Košice is not Charlottesville. You will not see statues being torn down or angry mobs on the rampage if you happen to take a stroll in the city. But Slovakia has its memory struggles too.
One revolves around the World War II memorial in the centre of the eastern-Slovak city, built to honour the soldiers who liberated the territory of present-day Slovakia from fascism. The sickle-and-hammer symbols that were only added later to the original memorial have repeatedly been torn down and put back up. Most recently, activist Ľuboš Lorenz took them down again – and ended up in police detention for four days.
This prompts all kinds of questions. Did Lorenz damage a memorial or not? Were the police authorised to deprive him of his liberty for so long? Was his deed heroic, or just a theatrical attempt to attract public attention? And – this is what Lorenz says he really wants the public to discuss – how should we react to communist symbols in our public spaces?
For the citizens of a country that has been around for less than a quarter of a century in its present form, it is an essential question. There is still so much we prefer not to hear about our past: we do not want to recognise the dark moments, nor come to terms with our role in them.
In late August and early September, Slovakia celebrates as national holidays events with a significant role in the creation of the state. There are festivities and memorial events, attended by the three top constitutional officials and many other senior politicians. Andrej Kiska, Robert Fico, and Andrej Danko all took the 29 August Slovak National Uprising (SNP) commemoration in Banská Bystrica as an opportunity to stress that people need to resist fascism even today – indeed, especially today, as the country prepares for regional elections, which offer a chance to kick Slovakia’s most prominent fascist out of his current job as governor of Banská Bystrica Region.
But by the end of the week, thanks to Lorenz, the focus of these symbolism-charged days shifted from fascism to another totalitarian ideology, and exposed the dissonance in Slovaks’ collective memory. Because although there are fascists sitting in parliament today, the swastika has not lost its power to scandalise the Slovak public. and prosecutors are actively dealing with several prominent cases involving displays of extreme right-wing symbols. Most visible of all is the donation to three needy families by Marian Kotleba’s party of €1488 – a peculiar number, based on neo-Nazi numerology – which could end up with the party being banned.
But the hammer and sickle scandalise hardly anybody. It is not that long ago, perhaps a decade, that the fashion hit of the season was a T-shirt bearing the Cyrillic initials CCCP (‘USSR’). Fast-fashion stores would sell scores of these, and many people in Slovakia would wear them, without giving a second thought to what they represented. If you were to point out to their wearers that they were sporting a symbol of oppression, you would be considered a lunatic.
This is despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the fact that most people still have first-hand memories from before 1989, and for most of them it means shortages of toilet paper and bananas in the shops, and closed borders. But for many others, tens of thousands in fact, the communist regime meant ruined careers, destroyed health, stolen freedom, or even death. Is this nostalgia possible because the 1989 revolution was gentle, as we like to call it, and occurred without the rattle of machine guns, unlike the SNP?
Whatever the answer to that question, and whatever other discussions we might (and should) hold about the legacy of the totalitarian regimes in this country, none of it changes the fact that there is a law in Slovakia that prohibits the use of such symbols in public, unless they serve educational, research, or similar purposes.
Since the painful and wrenching experiences of 2016 we have become more alert to far-right symbols. Lorenz is now telling us that they are not the only ones that deserve our attention.