National identity is a slippery subject, but in the course of writing this guide and talking to a lot of Slovaks - and reading about the place and its history - I was struck by how much popular confusion there is about their country's past.
Communism is too fresh in many people’s minds for a real debate to have occurred - much less a consensus emerged - about its legacy. Instead, most public discussion about history seems to focus on wartime events.
Here, it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from opinion.
This problem is demonstrated by the most widely available and widely read English text on Slovak history, Stanislav J Kirschbaum’s A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival (second edition 2005; Palgrave Macmillan). Go to most English-language bookstores, physical or virtual, and if they have any histories of Slovakia at all, this book is likely to be the most prominently displayed.
While it is admirably comprehensive – full of carefully sourced facts – it is deeply flawed. The author’s nationalist interpretation of events colours almost every account.
This leads him into some curious contortions. For instance, the name ‘Czechoslovakia’ appears only a handful of times, despite the fact that Slovakia was part of it for most of the last hundred years - indeed for much of its history Czechoslovakia was led by Slovaks. The author’s evident belief that that state’s effect on Slovak self-expression was almost uniformly negative has apparently left him almost incapable of writing its name.
In other places contortion becomes distortion, especially when it comes to the wartime regime. Kirschbaum’s assertion, in reference to German occupation in 1944, that “Jews were among the first victims of the end of Slovak independence” is simply grotesque. Slovak 'independence' had already sent more Slovak Jews to their deaths than even the Einsatzgruppen later would.
But Kirschbaum’s views about this period are not uncommon among Slovaks themselves. A survey published by the Hospodárske Noviny daily newspaper in March 2009, on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the pro-Nazi wartime republic, suggested that one third of Slovaks view the 1939-1945 Slovak State positively, one third negatively and one third have no opinion.
Such views continue to be influenced by state-sponsored organisations such as the Matica Slovenská, which exists to promote Slovak culture and heritage.
Peter Mišák, the editor-in-chief of the organisation’s newspaper, Slovenské Národné Noviny, which is distributed to its 60,000-odd members in Slovakia and abroad, laid out the Matica Slovenská’s historical viewpoint when I visited its headquarters in Martin.
He told me that Czechs considered Slovakia to be a ‘colony’ during the first Czechoslovak republic; that Jozef Tiso, Slovakia’s wartime leader, was not a fascist and was hence not an extremist; and that most of the 70,000 Jews deported to their deaths from Slovakia during WWII were actually deported from the Hungarian-occupied parts of the country. The first of these views is contentious, the second is sophistry and the third is plain false. But they are widely held, and being spread further with the support – and implicit endorsement – of the state.
Dušan Kováč, Vice President of the Slovak Academy of Sciences' Institute of Historical Studies, suggests a reason for this apparently ahistorical approach. He says it took nearly a generation for West Germany to conduct a full debate about events before and during WWII - but that since the discussion took place, extremism in German politics has tended to emerge from what was East Germany, where communist rule meant the debate never occurred. Similarly, communism also stifled any open discussion of the war in Slovakia. Tiso and the other politicians who led Slovakia during its wartime incarnation were branded 'clero-fascists', a barb which conveniently linked their villainy to their faith - a double whammy from the anti-religious communist authorities' point of view.
But since 1989 nationalists - playing on the rose-tinted recollections of some people (for instance, former Archbishop Sokol of Trnava - see the article 'Remembering and Forgetting in the section on Trnava Region) - have sought to reverse this view of history. After all, since some of what the communists said was ideologically motivated poppycock, then perhaps all of it is?
The results can be bizarre: the Slovak National Uprising is sometimes disparaged by nationalists, who might otherwise be expected to celebrate it, because it fits awkwardly with their desire to defend the state which it was rising up against.
Confused? So was I.
But as Kováč also points out, most Slovaks are reassuringly pragmatic - given their history they have needed to be - and, for all but a fringe minority, family and community, and not crack-pot nationalism, are their main priorities.