IT IS NOT unusual for historical figures and heroes from mythical tales to be used in contemporary political battles. Slovakia proved that point very well when former Prime Minister Robert Fico, shortly before the June 2010 general election, ceremonially unveiled a statue of Svätopluk, a pre-medieval regional ruler, in the courtyard of Bratislava Castle, thereby turning the past ruler and his bronze likeness into a subject of not only political discussion. The politicians of the current government are talking about relocating the statue and have asked for advice from a commission of experts on history and arts.
The Slovak Spectator spoke with Elena Mannová, a historian and expert on mythology and historical memory from the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV), about Svätopluk, his role in the collective memory of Slovaks, and the new statue of him on the grounds of Bratislava Castle.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What is your opinion of the statue of Svätopluk – the so-called king of Slovaks – standing in the courtyard of Bratislava Castle? Should it remain there or does it belong somewhere else?
Elena Mannová (EM): Svätopluk was a successful ruler of Great Moravia but serious historians do not call him the king of Slovaks. There is a relatively small amount of written sources related to the territory of today’s Slovakia that has been preserved from the 9th century. The problem is that the notions and words written in them cannot be equalled with the notions we use today. We cannot imagine Svätopluk as a past ‘king’ with a crown on his head with firm powers, the then ‘empire’ as a state with clear borders and administration, or the then ‘nation’ as a society of people connected with a feeling of belonging, language and culture.
The controversial equestrian statue that the previous government installed at the castle depicts the mythical, rather than the historical, Svätopluk. The Great Moravian era and the rule of this prince are regarded by Slovak mythology as a ‘Golden Age’, the era of ‘our own statehood’ which was then interrupted by the arrival of the Hungarian tribes. Robert Fico and his people, by erecting this statue in front of the former Hungarian kings’ castle, sent a message about who the castle on the hill, the Danube and the country underneath it belongs – to Slovaks, but only to the right ones, the nationally-oriented ones.
Shortly before the election they thus presented themselves as the keepers of national traditions as opposed to their more cosmopolitan right-wing opponents. At the same time they manifested their power – they didn’t respect the rules of monument protection and placed a low-quality contemporary statue onto the honourable courtyard of a Baroque building, a national cultural monument. Erecting the statue was purely a power-driven, nationalist-populist act. We will see whether the new parliament’s speaker will have enough political courage to have the statue relocated. For now, he has assigned an expert commission to submit an evaluation.
I personally prefer the proposal of sculptor Martin Piaček to build an open-air museum of propagandist statues, for instance in the unused stone quarry in Devín, where this statue would fit very well. But I do realise that any relocation of this monument will be perceived as political revenge by the new ruling power.
TSS: What does Svätopluk represent in the historical memory of Slovaks?
EM: We don’t have detailed information about the Svätopluk tradition in the folklore of older eras. Only since the 19th century has the Svätopluk tradition become secondarily part of our folk tales through literature, and later through theatre and fine arts. Even today children like the tale of the three wicker twigs that Svätopluk gave to his sons when lying on his deathbed. If the twigs remained joined, they couldn’t be broken – but divided they broke easily.
Slovak scholars perceived this Great-Moravian ruler hesitantly until the end of the 18th century. They lived in an environment where images from medieval Hungarian chronicles prevailed – and those depicted Slovaks as the subdued people of Svätopluk who was a ruler who traded his country for a white horse. The first scholars to identify with Svätopluk as the ‘most famous Slovak king’ were representatives of the first generation of the so-called National Awakening who interpreted Svätopluk as a heroic fighter for the nation’s freedom.
However, Slovak myths about Great Moravia did not have enough space to spread among the general public due to the weak position of non-Hungarian ethnic groups before 1918; they gained importance only after World War I. In Czechoslovakia Svätopluk was officially interpreted as the unifier of Slovaks and Czechs and during the pro-fascist Slovak state he was glorified as the founder of the ‘Slovak empire’. The author of the statue on Castle Hill, and also many of the statue’s defenders, grew up in that time and thus they relate to the representation of a conqueror with a sword and the double-cross on his shield. In the times of socialism other types of heroes, other than medieval-feudal, were glorified.
TSS: Why then has Svätopluk become such an important national symbol?
EM: Svätopluk’s position in the national pantheon in relationship to the other heroes of Great Moravia has been unclear since the 19th century. In this hierarchy he competed with Pribina – the founder of the first Christian temple, with Rastislav – who invited the Slavic faith-bringers [Cyril and Methodius] from Byzantium and who was then betrayed by Svätopluk, his nephew, and given over to the Bavarians – but mainly with Saints Cyril and Methodius.
Today Slovakia relates to the historical legacy of Great Moravia and namely its Cyrillo-Methodian spiritual legacy, as stated in the preamble of the constitution and symbolised by a national holiday to these two saints. Svätopluk did use the clerical organisation and the Slavic liturgy as Cyril and Methodius introduced it, in order to demonstrate his independence from the eastern-Frankish [German] rulers. He alone, however, required Latin services and after Methodius’ death he had his disciples expelled. Today that can be seen as a pro-western attitude. At the same time however the Slovak Republic today demonstratively claims its belonging to the Cyrillo-Methodian pro-eastern tradition in the preamble to the constitution. Such ambiguity is, of course, characteristic for historical myths and mythical heroes.
As a skilled politician, Svätopluk often changed allies and therefore his contemporaries, as well as later historians, called him either a malicious traitor or a wise and clever man, depending on their ideological intentions. By selecting various episodes from his life he could be presented once as an ally of the Germans, another time as their powerful enemy, then as a conqueror of the Czechs, and then as the founder of the first Czecho-Slovak state. Such flexibility contributed to the success of his symbolism.
TSS: The passionate debate about the statue has been ongoing for several months now. What is it that makes historical symbols so strong? What makes people perceive them so sensitively?
EM: Myths and symbols help to agglutinate people and give them the feeling of belonging to a group. In order to be effective among the public, they need to attract media attention. Passionate arguments around the statue at the castle emerged only after the performances around it and then after the news about them repeatedly appeared on TV, in the press and on the internet. The pompous unveiling ceremony, which followed scenarios of nationalist festivities from the 19th century, was broadcast by [public-service] Slovak Television live on its main programme. At the same time, parts of Slovakia were fighting catastrophic floods. Angry artists carrying red flags were protesting in front of the castle gate against the author of the statue – a prominent communist-era sculptor. A respected heraldry expert noted that the Slovak double-cross depicted on the shield of the statue resembles the one used by the pro-fascist paramilitary organisation during World War II. Activists covered the statue for some time with paper which read ‘The Statue of Lies’. Later, a police cordon divided a demonstration of organisations fighting for human rights from a march of nationalist extremists who had travelled to Bratislava to defend the statue.
Opponents have also criticised the financing of the monument through what they see as non-transparent public fundraising and also mainly as an abuse of power. So Svätopluk is at the centre of the debate but there are many other subthemes.
TSS: Which other symbols from remote and recent history play an important role in the collective memory of Slovaks?
EM: Although there are several remarkable scholars, scientists and inventors among the ancestors of Slovaks – I just mention the enlightened polymath Matej Bel – these persons did not have the potential to become action heroes or tragic heroes of mythical tales.
Most Slovaks, regardless of whether they originally have a Roman Catholic or Protestant family background, will perhaps reach an agreement on the famous highway-robber Jánošík, general [Milan Rastislav] Štefánik, and perhaps also the Romanticist [Ľudovít] Štúr who codified the Slovak language, as well as Alexander Dubček. The heroes preferred by the Catholic regime of the Slovak state during World War II rather tended to divide society.
TSS: Can Slovaks be said to have a realistic view of their own history? What influences their perception of history the most?
EM: Compared with Hungarians, for instance, who tend to return to their own historical traumas in cycles, the Slovak approach to history can appear rather tepid. But I’m afraid it’s mainly caused by a general lack of knowledge about the basic historical facts and context, and the ever-declining number of history lessons at schools. That makes it easier for populist politicians to manipulate people with the traditional Slovak myth of being victims and paint the image of the nation threatened by inner and outer enemies even today. People probably get most of their images of the past from TV series and movies.
It’s possible that an exaggerated focus on some topics from past times, such as the focus on Svätopluk now, allows [Slovaks] to push aside an unpleasant reconciliation with the history of the 20th century – the Holocaust, the persecution of Roma during the wartime regime, the discrimination against Hungarians and Germans in the years just after the end of World War II, and mainly with the whole era of socialism.
TSS: National myths and symbols often appeared in the rhetoric of the previous government, mainly by Prime Minister Robert Fico. What is your opinion about such use of history and mythology by politicians?
EM: Politicians use metaphors that they believe resonate and are able to mobilise the public. Therefore, they select mythological and historical topics, which is absolutely legitimate. The important thing is not to allow a ‘dictatorship of remembering’ to happen, so that there is no obligatory celebrating of certain personalities and events while others are expunged from public memory. Also, people should think about what values they are being served by the politicians using heroes from history.
The Svätopluk episode has not only brought about disputes among historians, but also debates of artists about artworks in the public space and debates among social scientists about science serving political power. It’s comforting that a post-nationalist tone prevails in these debates.
23. Aug 2010 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani