Judt on Favored Czechs, Disfavored Slovaks

From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 659-660:

Czechs and Slovaks, however indistinguishable they might appear to perplexed outsiders, had markedly different pasts. Bohemia and Moravia—the historical territories comprising the Czech lands—could boast not merely a remarkable medieval and Renaissance past at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire but also a pre-eminent share of the industrialization of central Europe. Within the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire Czechs enjoyed growing autonomy and a marked prosperity. Their major city, Prague—one of the aesthetic glories of the continent—was by 1914 a significant center of modernism in the visual arts and literature.

Slovaks, by contrast, had little to boast about. Ruled for centuries from Budapest they lacked any distinctive national story—within the Hungarian half of the Empire they were regarded not as ‘Slovaks’ but as slav-language-speaking peasants of rural northern Hungary. The urban inhabitants of the Slovak region were predominantly Germans, Hungarians or Jews: it was not by chance that the largest town in the area, an unprepossessing conurbation on the Danube a few kilometres east of Vienna, was variously known as Pressburg (to German-speaking Austrians) or Pozsony (to Hungarians). Only with the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and the Slovaks’ somewhat reluctant incorporation therein, did it become the second city of the new state under the name Bratislava.

The inter-war Republic of Czechoslovakia was democratic and liberal by prevailing regional standards, but its centralized institutions strongly favored the Czechs, who occupied almost all positions of power and influence. Slovakia was a mere province and a poor and rather disfavored one at that. The same impulse that led many of the country’s three million German-speaking citizens to listen to pro-Nazi separatists thus also drove a certain number of Czechoslovakia’s two and a half million Slovaks to look with sympathy upon Slovak populists demanding autonomy and even independence. In March 1939, when Hitler absorbed the Czech regions into the ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, an authoritarian, clericalist Slovak puppet state was established under Father Józef Tiso. The first ever independent state of Slovakia thus emerged at Hitler’s behest and over the corpse of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Just how popular Slovakia’s wartime ‘independence’ ever was is hard to know after the fact. In the post-war years it was discredited both by its own record (Slovakia deported to death camps virtually all of its 140,000 pre-war Jewish population) and by its intimate dependence upon its Nazi patron. After its liberation, Czechoslovakia was re-established as a single state and expressions of Slovak nationalism were frowned upon. Indeed in the early Stalinist years, ‘Slovak bourgeois nationalism’ was one of the accusations levied at putative defendants in the show trials then being prepared—Gustav Husák spent six years in prison on the charge.

Dumneazu‘s recent travel report on Slovak Diglossia offers a fairly optimistic assessment of Slovakia’s economy these days.

Today Slovakia boasts East Europe’s fastest growing economy. During the first ten post communist years the country stagnated under the government of communist-turned-nationalist Vladimir Meciar. When Meciar left office a new generation of Slovak leadership – educated in the west and up on the latest economic theories – took the reins. A combination of smart economists, flat taxes (in a small country) and generous benefits for foreign investors has suddenly trust Slovakia from the backwater of the post 1989 East European changes to the forefront. Unemployment is expected to disappear in three years, forcing the importation of labor. Towns that were once dusty backwaters, like my beloved Ruzemberok, are becoming smart regional investment centers, and tidying up their downtown areas.

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Filed under Bohemia, Europe, nationalism, Slovakia

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