Pride about motherland cannot be conditioned by any law

The Slovak Spectator spoke to historian Milan Zemko about the history of Slovak patriotism and the ways how to raise patriotism among Slovaks today.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to historian Milan Zemko about the history of Slovak patriotism and the ways how to raise patriotism among Slovaks today.

TSS: How was the Slovak nation formed in history and why do its neighbours play such an important role in its self-definition?

Milan Zemko: According to medievalists the Slovak medieval nationality was formed after the founding of the Hungarian Kingdom and Slovaks emerged as a modern nation in the 19th and 20th centuries. Until the founding of Czechoslovakia Slovaks were in a very hard position, under intensive Magyarisation pressures of the Hungarian government and other bureaucratic authorities. Before the breakup of the Hungarian Kingdom in 1918 Slovaks, for instance, had only a few Slovak-Hungarian primary schools and on higher levels Slovak schools didn’t exist. The situation changed very much after the emergence of Czechoslovakia despite the idea of the single ‘Czechoslovak’ nation. Slovaks, with the help of Czechs, created their own Slovak schooling system from kindergartens to universities, various cultural institutions worked freely, and the first generations of people with secondary and university education were growing. The formation of the Slovak nation as a modern European nation was definitively rounded up in the interwar period.

Every smaller, weaker society tends to define itself against bigger and stronger ones. That goes also for the Slovak relations to Czechs and Hungarians. And although we haven’t lived [in one state] with Hungarians for over 90 years now, part of the public is sensitive to more or less open expressions of Hungarian revisionism which appear time and time again on different political levels even today. In the case of Czechs, during the era of our common state we had been sensitive to the expressions of Czech ‘tutorism’ but also to the Czech tendency to promote more or less openly the unitarian governance of the state from Prague. After the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, relations with Czechs have improved and since we have nothing to complain about we have become good neighbours.

TSS: How has the feeling of patriotism been built among Slovaks since the time of national awakening in the 19th century? Which tools have been used to raise patriotism and the feelings of belonging to the Slovak nation?

MZ: Slovak patriotism was hard to build in the era of the monarchy, particularly after the Austro-Hungarian Reconciliation in 1867. Not only due to the already mentioned systematic Magyarisation, but also due to internal weakness of the Slovak society, a high level of passivity of the prevailingly agricultural people and a very narrow middle-class that in other subdued nations played an important role in cultivating patriotism. In such conditions Slovak patriotism was hard to develop, mainly since many of the patriots were prosecuted by the Hungarian ruling power and Hungarian patriotism was officially promoted. These were the conditions the representatives of the Slovak national movement [mainly the generation of Slovak Romanticist poets] pointed to with sorrow.

But the emergence of Czechoslovakia, with its principle of freedom of expression of opinions in a democratic society, brought a big change in the public’s attitude to patriotism. Patriotism began to be formed on many levels of social life – in politics, in schools, in associations, in culture, art and in press. At the same time, the feelings of patriotism were developed without much direct influence; rather by appreciating the life in the country we live in and in building the individual relation to the local and regional communities we live in.

TSS: What does the recently passed Patriotism Act look like in this historical context? Is it necessary? Do you feel that Slovaks lack patriotism or pride about their homeland now?

MZ: The pride about one’s motherland cannot be conditioned by any law and particularly not by one like the parliament passed. Slovaks tend to be ‘serial complainers’ but that doesn’t mean they are not able to appreciate and value the things in their country that are worthy of positive relations. They can be proud of successful people and remarkable accomplishments, and thus also of their country.

TSS: Do you think that the authors of the Patriotism Act have managed to find an appropriate way to raise patriotism among Slovaks?

MZ: The authors of the Patriotism Act claim that with this law they are creating preconditions for successful cultivation of patriotism. The law, in the form in which it was passed, will in the better case be indifferent for the public and in worse case it will raise dissatisfaction and intentional ignoring. Without appropriate consideration, schools and other institutions are again required to make investments that will hardly bring the desired effect, or will bring a negative one.

See also the story about the Patriotism Act and an interview with another historian, Roman Holec.

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