His name was Herman Bolle. A Frenchman descended from generations of German architects, Bolle made Croatia his home for fifty years, residing in Zagreb. Herman, too, was an architect. He had knack for it, designing and building many buildings. His Neo-Renaissance structures imprinted all of Croatia with edifices for diversion and thrill and catharsis.
One of the most eloquent of his works is the sublimely sacerdotal Cathedral and its accompanying Monumental Cemetery: Mirogoj. Mirogoj unified eight cemeteries active at that time. That time being 1876, the year of the cemetery’s founding on the property of Ljudevit Gaj, leader of the Croatian National Revival.
Mirogoj composes a system of magnificent arcades, ogive cupolas and central portals, all extending off the Cathedral proper. With symmetry pleasing to the eye, combined with a curious balancing medley of clear perspectives and subdivisions of light and shadow, the cemetery provides a cross-cultural echo. It links the past with the present.
Mirogoj takes the elements of landscape, the art gallery and literature, blends them, and presents a physical pictorial essay of Croatian history.
Religiously, Mirogoj considers all confessions equal. Thus Catholic crosses, Byzantine cruciforms and Jewish Magen Dauid(s) (Shield of David) form the skyline of the cupolas.
Only in death, though, is such reconciliation of race, creed and politics possible. For buried in the Mirogoj Monumental Cemetery in Zagreb, in the south part of the cemetery, where light and dark shift with the sun rests the coffin of the founder of Hrvatska Seljacka Stranka, the Croatian Peasant Party (CPP).
His name: Stjepan Radic’, my great-grandfather. A huge bear of a man, he stood six feet seven inches tall.
In some vague, indefinable way I identify with him, although I never knew him. A hazy kinship, it’s like a faint stirring of my blood. There’s a genetic wire that runs out of him, passes through my grandfather and my father, and plugs into me. When I look at photos of him I see the latent beginning of me. Mostly it’s his eyes. To me, they look like mine. Mine have the same shape as his, the same reflection of soul, the same wonderful surprise of discovering I’m alive.
Maybe. Or maybe it’s just me wanting to be connected to someone, anyone. Wanting to be like him.
When I was young, my parents and my grandparents told me Stjepan Radic was a “great freedom fighter.” I believed them because I wanted to believe I descended from such a champion, that perhaps a smidgen of greatness resided in me, too. That something would trickle down. Later, though, I got my hands on an impartial history of Croatia, or so it seemed at the time, and the author of the history proclaimed it so. In the book my great-grandfather is described as a demagogue, which, in vulgar terms is a rabble-rouser. Not very enchanting when compared with being a freedom fighter, someone who shows neither indecision nor diffidence in the face of overwhelming forces of evil.
So what’s the scoop? Was he one of the good guys who wore a white hat, painted black by the opposing bad guys, or was he, in point of fact, a mere self-serving fanatic, able, by means of persuasive rhetoric, to agitate the uneducated, the poor, the anarchic? Well, nothing’s ever quite that simple, is it? When one goes looking for black and white, one usually ends up in shades of gray — a kind of moral twilight zone.
This is what I have discovered.
Right after World War One, the so-called Great Powers (Great Britain, France and the United States) reorganized Europe. Part of that process included the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. A long name for a tiny country. And right away you can tell there’s going to be trouble because three distinct ethnic groups are involved. Each and every group is going to want to be king of the hill. And the two groups that get left out are going to get angry, then pout, then become sullen, and finally take retaliatory action.
The term ‘kingdom’ was not used loosely. They really did have a king whose power had been toned down and blended with that of Parliament.
Once the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (KSCS) was brought into existence, a temporary parliamentary government was set up since someone has to be in charge and run things. After things settled down a little, the KSCS would hold general elections, so the people could decide the members of parliament. Until that time, interim members were appointed.
Two interim representatives from the Croatian Common-people Peasant Party were appointed to the newly established provisional parliament. My great-grandfather was one of the representatives.
He, however, did not take his seat. Instead, he protested, declaring that “Croatian citizens do not recognize the so-called Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the Karadordevic dynasty because this kingdom was proclaimed…without any mandate of the Croatian People.”
In other words, the Croats didn’t want to be part of any fancy new hodgepodge Kingdom made up of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. They wanted their own country, or at least the right to decide and vote on their own fate. They resented the presumption and interference of the Great Powers in Croat business.
Like the national prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament, my great grandfather was arrested for voicing his opinion. He was tossed into jail for eleven months. At the end of the eleven months, the first election of the new Kingdom took place. In the election the Croatian Common-people Peasant Party won 50 out of 419 seats. Quite a bit more than the two seats initially given to them.
The CCPP had just been handed political legitimacy and a certain amount of political power. So, naturally, they decided they needed a fashionable name to go along with their new prominence. The CCPP became the Croatian Republican Peasant Party.
The addition of the word ‘republican’ was like a worm turning into a butterfly. It indicated they were no longer just a ragtag bunch of poverty-stricken peasants, they were now a beautiful, multi-hued party. They were Republicans.
The first sitting of the elected parliament was scheduled to take place shortly thereafter. Before it did, the CRPP held a special meeting. At the meeting a motion was put forward and passed that the CRPP would not participate in any parliamentary discussions until Serbia granted the Croats equal billing on the marquee, and the power of the King was reduced. They didn’t like the king because he was a Serb, plus he was part of what the peasants called ‘the intelligentsia,’ which meant he was educated. And he wore a long coat, called a ‘city coat,’ because that was the fashion for rich snobs in urban areas. Naturally, the peasants despised this because it represented everything they weren’t and wished they were.
What it came down to was this: my great grandfather wanted an independent, sovereign Croatia. A Croatia ruled by Croatians, not by Serbs. And if he was going to be forced to live in a country with Serbs, he was — by God — not going to accept second place. He was going to be first among equals.
The first sitting of the elected parliament took place without the members of the CRPP. A constitution was drafted and became law, and it ignored the demands of the CRPP.
My great grandfather was stubborn. He and the other CRPP representatives refused to attend parliamentary meetings. They kept this up until the next general elections took place, three years later.
Their stubbornness paid off, as they gained twenty more seats in parliament. Now the CRPP had 70 seats out of 419. Just over sixteen percent.
My great grandfather, though, you gotta’ love him, stood stern like a paladin of old, because he still refused to participate in parliament. Instead, good old Stjepan took a twelve-month vacation, visiting England for five months, Austria for five months, and the Soviet Union for two months. In effect, then, my great grandfather was publicizing, some might use the word propagandizing, the Croats’ desire for an independent nation. He traveled abroad attempting to gain the support of the European community, including the Marxists in the USSR.
In hindsight, this was probably a mistake, because Stjepan’s absence allowed the Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pasic to consolidate his power base. In point of fact, Stjepan should not have boycotted his seat in parliament. Through participation, he could have stalled, opposed and counter-proposed amendments to the constitution.
Upon his return to Zagreb, Stjepan was arrested for associating with Communists. He was sentenced to one year in prison. When he was released, my great grandfather was right back at it. So the Serb controlled government took steps to get rid of this festering sore called the CRPP. The government stated that the CRPP generally, and my great grandfather specifically, were in violation of the Internal Security Law. In other words, they were national security risks, and therefore criminals. The King, Alexander, agreed. So the whole gang, all the big political wheels of the CRPP, including my great grandfather, were arrested and tossed into prison.
At the next general election the CRPP, despite the fact that all their party administrators were behind bars, still won 67 seats in parliament.
My great grandfather, like Nebuchadnezzar, saw the handwriting on the wall. So he began making agreements with the other marginalized parties in the government: the Democratic Party (Demokratska Stranka), the Slovenian Peoples Party (Slovenska Ljudska Stranka) and the Yugoslav Muslim Organization (Jugoslavenska Muslimanska Organizacija). Stjepan was playing all sides against the Serbs.
Right after this, the CRPP changed its name once more. Now they became simply the Croatian Peasant Party. This was cosmetic, as the term ‘republican’ radiates a conservative aura, a sense of repression, a sense of separatism. The party needed something commonplace, even collective, so as not to alienate their new political associates. Who carried names like democratic, peoples’ party, and Muslim Organization. The new name aligned itself with the ‘workers,’ not the government bureaucracy or the old aristocracy, or anything remotely unprogressive.
With the support of its new political bedfellows, the Croatian Peasant Party (Hrvatska Seljacka Stranka) was able to make a deal with the Peoples Radical Party (Narodna Radikalna Stranka), the largest and most conservative of the Serbian parties, whose leader was Nikola Pasic.
I find it humorous that the CRPP changed its name to the more egalitarian sounding Croatian Peasant Party, then immediately began talks with the right-wing Serbs.
In today’s world the deal would be called a ‘win-win situation.’ It was powersharing is what it was. Like kids on a playground, they realized no one’s sweet-tooth would be satisfied if they didn’t agree to divide the pie.
The deal was: the CPP officials would be released from prison and five of them would receive ministerial posts. Stjepan assumed the role of Minister for Education. Four other CPP officers received various ministerial posts: Pavle Radic, Dr. Nikola Nikic, Dr. Benjamin Superina and Dr. Ivan Krajac.
Unfortunately, about nine months after the deal was made, Nikola Pasic died. He was the president of the Peoples Radical Party. The deal began to unravel.
My great grandfather resigned his post as Minister of Education a few months after Pasic’s death. Things reverted to us versus them: stubborn opposition against the Serbian government. Stjepan understood that powersharing deals were, though distasteful, necessary. So he began looking around for a new partner. He found one: Svetozar Pribicevic, the president of the Independent Democratic Party, a liberal party of Serbs. Setting aside old antipathies, they joined hands and became knows as The Peasant-Democratic Coalition.
Stjepan had gone from dickering with the super-conservative Serbs to bargaining with liberal Serbs.
With this new political alliance, Stjepan won parliamentary majority, but failed at forming a government because members of the Croatian elite (rich intellectuals, called beys, who wanted power) moved briskly to block any activity in that direction. The elites described the CPP as “fools following a blind dog.” The blind dog being, of course, my great grandfather Stjepan Radic.
Impasse. The Serbs (Peoples Radical Party), having lost parliamentary majority, were unable to seize power and form their own government. Whereas Stjepan’s party, the Peasant-Democratic Coalition, although they had a parliamentary majority, was thwarted and impotent. In effect, no one was in control so there was no government.
Chaos resulted. And parliament was reduced to political infighting, consisting of hurled insults, mudslinging and, soon enough, threats of violence. Stjepan received death threats from members of parliament, while in assembly. In other words, parliament convened, and elected officials got up and made statements like: “We’re going to kill you, you son of a bitch!”
And, to quote the thundering diction of the King James Version of the Bible, “ And so it came to pass.”
June 20, 1928. During the assembly of parliament, Punisa Racic, a representative of the Serbian People’s Radical Party, gave an inflammatory speech. His words evoked angry responses from the assembled members. Many of who rose, made violent gestures, and shouted insults. Stjepan, however, sat like an insect, watching and listening, but making no reply.
Ivan Pernar, a member of the Peasant-Democratic Coalition, furious, rose and shouted at Punisa Racic, “Thou plundered beys!” Translation: ‘you made a deal with the rich, elite beys. Traitor!’ Pulling a revolver from his jacket, Punisa Racic shot Pernar. Then, swinging his weapon, shot Stjepan and three other CPP representatives. He would have shot more, but he ran out of bullets.
Everyone screamed and shouted. Five men lay dead or wounded. Blood had sprayed everywhere. A crimson pool formed beneath my great grandfather, who, upon being shot, had toppled from his chair to the floor. At first, Stjepan was assumed to be dead.
The police arrived. They summoned the military in case further violence broke out. Ambulances arrived outside the building. Finally, a doctor came. After closer examination by the doctor, Stjepan was discovered to still be alive. Shot in the stomach, his condition was critical. Still conscious, he was carried to the hospital, where the surgeons decided they could do nothing for him. He was released to return home.
There, three months later, he died.
300,000 peasants, from all parts of the Balkans, attended his funeral. In their cheap clothing, with their faces like gray flint, they streamed into the city like invading armies of ants. They came to pay their last respects to Stjepan. Unwittingly, their presence was a powerful political omen: just because they were poor peasants, they would not be kicked aside.
Evidence exist which points to a conspiracy to assassinate my great grandfather. His death was planned, and included officials of the Serbian People’s Radical Party, the rich intellectuals, and King Alexander.
He had lived 57 years, and is now a permanent resident of Mirogoj Monumental Cemetery in Zabreb, Croatia.
My great grandfather, Stjepan Radic, has been accused of being a demagogue, a smooth operator, an opportunist, ready to switch sides whenever it might serve his self-interest. And that is all true. He chummied up to liberals, Serbs, Muslims and Communists. He adopted the flexible Jesuit philosophy “that the end justifies the means.” And Stjepan’s end was an independent Croat nation.
So he was guilty of opportunism. For he dreamed of a free, sovereign Croatia governed by Croatians. He was also guilty of bigotry because he despised the Serbs and their regime. Guilty, too, of political collaboration.
But he was not guilty of silence in the face of repression, or of apathy or of cowardice. In a strict, technical sense, I would suggest, he was true to his dream — the dream of becoming a free Croat. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, he wanted to become Real. A Real Croat in a Real Croatia.
Imprisoned more than once for his desire, in the end he died for it. Political assassination.
Ultimately, though, his dream became Real. For there now stands, since 1991, a free and independent Croatia — a country born out of guns, violence and blood.
“She was quite the loveliest fairy in the whole world. Her dress was of pearl and dewdrops, and there were flowers round her neck and in her hair, and her face was like the most perfect flower of all. And she came close to the little Rabbit and gathered him up in her arms and kissed him on his velveteen nose that was all damp from crying.
“’Little Rabbit,’ she said, ‘don’t you know who I am?’
“The Rabbit looked up at her, and it seemed to him that he had seen her face before, but he couldn’t think where.
“’I am the nursery magic Fairy,’ she said.
“’I take care of all the playthings that the children have loved. When they are old and worn out and the children don’t need them anymore, then I come and take them away with me and turn them into Real.’
“’Wasn’t I Real before?’ asked the little Rabbit.
“’You were Real to the boy,’ the Fairy said, ‘because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to everyone.’”
As the Rabbit was Real to the Boy, my great grandfather’s dream was Real to him, and he loved it. Stjepan is old and worn out and forgotten and the children don’t need him anymore because they have been turned into Real. The dream has become Real to all Croats.