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 neighbours: Hungary

By James Thomson

    Sailing on Hungary’s Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe.
 Sailing on Hungary’s Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe.

In November 2008 Slovakia and Hungary had a diplomatic spat following violence at a local football game in which visiting Hungarian football hooligans received some fairly robust treatment at the hands of the Slovak police.

One of the side-acts to the main drama was a demonstration in Budapest at which Hungarian football fans shouted, among other more colourful chants, "Down with Trianon." Even to reasonably attentive students of history this might have seemed an esoteric demand. Trianon refers to the eponymous post-World War I treaty, one of a series signed at Versailles, which divided up the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking the First World War had been largely settled, given that nearly a century has passed since it ended.

But the perceived injustice of Trianon is still keenly felt by some Hungarians. Aside from their injured pride, Trianon left millions of Hungarians in neighbouring countries - most notably Romania and Czechoslovakia, but also in Austria, Yugoslavia and what is now western Ukraine. Their fate, and that of their ancestors, many of whom still speak Hungarian as their first language, remains a live topic in Hungarian politics.

In terms of relations with Slovakia, there is also the significant legacy of Hungary's thousand-year dominion over what was once called Upper Hungary (the area which encompassed almost all of modern-day Slovakia). The final decades of Hungarian rule, unlike the preceding centuries, were marked by a determined effort to 'Magyarise' the population - in effect, to assimilate the kingdom's non-Hungarian speakers by suppressing their languages and encouraging them to adopt Hungarian names. Ultimately this failed, but throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the cultural and educational centre of the kingdom was unquestionably Budapest: Slovakia was a backwater.

Nationalist politicians in both Hungary and Slovakia do their worst to talk up the differences between the two countries, but both are members of the European Union (they joined on the same day), the Visegrad Group (a regional grouping of central European states) and NATO, which means they are treaty-bound to defend each other from attack by foreign powers.

The football match incident highlighted the ongoing sensitivity of inter-state relations. But, in fact, personal contacts and cross-border shopping bargains mostly trump politics, and relations on a day-to-day level (football aside) are relatively trouble-free.

Slovakia's own large Hungarian-speaking community (it accounts for around 10 percent of Slovakia's total population; there is a much smaller Slovak-speaking community in Hungary) would be almost invisible if it were not for the yelps of Slovak nationalists. You would be hard-pressed to notice in most of the rest of country that Hungarian is effectively Slovakia's second language.

A sign at Orava Castle in northern Slovakia in 2008, for instance, bade visitors farewell in ten languages including English, French and even Dutch. But not Hungarian. Someone - quite possibly a Slovak citizen - had rather poignantly scribbled 'goodbye' in Hungarian underneath: perhaps a reflection of the desire for more normal relations and recognition between the two nations.

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

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