From Duels to Twitter Wars – Settling Political Differences in Zagreb 100 Years Ago

With the political campaigns for the upcoming parliament elections reaching their peak (the elections are on September 11th), the politicians’ squabbles, smear campaigns, news commentaries against and for certain candidates, promises followed by rebuttals, public endorsements from cultural figures, twitter wars and other parts of modern political folklore are taking over public communication.

That’s why we wanted to talk about a more civilized time, a time of gentlemen, courtly manners, personal honor. When journalists, politicians, intellectuals, lawyers, writers and others would gather in Zagreb’s saloons to argue and discuss, and the way those squabbles were settled at the turn of the 20th century.

Well, they were settled with slaps, kicks in the butt, massive bar fights and most commonly, duels. When we talk about that period that followed the height of Vienna court, we like to romanticize it a lot (like we’ve done above), but it was as equally messed up and petty as it is today, if not more.

The last official duel recorded in Zagreb archives was held on February 12th 1867 between baron Hellenbach and count Arthur Schlippenbach at the former military courtyard in Petrinjska street. Both men were injured, with the baron left fighting for his life (he survived). Duels were made illegal at that time, by both military and civil law, with heavy fines for those that would partake in them.

In reality, this just meant they would not be officially recorded. The military and government would not just turn a blind eye to them, they would indirectly demand that members of the upper classes duel. If you were a peasant or poor and got into a fight with another man, you would both get heavy fines and do time in prison. Only military officers and people who had finished higher education could fight because the were the only ones that had honor to defend.

If an officer would respect the law and refuse a duel, they would be forced to resign their position in shame. If an educated man refused, the society would shun him. He could not partake in civic service, social and political life of the city and would be considered a disqualified intellectual.

The duels would usually take place at the Shooting range in what is known today as Streljačka ulica (Shooting street) near Tuškanac park. Ironically, the building was a symbol of civilized progress since it was the first structure that had electricity in the city. This meant that the duels could take place at night and would be well lit for the offended parties, observers (witnesses) and judges.

It wasn’t a cheap sport either. You needed to rent out the place, pay the doctors and judges, acquire weapons, pay for treatment of eventual injuries and take everyone out for a night of heavy drinking and eating afterwards. On average duels would cost around 200 forints, a huge sum for the time and people would often spend years paying off the dept.

But the dept was nothing compared to the admiration of the ladies as duelists walked the streets the next day, proudly showing their scars if they could. Outlawing duels did change something thought. The fencing would go on until first blood was drawn and duels usually had no serious casualties. This made a lot of young men finishing high school courageous and looking for a fight. Duels have stopped being settlements of political disputes between gentlemen, and turned into proving grounds for hotheaded kids. They even got cheaper, as they moved from arranged venues with witnesses and doctors into ad hoc fights in bars.

Sword fights were left to kids and educated gentlemen resorted to far more dangerous displays of political and other disagreements- butt kicking and slapping.

If you wanted to discuss opposing ideas you knew where to go: Politicians would come to Narodna kavana saloon (today Mala Kavana on ban Jelačić square) to talk things out with slaps, while kavana Zagreb (Johan Frank cafe on the same square) was where they would hold hands-on press conferences with journalists who wrote against them.

If you were tired of politics and wanted to discuss culture, you could always go to Kazališna kavana (Theater cafe next to Croatian National Theater). There, politicians and journalists could hold discussions with disliked novelists and playwrites, while actors, directors and critics would slap each other around with arguments about good art.

We weren’t kidding when we said slaps were more dangerous than duels. If you participated in a duel, win or lose, your honor was intact and you could carry on being a prominent person. If you got slapped in public, the shame would be so great you would have to resign your position and take a lower one or go to early pension. That’s why even viceroys could get slapped and kicked (by a rich or prominent person. Again, if you were poor, you were probably dead) and often were. The dreadful and hated viceroy Khuen Hedervary was kicked in the butt in the middle of parliament. This was considered a revolutionary act (the Hungarian’s rule was despotic and violent, often considered as one of the darkest periods in Croatian history) and three Croatian representatives were put on trial. Ironically, the defense claimed it happened, while the persecution claimed it could not have happened to such a strong man. The accused got 6 months in prison and lost their practices for NOT kicking the viceroy.

Two viceroys after Hedervary were also on the receiving end of slaps and kicks. The repercussions for their political opponents were usually a few months in jail and a star status among the opposition. Incidentally, in a period that was actually filled with political turmoil, revolutions and oppression, there were no political assassinations. Your life as a politician was relatively safe, if not your honor. Then came 1914, the year Franz Ferdinand visited Sarajevo and the 20th century truly began, leaving the old ways behind.

Come to think of it now, as the media heavily reports on twitter wars and controversial facebook statuses among bickering politicians, their honors being infringed upon all over the place, the old ways don’t seem like a bad idea.