Bratislava, Slovakia – To some, Alexander Dubcek is the greatest of all Slovaks. He is certainly one of the most internationally recognised. Dubcek is also one of the “Super Slovaks” featured in an exciting book which presents the history of Slovakia through the biographies of 50 significant characters.
The question is – is it possible to understand the history of a nation through the stories of famous individuals? Let’s take Dubcek as an example.
Firstly, his story helps us understand the motivations of those thousands of Slovaks who tried to escape poverty by emigrating to foreign lands. Dubcek’s parents first emigrated to the US, but the American Dream did not come true for them and so they left Chicago in 1921 to return to Slovakia. They left once again, this time to the USSR.
Alexander was born later that year in the same little house in the village of Uhrovec where another great Slovak, Ludovit Stur had been born over 100 years earlier. Such a coincidental link highlights another truth about Slovakia – that in such a small nation, people share all kinds of connections and you can often bump into someone you know in unlikely places. “It’s one big village!“ as people are likely to remark on such occasions.
Alexander Dubcek’s experiences in the Second World War give us an insight into the war‘s tragic impact on Slovakia. He fought bravely in the Slovak National Uprising, dodging through the mountains and forests to avoid Nazi patrols, losing a beloved brother, suffering in support of an ideal, and seeing his nation overwhelmed by global conflict.
From the perspective of the 21st century, it is easy to dismiss communism as a failed ideology, but through Dubcek’s story we can understand that by 1948, there were reasons why communism might have seemed to promise a brighter future.
His generation had seen the failure of capitalism in the Great Depression of the 1930s, witnessed the Munich Agreement (remembered as the “Munich Betrayal” in Czech Republic and Slovakia) at the hands of the Western powers, and, in 1945, the power of the Red Army rolling back Nazism. Dubcek became an enthusiastic member of the Communist Party, rose quickly through the ranks, and earned a coveted place at the Moscow Political College.
The events of 1968 propelled Dubcek into the ranks of the “Super Slovaks”. His open, friendly image has come to personify all the optimism of “socialism with a human face” and all the pain that followed the brutal invasion by Warsaw Pact forces. Dubcek’s enforced exclusion from public life was an experience shared by all those who fell out of favour during the long years of Normalisation. His resilience, during these years while he worked as a forester, seem emblematic of a nation’s quiet dignity.
When the communist regime collapsed in 1989, Dubcek was still there, older, but with his unmistakable smile greeting the crowds, reflecting the hopes of another revolutionary moment in a nation’s history.
“On November 24th 1989, Alexander Dubcek stepped out onto a balcony overlooking Wenceslas Square in Prague. The tens of thousands of people gathered below erupted into a loud applause and began cheering “Dubcek! Dubcek!”. Alexander smiled, waved and even wept a little. He remembered his life’s journey and that of his country“ (an excerpt from Super Slovaks).
So, yes, we can begin to understand history through the stories of individuals. Super Slovaks presents other famous Slovaks from Svatopluk to Peter Sagan and each beautifully illustrated biography combines to tell the history of Slovakia. It has been written by a team of Slovak and international historians and will be enjoyed by expats interested in learning about Slovak history, as well as younger readers who can enjoy it independently, or with parents.
The book is also proving popular with Slovaks abroad who want to share their culture with younger family members. The bilingual text means that it can also be a language learning tool. The thought-provoking questions after each biography encourage active engagement with the characters and will be sure to prompt discussion.
By David Keys, Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova
Art work by Lucia Grejtáková
Co-founded by authors Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova, Global Slovakia is a Bratislava-based not-for-profit organization that seeks to promote Slovakia on the global stage and foster a constructive discussion about the country’s past history, current events and future perspectives. You can also follow them on Facebook!
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