Are we ready to be objective?

WRITING history books about regions that have not fully recovered from national or ethnic tensions is like handling precious old objects that would certainly break if handled too recklessly.

WRITING history books about regions that have not fully recovered from national or ethnic tensions is like handling precious old objects that would certainly break if handled too recklessly.

The shared history of Slovaks and Hungarians is one of those brittle old objects that have been polished and repainted so many times by so many people that far too often the added layers of brown, red, white and blue paint deform the shape and the texture of the original. However, post-modernist thinkers would be quick to ask: what do you mean by original? There is no original history, only its interpretation, and the fate of battles, kingdoms and even nations are in the hands of the interpreter.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Hungarian counterpart Ferenc Gyurcsány agreed last summer on a rather Herculean task: a joint history book about the Carpathian basin. Slovak and Hungarian historians would jointly work on erasing ingrained stereotypes and prejudices that might paralyse understanding on both sides of the Slovak-Hungarian divide.

Nevertheless, the plan is grand and no doubt commendable. However, the project's launch has already sown seeds of doubt.

Slovak Education Minister Ján Mikolaj has questioned the plan, suggesting that it simply might not work. Mikolaj is a nominee of the Slovak National Party (SNS) led by Ján Slota who has his own peculiar interpretations of Hungarian history.

Earlier this year, Slota told the SITA newswire that there is no Hungarian minority in Slovakia.

"They are Slovaks who have Hungarian as their mother tongue," Slota said. "A large group of them are Hungarianized Slovaks."

A couple days later, Slota introduced his grand plan to plant Lorraine crosses all over Slovakia.

"We will build Slovak Lorraine crosses all over Slovakia, even in the south, so that we do not have to see those idiotic Hungarian Turuls (a giant falcon from Hungarian mythology) flying over southern Slovakia," Slota said, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Some members of the SNS have a history of commemorating the anniversaries of the wartime Slovak state, which acted as a puppet of Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1944, and SNS member Rafael Rafaj once proudly said that its president, Jozef Tiso, was one of the greatest personalities Slovakia has produced, along with Hlinka and Milan Rastislav Štefánik.

In 2000, the Žilina municipal government - inspired by then-mayor Slota - approved the installation of a plaque with Tiso's image on the city's Catholic House. Observers called the decision insensitive at best, considering the fact that Žilina was one of the biggest concentration centres where Jews were held before being deported to concentration camps.

Slota himself told the Aktualne.sk news server that the creation of a joint history textbook is simply impossible.

"For example we see the Hungarian raid of Europe completely differently from the way Hungarians see it," Slota said. "It simply is incompatible."

If these statements tell us anything meaningful, it is the fact that a political constellation that includes a party like the SNS does not offer a welcoming environment for a book with such high ambitions. It is also hard to believe that the SNS would really want a book that handles history with care.

Although a Hungarian-Slovak Commission has already started working on the common textbook, Deputy Prime Minister Dušan Čaplovič, who is responsible for the development of the knowledge-based society, has suggested that perhaps two separate committees of historians, one Czech and one Slovak, should work on the book.

The idea of a joint history book is not a new one and it might help reconciliation among nations. Last year, education ministers of the European Union toyed with the idea of writing a common European history book. While many welcomed the idea, some ministers were highly sceptical of it. Earlier this year, education ministers from Poland and Germany discussed the prospect of a joint history text book that could be potentially freed of national and historical stereotypes.

Such history books however might be asking too much from nations, demanding something that nations cannot offer: that they bury their patriotism because, as Wolfgang Goethe said, "patriotism ruins history."

Historians involved in such projects on both sides would also have to be patient and willing to hear again the stories that they might have heard thousands of times, but to hear them with a different ear and see the maps through different lenses.

Politicians have neither the emotional distance nor the independence required to handle history, and in Slovakia the prospect of a joint history book has evoked stormy political debates.

Political parties, who sometimes arrogantly assume that they have a monopoly on historical truth, should keep their hands off such projects. Slovakia has a track record of parties and politicians who have poked their noses into issues that are the exclusive domain of historians, proposing laws that canonise or condemn controversial historical figures.

Nonetheless, this region needs a joint history book like the human body needs salt. It is only a question of who will decide how much salt is needed so that it heals old wounds instead of opening up new ones.

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