Symbolism Versus Semantics – The Czech Republic Or Czechia: A National Name Calling

One of the more bizarre legacies of Eastern European communism concerns the Czech Republic or as a few still insist on calling it, Czechoslovakia. This was brought back to me not long ago when I met a gentleman whose surname was Czech in origin. When I asked him to confirm his ancestry, he nodded in the affirmative. He then proceeded to tell me that his ancestors had immigrated to the United States prior to World War I from “Czechoslovakia.” This statement left me rather bemused. Czechoslovakia did not exist at any point in European history until after the First World War. It was only a nation state for relatively short periods, from 1918 – 1939 and 1945 – 1992. Anyone immigrating to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the land now known as the Czech Republic would have had no conception of Czechoslovakia. Instead they would have stated as their land of origin an empire rather than a nation-state. In this case, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This would have served the purposes of bureaucratic paperwork when they entered the United States at Ellis Island.

Official paperwork aside, Czech immigrants to America might have known their homeland as either one of the two historically Czech regions, Bohemia or Moravia. As for Czechoslovakia, it lay in a future most had yet to imagine. An American of Czech descent can be forgiven for their confusion over the current name of the Czech nation. They are not the only ones suffering from confusion. That is because the nation’s name is still being openly debated today. Surprisingly, the citizens of the Czech Republic are divided on the subject.  The choices have now come down to either Czech Republic or Czechia. There is no third option, a la Czechoslovakia, for the simple fact that after the Velvet Divorce in 1993 that geopolitical concoction ceased to exist. It quickly became an anachronism, relegated to the dustbin of history. The Czech Republic became the new name for the Czech nation and that is where the controversy began in earnest.

Simply Stated - The Czech Republic

Simply Stated – The Czech Republic (Credit: High Contrast)

Crawling Slugs – A Nation Not By Any Other Name
Low level controversy over shortening the Czech Republic’s name simmered for years. Many Czechs, including some very famous ones, looked askance at using Czechia, which is an anglicization. In the Czech language “Czechia” is “Cesko” (pronounced Chessko). Among those opposed to the use of “Cesko” was the great Czech politician and playwright Vaclav Havel. He memorably stated that it conjured up images of “crawling slugs.” The consternation over naming conventions really took hold in 2016 when Czech leaders asked the United Nations to list Czechia as the official short version of Czech Republic. Their reasoning had as much to do with symbolism as semantics. It was thought that a shorter name would improve the nation’s image as it would be easier to remember and not lend itself to confusion. Not surprisingly, anecdotal rather than empirical evidence was offered as to how usage of the “Czech Republic” was hurting the nation’s image abroad.

The proposed change left many scratching their heads. What was so confusing about the name Czech Republic? Many Czech nationals and most foreigners found the issue difficult to understand. Admittedly, use of “Republic” in the name fails to distinguish it from many other nations. On the other hand, the Czech Republic was the only European nation in which “Republic” was part of the name’s common form. This anomaly set it apart from other European nations who eschewed their official name when it came to common usage. For instance, “Slovakia” is verbal shorthand for “The Slovak Republic”. By trying to impose Czechia on both nationals and foreigners, Czech leaders were following in the footsteps of their former Slovak partners.

Mouthful of Slugs - Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Mouthful of Slugs – Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Image Is Everything – Cross Cultural Confusion
Unsurprisingly, the changeover to Czechia was met with thinly veiled resistance. Critics of the change found it rather ridiculous. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that much of Czech officialdom failed to embrace the change. This led to cross cultural confusion. For instance, the Czech Embassy in the United States continued to refer to their nation as the Czech Republic, while the U.S. State Department took to calling it Czechia. Such discontinuities were self-defeating, led to greater confusion than ever before and made the whole naming issue seem academic. It is little wonder that the Czech Republic continued to be favored by many in common and official usage, including by this writer. My reason for favoring the Czech Republic was just as absurd as the ongoing debate. From a personal and quite superficial standpoint, Czechia did not sit well with me precisely because it looks and sounds like Chechnya, that ill-fated Russian region. The word conjures up images of a war-torn land marked by violence, terrorism and ethnic tensions. Anyone who has spent time in the Czech Republic knows that it is the opposite of that image.

One argument for changing the name does ring true, it would put the Czech Republic in line with the many other nations which have both official and officially shorter versions of their name. The former being used for bureaucratic purposes, the latter in day to day conversation and the media. This often suits convenience. For instance, no one except bureaucrats ever refer to Germany by its yawn inducing official title of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Russian Federation is known to all except technocrats and legalistic types as Russia. To say otherwise makes one sound officious. The same was true of Russia’s immediate forebear. The Soviet Union was never termed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics except by diplomats, apparatchiks and ossified members of the Politburo. Official names are usually too long and ponderous. The Czech Republic is one of the rare few that is short and rather simplistic. Czechia is even more so, but it is at the disadvantage of being a latecomer to the national name game. As such it now enjoys co-official status, but not common usage.

Powerful Reminders – A Republic In More Than Name
Whether or not one agrees with the many Czechs who think Cesko sounds less than desirable, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that it has too much in common with the Czecho of Czechoslovakia. Most Czechs would rather forget the bad old days of totalitarianism. Anything that serves as a reminder of that time is anathema to an overwhelming majority of the Czech population. Today they live in a republic of which they take great pride. Maybe that is why so many of them prefer to clearly and unequivocally state the Czech Republic as their nation’s name.


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.


In Defiance of Fate (Part One) -The Republic of One Day: Carpatho-Ukraine

On March 15, 1939, the sun rose on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the land known as Subcarpathia. A new day was about to dawn both literally and figuratively. For the eight hundred thousand-odd people living in Subcarpathia at the time, it would be their last day ever as part of Czechoslovakia. The area was about to experience an identity crisis of historic proportions. This remote land, a forgotten backwater, began the day as an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia. At lunchtime it was a newly independent nation, known as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. By the next morning it was part of Hungary. Independence was fleeting, it did not even last the night. In just twenty-four hours, the population had been part of three separate nations. If given a choice, the majority of the populace would have preferred independence, but history was not on their side. The story of this land and its people’s geo-political situation over the past century is filled with fits and starts, false hopes and lost dreams. Independence turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, due more too historical accident rather than design, by the end of the 20th century, the region had received the next best thing, virtual autonomy. Through it all, in defiance of fate, the majority Rusyn population of the area retained a distinct identity.

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Playground of the Powers: Great & Small
Carpatho-Ukraine is a beautiful, bucolic land. It contains the foothills and smaller mountains of the Carpathian range. The Carpathians are well known in Europe, but not the small slice that is part of Ukraine. The majority of the Carpathians lie further south in Romania, famous as part of Transylvania. This is a forgotten land, relatively unknown, with a modern history that is complex and confusing. Ukraine, roughly translated means borderland, and Carpatho-Ukraine, is the ultimate borderland in a border country. A quintessential frontier, it has been an appendage of empires and nation-states from time immemorial. In the last one hundred years it has been the playground of a withering array of political entities. These have included the Austro—Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Red (Communist) Republic, Romania, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine. It has been conquered and occupied, as well as autonomous and independent. Presently it is a province of Ukraine, but has a coat of arms and flag that is almost an exact replica of the one that was used when it declared independence.

The idea of an independent republic that could not even last a day seems to be an historical absurdity. Was Carpatho-Ukraine unworthy of nationhood? Was this an attempt to take advantage of a specific geo-political situation? This slice of the sub-Carpathians failed as an independent nation in 1939 because it was crushed by powerful geo-political entities carving up Europe to suit their own interests. Paradoxically it was only because of power politics that Carpatho-Ukraine was able to gain its independence, if only for one day.

Occupying force - a Hungarian soldier in Khust  (Credit:

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit:

History As Opportunism: The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
To understand, the situation Carpatho-Ukraine found itself in, one must understand what was happening to Czechoslovakia, the nation-state it was part of from 1919 to 1939. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany first began to dismember Czechoslovakia by occupying the Sudetenland to “protect” the German population from the Czechs. Hitler and his henchmen were not the kind of geo-political players who could ever be appeased. It was not long before the Nazis wanted all of Bohemia and Moravia, the traditional homeland of the Czechs. In addition, Hitler had allowed Hungary to take the southern part of Slovakia, with its large Hungarian population. Meanwhile the rest of Slovakia had declared autonomy. Because of this, Czechoslovakia was being divided or perhaps more to the point, hyphenated. Its name was actually changed to Czecho-Slovakia, reflecting the virtual separation of Slovakia from the Czech portion of the state. Forgotten in the unfolding of this historical tragedy was a third, bit player.

The far eastern quarter of Czechoslovakia was known as Trans-Carpathia. It was neither Czech nor Slovak. Neither was it Hungarian, even though it had been part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. It contained a smattering of Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and Jews, but two-thirds of the population was Rusyn or Ruthenian, a people who were akin to the larger Eastern Slav population of Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps inevitably they would come to be called Ukrainians and the land they inhabited as the Carpatho-Ukraine. Following World War I Ukraine as a political entity had failed. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine was attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919. Fast forward two decades, with Czechoslovakia disintegrating, Carpatho-Ukraine declared autonomy on October 11, 1939. Five months later, on March 14th, as the Germans stormed into Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia about to become an independent nation, a Carpatho-Ukrainian parliament convened in the city of Khust. There they voted to become an independent republic.

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine - the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine – the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

No Man’s Land – Oppressors and the Oppressed
Within a few hours of this declaration the leaders of Carpatho-Ukraine fled into exile. The reason, Hungarian troops were already crossing the border. By the evening of March 15th a Hungarian force the size of two army divisions had invaded Carpatho-Ukraine. The new republic’s defense force, known as the Carpathian Sich, consisted of only 5,000 troops. By the next morning, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. It was now part of Hungary, despite the fact that less than ten percent of its population was ethnically Hungarian. Why did the Hungarians want this region? It allowed them a strategic wedge between Romania and Czechoslovakia (which ironically now ceased to exist). These states had dismembered “Historic” Hungary in the aftermath of World War I. Now the Hungarians were reconstituting their former domains. Amidst this geo-political morass were the Carpatho-Ukrainians. Their incipient state vanished into oblivion, their autonomy was gone. Nonetheless, a historic seed had been planted.

The Hungarians would come to regret their land grab. Although the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted less than a day, Hungarian rule over the area was also fleeting. Only five years later, in 1944, the Soviet Army came roaring out of the east. Many of the Hungarians and virtually all Germans in the area were either deported to the Gulag or murdered. Carpatho-Ukraine now became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine became a constituent of a constituent republic. Interestingly, the idea of a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine did not end on that fateful Wednesday of March 15th, 1939. It has had an intriguing after life, one that will be discussed in a coming blog post.



Piliszentkerszt – Last Bastion of the Slovaks of Hungary

Deep in the Pilis Hills of northern Hungary stands the village of Piliszentkerszt (The Holy Cross of Pilis). Its natural setting attracts hikers who seek refuge in the dense oak and beech forests. The natural beauty and resources of Piliszentkerszt has also attracted many foreigners to the area, including some that are not only tourists. On multiple occasions over the past 800 years this small village became a haven to foreigners who immigrated to the area. Many of them found the climate and natural beauty to be extremely hospitable, thus they decided to stay. Even today, this sheltered environment is home to one of the few villages in Hungary with a non-Magyar ethnic majority. This goes against the grain of 20th century European history. With the fall of empires, multi-ethnic states were turned into smaller, highly homogenous nations. Hungary was part of this movement. Only areas along borders or those hidden in relative isolation were able to buck this historical trend. Piliszentkerszt was one of these places.

Aerial view of the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey of Piliszenkerszt (Credit: Civertan)

Aerial view of the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey of Piliszenkerszt (Credit: Civertan)

By Invitation Only – The Creation of Piliszentkerszt
The foreigners that first permanently settled Piliszentkerszt came by way of invitation. The first immigrants to arrive were monks brought to Hungary by the French wife of King Bela III (1172 – 1196). A Benedictine Abbey was established for them in the year 1184. Soon a village sprang up around it.  The abbey and its immediate area may have seemed like a safe haven, but during the early Middle Ages, those who ruled the land shared one thing in common with the average person, the precariousness of life. Being a foreigner could make life even more perilous.

One of only two assassinations of queens in Hungarian history occurred near Piliszentkerszt. The German wife of King Andrew II (1205 – 1235), Gertrude of Merania, was despised by the indigenous nobility because of her overt favoritism toward fellow Germans. Among Gertrude’s many affronts to the native nobility, she gifted one-third of Hungarian land to her fellow Germans. The hatred this action engendered led the nobles to conspire against her. In the autumn of 1213 during a hunting trip in the Pilis, she was murdered by nobles. They then had her body torn to pieces. What remained was interred at the nearby abbey in a Gothic tomb. During the latter half of the 20th century an excavation of Gertrude’s Gothic tomb took place. This provided confirmation of her fate.

Piliszentkerst’s isolation could not protect it from either immigration or by the 16th century, invasion by foreigners into the Carpathian Basin. Just as foreigners had constructed the abbey and village, so too did another group of outsiders bring about its destruction. In 1526, the Ottoman Turks under the banner of Islam, destroyed both the abbey and village. The ruins left behind are still visible today and can be visited. Following the expulsion of the Turks, the settlement was a non-existent, lifeless ruin.

Bilingual signage greet visitors to the village today

Bilingual signage greet visitors to the village today

A Slovak Haven – Reconstructing Piliszentkerszt
It was not until the middle of the 18th century that yet another group of foreigners would arrive on the scene. In 1747, a group of Slovak migrants arrived to rebuild the village. The ruling Habsburgs who had thrown the Turks out of Hungary in the late 17th century, brought in groups of migrants, namely ethnic Germans and Slovaks to help repopulate a Hungarian Kingdom that had been denuded of its people by a century and a half of warfare. The Slovak presence in Piliszentkerst would act as a magnet, attracting Slovaks from all over Hungary. The village was soon reconstructed, becoming a new home for another group of ethnic and linguistic outsiders.

Unlike those who came before them, the Slovaks had staying power. Despite over two and a half centuries of fraught relations between Hungarians and Slovaks, the population of Piliszentkerszt resisted the forces of Magyarization and cultural assimilation. Even the 20th century draw of a newly born Czechoslovak nation to the north was not enough to uproot them. Perhaps it was the isolation of the community that allowed it to defy history. While the nation of Hungary became over ninety percent ethnically Hungarian, Piliszentkereszt remained the only settlement in Hungary where Slovaks made up the majority. Even today that is true, though they are a very slim majority at 54%. The Slovak name for the village, Mlynky can be seen on bilingual signs. Signage in the shops is also written in both the Slovak and Hungarian languages. Here stands an island of Slovak settlement thriving amid a sea of Hungarians.

Piliszentkerszt - Isolated from change but for how long

Piliszentkerszt – Isolated from change but for how long

Out With the Old – The Challenge of Modernity
A new threat to the Slovaks of Piliszentkerst is now presenting itself. The ever progressing forces of modernity, with greater opportunities to travel and communicate with the larger world may end the village’s isolation. Slowly a younger generation of Slovaks in Piliszentkerszt has been losing the language skills and cultural ties that have so tightly bound the community together. A legacy of over eight centuries of foreign settlement is now threatened, not by the dominant ethnic culture, but instead by the transformative effects of technology and globalization. What will the future hold for Piliszentkerszt? Is it destined to become like the rest of Hungary, assimilated into homogeneity? If so, it will not be the first time that foreigners have been swept from the area. Foreigners may have a long history in this village, but challenges from the modern world may finally prove too much to overcome.


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 Temporary Form of Insanity: Viktor Ilyin & the Attempted Assassination of Leonid Brezhnev

It was freezing cold in Moscow on January 22, 1969. The long, hard Russian winter was at its peak. Just outside the gates of the Kremlin a crowd of people stood in the bone chilling cold. They were waiting for the arrival of a motorcade carrying Soviet cosmonauts who had just completed the first ever manned to manned docking of space vehicles in history. The cosmonauts would be traveling from the airport to the Kremlin for a ceremony celebrating their achievement. In the early afternoon, as the sun began its slow descent toward the horizon, the motorcade suddenly appeared. It was supposed to include not only the cosmonauts, but also the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. Standard operating procedure was for Brezhnev’s vehicle to be the second in line. This time though, the second car, a black Zil limousine was filled with cosmonauts.

Borovitsky Gate - one of the entrances to the Kremlin

Borovitsky Gate – one of the entrances to the Kremlin

Guns in Both Hands
Standing just outside the Kremlin walls, at the Borovitsky gate, was a man dressed in a policeman’s uniform. The man’s name was Viktor Ilyin. He had been in the area for over an hour, figuring out the best place to stand. Strangely, the uniform he wore was a summer one. He must have been freezing. As the cars began to pass, Ilyin suddenly pulled out two Makarov pistols, with one in each hand he let lose a stream of gunfire. The second car was his intended target. Its driver was killed almost instantly, several other passengers were wounded. Reports say that somewhere between eight and sixteen shots were fired. None of these came anywhere near the intended target, Brezhnev was not in the vehicle. His car had taken a different gate into the Kremlin. Ilyin’s shooting spree had done quite a bit of damage, but not to the man he wished to assassinate. A guard on a motorcycle spotted the assassin and ran him down. Ilyin then proceeded to have a seizure. The incident was over in a matter of minutes.

A photo of the Brezhnev assassination attempt made just seconds after it happened

A photo of the Brezhnev assassination attempt made just seconds after it happened

A Monopoly On Violence
One barely noticed, but notable aspect in the history of the Soviet Union was that none of its leaders was ever assassinated. Despite the Soviet state’s history of violence and suppression (or perhaps because of it) every one of its leaders died of natural causes. The lack of an assassination may have been largely due to the fact that the state had a monopoly on violence. For instance, during the period of Stalin’s rule, when state controlled terror was rampant, tens of millions of Soviet citizens were killed. Conversely, there was only one known assassination attempt on Stalin that came even remotely close.

Some of the most dangerous times for the seven men who led the Soviet Union took place in the years before they gained supreme power. The tsarist regime imprisoned or exiled both Lenin and Stalin. A more energetic state security apparatus would never have allowed either of them to see the light of day again. Especially after multiple arrests for conspiracies to overthrow the government. Rather than receiving the death penalty (as Lenin’s brother did) they were shipped off, either to Siberia or forced into foreign exile. Lenin was almost assassinated after he came to power in the chaotic early years following the revolution. A 1918 attempt by a female socialist came close, but failed. Khrushchev and Brezhnev escaped Stalin’s purges by helping carry them out. In this way, they saved themselves from the fate of thousands of other fellow Communist Party members. Andropov and Chernenko also managed to avoid the various Stalinist purges during their early years in politics. As for Gorbachev, he came late enough to the scene that the worse excesses of the system were a memory.

Leonid Brezhnev - the target (Credit: Bundearchiv)

Leonid Brezhnev – the target (Credit: Bundearchiv)

The Limits of Dissent
It seems that a state such as the Soviet Union would have executed anyone who had attempted an assassination of its leader. This would certainly have been true during Lenin and Stalin’s time, but by the time Brezhnev had come to power the system of repression was more benign. The state now committed dissidents to mental institutions. This would be Ilyin’s fate. Only a few hours after his attempt on Brezhnev’s life, Ilyin was interviewed by the head of the KGB and future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. The upshot of Andropov’s interrogation was that Ilyin was declared insane. Whether Ilyin was insane or not is open to question yet he did have a logical line of reasoning that supported his action. He had been conscripted into the Soviet army against his will in 1968. That same year Brezhnev made the decision to send Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring and voices calling for greater freedoms. Ilyin vehemently disagreed with this decision. He ended up deserting the Soviet army, then then making his way from St. Petersburg to Moscow where he would carry out the assassination attempt.

A Temporary Form of Insanity
Whether or not Ilyin’s attempt on the life of Brezhnev was insane is subjective, but one of his ideas was definitely crazy. Ilyin believed that once Brezhnev was dead, that he, Viktor Ilyin, would lead a new moderate government. Obviously this never occurred. Instead he was sentenced to twenty years of solitary confinement in a mental asylum. In 1990, a Supreme Court ruling took place in Ilyin’s bed chamber, he was soon a free man. He is still alive today, living in a small flat in his hometown of St. Petersburg. The apartment was provided by the government since Ilyin is considered disabled. He also receives a small pension. His situation today is so normal that it almost defies believability.

How can a man who tried to murder one of the most powerful people in the world, the leader of the world’s prime totalitarian state at the time, eventually be set free? Many people disappeared in the Soviet Union for lesser crimes, even during Brezhnev’s day. Chalk up Ilyin gaining his freedom to the insanity plea. Also by 1990 the Soviet state was much milder due to Gorbachev’s reforms. Ilyin may or may not have been insane, perhaps it was temporary. The truly insane thing is that Viktor Ilyin became a free man and would outlive not only his oppressors, but also the oppressive Soviet state.

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.