His Excellency Lubomir Rehak, the Amabassador of Slovakia to the Court of St James (aka Betty’s Club), gave a talk at the University of Stirling this week with the Provost and past Provost of Stirling in attendance with the civic regalia on show.
The occasion of this talk was to mark the centenary of independence for Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War 1. He traced its modern history as an independent country with Czech Republic from 1919-39, skipped past the 1939-45 when Slovakia was a separate but crypto-Nazi state until the Iron Curtain fell in the aftermath of the second World War.
Touching on the hopes of the Prague Spring of 1968 which were extinguished just as quickly and brutally by the Warsaw Pact forces, it took the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989 for Czechoslovakia to re-emerge as a Western democracy and a further four years before the Velvet Divorce: the creation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as two independent but close sovereign states, which both joined the enlarged European Union in 2003.
Skipping aside the historical milestones in Slovak independence, Mr Rehak spoke to the publication of a new book of poetry – The Bloody Sonnets – from the First World War by the Slovak Don Quixote, Pavol Országh, knows as Hviezdoslav. Translated by an Irishman, John Minahane, this beautiful poetry is on a par with our own Great War poets.
Take for instance, this sonnet, number 14:
This puffed-up arrogance that’s dressed in iron
and, armed with lethal weapons, lurks in wait;
that bulks like stormy clouds on the horizon,
each move a threat, with eyes wide full of hate;
that hangs above the earth like punishment
and keeps peace powerless: it coarsely swears
that it fears God alone! – But this is meant
contemptuously: in truth it does not care,
asks little of its conscience, does not ponder
the strict Commandment that “thou shall not kill!”,
but cheers the flashing swords and cannons’ thunder.
And weak-witted folk with feeble will
are led as lambs to slaughter. – Thus the globe
is conflagration-shod and ruin-robed.
As an aside, it has been a big cultural week for me: whether in commemoration of WW1 and the National Theatre of Scotland’s #PagesOnTheBeach project; the Peterloo Massacre which Mike Leigh has directed a new film charting the massacre of innocent working class people in Petersfield in 1819; and even a close-text reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “England in 1819” – a damning sonnet about Peterloo and the squashing of English liberty by the degenerative hand of the Hanoverian state institutions. At the end of all this, I am drawing to the conclusion that we have learnt little from history and worry that we are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past. I must be getting old.
But back to Mr Rehak. Despite the struggles to assert their nationhood, Slovakia are committed to membership of the European Union, faults and all. Despite suggestions that central European states such as Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, are increasingly Euro-sceptic, Mr Rehak is very much of the view that this is not the case.