Losing The Blood Countess – Elizabeth Bathory, Me & Cachtice Castle: A Deadly Date Deferred

A couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to detour from western Hungary and take a side trip to visit Cachtice Castle (Čachtický hrad – Slovak, Csejte vára – Magyar) in northwestern Slovakia. This was a chance I did not take. It was the second time in five years I have passed up the opportunity to visit Cachtice, the infamous castle where “the Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory may or may not have committed some of her worst atrocities. Bathory’s ranking as the most prolific female serial killer in history has been increasingly disputed as modern historians closely study the accusations brought against her. What is not in dispute, Bathory’s enduring infamy.

In Hungary, where due to nationalist sentiments the Countess’ reputation is usually given a more vigorous defense, legend still manages to outweigh reality. Case in point, at the restored Bathory castle in Nyirbator, Hungary the exhibits include a mock-up of the countess bathing in a tub of a young female victim’s blood, as she was said to have done in order to preserve her beautiful complexion.  If the place in which Bathory was born promotes her in this way than it is easy to imagine her dreadful reputation in other areas of Hungary or across the border in Slovakia.

Cachtice Castle as it looks today

Cachtice Castle as it looks today (Credit: LMih)

A Horrific Appeal, A Deadly Allure
The horrific appeal of the Elizabeth Bathory story has boosted tourism in off the beaten path places such as Nyirbator and Sarvar, Hungary, home to a fine castle where the Countess lived for many years with her husband Ferenc Nadasdy. One would think that Cachtice would be the sinister set piece at the bloody heart of Bathory fanaticism. Her crimes there were the stuff of legend. She reputedly carried out appalling acts of torture with every device imaginable on young, innocent women. While the ruined castle gets its fair share of visitors, more often than not Cachtice gets overlooked. It is on the way to nowhere in particular unless one is traveling along the western border region of Slovakia. The reason I once again decided to skip a journey to Cachtice is because it does not hold the same allure for me that it once did.

I traveled to Sarvar Castle a few years back hoping to experience some of the trepidation and fear that had drawn me to the stories of Bathory’s bloody exploits. The castle is in excellent condition, but there was nothing eerie or evocative of the Blood Countess. I did not find much mention of what may or may not have occurred there in the late 16th century. My most enduring memory of that visit was of a mother and father with their children playing together on the grassy grounds. From what I have discovered through research, Cachtice looks to be a much different and wilder experience. I still plan on traveling there in the coming years, not so much to revisit the scene of Elizabeth Bathory’s purported crimes, but instead to contemplate her last years spent in solitary confinement and the final surreal night of her life.

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Convicted In The Court Of Royal Opinion
My imagined image of Castle Cachtice is of a Gothic house of horrors. A ferociously intimidating mountaintop stronghold with iron grey gates, towering bastions set amidst a supernatural scene, where earth shattering thunderstorms and massive bolts of deadly lightning strike its bastions on a nightly basis. Of course, my overactive imaginings have been unduly influenced by Dracula movies and Edgar Allen Poe stories. Historically, Cachtice did not look anything like that and the castle’s present state is one of a crumbling ruin. The peacefulness which permeates the site today is not altogether different from the final years that Elizabeth Bathory spent at Cachtice from 1611 to 1614 after she was convicted in the court of royal opinion.

The countess never stood trial. She was not given the opportunity to defend herself in a court of law to rebut the accusations against her. The powers that be at the time, including the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias and the Hungarian Palatine (equivalent to prime minster) Gyorgy Thurzo made sure it was that way. The Emperor owed a large debt to Lady Bathory. Many historians now believe that the Countess was setup. She was a wealthy, powerful single woman, one of the largest landowners in Hungary and a potential threat to the emperor’s rule. The Countess also had powerful Protestant relatives in eastern Hungary, who with her help could possibly have made an attempt to overthrow the Catholic Habsburgs. She had to be subdued. A tribunal in December 1611 sentenced Elizabeth Bathory to perpetual life imprisonment. Stonemasons arrived at Cachtice and walled the Countess up in a room. This is where she would live out the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Bathory

Elizabeth Bathory

Passing Into Infamy
The Countess’ final years were spent in solitary confinement. A few family members came to visit. She also spent time writing correspondence. Her only other outlet to the world was a small opening where a guard would pass food to her each day. It must have been a lonely, depressing existence. Just a few years earlier she held the power of life and death over her servants. Now her only servant was a guard watching over her imprisonment. She had once been the most powerful woman in Hungary. Now she inhabited a small, drafty space in a forlorn castle along the borderlands. Few people in Hungarian history have fallen so far from the heights of power in so short a time. Was the Countess haunted by her crimes, seething with anger over the accusations that had brought her down or deeply depressed at what her life had become? Her enemies, including Thurzo’s own wife, came to the castle and stole away with much of Bathory’s jewelry. No one would have dared to do such a thing when she ruled over Cachtice. Now she was helpless to stop such petty plunder. Her land, her riches, her freedom had all been taken away, but madness was still there to accompany her all the way to the grave.

On the final night of her life, Sunday August 21, 1634, the Countess called for her guard and complained about having poor circulation, specifically in her hands. The guard told her that she was fine. He instructed her to lie down. With a pillow under her legs, rather than her head, she began to sing aloud in a beautiful, melodic voice. Where once there had been screaming, there was now only a sweet melody. These were the last words anyone heard from Elizabeth Bathory, with that she passed into history and infamy.


“I Am From Nowhere” – Andy & Julia Warhol: From Carpathian-Ruthenia With Love

Once asked where he was from, Andy Warhol replied, “I am from nowhere.” Of course this was not true, but the famously cryptic Warhol seemed otherworldly. He was born and grew up in Pittsburgh, a city synonymous with heavy industry, specifically the production of steel and aluminum. The man who would become an artistic and cultural icon was an unlikely native son of the blue collar Steel City. A better fit for Warhol’s point of entry into the world was a place he never actually visited, specifically his mother and father’s homeland of Carpathian Ruthenia (present day far eastern Slovakia). Julia and Ondrej Warhola were Carpatho-Rusyns, who immigrated to the United States during the first quarter of the 20th century. Some scholars place the Carpatho-Rusyns as a subgroup of Ukrainians, while others see them as distinctly separate. They are an East Slavic people who today inhabit the far reaches of eastern Slovakia and southwestern Ukraine. Obscure to the point of anonymity, the Rusyns have never had their own nation, with the exception of the short lived one day Republic of Carpatho-Ruthenia  in 1939.  Over the last one hundred years they were folded into such ill-fated polities as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Despite assimilationist efforts by various empires and nations, the Carpatho-Rusyns preserved their language and many traditional customs. This was largely due to their geographical location. The Carpatho-Rusyns inhabit the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, an area forever on the fringes, a forgotten borderland unknown to the rest of Europe. From this obscure land came the couple who gave the world Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol statue in Bratislava, Slovakia

Statue of Andy Warhol in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia (Credit: Peter Zelizňák)

From the Middle of Nowhere – Coming To America
Ondrej and Julia Warhola (née Zavacká) were born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the latter part of the 19th century. Their homeland was plagued by stagnation and backwardness. Much of the population was illiterate. Only a handful of schools served Carpatho-Rusyns. The rural economy was dominated by Hungarians and Germans with Jews also enjoying a rise to prominence. Politics were mainly the preserve of Hungarians, who had instituted an aggressive form of Magyarization. This had left Carpatho-Rusyns with few good choices. They could either assimilate, struggle in dire poverty or emigrate. Employment opportunities were few in the area. The immediate area from which Andrej and Julia came was known as a center for Europe’s taxidermy trade, not exactly a thriving industry. Ondrej and Julia were married in 1909. The couple already had a son when Ondrej made a landmark decision to leave Austria-Hungary for the United States in 1914. This was an unforeseen serendipitous bit of luck, as World War I would soon break out.

A year later the area in which Julia lived was overrun by the advancing Russian army. Though the Russians were beaten back, their short lived occupation signaled the upheaval that was to mark the region for years. While Julia was raising the eldest Warhol son amidst this tumult, Ondrej had found work in a Pennsylvania coal mine. It would take seven long years before Julia was able to join her husband. Finally in 1921 – a year after the Rusyn homeland was assigned to the new state of Czechoslovakia – Julia Warhol was able to join her husband in Pittsburgh. Seven years later the couple gave birth to the youngest of their three sons, Andrew Warhola. From the humble beginnings of life in a two room row house, Andy would grow to become the world famous pop artist who changed the way the modern world looked at it itself. His rise to fame was improbable, made more so by the fact that his family really was from the middle of nowhere.

Julia and Andy Warhol

Julia and Andy Warhol (Credit: Getty Images)

Like Mother, Like Son – A Spiritual Transmission
What did Andy Warhol know of his parent’s Carpatho-Rusyn background? What did he know of the customs and culture of that faraway land? More than might be expected. Until his dying days, Warhol was a devout follower of Eastern Byzantine Catholicism (Greek Catholicism). He grew up attending mass on a weekly basis with his parents, continuing this tradition until the end of his life. Along with language, Greek Catholicism was the major identifying trait for Carpatho-Rusyns. Since time immemorial, these people without a nation had been inseparable from their faith. Though he was extremely private about it, Warhol much like his Carpatho-Rusyn ancestors was fervently religious.

Miková, Slovakia

Miková, Slovakia – birthplace of Julia Warhola was in Carpathian Ruthenia

The single greatest family influence upon Warhol was his mother. Júlia Justína Zavacká came from Mikó, Austria-Hungary (Miková, Slovakia) a one street village nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It was here that Julia learned the customs and rituals which she would carry on for the rest of her life. She was an excellent artist, spending endless hours drawing her favorite subjects, angels and cats. Her other artistic skills included decorative, stylized handwriting and traditional embroidery. In the lead up to the holiday season, she would decorate pysankas, Ukrainian Easter eggs covered with folk patterns written on them with beeswax. She also loved to sing Carpatho-Rusyn peasant songs. Her influence on Andy was amplified after he contracted St. Vitus Dance syndrome (Sydenham’s chorea) in the third grade. He suffered from involuntary twitching of the hands, face and feet. He spent days at a time unable to leave the bed. There by his side was Julia, dutifully taking care of his every need. When Warhol was fourteen his father suddenly died, this served to bring him even closer to his mother. The relationship continued into adulthood, with Julia moving to New York City in order to take care of Warhol as his career began to soar. His mother’s adherence to the traditions of her upbringing likely had much to do with Warhol’s late career forays into religious art. She was a deeply spiritual person who gave her son knowledge of the rich Carpatho-Rusyn culture.

Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia

Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia (Credit: M Patel)

A Family Affair – Art of the Warhols
The fact that Warhol never visited his family’s ancestral homeland is not all that surprising. The land of the Carpatho-Rusyn’s was sealed behind the Iron Curtain for the entirety of Warhol’s adult life. A couple of years after his death, Czechoslovakia threw off the communist yoke. In 1991, Warhol’s older brother Paul traveled to the homeland of his parents. In the town of Medzilborce – eight miles (12 kilometers) from the village of Miiková- he helped form the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art which was placed in the town’s former Communist House of Culture. The museum holds 160 works of art from Warhol, an immeasurable cultural contribution to a region otherwise bypassed by fame and notoriety. It also contains an exhibit of family memorabilia. One artifact is particularly striking. A pen-and-ink drawing of the “Annunciation of Our Lord’s Birth” by Julia Warhola bears a striking resemblance to the early drawings of Andy Warhol. From mother to son, from the lush valleys of Carpatho-Ruthenia to the industrial grit and grime of Pittsburgh, from a peasant’s village in the middle of nowhere to the center of the New York art world, the legacy and lineage of a mother and her son can be traced.

A Dark Discovery At Spiš Castle – Personalizing History

Wikipedia has become the go to source regarding historical information. Regardless of whether or not the information is valid or even relevant a Wikipedia entry about an historical event, personage or place is often taken as the truth. There are plenty of naysayers when it comes to Wikipedia, especially in the academic community. Critics of Wikipedia argue that the information lacks validity because it does not undergo a rigorous review process by professional historians. That is a valid point but let’s face it, Wikipedia has millions of entries. Do professional historians have the time or inclination to review all of these, the answer is quite simply no. For a large and diverse global audience Wikipedia has done a good job of providing pertinent information to its readers, certainly much better than any other digital medium promoting historical knowledge.

Spiš Castle as seen from the entrance road - the castle concealed a dark secret beneath it for over 1,800 years

Spiš Castle as seen from the entrance road – the castle concealed a dark secret beneath it for over 1,800 years

The Limits of Information – Spiš Castle: A Search for Relevance
That being said there are major limitations to what Wikipedia offers readers and researchers, especially those who are looking to gain in-depth information about people, places and events in Eastern Europe. The limitations of Wikipedia were once again revealed to me while searching for historical information prior to a visiting Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) in Eastern Slovakia. This sprawling hilltop fortress rises spectacularly amid the surrounding hills and mountains of the Spiš Region. The castle is quite famous and rightfully so, due to its size, stunning appearance and five centuries of history. I assumed (wrongfully) that because of its fame the Wikipedia entry would be highly engaging. It turned out to be anything but. The  Spiš Castle entry in Wikipedia stuck to a just the facts approach, focusing on two things, a chronology of the aristocratic families that once owned it and the castle’s architectural history. I should probably not have expected much more, after all Wikipedia is about information, not interpretation.

Compounding my problems was the fact that I could only read the English language entry. Surely Spiš Castle’s Hungarian (the ethnicity of the aristocrats who owned the castle) or Slovakian language entries would have been more informative. Then again, a Wikipedia entry was not the lone source available for Spiš Castle on the internet. A link from the Wikipedia entry for the castle led me to a Slovakian website with a long English language write-up on the castle. The article contained a great deal of background information, but still left me wanting. After two and a half long pages of architectural details and a shifting cast of aristocratic owners I began to lose interest. The paragraphs were laden with one dry historical fact after another. This article told me all the facts that I supposedly needed to know, but in essence nothing that was really memorable or engaging.

Late afternoon sunshine radiates off the limestone walls of Spiš Castle

Late afternoon sunshine radiates off the limestone walls of Spiš Castle

More Questions Than Answers – Spiš Castle Beyond The Details
The main problem with both the Wikipedia entry and the article I stumbled upon was that they lacked compelling narratives and few stories concerning people. They were filled with chronology and hard facts. Of course narrative and stories are not the mandate of Wikipedia or the article I read. On the other hand, people make history, not buildings. People created the architecture of Spiš Castle, the buildings did not create themselves. There was a reason that Spiš Castle was built in such an imposing manner, namely to protect its inhabitants. The questions I really wanted answered included what battles were fought in and around the castle? Surely there were some titanic struggles. Who built, reconstructed and refurbished the castle across five centuries of history? By this I do not mean who were the architects or the aristocratic owners of Spiš Castle, but instead was it slave labor, master craftsmen or whoever could be commandeered into service. No one person could have built, designed or planned such a castle. One of my greatest frustrations was not being able to learn more about its owners. Of course I learned their names, but this information either told me nothing or left me with questions that I was unable to find the answers to.

A representative sentence in the Wikipedia entry offers a prime example of my dilemma: “Before 1464, it was owned by the kings of Hungary, afterwards (until 1528) by the Zápolya family, the Thurzó family (1531–1635), the Csáky family (1638–1945), аnd (since 1945) by the state of Czechoslovakia then Slovakia.” This sentence intrigued me, why did the castle pass from one family to the next. Did the existing owners die out, fall out of favor with their royal overlords or were they involved in political and military intrigues?  The other article on Spišský Hrad offered many intriguing details that led to even more questions. For instance, “the Csáky family owned the castle till 1945. They lived in the castle only till the end of the 17th century, because they rather built several manor-houses in Hodkovce, Bijacovce, Kluknava etc. For the manor-houses they many times used the stone material from the castle. Just a small military unit stayed at the castle. They left in 1780 after it burned down.”  I wanted to know what or who burned the castle down? Why the transition from castles to manor-houses? I assumed it was because of both comfort and the changing nature of security. One only needed to live in a castle such as Spiš if one was under constant threat. By the late 18th century those days had passed. I knew that from my background knowledge of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, not from the article.

View from the heights of Spiš Castle

View from the heights of Spiš Castle

Into The Depths – A Secret Revealed
Of course it was easy to be critical and pick apart the efforts of others. I was certainly thankful for what I did learn from Wikipedia and the Spišský Hrad article. Someone had taken the time and effort to make this information available in multiple languages. My real problem was twofold: 1) I wanted information that was just as spectacular and fascinating as the castle itself and; 2) I wanted historical context. Both were lacking. Of course, those who authored the articles could have easily rebutted my criticisms by saying that if you want it done better, than do it yourself.  That is a legitimate point, but I did not just want to add more factual information. Perhaps there needs to be a site that puts the story back in history. Of course it has always been there, but His-STORY seems to have been lost. My last hope for discovering the human side of Spiš Castle was whatever interpretation and information I might discover when I visited the actual site. I was cautiously optimistic that I could learn a more interesting and relevant history there.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late October I was finally able to visit Spiš Castle. It was the realization of a dream that had begun a decade before when I first learned about the castle in the 2002 Rough Guide to the Czech and Slovak Republics. On page XIX in the 29 Things Not to Miss Section was a color photo owith #16 Spišský Hrad. Beneath the photo was a caption that stated, “This sprawling medieval castle is quite simply the most stunning hilltop ruin in Slovakia.” That photo and caption fascinated me for years, capturing my imagination. After a lung bursting hike from the lower parking lot to the entrance I entered the grounds. The vistas were just as I expected them to be, magnificent. The castle area was expansive, with limestone walls crisscrossing the jagged rocky outcrop. There were several towers and ramparts which stirred the imagination. It was easy to see that the castle had been situated to take advantage of an impregnable defensive position.

The historical information on offer at the castle consisted of displays and museum exhibits in several rooms. I was disappointed, but not shocked to find that the text on these offered information rather than interpretation. Once again architecture, chronology and names trumped human interest stories. I read all of the text which could best be summed up as: facts, facts, facts and more facts.  Now several weeks since that visit, I am able to recall one thing, the only exhibit that told a story that involves a person. A display titled “Unique Dark Cave Discovery” stated, “An entrance into the Dark Cave is situated on the northwest of the Castle hill. A marvelous underground world that may be explored straight below the castle disclosed an interesting secret…At the end of a narrow cleft they (speleologists and archaeologists) traced human bones, leather money bags. Some coins as well as remains of ceramic shards dating back to the 1st or 2nd century A.D.…At the end of the 2nd century, an unpredictable incident happened to the owner of these coins, who was probably a respectable merchant. The man in his 30’s or 40’s was looking for a safe place. He finally took a shelter in the interior of the Dark Cave, which was then available from the upper side. He entered the cave with a serious gash injury of his right thigh and he could possibly suffer an incidental fall. It is hard to tell. However, we certainly know that he never made his way out of the cave. The man remained there for the rest of his life and he passed away due to deathly injuries he had sustained. For long centuries, he maintained his considerable property. As in a fairy tale, silver Roman coins spilled out of his leather money bags. That is how caves under the Spiš Castle reveal their secrets and bear witness to importance of the region since prehistoric times.” There were some coins and shards of pottery on display from this find. The objects hardly mattered without the story.

A window into the past at Spiš Castle

A window into the past at Spiš Castle

Of Human Interest – Life & Death Beneath Spiš Castle
I suddenly saw myself as that unfortunate man, suffering, starving and finally succumbing in the Dark Cave. How long had he been able to survive there? Why had he crawled in there and what were his final thoughts. These were just a few of the many questions that entered my mind while I read the exhibit. The Dark Cave discovery was morbidly fascinating, still something of a mystery and spoke of survival, life, death and personal security. For this alone, a visit to Spiš Castle was certainly worth it. The massive castle walls, the magnificent vistas, the soaring, austere beauty of the structure and five hundred years of haughty aristocratic families at Spiš Castle all paled in comparison to a man without a name, who accidently fell into his death and then was brought back to historic life 1,800 years later. This was like the most memorable kinds of history that which forgets the facts and focuses on a uniquely human experience.  Humans make history and in this case, tragically astonishing history.

Driving Me Insane – Slovakia & Road Angst: Look Out!

If you value your life, my advice is to avoid driving on two lane highways in Slovakia. If you are going to drive there anyway, here is another piece of unsolicited advice, drive in an extremely aggressive manner.

What Lies Beneath – Slovaks & Road Angst
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending three days traveling around Central Slovakia, including the Low Tatras region. The base for this trip was the delightful city of Banska Bystrica. It has a really nice old town area, which includes several impressive churches and one unknown leaning tower. The leaning clock tower of Banska Bystrica, does not have the cachet as the leaning tower of Pisa, but nonetheless the tower’s slight tilt is noticeable. Banska Bystrica makes a good base to explore further afield, especially for winter sports, historic mining towns and folk villages in the nearby mountains. The only problem is getting to these places. This is not because the roads are bad, far from it. From what I experienced of Slovakia’s highways, even those in the remoter reaches of the countryside, could be rated anywhere from good to excellent. The main highways are smooth and relatively new. The only problem was Slovak drivers.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between the Slovak people and their driving techniques. One recent survey declared that Slovaks were the most humble people in all of Europe. This perhaps has something to do with their folk roots and the fact that until the 20th century they were without a nation to call their own. They are helpful, quiet, generous and pleasant. They really do not seem to have any major vices. That is until you have to drive on the highway with them. Underneath a veneer of patience and tolerance seethes a level of fathomless road angst.

Highway through the Low Tatras in central Slovakia

The Low Tatras in central Slovakia are beautiful but the roads can be treacherous – because of the weather and the drivers

A National Past Time – Vehicular Chicken
On two lane highways, Slovaks come roaring up behind you, shoving their car fenders within spitting distance of the trunk. They then ride your bumper until they have a window in which to make a pass. Five seconds will suffice for these high risk addicts. Sometimes it is not just one pass they care to make. I saw some vehicles (including trucks!) pass three or four vehicles at once. Sometimes the vehicle on my tail could not pass first because the car behind them darted out into the other lane to get the jump on the supposed slow pokes in front of them. The Slovak national sport may be hockey, but a close second has to be a game of vehicular chicken. Nearly everyone seems to be engaged in a nationwide competition to see how many vehicles they can pass before a head on collision nearly ensues.

The incredible thing is that I never witnessed an accident, though on multiple occasions the vehicle traveling in the opposite lane had to hit the brakes in order to avoid a head-on collision with an offending daredevil driver. Only once did I witness an oncoming driver making gestures of exasperation at a daring culprit who had just threatened a number of innocent lives. I believe that the oncoming drivers tacitly admit that they would be doing the exact same thing, perhaps they just did a few minutes before.

Then there were the four lane highways. These brought out the bi-polarity of the Slovak driving soul. In the slow lane, other drivers seemed to allow me to proceed at my own pace without much tailgating, even if you were going a bit below the posted speed limit. Conversely, life in the fast lane was more akin to the last few laps of a Formula One competition. If I happened to be overtaking someone slower (a rare occurrence in my experience, but it did happen) I had better be going at least 150 kph (kilometers per hour) even if the posted limit was 110 kph. Sometimes even this amount of speed was not good enough. Once I got around those in the slow lane, the drivers behind me would sometimes show a miraculous amount of impatience. They would already be trying to pass me in the slow lane going a good 50 kph over the posted limit. In a word, this was an intense experience.

Street in the historic mining city of Banska Stiavnica

This street in the historic mining city of Banska Stiavnica may be empty now but most assuredly there is a speeding driver on the way

Defensive Driving – Taking Offense
At first, I tried to drive extremely defensive. This only exacerbated the issue. It meant I was going to get passed even more than the usual. The slower I went, the more likely those behind me would try to pass just before the crest of a hill, or on the cusp of a curve. I have not smoked a cigarette in years and I found myself craving not just one, but a whole carton after a couple of hours driving in Slovakia. Later I checked the accident statistics for Slovakia compared to other European Union nations. Oddly, they were quite average. Well statistics are one thing, but my experience quite another.

As for city driving, this was also troublesome. Banska Bystrica does not have heavy traffic, but in certain areas, especially close to the old town it was close quarters. There were plenty of one way streets to ensure many a heart attack inducing incident if I got confused. The closest I came to an accident was when a lady in front of me decided to stop in the middle of the road after blowing past an empty parking spot she coveted. She was already a good ways past it and I was stopped halfway in front of it. This did not stop her from putting her vehicle into reverse and attempting to back in. I could not reverse due to the fact that there was a line behind me. A fender bender was only avoided after I frantically pounded the horn. My shouts and wild gesticulations were ignored as she went on searching for another spot or another possible accident.

In Slovakia - the safer and slower option is always the bus

In Slovakia – the safer and slower option is always the bus

Risk Analysis – The Chance Of Life
Back at the hotel I mentioned my driving experiences to the kind hearted man in his forties, Stefan, who was watching the lodging for his parents that day. He looked at me quizzically. He stated that the roads had been much improved over the past decade and continued to get better, as though the road condition might have somehow had to do with reckless driving in the past. I told him the roads were not the problem, but instead the acceptance of extreme risk. I did not want to insult him or his country, but I let loose that driving in Slovakia was an insanely, nerve wracking experience.  He looked unoffended and impassive. For a moment I wondered what he was like behind the wheel, than it dawned on me that I already knew.

A Man & His Castle – Somosko: Between Hungary & Slovakia

The past really is a different country at Somosko Castle. Set atop a basalt peak, straddling the Hungarian-Slovakian border, are the crumbling castle ruins. At 526 meters (1,725 feet) these ruins are not especially lofty by the standards of hilltop fortresses, but the fact that they can be sighted towering over the Hungarian village of Somosko gives them an evocative presence. Driving through the village hundreds of meters below I found my eyes drawn upward. Among the small village homes tucked together up and down the winding village streets, the castle ruins would appear and then disappear. As the final road to the ruins was scaled, what was left of Somosko castle became more and more prominent. Yet the closer I got, the less entrancing the view. From a distance, the castle looked like a regal sentinel, keeping watch over the surrounding mountains and valleys. Up close, the crumbling edifice was less impressive, my perspective was now limited. There was no longer any space to help frame the view, now there were crumbling half walls and rough archways towering just above me. The size of the walls, even though much had vanished, was still imposing. The castle was not what I had thought it was going be. This mirrored my visit, which was also quite different from what I expected.

Somosko Castle looms above a house in the Hungarian village of the same name below it

Somosko Castle looms above a house in the Hungarian village of the same name

First Impressions – A Man & His Castle
At the entrance to the castle, stood the caretaker, dressed not in an official uniform, but in street clothes. He wore a thick jacket with a hood pulled over his head to protect against the fierce winter wind blowing through the barren, leafless trees covering the hillsides.  I have been to at least fifty castles in Europe, but I had never seen anyone like this caretaker. He did not have any tickets to sell. Because of this, it was really up to the visitor whether or not they wanted to pay the nominal fee, which was handwritten on a placard. If not for his name tag, which stated his name and position, there was no way of separating this man from any other visitor. He had a small portable radio attached to him, on which he was listening to what sounded like a talk radio show in Hungarian. My feeling for this bizarre embodiment of a docent was one of deep and abiding gratitude.

It was Sunday morning, the temperature was 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and the wind was gusting. He had to be freezing.  His nose was running from the cold. Nonetheless, he stood their manning the entrance, giving directions, answering questions. If he had not been there, no one would have been allowed to go inside. Much to my surprise there were other visitors, a father with his young son and a couple. It was four days before Christmas, in the dead of winter on top of a mountain and Somosko Castle, at least what was left of it, was open to visitors all because of this one man.  I began to wonder, what was more impressive the ruins or this man’s devotion to duty.

The ruins of Somosko Castle

The ruins of Somosko Castle

Crossing Historical Fault Lines – On The Border
From conversation, I learned that he worked pretty much every day. I also learned that though he lived in the Hungarian village at the foot of the castle, he worked for the state of Slovakia. His job straddled a historic fault line. He even took the time to point out the border markers which had been placed in the ground.  The entrance to the castle stood in the middle of the Hungarian – Slovakian border. He showed where a border gate used to be situated. This was where an official border crossing had been located for many decades between Czechoslovakia and Hungary and later on between Slovakia and Hungary. With both nations now members of the European Union that crossing had been disassembled. It was hard to imagine why anyone would have gone to the trouble of erecting a border post, on the side of a hill, in the woods.

Then again it is hard to imagine the depth of ancient enmities or the dictates of totalitarian societies which once held sway over this region. Much is made these days about problems with the European Union, much less is said about all the good things this community of nations has brought about. Putting an end to ridiculous border posts is one of them, especially among countries that have much more in common than they are ever likely to admit.

View from the tower of Somosko Castle looking over the village of the same name and the ruined hilltop castle of Salgo in the distance

View from the tower of Somosko Castle looking over the village of the same name and toward the ruined hilltop castle of Salgo in the distance

What Really Matters – The Personal Over The Past
The caretaker at Somosko Castle – a historic site that just happens to be in Slovakia – is an ethnic Hungarian. Slovakia is not persecuting Hungarians they are employing them. The border is still there, but as much in theory as in practice. What a refreshing change from the past. The caretaker, his sense of duty and the information he shared was much more interesting than the castle itself. Sometimes history is no match for personal experience.

And really do the details of history matter when it comes to Somosko Castle. Hardly! Sure it is interesting to note that the first iterations of what would become the castle were laid out in the 14th century and that this was one of the few fortresses in Upper Hungary that the Ottoman Turks managed to occupy. Yet these tidbits are just random, disconnected facts. Any discerning person could stand atop the ruins of Somsko Castle and immediately realize its historical value. Specifically that location matters. It was placed atop a prominence to command the surrounding area. The location was in a fabulous defensive position. This was all well and good, but not half as interesting as the guy manning the entrance.

Somosko Castle - a ruined entryway to the  blue skies above

Somosko Castle – a ruined entryway to the blue skies above

For All I Remember – Keeping History Alive
The journey to visit Somosko Castle had been transformed into something quite different. To be honest I do not remember much about walking among the ruins, I do not remember what the signboard explaining the castle’s history actually said. At this point I have to go back through my photos to get more than just a bare impression of what Somsko castle even looked like. What I do remember though, is that caretaker standing at the entrance waiting to assist the very few visitors who might arrive on a bone chilling winter day. I remember his sense of duty and his helpfulness. And I will never forget that man is the one who is keeping history alive for thousands of people, including myself.

Slovakia: Lacking The Past & All The Better For It

After one thousand years without a state, Slovakia improbably and quite suddenly arrived on the scene as a European nation at the end of the 20th century. This was quite an astounding feat for a people that had spent a millennium playing second, third or fourth fiddle to Hungarians, Czech and Hungarians. Slovakia as a nation state is something of a miracle. It is now a solid member of the European community of nations. This is quite incredible, when one considers that prior to independence in 1992, the Slovaks had only ruled themselves for a grand total of five years and that was as a rump state, under the sway of Nazi Germany. For all intents and purposes, Slovakia, whatever its growing pains, has in just over two decades become the kind of state all new and small nations would do well to emulate. A success story in nation building is a rare thing in the late 20th and early 21st century, but Slovakia has managed it quite well. This is no small feat considering both its more recent and distant history.

Czechoslovakia Between the Wars - Four Uneasy Pieces (Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia & Sub-Carpathian Rus)

Czechoslovakia Between the Wars – Four Uneasy Pieces (Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia & Sub-Carpathian Rus)

The Difference Between Us – Slovaks & Czechs
The Slovaks often get confused with their western neighbors, the Czechs. This is mostly due to the fact that Slovakia was the lesser partner in the nation of Czechoslovakia which existed in two unstable phases from 1919 to 1939 and 1945 to 1994. The Czechs were the dominant partner in the relationship. The Czech part of the country was industrialized and relatively prosperous, a cultural and intellectual hub, politically and economically driven by the beautiful, historic city of Prague. The differences between Czechs and Slovaks go back for centuries. During that time, the Czechs had fomented religious dissent and revolted against Catholicism. This rebellion had remained a strong part of their historical memory, along with golden eras such as Greater Moravia and the Kingdom of Bohemia. The Czechs had been ruled by their own kings for long stretches. Unfortunately for the Czechs, their major historical problem was the power and dominance of the Germans both inside and bordering Czech lands.

The Slovaks developed quite differently. Up until the early 20th century, most of Slovakia, especially its central and eastern portions was largely undeveloped. This was largely due to the mountainous and heavily forested topography of the region. The Slovaks were peasants, toiling in the fields or the forests. Religion was a major part of life for Slovaks who inhabited largely remote and isolated areas. The Slovaks were and still are today solidly Catholic. The Catholic Church became an outlet for Slovak nationalism in the latter half of the 19th century. Priests often took up the mantle of national autonomy or independence, since Slovak intellectual life was suppressed. Slovaks were virtually shut out of political and economic life by their Hungarian overlords. For centuries on end, Hungary ruled over what is now Slovakia. For instance, what is today the Slovak capital of Bratislava was for several centuries the seat of government for Hungary, as its nobility fled from the Ottoman Turkish occupation. The city was known by its Hungarian name as Poszony. For 250 years the kings and queens of Hungary were crowned at St. Martin’s Cathedral on the edge of Bratislava’s old town. This was a Hungarian and to a lesser extent German city.

The first Slovak only state came by way of the Nazis - predictably it ended in disaster

The first Slovak only state came by way of the Nazis – predictably it ended in disaster

Fits & Starts – The Beginnings of a National Slovakia
The countryside was quite the opposite. Though Hungarian nobles and landed gentry were the ruling class, Hungarians as a whole were a distinct minority. Prior to World War One, only three out of every ten inhabitants of the area that is today Slovakia, were ethnic Hungarians. In the late 19th century, the Hungarians tried to forcibly convert Slovaks into Hungarians through a policy of Magyarization. This only succeeded in boosting Slovak national consciousness. The cataclysm of the First World War allowed Slovakia to finally break free of Hungarian rule, only to become a lesser partner of the Czechs. The Slovaks actually made a deal with the devil during World War II in order to finally procure their own state.

As the Czechs watched with horror as Czechoslovakia was dismembered, the Slovaks were allowed a rump Slovak state by the Nazis. A first pseudo-independent Slovakia was created, lasting all of five troubled years. In yet another attempt at independence Slovaks rose up against Nazi rule in what became known as the Slovak National Uprising in late 1944. The uprising was violently put down, with 30,000 killed in the process. After the war, it was back to the future in Czechoslovakia. This time communism took hold and repressed nationalism. Only after the fall of the Iron Curtain were national sentiments allowed to surface once again. This eventually brought about the quixotic Velvet Divorce with the Czechs in 1992, where both sides agreed to peacefully go their own way. Slovakia was finally on its own and quite astonishingly on its way.

Ethnic map of Slovakia - Hungarians are still predominant in the southern part of the country

Ethnic map of Slovakia – Hungarians are still predominant in the southern part of the country

The Art of the Possible – Slovakia & the European Union
Like so many post-Communist nations that were once part of the Eastern Bloc, the Slovaks have had problems with corruption and political instability. Despite this, Slovakia has hedged a healthy dose of European Union money to greatly improve the nation’s infrastructure. The road and rail network has been expanded. Pro- growth economic policies have made the country a hotbed for businesses from abroad to relocate. Slovakia has also been able to use its geo-political position beside the Czech Republic, one of the most prosperous Eastern European states, as well as alongside Austria, one of the wealthiest countries in Europe to great advantage. These relationships have allowed it to develop much faster than many would have believed possible. A people that had never really enjoyed their own nation until 1992 is coming full circle.

Today Slovakia is a member of the European Union, NATO and the Euro currency zone (for better or worse). Slovakia has even leapt ahead of its historically dominant neighbor Hungary. Slovaks now earn more per capita than Hungarians. All that being said, Slovakia still has major challenges to confront. Wages are low. There are not enough jobs for highly educated young Slovaks who often flock to other European Union nations for jobs. The eastern part of the nation, outside of a few urban areas, is economically backward. Meanwhile, the environmental legacy left behind by forty-four years of communism has left many rivers and landscapes heavily polluted. Despite these challenges, Slovakia has solidified itself as a viable player on the European scene.

Symbol of self-determination - Slovakian flag

Symbol of self-determination – Slovakian flag

People Without A Past – Slovakia Looks Forward
Why has Slovakia become a successful nation-state? There are many measurable reasons, but economic and education statistics only go so far in providing explanations. Perhaps some of Slovakia’s success can be attributed to its lack of a past. Slovakia is a forward looking nation, because it has little choice. For one thousand years it was subsumed under more, powerful and larger entities. The lack of any kingdom, principality or other type of organic, Slovak political-historical state until the latter part of the 20th century gives it little reason to yearn for the past. While some nations such as Hungary seem to have too much history and are forever longing to reclaim past greatness, the Slovaks have too little history to recall or lean on. All they can really do is look forward. The future will be whatever the Slovaks decide to make of it. Judging by the past 22 years, it looks as though they are well on their way to making history.


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)

A Crowning Achievement – St. Martin’s Cathedral: Where Hungarian History Reigns Supreme

Over a period of nine hundred years, the monarchs of the Kingdom of Hungary were crowned in four different cities. Three of these four cities still lie in the territory of the Hungarian nation today. They are Esztergom, Budapest and Szekesfehervar. Interestingly, it was the last of these three towns that saw more Hungarian monarchs crowned than any other. From the middle of the 11th century through the middle of the 16th, no less than 37 kings and 39 queens consort were crowned in Szekesfehervar, at the Basilica. This was exactly how the first King of Hungary, Stephen I had planned it. Stephen had ordered the construction of a grand basilica around the year 1010 for just such ceremonies. It was one of the largest and most prominent buildings in Europe during the Middle Ages, a symbol of the power, majesty and Christianity of the Kingdom. Long before Visegrad or Budapest came to prominence, Szekesfehervar was the nerve center of Hungary during the Middle Ages.

St. Martin's Cathedral - Coronation site of Hungarian monarchs from 1563 to 1830

St. Martin’s Cathedral – Coronation site of Hungarian monarchs from 1563 to 1830

The Coming of the Turks – The Path to Pozsony 
As with so many things in the history of the Kingdom of Hungary, this underwent radical change with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks.  In 1543, the Turks occupied Szekesfehervar. They proceeded to loot the tombs of the 15 kings and queens buried in the Basilica. Their banditry knew no bounds. It respected neither tradition nor religion. Insultingly, the Basilica was turned into a storage site for gunpowder. With much of their kingdom occupied, Hungarian leaders had little choice, but to move the coronation site. Beginning in 1563, coronations took place in upper Hungary, at St. Martin’s Cathedral in Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia).  For over two-hundred and fifty years, prospective monarchs strode through the Old Town of Pozsony along the coronation route. They made their way to the Gothic confines of the cathedral where kings and queens were crowned.

Following the expulsion of the Turks from the lands of historic Hungary in the late 17th century, coronations continued to take place in Pozsony. The last one occurred in 1830. In the meantime, the basilica in Szekesfehervar had longed since ceased to exist. It was destroyed in 1601 when a Habsburg Army unsuccessfully laid siege to the city. The gunpowder stored inside the basilica was sparked by fire from the ongoing battle and consequently blew up. Meanwhile St. Martin’s served the purpose of continuity and tradition. As the site for the coronation of 19 kings and queens, including no less a historical personage than Maria Theresa, it played an integral role in both Hungarian and Habsburg history. The coronations may have ended in Pozsony by the mid-19th century, but history was not through with the place.

Coronation of Maria Theresa at St. Martin's Cathedral in 1741

Coronation of Maria Theresa at St. Martin’s Cathedral in 1741

Historical Twists  – The Fate of Hungary’s Coronation Sites
The city was lost by the Hungarians, along with Upper Hungary (Felvidek) to the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, due to the post-war Treaty of Trianon that followed World War I. Today Pozsony is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Other than tourists, the presence of ethnic Hungarians in the city is minimal. In a historical twist of fate concerning the coronation sites, Hungarians had been detached from their history during the Middle Ages at Szekesfehervar due to an external threat. Nearly four hundred years later, they were once again severed from their historical past, but this time by an internal disruption. St. Martin’s Cathedral with its glorious past was cut asunder from its historical antecedents.

Today the cathedral still stands on the western edge of what was the Old Town of Pozsony. Within a stone’s throw, a major highway acts as a conduit for automobiles racing back and forth over the Novy Most Bridge and the Danube. In the last decade and a half, the church has undergone stabilization due to the vibrations caused by the nearby traffic. In this case, the past has become present once again, in prior centuries the church survived fires, earthquakes and lightning strikes. Today the question is whether it will survive the rumblings of modernity? Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for the presence of Hungarian history in Bratislava. It rests on shaky foundations.

Crowning achievement - The gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary atop St. Martin's Cathedral

Crowning achievement – The gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary atop St. Martin’s Cathedral

St. Martin’s Cathedral – Where History Reigns Supreme
The question today is how will the rich history of St. Martin’s Cathedral be viewed in a Slovakia which looks more toward the future?  As opposed to a Hungary which is obsessed with its past. Strangely enough, there is a magnificent reminder that all has not been lost. Quite literally a crowning achievement tops St. Martin’s. Atop the church’s Gothic steeple is a gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary. At 85 meters (279 feet) it soars above the Old Town, just as it did when it was first placed there in 1847. It was meant to commemorate the church’s historic role in royal coronations. The crown is still there today, resting on a gold pillow, a spectacular reminder that no matter what nation rules over this land today, it is still history which reigns supreme.


Miracle of Illogic – The Austro-Hungarian Empire In Hindsight

Deep within the dusty tomes of long forgotten history books, hidden nuggets of illuminating information have been known to arise. The old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction can have a much deeper meaning when a fresh light is cast on a once obscure past. As we happen to be on the cusp of the 100th Anniversary of the First World War I have been doing some research on one of my favorite subjects, the Austro-Hungarian Military. Lately I have had the distinct pleasure of reading through Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 prepared by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive. This seven volume set was first published in 1930. Up until just a few years ago there was no English translation available. In 2010, a translation was finally completed by historian Stan Hanna. What an incredible achievement! The seven volumes run to several thousand pages in length. One hazards to guess how Hanna was able to do it all. With this translation English speaking military history buffs now have a window into nearly every facet of the Austro-Hungarian military apparatus during the Great War. A panoramic view is now available of the most multi-cultural empire in European history.

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

To the Ends of an Empire
Consider that it was almost exactly one hundred years ago when the Austria-Hungary went to war with a polyglot group of Central and Eastern Europeans who were tied together for better or worse by an old and faltering monarchy. The empire was home to 51 million people, consisting of nine different ethnic groups of at least a million or more in population. This demographic breakdown still has the power to amaze and confound. How such a multi-cultural, ethnic stew stayed together as long as it did, has become the subject of many debates.

Even more astonishing is the fact that during World War One, the army fought on three separate fronts, suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, numerous setbacks and yet still somehow held together until the very last months of the conflict. Seemingly against all logic, a motley collection of ethnicities carried on a war in some of the most undesirable circumstances and locales experienced by any army in the modern age. Yes there were mutinies at times, yes there were disgruntled soldiers, desertions and surrenders, yes the empire disintegrated at the end of the war. These facts are all indisputable. Yet the empire also lasted for nearly the entire duration of the war, despite a panoply of competing cultures and nationalities vying for freedom, respect and independence.

All for One, One Against All
Perhaps the best way of trying to understand the miracle of illogic that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire is to breakdown just one of the many fascinating statistics found in the seven volumes. On page 42 of Austria-Hungary’s Last War, 1914 – 1918, Volume 1 is the following sentence: “Out of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army there were 25 Germans, 23 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 9 Serbo-Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, and 1 Italian.” This breakdown is quite compelling when viewed with hindsight. Today we know what became of the empire’s ethnic constituents.

Start with the fact that all of the above ethnic groups were squeezed within the borders of a single governing entity. The pressure of that squeeze caused fissures and faults along ethnic lines. The cracks exposed new nations and states, some of which have stood the test of time and others that have long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. A look at what became of these peoples in the aftermath of the empire’s dissolution is revealing. The Germans were predominantly from what would become the nation of Austria. It has been a successful state by any measure, excepting the period when it was sucked up into the vortex of Nazism. Other groups of Germans were scattered in several areas further east. Following the Second World War, luck, fate or a combination of both led them back to Germany via expulsion. The Magyars became a nation, now that they were no longer allowed to be the Kingdom of Hungary. For those Hungarians who still long to right the injustice of the Kingdom’s dismembering by the postwar Treaty of Trianon, they need to keep in mind that in the kingdom, Magyars were barely half the populace. In Hungary today they make up over 90% of the population. The war tore apart the Kingdom, but gave them a nation they can always call their own.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

A Constant State of Becoming
The Czechs united with the Slovaks, creating a state which only lasted until the next war. It rose again after the war, but was peacefully sundered from within. Less than five years after the iron curtain ceased to exist so did Czechoslovakia. The Serbo-Croats started a South Slav state of their own, which descended into warring statelets due to the Second World War. Afterwards it was put back together again, but fell apart once and for all time following the end of communism. Freedom had a strange and unsettling effect on became known as the former Yugoslavia. The Poles finally got their nation back following the Great War, only to have it blown into near oblivion by the Nazis. Somehow it survived. Today it represents a successful, if precarious example of a successful post-communist state.

Then there was the Ruthenes, a people who have become the heart of Ukrainian nationalism in the western Ukraine today. Turning towards the west and then forced east, they are in a constant state of becoming. The story is much the same today as it was during the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia playing its stereotypical role as impoverished backwater has been Europeanized with some success. The Romanians already had their nation, but to them it was never complete without Transylvania. They have pretty much had it that way – with one notable Hungarian forced exception – since the Great War. They have Transylvania, but will they ever have prosperity? And then there were the Tyrol Italians, caught between the Germanic and Latin worlds. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but freed from the shackles of empire these Italians were gluttons who managed to escape the punishing legacy of a post imperial world.

Vanishing Act
In a nutshell, this is the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s constituent parts. What had been all for one prior to the Great War, became every ethnicity for itself at the end of the war. It was self-interest over collective interest. This was the ultimate betrayal of Austria-Hungary and led directly to its ruin. The results were or still are today: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, Greater Romania, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Greater Italy. The loosely unified yet fatally flawed empire is today twelve disparate nations. A whole new world has come into being, born from a vanished one.

All They Needed Was A Reason – The Bombing Of Kassa & Hungary’s Entry Into World War 2

Just after lunchtime, on June 26, 1941, three unidentified planes appeared in the clear skies above the Hungarian city of Kassa (today Kosice, Slovakia). They soon let loose a stream of bombs on the unsuspecting city, civilians ran for cover as the bombs exploded. In just a few minutes the attack was over, over a dozen people had been wounded and some minor damage had been sustained at several buildings, most prominently the post office. It was a quick strike, over with almost as fast as it had occurred. Yet though the bombing may have been brief, its ramifications were long lasting. The next day, Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union, ostensibly over the attack. It was a fateful decision, the consequences of which would be felt for decades to come.

Civilians view damage to residential area after bombing of Kassa on June 26 1941

Civilians view damage to residential area after bombing of Kassa on June 26 1941

Few events in 20th century Hungarian history, loom as large as the bombing of Kassa (Kosice, Slovakia) on June 26, 1941. The disastrous consequences which eventually would flow from this incident, seem out of all proportion to the size and scale of the bombing. The attack damaged some buildings and caused minor civilian casualties in a city that Hungary had only regained two years before. This after Kassa had been part of Czechoslovakia for nearly twenty years.  Kassa was considered by Hungarians to have been theirs all along, but it was a provincial city of only peripheral importance to the nation. More symbolic than strategic.

Assigning Blame or Seeking to Understand
Intriguingly, historians have not been able to pinpoint who actually was responsible for the bombing. There are questions as to whether it was a conspiracy formulated and carried out by the Germans, an attack by the Soviets or perhaps even the Romanians. The bombing of Kassa has become one of Hungarian history’s most intriguing whodunits. Both academic and armchair historians have spent countless hours trying to solve this mystery. By doing so, they have overlooked an even more important question, namely why. Why would Hungary enter the Second World War over what seems retrospectively to have been an incident that could just as easily have been brushed aside. The focus on who carried out the attack while of interest,  is little more than an attempt to retroactively assign blame. Conversely, seeking to answer the question why helps us better understand the fateful decision to go to war.

One way to get at the why, is to understand Hungary’s geostrategic position at the time of the attack. The Hungarian leadership must have been rather happy with itself over the string of successes during the lead up to and early part of the war. They had regained several historically important territories that had been lost in the Treaty of Trianon, the post-World War I peace settlement. Among these were southern Slovakia, northern Transylvania and northern Serbia. These had been regained with minimal military effort. They had literally been “gifts” from the Germans.  Yet territorial  “gifts” from Hitler always came with a cost. A minor cost inflicted at the time, with larger payments due at some ominous future point.

Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy walks  through the streets of Kassa to cheering crowds after the city was regained in 1938

Cheering crowds in Kassa greeted Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy after the city was regained in 1938

A Dangerous Game
Hungary’s major interwar foreign policy goal – some might say their only goal – was to reverse the taking of traditional Hungarian lands in the Trianon settlement. If this meant throwing in their lot with the Nazis, well then so be it. After all, the Allies were the ones who had inflicted Trianon on the Magyar nation. The Hungarians were playing a very dangerous, exceedingly complex game. The question seems to be how far they could go in meeting German demands, while still staying out of the war. It was a classic historical case of the Hungarians wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to avoid getting involved in the war while keeping their territorial gains.

What may well have tipped the country into war was strangely enough not direct German pressure, but instead indirect pressure from their main rivals. Both Slovakia and Romania were supporting the Germans. Romania for one, reportedly dispatched ten divisions to assist Germany in their invasion of the Soviet Union. They also provided a critical source of petroleum for the German war effort.  Such assistance might very well mean that Germany would favor the Romanians in territorial disputes with the Hungarians. The risk that this might occur meant that Hungary had little choice, but to end up fighting with Germany on the Eastern Front if they wanted to keep all the land they had gained over the past three years.

If Not Kassa Then…
The bombing of Kassa gave Hungary a convenient reason to enter the war. If not the bombing of Kassa than it would most likely have been something else, sooner rather than later, that precipitated Hungary’s entry into the war. The Hungarian leadership would not stomach a loss of  their territorial gains. Ironically, it turned out to be a city in the lands lost due to Trianon which provided the rationalization for going to war. It was not so much the Germans, as it was the shame of Trianon that led the Hungarians to declare war. There is history and then there is deep history. History was made due to what happened in Kassa on June 26, 1941, that was the history of the moment. Yet the history of Hungarian involvement in the Second World War has its roots deeper than any one bombing incident. The Hungarians were led into the war by their single minded focus to keep their revisions to Trianon. This was the undertow that pulled them down into the depths.

Trianon was truly a disaster for Hungary and not just at the time it was signed, but also decades later. Both loss and recovery of the lands proscribed by the treaty led to disastrous policies. The major difference between the outcomes is that following the First World War and the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary was still a sizable, independent mid-sized nation. After the Second World War, Hungary was still a nation, back to its original inter-war borders, but it was no longer independent. It would now be a vassal of the Soviet Union for decades to come. This was the ultimate cost of entering the war on Germany’s side and trying to recover and keep the traditional lands of the Hungarian Kingdom.