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BOOK REVIEW

Slovak history stirs emotions and minds

THE TITLE's key words - Slovak, history, struggle and sovereignty - ring out as boldly in this book's new English edition as in the original, which was published, in Slovak, both shortly after the fall of Communism and before the author's death. Anton Spiesz, a former historian with the Slovak Academy of Sciences, obviously relished the opportunity to record history without the regime looking over his shoulder, and builds a thorough and compelling picture of a Slovak identity that was often misunderstood or even abused.

Illustrated Slovak History:

Written by:Anton Spiesz and Dusan Caplovic
Published by:Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc
Available at:Eurobooks, www.bolchazy.com
Price:Sk890, Sk990; $35, $70


THE TITLE's key words - Slovak, history, struggle and sovereignty - ring out as boldly in this book's new English edition as in the original, which was published, in Slovak, both shortly after the fall of Communism and before the author's death. Anton Spiesz, a former historian with the Slovak Academy of Sciences, obviously relished the opportunity to record history without the regime looking over his shoulder, and builds a thorough and compelling picture of a Slovak identity that was often misunderstood or even abused. In fact, the dynamic between Slovaks and other ethnicities is the focus of just about every chapter. Spiesz rarely misses a chance to assert the oppressiveness of Magyar and Hungarian rule, but, to his credit, also addresses the status of minorities in Slovakia, including Ruthenians, Serbo-Croats, Jews and Romany. Adding to its readability is a translation that wisely pursued accurate English idiom. This, plus the evocative illustrations, achieved the publisher's goal of making the book inviting and engaging.

Concerns arise only when one becomes engrossed enough to begin looking beyond the accessibility and visual context in search of objectivity. Early on, Spiesz writes that, in 907, the East Frankish kingdom had "no alternative" but to campaign against the Magyars, whom he labeled "aggressive newcomers". Yet, according to other sources, the Magyars only invaded the Transdanubia region after their peace offer was rejected.

It's a minor detail and, not being a historian, the reader isn't in a position to second-guess someone of Spiesz's stature. But far more revealing than the facts themselves is the pointed rhetoric he inserts.

The name-calling hits fever pitch during coverage of the 19th century, when, according to Spiesz, Slovaks were firmly under the Hungarian thumb and personalities such as Count István Széchényi and Lajos Kossuth were fervently promoting the "Magyarisation" of other ethnicities.

Spiesz asserts that the Magyars launched a "fanatical campaign" to "invade" all aspects of Slovak public and religious life; that Kossuth was "explicitly scornful" of non-Magyar nationalities; that Magyar leaders at the time of the 1848 Revolution "did not give a hoot" for other nationalities; and that Štúr and other Slovak leaders opposed the "diseased nature" of Magyar nationalism.

One might account for this hostility by thinking of Spiesz as a champion of minority rights, but in the midst of it all, he offers up a curt excuse for why 17th-century Ruthenians, Romany and South Slavs of Old Hungary were not granted equal representation on town councils with Magyars, Slovaks and Germans. Absent is the acrimony that surely would've been implanted had Slovaks been among the disadvantaged.On the topic of Jews and anti-Semitism in Slovakia, Spiesz responsibly notes some significant facts: that Jews were barred from free royal towns at the beginning of the 16th century; that the rights granted to Protestants in the 18th century were not extended to Jews and soon stripped from any who achieved them; that Jews were forced into pursuing financial and commercial professions, such as tavern keepers, only to be reviled as usurers and promoters of alcoholism; and the venomous anti-Semitism of the Hlinka Guard, the military wing of the Slovak People's Party that ruled Slovakia during the Second World War.

The chance to really drive this point home arrived with the topic of Jozef Tiso, the controversial priest whose government allowed the deportation of 72,000 Slovak Jews to Nazi death camps. But Spiesz preferred to portray Tiso as patriotic - stating that he "stood up to" Hitler during their meeting in Berlin in 1939 - and that he curtailed the deportations, though that claim is later contradicted in the book's afterword.

Opinion presented as fact rears its ugly head again as Spiesz shockingly contends that Tiso's "wisdom and discretion" helped Slovakia to survive the war with a "minimum of material and spiritual loss". The deportation of 72,000 innocent citizens is minimal? He also maintains that, during his post-war trial, Tiso expressed no regrets, thereby "plainly scor[ing] a moral victory".

The afterword, written especially for this edition by the respected Slovak archaeologist Dusan Caplovic, adds alluring context to the country's earliest history and balances the areas where Spiesz took a more conservative turn. Even more perspective is found in the meticulously compiled footnotes, researched and written by publisher Dr Ladislaus Bolchazy and a team of esteemed scholars, which contribute colour and dimension through contemporary research and well-rounded interpretation. Still, the end includes a final disappointing characterisation. In the updates section, which details important events in Slovak history from 1993-February 2004, the riots that took place in Eastern Slovakia in February 2004 are described as having been caused by "unconformable" groups of Romany, who "plundered shops selling alcohol and food".

This serves mainly to highlight the progress still to be made. Nevertheless, An Illustrated Slovak History offers a fascinating and comprehensive reflection, provokes lively conversation and inspires further learning.

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