"Lederhosen," said Frank Lambach, German Ambassador to Slovakia, in his Bratislava office on a recent weekday afternoon. "I would have to say Lederhosen."
Lambach was not fielding a question about German fashion. Lederhosen, the traditional and indestructible short German leather trousers which end at the knee, embodied his belief that Slovakia's German minority - the 'Carpathian Germans' - would eventually become assimilated, a process in which, as elsewhere, only the symbols of German culture would survive.
"I took a trip to America a few years ago and there, all across the country, I encountered clubs of so-called Germans - Americans with German ancestors. They would get together, speaking English, wear lederhosen, and have small festivals where they did things like crown dairy queens [a title bestowed upon the winner of beauty contests in some areas in America - ed. note]," said the ambassador with a chuckle.
But according to Carpathian German leaders, recent years have proven that while their community may not be indestructible, it at least is not going to succumb to cultural kitsch and possibly oblivion without a struggle.
"Germans have lived together in Slovakia for over 800 years with very positive results, and we would like to see that culture preserved," said Ondrej Poss, director of the Slovak national museum of Carpathian Germans in Bratislava, and one of many Germans who have since 1989 worked to promote a revival of German culture in Slovakia.
"In the middle ages, 250,000 Germans lived in Slovakia, or roughly one quarter of the population," he added, explaining that for 12 centuries Hungarian kings had invited Germans to Slovakia to exploit their talents as skilled workers and craftsmen. Many Slovak towns, including the popular tourist stops Banská Štiavnica in central Slovakia (Hauerland in German), and Levoča in eastern Slovakia's Spiš region (Zips), were built by Carpathian Germans.
But while those landmarks remain proud testaments to German influence in Slovakia, the present-day German population is a only a shadow of what it used to be. "About 5,000 people said that they were German in the 1991 census, although we guess that the real number is around 15,000," said Otto Sobek, president of Bratislava's chapter of the Slovak Carpathian German society.
Established in 1991, Sobek's organisation, with 3,200 members nation-wide, uses regular meetings, a monthly magazine, language courses, and festivals to promote German culture in Slovakia.
"After a 50 year absence, it's difficult. What we want is to preserve our 800 years of culture, history and art in Slovakia," Sobek explained, adding how different the situation looked earlier this century. "When I was born in 1935, many towns in this area were German, and most of Bratislava's inhabitants spoke three languages: Slovak, Hungarian and German."
At that time, Germans in Slovakia numbered around 150,000. But following World War II, most fled the country leaving those who stayed to face anti-German sentiment and later a communist regime hostile to expression of minority nationalities. By the time of the 1989 Velvet Revolution marking the end of the socialist regime, the Carpathian German minority was all but destroyed.
"We realise that German culture in Slovakia will never be what it once was," admitted Sobek.
Preservation by assimilation
One means of assuring their long-term existence on Slovak soil has been the tendency of Germans, dating back to their arrival, to live and even intermarry with Slovaks. "Who is a German? It's hard to tell. Almost all Germans are products or members of mixed marriages," said Sobek, who has a Slovak wife, but speaks German at home with his children.
According to Ambassador Lambach, voluntary assimilation is a phenomenon common to German minorities everywhere. "German people have always been able and willing to adapt to other cultures," he said. "In Slovakia they have mixed in, just as they did in America"
Only two small villages in Slovakia today retain large, distinguishable German populations: Chmelnica, (or Hopgarden in German), a village of around 900 in the High Tatras which is almost exclusively German, and Medzev, a village near Košice of around 3,000, which is roughly half German and was also the birthplace of a very prominent Slovak who still fondly remembers his relationships with members of Slovakia's German minority.
"I grew up speaking three languages: German, Hungarian, and Slovak," Slovak President Schuster told The Slovak Spectator of his childhood in the small town. Although Schuster considers himself Slovak, he says his ancestors were German.
"I have always admired Germans for their strong work ethic and their craft skills. And for their indestructibility, especially during the time after World War II, when blame for the war was placed on them collectively and many were forced to leave. Those who stayed kept their language and kept their pride in their culture," said Schuster.
Sobek remembers how difficult the time after WWII was. "About 120,000 Germans fled. For those who stayed, it wasn't as bad as in the Czech Republic, where Germans for example had to wear the letter 'N' [standing for němec, the Czech word for 'German'], but our property was seized, and I remember we had to stop speaking German on the street."
Since only Germans born before World War II experienced German communities in Slovakia, complete with German schools and cultural institutions, it is mostly the older generation that is interested in a cultural revival. "My generation went to German schools and thus has a stronger attachment to German culture. The younger generations didn't have this opportunity," said Sobek.
Despite his community's ageing population, Sobek remains optimistic about the future. "If I weren't an optimist I never would have begun," he said. "Someone told me that we were starting five minutes past midnight. Well, there's winter time and then there's summer time - maybe it's only five past eleven for German culture in Slovakia."
Sobek added that the role of German as a world language was helping fuel interest in German culture. "Since 1989 six elementary schools have started teaching some classes in German. Slovak as well as German students attend these schools. And many adult Slovaks with or without German roots have become interested in recent years in learning the language."
Lambach, whose embassy contributes financially to some German groups in Slovakia, sees the future of Carpathian Germans and other minorities in Slovakia from a pan-European perspective. "I hope that all Carpathian Germans in Slovakia will participate in building a modern Slovak state headed toward joining Europe. When that happens, the situation will be completely different for minorities here. Slovak citizens with German nationality will be free to move to Germany if they wish. Same for the Hungarians. It will be interesting to see what happens."
27. Nov 2000 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds