On September 8 1943, Czech journalist Julius Fučík took his final breath. His 40 years, six months and 16 days on the planet ended at the gallows, executed by the Gestapo in Berlin. Fučík was an extremely active member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and I like to think that the reader knows enough about mid-20th century Europe to fill in the dots between Fučík’s life and the reason for his death.
Fučík joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia on day one, born as it was out of the left-wing elements of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Fučík was a journalist, a career path that he had marked out for himself as early as his final pre-teen year, when he planned a future newspaper called Slovan (The Slav). When real journalistic work came his way as part of the Communist party, Fučík became extremely familiar with the Czechoslovak Secret Police. When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, it was the Gestapo who picked up where the Secret Police left off.
In April 1942, Fučík was arrested in Prague. The journo was interrogated and tortured at Prague’s notorious Pankrác Prison, where he spent a year before being moved to Germany. Whilst at Pankrác, Fučík managed to smuggle out a series of articles on cigarette papers, articles that would eventually be collated to make up Fučík’s ‘Notes From The Gallows’. The book details his experiences in the prison, as well as his hopes for a brave communist future.
When communism swept over Czechoslovakia following World War Two, Fučík inevitably became an ideological symbol of the regime. His book became required reading in school, and all manner of things took his name. On November 3 1984 a metro station in Holešovice (Prague 7) was named Fučíkova in his honour. Fučík saved countless Czech lives by giving the Gestapo false information during his imprisonment, earning the respect that was shown to him in death.
Countless Czech lives were lost at the Battle of the Dukla Pass, one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Eastern Front of WW2. The battle saw the Czechoslovak army team up with the Soviet Union to go up against the combined might of Germany and Hungary. The aim was to support the Slovak National Uprising, but by the time the communist forces were able to secure any territory in Slovakia, the uprising was over.
The battle was supposed to last just five days, but it ended up going 10 times longer. The Slovaks weren’t helped at all, but the battle did end with the liberation of Ukraine. The battle happened between September and October in 1944, and went a long way to further destroying the morale of the by-now-fucked Germany forces. Almost 17,000 Czechoslovak soldiers died in the battle, a battle which accounted for the lives of almost 300,000 soldiers in total (both sides combined).
The sacrifices made by the young men in the lower Carpathian Mountains was not to be ignored, and communist Czechoslovakia was full of things named ‘Dukla’ in memory of the conflict. ATK Praha football club became Dukla Praha in 1956, and in October 1988 a metro station in Prague 5 was given the name Dukelská.
Don’t bother going to check out either of these metro stations today however. They were both wiped from the map in February 1990, as post-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia continued to shed its communist skin. 10 other stations suffered a similar fate, as the communist-friendly names were edited to better suit the new political atmosphere in the country.
Fučíkova became Nádraží Holešovice, whilst Dukelská in turn became Nové Butovice. Ideological monikers were eschewed in favour of geographical equivalents, neutrality instead of pride. Stations formerly known as Leninova, Moskevská and Kosmonautů became Dejvická, Anděl and Háje, all changed overnight.
I’m certainly not going to argue against the name changes. Life is always changing after all, and it would be strange to continue to honour the leading lights of communism when the ideology itself did a bit of a number on the state. Vyšehrad was formerly known as Gottwaldova after all, and Klement Gottwald has since been voted the worst Czech. Ever. Out of all the Czechs. In the history of Czechs.
But what of the sacrifices of the 17,000 men who died at the Dukla pass, most of whom were young and impressionable? 17,000 men who died in the fight against fascism, futures that were snuffed out in the Carpathian autumn in order to ensure a future for the people of Europe. Is it right that their sacrifice was removed from what is now called Nové Butovice?
The Battle of the Dukla Pass is a major moment in the 20th century history of communism, but it had an impact and importance that stretched far beyond dreams of socialist utopia. You can argue that the name of something as trivial as a suburban metro station renders the discussion superfluous, but then the football club is still called Dukla to this very day. Well, the ideological successors to the famous club are, at the very least.
What of the sacrifice of Julius Fučík? His work was made into a vital piece of propaganda, but it is highly unlikely that Fučík had this in mind whilst writing it. Is it right that his unwitting position as an ideological symbol means that his commitment to resisting Nazism is best forgotten? Julius Fučík dreamt and wrote of a better future for all Czechs, is that so bad?
Milan Kundera referred to Prague as the ‘City of Forgetting’, and the communist legacy of the entire metro system has been successfully blocked out. Many of the name changes occurred in outer stations, meaning that even the multi-generational visitor could be forgiven for caring little. Most tourists won’t go to Jinonice or Roztyly, so the stations’ former lives as Švermova and Primátora Vacka will remain unknown.
Without wasting valuable words by stating something blindingly obvious, time changes how we remember and respect those who left their mark on history. Krum the Fearsome, otherwise known as Khan Krum the Terrible, Krum the Awesome, Krum the Shitkicker and Krum the Stay Down, is remembered as one of Bulgaria’s most successful leaders, a strong warrior who gloriously defeated the Byzantines and defended Bulgaria’s territorial integrity. The whole mass murder of enemies and razing of neighbouring cities stuff gets ignored, or is even celebrated.
Sticking with Bulgaria, the man who founded the modern version of the state is remembered less gloriously, despite leading Bulgaria to freedom, strengthening the infrastructure and economy, establishing strong diplomatic ties and basically dragging Bulgaria into the modern world. Despite this, his relatively modern (late 19th century) status means that Stefan Stambolov is remembered as a dictator.
Are we better to focus on the achievements of individuals, or their failings? Many like to say that we are defined by our actions, but definitions change over time. If the way our actions are defined is constantly changing, what chance do we have? Heroes become villains become heroes become villains. Gavrilo Princip is either considered a murderer or a terrorist, when the reality is that he was an angry young man from Middle Of Nowhere, Bosnia first and foremost.
Julius Fučik resisted the Gestapo when the Nazis were still a strong and violent force in Europe, saving the lives of countless Czechs and shining a light on the horrific conditions inside the cells of the Gestapo. Thousands of young men died at the Dukla Pass in 1944, ostensibly to ease the suffering of the Slovakians and to fight back against fascism. Those young men are remembered with respect, but not enough respect to keep the name Dukelská. Fučík is a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance, but his unwitting position as a communist ideological symbol means Fučikova is no more.
Or maybe there is something I’m missing. I did not grow up in communist Czechoslovakia. I did not experience the ups and downs state of socialism, and I did not experience the thrill or the misery of the Velvet Revolution. Honouring a memory by naming everyday things after an individual is risky business, especially in the flowing streams of ideology.