Everything had gone smoothly for the publishers and authors of a series of history textbooks for basic schools until one detailing 20th century Slovak history was ready to be printed. In early April, five out of six members of an oversight committee at the Ministry of Education recommended that the book be printed. Despite this, the Ministry of Education announced in July that it would organize a new tender to find a publisher.

"As far as I know, this is the first time [since 1989] the ministry has turned down an authorized textbook,'' said Stanislav Madarás, director of the Orbis Pictus Istropolitana publishing house that was to publish book. The Orbis Pictus textbooks on world history was a hit with teachers and students alike because they brought historical events to life.

"We think it's better to help children see the connections, instead of flooding them with dates and names,'' said Dušan Kováč, coordinator of the project and a director of the history institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV).

The author's latest venture, titled "Slovakia in the New Century," was also popular with five out of the six committee members. It was not popular with the sixth member, however, especially the sections pertaining to the Slovak state that existed at least de facto between 1939 and 1945 and the Czechoslovak state from 1918 to 1945. One person's objections normally would not cause the project to be voted down on the oversight committee. But this person, a 29-year-old Slovak historian named Róbert Letz, also shares the same views as Matica Slovenská.

According to Matica, the 1939-1945 Slovak state was an achievement of the emancipation drive of the Slovak nation. Others view it differently, seeing it as a time when the Slovak nation was a puppet state of Hitler's Nazi regime and when its president, Jozef Tiso, ordered that tens of thousands of Slovak Jews be shipped to their death in concentration camps.

As for pre-war Czechoslovakia, Matica representatives stress that during this period Slovaks were abused and humiliated by Czechs, who refused to admit that the Slovaks could have a nation. Letz presented the authors with 30 pages of detailed corrections, additional dates, quotes and names, especially concerning the Slovak state period between 1918 and 1945. "I will agree with its publication only after a thorough incorporation of the suggestions,'' Letz wrote.

However, Letz had his competition. The other five committee members said they would vote the textbook down if all Letz's suggestions were incorporated. The authors accepted about 25 percent, they said.

Ferocious opponents

For Letz and Matica Slovenská, it was not enough. Slovak history is a fight for national sovereignty and Slovak statehood," wrote Ján Beňko, vice-chairman of the history section at Matica Slovenská. "National history...must have its pride. This 'textbook' lacks the sense and pride of national history. It therefore cannot educate our children to become patriots. They cannot, they must not, learn from this textbook. It therefore will only be preserved in the archives, as a historic document showing the way of thinking of a group of historians.'' Jana Huttová, chairman of the Slovak Association of History Teachers, vehemently disagreed with Matica's judgement.

"It worries me that, again, the rightest interpretation of history is the only one being sought,'' Huttová said. "History is not about who's good and who's evil, history is about facts. History should not judge, it should analyze the reasons. Kids should be shown that it is possible to interpret events in many ways.''

Asked to comment, publisher Madarás chose his words carefully. "We still hope the minister will change her mind," he said. "I have to be diplomatic, because I want to have these books published.'' His company, Orbis Pictus, is a small private firm publishing only school textbooks, meaning that Madarás cannot afford to, as he said, "turn off the cash tap.''

Orbis Pictus has produced popular learning materials. Besides the success with the world history books, the firm's alternative textbooks for mathematics were used by 80 percent of the teachers in Slovakia in two years.