A highlight of the train ride between Budapest and Bratislava is the crossing of the Danube. This catches the attention of many passengers as one of Europe’s most important rivers comes into view. The Danube also marks the dividing line between Hungary and Slovakia, a watery ribbon that historically has both connected and divided the two sides. The links between the two towns can be seen in the close kinship of their names. On the Hungarian side stands Komárom, across the water is the Slovakian town of Komárno. These two settlements may now be a part of two different nations, but they share a common history. This shared past includes a feat of military engineering constructed in the 19th century that superseded the river. The area in and around the two towns contains one of the largest intact 19th century military fortresses in Central Europe. The alert and knowledgeable passenger may even catch fleeting glimpses of these from the comfort of a railcar.
A Prison Of Nations – The Habsburgs Guard Against Their Own Empire
Built by the Austrian Habsburgs to guard the Danube, the fortress complex at Komárom and Komárno straddled one of the empire’s most strategic points. The irony was that the fortresses were first built as much to protect against enemies within, as any external foes. The internal threats were the diverse ethnic groups of the Empire that lacked freedom and opportunity. Following the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849, the Habsburgs decided to ward off any future threats by the creation of forts which could guard against another Hungarian insurgency. This was a case where policy fought the last war rather than the next one. The forts would end up being virtually useless. The long peace that ensued from 1850 until the outbreak of World War I was riven by the rise of ethnic nationalism. The resistance was political rather than martial.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 through World War I) has been often referred to as “a prison of nations.” This was certainly true. Until the empire collapsed in 1918 it held all or much of what would become Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, as well as constituent parts of Romania, Serbia, Poland and Italy. The revolution from within rather than from without finally caused the empire to disintegrate. This led to the troubled birth of new nations. Gigantic fortifications such as those at Komárom / Komárno were impressive, but did little to solve the Empire’s numerous problems. Yet that did not stop the Austrians from constructing a fortress complex to rival anything found then or now in Europe. These defensive works were part and parcel of the myopic vision that clouded the Empire’s judgment, gargantuan public works projects that signified an affinity for large military fortresses and little else.
Keeping Up Appearances – The Great Power Facade
The largest fort in the complex, Monostori, is so expansive that its size is difficult for the mind to comprehend. After making a first-hand visit, I am still in awe of the length and breadth of just this one fort. I walked around at least a hundred large rooms, through vast, yawning spaces in both the interior and exterior, across grass covered grounds that could have swallowed fifty football fields. After four hours of wandering I still was unable to cover all of Monostori. This fort was the kind of place that could easily swallow an entire army. It contained 640 rooms with 25,000 square meters of floor space. The barracks could house up to 8,000 soldiers. Just what these soldiers did other than march endlessly across the vast parade grounds, distract themselves with mind numbing drills and try to look busy was open to the imagination. Perhaps they wandered through the four kilometer (2.5 mile) long tunnel system. It is hard to believe that thousands of soldiers were ever needed to monitor river traffic along the Danube or protect an area that was hundreds of kilometers from an enemy. As for protecting the Empire from its rebellious subjects such as Hungarians, the fort did nothing of the sort. After the Compromise of 1867 which created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarians made up the majority of troops stationed there.
Monostori Fortress was a pre-World War I example of keeping up appearances and little else. Perhaps the fort’s impregnability made an impression on a few would be attackers, but the Empire’s external enemies were hundreds of kilometers away in Serbia or Russia. The main idea that kept the Empire pouring money into Monostori Fortress was that Austria-Hungary still considered itself a great power, thus it had to act like one. This meant having huge, formidable fortresses that gave the pretense of imperial might. The same could be said for another of the empire’s military complexes, the gigantic Przemysl fortress in Galicia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire did what all modern Empires have done, whether they are in rise or decline, waste large sums of money on a large military industrial complex to keep the peace from real and imagined enemies.
An Exercise In Futility – The Folly Of Empire
Monostori was just one of multiple forts that covered the immediate area. Nearby was the Igmand Fortress, constructed four years after the compromise of 1867. Paradoxically the beginning of a long peace meant more military preparations. The engineer’s must have been delighted. Igmand was noteworthy because it had a clear field of fire for artillery to ward off any attackers. This artillery was never used in a battle at the fort. It was all just for show or practice. There was also the Csillag Fortress (Star Fortress), yet another work. On the opposite side of the Danube (present day Slovakia), there was yet another large fortress guarding the confluence of the Vah and Danube Rivers. All this construction was for naught. Among the many uses of Monostori after the collapse of Austria-Hungary included a stint as a regimental command center, a deportation point for Roma to concentration camps and ethnic Hungarians forced out of Czechoslovakia. During the Cold War, the Red Army made it the largest ammunition depot in Central Europe. One cavernous room I visited at the fort recalled the Soviet presence. Mannequins sat around a table where they play cards surrounded by a barracks type setup. When I stepped into the room a Soviet military anthem began to sound, eerily echoing through the vacant corridors.
My tour of Monostori was self-guided and went something like this, up one earthwork after another, down and through the bowels of innumerable, drafty rooms, followed by a visit to a museum that exhaustively interpreted every era of the fortress’s history. Visiting Monostori was more about exercise of a physical rather than mental nature. The place wore me out. The fort’s most enduring quality seems to be the fact that it outlasts everyone who once inhabited or now visits it. I have a feeling that Monostori will still be standing astride the banks of the Danube along with the other forts, for many centuries. They serve as symbols of the Habsburgs misguided and wasteful military policy, the folly of an empire in terminal decline.