Making It Look Like An Accident – Jan Masaryk: The Fall From Grace (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38b)

For some reason that I am unlikely to ever truly understand, I am attracted to danger. In other words, I feel most alive in moments most people dread. History is one way for me to satisfy my affinity for danger. I find reading about people in grave danger a source of fascination. That was how I came across stories from one of the most frightening places on earth during the 20th century. It had been said that fear ran so deep in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era, that people kept a bag packed with clothing just in case they were arrested., The arrests usually happened at night. The potential arrestee might hear a car pull up to their flat or house. This would be followed by a knock at the door.

Opening the door, they would be met by NKVD agents (precursor to the KGB) who had come to take them away. Sometimes people did not answer the door. When the NKVD agents broke through the door, they would find an open window. The person being arrested had jumped out the window. In some cases, they were trying to escape. In other cases, they were committing suicide. Some people would even jump out a window to their death as soon as they heard a car pull up. They had no idea whether it was the NKVD or not, but they many did not care to find out. If there is a greater definition of fear than that, I have not heard of one.

In memory – Stone marking where Masaryk fell outside of Czernin Palace (Credit: Ervin Pospisil)

Sheer Despair – An Open Window
We will probably never know if Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, had a similar experience to Soviet citizens during the Stalinist era. It is plausible because of what happened the night of March 10, 1948, when Masaryk was either killed or killed himself. There were only two ways about it. Differentiating between the two has always been and will likely always be the problem. Was he aware that someone was coming to kill him? Did he hear a car pull up? Footsteps on the way to his residence? In Masaryk’s case. that someone would likely have been the NKVD or people trained by the NKVD not to arrest Masaryk, but to kill him. They would have been told to make it look like an accident.

Then again, Masaryk may have opened a window and jumped, not to flee, but to commit suicide out of sheer despair. Whatever the case, Masaryk’s body was discovered in the courtyard of Czernin Palace below the second story window to his bathroom. He was dressed in his pajamas, but in this case, Masaryk was not going to bed, he was going to be dead. Since that fateful morning when Masaryk’s body was discovered, there has been speculation about whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Circumstantial evidence points to the latter, but we will probably never know the truth. That has not kept people from having strong opinions on both sides of the matter. Theories of what happened to Masaryk continue to circulate today.

Wartime exile – Jan Masaryk (far right) in Great Britain during World War II (Credit: J.R. Bainbridge)

The Fall Guy – Push Comes To Shove
Jan Masaryk did not seem like a candidate for suicide. He was a level headed, fair minded diplomat, whose sense of duty to Czechoslovakia meant that he stayed in the government long after those opposed to its takeover by the communists had resigned. Masaryk was determined to do right by Czechoslovakia. That determination led to his death. Proponents of the theory that Masaryk committed suicide believe that he killed himself out of despair. Those who were close to him in the days leading up to the incident say that Masaryk had grown increasingly despondent over the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and came to the realization that his position was hopeless. The official determination said as much, but since this came from the communist government many believe that it was a lie. Yet Masaryk’s own secretary believed suicide was the only explanation.

The counterargument is even more compelling. It states something to the effect that Masaryk was thrown out of the window to his death. Some have even called it the “Fourth Defenestration of Prague”, an allusion to the three times in history when crowds took matters into their own hands and tossed officials out the Town Hall window. Whereas those incidents were a case of Hussites or Protestants versus Catholics, in the case of Masaryk, it was ideology rather than religion which formed the basis for his murder. Stalinism was the most virulent strain of communism, one that would not tolerate any opposition. Masaryk’s mere presence in the government was a barrier to creating a totalitarian state. As such, he had to be pushed (quite literally) out of the way or more to the point, out of the window. When push came to shove, Masaryk became the fall guy.

The fallen – Jan Masaryk in coffin at his funeral

The Only Way Out – Death & Dishonor
Those who believe Masaryk was murdered by the NKVD or agents trained by them, point to his size. It would have been difficult for the heavyset Masaryk to climb out the window. And if he did jump, a forensic study done in 2004 shows that he would not have landed where he did. This points to Masaryk being forced out the window and tossed to an ignominious death. The proponents of this theory also point to feces being smeared about the bathroom. It is highly doubtful that Masaryk would have smeared feces before deciding to depart from the world. Another piece of circumstantial evidence concerned the fact that Masaryk had openly stated he would be traveling to London the next day.
The last thing the communists wanted was Masaryk in Great Britain fulminating against the communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. This may have been the communist’s last chance to rid themselves of Masaryk.

Throwing him out the window was a convenient way of making the death look like a suicide. The communists then turned the entire suicide story on its head. They claimed that the western world had driven Masaryk to despair by harshly criticizing him for staying in his cabinet position. The National Front government was a mouthpiece for Czechoslovakia’s communists. This theory seems like a stretch. Masaryk felt he had to stay in the government or even worse would come after him. He, like all Czechoslovak citizens, was in no position to protest the prevailing government narrative. They knew that arrest or worse awaited anyone who did not tow the party line. If they had any doubts, the death of Masaryk reminded them of what could happen to dissenters. It may have looked like an accident, but the message was clear. Death was the only way out in communist Czechoslovakia.

An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

While visiting Prague I was able to take advantage of the free tours led by guides who provide an intriguing introduction to the city’s history and culture free of charge. Participants can give tips at the end of a tour if they feel the experience was worth it. In my experience, the tours were always worth it. The guides were engaging, sometimes humorous, and always personable. Prague has such a wealth of history that several area specific free tours were on offer. I was able to take tours of both the Old Town and the Castle District (Hradcany) on separate days. Among the highlights of the Old Town tour was the guide. Teo was a young man from the Netherlands who had moved to Prague to be with his Czech girlfriend. She was the love of his life. Giving tours must have been a close second for Teo. He was an excellent guide due to his gregariously animated nature. He came to life while telling stories. He knew his facts, but the delivery set Teo apart. It was done with such charisma that I began to wish that there were Teos in every Eastern European city.

Fall from grace – Czernin Palace (Credit: Michal Kminek)


Throwing Down – Going Out The Window
Teo knew how to drive home a historical point with a telling anecdote. This was never truer than when he told our group about the three famous defenestrations that occurred in Prague. He recounted these stories with unforgettable zest while standing in Charles Square at the heart of the Old Town (Stare Mesto) near where the victims crash landed. He used the English slang term, “chuck”, when referring to the defenestration of seven city councilors being thrown (“chucked”) out the window of the Town Hall in 1419 by a mob of Czech Hussites, inaugurating one of the great religious rebellions in European history. In 1483, the same thing happened again in a rebellion against the ruling authorities. On both occasions, Prague’s burgomeister (mayor) fell victim to mob violence.

The third defenestration was the most famous and well known of these “accidents” of history. It happened when an angry group of Bohemian aristocrats became incensed at the Catholic ruling authorities for halting the construction of Protestant churches. They proceeded to storm the City Hall and toss Catholic officials out the window. Miraculously, all three of the victims managed to survive the 21 meter fall, but the uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics did not. The incident was the spark that lit the powder keg which exploded into the Thirty Years’ War, one of the worst conflicts in European history. This incident was reenacted with zest by Teo. His animated body language included acting like he was tossing the victims out the window by himself. This led to many chuckles from the tour group.  His telling of the defenestrations was so memorable that I have never forgotten them.

Crash course – Town Hall tower in Prague where defenestrations occurred (Credit: Oyvind Holmstad)

When I showed up to go on a tour of the Castle District several days later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Teo would once again be leading our group. Despite bone chilling cold, grim skies, and an icy wind, Teo was in fine form as he took our group on a multi-hour tour of the district. This time we heard many memorable stories, but nothing else about the defenestrations. That was not surprising since the first three occurred in the Old Town. Only later did I learn about what some have termed the fourth defenestration of Prague. It occurred in the Castle District on an early morning in 1948. There was only one victim, but that man represented one of the last bastions of democracy and integrity. He was all that stood in the way of a communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. Perhaps Teo did not tell us about the so called Fourth Defenestration because the history was rather recent. Even today, there are still questions about who killed Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomas Masaryk. Jan was the post-World War II Foreign Minister when he was literally toppled from power. His death is still an open wound in Czech history.

The founders son – Jan Masyrk (Credit: Bain News Services)

The Czernin Palace – A Fall From Grace
The free tour of the Castle District took us from one splendid structure to the next. All the architectural eye candy was a sight to soothe the eyes. With so much to see, we were bound to miss some impressive places. Perhaps that is why we did not make our way over to the Czernin Palace. This Baroque confection is the longest palace in Prague, measuring 150 meters in length across both its front and back. The palace has been home to the Foreign Ministry since the 1930’s. It also acted as the residence of the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Reichsprotector of Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Heydrich would end up getting assassinated by the Czechs. Fortunately, Jan Masaryk was not in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. If he had been, there is little doubt that the Nazis would have had him arrested and likely worse. Instead, Masaryk spent the war in Great Britain where he did radio broadcasts that were transmitted to his occupied homeland. When the war ended, Masaryk retained the foreign ministry post he had held before the Nazi occupation. He held the position as part of the postwar National Front government.

Masaryk was an outlier in a government dominated by communists. Masaryk’s support for the Marshall Plan where the United States would provide financial assistance to rebuild Europe put him in the crosshairs of the communist government. The communists were working hard to marginalize anyone who disagreed with hardline Stalinism. To them, Masaryk was a dangerous man, especially since the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder was respected throughout the country. The communists needed him out of the way if they were going to impose communism on the country. Because of Masaryk’s lineage, dispensing with him would be difficult, but not impossible. Masaryk was too ardent an advocate for an independent and free Czechoslovakia, he was not going to go quietly if he went at all. The situation between Masaryk and the communist government was tense and adversarial. Soon it would be much worse.

Click here for: Making It Look Like An Accident – Jan Masaryk: The Fall From Grace (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38b)

Looking Into The Mirror – Vysehrad Abandoned Railway Station (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #34)

Like everyone else, I have looked into a mirror countless times. Unlike everyone else, I have never really seen my reflection. The person in the mirror is supposed to be me and in a physical sense it is me, but the mirror does not reflect my feelings of who I really am. To get an accurate reflection of myself, I have spent the past ten years traveling throughout Eastern Europe. Prior to that, I spent 15 years traveling across the Great Plains and western United States. I was looking for myself in all the obscure places. Sometimes I would come across a place that seemed to suit my self-image. A place that whether I liked it or not was a true reflection of how I saw myself. Not long ago, while searching through some old photos of a trip I made to Prague in 2012, I found one photo of a place that for a few fleeting minutes acted as a mirror in which I saw myself reflected. This mirror just so happened to be the abandoned Vysehrad Railway Station.

The Mirror – Vysehrad Train Station

Shades of the Past – The Rust In Rustic
A multi-day stay in Prague allowed me to see a bit of the less touristy side of the city. This was how I found myself the day before departure along the right bank of the Vltava River traveling to Vysehrad, the site of an old fortress that used to be one of the centers of power in Prague during the Middle Ages. That power gravitated away from Vysehrad to the Castle District (Hradcany). Today, the Castle District, along with the Old and New Towns, are the tourist hubs of the city. Fewer come to Vysehrad, but that make a visit that much more compelling. The old fortress holds a commanding position above the Vltava. It makes an excellent vantage point from which to look out across Prague. On my way to the heights of Vysehrad, I came across another impressive place, the abandoned Vysehrad Railway Station. It was the only place in Prague that I found had neither tourists nor locals. As a matter of fact, all it really has is the past. Because of that, I immediately fell in love with the station.

Some places age better than others. The abandoned station at Vysehrad, for all its dilapidation, had in my opinion, aged rather well. The station as it stood on the day I saw it, put the rust in rustic. In many places the white facade was covered with a patina of brown. The paint was either chipped, cracked or fading. While the windows looked like they had not been cleaned in ages, The station had style. Its elegance may have faded, but its grandeur was still intact. With a touch of imagination, the viewer could turn back the clock to the turn of the 20th century. It reminded me of an old aristocrat living in self-imposed exile. The old aristocrat no longer attends grand balls and gossipy social gatherings, just as trains no longer call at the station. The station wears the neglect and indifference well because it has character and integrity, those indisputable ingredients of greatness.  If the past has a shadow, then the abandoned station at Vysehrad casts it. Somewhere within that shadow can be found the station’s story.

Coming down the line – Train passing by the 19th century Vysehrad Station

Stuck At The Station – Waiting For Departure
The building of a station in Vysehrad was first proposed in the late 1860’s. The original station and railway lines took five years to construct and opened in 1872, connecting the Smichov District on the left bank of the Vltava River, with Vysehrad on the right bank and further onward to Franz Josef Station, as the city’s main railway station was known at the time. The abandoned Vysehrad Station which stands today replaced the original. It was constructed just after the turn of the 20th century in Art Nouveau style and was in use until the 1960s, after which it became a dumping ground. A renovation occurred during the 1980’s, but maintaining the station continued to be a problem and soon there was seepage from water which caused deterioration in the building.

When communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia, it was an opportune time for Czech Railways to do something different with unwanted assets. This included the Vysehrad Railway Station. It took a while, but the abandoned station was finally rented to private investors who proposed turning it into a cultural and entertainment space. Around the same time, Czech railways stated that they would renovate the station so it could once again serve the hundreds of trains that passed by it each day. The station was also designated a cultural monument in 2001. This afforded it protection from being torn down, but not from further dilapidation.

Like so many post-communist plans in the Eastern Bloc, the proverbial train has never really left the Vysehrad station when it comes to reopening the structure. The latest part of the seemingly unending saga to make it economically viable occurred when a company, TIP Estates, bought the station and surrounding land. Historic preservation turned out not to be the company’s forte. For instance, they tore down a waiting room on one of the platforms which was listed as part of the protected monument. Not long ago, the city of Prague proposed a purchase of the building. Unfortunately, the difference between what the city will pay and what the price demanded by the company was 50 million euros. A deal has yet to be made. The city is now talking about foreclosing on the property. The upshot is that the station has continued to deteriorate while its future is in limbo.

Waiting On A Train – Vysehrad Station in the early 20th century

Lost Glory – Alone, Austere and Formidable
Whatever happens to the station at Vysehrad, I will always have a fondness for that rustically regal edifice. On the day I discovered it, the skies were gloomy, the surrounding streets silent and the station abandoned. I had the station all to myself. It mirrored my mood of melancholy. The station’s essence was of lost glory that could never quite be recovered. I looked at that mirror and saw a reflection myself. The station was battered, but still standing. Alone, austere, and formidable, waiting for someone to notice it, but not caring if they did. There was more than a hint of fragility. At any moment, the station looked as though it might collapse. Then again it might still be standing fifty years from the moment I first laid my eyes upon it. I could only hope the same for myself.

Click here for: Medieval Miracle – Walls of Ston: The Great Wall of Europe (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #35)


Pleas For Mercy – The Plague Columns of Buda & Olomouc (Part Two)

One of the more fascinating photos from 20th century Eastern European history was taken during the coronation of the last King of Hungary/Emperor of Austria, Karl IV (Charles I) atop Castle Hill in Buda on December 30, 1916. Following a ceremony inside the Matthias Church, Karl proceeded to the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column where he took the coronation oath. The photo shows Karl with a glazed look on his face, holding a large cross in his left hand. His head is adorned with the oversized Hungarian crown sporting its iconic crooked cross.

Several Catholic prelates, looking officious and duty bound, stand to either side of the newly crowned king. The discomfiture on Karl’s face speaks volumes.  Here was a man whose talents could not match the moment or worse ones that were soon to come. World War I was going badly for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Karl’s reign was short and catastrophic. Less than two years after he was crowned king on Castle Hill, the war was lost and Karl’s reign was at an end.

The Man Who Would Be King - Karl IV taking the coronation oath at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

The Man Who Would Be King – Karl IV taking the coronation oath at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

Future Reckoning – Protection From The Plague
In retrospect, the coronation ceremony at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column was the beginning of a process that would end with Karl dethroned and Habsburg rule coming to an end over 600 years after it began. It was also the last time a plague column would play such a prominent historical role in the affairs of a Central or Eastern European state. Following the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, most plague columns became what they still are today, Baroque era historical monuments of mercy. They still symbolized a time when communities gave thanks to God for bringing the plague to an end.

The Holy Trinity (Plague) column on Castle Hill has now become a photogenic opportunity for those who want to get a shot of it either separately or in the foreground of a photo focused on the spectacular Matthias Church. That was not what those who erected the Castle Hill column and similar ones like it throughout the Habsburg Empire originally had in mind. The first Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill was erected in the same spot back in 1706 to commemorate and give thanks for the plague of 1691 coming to an end. Three years later, another nasty outbreak of the plague followed.

The authorities then decided to replace the first column with a larger, more dramatic one. It took several years to design and build this new column, but it must have been worth the effort since there was not another outbreak of plague in Budapest since it was erected in 1713. The Holy Trinity (Plague) Column that stands on Castle Hill today is not the original one. That one was lost during the Battle of Budapest in early 1945. A replacement was installed and for good reason. Historically, Holy Trinity (Plague) Columns were often shielded from wanton destruction because they were seen as spiritual symbols that helped protect cities from another plague.

Silent Witness - Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

Silent Witness – Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda (Credit: Globetrotter19)

The Human Cost – Creating An Artistic Treasure
The most famous of these columns can be found in the Moravian town of Olomouc in the eastern Czech Republic. Standing 35 meters (115 feet) above Horni Namesti (Upper Square) in Olomouc’s city center, the Holy Trinity (Plague) column is the only such column in the world that has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is good reason for that. The three levels around the column’s base include 18 sculptures of saints, the majority of which have a local connection. There is also a series of elaborately carved cartouches and reliefs of all twelve apostles. At the pinnacle of the column is a gilded copper sculpture of the Holy Trinity accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel with the Virgin Mary just beneath them. If that was not enough, the column also contains a small chapel.

Incredibly, all the painstaking work that went into creating this artistic treasure was done by locals between 1716 and 1754. The city decided to have it constructed as a symbol of gratitude after a deadly plague from 1713 – 1715 came to an end. Unfortunately, construction of the column and associated sculptures, statuary, gilding and ornamentation was a less than seamless process. This process for many turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. For instance, the brainchild of the Olomouc plague column was architect Wenzel Rendor, who set forth his vision in a letter to the City Council when he stated, “To the glory of God the Almighty, the Virgin Mary and the saints I will build a column that in its height and splendor will be unrivalled in any other town.”

Unfortunately, Rendor did not live to see that vision realized, neither did the next three men who tried to complete the project. Finally, a fifth man by the name of Johann Ignaz Rokicky saw the project through to completion. Adding to the ominous human toll, the sculpture and statuary decorating the column defeated the lives of two more artisans. Even the creator of the magnificent gilded copper sculpture atop the column saw his health decline due to working with mercury. There was a tragic irony to how these men’s efforts met an ill-fated end. After all, most of them had survived the plague which led to the monument’s creation in the first place.

An Expression of Gratitude - Holy Trinity (Plague) Column in Olomouc

An Expression of Gratitude – Holy Trinity (Plague) Column in Olomouc (Credit: Ondraness)

Taking Aim – A Target Rich Environment
Once the column was finally completed in 1754, Olomouc’s citizens were justly proud of their accomplishment. They did their best to protect it at almost any cost, including to their own lives.  An astonishing example of the value Olomouc’s citizens placed on the column came in 1758 when the city was besieged by Prussian forces. After Prussian artillery managed to hit and damage the column, several citizens cheated death by crossing into enemy lines to meet with the Prussian commanding general. An agreement was forged where the Prussians would aim at more useful targets, such as fortifications, people and homes. This led to several deaths and other destruction, but the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column survived. This might seem an outrageous example of the triumph of art and spirituality over human life and property. Then again, Olomouc’s citizens believed that the plague was much more destructive than any Prussian army. And as it turned out, they were right.

Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

Godollo is a place that I have always related with happiness. It is a prosperous small city, west of Budapest. The town is most famously known as being home to the Royal Palace of Godollo, the favorite residence of Hungary’s most beloved Queen, Elisabeth I. Otherwise known as Sissi, the palace is a must see for anyone spending time in and around the Hungarian capital. I always had a positive feeling about Godollo, as though nothing bad could ever happen there. It is one of those places whose reputation precedes it. To my mind, anyone going to visit Godollo, might expect the sun to always be shining when they get there.

My opinion of Godollo was frozen in the fin de siècle, that was up until the point that I went across a deceptively icy bridge on the M31 that slices through there. In a breathtaking few seconds I felt myself losing control of the car. As the wheels begin to slide, I was frozen in fear. What happened next was a minor miracle. We struck dry pavement in time for me to gain control. We had crossed the bridge and the wheels now gripped drier pavement. The loss of control and the regaining of it happened so suddenly, that it was not until after it was over that I realized just how lucky we had been to escape unscathed. One moment we were on the edge of disaster, the next we were cruising across the Great Hungarian Plain.

A Happy Place - Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter

A Happy Place – Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter (Credit: EtelkaCsilla)

Travel As Near Tragedy – The Road To Mortality
The loss of control was a frightening reminder of how little control we really have over our lives. Control is not so much an illusion, as it is a delusion. I have always believed that we are the ultimate deciders of our fate. This is nothing more than an act of self-delusion. A ruse that allows me to make some sense out of the trajectory of my life. It is not until forces beyond my control intervene and push me towards the edge of disaster that I realize the road to mortality is paved with bad decisions, many of which I had made that morning and throughout the trip. A sheet of ice, an anonymous bridge, a twelve kilometer strip of pavement near Godollo, a lethal combination of these three components could have undone a week’s worth of adventure or forty-seven years of life for me and forty-five for my wife. Losing control and regaining it is a humbling feeling. I suddenly realized that I needed to be more careful, that the risk was not worth it and never will be. Moments like these, are the most important in travel. I want to forget them and know I never will.

Friends, family and casual acquaintances often think that my travels are filled with one fascinating discovery after another. The kind found in photo albums, with days spent amid world famous sites, breathtaking scenery and spectacular architecture. There is plenty of that to be sure. I am guilty of advertising this type of travel when I go back home with a phone full of photos. It is all so wonderful, but it never seems quite real for a reason. What my Eastern European travels have really been about are the same exact things that terrified me on that icy bridge, a loss of control, fear of the unknown and the taking of risk. I have crossed the icy bridge near Godollo countless times, sometimes with my wife in tow, sometimes alone. There is always the thrill of dodging death followed by the morose thought of what if. These experiences have taught me quite a bit, not about Hungary or the Czech Republic or Slovakia or wherever, but about myself. What I am capable of and what are my limits, what I can let go of and what I must hold onto for dear life.

Flashes of Life - An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – Journey To The Other Side
The most memorable moment of this trip did not occur in the southern reaches of Bohemia or Moravia, it came while driving down the M31 on a gloomy winter morning. I survived that moment and learned a life lesson in the process about what it means to lose and regain control. The lesson was to always remain vigilant. Death awaits even in a positive place like Godollo. I should never have let my guard down because mortality is but a moment away. In the aftermath, I felt gratitude for having escaped with my life intact. Compared to that moment, the rest of the ride was uneventful. How can Hatvan or Gyongos compare to having your life flash before you? The answer is that they cannot compare.

I can barely remember anything about the rest of the drive eastward on the M3 and then the M35 to Debrecen. It was, as it has always been, a rather dull affair. The churned up, pitch black soil in the empty field was covered by dirty snow. This was some of the richest agricultural land in Europe, but no one would know that by how it looked on this day in the dead of winter. There were no traces of greenery or hints of the bounty which bursts forth in the springtime. This was a landscape waiting out the winter. The deeper into this land we drove, the more time seemed to slow. I was tired and shaken by what had happened earlier. Debrecen could not come soon enough. When it did, I pulled into my mother in laws driveway with a feeling of resignation. The journey home had been exhausting.

The Final Stretch - M35 Motorway in Hungary

The Final Stretch – M35 Motorway in eastern Hungary (Credit: MrSilesian)

Upon Arrival – A Haunting Thought
The journey ended where it all began, in a housing estate on the edge of Debrecen. A light dusting of snow was on the ground, but there was no hint of the icy conditions that had plagued our travels throughout Transdanubia and continued to stalk us until we got clear of Budapest. The near whiteout conditions at Austerlitz that started this snowy odyssey seemed as though they had occurred months ago. My mother in law was sitting in the house awaiting our arrival, reading one of the hundreds of books that line the shelves in her living room.

She asked in broken English how the trip went. I said “wonderful”, then rattled off a few of the more notable places – Cesky Krumlov, Brno and Prachtice – we had visited. I asked, “Have you been?” even though I already knew the answer. A deeply cultured traveler, there are few places in Europe she has not been. Her reply was pleasant and brief, “Very nice places.” Of course, I did know one place she had probably never visited, an icy bridge near Godollo. I did not mention what had happened there just a few hours before. The thought of what might have been was haunting. Sometimes the most memorable travel moments are the ones we would rather keep to ourselves. In this case, I reserved the right to remain silent.

Time Of Our Lives – The Hungarian Roadside Inn: A Place In The World (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-seven)

Is there anything more enchanting than the idea of a warm hotel while a winter storm rages outside? There is something quaint and homey about the idea. That was not where we found ourselves on this icy winter evening in western Hungary. Instead, we were in an anonymous room on the second floor of a roadside hotel that was nice, but nothing special. Outside, large lorries pulled in and out of the OMV station in a never ending succession of traffic sliding along at a snail like place. Nearby, the low hum of cars slow rolling their way along the M1 continued unimpeded well into the night. There was only one thing to do at this point, a bit of research about the area in which we were stranded.

To alleviate my latent stress from a not so desirable day of driving, I began to research the nearby villages of Nagyegyhaza and Obarok, west and east of the hotel. The glory of travel in Hungary for me is that everywhere is new. The upshot is that this heightens my sense of discovery. It also means many confrontations with obscurity. Villages that are hardly known to Hungarians become points of fascination for me. I would most likely never come this close to either Nagyegyhaza or Obarok again, or if I did it would be much like now, by complete accident. Thus, I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to learn a little bit more about these two villages. They were little more than the proverbial wide spots in the road, but as I have so often discovered in Hungary, the places that seem skimpy on the surface often have very deep roots.

A Place In The World - An Aerial View of Obarok

A Place In The World – An Aerial View of Obarok (Credit: Bjoertvedt)

Staying Power – The Written Record
The first thing I always keep in mind about the distant Hungarian past is if it was not written down, than it might as well have never happened. In that regard, Obarok was mentioned as far back as the late Middle Ages, while Nagyegyhaza arrived in the historic record much later, the early 18th century, a decade after the Ottoman Turks were expelled from the area forever. The villages have survived for the same reason they arose in the first place, their geographical situation. Both are tucked inside the evocatively named Vali Valley. Over time, the two have become synonymous with one another. The short histories I found online about the two villages really told me next to nothing about them. Nevertheless, I did find it quite incredible that each had lasted so long. Even the younger of the two, Nagyegyhaza, was founded over 70 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed forming the United States. An American may scoff at their size, but not there such staying power.

The frame of historical reference in Hungary is much broader than the United States. Obarok is positively ancient by American standards. As for Nagyegyhaza, if it was part of American history, the village’s beginnings would fall within the early colonial era of history. A time period unimaginable to almost everyone except for the kind of history buffs that have long since been relegated to the campus basement. Hungarian historiography has a whole different way of defining age going all the way back to the 890’s when Magyars first came galloping on horseback into the Carpathian Basin. The vagaries of time and the parameters used to define historical eras are important to understanding how history is perceived. Obarok and Nagyegyhaza will never be prominent, but they will always be old by the standards of American history. The age of these villages is also humbling, they have outlasted countless generations and would certainly outlast me and my wife whether we made it home safely or not. In other words, some places were meant to last. When it comes to people, the exact opposite is true.

Good enough to go - Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Good enough to go – Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Time Travelers – A Waiting Game
Time becomes more than a force of nature when a person is stuck in a place longer then they ever imagined. Time becomes elemental to a traveler’s existence when they find themselves facing prolonged stasis. There is something maddening about being unable to move after spending countless days traveling from place to place. I spent much of the night passing time through reading and researching. I was hoping the hours ahead of me would disappear until morning came and we could take the motorway again. All we could do was the thing we had been doing our entire lives, wait. The only problem is that we were now aware of the waiting.  The snow and ice continued to fall from the sky. It covered our cars and the hotel parking lot. We spent the night slumbering under the cover of winter. The immediate future looked gloom. The only thing to do was wait until morning.

The arrival of morning was like the arrival of hope, it made everything seem more bearable. With a new day and the quickening pace of traffic on the M1, I felt a sense of optimism. This was not how I had envisioned my last night on our weeklong trip to and from the Czech Republic. Trips have a way of taking on a life of their own. This trip was a rarity, the kind of journey that closed a full circle. We had started in a snowstorm and now we were ending in one. In our journey’s end was its beginning. I was eager to complete this journey, almost too eager, as impatience began to gnaw at me just after sunrise.  Should we wait or should we go? If there was any question of what to do the internal argument swirling ended in me, the moment I saw cars proceeding down the M1 much faster than I could have hoped for considering the night before. After a four course breakfast at the OMV, consisting of two cups of coffee, a Coke Light (Diet Coke in the states) and a pack of chocolate cookies, I was raring to go.

The M0 in Hungary - A Ring Around Most of the Capital

The M0 in Hungary – A Ring Around Most of the Capital

M0 – The Morning Stress Test
It was not long before my wife raised the issue I knew was coming. She never fails to utter the two letters that strike fear into many a Hungarian driver, the M0. She verbalized what had been weighing on my mind as we closed in on Budapest. “You know this is known as the death zone.” I was certainly aware of the motorway’s nom de guerre. This was one of several occasions that she had seen fit to remind me of that ominous fact. It is easy to see why. Getting around Budapest on the M0, which wraps around the city, is a nerve wracking experience. Much of it has to do with ongoing construction, which never fails to go unfinished. For much of the drive we were isolated in a lane between barriers. These were supposed to ensure that we stayed within the proscribed concrete confines.

It was morning rush hour, with slushy snow still surfacing from time to time, the drive through heavy traffic was the ultimate morning stress test. We made it safely around Budapest on the M0 and turned onto the M31 which would connect us to the M3 leading out onto the Great Hungarian Plain. I had never thought much about the M31 and why would I. It is only 12 kilometers in length, a short connector between two of Hungary’s busiest highways. The M31 should have been nothing more than a short jaunt, the forgettable few minutes it was always meant to be. Suddenly, inexplicably, it became something much more, bringing about a moment I would not soon forget.

Click here: Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

On Thin Ice – The OMV Oasis: Roadside Assistance in Transdanubia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-six)

There comes that moment when you are bound to ask the inevitable question, “How did I get us into this mess?” We were stuck in an ice induced traffic jam on the M1 in western Hungary and there was little hope of going very far. The cause of our current situation was my own chronic impatience. It had led me to ignore the gray bellies of cloud that had begun to loom on the horizon just beyond Gyor. The sky soon began to spit pellets of sleet and snow onto the motorway. Instead of stopping before nightfall and prior to a thin sheet of ice covering Transdanubia, I stubbornly forged onward. I did this in consultation with myself and that is exactly who I now had to blame. My lack of forethought had led to the moment of no going forward and no going back. We were stuck.

In a matter of minutes, I went from having visions of Debrecen dancing in my head to hoping we might make it to the next exit and find a warm hotel room where we could wait out this winter weather. I suspected that the hundreds of cars in front of us were asking themselves what next as well. They had a better excuse than I did for being out in this weather. This was their commute, whereas it was my crisis. Fifty kilometers ago the road had been clear. The wind was fierce, but that need not detain anyone. This had been the bluster before the storm. Then the situation had gradually gotten worse, until I suddenly realized that we were in danger of ending up in a ditch.

Nightmare Scenario - Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

Nightmare Scenario – Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

Dwindling Options – Hungary’s Version of the Highway Patrol
In defiance of fate, I decided that we should continue heading eastward. I began making ridiculous calculations in my head, such as how long it might take to get to Debrecen going 60 kilometers per hour. The thought of a nine-hour drive in an ice storm was not exactly energizing. We soon passed close to the city of Tata, which lies in a valley between the Gerecse and Vertes Mountains. As such, the topography had become increasingly rugged. This only served to heighten the danger of driving in the increasingly treacherous conditions. We were now on suspect terrain, inching our way towards Budapest. The Hungarian capital now seemed like an unattainable fantasy. From where we were sitting on the M1 to the city center would have taken less than an hour in normal conditions, now it was hours away at best and that was only if we wanted to risk our lives. My stress level increased exponentially with each tap of the brakes and slip of the wheels. We kept hoping to come upon an exit. What we found instead was almost as good, the green and blue illuminated neon of an OMV (Österreichische Mineralölverwaltung or Austrian Mineral Administration) gas station. Here was our proverbial shelter amid the wintry storm.

Pulling into the OMV was a welcome break from keeping an iron grip on the steering wheel in a futile effort to exercise a modicum of control over the car. To our surprise, we found several officers of the Hungarian version of the highway patrol standing inside. They had decided to make this station their evening hangout. They stood around sipping coffee while seemingly oblivious to the fact that the motorway had turned into a chaotic morass. These men had that look of complete indifference which is the eternal resting face of every Hungarian police officer. They affected an attitude of genteel neutrality, which might also best describe the face they present to the world. These officers have never failed to impress as well as perplex me with their willful nonchalance. I have never once seen them get excited. Perhaps their stoic demeanor is a way of keeping the enemy guessing. There were no enemies on this night, only beleaguered travelers contemplating their rapidly dwindling options.

Shelter In The Storm - OMV as an oasis

Shelter In The Storm – OMV as an oasis (Credit: SJu)

Opposites Attract – A Winter Haven
I coaxed my wife to ask the officer’s their opinion of the road conditions closer to Budapest. I watched with bemusement as an officer and his colleague answered without a hint of emotion. Watching the officer talk was fascinating. He offered up an emotionless monologue, a neither here nor there kind of conversation. He would have made a great poker player. Though he gave little outward hint of negativity, I could tell by the length of his monologue that he did not think travel was a good idea. This was rather obvious since he and his colleague were not on the road either. My wife reported back to me that one of the officers said traveling to Budapest was only in a madman’s best interest. The road was a sheet of ice and conditions were only going to get worse. I had the confirmation now needed to start imagining an evening spent in some roadside inn. At this point, any roadside inn would do, the nearer the better. The officers pointed out that there was a hotel connected to another OMV station. It was very close, hardly a kilometer away as the crow flies. There was only one problem, it happened to be on the opposite side of the motorway.

A plan was soon hatched. We would head eastward in search of an exit that would allow us to do a prolonged U-turn and get back on the motorway in the opposite direction. We would then head westward, back the same way we came for a few kilometers. This would bring us to the OMV where had a hotel stood nearby. The hotel would turn out be rather quiet and quaint. Amazingly, we had little trouble getting to the hotel and procuring a room. The ad hoc plan worked to perfection. Probably because I was not the one making it. Dinner was procured at the OMV. There is something quite wonderful about having a fistful of dark chocolate bars for supper. The fact that we were now safe brought an unspoken elation. It is comforting to be in a nice warm room after fearing for your life only an hour earlier.

Click here for: Time Of Our Lives – The Hungarian Roadside Inn: A Place In The World (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-seven)

Winter Conditions – Austria, Hungary & Europe Closing In On Themselves (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-five)

Crossing the border into Austria I might be forgiven for thinking everything was going to be fine. Austria has a reputation as a sort of heaven on earth, filled with picture perfect villages, a glittering capital city and mountains that could make the most curmudgeonly begin yodeling. This was not the Austria we entered. The landscape was dead from winter. The slushy snow that had covered the roads in Moravia was melting away, leaving intermittent patches of barren ground. Besides a few flurries and the constant roar of an icy wind, it was grey sky and open roads. The way around Vienna looked to be clear. Of course, we were trying to make Debrecen before midnight, but that did not stop us from detouring to Rosenberger’s for one last roadside meal.

It was Rosenberger which spawned the beloved Landzeit that we ate at earlier in our trip. The Rosenberger we stopped at seemed to be living off its exalted reputation. The food was nothing memorable on this day. The restaurant had the air of an abandoned airport. Rosenberger was the forerunner of all the sumptuous roadside restaurants in Austria. It was started in 1972 and grew into a powerhouse based on delicious food and legendary service. Unfortunately, this one lacked that special magic of Landzeit. My expectations for it were too high. For that matter, it suffered the same unrealistic levels of expectations that I have for Austria in general. The soaring mountains, glittering capital and clean swept towns were nowhere to be found on this day.

The Way It Used To Be - Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border

The Way It Used To Be – Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Giving Notice – The Return of History
Skirting the suburbs of Vienna, my wife and I stared at the backside of lorries for kilometers on end while driving past industrialized landscapes. It was hard to believe the Ringstrasse was less than half an hour away. We were experiencing the Austria never shown on tourist brochures. Perhaps it was the blustery weather, the now traffic packed motorway or the general malaise that accords a trip’s final moments that made Austria seem much less impressive than usual. This was probably to be expected. Let’s face it, dealing with road construction could defeat Disney. This was the first time I felt like Austria was like everywhere else. The one saving grace on this day was that the Austrian motorways were clear of snow. Crossing Lower Austria and the Burgenland in the far eastern portion of the country was like navigating a wind tunnel at 130 kilometers per hour. Wind turbines that loomed just off the highway were spinning with a sense of abandonment.

This day was about endurance. The idea of enjoyment had escaped me after leaving the Czech Republic. I was relieved when we neared the Austria-Hungary border crossing. There was no passport control, but border officials were slowing traffic down and taking a quick peek inside at each car’s inhabitants. This was the product of tightened border restrictions due to the refugee crisis a couple of years before. This slowdown was irritating since the Schengen Zone had spoiled me with open borders and full throttle entry into EU countries. This was the first sign I had seen of Europe closing in on itself. It was famously said that 1989 was the end of history. Communism and the Iron Curtain had collapsed, democratic capitalist societies reigned supreme. Nationalism, totalitarianism and a range of other insidious -isms had been exhausted by war, economic failure and intellectual irrelevancy. Well now we know that history never went away, it was always there. If only we had taken the time to look past our own triumphalism and notice.

Border control - Entering Austria from Hungary

Border control – Entering Austria from Hungary (Credit: My Friend)

Self-Induced Amnesia – A Borderless Existence
One of the more bizarre things about internal borders in the EU, is how they seem to hardly exist. If there had been no border personnel to remind us, the dividing line between eastern Austria and western Hungary would be imperceptible. Border guards in this area have become a novelty. Oddly, for two nations that had a historically fractious relationship, there is now nothing but an invisible line between them. In an irony so bizarre that it goes largely unnoticed, traveling from Austria into Hungary on the motorway is not even noticeable except for the large signs that welcome travelers. The border felt about the same to me as it does in the United States when crossing from Indiana to Ohio. If a sign did not say this is Austria or this is Hungary, who would know the difference. No one would have believed such a thing was possible 40 years ago. And now no one believes that anything other than the status quo is possible. The ability to suffer self-induced amnesia regarding recent history is in one sense admirable and in another, deeply disturbing.

Crossing the Austria-Hungary border could have been much worse. Waiting in a car to be waved through by windblown, listless representatives of Austrian officialdom is much better than languishing at ominous border controls that existed during the Cold War. Meanwhile, there was another Cold War brewing outside, but this one was natural rather than manmade. There was a wild wind swirling from seemingly every direction. The weather could not make up its mind what it wanted to do. This sent my emotions into schizophrenic spasms, segueing between moments of buoyant optimism followed by bouts of futile cynicism. Before long, I got the distinct feeling that we were headed into a storm, but since we had been driving in and out of them during our entire trip, this was not as frightening a prospect as it should have been.

Stopping Point – Frozen In Place
It was not long before the sky grew darker and the road along with it. This was the product of freezing precipitation that threatened to bring traffic to a halt. I suddenly realized that the terrain of western Hungary was not helping matters. Transdanubia as it is known, consists of rolling topography. I dreaded going downhill more than up. The roadway was a glistening sheen that was becoming slicker by the minute. It was not long before we gave up on the idea of Debrecen. The conditions became treacherous, with cars and trucks inching along. No one knew if they were on a sheet of ice or a rain slicked road. Soon, a line of cars stretched over several kilometers. No one wanted to chance more than 40 kilometers per hour. Every time I set foot on the brakes a nervous tension consumed me. An hour earlier I had been dreaming of getting back to Debrecen, now I was wondering weather we would make it to the nearest exit. Our journey had come to a halt, but it was nowhere near over. The search for a safe place to stay the night was just beginning.

Click here for: On Thin Ice – The OMV Oasis: Roadside Assistance in Transdanubia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-six)

A Recurrent Madness – The Meaning of Breclav (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-four)

We escaped from Austerlitz with both our lives intact. That might sound like an exaggeration, but not really. The entry road that led to and from Pratzen Heights was a lot more treacherous going down, then it had been on the way up. The gravel road was coated in snow which was rapidly turning to ice. We observed one unlucky driver resigned to a ditch. In the whirling whiteness it had been hard to grasp the deceptive topography Napoleon had so expertly used to his advantage at Pratzen Heights. The drive back to the main highway gave us a better idea of the hill’s subtle undulations. Fortunately, we were able to avoid careening down these historic slopes. Both my wife and I let out a collective sigh of relief when we found the blacktop a few minutes later. It was all downhill from here or so I professed to believe.

Destiny or Destination - Breclav Railway Station

Destiny or Destination – Breclav Railway Station (Credit: Josef Moser)

Tilting At Windmills –  The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking
In one of those fits of recurrent travel madness that worry me as much as those traveling with me, I decided that we might be able to make it back to Debrecen in eastern Hungary on the same day. Never mind that we were slipping and sliding across the frontiers of Moravia and we still had windblown eastern Austria to cross. Plenty of windmills would be tilting at us in the Burgenland. There was also the conveniently ignored fact that western Hungary was said to be due for inclement weather just as bad or worse than what we were currently driving through. And still nothing could stop my optimism, which was soon traveling down a highway of slush at 100 kilometers per hour.

I always find the end of my Eastern European journeys disturbing. The thrill of anticipation has long since passed with all those exciting thoughts of adventure now relegated to the rear view mirror.  My mind was firmly fixed on returning home, which meant heading for Debrecen out on the Great Hungarian Plain. By the time we began our homeward bound journey it was already late morning. The weather was gloomy at best, wintry at worst. This did nothing to detain me. There was no use dawdling in despair at some random roadside inn when we might be able to make it back well before midnight. My wife had heard such grandiose proclamations before and tended to ignore them. We both knew the truth, the weather would make the decision for us.

Living on the Edge - Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic

Living on the Edge – Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic (Credit: Kroton)

A Twinge of Excitement – On The Border
It was not long before we were closing in on the Czech-Austria border. This gave me the opportunity of returning to a town I knew only from a railway carriage window. That was where I spied a brightly lit platform. It had been sixteen months earlier, deep in a chilly autumn night, on a nightmarish-night train from Budapest to Krakow. I remember groggily waking and peering out the window where I saw an attractive female border guard. Her hair was pulled back and ticked beneath a stiff cap. She had been languidly strolling on the platform. There were several other guards interspersed as well. I faintly remember a twinge of excitement that always accords my arrival in another country. Then I proceeded to collapse back into my berth. That was my first and up until this wintry moment only impression of Breclav.

Breclav would have been just a memory to me, but a second visit seemed serendipitous, as though this was becoming both my destiny and destination. On this day everything was covered in wet snow. Flakes slowly spit out of an all-consuming grayness. The railway station, where I first became briefly acquainted with the town, looked inviting rather than menacing. There were no border guards to be found. On this day, Breclav was a sleepy place taking a long winter’s nap. Of course, all I was another drive by of Breclav, making a pass-through presence and nothing else. My wife paid no attention to my chatter about being back in Breclav. The writer in me sniffed irony, my wife sensed banality, hence the lack of a response. There was something about Breclav that I could not quite put my finger on. Minutes after our arrival we were leaving. The disquieting sense of familiarity dissipated, but I knew that a third visit lay somewhere in a distant future.

On the Night Train - Breclav railway station in the evening

On the Night Train – Breclav railway station in the evening (Credit: Vojtech Dockal)

A Return Trip – Past & Future Goals
One of the joys of travel in this part of Europe was how little I knew about most places. The logical corollary is how much there is still to discover. This makes traipsing around the hinterlands of Moravia seem that much more eventful. Every town or small city offers something new and by extension, something different. If you want to see the real Eastern Europe, it means going somewhere besides Budapest, Prague and Vienna. Breclav might as well be the South Pole by this standard. That second fleeting visit turned the town into something that would occupy my imagination long after departure. A question loomed in my mind, “what was the meaning of Breclav?” The answer was not clear and will not be until I return. In the meantime, a vicarious visit had to take place. This involved researching the town’s history to find out how Breclav came to exist in its current form.

Location and transport were and still are everything when it comes to the development of Breclav. The town’s situation, close to the confluence of the Thaya and Moravia Rivers brought people to settle the area as far back as prehistoric times. In the modern age, Breclav was selected as the first railway junction in Austria-Hungary. A function it still maintains today. My earlier train journey to Krakow brought me to this junction. Trains to Vienna, Prague, Bratislava and Prague all went by way of Breclav as well.  Discovering this, I suddenly realized that many years before I had stopped in Breclav on a train from Bratislava to Prague. Breclav had become a habit without me even knowing it. I discovered a sudden sense of affinity with the town. It was part of the story of a life spent in transit. Breclav is now more than a town to me. It is a dream, a hope, a goal, a return trip to both my past and an unknown future. What was the meaning of Breclav? I have no idea, but I intend to find out.

Click here for: Winter Conditions – Austria, Hungary & Europe Closing In On Themselves (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-five)

Beneath The Cairn Of Peace – The Most Enduring Legacy Of Austerlitz (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-three)

Following our guided tour of the museum we arrived back at the entrance. Another guide then approached us, energetic, smiling and ready to accompany us to The Cairn of Peace Memorial (Pamatnik Mohlya miru). Looking outside at the torrent of snow continuing to fall, I wondered if this was such a good idea. We had a long drive ahead of us. After our visit we were planning to drive all the way back to eastern Hungary that same day if possible. The drive was going to be especially difficult considering the weather conditions. Nonetheless, we decided that after all we had driven through just to get here, a raging snowstorm was not going to stop us from visiting the Memorial. Thus, we set off with our guide to storm Pratzen Heights, not under a hail of bullets and shellfire as happened at the battle, but through a blinding storm of snowflakes.

War & Peace In Winter - The Cairn of Peace Memorial

War & Peace In Winter – The Cairn of Peace Memorial

Europe’s First Peace Monument – On The Verge Of War
For many of the 70,000 annual visitors to the Austerlitz battlefield, the Cairn of Peace Memorial is the main attraction. This is understandable since the Memorial is a tangible object, but it has little to do with the battle at the time it occurred or its aftermath. Instead, the Cairn was constructed over a century after the battle was fought. The memorial’s history is fascinating in and of itself, some of this history has little to do with the Battle of Austerlitz and more with a movement led by a pacifist priest and school teacher by the name of Alois Slovak. The idea for a peace memorial, which would be the first in European history, came from Slovak and his closest friends. The Austerlitz battlefield offered the proper location and context for this to take place. Nevertheless, the distance in time between the actual battle and the memorial’s construction left me wondering about its historical importance. Did it really have anything to do with Austerlitz? How could a manmade monument built in the early 20th century pay homage to those who lost their lives in that bloody battle? Those same questions must have been on the minds of those who decided to create the Memorial.

The fact that it was partly funded by public subscription likely influenced its main theme, a memorial dedicated to everyone who had died due to the battle. This was not limited to the warring armies. The memorial was also dedicated to all the civilians that perished. There were many who lived on or around the battlefield that were killed in the crossfire. It is an interesting concept because the area was largely populated by Moravians, who are ethnically Czech. Only a very small percentage of the Austrian Army that fought at Austerlitz consisted of Czechs. I asked our Czech guide about how the people of his nation felt about the battle. After all, it was largely someone’s else history. He said that Czech visitors to the battlefield were fewer than foreigners since “it does not have much to do with them.” While the battle was of great importance to European history, it ironically had little to do with the Czechs who lived in the area at that time. Thus, it is hardly surprising that French, Russians, Austrians and other European nationalities make up most of the visitors today, just as they made up most of the battle’s combatants in 1805.

Shield Bearer - One of four commemorative plaques on The Cairn Of Peace Memorial

Shield Bearer – One of four commemorative plaques on The Cairn Of Peace Memorial (Credit: Pudelek)

Fighting For Peace – Losing A Lost Cause
After a short walk through a bombardment of wet snowflakes we found ourselves standing outside the memorial’s entrance way. In front and above us stood the Art Nouveau creation of noted Czech architect Josef Fanta. The pyramidal shaped memorial is topped by an ellipsoid shaped planet earth inset with a Slavonic Cross, a symbol of redemption. The message meant to be communicated by the memorial is summed up in the explanatory quote, “The Cairn of Peace fights on the battlefield of the world for world peace.” In other words, the monument stands in opposition to warfare. This was a battle the memorial and those who advocated for it were destined to lose. The three governments – Austria-Hungary, France and Russia – who provided a good bit of the funding to construct the memorial were certainly not living up to peaceful ideals at the time. On the contrary, they were involved in an arms race that was about to turn lethal.

Construction of the Cairn of Peace took place in the years prior to World War One. In the darkest of ironies, the memorial’s dedication was to take place during the summer of 1914. The dedication was delayed by almost a decade due to the outbreak of hostilities.  By the time the First World War ended, Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia had vanished into nonexistence. The memorial now stood on the territory of the newly formed nation of Czechoslovakia. As such the Czechs had a say in its reinterpretation. A series of four plaques were later added below the ellipsoid, one of these displays a quote by Czechoslovakia’s founder and first president, Thomas Masryk, “not by the sword, but by the plough.” Tragically, these words were of little use when the Second World War brought more conflict to this intensely agricultural land. In the first three decades after the Cairn of Peace was constructed, Europe engaged in the two most deadly wars in human history.

The Legacy of Austerlitz - Inside The Cairn of Peace Memorial

The Legacy of Austerlitz – Inside The Cairn of Peace Memorial (Credit: Fejsinek)

Bound By Austerlitz – Descending From The Heights 
Entering the memorial was a somber experience. The square shaped chapel with its excellent acoustics magnified the guide’s voice. He politely explained that beneath a marble slab set in the floor was an ossuary containing thousands of bones. These remains were found scattered across the Austerlitz Battlefield. They were gathered together inside the memorial and placed in this common tomb. The remains include soldiers from all the opposing armies, along with innocent civilians. Archaeological research has proven that they came from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. French, Austrians, Russians and Czechs, soldiers and peasants, male and female. That which divided them in life no longer matters, now and forever they are bound together in burial beneath The Cairn of Peace. This is the greatest and most enduring legacy of the Battle of Austerlitz.

Click here for: A Recurrent Madness – The Meaning of Breclav (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-four)