Hammer and sickle dispute acquires international dimension

The memorial to Russian soldiers in Brno, photo: Henta, Wikimedia Commons, License Creative Commons 3.0 Unported

An ongoing dispute over whether the communist hammer and sickle symbols belong on a wartime memorial to Russian soldiers who died during the liberation of Brno at the end of the Second World War has stumped Czech officials, divided the inhabitants of Brno and elicited an official protest from Russia.

Rene Pelan
The dispute was set in motion by the deputy mayor of Brno, Rene Pelan, who took it upon himself to remove the hammer and sickle symbols from a monument built to commemorate 326 soldiers of the Red Army, who lost their lives liberating Brno from Nazi occupation. He made the decision without consulting the town hall authorities and paid a firm to grind off the symbols under cover of the night. The police are now investigating the incident to see whether he committed a criminal offense by interfering with the memorial. The deputy mayor claims that a criminal offense would have been to leave them there since - as he sees it - the hammer and sickle are symbols of a totalitarian regime just like the Nazis' swastika. However, Czech legislation does not ban communist symbols and Brno police spokeswoman Andrea Prochazkova says Mr Pelan is on very thin ice with his interpretation of the law.

"A legal expert told us that in this case the presence of a hammer and sickle cannot be viewed as a criminal act - that is promoting an ideology aimed at suppressing human rights and freedoms."

The memorial to Russian soldiers in Brno,  photo: Henta,  Wikimedia Commons,  License Creative Commons 3.0 Unported
The Russian consulate has sent the Czech Foreign Ministry an official protest note reminding it of its obligation to "protect and preserve war graves" and claiming that tampering with the war memorial was "an unfriendly act towards Russia". The Czech Foreign Ministry promptly issued a statement saying that the Russian complaint was justified and that Mr Pelan had acted in violation of international law; but it stopped short of asking for the hammer and sickle to be put back on the memorial. The Czech Defense Ministry took a stronger stand, saying that the hammer and sickle represented a certain period in history and should be respected within that context. However the mayor of Brno Ivan Kopecny is standing firmly behind his deputy in this conflict:

"It is perfectly right that the grave of Red Army soldiers who died liberating Brno should be here and that there is a memorial to them expressing the town's gratitude. There is nothing wrong with the inscription, but the hammer and sickle do not belong there - they are not symbols of the Red Army - they are symbols of communism."

On Wednesday two groups of protesters turned up at the Brno memorial - one came to support the deputy mayor, the other to condemn him for what they described as tactless and insensitive behavior on ground that should be sacred. It is not clear how this sensitive issue will be resolved - but it clearly shows the enormity of the country's dilemma in coming to terms with the past.