As a citizen of a country whose 5.398 million people comprise 0.076% of Earth’s population, I am well aware that few streets in major world cities are named after my compatriots. When I wanted to sate my hunger for a more personal experience of Paris, I recalled that the Slovak national hero Milan Rastislav Štefánik had had a strong connection to France, what with having been the country’s General. I investigated and voilà:
A square named after Czechoslovakia’s co-founder stands in the suburban arrondisement of Boulogne-Billancourt. Every town and city in Slovakia has a major street named after Štefánik and several boast his memorials or statues. Now I found a square named after him in France’s capital—I followed in the footsteps of Milan Rastislav Štefánik in Paris.
1904-1919: Štefánik in Paris
Štefánik visited and worked in Paris on several occasions between 1904 and 1919. He first came there in 1904 as a recent astronomy PhD planning to develop his scientific career. Following a number of award-winning papers and successful sojourns at various observatories, in France and around the world (including Tahiti where he rescued some of Gaugin’s wood cuts), coupled with diplomatic missions for his new country, he became a French citizen in 1912.
Štefánik saw World War I as an opportunity for the creation of an independent state of the Czechs and his compatriots, the Slovaks, following the potential dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Wanting to help, he joined the French air force, by 1917 rising to the rank of General. To advocate for a new joint state in 1915 he joined forces with the Czech politicians Tomáš Garrique Masaryk, who later became Czechoslovakia’s first president, and Edvard Beneš, the first Foreign Minister and 2nd president.
As member of the Czechoslovak National Council, Štefánik undertook a number of foreign diplomatic missions, including to the U.S., while always returning to his home Paris. The tireless efforts earned him the French medal of the Legion of Honor (Officer and later Commander), the creation of the first Czechoslovak Army in 1917, and on October 28, 1918 the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic (he became its Minister of War).
After the War, Štefánik left Paris for Rome and from there, on May 4, 1919 he flew to Slovakia, which he was to visit for the first time since 1913. But his plane crashed before landing. Alas, Štefánik never got to set foot in independent Czechoslovakia.
2013: Korchnak in Paris
An online map suggested Place General Stefanik was a 1:55-hour walk from our hotel in Montmartre. Two Paris metro lines took 25 minutes to get to the Michel-Ange-Auteuil station, and after 20-minute stroll on the residential Rue Michel Ange I stood at an unassuming square with a park.
The memorial plaque sits enclosed on the left side of the park. The plaque depicts Štefánik’s likeness beneath Slovakia’s coat of arms and a military airplane. Over his shoulder peeks out the spire of the church in his home village Košariská where he was born in 1880. Surrounding him are the astronomical instruments and observatories where he worked, including Mont Blanc, Meudon, and Tahiti. On the right, the plaque identifies him as a general, aviator, astronomer, and diplomat, as well as a “Frenchman of Slovak origin.”
Place Général Štefánik rarely sees tourists; I was the only one there to see the square. The area was quiet on Sunday afternoon—only a few people walked by, some with dogs, during the 10 or so minutes I lingered, reflecting on Slovakia’s history. Perhaps fitting for a man who, according to what I’ve been taught and what I’ve read, was an unassuming persona, working quietly as a good diplomat should to promote his homeland’s interests in the world while pursuing his scientific interest in the skies.