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World War I memories overshadowed

IN SLOVAKIA, memories of the First World War are not as vivid in the public discourse as in, for instance, the UK or France. Historians ascribe this to several factors.

IN SLOVAKIA, memories of the First World War are not as vivid in the public discourse as in, for instance, the UK or France. Historians ascribe this to several factors.

The historical memory of the First World War has been overshadowed by the memories of the Second World War, which some people still living today remember personally, as well as its consequences, historian Gabriela Dudeková of the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences said. This is quite visible in the memorials for those who died in the war, which can be found in many Slovak small towns and villages. In most cases, the names of those who fell in WWII were simply added to those who were killed in WWI, Dudeková noted.

Historian Roman Holec also points out that many more of memorials express piety for the victims, rather than a sense of celebration or victory. This is due to the fact that the vast majority of Slovaks fought on the wrong side, in the Austrian-Hungarian army, and at the end of the war only members of the Czechoslovak Legion, which fought against Austria-Hungary, were celebrated, Holec said.

“The state, in its official historical memory, made space only for [the legionaries] as the winners, and based its historical traditions on them,” Holec told The Slovak Spectator. As a result, ordinary folks mainly remember the husbands, fathers, brothers and sons they lost in the war, regardless of which side they fought on, rather than the winners.

A major reason for forgetting about the Great War is that it has been overshadowed by its political result: the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic.

“While for Germans and for Magyars WWI ended in trauma, for Slovaks it was a story with a happy end,” Dudeková told The Slovak Spectator. Thus, it was not the end of the war, but rather the emergence of Czechoslovakia that was celebrated. She added that the birth of Czechoslovakia has often been, quite wrongly, interpreted as the “national liberation of Slovaks from under the thousand-year-long Hungarian oppression”.

Dudeková, however, points out that Czechoslovakia’s foundation has actually been interpreted in several different ways, depending on which regime was in power in the country. In the democratic interwar Czechoslovak Republic, it was mainly the cult of the legionaries that was put first, and the rank-and-file soldiers who fought in the army of the monarchy had been forgotten as those who fought on the wrong side.

Under the communist regime, however, the Czechoslovak Republic, its founders and also the legionaries, were practically erased from the history textbooks, Dudeková noted. Later, after 1989, the memory of the legionaries, as well as one of their leaders and one of the founders of the Czechoslovak Republic, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, was revived again.

“The current 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI found people interested in topics like the life of the rank-and-file soldiers on the front and the life of people back at home,” Dudeková said, adding that people seem eager to find traces of the war in their family histories.

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