Positive deeds are the best tools for raising patriotism

The Slovak Spectator spoke to historian Roman Holec from the Slovak History deparment of the Comenius University's Faculty of Philosophy about the Patriotism Act and the ways patriotism has been interpreted throughout the history of the Slovak nation.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to historian Roman Holec from the Slovak History deparment of the Comenius University's Faculty of Philosophy about the Patriotism Act and the ways patriotism has been interpreted throughout the history of the Slovak nation.

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

Roman Holec: Slovaks have undergone a complicated development as a small nation in the complicated central European multi-ethnic and multicultural environment. They were always confronted with more powerful neighbours and their national emancipation also clashed with the interests of others, which gave rise to bigger conflicts (in the case of Hungary) and smaller ones (with Czechs).

Slovaks became a nation with a complete social structure and the necessary institutional background only after 1918 within the Czechoslovak Republic (CSR). Even in that time, when Slovaks functioned as a state-constituting nation, they had problems springing out of the fact that the state was constituted by two nationalities unequal in population and level of social and cultural development. The paradox is that their actual separation came in a time when the differences between the two were perhaps the smallest.

Although their own state brought Slovaks the fulfilment of their national interests, the whole spectrum of geopolitical, historical and literally subjective aspects forces Slovaks to again and again compare and define themselves against their more powerful and more ‘historic’ neighbours – that is, in a positive manner to the Czechs and in a negative manner to the Hungarians. Poles and Austrians are not really perceived in this way, the relations with them in history were rather neutral and defining against them is only minimal. Often, these are not productive steps, but rather an expression of complexes, feelings of inferiority and clumsiness (such as in the field of diplomacy) which are then compensated by power gestures, feelings of malevolence and so on.

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?

RH: I would slightly modify the question because patriotism cannot be built; it is the result of a long-lasting development. That is also the reason why it is much stronger among the surrounding, much longer emancipated nations. As opposed to those countries, in Slovakia the behaviour of political and economical elites that verbally identify themselves with the state is perceived in a much more sensitive way. And since many of them stood at the birth [of the independent Slovak state], their behaviour has a negative influence on the people.

Nations which have been emancipated longer are much more immune to this, and it doesn’t have an impact on their patriotism (in the spirit of the belief that a state remains but elites change).

Undoubtedly, the negative impact also comes from the widespread feeling of a ‘small history’ or ‘short history’, which then needs to be artificially constructed in their ‘greatness’, ethnicity and tradition (as can be seen in the preamble to the Constitution or the concept of so-called ‘old Slovaks’). This is, after all, what the 19th century was doing in the spirit of contemporaneous romanticism and defensive nationalism.

The best tools for raising patriotism are positive deeds which push the country and the people forward (among the most current ones are joining the EU, economic successes, acceptance of the European currency, sports and cultural accomplishments – in this case sport is mainly a mass phenomenon oriented on youth).

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?

RH: I have already explained why there are certain deficits in comparison with neighbouring countries. The Patriotism Act is typical for the ‘long’ 19th century as the century of nationalism, or for the totalitarian era, which always felt the need to enter the conscience of the people and regulate their feelings. A law can, for instance, protect national symbols but by no means can it serve to cultivate or grow anything. That requires a long-lasting educational process, which is formed generation by generation and which doesn’t involve the political elites to enter in contradiction to the declared principles.

I believe that the grade of Slovak ‘patriotism’ depends on the development and the conditions in the country and the ‘national story’ will impact it successfully or unsuccessfully. Only this way can patriotism be built.

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

RH: Surely not. The Patriotism Act is directed mainly at the youth, and it will cause much greater harm in their conscience because young people don’t have the necessary ‘defence reflexes’; they react spontaneously. The law is an incarnation of a naïve belief that inner feelings and emotions can be ordered from outside, by using political power and legislative norms. The law formalises something that should be cultivated and formed naturally and what should be the inner affair of every individual. It strongly evokes in me the methods the totalitarian regimes used for working with the youth (Pioneers, flags, the Internationale, formalised greetings, norms of behaviour, and identification of abstract notions such as class, status, and nation).

See also the story about the Patriotism Act and an interview with another historian, Milan Zemko.

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