Károly Ignácz, October 12th 2020
Flour coupons have not been distributed in Erzsébetfalva for two weeks. The dissatisfaction of a population left without flour erupted in a dangerous riot this morning. Towards nine o’clock in the morning, four or five thousand people, mostly women, marched along Kossuth Lajos Street and set up in front of the village hall. They demanded flour and bread from the prefecture, then hurled a shower of stone at the building and broke the windows of the office of village mayor Aladár Matkovics and chief notary Samu Szántó. From here they went to the private homes of the two foremen and besieged them. In her distressed situation, mayor Matkovics’ wife fired twice out of the window, but the shots didn’t hurt anyone. The gendarmerie arrived in front of the town hall and the state police also showed up, but they did not use force and tried to calm the insurgents with a nice word.
So reported a Budapest opposition newspaper on the hunger demonstration of August 6, 1917, which took place in Erzsébetfalva, a settlement adjacent to the Hungarian capital. In the twenty years since the village had been founded, its population grew exponentially: in 1910, the village exceeded 30,000 inhabitants, and, thanks to a wartime boom in the military industry, it rose to 42,000 by 1917. The most populous group among the inhabitants, similar to other agglomerations around Budapest, was industrial workers. As such, the supply of food and other public goods for them and their families became the main local problem in the wartime shortage economy.
The food situation became a permanent and thorny issue during the assemblies of the local representative body since 1915. Initially, the food supply was provided by private traders, but in the wake of some abuses and growing dissatisfaction among the inhabitants, the distribution of flour was taken over by the village itself in the summer of 1916. However, the activities in the official storehouses drew heavy criticism from one of the local newspapers, which wrote about back-room deals, official arbitrariness, and rude service.
In 1917, initiated by local complaints, several formal investigations were launched into supply matters in Erzsébetfalva. In March 1917, a group of women from Erzsébetfalva approached the head of the National Office of Public Food Supply (NOPFS) to say that they and their “starving children” had not received the food they deserved. They complained in vain to the local leaders, who rudely rejected them in turn. A letter requesting the intervention of NOPFS was signed by 50 women. According to the summary of the District Chief Magistrate of Kispest, who was instructed to investigate, “the complaints were essentially justified” and the supply was indeed significantly worse in Erzsébetfalva than in the capital. People therefore blamed their local authorities, while the chief magistrate considered it more of a systemic problem that should be resolved by NOPFS. In June, a local factory under military command forwarded the female workers’ complaint to the Hungarian Ministry of Defense. The complaint centered on milk distribution problems (e.g., fraud, circumvention of price ceilings, long queues, and favoritism), but according to an accompanying letter from the factory board, food could hardly be obtained in the village and a remedy was requested. At the end of July, the women of Erzsébetfalva personally went to the NOPFS headquarters in the capital to complain that it had not been possible to get flour in the village for weeks, a fact which was confirmed by the District Chief Magistrate of Kispest.
Photo: Village Hall of Erzsébetfalva
Thus, an open demonstration took place in Erzsébetfalva in early August. The police eventually restored order, but did not treat the protest as a police issue, but rather a social affair, and essentially acknowledged that the protesters, who demanded flour, were right. The village, however, was still unable to obtain flour, so the chief of the Budapest State Police put himself in charge of the case and asked for the assistance of the voluntary, social democratic General Consumer Cooperative (GCC). Finally, a solution was reached, wherein the labor cooperative would take over food supply and distribution for the entire population of the large working class village, Erzsébetfalva. The agreement initially covered only the distribution of flour, but then gradually extended to a growing list of commodities. According to press reports, not only was the service better and faster in the cooperative’s stores, but the food supply also improved: the cooperative was able to provide some supplies from its stocks when central allocations had not been delivered on time.
The demonstration proved to be successful, to which several factors contributed. First, the event took place after the fall of Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza in May 1917, when a new government came to power promising internal reforms. This resulted in a reduction in the scale of censorship, so the demonstration could be reported on in detail by both local and national papers. By publicizing the problem in detail, authorities were pressured to resolve the problem in a quick and meaningful way. Second, after the change in government, the old police chief of the capital resigned and his successor immediately tried to prove that — in his own words — he “would work for the people suffering the most during the war.” Since the authority of the Budapest State Police extended to Erzsébetfalva as well, the new police chief could play an active role in defusing the situation and solving the food supply problem. Finally, it is also important to mention that in the summer of 1917 the Social Democrats became supporters of the new government, although still as an extra-parliamentary party.
Thus, it was not so surprising that an official person asked for a social democratic organization to fulfill a public function. Following the intervention of the police chief, the local leadership and administration no longer had the opportunity to refuse assistance, which was then approved by the traditional county leadership as well.
Photo: Social Democrat Peace Demonstration in Budapest (Vasárnapi Újság, 02. 12. 1917)
This local story is a good example of the processes of social transformation taking place in the areas outside of the Hungarian capital during World War I, particularly in industrial centers, like Erzsébetfalva, that made a ring on the outskirts of Budapest. In the field of public supply, therefore, the opinions, complaints and needs of the residents had to be taken into account to a greater extent as the war raged on. At the same time, the role of political action on the street, and the corresponding questions over who controlled the streets, became more and more important. That was the case not only in the outskirts of the capital, but in Budapest itself, which had a better food supply situation and where, in 1917–18, large labor processions and demonstrations represented pre-revolutionary situations in some respects. Budapest and its outskirts together formed the center of the country, and whoever controlled the center also controlled the whole public life in the country, as it turned out during the revolution and regime changes in the months after the capitulation of Austro-Hungarian forces.
 “Zavargás Erzsébetfalván a liszt miatt [Flour Riot in Erzsébetfalva]”, Világ, 07.08.1917, 13.
 Erzsébetfalva képviselőtestületi jegyzőkönyvei, 3/1918 (30 Jan) [Minutes of the Representative Body Assemblies of Erzsébetfalva], Budapest Főváros Levéltára (BFL) [Budapest City Archives] V. 371.a, Vol. carton 1. Ami actualis, Erzsébetfalva és környéke [a local newspaper], 23.08.1917, 1. Közélelmezésünkről [Our Food Supply], Ibid, 04.10.1917, 1.
 Erzsébetfalva belonged to the Kispest District administratively, the leader of which supervised and influenced the life of the village, which had little autonomy.
 A kispesti járás főszolgabírájának közigazgatási iratai. Általános közellátási ügyek [Administrative documents of the District Chief Magistrate of Kispest. General public supply affairs], 1916–1917. BFL IV. 401.b. Vol. carton 121. Cases 6347, 9410 and 10952/1917.
 “Tüntetésről [About the Demonstration]”, Erzsébetfalva és környéke, 09.08.1917, 1. “Forrongás Erzsébetfalván [Public Uproar in Erzsébetfalva]”, Szövetkezeti Értesítő (the newspaper of GCC), 11.08.1917, 2. Erzsébetfalva képviselőtestületi jegyzőkönyvei, 59–60/1918 (8 Aug) and 61/1918 (10 Oct), BFL V. 371.a, Vol. carton 1.
 “Nincs már zavar Erzsébetfalván [No More Hardships in Erzsébetfalva]”, Budapesti Hírlap, 26.09.1917, 8. “Közélelmezésünkről”, Erzsébetfalva és környéke, 04.10.1917, 1. Erzsébetfalva képviselőtestületi jegyzőkönyvei, 78/1917 (19 Dec), BFL V. 371.a, Vol. carton 1. The success of the GCC in public food supply also contributed to the strengthening of the social democratic movement in the second half of the war, and not only nationally, but in the outskirts of Budapest in particular.
 “A főkapitány – a nép szenvedéseiről [The Police Chief – on the Sufferings of the People]”, Népszava, 12.07.1917, 9. Several of the new police chief’s first directives in the capital concerned public services. He tried to reduce queues, imposed new rules on the distribution of goods, and acted against the rude behavior of vendors.
 This situation lasted only for a short time, because the new prime minister following István Tisza resigned at the end of August and the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in autumn led to restoration in Hungarian internal politics.