Old & New Frontiers – The Heathen’s Gate: Roman Austria (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #26)

Once a frontier, always a frontier. That was my thought as a friend and myself crossed the Austria-Slovakia-Hungary frontier. This frontier was ancient history for us since it existed during the Roman Empire. Presently the area is where the tips of east-central Austria, southwestern Slovakia, and northwestern Hungary touch. While we were within 15 minutes of Bratislava and half an hour from Vienna, the area was not overly developed except for the crisscrossing of motorways. With border controls abolished between the three countries after Hungary and Slovakia acceded to the European Union in 2004, it was hard to know which nation we were in if not for the language used on road signs.

The actual point at which all three borders met was in an anonymous field between Rajka, Hungary and Deutsch Jahrndorf, Austria. Gazing at the map, this border seemed almost arbitrary. Of course, I knew better. The post-World War I peace treaties had demarcated dividing lines that were still in effect today. Any place where frontiers meet in Eastern Europe (especially regarding Hungary) was once a point of contention, but another World War and then a Cold War had proved decisive. No one really argued about these borders anymore, economic prosperity in the form of EU membership had largely ameliorated extreme nationalism, at least along what was fast becoming an invisible frontier.

Emerging triumphant – The Heidentor just before sunset in eastern Austria

Carnuntum – The Imperial Centuries
Two thousand years ago, this area was also a frontier. One where the Danube Limes of the Roman Empire abutted the Germanic barbarian tribes. To the north was the Danube River which acted as a dividing line between the Roman and Barbarian worlds for over four hundred years. My friend and I were both ancient history buffs, so we spent an afternoon exploring this borderland. We first stopped in the Slovak town of Rusovce and visited Ancient Gerulata, the remains of a Roman military camp. The military had a formidable presence on the border, as well as a formidable task in fighting back barbarian incursions. From Rusovce we traveled by car just south of the Danube. venturing further west and crossing the Austrian border as we made our way to the spa town of Bad Deutsch-Altenburg and the Museum Carnuntinum.

Unfortunately, it was already getting late in the afternoon. When we discovered that the museum would be closing in 30 minutes, we headed another kilometer down the road to Petronell-Carnuntum, which had open air Roman sites. We were lucky enough to grab a map and guide at the Romisches Stadtviertel, a reconstructed quarter of the civilian city that grew up beyond the Roman legionary fortress that made Carnuntum one of the most powerful places on the frontier. The open air museum had some impressive ruins of the civilian city. This was only a sample of what once stood here. The population of the entire complex was upwards of 50,000. That would put it as the 10th biggest city in Austria today. Carnuntum may have been on the frontier, but it was it at the center of historic events on several occasions. During Emperor Trajan’s reign, at the height of the empire in the early 2nd century AD, Carnuntum became the capital of the province of Pannonia Superior, which sprawled across parts of what are now five separate countries.

Several different Roman legions were stationed in the military fortress for over four hundred years. No less a historical personage than Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent three years at Carnuntum where he wrote part of his seminal work, Meditations. Carnuntum was also where the historic meeting brokered by Diocletian between the Four Tetrachs (Junior/Senior Emperors of the Western/Eastern halves of the empire) took place in 308 AD. The fortress and civilian city also helped facilitate trade. When the Romans were not fighting barbarian tribes, they were trading with them for amber. The Amber Road crossed the Danube at Carnuntum. Another import into the empire, the barbarians, eventually took Carnuntum in 430 AD. Much of the former fortress and civilian city fell into ruin. In many cases, the materials from abandoned structures were used by new settlers to the area for use in building their own homes. In a few cases, the ruins were preserved by a combination of neglect and reverence. The latter explains the most striking artifact that me and my friend would visit, the Heiden tor or Heathen’s Gate.

At the Point of Collapse – The Heidentor in the early 19th century (Credit: Jakab Alt)

Emerging Triumphant – Portal to the Ancient World
It was getting late. The day was moving slowly, but inexorably toward dusk. The sun had begun to sink lower in the sky. At best, there was half an hour of daylight left. We had just stopped to visit a reconstructed gladiator school. It was located on the same spot as the original. We also were able to visit the civilian city’s amphitheater which at one time would have seated up to 8,000 people. Now there was just stone and silence. For an area that had seen all too much war, in both ancient and modern times, the serene and peaceful state of the place as night closed in was a welcome respite. The serene setting had a calming influence on us, but I knew we had one last place to visit before we headed back across the border to Hungary. The map led us up a side road not far from the amphitheater. In a couple of minutes, we were pulling up in our car to a freestanding arch, standing alone and austere in a field. We had come to the Heidentor or Heathen’s Gate. It had been given the name many centuries after Carnuntum’s demise. Locals believed it was the remnants of a pagan leader’s tomb. That was far from the historical truth.

This arched monolith was the ultimate outlier, standing solidly in the earth and flanked by nothingness. It was a strange sight to behold, lacking any other similar structures to place it in the proper context. The Heidentor was the remnant of a four sided triumphal arch, that had been constructed in the mid-4th century to honor Emperor Constantius II (337 -361 AD). There was a plinth where a statue of the emperor would have likely stood. After parking the car, my friend and I approached the arch with a hint of trepidation. This feeling was mixed with a magnetic curiosity. It felt like we were approaching a sleeping giant, one whose presence had to be respected. The arch had stood up too much greater human and natural forces over the centuries. Its survival had been a freak of preservation, an improbable act that defied all threats to its existence. The actions of modern man had little effect upon it.

Ghost Scaffolding – The Heidentor Present & Past (Credit: Gryffindor)

Passing Through – An Almost Religious Kind of Reverence
I reached out and touched the arch’s stone surface to make sure my eyes did not deceive me. The arch glowed in the waning light. Here was an ancient piece of the past that had somehow survived all the way to the present day. A spectacular, stand alone artifact of an ancient frontier city. Everything around the arch had disappeared, except the frontier on which it still stands today. And so, we passed through the Heathen’s Gate with an almost religious kind of reverence. Such was the homage we paid to its past and our present.

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Supermodels In Miniature – Odon Lechner: A Hungarian Art Nouveau Dream (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #24)

Have you ever been so enthralled with a country that it makes you want to spend years visiting all its most important historic structures and monuments? Trying to do it on a single trip, no matter how small the country is almost impossible. I know from my experiences visiting Hungary just how difficult it is to see everything in a single country. I have been fortunate enough to travel through every county in Hungary, seeking out famous and less famous places. Nonetheless, after fourteen trips there are still places I have yet to visit. I must admit the prospect of doing this in any foreign country, including your own, is daunting. That is why a relatively recent trend of parks showcasing miniature versions of historic sites and monuments in European countries has been successful. The idea of a comprehensive display of an entire nation’s best monuments and sites in one place appeals to many tourists. I was able to experience one of these parks for the first time in a visit to Istanbul and hope to do the same next time I am in Hungary.

Not far from the Golden Horn in Istanbul, my wife and I visited Miniaturk. The park was created in 2003 and is home to miniature versions of 135 structures, nearly half of which are in Istanbul. The other models are structures found across Anatolia. In addition, there is a smattering of Ottoman era models located beyond Turkey’s current borders. I can vouch from experience that the presentation was exquisite. The fact that we could get a 360 degree view from what amounted to an aerial perspective was a bonus. It helped me better comprehend such structures as the Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque, which are so large that it can be difficult to grasp how architecturally impressive they are. All the models at Miniaturk are done to 1:25 scale, a size that is easily comprehensible. While strolling through Miniaturk, snapping pictures at will, I began to dream of the possibilities that could be developed at other miniature parks.

Supermodel in Miniature – The Little Blue Church Model at Mini-Europe in Brussels (Credit: Rosario Van Tulpe)

An Exercise In Humility – The Ideal & The Reality
No sooner had my dreams of future Miniaturks been filed in the back of my mind and slowly began to fade away, then I heard from my wife that a park in the city of Szarvas was doing the same thing in eastern Hungary. This sent visions of such famous Hungarian sites as the Parliament Building in Budapest, the Romanesque Church in Jak and Sopron’s Firewatch Tower in 1:25 scale dancing in my head. The exhilaration I felt at the prospect of seeing all the great structures of Hungary in one place was followed by a rather depressing thought. If I did ever make it to Szarvas, I would finally realize just how many great structures in Hungary I had yet to visit. Seeing them all in one place would quantify how many more I had left to see. Of course, I would never pass up an opportunity to visit the park, but it also could render my pursuit of Hungary’s greatest structures futile.

After overcoming my initial bipolar reaction to the park in Szarvas, I began to dream once again of all the possibilities such parks might offer. The spur for these new imaginings occurred while I was looking at some photos that I took several years ago in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital city. One specific photo caught my eye. This was of the Little Blue Church, an incredible architectural confection that is a feast for the eyes.  It is just the kind of structure I would like to revisit, if not in person, at least in a mini park. One model of the church in miniature already exists at the Mini-Europe park in Brussels, Belgium. The church was given the name because its exterior, mosaics and even the roof are all covered in blue. The building and its various embellishments look good enough to eat. It will satisfy the hunger of anyone looking for a Hungarian Art Nouveau and Secessionist style architecture. It gave me an appetite for similar works.

Supermodels – Miniaturk in Istanbul

Eastern Influences – The Future From The Past
The upshot of this wishful thinking was an idea to have a Minipark dedicated to Odon Lechner and other late 19th and early 20th century practitioners of Hungarian Art Nouveau/Secessionist Architecture. More than any other person. Odon Lechner was the leader in creating a style that came to define and symbolize Hungarian Art Nouveau. Among the many buildings he designed was the Little Blue Church. Lechner used Hungarian folk art motifs to develop an eclectic Art Nouveau style (also known as Hungarian secessionism) that called upon influences from the East. Much of this was quasi-oriental and a decisive turn away from the influence of Austria and the west. Among the key traits of this style were the use of Zsolnay decorative ceramic tiles on rooftops and facades, lavish folk ornamentation and curvaceousness.  

Lechner’s style was highly controversial at the time. One of his most famous works, the Postal Building in Budapest, received heavy criticism from the Minister of Culture in the government. Lechner along with other Art Nouveau artists were blacklisted, losing valuable commissions in the process. Though Lechner would suffer loss of reputation and funding, he had the last laugh, as his work has stood the test of time. The criticism did not seem to hurt Lechner’s creativity, one of the last commissions of his life was the Little Blue Church. Lechner’s work is seen today as a uniquely Hungarian form of architecture. As such, there could be no better place to put a minipark dedicated to Hungarian Art Nouveau than in Budapest. This park could showcase the structures he built in the city and beyond it.

An Eclectic Icon – The Little Blue Church in Bratislava (Credit: Thomas Ledl)

The Possible Dream – Radical Innovations
Imagine a dedicated space at Margrit Island for instance, that displays the greatest works of Hungarian Art Nouveau. Front and center would be works from the father of that style, Lechner. Close on the banks of the Danube would stand scale models of Szeged’s City Hall, Bratislava’s Little Blue Church, the Postal Savings Bank, Museum of Applied Arts and Drescher Palais in Budapest. Significant works of Hungarian Secessionism from other architects might include the Cifra Palace in Keckesmet and the Synagogue in Subotica, Serbia. Each of these buildings represents a uniquely Hungarian expression of architecture, one that is both indigenous to the country and organic in its design. These works are staggeringly eclectic and radically innovative. The same might be said of mini parks, an idea that brings together the greatest architectural achievements in a nation’s history to inspire current and future generations.

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The Old Town Born Anew – Bratislava: Raising The Standard (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #23)

European cities are the land of paid parking. Trying to find a free spot can be next to impossible. In many ways this is not that much different from cities in the United States. The problem for me is not having to pay for parking. Instead, trying to figure out how to pay is the problem. The directions are not always in English which makes the situation more difficult. Couple that with the stress of just trying to find a parking spot while vehicles zoom past on narrow streets and the process can quickly become a nightmare. This was the case in Bratislava, where I found myself with an American friend whom I took to visit the Slovakian capital’s evocative Old Town. It is one of the most enchanting places in Eastern Europe, resplendent with historic churches, parts of the Old City walls and a coronation route for Hungarian kings. In other words, it was an experience not to be missed, that was unless we had trouble finding a parking spot.  

On The March – In The Main Square of Bratislava Old Town

Free Parking – Innovation At A Slovakian Shopping Mall
Our trip to Bratislava was unplanned. We had begun the morning just a few kilometers further up the Danube River at Devin Castle. It was a spur of the moment decision to look add Bratislava’s Old Town to our itinerary. There was only one problem, it was an autumn Saturday with beautiful blue sky and sunshine. Sounds great if you are not looking for parking. The Old Town would be packed with visitors, but where were we going to park? The answer came from an American innovation, the shopping mall. The idea has been around since my childhood. If you want people to visit a mall to shop reduce barriers to entry. Thus, the idea of free parking. We found the Aupark shopping mall across the Danube from the Old Town, on the far side of Sad Janka Krala, a beautiful urban green space. The mall had a free parking deck with which we availed ourselves. With the problem of parking solved, we made the 15 minute walk to the Old Town, crossing the Danube on the infamous SNP Most Bridge. The bridge is communism’s answer to UFO’s, such is the span’s absurd design.

Soon we were standing beside a section of Bratislava’s Old City walls, while cars raced passed on the nearby highway. I could feel the ground shaking beneath our feet. It is not often that we experience both past and present in such a bracing juxtaposition. The medieval walls were meant to keep the city safe from an enemy’s armed forces. Their engineers could never have imagined that they might be undermined by lorries and cars moving at a speed that would scarcely have been fathomable in their time. The old and the new here were barely compatible, but somehow motorways and medieval walls managed an uneasy coexistence. The Old Town of Bratislava was still coming to terms with the newer aspects of a capital city that was booming.

Past & Present – City Walls of Bratislava (Credit: Tyssil)

Blown Away By Bratislava – Insights From Within The Walls
An Off The Beaten Track guidebook I have to the Czech and Slovak Republics from 1993 has this to say about the Slovakia’s capital city, “Bratislava is in many ways a gateway to Slovakia without being a destination in its own right – and is not covered in this book.” The opposite of that statement is true today. Bratislava has grown into a city break destination for other Europeans. Its quaint Old Town has been spruced up to the point that it is not hard to imagine it being in Austria, rather than part of a former member of the Eastern Bloc. Walking with my friend through the Old Town five years after my initial visit it was hard to believe just how vibrant this part of the city had become.

People were crowded into restaurants, spilled over onto the sidewalk from cafes and were socializing in the squares. The buildings looked like they had all been given a fresh coat of paint. My travel partner was in a daze, it was sensory overload for him. He did not have any opinion of Bratislava before we arrived, but now he was blown away by the profusion of history, people, and culture on display here. We stopped at a street stall for gelato, a daily delicacy to be enjoyed while traipsing around the Old Town. A few footsteps later we found ourselves in Hlavne namestie (Main Square). That was when we heard drums echoing like thunder through the square. Music began to play as a crowd gathered round. There was a military march in progress, but not a modern one. Only someone from the Renaissance era would instantly recognize what suddenly strode in before our eyes. Reenactors dressed in garb that would have been more befitting of medieval troubadours began to parade through the main square. It was an impressively colorful group of cadres that lent themselves to photography. I took out my phone to try and capture the spirit they projected throughout the square. I snapped away, hoping that at least a couple of the images would be worth keeping.

Raising The Standard – In The Main Square of Bratislava Old Town

Flag Waving – A Parade In Progress
It was only later in the evening that I realized just how good one of the images had turned out. Standing close to those marching I snapped an image of a flag bearer whose blue standard unfurled behind him. The flag looked as though it were made of velvet. A bit to the right and partially hidden was another flag bearer, whose red and white flag could be seen. Behind these two flag bearers a few drummers marched, further back were soldiers carrying lances. Many of them were wearing colorful pantaloons. Velvety blues, lush reds, starched whites, and leathery brown were the colors showcased by this motley crew. The pageantry on display during that early afternoon was invigorating. I have never been much on reenactments, but this one was a renaissance, both in a literal and figurative sense. It felt festive, fun, and historically accurate. Whether it was or not, I had no idea. It was a dream born into reality before our very eyes. In concert with the colorful buildings surrounding the square, this was a feast for the eyes. Bratislava’s Old Town had been born anew.

Click here for: Supermodels In Miniature – Odon Lechner: A Hungarian Art Nouveau Dream (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #24)


Eternal Libations – Kezmarok: The Wooden Articular Church & Pub (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #19)

Many years ago, I talked my mother into a side trip on the high plains of Montana. We were passing through the area on our way to visiting Glacier National Park. I wanted to see some of the obscure and often abandoned towns that dotted the high plains east of the park. Along the way, we came upon several communities that looked like they had not changed much over the past hundred years. Our explorations eventually brought us close to the Canadian border and the town of Sunburst, Montana. Sunburst was the opposite of its vivid name. Most of the buildings were well past their prime, that is if there had ever been one. My main reason for stopping in Sunburst was to look at the remnants of a small oil boom that occurred there in the early 20th century. Some of the old equipment used to pump oil from wells was scattered about.

Restored beauty – Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok (Credit: Zuzana Medveova)

Spirits & The Spiritual – Bar None
While looking at the industrial detritus marooned in Sunburst, we just so happened upon a unique place. Sunburst was home to a church that had been turned into a bar. This was not as shocking as it might sound. Almost any town of note on the high plains will have one of each. In this case though, the bar had kept much of the church intact. After patrons finished drinking at the Mint Bar, they could walk right into the church to repent. I felt like this was one of the most novel and intensely ironic places I had ever visited. It was an idea that made a great deal of sense to me. I was surprised that it had not been done before. Many years later, in a land that could not have been further away from northern Montana, I visited the eastern Slovakian town of Kezmarok. That was when I came across a place strangely similar – only in reverse – to the bar turned church in Sunburst.

One of the most important religious buildings in Kezmarok, the Wooden Articular Church, has a history defined by duality. Where people now repent for their sins, they once drank to excess. Where citizens find spiritual sustenance, their distant forebears enjoyed alcoholic beverages. The Wooden Articular Church has stood much longer than the Mint Bar, but for all their differences in country and culture, I discovered that in at least one respect, Sunburst and Kezmarok have something in common. The irony of a church/bar or vice versa is not foreign to either town. The past was a different kind of place in both towns. In the case of two unique buildings, so is the present.

Prior to Restoration – Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok (Credit: Sludge G)

In The Crosshairs – Fighting For Faith
Kezmarok was once in the crosshairs of history. The Reformation, followed by an Austrian inspired Counter-Reformation, took a heavy toll on the Lutheran community in the town. The Austrians connected Protestantism with the Hungarian nobility which had revolted against their rule during the late 17th and early 18th century. As such, the Austrians dealt harshly with anyone who was not a Catholic. They imposed draconian measures on Protestants, making it more difficult for adherents to worship when and where they wanted. Kezmarok, as one of the larger towns in what was historically known as the Spis region, had a large Lutheran community. They were given the right to build one church in which they would be allowed to worship. The restrictions put on the construction of the church speaks volumes. Just because their rulers also happened to be Christians did little to mitigate the strictness of laws imposed upon the Protestant community of Kezmarok.

One of the more extreme measures the Austrians decreed was that no Protestant churches could be constructed within the town walls. They were not about to provide any type of protection to rival faiths. The size of the church was also proscribed by a clever ruse. The law said that a Protestant church had to be completed within 365 days of the beginning of construction. Such a timetable was lightning speed by the standards of that historical era. It was not unusual for a church’s construction to take several years under the best of circumstances. It would be difficult, but not impossible to meet such an accelerated timeline. The materials involved in the building were also limited. The Hungarian elite, which would usually have donated funds to build the church, had been gutted by the Austrians. Many of the nobility were either in jail or landless due to confiscatory policies imposed upon them to break their will to resist. The large German population was also viewed with suspicion. Trying to raise funds to build the church was a difficult task

Donations to build a Protestant church in Kezmarok came from as far afield as Scandinavia. The assistance with construction was a case of fellow Lutherans supporting their spiritual brethren. Financing the church was hard enough, finding the material to build it presented another problem. Fortunately, Kezmarok was situated in the shadow of the High Tatras. Wood was abundant, available, and cheap. It was used as the building material.  The nails that held the church together were even made of wood. The restrictions imposed upon the Protestants led to greater creativity during the construction. One part of what would become the church existed prior to construction. In what was perhaps the most humiliating of all the Austrian regulations governing construction, a royal committee chose where the church would be located. It was on a site that included a pub. The latter would be incorporated into the Wooden Articular Church. In this case, necessity was not only the mother of humiliation, but also invention. The pub would become the sacristy in the newly erected church.

Ready for a close up – Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok (Credit: SchiDD)

Keeping The Faith – From Pub To Protestantism
The Wooden Articular Church is a protected monument that can still be visited today. It has changed from its initial iteration. Stylistically, the church went from being a Renaissance inspired construction, to an early 18th century Baroque one. A few elements from the original, including a baptistry and epitaph, can still be seen today. The transformation of the pub into part of the church is an important part of its earliest history. The Austrians thought they were putting Protestants in their proper place by relegating a portion of the church to the lowly status accorded a pub. As so often happens, their oppressive measures only served to strengthen the faith of the oppressed. In that resistance, the Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok was constructed and soon became an integral part of the city. It just goes to show that the spiritual is much more powerful than spirits. If only the same could be said for the Mint Bar in Sunburst.

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The Cold, Harsh Reality – Borsa: Birthplace of Ferenc II Rakoczi (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #12)

A large swath of northeastern Hungary, southwestern Ukraine and eastern Slovakia can rightfully be called Ferenc II Rakoczi country. For anyone who does not who Rakoczi was and why he is held in such great reverence by Hungarians, they might want to take a look at his image on the 500 forint banknote. Rakoczi can be found on the right side of the banknote. In this rendering, he has a head full of dark flowing hair, a swirling mustache, and a mesmerizing stare. He looks the very image of a warrior/statesman. In this case, the image meshes with reality. Rakoczi was the leader of a Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule. As these uprising usually went for Hungarians, there was a series of astonishing victories, but not enough to prove decisive. Rakoczi’s role was so prominent, the conflict goes by the title Rakoczi’s War of Independence.

Frozen in time – Bust of Ferenc Rakoczi in Borsa, Slovakia

Giving Birth – A Legend In Their Own Minds
It as though Rakoczi had the power to not only prosecute a war for eight years (1703-1711), but also to cause a suspension of disbelief. Since Rakoczi’s name is attached to the conflict, it gives the impression he was doing all the fighting himself. This is far from the truth. Rakcozi was the most important and indispensable figure in a war effort that came close to achieving Hungarian independence. That dream would have to wait a century and a half longer. Despite losing the war, Rakoczi endeared himself to Hungarians by never accepting an amnesty. He went into exile in Turkey with many of his most loyal subjects. They held him in great reverence to the end of his life. After his death they and others, kept man and myth alive.

Rakoczi has become in death what he was in life, a symbol of Hungarian independence. As such, he is venerated in Hungary and several sites in historically Hungarian lands. Those lands, such as in eastern Slovakia, are now foreign to Hungarians. The story was different during the early 18th century when these lands were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. I have visited many sites associated with Rakoczi, both in Hungary and abroad, including Sarospatak Castle (found on the reverse side of the 500 forint banknote), Vay Castle and St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice (site of Rakoczi’s tomb). The latter can be found in Slovakia. On one trip, purely by happenstance, I found one of the most important Rakoczi sites entirely by accident. This was his birthplace in the small village of Borsa.

The beginners guide – Historical plaque on the wall at Ferenc Rakoczi Castle in Borsa Slovakia

Passing Interest – A Day To Be Endured
I hope the day never comes when I run out of places to visit that are associated with Hungarian history. After fifteen trips, I am still discovering places I barely knew existed. Case in point, Rakoczi’s birthplace in Borsa. Me and my wife found it through sheer serendipity while on a winter journey that along the backroads of northeastern Hungary and just across the border into Slovakia. We made this journey armed with a detailed road map which marked historic sites such as castles and churches throughout the region. After leaving the Zemplen Hills, we set off eastward along remote roadways where the local traffic was light and snowflakes swirled wildly. The sky was filled with perpetual gloom as droplets of precipitation floated through the air. We were traveling during the depths of winter, at a time when much of the land was covered in dirty, wet snow.

The scene was bleak and unforgiving. This was a day to be endured rather than embraced. The only thing to distract our attention from the despair we felt at the lack of sunshine was a search for any place of historical interest. We were skirting the Hungary-Slovak border, winding our way eastward in Hungary through places I had never seen mentioned in any travel guide. An Arpad era (High Middle Ages) church in Karos and a Renaissance Palace in Pacin. It was in the latter that we decided to cross north of the border to visit a ruined castle marked on our map at Velky Kamenec. We soon discovered that there was hardly anything left of the castle. The fact that it was pouring snow by this point did not help with visibility. A steep walk up the promontory where the castle once stood was treacherous. The walk back down even worse. My wife made the smart decision to stay in the car. All I got for my trouble were bad photos and shoes streaked with mud and slush.

The dream is still alive – Rakoczi statue at the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

A Quiet Veneration – Covered In Glory
At this point we decided to stay in Slovakia for a few more kilometers before heading back down into Hungary. We drove slowly through mist, fog and wet snow which fortunately failed to stick to the highway. When we got to the town of Borsa, I noticed a small sign with the shape of a castle on it and the word, “Kastiel” pointing down a road. Obviously, this got my attention. Winding our way past small houses covered in wet snow we came to the Ferenc Rakoczi II castle. (Kastiel Frantiska II. Rakociho). From the roadway, the Kastiel did not look formidable. If anything, it looked more like a palace than a castle. And from the looks of it, one badly in need of repair. My focus soon turned from the structure to a sculpture. A bust of Rakoczi, with half his face visible and the other half covered in frozen snow stood not far from the entrance. What caught my attention were the many multicolored ribbons tied to the lower half of it. All the ribbons were in the red, white, and green colors of the Hungarian flag. This was a tell tale sign that Hungarians traveled here to pay homage to Rakoczi.

My wife translated the text of inscriptions on various commemorative plaques and markers. I was astonished to learn that this was the birthplace of Ferenc Rakoczi II. He had been born in the southwest bastion of the castle on March 27, 1676.  It was mind boggling to learn that the same Rakoczi whose magnificent equestrian statue stands on the grounds of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest was born in this cracked and crumbling castle in the provincial village of Borsa. The contrast between what I saw here. and the veneration of Rakoczi in Hungary could not have been more different. I walked into the courtyard, snapped some photos, and peered into a few windows. The site was not abandoned, but it did look almost derelict in places. In the summer, it would have looked much different with foliage in bloom and a small museum open. Summer seemed impossible on this day, as did the glorification of Rakoczi I have seen so many times in Hungary. What I saw on this wintry day in a Slovakian village was the reality, rather than the ideal of history.

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The Ride of My Life – A Path To & From Pannonhalma (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #10)

It begins a couple of hours before the break of dawn. At 4:38 in the morning, a train from the Hungarian State Railways pulls into the village station at the town of Pannonhalma in western Hungary. The time that elapses between the train’s arrival and departure is a little over a minute. Anyone who might have missed the train need not worry, because the same thing will happen again at 5:47, 6:46, 8:03, 10:09 and so on. Nine times each day, a train arrives and then departs from Pannonhalma. It then heads westward to the city of Gyor. Many of its passengers go to work in the city and its outskirts. They enjoy all the benefits of living in a quiet village that is in near proximity to the economic engine that Gyor has become in this part of Hungary.

The trip from Pannonhalma to Gyor takes less time, twenty-seven minutes, than a person will spend watching a television sitcom. When it comes to travel, sometimes briefer can be better. It is not the length of a journey that determines its memorability, but the quality and/or novelty of the experience. The older trains on which journeys to or from Pannonhalma take place, often pull battered railway carriages. These carriages were built to be functional, rather than comfortable. Each carriage usually has twice as many empty seats as occupied ones. If a traveler arrives at the right time, they might be able to enjoy their own personal railway carriage. My wife and I had this exact experience on a beautiful autumn day. It turned out to be the most memorable part of a long awaited journey.

Looking up – Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey (Credit: torobala)

Deep Roots – Present Before The Creation
Pannonhalma had occupied my thoughts for several years. That is a strange thing to say about a town that has just 3,948 inhabitants according to the Hungarian census. I was a bit miffed for not taking the time to visit it while in Gyor eighteen months earlier. For those exploring the earliest roots of Hungarian history, Pannonhalma is a must visit. Its history begins in the Middle Ages and continues all the way through to the present. The reason for our visit to this otherwise forgettable town was for one simple reason. It is home to the Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey, which has improbably survived over a thousand years of often turbulent history while perched on a hilltop rising above the town. The archabbey is one of the most significant religious sites in Hungary, and for that matter all of Europe. That is why it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The genesis of the site’s significance dates all the way back to the late Roman Empire, half a millennium before the Magyars conquered the Carpathian Basin. Legend has it that Saint Martin of Tours (an extremely powerful Christian bishop) was born at the foot of Marton-hegy (Marton Hill), though it is more likely he was born somewhere in the wider region. Marton-hegy became the site for the first Hungarian Benedictine Monastery, built in 996 AD, approximately a hundred years after the Magyars had arrived in the area. Just four years later, Hungary would turn decisively toward the west after Istvan I was crowned as king by a papal legate in Esztergom.

It might be said that Pannonhalma was present before the creation. The site’s longevity and spiritual significance are beyond compare in Hungary. That is why my wife and I took a train from Budapest to Pannonhalma on a warm autumn morning. We were looking forward to visiting the archabbey. My first glimpse of it came via the railway carriage window when our train pulled into the station. My most vivid memories of the trip to Pannonhalma are completely unexpected ones. They have nothing to do with the Archabbey which was as magnificent as advertised. Instead, it was our arrival and departure by train that made the most lasting impressions.

Station Master – Attendant at Pannonhalma Station

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly ­- Stationed Out Front
One way of immortalizing a moment is capturing it in a photograph. This is easier said than done when the subject is train travel. Fortunately, I took a moment after we arrived in Pannonhalma to snap a photo of the station with one of the attendants standing out front. The photo will not win any awards, but it is still special to me for what it represents, a scene that takes place in hundreds of towns and villages across Hungary every day. This is the moment when the station attendant takes center stage as they wait to signal the train for departure. This is done by holding up a stick that has a round sign on it. The sign lets the locomotive’s engineer know that all passengers have boarded the train and it is now time to proceed further down the line. In my photo, this officious task is done by a woman, dressed in a smart blue uniform, and wearing a peaked cap. Behind her is the rather grim Pannonhalma Railway Station. The station is covered in graying stone and dirty brick that shows its age.

The photo represents the contradictions of post-communist transport in Hungary. A smartly dressed attendant standing in front of a station which is in a suspended state of painfully slow decay. The good, the bad and the ugly are all on display here. Pannonhalma is just another stop in a long series of them for those riding the rails. I caught the attendant in the act of doing her job. While standing in front of the station, she looks like a latter day lord of the manor. For eight or more hours a day, the station is her home. Everyone who comes and goes is a mere visitor. Their place in the world is to be found somewhere further up or down the line. While the attendant’s place is stable, secure, and static. She knows her place in the world, if only the rest of us were so lucky.

The Road Ahead – Pannonhalma Archabbey on Marton-hegy

The Loner – Personalizing The Experience
Later we would depart from Pannonhalma the same way we came, via the railway. Besides the attendant, we were the only two people at the station. The train soon arrived as a lifeline to the outside world, ready to transport us westwards to Gyor. We were the only passengers for this journey, not only from Pannonhalma, but also from other stops further up the line. The railway carriage we chose was empty. I soon discovered the entire train was empty except for me and my wife. This was a first for us and a delightful one at that. Having your own car is a rite of passage, having your own airplane is all but impossible, but having your own train is still possible in Hungary.

Click here for: Palace Intrigue – Mikosdpuszta: The Dream & The Reality (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #11)


An Accident of History – A Crash Course In Conspiracy: Milan Stefanik (Part Three)

How many lives did Milan Stefanik have? The answer turned out to be not enough when his incredible life came crashing to an end just outside of Bratislava in the spring of 1919. It is a tragic and bitter irony that Stefanik managed to survive the First World War, but not the peace. Stefanik had managed to escape with his life while flying as a fighter pilot over one of the most lethal war zones in human history, the Western Front. He then flew thirty missions safely over Serbia on the Southern Front before a plane crash in Albania threatened to abruptly end his existence. He managed to outlive that experience, but just barely. He came back to France for a long and slow recovery before spending part of the 1917-18 winter in Siberia. Beset by his own physical problems and dealing an anarchic battlefront in eastern Russia, Stefanik had managed to somehow cheat death yet again. Thus, the routine flight Stefanik was taking from northern Italy to Bratislava should have given him little to worry about. After all his wartime brushes with death, Stefanik was on his way home to an independent Czechoslovak state he had done so much to create. The flight should have been a return to glory, it turned out very differently.

An Accident of History - Crash site in Ivanka pri dunaji

An Accident of History – Crash site in Ivanka pri dunaji (Credit: tfsimon)

The Final Descent – Flights Of Fantasy
Just 15 kilometers northeast of Bratislava, between the town of Ivanka pri dunaji and the Bratislava Airport (officially known as the M.R. Stefanik Airport), stands a pyramidal shaped stone monument. This marks the spot where a plane carrying Milan Stefanik and three Italian military men crashed on May 4, 1919. Stefanik’s homecoming ended in tragedy. Since that time, the accident has been shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Explanations, both plausible and ridiculous, regarding just what happened have become the playground of conspiracy theorists ever since. Was Stefanik’s plane deliberately shot down on clandestine orders from Czechs who wanted the most powerful Slovak leader out of the way? Was it shot down by Hungarian forces who were on the edge of Bratislava at that time attempting to take territory back from Czechoslovakia? Did the sickly and frail Stefanik commit suicide by deliberately crashing the plane? Was he murdered by the Italians flying with him? Or was it just an accident? One that robbed the Slovaks of their greatest political voice, a man who would have forcefully advocated for Slovak equality and autonomy within Czechoslovakia. The answer will likely never be known, but that has not stopped speculation continuing right up through today.

The basic facts regarding Stefanik’s ill-fated final flight are not in dispute. On the morning of May 4th, an Italian Caprioni ca. 3, a three-engine wooden biplane bomber piloted by Stefanik, took off from an airfield near the city of Udine in northeastern Italy. In addition to Stefanik, there were three Italians onboard, two of whom were also military pilots. Their flight path took the aircraft over the Julian Alps and Austrian territory. Everything proceeded according to plan until the plane arrived on the outskirts of Bratislava. Eyewitness accounts state that the plane touched down but failed to land. A second landing attempt was aborted by an explosion and the resulting crash. Everyone onboard was killed. Photos of the aftermath show what was left of the aircraft in twisted and broken pieces. The anecdotal and physical evidence seems to confirm that the plane and its passengers were victims of an accident, something which was much more common in those days.

The Slovak Ace - Milan Stefanik

The Slovak Ace – Milan Stefanik (Credit: tfsimon)

Perpetual Speculations – Best & Worst Guesses
The official reasons given for the crash were poor weather and technical failure. These helped fuel perpetual speculation that the authorities may have been covering up the true cause of Stefanik’s death. Those who were present in the area that day remembered sunny skies and little wind. Technical failure may or may not have been the cause, but proving it was a nebulous exercise. The authorities did not help matters by waiting seven years before an official investigation was conducted that took several years to complete. By that point, many had already made up their own minds about what had happened. One theory was that the plane had been shot down by Czech forces who wrongly mistook its Italian markings for those of Hungarian ones. The two countries’ favored colors of green, red and white are similar. A modern investigation largely disproved this theory. Others thought Hungarian communist forces, who had made it as far as a bridge crossing the Danube, shot the plane down. Considering the distance between the bridge into Bratislava and the crash site this has been deemed impossible.

The most insidious theory was that the Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs and Stefanik’s political nemesis, Edvard Benes, ordered the plane shot down. Benes had earlier concluded a military alliance with France without consulting Stefanik, who was the Minister of War. He had also proceeded to have a Czech appointed as head of military affairs for Czechoslovakia. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the new state was to be run by Czechs and their interests were to come before Slovak ones. By this point, there was a great deal of tension between Stefanik and Benes that was unlikely to abate. Nonetheless, there is no compelling evidence for the theory that Benes plotted Stefanik’s assassination. A reading of Czechoslovak politics also does not point in such a direction. Since he had successfully kept Stefanik out of the most powerful positions, there was no reason for Benes to have Stefanik murdered. In addition, Benes had never shown a proclivity for violence to accomplish political goals. Thus, it is highly unlikely Benes had anything to do with the plane crash.

Accidental Memory - Monument marking the Stefanik plane crash

Accidental Memory – Monument marking the Stefanik plane crash (Credit: Juraj Kubica)

A Dream Deferred – Dead On Arrival
That leaves the question of what exactly caused Stefanik’s plane to crash on a beautiful spring day a century ago. The truth will never be known, but it is almost certainly more mundane than conspiracy theorists would like to believe. An Italian officer on the ground that day reported that after the plane was unable to land on its initial attempt, there appeared to be water leaking from the coolant area. It was not long after that the explosion occurred which brought the plane crashing to the ground. With it the hopes that Slovaks had invested in Stefanik went up in flames. The man who had done more than anyone else for Slovak independence died before his dream could be fully realized.

A War For Czech & Slovak Independence – The French Connection: Milan Stefanik (Part Two)

For Milan Stefanik, World War I was marked by the best and worst times of his life. On one hand, he excelled in the French Army’ flying forces. As a pilot he was one of those knights of the sky, flying high above the catastrophic calamity taking place in the sodden tranches of the Artois far below, Stefanik soared to new heights defeating German fighters in aerial duels. This dashing, romantic image fits well with his rise to the status of Major General in the French Army. Unfortunately, the war also brought the worst of times for Stefanik. While stationed in Serbia on an Allied Mission, his plane crashed in Albania. Badly injured, he somehow managed to defy death and eventually make his way back to Paris where surgeon’s managed to save his life. The injuries he sustained only added to Stefanik’s health woes. He had suffered from debilitating stomach ailments for years. His continued survival owed much to his force of will.

The Aviator - Statue of a wartime Milan Stefanik

The Aviator – Statue of a wartime Milan Stefanik (Credit: Jozef Kotulic)

A Committee Of One – Slovakia’s Man In Paris
Stefanik’s willpower was put to good use in another cause as he joined with the Czech duo of Tomas Masaryk and Edvard Benes during the war to advocate for an independent Czechoslovakia. Stefanik was the only one among the trio whose efforts were chiefly focused on supporting Slovak independence. For Masaryk and Benes, the Slovaks were the periphery rather than the core of a nation they imagined would be run by Czechs. Nonetheless. without the Slovaks a purely Czech state would have been too small and fragile. Thus, Stefanik was vital to the nation building process. While relatively anonymous in his homeland, Stefanik was by far the most politically connected of the three in France. He was well known by many of the leading politicians. His accomplishments had gained him a great deal of respect and notoriety. So much so, that prior to the war he had been knighted into the French Legion of Honor.

Stefanik was able to use his connections to build support for the Czechoslovak state. This was no small feat, since France would be critical to creating a new postwar European order if the Central Powers were defeated. Gaining French support meant gaining access to the most powerful government officials in the country. This was where Stefanik’s connections would prove to be invaluable. In early February 1916, though still bedridden while recovering from stomach surgery, he managed to arrange a meeting between Masaryk and the French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand. Following the meeting, Briand went so far as to publicly state, “we (the French) will do everything in order that the Czechs may gain their independence.” This professed support from a top French official helped boost the idea of Czechoslovak independence as an Allied war aim. Without Stefanik, it is doubtful that the meeting would have ever taken place. A few days after the meeting, the trio of Masaryk, Benes and Stefanik formed the Czech National Council which would morph into the Czechoslovak National Committee and eventually become the de facto Czechoslovak government.

The French Connection - Milan Stefanik

The French Connection – Milan Stefanik

For Cause Not Comrades – A Matter of Character
Stefanik had become the most powerful Slovak in Europe. The fact that he had not lived in his homeland since 1904 was ironic. It also showed the power of exiles. When the war started, Hungary had declared martial law. The result of which was that the Slovak national movement was stifled within Austria-Hungary. Conversely, Stefanik was encouraged to work for Slovak independence while in wartime France as well as in other nations. His diplomacy and charisma were a potent mix that was soon put to good use further abroad. He traveled first to the United States and then later to Russia on important assignments even though his health was deteriorating. The fact that he found the reserves of energy necessary to make such long and sometimes treacherous journeys is testament to his fortitude. Weak and ailing he found himself in the winter of 1918 deep inside Russia trying to convince the Czechoslovak Legionnaries to continue fighting against the Bolsheviks. Most of them were near mutiny and wanted to get across Siberia to transports in Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast as fast as possible so they could start the long journey back home.

As winter closed in, with Russia riven by the chaos of an incipient Civil War, Stefanik traveled along the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Yekaterineburg and then further west to the battlefront. There he found the Legionnaires in dreadful spirits. He was temporarily able to raise their morale, but unlike other military men who were involved in politics, he told the Legionnaries what they did not want to hear. With his fellow soldiers, Stefanik was honest to a fault. He stated that no Allied help was on the way. It was fight or flight. Seeing this frail national hero speak with every ounce of energy he could muster must have been inspiring. It was also alarming to those who saw how much Stefanik was struggling with his health. He fainted several times while speaking due to sheer exhaustion. Stefanik was a man on a mission that might well cost him his life. Duty and honor came before his well-being. How he managed to make it out of Russia while still alive had much to do with his incredible courage.

Czechmate – The Marginalization of Stefanik
Tragically or treacherously, depending on one’s point of view, Stefanik had little idea what Masaryk and Benes were up to while he soldiered back across Siberia and on to a transport that would carry him back to Europe. Czechoslovakia’s independence had been declared. Plans were now being made that would prove decisive in the role that Czechs played in the new nation-state. Benes, the consummate political maneuverer, worked without Stefanik’s knowledge to firm up a military alliance with France. At this point, Stefanik was the Minister of War, but that seemed to matter little to Benes or Masaryk who acceded to his main lieutenant’s wishes. The newly formed government in Prague went so far as to name a Minster of National Defense that also a Czech. Exactly what role Stefanik would play in a cabinet dominated by Czechs was anyone’s guess. The triumvirate that had meant so much to the creation of Czechoslovakia was quickly becoming a dynamic duo of Masaryk and Benes, with Stefanik the odd man out. The man who would come to be known as the Greatest Slovak was a marginalized one in the new Czechoslovakia.

Click here for: An Accident of History – A Crash Course In Conspiracy: Milan Stefanik (Part Three)

The Greatest Slovak – Aiming For The Stars: Milan Stefanik (Part One)

Before Slovakia achieved independence in 1993 Slovak heroes were hard to find. There were two reasons for this, which might best be summed up as friends and enemies. The Slovak people’s closest friends (a better word might be allies) were the Czechs. The problem was that the Czechs saw themselves as more advanced economically, politically and culturally. Concerning economics this was largely true, but politically and culturally it was more a matter of interpretation. The Slovaks bristled under what they considered the Czechs’ patronizing attitude towards them. That being said, at least the two were able to create a nation-state together. When it came to enemies, the Slovaks were in a much worse position. The Hungarians were their historic foe, subsuming Slovaks in the Kingdom of Hungary for a millennium. Unless they were willing to become Magyars they stood little chance of gaining any official position within the kingdom.

The Hungarians believed it was in their best interests to keep the Slovaks occupied, not with trade, education or managing the land, but by telling them what to do. A situation that got much worse after Hungary was given equal status in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. The Hungarians were in denial. As in they were denying Slovaks many of the rights that ethnic Hungarians enjoyed. This ended up producing a predictable backlash which resulted in the Slovaks joining the Czechs in union at the first opportunity, which came at the end of World War I. Yet the Slovaks took a back seat to the Czechs right from the start in Czechoslovakia. This continued throughout the checkered history of that nation. The union would end with a Velvet Divorce in 1993. Nonetheless, resistance to Hungarian domination and Czech patronization produced some of the first Slovak national heroes. The man who is widely acknowledged as standing above all the rest when it comes to Slovak national heroes of that time is Milan Rastislav Stefanik. His life represents the great and not so great of Slovak History in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A crucial period in the growth of Slovak nationalism that would not bear fruit until well after Stefanik passed away.

The Scientific Warrior - Milan Stefanik

The Scientific Warrior – Milan Stefanik

A Man Of Contradictions – Lasting Professions
In 2018-19 Slovakian public broadcasting channel RTVS commissioned a poll asking their viewers to name the greatest Slovak in history. A list of one hundred was first compiled and later whittled down to ten. A series of documentaries was then aired which highlighted the each of the ten nominees. From this list, Milan Rastislav Stefanik (1880 – 1919) was named as The Greatest Slovak. The odd thing was that though every Slovak knows Stefanik and his litany of accomplishments today, during his lifetime he was mostly an anonymous figure to his own people. That is not as surprising as it sounds. Stefanik spent a good deal of his life faraway from Slovakia.

He first became famous abroad, rather than at home. The best days of his life took place in France. The most famous image of him is deceptive. It shows Stefanik in his military uniform and cap. This is an image that every Slovak has in mind when the name Stefanik is mentioned. Few realize that the cap covers his baldness or that the statuesque soldier pictured was only 5’3” inches tall (1.64 meters). He also looks vigorous and healthy in the photograph, but he was in dire physical health during the war. Stefanik was a man of contradictions. These included his upbringing and chosen profession.

Kosariska - The Birthplace of Milan Stefanik

Kosariska – The Birthplace of Milan Stefanik (Credit: Pavel Masa)

Stefanik was born in the small village of Kosariska in northwestern Slovakia. The village was located in a remote area that was surrounded by thick forests and small mountains. This was a typically Slovakian setting where large families of landless peasants scratched out a hardscrabble living. Stefanik was the sixth of eleven children in a family whose patriarch was an evangelical Lutheran minister. It was from these humble origins that Stefanik would begin to acquire an education that would serve him well throughout his short, eventful life. The village was in the Hungarian ruled part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As such, Stefanik attended both Slovak and Hungarian schools where he learned both languages. His linguistic skills would come in handy many years later when he began to travel abroad.

On A Diplomatic Mission - Milan Stefanik visiting Washington DC in 1917

On A Diplomatic Mission – Milan Stefanik visiting Washington DC in 1917

Astronomical Projections – Spying On The World
Stefanik’s first formative experience away from home took place in Prague, where he studied at Charles University. One of his professors was none other than Tomas Masaryk, who he would later work with to help create Czechoslovakia. The university was also where he was initially subjected to the idea of the Czechs and Slovaks unifying in an independent state. This idea sparked a lifelong passion for Slovak nationalism. At the same time, Stefanik found another love at university, the study of astronomy. It might be said that in everything he did, Milan Stefanik aimed for the stars. Unlike most, he managed to achieve many of his goals. Astronomy took Stefanik much farther in life than he could have ever dreamed. After completing his education, Stefanik soon found himself in France. He made contacts with eminent scientists as well as others of the elite in French society. Before long he was sailing the high seas to Tahiti where he built an observatory. Many historians believe Stefanik was really spying on German interests in the South Pacific.

Such experiences made him a dedicated Francophile, which culminated in French citizenship for Stefanik in 1912. Little did he realize at the time, but this would be a propitious move for his future career prospects. Following the outbreak of World War I, Stefanik joined the French Army as a fighter pilot on the Western Front. He would quickly rise through the ranks to that of a major general. This gave him a special status when representing the interests of Slovaks to the Allies. During this period, Stefanik began to move into the political arena. As the idea of Czechoslovakia began to coalesce in France around the efforts of Masaryk, the Slovak’s leading light was Stefanik. His credibility was enhanced by the fact that he was a warrior politician. A man of action, with an innate intelligence matched only by his ambition. An ambition that would tragically come to an unexpected end.

Click here for: A War For Czech & Slovak Independence – The French Connection: Milan Stefanik (Part Two)

The Man On A White Horse – Horthy Riding Into History & Catastrophe (The Kosice Chronicles #9)

The man on a white horse rode in repeatedly, first entering the cities of western Hungary and then moving towards the capital. He would reappear at the most opportune moments to remind Hungarians of their greatness. The pinnacle of his initial ascendancy was when he rode into Budapest with his army on a chilly mid-November day. It was a signal that things were about to change and they did. Like an avenging angel, Miklos Horthy was the man who had come to rescue Hungary from the Red Terror of Bolshevism. The white horse and Horthy became synonymous, symbolic saviors that would continue to reappear as dismembered Hungary was slowly stitched back together by his policy of revisionism. The image of Horthy in the streets of Budapest, riding triumphant and tall in the saddle, would outlive him, but not his tarnished legacy.

Riding Into History - Horthy in Kassa on November 11, 1938

Riding Into History – Horthy in Kassa on November 11, 1938

A False Belief – Temporary Measures

For most Hungarians during the interwar period, Horthy stood for stability and security. Hungary was threatened on all sides by newly formed or expanding nations who had taken sizable portions of Hungarian rules lands when the nation was at its most vulnerable following defeat in World War I. Horthy brought a sense of confidence and unyielding resilience in the face of adversity. To put it bluntly, he stopped the bleeding and salved the nation’s wounds, but he never would heal them. Instead his policies would eventually lead to even worse than what he inherited. Yet it was his determined visage that became the most enduring image in the mind of Hungarians during this period.

Horthy restored hope, but it was built upon a false belief that the country could eventually be made whole again. That Transylvania, Vojvodina, the Burgenland and Felvidek would be restored to their rightful place in Hungarian minds. Except for the Burgenland, restoration would eventually come. In the leadup to World War II, the revisionist policy, a national obsession which Horthy stoked, eventually met with success. And once again out came Horthy on his white horse, this time riding through the streets of Kosice (Kassa for Hungarians). Here was a man of action whose mere presence spoke much louder than words. It was quite a scene, one that would not last.

The Man On A White Horse - Horthy rides into Budapest

The Man On A White Horse – Horthy rides into Budapest

The First Vienna Award – Dealing With The Devil

Such events as The Treaty of Versailles, The Munich Conference and The Nuremberg Laws have an ominous aura about them. Those who study the history of interwar Europe know that these events were major stepping stones on the road to another world war. Conversely, I have never heard anyone refer to the First or Second Vienna Awards, where Hungary gained Felvidek (present day southern Slovakia) in the former and northern Transylvania in the latter. There are good reasons for the historical anonymity of the Vienna Awards, one of which is quite frivolous. A Vienna Award sounds like a prize that someone might win at an equestrian meet. More seriously, the First Vienna Award was the main reason that Miklos Horthy appeared in the center of Kosice in the autumn of 1938 on a white horse. He was taking part in a conquest rather than an equestrian meet.

Hungary had been “awarded” a good portion of what historically had been known as Felvidek (Upper Hungary). Nazi Germany’s partition, occupation and destruction of Czechoslovakia made it possible. Hungary had lost this land due to the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. Getting all or at least part of it back had been a goal of Horthy’s interwar regime. Now Horthy rode through the streets of Kassa as it would now be called, in triumph. Little did Horthy or the thousands of ethnic Hungarians who turned out to greet him realize that this victory was pyrrhic. It would last a total of six years, several of which were awful. The incorporation of Felvidek back into Hungary would come at great gain with little initial pain, but Hungary had made a deal with the devil. That would become apparent less than two years later when Nazi Germany applied unrelenting pressure on Hungary to join their war against the Soviet Union, but that was all in the future.

The Road To War - Hungarian troops enter Losonc (Lucenc) after the First Vienna Award

The Road To War – Hungarian troops enter Losonc (Lucenc) after the First Vienna Award (Credit: Ladislav Luppa)

Debtors’ Prison – Payment Has To be Made

On November 11, 1938 – twenty years to the day that the Armistice which formally ended World War I was signed – Horthy rode into the city center of Kassa on a white horse. Before an adoring crowd he set forth his vision for the region. Horthy welcomed back his ethnic kindred to what he referred to as their “1,000 year homeland.” He also tried to allay any fears of the Slovak population by stating that their language and culture would be respected. Of course, Horthy said a lot of things during this period, but actions speak louder than words.

Soon any symbols of Czechoslovakia were replaced. Street and place names were Magyarized. It was obvious that Hungarians were on top once again. Czechoslovakia, whatever its faults may have been, was a democracy. Horthy’s Hungary was an autocracy. While Czechoslovakia was egalitarian, Hungary was quasi-authoritarian. Dissent was barely tolerated. The Slovaks in Kassa either had to keep quiet, emigrate or for those who were bilingual, become loyal Hungarians. As for the city’s Jews, Horthy on a white horse was a harbinger of much worse things to come.

At the time, the First Vienna Award looked risk free, but Hitler and the Third Reich never gave up anything for free. Everything had a price for its allies, often coming later at the highest cost. The Hungarians must have known this, but they tried to act otherwise. Revision seemed to be working, never more so when Horthy was back mounting his white stead. Soon, the Second Vienna Award resulted in Hungary regaining northern Transylvania. The Horthy regime had doubled down on revisionism.

Beginning To An End – The Bombing of Kassa

The Vienna Awards gave Hungary many of the lost lands it had coveted during the interwar period. What those lands could not bring was peace. On the contrary, this was the lead up to war. Nowhere was this truer than in Kassa which found itself in the line of fire. At 1:08 p.m. on June 27th, the city was bombed. Historians still debate whether this was done by the Soviets or orchestrated by the Germans. That hardly matters compared to what happened next. Hungary used the bombing to enter the war against the Soviet Union on the side of Nazi Germany. It was another beginning to an end. Just like that day when the man on a white horse rode into Kassa.