After World War I, the face of Europe changed dramatically, with some countries (like Hungary) being stripped of much of their territory and others (like Slovakia) being forced into unhappy marriages of convenience that suited the powers that emerged victorious from the war. As I mentioned earlier, Yugoslavia was a federation created from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Macedonia which was never destined to be a successful country. When it came apart in the 1990’s, it was only with much bloodshed and political upheaval.
Similarly, Slovakia and the Czech-speaking countries of Bohemia and Moravia were combined into a new state called Czechoslovakia after the first World War, with the capital in Prague and two-thirds of the population Czech, which made for an uneasy alliance, at best. When it, too, came apart, though, it was in what has been called the “velvet divorce,” resulting in the friendly relations that now exist between Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But Slovakia’s long and complicated history may be the main reason for its current buoyant sense of optimism, which certainly seems justified when you visit its lively capital, Bratislava.
To get an idea of how complicated that history is, just look at the names by which Bratislava has been known over the centuries. The ancient Greeks knew it simply as Istropolis (“the city on the Danube”). The Romans called it Posonium. The first Slavs, who arrived in the early Middle Ages, called it Brezalauspurc. To the Hungarians it was Pozsony, and to the first Slovaks it was Presporok. The Germans have always called it Pressburg, and the residents who have lived in the city for generations still call themselves Pressburgers. It has been known as Bratislava only since 1920, when it became part of Czechoslovakia.
Before 900 AD, the country was ruled by Slav princes, after one of whom, Vlatislav, the city was eventually named. Between the end of Slav rule and the formation of the new country of Czechoslovakia, Hungary was the master of the region. Most of the citizens of Bratislava spoke German or Hungarian by 1920; only one person in seven spoke Slovak.
What happened to Czechoslovakia during World War II was in a way inevitable, since it had no strong national identity: in 1938, afraid of invasion and war, the government simply capitulated to the Nazis, and Bohemia and Moravia became protectorates of the Reich. Slovakia did not surrender until a German gunboat steamed down the Danube from Vienna and aimed its guns at the Slovak government building. For the rest of the war, Slovakia was a Nazi puppet state.
When the Russian troops arrived on the scene, the era of Czechoslovakia as a Soviet satellite began. At first, the citizens were hopeful that socialism would improve the lot of the country, but over time the more hard-line communist leadership took control. In 1968, Alexander Dubcek, the Czech president, and like-minded reformists began to implement policies that were dramatically opposed to the official Soviet line. In a brutal show of force, Soviet tanks and 200,000 troops entered Czechoslovakia and put an end to what became known as the “Prague Spring.” The following year, the country was divided into the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic, still communist states. But the final chapter wasn’t written until much later.
Our onboard guest lecturer for the day, a Slovakian author named Martin Sloboda (who spoke flawless English and looked like a young Charles Dance), described what life in Bratislava was like for four generations of his family during the 20th century. Because of the changing regimes, alliances, and loyalties of the times, sometimes it was good to be Hungarian but bad to be German; then good to be German and bad to be Hungarian; and sometimes worst of all to be Slovak. People were required to describe themselves on their identity papers as either Hungarian, German, or Slovak, which made it easy for whoever was in power at the moment to subjugate one group or another. If you were overheard speaking the “wrong” language on the street, you might be denounced to the authorities, with nasty consequences. Martin’s grandfather, for example, was arrested one night because he designated his ethnicity as Hungarian, and was held in prison for several months, emerging a broken man. His great-grandfather had been a prosperous butcher who kept his savings under the mattress, so to speak, instead of investing in real estate. As a result, after the collapse of communism in 1989, when property that had been confiscated by the state was returned to its former owners, the family had nothing to which it could lay claim. And the money that had been saved so carefully over the years was almost worthless after several successive monetary reforms.
But the most interesting part of the story concerned Martin’s father, a brilliant young mathematician, who was invited in the mid-1960’s to go to Washington, DC, to present a paper at a prestigious conference. After much difficulty, he was able to get a visa, but his wife and all of his family had to stay behind as security for his return. He was also warned by the local communist authorities that he should be careful who he spoke to in America, and that he would be expected to report what he’d been asked and by whom when he returned home. As it happened, while he was in the US, he was invited to go to Stanford to work on a NASA project. He said he would love to, but he needed to obtain official permission and a US visa allowing him to work (which he was assured by the US would be no problem), and back to Bratislava he came. This was 1968. He was able to get permission to travel to the US with his wife and baby daughter (Martin’s older sister), so the young family sold their apartment and all their household goods, obtained their plane tickets, and waited for the promised US visas. A week before they were to leave, a phone call came from the US embassy in Prague saying that there would be no visas, because NASA’s funding had been cut and the position he had been offered no longer existed. Three days later, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and the country’s borders were closed.
In 1989, though, came the “velvet revolution.” Hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly high school and university students, marched in peaceful protest in cities all over Czechoslovakia. Government troops, perhaps sensing the inevitable given what was happening to communism throughout Europe, or perhaps just reluctant to fire on their own children, displayed remarkable restraint. Martin was sixteen, and he and his fellow students at the boys’ high school on the banks of the Danube left class every day to join the other 100,000 Bratislava youth, marching and singing the protest songs they’d learned from listening to the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe or from their parents who had been part of the “Prague Spring” uprising of 20 years earlier. Martin said those parents were generally tolerant of the conduct of their offspring, believing that even though they themselves had been unsuccessful in bringing down the regime, their children would finally achieve that goal. And they did. The result was that in 1993, the independent Republic of Slovakia was born, with Bratislava the newest capital city in Europe.
The city of Bratislava is charming and colorful, illustrating the resilience of its people even after decades of communist repression. A 16th-century church stands a hundred yards from the spot where one of the city’s three synagogues stood before World War II, and where a poignant Holocaust memorial marks the construction site for a replica of the original synagogue. Attractive young women enjoying the warm, sunny day seemed to be everywhere, and whimsical art punctuated streets and plazas: a bronze Napoleon leaned over a bench to have his picture taken with tourists; a tall statue of Hans Christian Andersen wore a long coat decorated with figures from his most famous stories – “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and several others; and a comical bronze soldier crawled up out of a manhole on a busy street corner.
The landmark castle on the hill above the city was largely destroyed by fire in 1809, when Napoleon’s soldiers billeted there were careless with fire. Although under reconstruction off and on (currently on again), it is not open to visitors. But we were treated instead to a visit to a quite resplendent government palace that is home to a set of six 16th-century “English tapestries” depicting the legend of Hero and Leander, the only complete set known to exist. Astonishingly, the tapestries were discovered rolled up inside a wall when a remodeling project was undertaken a century ago, and no one knows how they got there or who they originally belonged to. The colors are as pure and vivid as they were 500 years ago, and the artistry of the weavers is remarkable for any age.
To see more photos from Slovakia, and Bratislava in particular, click here.