Bipolar In Bratislava – The Slavin Monument: Eternal Glory & Tyranny

Rasto and I took off in his car, headed out of Petrzalka back across the Danube to Bratislava. He asked about my interest in history. I told him that among my favorite topics was military history. He then decided that we should visit the Slavin Monument. On our way there, I noticed that we crossed the Most SNP Bridge. I also remembered how the Slovak Posta headquarters where I had first met Rasto was located along a street named Namestie SNP.  Namestie means square in Slovakian and the street led to Namestie SNP where an SNP memorial was located. Obviously, the initials SNP were embedded in the national consciousness of Slovakia. They stood for Slovak National Uprising (Slovenské národné povstanie), an event that anyone with an interest in Eastern European military history should know.

Puppet Statements – The Will To Collaborate & Revolt
Slovakia gained its first taste of independence in an unlikely manner. In 1938 much of the southern half of the country (then known as Czechoslovakia) had been handed over to Hungary as part of a nefarious deal known as the First Vienna Award. Then on March 13, 1939 troops from the Third Reich marched in and occupied the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. The following day a Nazi puppet state, the First Slovak Republic, was formed. This situation was less than desirable for Slovaks, but did give them their first taste of independence. This deal with the devil lasted for over five years, but when it became increasingly apparent that Germany was going to lose the war an increasing number of Slovaks planned to revolt. At the same time, the Red Army was on the verge of entering Slovakia. The time was ripe for a revolt which occurred beginning on August 29, 1944 in Banska Bystrica, a city in the central part of the country. The revolt failed due to infighting among various factions, tepid support from the Soviet Union and brutal retaliatory measures by the Germans.

The SNP may have been a lost cause at the time, but it would later prove useful.  It offered the Slovaks an opportunity to save face for their conduct during the war. Despite a fascist government that provided years of support to the Nazis, Slovaks could point to the uprising and say their true goal was to throw off the German yoke and gain independence. In other words, the Germans had forced Slovaks against their will to collaborate. The SNP was the true will of the Slovak people according to this line of argument. The event was glorified during the communist years and that glorification continues up to the present.  Truth be told, Slovakia was in an almost impossible position during this time, a small country that could either choose some form of independence or be totally overrun. Of course, it was eventually overrun by the Red Army and put in the service of a new overlord, the Soviet Union. The Soviets called themselves liberators and the Slavin Monument was an outcome of this liberation.

Puppet State - First Slovak Republic 1939 to 1945

Puppet State – First Slovak Republic 1939 to 1945

Exacting A Toll – The Cost Of Liberation
Rasto drove me up the winding road that leads to the monument. Slavin is not just a monument, but also a hill and specific quarter in the city. It occupies a prime position overlooking Bratislava known for its beautiful views, as can be discerned by the many embassies and villas in this area. Thus, it is quite strange to find mass graves and the nation’s most famous war monument (which ironically is not for Slovak soldiers) crowning Slavin Hill. I must have been blind to spend almost two days walking around Bratislava, never noticing the Slavin Monument. It was placed on a prominent land form where it would be noticed.

One cannot help but feel reverence towards the soldiers buried in mass graves on Slavin Hill. They fought and died to free Bratislava from fascist control. Yet I also had a feeling of repulsion, not for the individual soldiers themselves, but for the communist system and all the brutal excesses their victory brought to Slovakia. I knew liberation had come at a price. A toll was exacted through the violent behavior toward the locals from Red Army soldiers at the time. Later the violence moderated, only for a decades long occupation to begin. I remarked to Rasto how the “liberation” was nothing of the sort. He saw it differently. Of course, there were excesses, but the Soviets were an ally then, just as Russia was today. In Rasto’s opinion, Slovakia needed to stay close to Russia. They were fellow Slavs as well as a useful counterweight to Western European and American power.

The Slavin Monument in Bratislava

The Slavin Monument in Bratislava (Credit: Redaktor Pythin)

A Monumental Lapse Of Reason – Permanent Occupations
As for the Slavin Monument, it was an impressive work of Socialist realist architecture. The architect must have been on steroids when he conceived such a mighty work of monumental symbolism. There were the usual sculptures with soldiers carrying weapons, another one kissing a flag and girls holding flowers. The crowning achievement was the main monument, which among other things consisted of a four-sided colonnade, a giant obelisk and a Soviet soldier who held a banner in his hand while it unfurled. It was all so monumental in scale and design that one tended to forget that 6,845 soldiers were buried in both individual and mass graves on these grounds. That thought was sobering. According to a nearby inscription the monument gives: “Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in battle for the freedom and independence of our motherland.” Whether or not the latter part of that statement is true, depends upon whom you ask.

Communism and the Soviet influence on Slovakia right up to today is still a point of contention. Rasto and I began to discuss this, which led into a conversation on the current situation in Russia under Vladimir Putin. I felt Putin was bad for Russia. He had grown more and more autocratic during his reign. The system in contemporary Russia could not be characterized as anything close to democratic. It had turned into a dictatorship. Rasto listened, but countered with the opinion that Putin was the best leader for Russia at this point in history. He was exactly what Russians wanted and needed. We argued about Rasto’s viewpoint for quite some time. He felt a strong Russia was best for Slovakia. I raised the issue of the forty-year occupation of his country by the Red Army. Rasto saw this as symptomatic of the Cold War, nothing more, nothing less. His pro-Russian leanings irritated me. The same must have been true for him when it came to my American worldview.

Graves at Slavin Monument - 6,845 soldiers are buried on the grounds

Graves at Slavin Monument – 6,845 soldiers are buried on the grounds (Credit: Kyle Simourd)

The Ghosts of the Great Powers – Spheres of Influence
Amid our heated discussion, I did not stop to ponder the situation or setting. Here I was an American, arguing about the geopolitical orientation of an Eastern European nation while standing at a Soviet World War II Memorial overlooking the capital city of Slovakia. In a sense everything and nothing had changed since the Cold War ended. American hardheadedness over what was best for Slovakia and other nations in the region was still strong, but the ghosts of Soviet rule continued to haunt the nation.  Slovakia was now a member of the European Union, which offered security and prosperity. It was also a small country that had repeatedly been a pawn in the affairs of Great Power politics. For that reason, Rasto was likely hedging bets. He had high hopes for the future of his young nation, but those hopes were tempered by a past that was always hovering in the background. Much like the Slavin Monument overlooking Bratislava.

Click here for: A Path Paved By History – Bratislava’s Coronation Route: Long Live The Past

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