fraud ensued, but Radic always remained patient and committed to peaceful political change. Few leaders would have been able to resist the temptation to start a civil war when they achieved optimum strength. Radic was one.

Confused Tactics

This is not to say that Stjepan Radic was always sincere or motivated by the high ideals he endlessly voiced. Radic was, essentially, a man driven by the single goal of making Croatia an independent (or at least autonomous), peasant-run state, and he proved very versatile in employing all available means towards this goal. Yet sometimes he was too clever by half, to the point of bewildering colleagues and observers. As one perceptive critic, the Scottish historian R.W. Seton-Watson, put it in 1924:

“…the trouble with Radic is that he flutters like a butterfly from one idea or policy to another. Whenever I talk with him, I find myself almost always in agreement with the principles and views which he lays down. I even think that we have the same aims, and I certainly believe in his honesty. But he has no political ballast, and I never feel sure that he will not say something quite contradictory to the next person he meets” (p. 207).

Indeed, Radic’s policies can only be considered consistent in that they always supported what was most expedient for Croatian interests, as he perceived them. So while he criticized excessive nationalism as well as imperialism, and visibly chafed under Austro-Hungarian rule, Radic was happy to scavenge what he could from their victories-   for example, Austria’s annexation of Bosnia in 1908. In this light it is a bit nauseating to hear him say “…Bosnia is nationally and historically Croatian, and political circumstances have brought it under the same ruler as the rest of Croatia” (p. 111). This is far from the only iteration presented in the book that is rich with unprincipled opportunism.

Sometimes Radic’s best-laid plans simply backfired. His opposition to communism did not prevent him from making a high-profile trip to Soviet Russia, where he entered his Croatian Peasant’s Party into the Krestintern in the hopes of getting more international prestige for the Croatian cause. Instead, this just provided more ammunition for his Serbian rivals, who accused the HPSS of being secret Communist sympathizers (only a few years after the Yugoslav kingdom had banned the official Communist party), thereby giving the authorities more apparent justification for interfering with the party’s activities.

By the far the greatest test of Radic’s credibility came however in 1925, when after several years of principled abstention his party officially entered the parliament in Belgrade – thereby legitimizing the Yugoslav government, which they had previously refused to do – and simultaneously dropped its federalist platform (Chapter 7).

That Radic did not become his country’s Michael Collins following this capitulation can be attributed both to his firm control of the party he had created, as well as to an apparent passivity and fatalism among the people, who had never really expected they would prevail. Although angry dissidents started questioning why Radic could not deliver the goods for Croatia, he was also the only significant leader the nation had.

In the final 3 years of his life, Radic became more radicalized due to increasingly authoritarian tactics from King Aleksandar. His tragic death in August 1928 elevated him to an almost mythic status that was felt immediately (some 300,000 people attended his funeral). Unfortunately, however, Radic’s commitment to peaceful protest would be forgotten by the increasingly radical strain of Croatian nationalism that manifested itself in the fascist Ustashe regime of WWII.

Two Critiques

There is much more that can be said about this factually-rich, well-sourced work, but space does not allow us to go into more detail. We might conclude by making two small criticisms.

As author Mark Biondich states, the book grew out of a PhD thesis, which would seem to account for a certain repetitiveness that pervades the work. I estimate that some 20-30 pages could be eliminated from the text, without causing any harm to the argumentation, simply by weeding out repetitive passages.

More seriously, where Stjepan Radic, the Croat Peasant Party, and the Politics of Mass Mobilization, 1904-1928 falls short is in that it occupies a somewhat uncertain space between political biography and political history. After the second chapter on Radic’s early development, we are presented with less and less information on the man himself, in regards to his personal relationships and interactions with others.

Did the man become a demagogue, as indeed some believed? One might get this impression from the few cited letters to his wife, who is addressed almost as a party member receiving political truths. Did he not have something more intimate to say? We don’t know. Similarly, we hear little of his family or his relationship with his children. Did they have no influence on him? To take another example, we learn that his beloved brother and close collaborator Antun died suddenly in 1919 – but nothing is said of the effect this must have had on Stjepan.

It seems likely that the author was simply forced, by the sheer mass of data and accelerated pace of events post-1918, to devote full coverage to political events instead of personal. Yet we to some degree lose sight of Radic the person in this way- even in the very era when he was making his most crucial decisions. In a way, by the final chapters the book becomes more a biography of elections and ephemeral coalition governments than of a person.

To be fair, it is clear that the author set out to do more than document one politician’s life. Biondich is essentially interested in Radic in the context of how he helped to consolidate a Croatian national political consciousness. Yet even in this case, it would be really useful to find out how Radic – by all accounts, charismatic and compelling – interacted with specific leaders or party members on the rural level, considering that his party’s entire raison d’etre was the peasantry

How did he gain, and then keep the trust of that peasantry? How was he able to ensure that violence did not break out? How was he able to ensure party unity? Who were the most important local leaders, and to what extent did their party efforts employ the “education” and professionalization Radic brought with him from his studies and experiences abroad, and to what extent did they rely on existing clan and other rural systems of power?

Finally, were there perhaps any local leaders who should share some of the credit with Radic for creating a juggernaut that became the second largest party in Yugoslavia, with ambitions to branch out to Macedonia and Serbia? These are all key questions for the matter at hand.

Despite these shortcomings, however, this engrossing study proves its value abundantly. It offers an excellent and detailed introduction to Croatian politics in the first third of the twentieth century, and is laden with facts and citations from hard-to-find statistics and sources from a variety of languages. Biondich has made an admirable attempt to bring to life one of the most enigmatic and striking political figures in modern Balkan history, sadly one whose caution and patient dedication to peaceful change went unheeded in the 2 decades after his death.

Readers of this book will also enjoy:

Christopher Deliso, The History of Croatia and Slovenia

Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A History from the Middle Ages to the Present