Forests, Fields, and Peasant Revolution: The “Green Cadres” and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire

Our guest blog-post this week is by our research seminar speaker next week, Dr. Jakub Beneš, who is speaking within the Brihc Materiality series. Thanks Jakub!


This Green Cadre of ours

Like stags they hunt us

But when we come from the wood into the fray

The red banner will wave

– a song heard in summer and autumn 1918 in the hills of Czech southwest Moravia


Although the Green Cadre was talked about quite a lot, nothing has been preserved in writing, unfortunately

– Marcel Bimka, a Moravian villager and former Green Cadre, 1931


On 16 November, I will present on a lost chapter in the history of war and revolution in east central Europe. In 1918, armed and organized groups of ‘Green Cadres’ formed across the empire’s hinterland from Austro-Hungarian army deserters and rebellious peasants. They violently resisted their reenlistment for the war effort and staged attacks on the authorities as the multinational state collapsed in October and November of that year. In some places, particularly Croatia-Slavonia, they offered inchoate programs for societal renewal based on land reform and peasant democracy. Their numbers reached into the low hundreds of thousands and the threat they posed helps to explain how power was consolidated in the wake of the Great War by the new ‘successor states’.


Version 3

Josef Pavel, Zeleny kadr (The Green Cadre) (Prague, 1927), frontispiece. Courtesy the author.

Though apparently short-lived, this movement reshaped rural culture and politics in (post-) Habsburg central Europe during the ‘age of catastrophe’. It combined old scripts—that is, meaningful roles or patterns of behavior understood to be appropriate to certain situations—of peasant recalcitrance with new scripts of national and social revolution, which emerged in the apocalyptic end phase of the war. In this paper, I also consider the materiality of these newer roles that the Green Cadres assumed and how that amplified their impact. For their legacy stretched not only into the immediate postwar years, but also into the period of the Second World War when they were resurrected, usually as forest-based anti-Nazi partisans.

I suggest that the scripts of social revolution and national emancipation that the Green Cadres embodied were particularly forceful because of the uniforms they wore. These were Austro-Hungarian infantry uniforms that they re-used and repurposed, which made these everyday things of empire into potent symbols of subversion. The uniforms signified a modern, forward-looking movement, far more so than the traditionally extravagant bandit garb that the Green Cadres in some places also donned.

With the national revolutions that swept east central Europe as the empire collapsed, the uniformed deserters had to be brought into line. Their continued defiance again problematized their uniforms, which, outside of the new national armies, were increasingly associated with criminality. The radical potential of the Green Cadres was thus marginalized. On the other hand, their undeniable contribution to the national revolutions had to be normalized and consigned to history. The landscape of memory that took shape in the 1920s to commemorate the war and its victims partially succeeded in doing this.



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