Bratislava, Slovakia – For the very first time in its young history, Slovakia has erected a Memorial to the Unknown Soldier.
Why did it take so long?
First of all, Slovakia is a young country that only came into existence in 1993. But more importantly, Slovaks, who sometimes call themselves a “dove nation”, have an uneasy relationship with the idea of war and violence.
Slovaks spent most of their existence in the Kingdom of Hungary, including the perilous and conflict-ridden Middle Ages. For nearly 1,000 years, they did not wage wars, but merely engaged in the wars of others, mostly when forced to do so. Fighting for noble men and kings, removed from who they were, what they believed and wanted, was the norm for Slovaks who shed blood and lost their lives following the agendas of others.
Although history shows a number of Slovak-led uprisings against the elites, rebellion or fighting for one’s ideals and rights were not deeply rooted in the people.
Slovaks developed a unique way of coping with those difficult experiences and prologued periods of instability – to survive they would have to keep quiet and carry on.
Slovakia’s uneasy relationship with war and militarism
The two world wars presented a big dilemma to the peaceful Slovaks.
In World War I, they had to enlist into the Austro-Hungarian Army, with no Slovak in sight in a leadership role, and where the entire military was dominated by Austrian and Hungarian interests. What is more, Slovaks would find themselves face to face with other Slovaks on the battlefields – especially those who deserted the imperial Hungarian army and joined the Czechoslovak legions instead. As well as those Slovaks who came over to Europe from the US and Canada, to fight against the Central powers.
After the war, there was not much time to heal war wounds as Czechoslovakia needed every man, woman, and child to build up the new republic. But only two decades later, its existence would be wiped from the map of Europe.
As Czechoslovakia was dissolved in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement, the Czech lands were absorbed by Germany and Slovakia became a Nazi satellite state. Slovaks who engaged in any fighting would, once again, have to do so for a foreign agenda.
The most glorious moment of modern Slovak history was the eruption of the Slovak National Uprising, a rare instance of Slovaks truly saying “enough is enough” and taking up arms. The uprising was the second largest open rebellion against fascism in Europe.
It was not long after peace treaties were signed ending World War II that Czechoslovakia regained its sovereignty, but also quickly fell under the influence of the Soviet Union. This time it was Moscow and not Berlin, that would oversee Slovakia’s internal matters.
And again, the nation did not have an opportunity to build pride or trust in its national army, that was once more the puppet of another state. If anything, Slovaks grew to resent men in military uniforms.
The Communist Party wanted an apathetic citizenry that was easy to control, not an empowered nation prepared to protect Slovakia.
Fast forward to the 21st century
Modern Slovakia does not dedicate much time to fostering national pride in Slovak soldiers and officers, heroes and heroines across history who dared to fight for what they believed was right. Role models are virtually absent in society, especially in a military uniform.
The education system and popular culture far from abound with examples of military might or the bravery of Slovaks. Even though there certainly are heroes that deserve this acumen. Let us mention one such great Slovak hero – Jozef Gabcik, one of the two key men in Operation Anthropoid that resulted in the assignation of Hitler’s right hand and changed the course of World War II. There was also General Jan Golian who led the Slovak National Uprising against the Nazis.
Because of this complicated history, of Slovaks fighting in wars in the service of other political entities they were a part of, it has taken nearly 30 years for the now independent country to erect its first ever monument to the fallen unknown soldier. A sacred marker that should not be missing in any country, and certainly isn’t in any advanced democracy.
After all, all nations were built on the destinies of those who were prepared to fight and die for them.
Which is why it is with great pride that we witnessed the erection of the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier, unveiled in Bratislava last week in the presence of Prime Minister Eduard Heger, and the highest representatives of government, including key ministers and war veterans.
The monument itself stands on the grave of an unidentified soldier, who died in the ferocious Battle of the Dukla pass in World War II. From now on, this monument will be a reminder of those who fell defending the values on which Slovakia is built – and a place for Slovaks to lay wreaths, candles and words of gratitude for those who fought and died for us.
The monument is a tangible reminder of the many unsung heroes and heroines of Slovakia. It also marks the beginning of nurturing a healthy appreciation, respect and gratitude to Slovakia’s men and women in uniform.