The monuments come, go and stay

Tonnes of literature has been produced on monuments or memorial sites in Central Europe, being errected, celebrated, damaged, vandalized, demolished, re-errected and veiled and unveiled by various political regimes over time. More than anything else they mirror the diverse history of V4 states and continue to fuel contemporary political fights.

Photo: Broderick McLaren

Recently Putin´s visit to Hungary proved this again. The Russian president visited a renovated cemetery with monuments of thousands of Soviet soldiers, who died while liberating Hungary in WWII. There are also monuments commemorating the Soviet soldiers who died during the intervention of the USSR against revolting Hungary in 1956. The inscription, which says, “Glory to the Soviet heroes who have fallen for our sake in the fight against counterrevolution,” reflects the Zeitgeist and the language of the Communist Kádár era. Prime Minister Orbán was not present for the visit but had to endure this small historical provocation in order to secure business deals with Putin. The same Orbán, who on June 16th 1989, as a young and promising policitian, held a speech at the reburial of the remnants of Imre Nagy, the prime minister executed for his participation in the “counterrevolution“.

The Czech story is less spectacular, yet similarly telling. On February 15th 2014, the civic group of veterans from the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979 – 1989) errected a small marble monument at Prague’s main cemetery, Olšany. The inscription says in Russian and Czech: “To eternal glory and memory to all fallen soldiers, internationalists and peacemakers.“ These can be easily identified in Soviet-ear newspeak not only as those who fought in Afghanistan, but also the 98 Soviet soldiers who died during the 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia. Unlike the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the majority of them died because of accidents, not direct attacks or fighting. “International, brotherly help“ was a detested and scorned newspeak codename for the invasion. After the protests and public outcry, the inscription disappeared but it is not known who removed it.

To complete the picture, several years ago the Brotherhood of Arms Memorial (Pomnik Braterstwa Broni) in Warsaw, a monument to commemorate the end of WWII and the joint military efforts of the Polish soldiers in the Zygmunt Berling´s Polish First Army with the Red Army, was removed because of the local infrastructure´s modernization. It was supposed to be brought back but it probably won´t be. Some people signed the petition against the monument, which they alleged commemorated Soviet “invaders and rapists.“ Politicians have also not dared to re-errect such a monument since tensions stemming from a renewed Cold War with Russia have been on the rise.

As if there weren’t enough troubles with past monuments, we create the new ones, and now Slovaks can contribute to the story. If there could be an unanimous vote on who was the most hated Communist politician between 1968 and 1989 in Czechoslovakia, it would probably be Vasil Biľak, one of the most influential and feared (even by his comrades) party functionary. He was the man who called for the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968, signed the invitational letter for the armies and was one of the most despised collaborators. Yet, the municipality of his native village Krajná Bystrá in Eastern Slovakia unveiled a celebratory bust of him and granted him honorary citizenship in memoriam. The reaction was swift – a group of activists painted the freshly unveiled bust with red, claiming that Biľak was a traitor – he was never sentenced, but was at least tried after 1989.

Although it is sometimes difficult to find common ground in the V4 countries, the above mentioned stories have one: a compliacted and sometimes unfinished past with the Soviet legacy. The Soviet Union ceased to exist but the monuments reflecting uncomfortable or revisionist messages remain. But what should we do with them? Should we demolish them and errect new ones following the current political or ideological demands, or leave them there like mute witnesses of a dark past, taking into account that they might insult the feelings of those who suffered from the way they commemorate the past? Or should we “transfer“ them from our everyday visual experiences and “concentrate“ them in remote parks or reservations, as we displace unpleasant memories?

Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.