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BOOK

Review: Slovak recent history in your pocket

POST-COMMUNIST Eastern Europe has inspired a vast English-language literature, but very little of it has focused on Slovakia.
Yet the country, one of Europe's youngest, whose people in the last century alone have been subject to the disparate whims of Stalin, Hitler, and the last Habsburg emperor, has a fascinating history. Thankfully, the British academic Karen Henderson has stepped into the void with Slovakia: The Escape from Invisibility.
A slim, well-sourced volume, comprising four chapters packed with a balanced mix of insight and information, this is an engaging read both for scholars and newcomers to Slovakia's chequered past.

POST-COMMUNIST Eastern Europe has inspired a vast English-language literature, but very little of it has focused on Slovakia.

Yet the country, one of Europe's youngest, whose people in the last century alone have been subject to the disparate whims of Stalin, Hitler, and the last Habsburg emperor, has a fascinating history. Thankfully, the British academic Karen Henderson has stepped into the void with Slovakia: The Escape from Invisibility.

A slim, well-sourced volume, comprising four chapters packed with a balanced mix of insight and information, this is an engaging read both for scholars and newcomers to Slovakia's chequered past.

Henderson shows little patience for a nostalgic view of the Slovak state, deeply rooted in citizens' historical aspirations: "Although Slovak history has sometimes been portrayed as a thousand-year struggle for survival for the Slovak nation, in some respects a Slovak national identity did not begin to crystallise until the end of the 18th century."

The book's core chapters focus on post-1993 internal politics and Slovakia's place in the world. But it opens with a brisk account of Slovakia's history since the National Awakening of the 19th century. Sandwiched between the two poles of what would become the Austro-Hungarian empire, Slovaks tended to side with the Austrians when tensions between the two kingdoms mounted after the upheavals of 1848.

When the kingdoms united into the dual monarchy in 1867, Hungary lashed back at its northern region by attempting to totally assimilate Slovak speakers and other minorities. "Magyarization meant that it was instrumental for young Slovak-speakers seeking upward mobility via education to abandon their Slovak roots and assimilate into Hungarian culture," Henderson writes.

The only other option for ambitious Slovaks, she adds, was emigration, mostly to the US. "With the exception of the Irish, few other Europeans experienced such an exodus as Slovaks," she writes.

As literate Slovak speakers fled or assimilated, the territory's relatively small urban population was dominated by "Hungarian bureaucrats and aristocrats and German traders," Henderson writes. And in the villages, "the leading figure of authority was the priest, but since the Catholic Church was organised territorially as part of Hungary, priests were subject to the normal Magyarization pressures."

That left the burden of political organising largely to the territory's relatively small Protestant population - giving rise to an irony at the birth of modern Slovak nationalism. "Although [Upper Hungary] was largely Catholic, Slovak Protestants were pivotal to 19th-century nationalist movements...their vernacular Bibles were written in the Czech Biblical language, and this created a natural affinity with their Slav neighbours to the west."

Thus at the first burst of organised modern Slovak nationalism we find traces of what would later prove so vexatious: the Czecho-Slovak idea.

With brevity and skill Henderson summarises the first Czechoslovak Republic, the brief independent period tarnished by Nazism, and the recreation of Czechoslovakia under eventual Soviet control. She then turns her attention to the fall of communism and the subsequent division of the federation, giving a clear-eyed account of the breakup, executed in a back-room deal between two politicians rather than by public referendum.

Henderson teases out the understandable concerns of Slovak politicians leading up to the split. She states that while many accounts blame a strident, misguided Slovak nationalism for the divorce, "it may also be argued that the Slovaks actually showed a greater understanding that they lived in a Czechoslovak state comprising two nations. They took it for granted that they were different from the Czechs, and did not regard this as inherently problematic, but rather as a fact that had to be respected in the governing of the country."

As for the Czechs, "they often showed discomfort when dealing with Slovak otherness ...[and] it was easier for them to conflate Czechoslovak and Czech identity."

With independence in 1993 came another irony: While the first Slovak Republic of 1938-1944 was rendered a sad joke by de facto Nazi control, the second one, too, had to deal with an external force that limited its sovereignty: the European Union. Henderson writes: "The truth was that Slovakia had finally gained its sovereignty in an age where globalisation and European integration were rendering the concept less absolute, so that [Slovakia] was doomed never to become experienced in exercising it."

And according to Henderson, it was the widespread desire for EU entry that has thus far saved the nation from the bungling, strong-armed tactics of Vladimír Mečiar, whose third government fell in 1998 amid a welter of crony capitalism, abuse of political foes and ethnic minorities, and a series of rebukes from the EU.

With Slovakia's post-Mečiar path to EU and NATO entry back on track - even as it struggles to negotiate the rocky terrain of the US-European split over the issue of Iraq - Henderson's book provides an invaluable context for understanding current Slovak affairs.

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