War veterans protest "desecration" of military memorial

The National Memorial on Vitkov Hill in Prague is a structure hard to miss. It is a severe rectangular building with no windows, accompanied by a large statue of 15th-century Czech military commander Jan Zizka, astride his horse, as if keeping guard over the city. Built in the 1930s, the memorial was meant to house the remains of Czech soldiers who fought in foreign legions on the battlefields of the First World War. A recent commercial event in the - now scarcely used - building has prompted Czech war veteran associations to raise their voices in protest.

National Memorial on VitkovNational Memorial on Vitkov Standing on a leafy hill, high above the hustle a bustle of the city, the monumental granite structure looks bleak and deserted. On a normal day, a few dog owners are the only people to be seen around here. Except for a few wreath-laying ceremonies every year, the National Memorial escapes the attention of both the public and officials.

National Memorial on VitkovNational Memorial on Vitkov But a recent event here caused a stir in the media and outraged two war veteran organisations: the Czech Airforce Association and the Union of Czechoslovak Legionaries. A few weeks ago, the wife of the governor of Central Bohemia rented the memorial for a company party, complete with a disco and scantily clad dancers. It was also attended by a few high ranking Civic Democrat officials - including Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who has in the meantime expressed regret over his participation. The two associations are considering legal action and have also called on President Vaclav Klaus and Prague Mayor Pavel Bem to use their powers to prevent what they call "further abuse" of the monument.

Designed in the late 1920s by architect Jan Zazvorka, who himself fought in the Russian legion, the memorial's original purpose was to become a sort of mausoleum of Czech legionaries. When the Communist authorities took over the building after the Second World War, they turned it first into the Grave of the Unknown Soldier and then a burial place of state and party leaders.

After the fall of communism, the need arose to redefine the purpose of the massive construction. In the year 2000, the management of the memorial was transferred to the National Museum which pledged to rehabilitate the place as a symbol of Czech statehood by 2009. The National Museum's director Michal Lukes has also expressed regret over the recent incident and has halted all commercial events there. It remains to be seen whether the current controversy will help bring new life to the monument which has been left unused for much too long.