The Czech invasion of ‘Wilson City’

22-11-2011

Welcome to Wilsonstadt, an independent Central European city of 400,000 Germans and Hungarians, and a few Slovaks thrown in for good measure. Named after US President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, after successfully avoiding annexation by Czechoslovakia - and an impossible number of other would-be conquests - it's a prosperous, provincial town on the Danube, though plagued by poor relations with its neighbors.

Pressburg/BratislavaPressburg/Bratislava In the thought experiments of alternative history, this is where one of the stranger corridors leads. In real life, “Wilsonovo Mesto” never got a chance. Before it could even be given the name, it was overrun by Czechoslovak troops in early 1919. The capital of the Slovak (and Hungarian) end of the country was relocated there, and a month later it was officially renamed Bratislava.

The city that is today the capital of the Slovak Republic has been known by many names in the past. Once the capital and the most important centre of Hungary, it was called Pozsany. To the German-speakers who had always lived there, it was Pressburg. A hundred years past all that though, and some Slovaks still like to dream about what might have been. Among them is the acclaimed writer Michal Hvorecky, whose short story "The Worst Crime in Wilsonov" draws on just such an alternative reality.

“The idea was very fascinating to me at the time when the Slovak Republic was very isolated from the West and from the world; it was a very closed country, very populist, very nationalistic, and our government was frustrating for me. And somehow I rediscovered this idea of Wilson City from the beginning of Czechoslovakia, and became fascinated by it. The story is an alternative history of the city I was born in and that I love so much. The idea is that it’s 1923, history went a bit differently, and Wilson City still exists. Some things are different, with the usual science fiction twist; it’s an independent, multicultural city, and Czechoslovakia is just a neighboring country.”

Michal HvoreckýMichal Hvorecký Czechs tend to think about the creation of Czechoslovakia as not only a bloodless event, but one of universal amity that led to a golden era. And to a certain extent, it was – for the Czechs at least. Jan Rychlik of the Institute of Czech History completes the picture.

“The First Republic has been idealized as a kind of Paradise Lost, which it certainly wasn’t. It definitely wasn’t a paradise for the minorities, but it was no hell for them either. Compared to the situations of minorities in Poland, for instance, or Hungary or Romania, it was very liberal. That doesn’t mean of course that we should hide the fact that there were many mistakes and many problems.”

Upon its glorious foundation, more than one third of the inhaitants of Czechoslovakia were neither Czech nor Slovak, they were openly hostile to the idea of the new state and Professor Rychlik says there was little reason from their point of view to welcome it.

“We must understand that the Kingdom of St. Stephan, the Kingdom of Hungary, had existed here for one thousand years. And for most of the people – Hungarians and local Germans, but also for many Slovaks too – it was very difficult for them to understand that this state had some to an end, and that they should be part of a new state that they had never had anything to do with in the past. And especially Bratislava – as it is called now – had a mixed population and the Slovaks were in the minority. So the idea of the local Hungarian and German population was to create a free city, like Gdansk, or as they wanted to do with Trieste after WWII. It’s a curiosity of history. The name of the city was supposed to be changed to Wilson City, to commemorate Wilson’s 14 Points of 1918.”

There are several versions of why the name of Wilson City was proposed. Some sources say it was the result of pressure from the Slovak community in the United States, others pragmatically assume that it was an unabashed attempt at flattery in order to win a strong ally for the city’s independence. Whether President Woodrow Wilson himself had any idea that such a tribute was in the making we do not know. Apparently the trash dump of history also includes some official materials bearing the name of Wilsonovo Mesto that were actually printed before the idea met its inevitable end.

“For the Czechoslovak government, this was totally unacceptable, because first of all they would lose the port on the Danube – a very important port and a very important centre of western Slovakia. So once the Czechoslovak Army had established control over all of Slovakia, which happened at the end of 1918 (on Christmas Eve they reached Košice and established control over the territory), they decided that the Slovak regional authorities led by the Minister for Slovak Administration, Vavro Šrobár, should move from Žilina to Bratislava, which happened on the 4th of February.

“It should be noted that the Hungarian and German population did not welcome the Czechoslovak authorities. There was a general strike and mass demonstrations that the gendarmerie and the Army crushed using open fire, and nine people were shot.”

No rubber bullets, pepper spray or flash grenades for breaking up demonstrations in 1919 – with the attack on the demonstration, the Czechoslovak Army put a definitive end to the idea of Bratislava’s independence. And the killing of the nine (some say 15) demonstrators was not the only such incident that accompanied the founding of Czechoslovakia.

BratislavaBratislava “Of course, you must understand that demonstrations in those days were very violent. After all, who were the demonstrators but soldiers who had returned from the First World War, and were still ready to fight. So, it was of course a very sad incident, but that was how it worked in those days. There were many more accidents like that in Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1920 in various places.”

On the opposite end of the nascent country, in Most on the German border, Sudeten Germans took to the streets when the Czech authorities forbade their participation in elections to the Austrian parliament. The resulting confrontation with the Czechoslovak Army on March 4 of 1919 left 54 people dead, almost a hundred injured, and permanently worsened relations with Germany. Amid the tension, there were even considerations of whether to keep the Hungarian populated part of southern Slovakia.

“We know that President Masaryk hesitated as to whether it was a good idea to acquire this territory. He even gave an interview to one Hungarian newspaperman and then denied it, because it was almost a political scandal. He, personally, probably understood that Czechoslovakia had acquired too much – more that it could stomach. But of course, probably no states will give up part of its territory.

“On the other hand, we should be aware one thing: simply that it is practically impossible to establish an ethnically correct border. In 1938, after the First Vienna Arbitration Award on November 2, these territories were transferred to Hungary and it didn’t help much. Because of course, now there were few Hungarians in Slovakia, but there were half a million Slovaks in Hungary who were not satisfied either, and were much more repressed in Hungary than Hungarians had been in Czechoslovakia. So, establishing a just border here was practically impossible anyway – in 1919, 1938 or at any other time.”

But back to Wilson City – could the alternative history have worked out somehow, or was it doomed to failure from the outset?

BratislavaBratislava “I think this was simply a vain attempt that could not have worked under the circumstances, because Hungary was a defeated country, and the project simply had no support. Economically, an Independent Bratislava probably would have been feasible, but not politically, because Hungary never gave up their claim to this part of the country. That would have probably accepted it as a temporary solution, but certainly it would not be a permanent solution.

“But of course, from history we know that no solutions are permanent. They may seem permanent from the point of view of a human lifetime, but I think that as soon as they got the opportunity, Hungary would have questioned the city’s independence. And more importantly, there was no support from the big powers – France, Great Britain. They were the decision-making powers of 1919.”

In any case, it’s a fascinating dead-end road of history that people still like to look down and wonder. There is still a Wilson Street in Bratislava, an annual Wilsonov music festival that harkens back to the fated plan, and Michal Hvorecký’s ghoulish short story about the worst crime in Wilsonov is soon to be turned into a feature-length Czech-and-Slovak motion-picture. He explains that the idea of Wilson City is a part of a movement of recovering part of the lost spirit of the city.

“I think Wilsonov’s popularity is about the lost dream of the multiculturalism that we had here. Even in the interwar period, it was normal to switch from German to Hungarian and to Slovak on one day in one family. And this is something we almost totally lost after the Second World War and especially after the Communist regime started, because they supported this idea of a national state: first the Czechoslovak nation, later the Slovak nation. You know, we killed most of our Jews, we sent away the Germans, we moved the Hungarians to the countryside in the south or even across the Danube River. And this major part of the history of Bratislava simply disappeared. And I think that for many people it’s quite attractive to try to find ways to connect with that past. Lots of activities in the fields of art and architecture are rediscovering this world that we destroyed. And I think Wilsonstadt is a part of this movement.”

22-11-2011