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Slovakia to Rebury Former PM - 2002-06-26

This Thursday, Slovakia will honor its past when it reburies the remains of former Czechoslovak Prime Minister Milan Hodza, who led the nation from 1935 through 1938. Mr. Hodza died in the United States in 1944 and, until recently, had lain in a Chicago cemetery.

Some say Milan Hodza was the Slovak equivalent of George Washington, the first U.S. president Americans refer to as the father of his country. Mr. Hodza was one of several men who helped the Czechs and Slovaks achieve their dream of nationhood when Czechoslovakia was created in 1918. Miroslav Wlachovsky, a foreign policy advisor to Slovakia's Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, says bringing the remains of the former leader home is a morale booster to the Republic of Slovakia, which was officially created in 1993. "We have to find a way of thinking which will inspire us. We need traditions on which we can build our future."

Mr. Wlachovsky was among several historians and Slovak government officials participating in a discussion about Mr. Hodza, held at Benedictine University near Chicago. He says Mr. Hodza was always looking for ways to improve the lives of Slovaks. "Hodza believed in the ability of the Slovak people to be equal with other nations in the international arena," he says. "He always emphasized the need to improve the education of the Slovak people, as well as the need to strengthen the economic power of Slovaks."

The early 20th century was a time when much of Central and Eastern Europe was still agricultural, while Western Europe had become industrialized. Benedictine University history professor and local Hodza expert, Susan Mikula, said Mr. Hodza believed that Slovak and Czechoslovak growth would come faster if the countries of the region worked together. "He was a nationalist who understood the limits of nationalism. For him, nationalism was the means to an end. It was not the end," she says. "The ultimate end was the democratic flowering of the peoples of Central Europe, which could only come through democratic processes."

World War II put an end to Mr. Hodza's dreams of a united Central Europe. He fled Czechoslovakia shortly before it was occupied by troops from Nazi Germany. While living in exile in France, Great Britain and finally the United States, Mr. Hodza worried that Central and Eastern Europe would fall under Soviet control after the war.

Slovak Culture Minister Milan Knazko said Mr. Hodza's warnings about Moscow's domination were dismissed by Western nations that worked with the Soviets to defeat Hitler's army. "He was deeply convinced that the arrival of the Red Army would also mean the importing of the Communist regime into countries at once liberated and reoccupied," says Mr. Knazko.

When Czechoslovakia fell under Communist control after World War II, Mr. Hodza was declared a persona non grata, and was deleted from history books. The Communist government also prevented his family from bringing the body home for reburial, and it has lain for decades in Chicago's Bohemian National Cemetery.

Thursday marks the 58th anniversary of Mr. Hodza's death, and his dying wish will be finally fulfilled. Slovak officials will rebury his body next to that of his wife Irena, in the national cemetery in Martin, Slovakia. Mr. Hodza's grandson, John Palka, will be in attendance. "Having this done in such an official way represents the recognition of today's Slovakia, that these really were important events of which he was a part and he was a really leading figure and he does mean something to the country," he says. "It is very different to hear it from historians and government officials than to hear it from my own parents."

Slovak officials say many of Mr. Hodza's ideas are still very much alive. Slovakia is a close partner today with the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. It also hopes step on the world stage by joining the European Union and the NATO alliance.