Social democratic protest against the country's territorial division, military inspection at the Czechoslovakian demarcation line with Ernő Szép, spahis shot at Perl's restaurant and cab drivers go on strike – this is how late winter looked like a century ago.
The Berne conference
In 1919 early February during the Paris peace talks, a socialist conference took place in the Swiss capital Berne, with delegations from all over the world. The timing was intentional, as attendees were hoping to influence the peace talks, especially in labor laws and territorial subjects.
Hungary was represented by the Social Democratic Party's delegation, Manó Buchinger, Dezső Bíró and Minister of Education Zsigmond Kunfi of the new Berinkey government. The Hungarian delegation already had a major success before the actual February 3 conference took place, as on Sunday during a board meeting on territorial subjects they achieved to change the proposal in Hungary's favor which would be handed to the congress. Manó Buchinger was against the Czech position when stating that „we need a referendum as it is the only legal way to rearrange the country's borders”, and urged one with neutral supervision. He referred to the fact that the Hungarian government acted lawfully and did not fight the occupying forces, as they were hoping that the Paris peace talks and the Berne congress will come up with a fair solution. He asked committee members to declare all violent occupations invalid, arguing that Hungary without coal, iron, wood and salt would never be able to survive.
The other Hungarian delegate, Dezső Bíró talked to the Czech delegation, who saw their military occupation as a definite conquest. He wondered, what it meant for their socialist conscience when they said that occupying Salgótarján was "purely strategic". The preparation committee accepted the Hungarians' argument and changed their proposal accordingly, agreeing that a referendum is absolutely necessary. Congress members also made a decision to object violent annexations, and opposed the idea of countries being awarded with new territories for joining the war. They also rejected the Czech's motion which deemed a referendum in Upper Hungary redundant.
Besides the territorial issues the week-long congress also reached a conclusion on who started the war, and indentified Germany as the responsible party. They also made a decision that the laborers' protection should be the competence of the League of Nations, a matter Zsigmond Kunfi made an impactful speech about. Lastly, they accentuated the importance of separation from Russian bolshevism and agreed to hold another conference where the issue could be discussed in detail.
Manó Buchinger talked about the congress in an interview with Nouvelles Hongroises: „On the second day of the conference I gave a speech in which I asked congress members to help avoid Paris from demolishing what Berne was trying to achieve. The Hungarian delegation's sole purpose was to have a fair discussion about issues regarding our country. I think we did a good job.”
Inspection on the Czechoslovakian demarcation line
On February 16, 1919 József Pogány, Government Commissioner representing the Military Councils went to inspect the provisional border between areas occupied by Czechoslovakian troops and Hungary, where the 1st company was stationed. He was accompanied by 4 journalists who wrote 3 different news articles on the event: a short factual one and two personal pieces, of which one became a travelogue with strange poetic descriptions, which is not surprising if we consider that the author was poet and playwright, Ernő Szép, who worked for Az Est from 1910. He was joined by „Az Est's filmmaker with his spindly machine” – as the article indicates.
On Sunday morning they met at the Journalists' Association on Rákóczi út and left with two cars. The Military Council sent Government Commissioner Pogány, Lieutenant Moór and trusted man Corporal Práger. While reading the article, we almost travel with them, watching the passing landscape. „Passing the templar Vác, towns in the stunning Sunday morning, fields with geese and sheep, snow covered cold lands and dreamy hilly Hungarian counties, we reached the Rétság market by 09:30.” We get an insight of the trip's unofficial parts by reading Ernő Szép's subjective report, plus readers also got the gist on how the shooting worked: „Exit. The filmmaker jumps up, ready to roll.” It is quite astonishing to read a hundred year old article today, and readers then were just as excited about watching a film about what they read in the paper a week earlier. Also, it was easier for us to identify locations with such a detailed travelogue.
After the initial greetings and speeches at Rétság: „Plum pálinka and scones at the district clerk's house. The cars are grunting. Soldiers walk aggressively. Hurray! Next destination: Balassagyarmat. We will stop here for lunch on the way back.”
They also made a short stop at Szügy, as the artillery was stationed there at the Hanzély castle. The camera operator recorded Ernő Szép on the castle stairs, a footage which never made the news so until now we did not even know it existed. We found it among the cuts and negatives, and identified the location from the railing behind the writer. This short piece is a true sensation, being the only known moving image of Ernő Szép, and by looking at it it becomes clear why his colleague and friend, Vilmos Tarján (another Az Est reporter) said the following: „Ernő Szép was never too loud or unpleasant. On the contrary, he was always modest, nice and humble.”
Their last stop was at a temporary border, where they visited the troops. „Now, let's go to the demarcation line. The river Ipoly is the demarcation line itself. We go there on foot. Soldiers are everywhere, standing on the highroad in their red and tricolor band caps, with rifles on their backs. Two lieutenants step forward to report. They are brave and trusting. Nice boys, just like in a youth novel. Soldiers salute, and then continue smoking. Here is the Ipoly. A skinny, gentle, dreamy little rural river. Demarcation line. We are not allowed to go past the bridge. Those tall, wooden buildings are part of the palóc town Kóvár, which is under Czech occupation. But it is quiet now, no sign of Czechs, just a thick bloke skating with one skate on the ice, pushing himself with one leg. The filmmaker starts rolling. He might also record that bloke.” We hope to recover these recordings one day... It was dark by the time they headed back to Budapest.
Ernő Szép ends his article as a true humanist: „If spring could be quiet and everything jolly good, intelligent and delicate, with not even one drop of blood anymore, not one more, never again!”
Funeral of the spahis shot in Lehel utca
Certain sources say it was the day when prohibition ended, while other papers reported it happened a day earlier - on February 11 late evening two spahis entered the Perl restaurant on Lehel utca 21. By then, Budapest citizens were accustomed to the sight of French colonial troopers, who were sent to the capital by the Entente and been here for a month. People could easily bump into them in the area as they were stationed at the Albrecht army base. After entering the restaurant they joined soldiers and civilians drinking wine. One of the spahis was already a little tipsy and was trying to sell his firearm to a soldier, called József Morócz who was willing to pay 26 crones for it. As soon as he took the weapon, another spahi told him to give it back and they will return his money. After a small dispute they eventually reversed the exchange and the two spahis left the joint. But the soldiers got suspicious, thinking the spahis might want to rob something, as there were similar incidents in the area: spahis allegedly mugged several people on the street and took a large amount of bread from one of the pastry shops 2 days earlier. Two soldiers paid their bills and followed the spahis. At the barrack on the corner of Lehel utca and Aréna út two sergeants joined them, along with a 10 person patrol unit of the national defense team.
When the spahis realized they were being followed, they drew their weapons. According to the national guard's report the spahis shot first, and the patrol unit fired back in defense. One of the spahis died on the spot, and the other one was hit by 3 bullets. He was transported to Rókus hospital, where liaison officer Vilmos Benárd, and Captain Ameil interrogated him. The injured spahi said his weapon was not even loaded so he could not fire, but the weapons experts found that the rifle was used once, even though there were no bullets missing from his cartridge. The spahi died the next morning. He and his partner were buried couple days later on February 15 at the new public cemetery at an Islamic ceremony with their comrades present.
The cabdrivers' strike
Passenger traffic between Buda and Pest was mainly conducted by cabbies since 1700. First ones were from Buda then a hundred years later the Pest side guilds also earned the privilege. They fell under the city's supervision, which determined their rights and obligations. Both were private companies and anytime when issuing new licenses, authorities had to take account of the number of owners. However, there were cabbies on every corner, counting 264 before Pest and Buda united. After the two sides united the economy started blossoming and by 1912, when the first taxies appeared, 2000 horse driven cabbies were on the roads. There was regulation controlling fares, which also forbade rude behavior, torturing the horses, and ordered carriages and horses to be clean at all times. Despite all that, the morale went south by the end of the war and drivers had a fairly bad reputation. They raised the fares 6 times since the war began, were picky about their rides, and mostly only took short ones arguing that there was an oat shortage and their horses were in poor condition. Anyone who wanted to take a longer trip had to pay a ridiculous amount or use extortion. The state police reported that in just one year there were 1794 reports about the "well-known tyranny”. There were no available carriages in the entire city during the Derby as all of them waited outside the racetrack for which they were paid 100-200 crones in advance. Although passengers blamed drivers for the unbearable situation, they were also victims of the system, in the mercy of the carriage owners, who took a daily fee of 60-70 crones for one-horse carriages and 140-150 for pair-horse carriages, even if they did not have any passengers that day.
Drivers of the National Union of Hungarian Transportation Employees launched a movement to stop their exploitation and the passengers' extortion. They asked for kilometer fare-based taximeters. After actively fighting for their rights for half a year, on the 1st of December, 1918 they agreed to give 75% of their earnings to the owners and keep the remaining 25%, but the owners ignored their agreement, finding the money too little and forced their cabbies to keep on extorting the public. They also wanted to raise the fare to five times the amount, which the Police Headquarters rejected. The drivers also asked the Headquarters to help them enforce their agreement, and organized a meeting at Klauzál tér for the 3rd of January. More than 600 cabbies attended and decided to go on strike if nothing changes. They gave a January 31 deadline to the owners to decide whether they wish to keep their parts of the agreement which was in action since the 1st of December or not. The owners did not even answer, so the cabbies went on strike from February 6 to 8.
Negotiations ended with the consensus that cabbies will get 25% of the fares, their only obligation besides driving is washing the carriage, they get one day off every week and they have to work 12 hours per day. In return the owners still wanted 5 times the fare price, which the authorities still rejected, but on February 11 the owners won. However, the public almost never used carriages from then on, which affected both the drivers and owners, and the discontent continued. It took only 4 weeks until the next strike.