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Hlinka corpse riddle endures

Peter Selecký was 19 years old when he descended into the stone crypt under St. Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava. The church's verger and an aspiring priest, he had been contacted by the late Slovak politician Andrej Hlinka's personal physician, who wanted to see the body.
Selecký hadn't known the body was there, but he arranged the secret visit. Four people in all entered the crypt. Led by candlelight, they came to the small corridor that housed Hlinka's body. They removed the iron covering from the glass casket. The body wasn't there.
That was 1967. Hlinka, a Catholic priest who fought for Slovak rights, was a topic so taboo that Selecký says priests never mentioned his name, even among themselves. Few people knew that his body had been moved to St. Martin's after World War II, and Selecký had no one to tell that the body was gone.


Hlinka's empty casket was fired on by Russian soldiers in 1968.
photo: Ján Svrček

Peter Selecký was 19 years old when he descended into the stone crypt under St. Martin's Cathedral in Bratislava. The church's verger and an aspiring priest, he had been contacted by the late Slovak politician Andrej Hlinka's personal physician, who wanted to see the body.

Selecký hadn't known the body was there, but he arranged the secret visit. Four people in all entered the crypt. Led by candlelight, they came to the small corridor that housed Hlinka's body. They removed the iron covering from the glass casket. The body wasn't there.

That was 1967. Hlinka, a Catholic priest who fought for Slovak rights, was a topic so taboo that Selecký says priests never mentioned his name, even among themselves. Few people knew that his body had been moved to St. Martin's after World War II, and Selecký had no one to tell that the body was gone.

Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Hlinka has been thrust back into the public eye. Parks throughout Slovakia have been renamed after him, busts and statues erected in his likeness, the 1,000 Slovak crown note given his photo, and his hometown of Ružomberok building a beautiful mausoleum.

But no one has ever figured out what happened to his body.

"It's an interesting situation," laughs Selecký, 30 years after discovering Hlinka's body missing. "You have a nice new mausoleum in Ružomberok, an empty casket under St. Martin's cathedral, and a body nowhere to be found."


Andrej Hlinka's funeral procession on August 21, 1938.
photo: Courtesy of the Andrej Hlinka Society

"We have no idea where it is," said Dagmar Majeriková, head of the Ružomberok culture department that oversees maintenance of the Hlinka mausoleum.

"The whereabouts of Andrej Hlinka's body is the biggest secret in Slovakia," added Karol Zuriacka, a Hlinka expert at the Liptovský Museum in Ružomberok.

Born in 1864 in a village near Ružomberok, Hlinka was an outspoken opponent of 'magyarization' - the forced assimilation of Slovaks into Hungarian culture under the Austro-Hungarian Empire - in the years before World War I. After the establishment of the first Czechoslovak state [1918 to 1938], he led Slovakia's most popular political party.

Hlinka died in 1938 before the declaration of the first independent Slovak state - a Nazi puppet regime under Slovak priest Jozef Tiso - the leaders of which continued to use his name for their nationalist causes; after the Germans were defeated, he was later vilified by the Communists.

All that is known for sure about Hlinka's body is that it was removed from its coffin in the crypt under St. Martin's cathedral in Bratislava. Whether those who took the body were admirers or enemies is unclear. Whether the body was reburied elsewhere, disposed of, or hidden in the crypt, is also unclear.

"There are so many variants on the story of Hlinka's body, I don't know what to believe," said Emil Bednárik, board member of the Society of Andrej Hlinka. "One version has it that three people took the body to keep it from harm. Whenever one of the three dies, another person is informed to assure that three people are always in the know. Together, they are waiting for a suitable time to come out with the truth."


Hlinka's Ružomberok mausoleum, reconstructed in 1991, is awaiting the discovery of Hlinka's body.
photo: Courtesy of the Andrej Hlinka Society

Efforts to substantiate this and other legends have been unsuccessful. But such stories support the belief that the body of Hlinka might one day turn up.

"The body was embalmed after his death in 1938, so it should still be in good shape," he says. "We believe it will be found."

Crusade for the truth

Christian Democrats (KDH) party member František Mikloško may know the most about the whereabouts of Hlinka's body. As a 1980s dissident, he researched questionable burials of Slovaks who had became troublesome symbols for the Communist Party. With Hlinka's case he had an inside connection - Pavol Čarnogurský, father of fellow dissident Ján Čarnogurský, had been a member of parliament under Hlinka's People's Party between 1938 and 1947, and had followed the movement of Hlinka's body.

Through conversations with the elder Čarnogurský and others, Mikloško constructed a rough chronology.


Inside the mausoleum, where Hlinka's remains rested 1941 to 1945.
photo: Courtesy of the Andrej Hlinka Society

When Hlinka died August 16, 1938, he was embalmed and buried as construction began on a mausoleum in his honour. Two years later his body was exhumed and moved to the mausoleum. When the Russian front approached Ružomberok, many felt the mausoleum was in danger - either from accidental bombing or a deliberate assault on Slovak cultural symbols.

President Tiso ordered that the body be transported to the Presidential Palace in Bratislava; from there it was brought secretly to the crypt of St. Martin's Cathedral, which was sealed by state police after the war.

"For a long time nobody saw the body, but then in the 1960s several people entered the crypt and saw it," says Mikloško.

St. Martin's Father Jozef Minarovič (then the church chaplain) broke into the crypt in 1961; a construction engineer scouting sights for the new bridge stumbled across the body during research a few years later; and Pavol Čarnogurský gained access with a doctor after the engineer contacted him and said the body needed to be re-embalmed (the doctor disagreed).

There are no other known sightings of Hlinka's body in the 1960s. Selecký discovered the empty coffin in 1967.

Liquidating symbols

Although Hlinka was a passionate advocate of Slovak rights in the Austrio-Hungarian empire, he will be forever linked (because of his name) to the Hlinka Guard, the infamous instrument of terror in the Slovak fascist WWII state.

"Andrej Hlinka was one of the greatest figures in Slovak history," says parliamentary member Ján Budaj. "But they took his name after he died, and now he is associated with the activities of the Hlinka Guard."

The link gave communists another reason to attack the memory of Hlinka, who already had three strikes against him - he had been a priest, he had fought for Slovak national interests in the first Czechoslovakia, and he had been anti-Communist. Budaj is convinced that the Communists stole and disposed of Hlinka's body some time in the 1960s.


Peter Selecký, pictured here under St. Martin's Cathedral, in 1967 discovered Hlinka's coffin empty.
photo: Ján Svrček

"It was part of their whole programme to liquidate our national heritage. There was an instance where the police wanted to destroy the grave of a women named Marína because she had been the inspiration for a famous Slovak poem. If the police wanted to ruin her grave, imagine how they felt about Hlinka's body," says Budaj.

Although the body was already gone by the 1968 Prague Spring, the action of Russian soldiers during the ensuing occupation added to the Hlinka legend and bolstered the claim that communist forces were set to destroy his memory. Roughly 20 soldiers stormed the St. Martin's crypt and fired shots into 13 tombs and into Hlinka's empty glass coffin.

Other opinions

Budaj's view, that Communists removed Hlinka's body during the 1960s, is one of two schools of thought. The other says that Hlinka supporters removed it because they believed that if they didn't, the state police eventually would.

"I am convinced that Hlinka admirers stole the body and buried it somewhere near Bratislava," says historian Alena Bartlová, who published a book about Hlinka in 1991. "This is only my opinion, but it comes after many years of hearing small things from many people."

Bartlová says that the last person who told her that admirers had taken the body was Pavol Čarnogurský.

His son Ján, the current Slovak Justice Minister, confirmed that he had heard the same story on several occasions.

But whether it was Communists or admirers who moved Hlinka, circumstances suggest that the body may never have left the crypt, and that it may have only been moved to a different place.

"I am convinced that the body is still under the church," says Father Minarovič. "People couldn't have taken it from here without others knowing. They would have had to have a car waiting outside. It wasn't like today. During Communism, there were constant police patrols."

Selecký points out that even if the body never left the crypt, someone inside the church must have know it had been tampered with. "There was only one key. So either the verger or the head priest would have known if someone entered the crypt. Unfortunately, both are dead."

According to Selecký, the fact the truth hasn't come out since 1989 answers the question of who moved the body. "It must have been the secret police. If they had been Hlinka admirers, they would have already said where the body is. Slovakia has achieved independence, Communism has fallen, and there is a beautiful mausoleum waiting to get the body. I couldn't imagine a more ideal time."

Investigation and innuendo

While Mikloško was Speaker of the Slovak Parliament in 1990, the Interior Ministry conducted the only official investigation ever into the disappearance of Hlinka's body. Using forensics and x-rays, they examined five of the roughly 100 tombs sealed into the crypt's walls. None of them harboured the body.

That year at an Andrej Hlinka conference in Ružomberok, a man announced that he had located Hlinka's body in Malacky. The hall erupted in applause, but the claim was disproved.

"Since 1989 there has been an enormous number of rumours," says Mikloško. "It was said that Hlinka's body was in Ružomberok, then a village outside of Ružomberok, then somewhere else..."

The parliamentary deputy has even unwittingly started his own rumour.

"At a conference in October 2000, Mikloško told me he knew where the body was," Hlinka society member Bednárik said. When it was revealed that Mikloško didn't have that information, Bednárik complained: "The whole process has become a circus."

Mikloško laughed at the incident. "What I was trying to say was that I was personally convinced that the body was in the crypt. You see how easily rumours get started?"

To the future

With Mikloško and others convinced that the body lies somewhere inside the crypt, it would seem natural that an investigation be launched examining the 95 tombs not opened in the 1990 search.

"The technology is there to do it," says Mikloško. "It would be best for a university or a historical society to initiate such a project, because it's problematic for a politician. If we launched a high-profile hunt for Hlinka's body, with the goal of giving him a proper burial, the whole world would shout that we are glorifying the memory of a fascist, even though that label is unfair."

Selecký, who is the St. Martin's organist, says Slovakia's Catholic leaders are also uncomfortable with the issue. "I petitioned the bishop to return the glass case to Ružomberok, but he refused. The whole attitude was, 'We don't want to raise the question."

Historian Bartlová says a large investigation may not only be politically dangerous, but also a waste of time and money. "Maybe five percent of people in Slovakia have any idea of who Hlinka was," she said, and added, "I think it's time that we let the dead rest."

Her comment raises another point - even if the body were found, it is not clear what would be done with it. Ružomberok officials would like it for their mausoleum; others say a burial in a cemetery with a large monument would be more suitable.

"If he is found I think he should be buried in the ground," said Justice Minister Čarnogurský. "If they had left him in the ground to begin with, none of this missing person business would ever have started."

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