Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
June 22, 2010
Late last week, we drove into Bratislava across the Novy Most – the “New Bridge” – a striking modern span across the Danube into the heart of the old city.
It was certainly a quick and convenient route. But once we were settled into our hotel room, we checked a guidebook and learned that the Novy Most was actually a prime example of Communist brutality against Old Europe.
The guidebook told us that to build the bridge and the wide roadway leading off into the city, nearly 300 buildings had been demolished. That was more than a quarter of the old heart of Bratislava. Brutal destruction indeed.
Let me take a moment here to note that to most of us, Bratislava may well seem like a seriously exotic, far distant city, a piece of an alien culture. It is somewhere “out there,” in Eastern Europe. But, in fact, Bratislava is at the heart of Europe. It is less than 40 miles east of Vienna, which is unquestionably one of the great centers of our own Western culture, home to both Mozart and Freud.
During the Cold War, we thought of the Iron Curtain as a true, historic East-West dividing line. Everything beyond that Curtain was “East.” But Bratislava, long known by its German name, Pressburg, is certainly a vital part of our own Western culture. Like so much of the land that is really Central – rather than Eastern – Europe, it became part of Russia’s new Soviet Empire in the fall-out of World War II. Bratislava was part of the spoils of war.
Now, with Russia’s far-flung empire just a bad memory- a fading bad taste in the world’s mouth – Bratislava is regaining much of its old character. The heart of the old city has become a fine example of classic old Europe. A sort of miniature Vienna.
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So, with this in mind, the Communist destruction of a substantial portion of that wonderful old city is a clear act of cultural vandalism.
We shook our heads and rued that brutal stupidity that laid old glories to waste in the name of … what? Communist glory? For shame.
But then, talking to a Bratislava guide, my wife learned a different side to the story. Many of the people who had been living in those old historic buildings were more than glad to see them demolished, more than happy to be given new apartments elsewhere in the city. To those people, the “classic” old buildings were run down, beat up and falling apart. They were terrible places to live, crumbling old buildings in a state of terminal decay.
The delightful “old Bratislava” that we were enjoying was, of course, a newly renovated version of the run-down old Bratislava where those people were forced to live – until, luckily for them, the Novy Most project gave them the chance to move.
And thinking about that, I was reminded of Baron Haussmann’s sweeping redesign of Paris, one of the most glorious cities on earth. What Haussmann did to Paris in the 1850s and 1860s was, in many ways, the same as what the Communists did to Bratislava a century later. Under the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, Haussmann created the wide tree-lined boulevards that epitomize the Paris we know and love. Today, they are grand thoroughfares that bring that glorious light into the city. They are fronted by beautiful buildings, dotted with parks and gardens. Wondrous indeed.
But to create those sweeping boulevards, Haussmann destroyed ancient Parisian neighborhoods, driving thousands of people out of their homes. The Communists destroyed almost 300 buildings to create Bratislava’s Novy Most. Under Haussmann, some 20,000 buildings were demolished in Paris. The process was painful and the scars were deep. And the people of Paris who lost their homes were exiled to the outskirts of the city.
In Paris the scars have long since healed. All that we see now are the grand buildings that line those grand boulevards. And what was raw and new back then is now 150 years old.
In Bratislava, the new bridge is striking and convenient, but there is very little chance that its path through the city will mellow into beauty in the century to come. Aside from the bridge itself – an impressive engineering feat – nothing of beauty has been created. The Communist government built for brutal efficiency, not beauty.
The new bridge and its approach are crammed between Bratislava’s ancient cathedral and the base of the steep hill that is topped by the city’s royal castle.
Bratislava was once the Austrian Habsburg Empire’s “coronation city.” For four centuries, kings were crowned in the cathedral and then rode up to the castle to take possession of their lands. Now, the path the royal processions traveled has been replaced with a bus terminal, crammed beneath the elevated bridge approach. And traffic racing off the Novy Most careens by just a few scant yards from the cathedral itself.
So, do we need to stop and consider whether the difference between the brutal destruction of the Communist vandals and the glorious creativity of Haussmann was nothing more than a matter of taste? Nothing more than the beauty of the Parisian boulevards versus the convenience of the Novy Most? Plus time, of course, for the wounds to heal.
Do we forgive the brutality of Haussmann and Napoleon III, just because, 150 years later, we like the effect it produced? Do we forget the misery of those whose lives were destroyed, whose freedom was crushed under the brutal heel of the emperor, because of the light and beauty we enjoy today?
Well, yes. Perhaps we do. We forgive and forget a great deal in the name of beauty. And, finally, we must ask what, if anything, could lead us to forgive and forget the brutality of Communism and its destruction of beauty, spirit and freedom?