Kosice, Kassa, Kaschau – The Past Is A Different Country

In 2013 Kosice, Slovakia was designated as a European Capital of Culture. Slovaks were understandably very proud of this distinction. They put forth a concerted effort to promote the many architectural and cultural achievements of the city’s past. By promoting Kosice’s long and storied history they also inadvertently shined a light on the influence of its former ruling class, almost all of which were Hungarians and Germans.  These two groups dominated the city’s economic, political and cultural life for hundreds of years. The Slovak population was marginalized. They did not gain a decided advantage in the political life of the city until the creation of Czechoslovakia at the end of World War I. At present, Kosice is dominated by Slovaks. It is a definitive part of Slovakia , after all it is the second largest city in the nation, yet its current inhabitants do not own Kosice’s past. Astonishingly, they hardly even shared in most of it.

The past that is presently on display at the heart of Kosice’s old town, along the beautiful Hlavna Ulica (Hlavna Street), is almost solely the creation of Germans and Hungarians. During the middle ages, the Germans funded and constructed the city the most prominent buildings. Later during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Hungarians made the city a showpiece of Eclectic and Art Nouveau architecture.  All of this was left behind for the Slovaks to preserve, even if it was not their own history.

Kaschau – A City of Brooding Grandeur
The towering stone architecture of St. Elisabeth Cathedral dominates the heart of Kosice. This is the physical legacy of an ethnic German population that once dominated a city they called Kaschau. The cathedral, in all its brooding, Gothic grandeur, towers over the inner town. The Germans developed the city as a crossroads at the center of intersecting trade routes. By 1480 its population had grown to approximately 10,000, huge by the standards of that time. The wealth accumulated from lucrative mining operations and the trade in salt, was used to pay for the cathedral’s construction. Building began in 1378, but it would take one-hundred and thirty years before it was finally completed. The colossal stone structure was a sign of permanence and power, a lasting example of the importance that the Germans attached to Kosice during that time.

St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice

St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice – a masterpiece of brooding grandeur (Credit: Ville Miettinen)

Kassa – Home of the Disloyal
Aside from the cathedral, much of the architecture in the old town of Kassa (the Hungarian name for the city) arose from the imagination of Hungarians. At the height of their influence, around the turn of the 20th century, Hungarians made up half of Kosice’s population. Presently, they make up little more than 2.5% of the populace. Yet the legacy they left behind, architecturally, historically and culturally is secure. For instance, Francis II Rakoczi , leader of the 1703 to 1711 War of Independence against the Habsburgs, is buried in the crypt of St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral. This makes for a delicious historical paradox, as a Hungarian national hero is entombed within a German Cathedral now celebrated as the part of Slovakia’s heritage. Those who enter the tomb are confronted with multiple Hungarian flags draped over and around the stone coffin. Despite the contradictions, the placement of Rakcozi’s makes sense. For many centuries, Kosice and the surrounding area was part of Upper Hungary, a region that was at the heart of Rakcozi’s life and also of his rebellion.

Ferenc Rakoczi's tomb at St. Elisabeth Cathedral

Francis II Rakoczi’s tomb at St. Elisabeth Cathedral

One of the most famous cultural figures associated with Kosice is also Hungarian, the internationally renowned writer Sandor Marai. Marai was born in the city and spent most of the first two decades of his life there.  His creative imagination was nursed to fruition by a series of formative experiences growing up in what was then a provincial city on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Marai’s most famous book, the international bestseller “Embers” is a fascinating rumination on loyalty and betrayal. Read another way it can be interpreted as a metaphor for the dissolution of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, namely the relationship between Hungarians and the national minorities, one of the largest of which was the Slovaks.

Sandor Marai - literary son of Kassa

Sandor Marai – literary son of Kassa

Kosice in the 20th century – Separation Anxieties
In the last one hundred years Kosice has been ruled by two entities that no longer exist, the Kingdom of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In addition, two nation states have ruled it as well during this time, the Republic of Hungary and Slovakia. It was not until 1920 that it came to be administered by Slovaks as part of the newly formed nation of Czechoslovakia. Less than two decades later, Adolf Hitler gifted it back to Hungary after Germany dismembered Czechoslovakia.  This arrangement also brought World War II to Kosice. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in late June of 1941, the city suddenly came under aerial bombardment.

Fatefully, this led the Hungarians to declare war on the supposed aggressors, the Soviet Union. There is vigorous debate among historians on whether the bombing was done instead by the Germans in order to gain Hungarian entry into the Second World War. Whoever was responsible, the result was that Hungary entered the war, with resulting disastrous consequences for the country. After the war, Hungary was forced to cede Kosice once and for all. It stayed part of Czechoslovakia until the Velvet Divorce of 1993, when the Czechs and Slovaks split up. The city then became part of Slovakia.

Modern Kosice – The Future Is Now
Today modern Kosice sprawls outward from the city center. It was formed in a rapid expansion that took place during four decades of Communist rule. Due to the development of heavy industry, such as the manufacturing of steel, Kosice became one of Czechoslovakia’s most important cities. It now plays a key role in the Slovakian economy. What was once the East Slovak Ironworks is now owned by the U.S. Steel Corporation. Communist block micro-districts, made up of endless rows of high-rise apartments, are the most noticeable aspect of modern Kosice’s urban sprawl. These apartment blocks supported the city’s four-fold increase in population, from 60,000 in 1950 to 250,000 in 1991.

Apartment blocks - the legacy of the Communist Era

Apartment blocks – the legacy of the Communist Era

Is this development the legacy of the Slovaks or Communism? Probably a little bit of both. As unsightly as this industrial landscape and apartment blocks happens to be, Kosice today supports the largest population in its history. It is has become an economic powerhouse, accounting for nearly a tenth of the Slovak economy. The Slovaks may have been ruled by others for nearly a thousand years, but they obviously know how to run a modern economy. To their credit they have also been responsible for the high degree of preservation which makes the Old Town worthy of its European Cultural Capital designation. Kosice is today a city of Slovaks, but the German and Hungarian legacy remains. It is not enough to share this legacy, it also should be celebrated.

European Capital of Culture - Hlavná ulica (Main Street) in Kosice (Credit: I,Tucquero)

European Capital of Culture – Hlavná ulica (Main Street) in Kosice (Credit: I,Tucquero)

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