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.

Between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs

    Turkish warriors laying seige to Nové Zámky, 17th century.
 Turkish warriors laying seige to Nové Zámky, 17th century.
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

The Hungarian Kingdom underwent three cataclysms in the 16th century, each of which would have a profound impact on the Slovaks and on Central Europe as a whole.

The most spectacular blow came in 1526, when Hungarian forces fell to their Turkish counterparts at Mohacs, after years of bitter fighting. The terms of the peace treaty were stark. The kingdom was divided into three parts. The first part, the Hungarian plain, was humiliatingly ceded to the Ottoman Empire. The second part, Transylvania, managed to eke out a degree of autonomy under ultimate Turkish control.

The third, a territory roughly corresponding to present-day Slovakia, became the seat of the Hungarian kingdom.

Weakened and humiliated, the Magyar elite turned to a major power to the west for help in fighting off the Ottomans: the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. In the process, the Habsburgs gained control of the Hungarian crown. Austrian emperor Ferdinand I became king of Hungary in 1540. That was the second major blow to Hungarian power in the century.

The third, and most subtle, blow was the growing importance of the so-called New World to Europe's economy. While the Spanish and Portuguese reveled in their newfound wealth in the Americas, European trade began to flow more to the west, towards the Atlantic, than to the east, on the way to what had been Byzantium. That meant less trade through Bratislava, at a time when the kingdom was already in economic distress due to its conflict with the Ottoman Empire.

And the linking of the Americas to the European market also directly affected Slovakia's main source of wealth: mining. As cheaper and more easily transported American metals flooded the market, the position of Slovakia's mines deteriorated. To make matters worse, Slovaks fleeing from border skirmishes with the Turks to the south flooded the central mining area, putting downward pressure on wages.

Many historians, including Kirschbaum, attribute Central European decline over the next 400 years to two factors: the Turkish challenge and the emergence of America as a Western European economic holding. For while much of Europe - including England, France, and Germany - was developing along capitalist lines and emerging into powerful nation-states, Central Europe, locked in a bitter struggle with the Ottomans and bereft of thriving trade routes, remained mired in a feudal, multinational empire.

By the 15th century, Ottoman expansionism had already had a negative impact of Slovak economic life. When the Turks gained control of Constantinople in 1453, trade flow through the eastern part of the Kingdom halted - thus abruptly ending Košice's role as a major trade town and depriving eastern Slovakia of economic growth for centuries hence.

The cataclysms of the 16th century also exacted political costs. As Magyars fled into the area from Turk-controlled Lower Hungary, Slovaks' political power in free towns was undermined as they had to cede positions in town councils to the incomers.

Kirschbaum argues, paradoxically, that this process helped Slovaks gain political consciousness, as they learned that neither their political power nor their safety was guaranteed by their Magyar lords.

And as Turkish control of Lower Hungary dragged into the 17th century, safety became paramount. The Habsburgs, who gained the Hungarian crown ostensibly for their ability to fight off the Turks, could not stop the Ottoman Empire from controlling Lower Hungary for nearly 250 years, nor from making frequent incursions into Upper Hungary. In 1663, for example, Ottoman forces invaded present-day Slovakia, and controlled the towns of Nitra, Nové Zámky, and Levice for a full year.

Meanwhile, while the Habsburgs concentrated on fighting off the Turks, a new challenge was brewing from within: the Reformation, which quickly gained momentum with Upper Hungary's German and Magyar magnates. Devout Catholics, the Habsburgs participated vigorously in Rome's Counter Reformation, concentrating their efforts when the Turks finally relinquished Lower Hungary in 1699. The area still bears the mark of this effort in its older Catholic churches, many of which still contain baroque features added during this period.

As the Habsburg government rallied round a reformed Catholic Church and took measures to stem the tide of Protestantism, Hungarian and German magnates organised a series of revolts, putting the Slovaks in an awkward position between their local lords and their Emperor. As early as 1604, the magnate Štefan Bocskay led a Lutheran insurrection against the Habsburgs after Catholics had forcibly taken over a Protestant church in Košice, with de facto royal support. Bocskay's forces controlled the whole of Slovakia (save for Bratislava) for nearly a year, before Emperor Rudolf II relented and agreed to allow religious freedom.

The last magnate rebellion, which collapsed after seven bitter years in 1711, actually involved a significant number of Slovaks, who normally toed the Austrian line in matters of religion. The Habsburgs eventually quelled the rebellion in typical style: with a measure of brutality - which included massacres of rebels in Trenčín and Prešov - and a dash of diplomacy. Joseph I reaffirmed the tax-free status of the renegade towns even as his army won victories over the rebels. Accepting the carrot to hold off the stick, the magnates abandoned their fight, and the era of Hungarian anti-Habsburg revolts ended.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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