Slovaks – a nation without memory?

It has become standard to speak about nation as if it were a living being. People can remember, but is it possible for a nation to remember too?

Est. reading time: 9 minutes

I made my first encounter with Šymon Kliman’s street art project Heroes about a year and a half ago on a stroll around Bratislava, where I conducted field research for my PhD in anthropology of nationalism. I had been walking around the historic center of the Old Town for good two hours when I reached Bratislava’s SNP (1) Bridge.

Widely known as the UFO Bridge for its iconic design, this curious piece of grey yet not unimpressive socialist architecture features on many postcards of Bratislava. The instantly recognizable landmark connects “the Beauty” with “the Beast”, as the polished historical Old Town on the left bank of the Danube and the socialist-planned Petržalka borough on the right bank are often described. The Old Town side of the bridge roofs a bus platform and is one of the busiest traffic junctures in the town.

As I approached the platform on that afternoon, my attention was captured by large-scale black and white portraits of old men and women that appeared on the grey pillars of the bridge.

Photo by Šymon Kliman

At first, it seemed to me like an advertisement for a theatre piece. I then realized I had never seen these faces before – they were complete strangers to me. I was looking for clues as to what this could be. I came closer to read the short texts under the portraits.

There was shooting.  Men were getting hit, but it’s not right to talk about it…Albert Mikovíny – 17 years old during the uprising, Photo by Šymon Kliman

The Germans had surprised us. They shot me in the back as I was running away. I found a hole in my backpack, but the bullet never touched me. A while (months later) a soldier brought a bullet. He said it was in the sardine tin I gave him when (that was in my backpack when) they caught us. Marta Eisenhutová – 24 years old during the uprising, Photo by Šymon Kliman

 

I turned around, looking for an explanation and caught a glimpse of a plain text prominently printed against white background on one of the pillars: How long will it take for a nation without memory to start remembering again?

Partizani.sk rang the bell. I knew instantly, just like anybody who grew up in the country would, who the people on the portraits were.

The anti-fascist resistance

Shortly before the outbreak of the WWII Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. Slovakia joined the Axis Powers as a satellite state of the Third Reich and soon adopted a number of anti-Jewish measures that resulted into deportations of some 70.000 Jews.

The people on the pictures were surviving partisans that took part in the armed anti-fascist resistance against the local regime in the summer of 1944. The Slovak National Uprising, as it came to be known, was led by the rebel Slovak Army of some 60.000 troops who were joined by estimated 20 000 partisans. The army was aided and later on recognized by the Allies as a partner. The uprising was defeated in 3 months, however the guerilla warfare continued to fight in the mountains until the end of the war.

I had a closer look at the photos. The noises produced by the buses and the people blurred into silence for a moment as I immersed myself into what I saw and read. The eyes of the partisans pierced right through me. Examining their huge faces I, too, felt like a trespasser violating the intimacy of their souls. I was struck by this brisk closeness of strangers. I read into their faces an urgency of untold stories. Captured by the expressiveness of the portraits, I found myself imagining the young men and women involved in a civil war. I was wondering about the impact this must have had upon their lives, about the loneliness and the pain that can hardly be shared with anybody who hasn’t been through the same or similar. In the midst of the heaviness, I suddenly felt a stroke of excitement for I recognized the street art ahead of me as a great material for my research. I took a few more moments to look around and to take pictures and then returned home.

Difficult remembering

On my way home I decided to ask my parents, with whom I stayed, about the partisans.  I remembered an old lady, a friend of my grandfather’s, who used to chat with him for long hours on the bench in front of the house. I recall people saying she was a partisan. As a child, I never really understood what partisan meant. I was often told “mlčíš ako partizán”, which means “you keep silent like a partisan”. This was frequently used by our teachers at school when a bunch of us did something wrong and only one was caught, who then refused to give away the others.

When I came home I asked my mum, like I used to when I was a small girl many years ago, trusting she could answer all my questions: “Mum, why does one actually say ‘you keep silent like a partisan’”?

“I think it is because during the war many people from the villages were secretly helping partisans who were hiding in the mountains. When a partisan was killed, Nazis would come down to the village for the funeral hoping that relatives of the killed would be disclosed by their grief. In order to protect themselves, people would have to show no emotions whatsoever because they knew the Nazis would kill everybody.“ This was my mum’s answer, one of the many available out there, I suppose.

While she was talking, her voice was trembling and the atmosphere felt heavy.

I asked her about the partisan friend of my grandfather. She told me that Zuzana was fighting in the uprising along with Peter, the brother of my grandfather Karol. Peter died on the way to the hospital due to severe leg injuries. Karol, who initially fought on the Eastern front along the Germans and later run over to fight with the Russians, had never come to terms with the loss.

When my mother finished the talking I was everything but indifferent.

I looked at the webpage of Kliman’s project.

“I think the partisans are ‘Slovak national heroes’. Thanks to them we did not lose WWII, even after being on the side of Nazi Germany. I consider the partisans to be the kind of heroes that all nations should know about, even if they seem to be just ordinary people. I am recording these interviews (2) to help them to share their stories with others so that their stories will not be forgotten and so that their memory will make their descendants proud.”

It took some time before I managed to get in touch with Kliman and interview him in person. I felt pretty confident about having a good working distance from the topic. When we eventually met, our shared interests made the meeting unexpectedly intensive and absorbing to the extent I found it hard to distance myself from the topic, yet again. After all, I was born and lived most of my life in the country where I was conducting the fieldwork.

Between myths and facts

In the weeks and months following my encounter with the Heroes I realized how very little idea I had about the history of the uprising. Later, I came to understand my confusion as symptomatic of a generation that was exposed to at least three different versions of history: the one we learned at school, the one our parents learned at school during socialism, and the stories of our grandparents and their contemporaries that survived in the families.

So I tried to collect the hard facts. This task proved rather challenging. The historiography on the subject, as I discovered, is polarized and falls roughly into the left-right wing ideological spectrum. Interpretations on the left range from Marxist to balanced accounts of the historical complexities of the uprising. Those on the right often stress the anti-state character of the uprising and highlight the cruelties some of the partisans committed in the aftermath of war on the civilians as revenge to occupants and collaborators. This division in the historiography is largely a legacy of the officially sanctioned interpretations of the event that have changed with political regimes and personalities in power in the course of the 20th century.

The controversial interpretations also arise from the fact that people involved in the uprising had diverse motivations and represented a wide spectrum of the society, including nationalists, communists, members of different religious groups, ages and classes, partisans and rebel troops. Their descendants perpetrate various romanticizing and dismissing myths, largely depended on their family histories.

To this day, the myths include those that blame the uprising for paving the way to the communist rule (since communists were among those who joined the uprising, but also those who instrumentalized it for their own ideological purposes later on). Nationalists dismiss it as an attack against the homeland and blame for the fact that it took another decade until Slovakia became an independent state again. To yet others, it helped Slovakia win the war by joining the “right side” and to survive as a nation and state in the long term.

Whatever the position, the event belongs to the repertoire of the historical memory of Slovaks. As historian Ivan Kamenec put it, the legacy of the uprising is present in the ideological wars of all political streams after 1944, regardless of their political orientation. Standing for this is the year 1992 when, in the context of the preparations for the Czechoslovak split-up, the Slovak parliament after heated discussions made the uprising anniversary into an official bank holiday. The purpose was to symbolically reject the ideological legacy of the fascist puppet state.

When I asked Kliman what he means when he says that the nation has no memory (as seen on the poster under the bridge), he replied that there is little to no critical engagement with our past. I agree. There could and should be more. On the one hand, he, too, perpetrates the romantic myth of heroes, by failing to question the subjectivity of their stories. On the other hand, the word ‘hero’ is a hyperbole used to engage the part of the political spectrum that has been rejecting the anti-fascist legacy of the uprising.

As I was writing this article, I was confronted with several problems, which I would like to open to discussion (and any other, indeed). How to go about research “at home” that essentially implies great amount of personal and emotional involvement? How can one acquire the necessary distance to analyse a problem? Can one be insider and outsider at the same time and if so, what are the implications for the analysis? How do people acquire heroic traits and become part of the pantheon of national heroes?

 

[1] Slovenské národné povstanie – Slovak National Uprising

[2] As I found out during our interview, Kliman not only photographs the partisans

 

mm
Anthropologist and political scientist at the University of Munich. My research interests are nationalism, belonging, identity and memory.


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1 Comment

  1. Petra, I don’t think there is a problem in doing ethnography at ‘home. Yes, it is more personal, but you can read between the lines. Take advantage of that! I believe it is a myth that only outsiders can observe critically. I believe that it is a matter of approach and ability but it is not defined by the fact that one is outsider/insider. Moreover, if you are slovakian, does it really mean by nature that you are insider of Slovakia? I believe it is more complex than those binaries.
    p.s. in Lithuanian there is the same expression ‘you keep silent like a partisan’

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