By this week´s column we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of one of the echoes of the October Revolution in 1917, which reached as far as post-war Croatian area. Those days were the sundown of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of Béla Kun, and the entire period was marked by strikes and rebellions, inspired by the great revolution in Russia. The Varaždin Revolt from 1919 was an act against the newmade authoritarian and monarchic government representing the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and what the rebels wanted, among others – was to establish a People´s Varaždin Soviet Republic (including workers, peasants and citizens), which was anticipated to spread onto the Croatian region of Zagorje and onwards to the rest of Croatia. The revolt lasted for about 12 hours, and did not spread further than the outskirts of Varaždin.
In the post-war Varaždin area, there were many strikes and revolts which often ended in bloodshed. The peasants in some villages were planning and conducting the redistribution of land, as the fear of Bolshevism was being spread among the bourgeois and the ruling class, along with messages against socialism being spread from behind the church altars, while the government was intensifying its repression and constraining freedom at the same time. Town authorities declared a ban on socialist assemblies, as well as the celebration of Labour Day (May 1st), which was still held, in spite the ban. Attitudes of the government towards the workers and peasants were becoming increasingly repressive, which in turn only boosted the revolt even more. A few days before the revolt, on July 20th 1919, a quite intense and chaotic general regional assembly was held, on the congress of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia and Slavonia, and the Socialist Workers´ Party (Communists), which were divided between left and right winged socialists. These left ones, who were supporting revolutionary methods (unlike the reformist right-winged social democrats), were the ones who will take most of the blame for the revolt. The last important event leading up to the revolt was a successful general strike, held the day before in Varaždin, against military interventions in Russia and Hungary.
On July 23rd 1919, at 4 o´clock in the morning, the first spark was lit, by the rebellion of the First Sava Calvary Regiment of the Varaždin garrison, because of low pay and rank degradation. The soldiers were mostly coming from a peasant or a worker background, and were influenced by current social trends, as was the rest of the population, so it is only natural that they were supported and joined by the peasantry, the citizens, and the workers. The revolt was further sparked by a tough economic situation after World War I (1914 – 1918), as well as by notions of a new system being introduced in Russia at the time, deriving from the October Revolution. The peasants and the workers seemed to be attracted to those ideas, because they were poor and deprived of rights, so the news of the incredible events in Russia were spreading fast and far, mostly by prisoners of war after returning from Russia.
Also, according to the participants, the concrete geographic closeness and distributed propaganda – there was some influence from the nearby Hungarian Soviet Republic, which was happening just tens of kilometres from Varaždin. Day before the Varaždin revolt, there was a similar rebellion in Maribor (Slovenia), which was not supported by the population, and a rebellion was also being planned in Osijek at the time.
According to the county prefect at the time, they knew that the revolt will happen, as far as a month before it actually happened. The authorities say that the leader of the revolt was a Bolshevik subversion veteran by the name of Ivan Ferenčak (1894 – 1969), also known as Mate Šagovac; who (according to some allegations) was agitating for the revolt among the population, along with Franjo Blažaić from Varaždinske Toplice, later nicknamed by the newspapers the “despicable Bolshevik agitator”. Also, an active participant of the agitation was Ante Ciliga (1898 – 1992), who would later participate in the Proština Revolt in Istria in 1921. The authorities accused the local left socialists for the agitation of rebelled soldiers.
Photo no. 1 – Ivan Ferenčak, known as Mate Šagovac (1919), a Bolshevik agitator and the leader of the revolt (according to the authorities). Source: WikiCommons
The rebels armed themselves in the military warehouse called the “Thirtieth” (a customs station), and freed political prisoners from the judicial prison, who then joined the revolt, and also partly participated in the leadership. Among them were imprisoned socialists like Josip Drvarić and the young Gizela Blažaić, aforementioned Franjo Blažaić´s sister. It is most likely that the revolt itself was in fact led by a civil military committee, which by a decree called out to the citizens to join the rebellious “Yugoslav People´s Army”. In order to spread fear among the people, colonel M. Todorović even threatened to bombard the city if the people did in fact join. Fights were occurring in the streets, and the one point from which the rebels were shooting from was the tower of the Pauline Church (nowadays the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary). The rebels had a couple of machine guns, and they wanted to take over the cannons from one of the barracks, but they failed because (allegedly) – they were “tricked” by one of the non-commissioned officers there, who suggested the cannons were not functioning properly. The rebels were counted between 200 and 400 people, but perhaps there were even more. They took over the streets, singing “La Marseillaise” and shouting out their demands. They occupied the building of the county government and took over the northern, the western and the southern part of town, so only the east remained under the control of government military. As the news of a newfound Republic was being spread, people were arriving from nearby villages to join the revolt. A part of them took over the neighbouring town of Varaždinske Toplice, and were later to join the others in Varaždin.
Photo no. 2 – The former Pauline Church Tower, today a part of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, from which rebel attacks took place (Photo taken by David Rožić)
The revolt lasted until 4 o´clock in the afternoon, and was extinguished by the town’s Fourth and Fifth Infantry Regiments, with the help of the gendarmerie and other military personnel from the area, including the Čakovec Calvary. The biggest failure for the rebels was not taking over strategically important places such as the post office, telegram, telephone and the railway station, which the government used for their uninterrupted communication. Both sides suffered losses, in terms of many wounded and some dead, but the authorities recognized a hearted fearlessness of the rebels, although they also considered them to have a poor leadership. After the revolt, the city was under curfew. There was a search for the rebels and their arms. Many of the rebels ended up in prison in Niš (Serbia), where they went on hunger strikes because of poor conditions, and were later released, as a part of an agreement between the government and the social democrats, in an attempt to keep the social peace and the government in power.
Written by David Rožić
Translated by Zorana Jančić
Photo no. 3 – People of Varaždin who participated in the revolt, taken in Niš prison 1920. (Source: Varaždin Museum, Yearbook no. 5, 1975)
- Koprivica-Oštrić, S. (1983). Vojnička pobuna u Varaždinu 23. srpnja 1919. Povijesni prilozi 2, 2, str. 65–94. Zagreb: Institut za historiju radničkog pokreta Hrvatske.
- Rožić, D. (2017). Komparacija bune u Varaždinu 1919. i Labinske Republike 1921. (Završni rad).
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- Štager, I. (1975). Buna u Varaždinu 1919. godine. Godišnjak Gradskog muzeja Varaždin 1975, 5, str. 87–95. Varaždin: Gradski muzej Varaždin
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