The Danube River is a great watery ribbon that acts as a connecting thread through a large swath of Europe. It connects Central with Eastern Europe, the capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, the Black Forest from its beginning to the Black Sea at its end. The river is a natural phenomenon that has a unifying effect on disparate peoples. Germans, Magyars and Slavs can all identify with the river they respectively refer to as the Donau, Duna and Dunaj. Where else in Europe can a river be found that touches the lives of both Bavarians and Bulgars? Only the Danube has a foothold that ranges from Mitteleuropa to the Balkans with the Carpathian Basin squeezed in between for good measure.
A Fluid Border – The Natural Dividing Line
I never thought of the Danube as a divider, at least not until I arrived on its southern shore in the Hungarian town of Komarom (pop. 18,000). Just across the river in Slovakia stands what might be called its bigger brother, Komarno (pop. 33,000). During the late 19th century, Ujszony (present day Komarom, Hungary) was the town located on the south side of the river while Komarom (present day Komarno, Slovakia) was a small city on the northern side of the river. In 1896, the two were combined into a single municipality. This was logical since both sides of the river were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. That would change radically after the First World War. The Danube suddenly became the southern border of Czechoslovakia, leaving 750,000 Hungarians who lived north of it in what they considered a foreign nation. Either side of the Danube became a controlled border. The river made a natural dividing line to demarcate the boundary between the two nations. That division, though much softer than it was during most of the 20th century, can still be felt today.
The only reason I felt it necessary to pay a visit Komarom was due to the massive fortress, the largest in Hungary and one of the largest in all of Europe, which stands on its outskirts. It is part of a militarized complex built by the Austrians during the mid-19th century that once straddled the Danube in this area. Before visiting the fortress, I could not help but walk across the elegant four span, steel truss, Elisabeth-Danube bridge which connects the northern and southern banks of the river. The fact that I could saunter across the bridge uninhibited was one of those miracles of post-Cold War history now taken for granted. Hungary and Slovakia might still have their differences, but accession to the European Union in 2002 collapsed border controls between the two nations. This had the effect of reconnecting Komarom and Komarno in a way they had not been since the early 20th century. It also allowed me to walk across the bridge, crossing over from one nation to the next in a mere five minutes. This would have been unimaginable only twenty-five years before. What some might call unrestricted access is what I would call progress.
Downside Up – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Once I had set foot on the Slovak side, it was not long before the two town’s dueling identities were on display. The first sign I saw after crossing the bridge was trilingual. First there was Vitame Vas! (Slovak), then Udvozoljuk Ononket! (Hungarian) and below that Welcome! A few paces further down the road were signs with the town’s name. The top one of course was in Slovak (Komarno), the lower one in Hungarian (Komarom). It was the exact opposite on the Hungarian side of the bridge. Besides the signs in Slovak, I had an eerie feeling of still being in the same country that I had just left behind. Komarno was like landing in an Eastern European version of the Twilight Zone brought to the modern world courtesy of the Treaty of Trianon.
It was only a short, but fascinating walk through the historic heart of Komarno. I was impressed with how everything was tidily kept with not a speck of rubbish to be found anywhere. The town could have been Koszeg or Kaposvar rather than Komarno, such was its resemblance to other downtowns in provincial Hungary. The most memorable area was Klapka Square, located in front of the deliciously vanilla coated Town Hall. On the western side of the square was the delicate splendor of the Zichy Palace. In the center of the square stood the statue of Gyorgy Klapka, a military hero who gained notoriety for his fearless fight beyond the finish during the Hungarian Revolution. Klapka led his troops to victory in the Fourth Battle of Komarno, the last Hungarian victory of the conflict. While all the other Hungarian forces had been defeated, Klapka held out long enough to get decent terms of surrender for his soldiers. General Klapka managed to escape into exile. Later he would return to Hungary after the Compromise that created Austria-Hungary in 1867.
An Inherent Irony – The Shifting Tides Of History
Klapka was now immortalized in bronze while soaring over everything except for the beautiful buildings that flanked three sides of the square. The statue, with the Komarno Town Hall’s tower rising directly behind, managed to make Klapka look just as heroic as his exploits. It portrayed him with a sword at the ready in one hand, while his other was balled into a fist. Klapka’s upper torso jutted out as he struck a charismatic pose of defiance. From the statue, I ascertained that Klapka was selected both for his martial exploits as well as his long record of heroic deeds. His presence evoked pride, courage and honor. Traits That I suspected the town’s Hungarian inhabitants must have seen as unique to themselves.
The statue was riveting, but also a distraction from its own inherent irony. Here was a famous Hungarian military commander towering over a town in Slovakia. This was history in more ways than someone who did not come from Hungary or Slovakia could possibly imagine. Klapka signaled the town’s ethnic Hungarian majority as much in the present as the past. He was a stand in for an era of perceived greatness. He also represented staying power. Hungary’s rule over this region long since slipped south of the Danube. Nevertheless, Hungarians still had their feet firmly planted on Slovakian soil, the shifting tides of history have yet to fully dislodge them or their history.