Today is the anniversary of the Candle Demonstration of 1988 in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, the first mass demonstration since 1969 against the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. The Demonstration was organized by Roman Catholic dissent groups seeking religious freedom in Czechoslovakia. The peaceful Candle Demonstration of 5,000 people was ruthlessly suppressed by the police, but it was the beginning of a popular uprising that ultimately led to the so-called Velvet Revolution, the non-violent transition of power from state communism to democracy in what was then Czechoslovakia, occurring from 17th November to 29th December 1989. Today is also the birthday (1906) of historian A.J.P. Taylor whose books were important to me as I began to understand as a teenager that engaging in proper history – as opposed to what passes for history in many schools – involves asking questions of historical data, not simply recording them (and memorizing them for exams).
Taylor was interested in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, which means that some of the events he was concerned with understanding were ones he had lived through – particularly the Second World War. This kind of history intrigues me also. It is one thing to ask questions of history that are completely outside of living memory — “Why did ancient Rome shift from being a republic to an empire?” “Why did Europe erupt in revolution in 1848?” etc. – it is quite another to ask questions, in hindsight, concerning the importance of particular events that one has lived through and can remember and document from memory of the experiences. Right now, the U.S. is struggling with seemingly neverending mass slaughters in schools involving assault rifles. Will the recent March For Our Lives in Washington DC, orchestrated by the surviving students of the Parkland school shooting, prove to be a tipping point in gun control legislation at the state and federal level in the US, or will it pass into historical oblivion? At this point there is no telling. What makes the study of history so vital, is that historians can look back at both successful and failed social revolutions and dissect their processes from beginning to end. This analysis can, in turn, influence contemporary actions for social change. The Candle Demonstration, by itself, was a small action that was easily suppressed, but it appears to have led on to massive change.
The Candle Demonstration was planned by Marián Štastný, executive vice-president of the Slovak World Congress, and his associate Dr. Paul Arnold of Switzerland. They were in touch with the Čarnogurský family of Bratislava and passed on the plans for the demonstration via Štastný’s mother-in-law, who was on a visit to Switzerland. Catholic activist František Mikloško initiated a request for a permit to demonstrate, but his proposal was rejected by the authorities. Information about the event was propagated through Vatican Radio and by Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.
The Demonstration was the first significant step towards bringing down the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Five thousand Slovaks protested at Hviezdoslav Square with candles in their hands. Another six thousand demonstrated in adjacent streets, while the main entrance to the square was blocked by the secret police. Police first used water cannons against protesters while they ran their sirens and yelled at protesters to get away from the square. They then began attacking the protesters with batons and sticks. Leading Communist officials (including the Slovak prime minister, the minister of the interior, and the minister of culture) observed events from inside the Carlton Hotel on Hviezdoslav square. At the time there was no telling whether the Demonstration was a turning point in history, or simply a failed protest quashed by a tyrannical government. It takes the work of historians to put all the pieces together and declare, after the dust has cleared, that the Candle Demonstration was the former, not the latter.
March 25th has now become Struggle for Human Rights Day in Slovakia, commemorating the Candle Demonstration, and what it led to.
Bratislava has a number of traditional recipes associated with it. Chicken paprika is a common dish throughout Slavic cultures, and Bratislava’s is not especially unusual. Its character is determined by the kind of paprika used, and by the accompaniment of classic Slovak dumplings called halušky.
Bratislava Chicken Paprikáš
4 lbs/2 kg. chicken pieces
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp butter
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
3 cups water or chicken stock
1 pint/5 dl sour cream
3 tbsp flour
Sprinkle the chicken pieces with paprika, and salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Heat the butter over medium heat in a heavy skillet, then add the chicken pieces and sauté them slowly until they are golden on all sides. Add the onion and water (or stock), cover and simmer until the chicken is tender (about 25 minutes).
Remove the chicken from the broth with a slotted spoon and keep warm.
Whisk together the sour cream and flour in a small jug. Pour the mixture into the pan juices over medium heat, stirring vigorously. Continue heating and stirring until the sauce has thickened, but do not let it come to a boil. When the sauce has heated through, pour it over the chicken on a serving platter. Serve with halusky (Slovak dumplings).
2 ½ cups flour
3 eggs, beaten
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
½ cup water
Sift the flour, salt, and baking powder on to the work surface. Shape into a cone and then punch down the peak to form a crater. Pour the eggs into the crater and fold over the flour into the eggs to form a soft dough, adding water a little at a time, as needed to make sure that all the flour is incorporated. Knead the dough for a few minutes and form it into a ball.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Scrape pieces of dough from the ball with a spoon, and let them fall into the boiling water. Do this until all the dough is used. As the dumplings rise to the top of water, remove them with a slotted spoon and keep warm.