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On the Future of a Certain Idea

Publication:14 October 2021

NO.9 2012

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The nation state is neither a universal nor a historically permanent method of human co-existence. Its oldest Western European variants have not even reached two hundred years. There are two issues which allow us to analyse the development of Slovak society against the background of longer-lasting processes.

According to the available sources, in 1993 the majority of inhabitants of Czechoslovakia either did not want the country to be divided, and hence an independent Slovakia to emerge, or had no opinion on the matter. Twenty years later, most respondents claim that the founding of independent Slovakia was inevitable and the break-up of Czechoslovakia was a logical consequence of the historical process. But although so many years have passed, people still don’t realise that a small glitch at the negotiation table or a modification of the interests of the great powers could have meant that the Slovak question would have been resolved quite differently. It is possible that it would have found an open ending similar to that of October 1918, when Czechoslovakia came into being, of September 1938 and March 1939 when it broke up, of August 1968 when internal reforms of communism were crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks, and of the November of that memorable year 1989, when people in the streets were not yet aware of their power. Behind each of these “coincidences” stood a handful of people who defined an interpretation of the changed situation, and in this way determined the official form of ideological discourse.

The aim of this text is not to present a brief history of the founding of the republic. My intention is to analyse the connections between state ideology and its day‑to‑day human dimension. The key purpose of this essay is to present the way in which Slovak society has dealt with being locked up in the cage of a nation state built by patriotic definitions. Slovak society was shaped in the atmosphere of multiculturalism. It is worth emphasising that even today minorities, for example Hungarians and the Roma, form at least one fifth of the population.

The nation state is neither a universal nor a historically permanent method of human co‑existence. Its oldest Western European variants have not even reached two hundred years. In the current text I will present two issues which allow us to analyse the development of Slovak society against the background of longer‑lasting processes. I also suppose that a major part of the analysis of daily Slovak life may have a broader significance and throw light on other nooks and crannies of Central Europe where multiethnicity survived the purges of modern nationalism. In contrast to politicians and intellectuals with a patriotic or nationalist bent, my way of thinking is focused on the daily life of this part of the Carpathian Mountains which was recently given the name the Slovak Republic.

 A multiethnic country

As the well‑known historian Ľubomír Lipták notes, intellectuals have promoted the  following claim: the leading motive of Slovak history is the “battle for survival”. When justifying this claim, they invoke arguments about primordial oppression, the concept of the nation as not being a matter of choice but rather a “matter of blood”, the all‑powerful and all‑competent state, collective guilt and collective right to revenge[1]. For this reason, the preamble to the Constitution of the Slovak Republic is suffering from a chronic European disease. The Slovak nation has the right to exist only in the ethno‑national sense.

The introduction to the Constitution also establishes a hierarchy of ethnic groups within the nation state. The “Slovak nation” is the most important one as a collective agent which mercifully allows non-Slovaks to merely exist in the state. After some brief remarks on the permanence of national heritage and the right to self-determination, there are references to national minorities and then – one is tempted to say that a notch lower down – to ethnic groups. Citizens who are not part of the privileged “state-building” nation were turned by the preamble into a disloyal mob.

Minorities are attacked mostly by head-strong nationalists, who would be happy to see the minorities take a voluntary plunge into the majority river. Slovak nationalists have a problem with Hungarians, mostly because the latter (apparently) are not particularly eager to belong to any other ethnic group in the world[2]. They are also uneasy about the Roma, whom they cannot imagine as part of the majority. They are also afraid of and disgusted with immigrants, although it was owing to the emigration of their grandfathers and grandmothers to Western Europe, America and even Bohemia, that their fathers and mothers managed to obtain successive strips of land in the mountains, where ski‑lifts are today located.

Ernest Gellner, a leading analyst of modern societies, also understood the mechanisms of these inhibitions because he had grown up in interwar Czechoslovakia. The country of his childhood, erected on the rubble of the multiethnic Habsburg Empire, was the Empire in miniature because of its ethnic diversity. Gellner characterised an  agrarian and modern society with an  artistic metaphor. The  structure of the former, with permeable borders and intertwined internal influences, brought to his mind the convoluted and multicoloured forms in the paintings of the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka, while the organisation of modern society reminded him of the clearly contoured shapes so characteristic for the Italian painter Amadeo Modigliani[3].

Although the heterogenic reality didn’t survive the ethnic purges and nationalism of the Second World War, the model of various ethnic groups co-existing proved functional in Czechoslovakia. This is undeniable, even if most theorists of democracy think that a model of tolerance which was also practised to a certain degree in less democratic Central European countries in the interwar period, such as Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, is impossible to implement in the modern era. They claim that it is modernity which mobilises the masses through nationalism – through offers of exclusive belonging to a “nation”, which guarantees access to an elitist culture. Hence, partner relations with those not belonging to the symbolic majority seem difficult to achieve.

The above interpretation rejects the daily experience of multiethnic tolerance, which is often immune to the influence of nationalist politics. But I have to stress that the ambivalent way of modernisation of Slovakia and Central Europe, reflecting the recent agrarian relations, does not produce a purely patronising model of ethnic nationalism. The latter is most often expressed by a lack of tolerance for ethnic minorities in politicians and their reactions, but it can also be observed in daily life. But reality often does not square with the notions of law theorists or ideologues of an individualistic civil society. The day‑to‑day practice of co‑existence produces collective alternatives in society.

Equally famous as the “Kokoschka versus Modigliani” metaphor is Gellner’s interpretation regarding the  emergence of nation states. The  modernising multinational state – agrarian Megalomania – enforced a  homogenisation of the  diverse population: one language and one culture are necessary conditions of efficiency of a modern army, industry and state apparatus. The reaction of the excluded or deprived of the possibility of practising the culture which they considered their own was immediate. But the megalomaniac model of culture inspired their own emancipation process. They invented a small but glorious and heroic Ruritania. Several Ruritanias were founded on the rubble of the Habsburg Megalomania. We can also speak about a Ruritanisation of Europe (although to a smaller degree) after 1989. And the break‑up of Czechoslovakia can be interpreted from this perspective. While Slovaks and Czechs keep playing this comical game in their own ethnic sandbox, the circumstances of Ruritanias emerging on the Balkan Peninsula had more tragic consequences.

The foundations for practising the multiethnic model in Slovakia are still stronger than, for example, in such neighbouring nation states as the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. An important factor behind it is that in the Carpathian Basin assimilation was more difficult, and ethnic purges (besides the Holocaust) were less frequent here. Slovakia is the most ethnically heterogenic country among its neighbours except Ukraine. The fear of multiethnicity, often affecting Slovak politics, results in the fact that the model of tolerance in daily life contrasts with the still popular nationalist politics.

Another pillar of the Slovak model of multiethnic tolerance could be the fact that the Slovak Republic came into being in a relatively trouble‑free manner. It is very fortunate that “the republic came to us” without heated passions and still less bloodshed. In 1993 people reacted soberly to the appearance of the nation state. The recent creation of the nation state was later followed by partial subordination to a supra‑national entity – the European Union.

Although in 2011  Slovakia still belonged to the least open European countries in terms of offering permanent residence or citizenship, this “racism” probably has its sources in the  introversion of the Carpathian elites rather than in a deliberate and premeditated policy of discriminating foreigners. Among the reasons behind the limited success of the Magyarisation policy at the turn of the 20th century (for example, the language of Ruritania survived on the edge of the modernising Megalomania) and an important role was played by the “rural backwater factor”, noted by Ľubomír Lipták in his work Slovensko v 20. storočí (Slovakia in the 20th century). For Magyarisation was unprofitable in a rural backwater. It is worth underlining again that long co-existence in a multiethnic environment produces a potential for accepting ethnic pluralism, resulting from growing immigration, which Slovakia undoubtedly needs (chiefly because of the requirements of the economy and the ageing of the population).

Cosmopolitanism of the average inhabitants of Ruritania flourished all the time in big cities abroad, even if the national “wakers-up” often criticised globe-trotters for easily succumbing to assimilation. Even if local emigration was not always composed of democratic communities (for example, the Ludacka emigration after 1945), the experience of living in a big city made the Slovaks much more mature. At worst they discovered how they did not want to live and came back in order to muddy the waters at home. The fact that three former Slovak metropolies[4], about which everyone learned at school or heard of from parents and grandparents, are now located abroad, also has a symbolic meaning going beyond ethnic considerations. But a much more important aspect is that the modern Slovak democracy took shape in the largest Slovak diasporas – in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Pest and Prague – and to a much lesser extent in the backwater of Martin, the small-town centre of Slovak national life in the era of the Hungarian Kingdom.

All this means that the achievements of Slovakia in tolerant co‑existence have an agrarian nature. The Hungarian Kingdom, not recognised by Slovak nationalists, was characterised by extensive religious tolerance, especially when compared to Bohemia or Austria. Before the Patent of Toleration was passed, identifying with Protestantism or Catholicism was a more important source of conflict than being Slovak, Hungarian or Roma two centuries later.

As Fredrik Barth said in his already classic work Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. The Social Organization of Culture Difference, ethnic identification changes with the situation and only acquires significance when a symbolic dividing line defining a member of another group appears[5]. In Central Europe it usually happened through language. Language doesn’t establish differences, but it may sharpen the dividing lines between ethnic groups, above all when representatives of one ethnic group impose the use of a specific communication code on another group or groups. The inhabitants of the Carpathians never completely stopped communicating outside the officially privileged linguistic code in their daily lives. This multi-linguistic day-to-day reality forms the foundation on which, together with the traditions of religious tolerance, an image of Slovakia as a multiethnic country may be built.

But for the tolerance to become a common practice, its functional and natural character must be recognised not only by a decisive (even if not constituting a majority) part of the elites, but also by most of the people who regard themselves as belonging to the elite. But who are the people who as inhabitants of the eastern part of Czechoslovakia recently achieved “national sovereignty”?

The countryside and family

Ethnologist Juraj Podoba recently borrowed Ľubomír Lipták’s metaphor of Slovakia as the “eye of a hurricane”, and quoted the reflections of historian Roman Holec, thus also emphasising the ambivalence of certain stages of modernisation conceived in an evolutionary way[6]. In other words, not being the West (“staying behind”) is not a curse. For the “eye of a hurricane” such a situation also has its merits. Podoba was thinking here of a later and different beginning of the crisis or the ability to adapt to changes, also in the context of such institutions of daily life as the family or neighbourhood, which are more stable in comparison to Western models.

Not  so long ago, in the  industrial era, inhabitants of the Carpathians got used to a family model which was not typical before, namely “on your own turf”. Children move out from their parents to a separate home and ultimately place them in an institution. In Slovakia the family is conceived as a nuclear family (husband, wife and children), but the extended family model is still valid. In the modern theories of some economists and sociologists, the extended family is usually treated as a hotbed of corruption and nepotism. The time has come for its merits to be analysed from the perspective of social capital.

The concept of family is also connected with the division into the feminine and masculine sphere. Discussions in this area are usually divided into three interconnected thematic fields. The first concerns the division into the public and private sphere, the second regards the notions on culture and nature, and the third is focused on unequal control of production and consumption in the industrial society.

The notion saying that the world of women is closer to nature, mostly owing to maternity and menstruation, while culture and politics are the domain of men, underlines the biological differences between the sexes. This mindset can be found in the views of the Christian right and nationalist ideologies, as well as in the world of politics and pub talk. This opinion clearly emphasises the domination of men and excludes women from the relations of production and redistribution. These inequalities were strongly reinforced in the West, especially when the man’s earnings (rather then joint work as farmers and gatherers) became the main source of upkeep. This arrangement spread to other parts of the world, above all after capitalism took hold. In Slovakia and in the post‑communist Europe after 1989, the reinforcement of unequal relations between men and women was accompanied by a return to pre‑socialist conservative ideas, which successfully merged with the conservatism of post‑communism. Despite the popularity of these ideologies in the last four or five decades, the complete dependence of families on male earnings has largely become a thing of the past.

In Slovakia the transformation from a self-sufficient agrarian society into its modern industrial form found its expression not only in the context of family or gender patterns, but also in the relations between the countryside and the city. Generally speaking, in the popular media and among urban intellectuals the extended family is automatically associated with a rural mode of life, while individualism and anonymity are supposed to be characteristic of the city. But most European elites still function within an extended network of kinship while the world of elites can be entered by bearing a child to a member of the elite or by marrying one. In Slovak conditions these issues play a fundamental role. The typical division of the extended family living in the countryside and the lay intellectuals living in the city no longer holds as the borders between the rural and urban worlds are blurring.

In Central Europe attempts at idealising the countryside have a rich tradition in the urban environment. The current statistics on quality of life say that the countryside is more fragmented than the cities, and the sense of isolation and deprivation in the rural areas of southern and eastern Slovakia is more common than in the cities. The concept of a Central European city – especially after 1989 – has a nostalgic and romantic ring to it, that is something associated with the notions of a “harmonious and uncorrupted countryside”. And urban nostalgia is attractive, for Central Europe was created in the communist era as an intellectual concept of returning to the Old Europe. Western Europe then seemed more urban, civilised and refined than our socialist cities, teeming with rough and undistinguished provincials.

In our country, urbanity has an overtone of something long gone, as it was gradually repressed from the Slovak awareness during the times of socialist realism. Another reason is that when communism collapsed, cities were demolished district by district with developers’ money. Just like under communism as well as after 1989, a nostalgic return to the countryside, where factories were built (the pillars of class solidarity of farmers and workers), was used by coffee‑shop intellectuals with an ethnographic bent or film‑makers of a similar orientation in their quest for a model cute “Alpine” small town for the middle class, a town without foreigners and the Roma.

In such a climate of urban romanticism the rural world, from which the ancestors of every city dweller once came, got into the hands of unruly nationalists. Little wonder then that the Slovak city still recalls the “large city” we know from the famous Oscar-winning film Obchod na Korze (The Shop on Main Street). On Sunday after mass, the city is quiet and dead, life conceived differently than smoking marijuana or shopping in a shopping centre doesn’t exist. I am not speaking here about demonstrations, thefts or barricades, which no one is willing to build. Anyway, every potential revolutionary can be recognised by his name. Let us also not forget about shopping centres built among blocks of flats and hotels for workers who moved from the countryside to the cities in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, their children buy nostalgic books for Christmas about the patrician history of their city, where it was impossible to communicate in Slovak. Despite the assurances of the post-1989 small town romantics, the time has come to consider the question of whether our cities are not a good place to live thanks to their closeness to the countryside and not the other way round.

Encoded in this strange development path – from agrarian capitalism through state socialism to late capitalism – is the potential of the people living in the Carpathian meadows and valleys. Today, it is already clear that the effects of this transformation include maintaining many elements of old culture but also creating new, innovative patterns. Some of them are becoming obsolete, such as blood revenge or equal division of land between heirs, for example; others still form an obstacle to growth – such as nationalist politics or corruption. But also the free market, until recently perceived by many as an engine of progress and innovation, is revealing a less enlightened face. Perceptions on quality of life shouldn’t be measured only with economic parameters, following the fashion present in magazines and the dominant discourse of neoclassical economy, which prefers universal “measurability” without respecting the local knowledge and culture.

Agrarian tolerance

Slovakia has not yet been swept by the emancipatory current of democratic left‑wing politics, as has happened in the  West of Europe. In  our country, the emancipation of the “people” was taken up by populists and communists. The only exceptions being the agrarian movement in the interwar period, having among its goals the modernisation of society and education of the masses in order to achieve sustainable development based on small family businesses. The only comprehensive modern geopolitical vision, authored by Milan Hodža, has an agrarian character, as Ľubomír Lipták and Pavol Lukáč claim[7].

Also, the Christian tradition in the Carpathians results not only from the presence of the Catholic Church and Protestantism, which after the Counter-Reformation battles became the dominant confession in Hungary. It was religious tolerance (most recently between Catholics and Protestants) that laid the foundations for the modern society in Europe and in this part of Carpathians which we some time ago started to call the Slovak Republic. Slovak pluralism, contrasting with the nationalism of some politicians and intellectuals, as well as an absence of monopoly of a religious majority for transmitting tradition, could in our conditions form a promising basis for a multiethnic political project which hopefully would prove stable.

***

[1] Ľubomír Lipták, Koniec mýtov na Slovensku?, in: Eduard Krekovič, Elena Mannová, Eva Krekovičová, Mýty naše slovenské, Bratislava 2005, p. 240.

[2] An apt analysis of the dislike for the Hungarians reflected in Slovak textbooks may be found in Andrej Findor’s publication Začiatky národných dejín, Bratislava 2011.

[3] Ernest Gellner, Narody i nacjonalizm, Warszawa 1991.

[4] Namely: Vienna, Budapest and Prague (translator’s note).

[5] Fredrik Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. The Social Organization of Culture Difference, Boston 1969.

[6] Juraj Podoba, “V oku hurikánu? Sociokultúrna zmena a inovácie v kontexte nedovŕšenej modernizácie,” in: OS 2/2010, pp. 11–28; see Roman Holec, Sme vyspelejší ako Maďari. Wywiad przeprowadzali: Jaroslav Daniška a Eva Čobejová, „Týždeň” 29/2010, pp. 24–27.

[7] Ľubomír Lipták, Nepre(tr)žité dejiny, Bratislava 2008, p. 73; Pavol Lukáč, Stredoeurópanstvo Milana Hodžu, in: Milan Hodža, Federácia v strednej Európe a iné štúdie, Bratislava 1997, pp. 11–36.

O autorach

Jural Buzalka

A social anthropologist, lecturer at the Department of Social and Economic Sciences of Comenius University in Bratislava, and editor-in-chief of the magazine OS – občianska spoločnosť.

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