These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



Meet the Slovaks

A crash course in Slovak history

By James Thomson

    
 
 Photo: Eric Smillie

Slovaks - people who speak Slovak as their first language and identify themselves as Slovak - make up 80-90 percent of the population of modern-day Slovakia (the remainder includes Hungarians, Roma (or Gypsies), Ruthenians and other minorities). Other significant Slovak communities exist in the Czech Republic, the United States and the Vojvodina region of Serbia, and several thousand Slovaks currently live and work in the UK and Ireland.

Early days

Their predecessors probably first appeared in what is now Slovakia as part of the great migration of the Slavs into central Europe some time after 500 AD.

The history of this period is naturally subject to conjecture. There is archaeological and limited written evidence that between the seventh and tenth centuries a series of proto-states - most notably Samo's Empire, the Principality of Nitra and finally the Great Moravian Empire - emerged in parts of what is now Slovakia.

Little is known about how these entities were governed, or even their extent. One of the most significant events during this period was the arrival in Nitra, in 863, of the Greek monks Cyril and Methodius, who helped establish Christianity's enduring influence.

Neither the region's people nor their rulers were, in any meaningful sense, 'Slovak' during this period. However, much later the Great Moravian Empire and its forbears came to play an important part in the Czech and Slovak romantic nationalist movements of the nineteenth century. They remain part of the modern nationalist historical narrative: Stanislav J Kirschbaum, in his History of Slovakia, first published in the 1990s, even calls the Great Moravian Empire "The First State"; school textbooks in Slovakia sometimes repeat this trope.

However, Dušan Kováč, Vice President of the Slovak Academy of Sciences' Institute of Historical Studies, points out that nations are typically defined by language, and modern Slovak has only emerged - along with the popular concept of Slovak identity - during the last two hundred years. A Slavic language was spoken by at least some people in the Great Moravian Empire, but it was far removed from modern Slovak. More importantly, there is little evidence that those people thought of themselves as a nation.

References to 'Slovaks' crop up during the Middle Ages and later, during Slovakia's period under Hungarian rule, which lasted from the late tenth century until 1918 (from 1867, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). But the concept of Slovak identity clearly emerged only in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as part of a wider national awakening.

Birth of a nation

Slovaks were one of the myriad ethnic groups which lived within the Kingdom of Hungary (Uhorsko, in Slovak), and who could refer to themselves as Uhors, or Hungarian subjects.

But as the concept of modern nations emerged in Europe from the eighteenth century onwards, another, more divisive, definition emerged: Maďar, or ethnic Hungarian.

The main differentiator was not confessional - Slovaks and Hungarians were by the late eighteenth century predominantly Catholic - or even geographical, but linguistic.

Speakers of Slovak were, by definition, not Maďars. (This dichotomy survives to this day: the half-million or so Hungarian-speakers who live in Slovakia now, though Slovak citizens, are still referred to as Maďars.)

Partly as a response, non-Hungarians sought to define their own identity. Early Slovak nationalists grasped that language would be crucial. Slovak, though widely spoken, remained uncodified and major variations existed between regional dialects. This allowed early leaders of the Slovak national movement to take different approaches. Anton Bernolák, for instance, sought to make the western Slovak dialect of Trnava the standard form. Ján Kollár, by contrast, argued for linguistic unification with Czech.

But it was Ľudovít Štúr's choice of the central Slovak dialect which eventually won out. His literary endeavours and those of his friends and followers - the Štúrovci - helped codify this dialect and thus establish the language which is spoken to this day.

Language might have been crucial in forging a nation, but it was not enough to create a state: in fact, greater autonomy was the limit of Slovak demands in the nineteenth century.

Štúr himself was placed under house arrest after leading Slovak patriots in alliance with the Austrian crown against Hungarian forces during the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-49. Despite the Slovaks' partial success - and the military defeat of the Hungarians - Budapest quickly regained the ascendancy in the post-revolutionary period, and the process of Magyarisation - the encouragement, and sometimes coercion, of subjects of Hungary to become Hungarians - gathered pace.

Slovak nationalism was a significant, but not overwhelming force in Slovak society during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was led by an elite, a remarkable number of whom were either Catholic priests or from the minority Protestant Lutheran community: Kollár, Štúr, WWI general Milan Rastislav Štefánik and 1960s communist leader Alexander Dubček all came from Lutheran backgrounds; Bernolák, Ján Hollý (the first great Slovak poet), early twentieth-century political leader Andrej Hlinka and wartime President Jozef Tiso were all Catholic priests.

This came about partly because members of these two groups were among the few who were able to receive education to an advanced level relatively free of Hungarian influence (priests were educated within the church; the Lutherans had a long tradition of multi-lingual education).

Many ordinary Slovaks of the period also spoke Hungarian. Those who did not, and even some who did but who chose to maintain their Slovak identity, were subject to inconveniences - and occasionally to indignities - by the Hungarian state. But there was still little visible evidence of an independence movement.

Nonetheless, the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire provided an opportunity to escape the orbit of Hungary.

Before the war, those Slovaks who wanted to maintain a distinct national identity had begun to seek allies abroad. During the war it quickly became clear that the Czechs would be their best choice.

Czechoslovakia

    Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
 Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
 Slovenská národná knižnica, Archív literatúry a umenia

Slovaks and Czechs started World War I as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, allied with Germany, and were enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army to fight mainly on the eastern front against Russia and, later, in the south against Italy. Historical ties between the two peoples were relatively weak, but their languages were close, and cooperation between Slovak and Czech diaspora communities in the United States, Russia and France, and between Slovak and Czech soldiers (many of them former Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war) who formed the Czechoslovak Legions to fight alongside the Allies, provided the foundation for one of Europe's more successful experiments in twentieth-century multi-national statehood.

Czechoslovakia was born in 1918, midwifed by an appropriately diverse triumvirate of leaders. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who served as president until 1935, was the son of a Czech mother and a Slovak father; Edvard Beneš, who became foreign minister, was Czech; and Milan Rastislav Štefánik, the pre-eminent military leader of the three, who became war minister, was a Slovak.

    Milan Rastislav Štefánik
 Milan Rastislav Štefánik
 Slovenská národná knižnica, Archív literatúry a umenia

Štefánik's untimely death in a plane crash in 1919 meant that the remaining two leaders became the dominant politicians of the first Czechoslovak Republic (Beneš succeeded Masaryk as president in 1935). This has been used by some to paint the interwar state as little more than a vehicle for Czech domination of the Slovaks. Peter Mišák, a senior spokesman for Matica Slovenská, a Slovak government-sponsored cultural and heritage institution, describes the Czechs as treating Slovakia 'like a colony' (see box).

But historian Dušan Kováč argues that Czechoslovakia in fact provided shelter for Slovakia's still immature national consciousness. In 1918, Slovakia was desperately short of educated, experienced administrators and professionals. The once-trilingual capital - renamed Bratislava in 1919 (its former names Pressburg and Poszony were deemed insufficiently Slavic) - was quickly drained of its educated German and Hungarian populations. Czechs, who had long enjoyed higher education in their native language, filled the gaps, and fanned out across the new country to take up jobs as senior policemen, teachers and administrators.

    Edvard Beneš
 Edvard Beneš
 Slovenská národná knižnica, Archív literatúry a umenia

Theirs was a curiously benign 'colonialism': the language in which they taught and administered was frequently Slovak. Crucially, Slovaks started to enter universities and the senior ranks of the military, and now had access to jobs which had previously been closed to them under Hungarian rule.

Certainly, Slovakia remained less industrialised than the Czech lands. And there was disgruntlement among some Slovak politicians about how little power was delegated to Bratislava. But the disparagement of Czechoslovakia by some present-day Slovak nationalists probably has less to do with its supposed sins and more to do with a desire to justify what came after it.

A strange sort of independence

It is Slovakia's great misfortune that its first taste of independence was so bitter.

    The central Slovak town of Telgárt was destroyed in 1944.
 The central Slovak town of Telgárt was destroyed in 1944.
 Vojenský historický archív Bratislava

Hitler's aggression, and the craven response of Britain and France in particular, had, by late 1938, condemned Czechoslovakia to dismemberment. The largely German-speaking Sudetenland area was occupied by Germany in October 1938. Large parts of southern and eastern Slovakia, including Košice, were transferred to Hungary a month later. Abandoned by its allies, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist on March 15, 1939, with the complete German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. A day earlier, Slovak leader Jozef Tiso had agreed in Berlin to a demand from Hitler to pursue Slovak independence.

The ensuing Slovak State - the name used to distinguish it from the modern-day Slovak Republic - was a puppet of the Third Reich.

In return for complete subservience to Nazi Germany before and during World War II - Slovak soldiers fought alongside the Nazis when they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 - Slovakia was granted some economic freedom, from which those close to the regime profited handsomely.

    Jozef Tiso
 Jozef Tiso
 Slovenská národná knižnica, Archív literatúry a umenia

Many Slovaks also enjoyed a degree of prosperity, temporarily sheltered from the maelstrom engulfing the rest of Europe. But for Jews, Gypsies and anyone who didn't happen to enjoy living in a pro-Nazi dictatorship, 1939-45 was not a happy time.

Their 'independence' allowed President Tiso, as he became, along with fellow nationalists like Prime Minister Vojtech Tuka and Interior Minister Alexander Mach, sufficient freedom to impose an increasingly aggressive series of anti-Semitic laws, codes and regulations which culminated in the arrest and deportation (to Nazi death camps) of approximately 59,000 Slovak Jews during 1942.

By late 1942, Tiso had begun styling himself 'vodca', reminiscent of Stalin's 'vozhd' epithet - but in Tiso's case perhaps more accurately translated 'fuehrer'. The Old Town Square in Bratislava – like other public places across the country - was renamed after Hitler.

    Many public places - in this case a street in Kežmarok in eastern Slovakia - were renamed during WWII.
 Many public places - in this case a street in Kežmarok in eastern Slovakia - were renamed during WWII.
 Photos by James Thomson

By mid 1944 a broad range of Slovaks - from principled nationalists to priests, soldiers and communists - had resolved to launch an armed uprising against the regime. The Slovak National Uprising, as it later became known, began in late August of that year, in response to imminent Nazi German occupation. It was rapidly crushed by the Wehrmacht and SS, backed by a government-backed militia, the Hlinka Guard, who proceeded to execute thousands of Slovaks in a series of reprisals that continued until the Soviet Red Army liberated the country during late 1944 and 1945.

Communism

    Alexander Dubček
 Alexander Dubček
 Slovenská národná knižnica, Archív literatúry a umenia

With the Russians came the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, led by Beneš. The government set up shop in Košice, the first major city to be liberated, and laid out its programme there in April 1945.

With Nazi Germany's final defeat in May, the government returned to Prague and Czechoslovakia was re-formed. But real independence remained elusive: Stalin had earlier persuaded his wartime allies to agree that Czechoslovakia would fall within the Soviet Union's sphere of influence. His Czech and Slovak cadres had long since received their training in Moscow. After coming out on top in Czechoslovak national elections in 1946 (though trailing a distant second in Slovakia) the Communist Party seized complete power in 1948, and all political opposition was swiftly crushed.

The early years of Communist Party rule were characterised by show trials and executions - in which the party purged its own ranks as well as liquidating opponents - collectivisation and large-scale industrialisation, especially in Slovakia. Later came mass housing projects to provide for the rapidly urbanising population.

    Gustáv Husák
 Gustáv Husák
 Slovenská národná knižnica, Archív literatúry a umenia

By the 1960s, pressure for social change led communist leader Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, to propose 'socialism with a human face' as a way of loosening the state's monolithic control of not just the economy but political thought. The wave of self-expression which this unleashed - the so-called Prague Spring of 1968 - made Dubček and other leaders hugely popular, and set alarm bells ringing in Moscow.

After failing to persuade the local leaders to clamp down, the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Under the misnomer of 'normalisation', free political expression was suppressed for another two decades. But a side effect of the events of 1968 was that Slovak communists, most notably Gustáv Husák (who was to become the last communist-era president), engineered a constitutional reform which created a federation and granted Slovakia its own government within Czechoslovakia. This helped establish the constitutional framework for Slovakia's later independence.

    
 
 

Communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia in 1989, partly as the result of its own economic contradictions, the increasing aimlessness and exhaustion of its own leadership (and those of neighbouring communist states), and the determination of a small number of opponents. Dissidents - most famously Václav Havel, but including several Slovaks - provided a focus for the wider, previously apathetic, majority to join anti-regime protests in 1988 and 1989. The influence of the Catholic Church in this movement was notable in Slovakia. Once Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made clear that the USSR would this time stand aside, the regime’s fate was sealed.

The story so far

The first years after the peaceful end of Communist Party rule were marked by unprecedented social, economic and political upheaval.

A long-submerged debate about the distribution of power between Czechs and Slovaks quickly emerged. This was most obviously - and, to outsiders, most bafflingly - manifested in a furious argument dubbed the 'Hyphen War' about what the country should be called: Czechoslovakia (The Czech preference) or Czecho-Slovakia (the Slovak one).

This was finally resolved when the nations' respective premiers - Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar - agreed in 1992 to a peaceful separation of the two countries. There was no referendum on the issue and the Czech and Slovak Republics were born with little fanfare on January 1, 1993.

    A communist-era mural.
 A communist-era mural.
 Photos by James Thomson

After an ugly period in the mid 1990s when the newly independent state under Mečiar flirted with authoritarianism, a series of reform-minded coalition governments after 1998, led by Mikuláš Dzurinda, steered Slovakia into the EU and NATO in 2004. The momentum was partially maintained by the Robert Fico government after 2006, with Slovakia entering the Schengen border-free zone in 2007 and adopting the euro in 2009.

The effects of the post-1989 period are still being digested. The frequently cynical and occasionally criminal behaviour of a small group of politicians and hangers-on - many of whom nonetheless remain active in public life - have left Slovaks with a generally low regard for their leaders. In surveys of public trust, a fifth of respondents typically say they do not trust any politician. However, this apparent lack of enthusiasm about recent progress masks what is really one of Slovakia's greatest strengths.

Over the last twenty years, Slovak society has undergone the kind of sudden, wrenching and utterly disorientating change which no western country has had to face since World War II (or in Britain or America's cases, since perhaps their respective civil wars). Yet despite the huge tensions caused by not knowing for several years where on earth they were likely to end up, Slovaks have hung together as a group, worked out their own - sometimes slightly awkward-looking - compromises and built a successful country. This is a remarkable achievement.

    A memorial in Myjava to local hero Milan Rastislav Štefánik
 A memorial in Myjava to local hero Milan Rastislav Štefánik
 Photos by James Thomson

The fact that their neighbours have faced, and overcome, similar challenges does not detract from the Slovaks' success. Some far-sighted statesmanship meant that the four post-communist central European countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) helped each other in re-integrating with Europe. But Slovakia was the only one having to find its feet as an independent nation at the same time (the Czech Republic, inheriting from Czechoslovakia most of the furniture and experience of international statehood, had a much smoother ride).

If the Slovaks were a more demonstrative people they would be shouting about their achievements from the rooftops. The fact that they do not is another rather admirable characteristic of this small but exceptional country.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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