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Recreating and Preserving the Past. Reflections on the Margins of Several Discussions on Slovak History

Publication: 14 October 2021

NO. 9 2012

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Every society aims at taking control over memory and constructing the image of the past, which leads to efforts meant to stabilise a single ideological (for example, historical) discourse and symbolic model. A challenge for today’s historiography is therefore the role it plays in this process.

Connections between history and memory are an interesting subject for discussion. During such debates these terms are often treated as identical or interchangeable. But not infrequently they are presented as separate concepts. Moreover, there is no clear division between the results of historical analysis and recollections of contemporary people, which may be mutually exclusive but also complementary.

Slovak history has many dimensions composed of parallel narratives, which often compete for general acceptance. I do not think we would find many historians wanting to reduce this competition and still less put an end to it. In an era of democracy, pluralistic society and the internet this would be virtually impossible. At the same time, despite intellectual freedom, we are witnessing a ceaseless constructing and imposing of specific ideological patterns on history as well as recreating state mythology. These historicising elements shape the identification and communication strategies in Slovak society on the one hand, and its external image on the other.

Reiterated notions about the past are part of specific historical narratives, interpreted as “national”, and gradually developing in modern Slovakia since the 19th century. I deliberately speak of narratives in the plural, for I want to avoid the false impression that I mean one historical narrative which is also a national ideology or the so called Slovak view. I would like to emphasise that besides the presence of seemingly stable patterns, notions about national history and visions of the past are not static – on the contrary, they are dynamic and constantly changing.

Historian Jacques Le Goff pointed at two main factors influencing the emergence and development of European (Greek) historiography. The first one was ethnic, aimed at differentiating civilisation (the Greeks) from barbarians. The second one was political. This means that even in ancient Greece, history was practised in the interest of the highest classes. Hence it was closely connected with the legitimised recollection of the past and became an efficient political weapon. Postmodernist authors also point to the fact that you cannot speak about the past without a specific ideological foundation. It has to do with the author’s personality, his or her cultural awareness, social status and many other factors. Moreover, the claim about indirect reconstruction of the past (understood as the interpretation of extant sources) was supplemented by postmodernism with the role of language as the raw material of a specific “historical narrative”.

Many historians underline the contradiction between the terms “history” and “memory”. They define history as an original construct of historians, while memory is for them an emotional perspective on the past. Within the scope of this article it seems interesting to trace both the interactions between memory and history and the constant negotiation of the contours of both terms.

Every society aims at taking control over memory and constructing the image of the past, which leads to efforts meant to stabilise a single ideological (for example, historical) discourse and symbolic model. A challenge for today’s historiography is therefore the role it plays in this process: to what extent it will be used as an instrument of preserving history and whether it will be able to make a successful impact on society outside the sphere of politics.

The purpose of my reflections is to point at certain tendencies connected with the historical culture of Slovakia. I will attempt to present the way in which Slovak history/the history of Slovakia is contextualised – for example, in connection with the so called “figure eight” anniversaries. I mean here the remembrance of events commonly recognised as watersheds, which have played an important role in the Slovak historical narrative. Chronologically speaking, the narratives are encoded above all in the following dates: 1848, 1918, 1938, 1948, 1968. In 2008 some other, less known events conforming to the pattern of “magic eights” were invoked, such as the Bratislava manifestation with candles in 1988[1], remembered in order to hold the communist past to account and to establish a worship of the anti-communist resistance. Important words about the figure eight anniversaries were spoken by the current president of the National Council, Pavel Paška, who also held this office between 2006 to 2010: “The magic eights accompanied us in our historical march towards national freedom.” In this way Paška emphasised the current national and emancipatory potential of the “magic eights”.

The Pantheon of Slovak heroes and the “national history” narratives are to a large extent connected with the above-named historical stages. There are on-going debates on their meaning. The narratives of “Hungarian oppression” or “the battle for national liberation” have become unquestioned attributes of Slovak nationalist rhetoric. They still form important identification patterns through which a section of Slovak society gets its bearings in the network of intercultural relations.

Return of history?

In 1991 Jacques Rupnik introduced the term “return of history”, meaning the process occurring in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc which brought a reassessment of the past. He also characterised this process as a return of nationalism to Central and Eastern Europe. In that period nationalism re-emerged as one of the most important attributes legitimising political concepts. It evidently influenced the ways of recreating and preserving the past.

As Rogers Brubaker notes, nationalist ideas became popular in post-communist countries because there was fertile ground for them. In the era of state socialism, nationalisms were combined with the dominant theory of class struggle. We find them, for example, in the narrative about the peasant origins of Slovaks, embodied by the well-known metaphor of the “thousand-year-old bee[2], picturing the Slovaks as anonymous builders of history. The nationalist element was also enriched by the official political and cultural profile of the Communist Party. Moreover, it was unofficially copied by some ideologically ambivalent citizens, who built their mindset on contradictory traditions, the religious tradition being among them. As a result of this process, historical narratives and the past were variously interpreted and perceived.

In the early 1990s there were many debates in Slovakia on the history of Czech-Slovak and Slovak-Hungarian relations. Themes which had been censored or avoided for various reasons became very popular. What added vigour to these discussions was the need to define a new state identity (renewing the traditional of the First Czechoslovak Republic [1918–1938], the founding of the Slovak Republic), both collective (reinforcing Slovak national elements) and individual (overcoming family taboos), in line with the well-known maxim: “If you know where you come from, you know who you are.” One expression of this process was a spate of historical or historicising publications aimed at “discovering the truth” or “filling out the historical blanks”. The growing interest in the past was visible in the media, in organising anniversary events, in “rediscovering” and “reviving” family and regional memory.

As a result Slovak history was presented as the only historical narrative connected with the territory inhabited by the Slovaks. The Czechoslovak context, dominant until quite recently, was moved to the sidelines and replaced with discovering the Hungarian (from before the First World War) and Slovak past. Themes and arguments current between 1918 to 1945 were brought back. The concept of Slovak history/the history of Slovakia promoted by Daniel Rapant and František Hrušovski gained in popularity. Hrušovský became a leading exponent of a critical perspective on the Hungarian and Czechoslovak context, as he presented Slovak history as one uninterrupted narrative (lasting for one and a half millennia and culminating in the proclamation of Slovak independence in 1939). His peer and critic Daniel Rapant believed that the problems of Slovak history and Slovaks should be placed in a wider context. While revitalising older readings of Slovak history, the achievements of the so called Marxist historiography from before 1989 were marginalised and discredited. Most texts written in the communist period were labelled (to some extent correctly) as biased and ideological, dictated by “party apparatchiks”. In opposition to them a new, “objective” history started to be built, not only introducing some minor epistemological and methodological changes, but also aimed at the “moral regeneration” of society. Another result of this denying and forgetting was that in the course of analysing “uncharted areas” and taking a narrow look at history, earlier works were ignored and the wheel was reinvented. This “confrontation with the past” led to the labelling of some historians writing before and soon after 1989 as “Bolshevik”. This term was used in the ideological war waged by nationalists (not infrequently former communists) against Slovak historians with liberal views, usually excelling as scholars.

The post-revolutionary situation in the 1990s introduced major divisions among historians and it also found its expression in the arguments about the character of “national history”. Certain disagreements regarding both terminology and facts found their reflection on the political scene and within the society at large. Initially the debates were held on a “common” platform of post-revolutionary reflection of the Slovak historiography. Despite the clearly differing positions and ways of interpreting history they stemmed from a general interest in exchanging views.

One of the conflicts, the so called Ďurica affair from 1995–1997, achieved international notoriety. The argument was ignited when an expatriate historian, Milan S. Ďurica, introduced a new educational aid: a chronological course-book of Slovak history. It provoked a wave of protests both in Slovakia and abroad and the controversial book was withdrawn from schools. Pressure from Brussels was one of the factors behind this decision. During the conflict, which was extensively covered by the media, opposition groups unambiguously declared themselves. Academics from the Institute of History of Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) presented their views in an open letter, as did Professor Ďurica answering them[3]. The argument was additionally fuelled by the political situation and the fact that Vladimír Mečiar’s government actively supported attempts at reconstructing the history of Slovakia aimed at creating “new” (nationally aware) citizens. An important role in these efforts was played by émigré historians and politicians as well as representatives of the Matica slovenská, who decided to participate in the process of post-revolutionary changes. Some of them saw the founding of the Slovak Republic in 1993 as parallel to Slovakia from between 1939 to 1945. On the other side of the barricade were historians from Slovak research institutes and schools, whose views were supported by most major academic institutions abroad. As I have already noted, the most active researchers were abusively condemned as Jews, Bolsheviks and Magyarons, because of their background or their rather negative attitude towards the concept of Ludacki[4] Slovak nationalism from the period of the Second World War. They were attacked mostly for their lack of acceptance of the radical nationalist-romantic discourse on Slovak history. The conflict led to the emergence of two separate communities, which renounced constructive discussion. Rival groups were mutually excluded, parallel institutions were founded and spheres of influence demarcated. But these processes should not be treated as absolute.

We are now witnessing the forming of parallel – even if not completely separate – institutional worlds. Moreover, various educational, academic and cultural institutions have come into being which reflect this bipolar perspective and propagate their own narratives on Slovak history / the history of Slovakia. A common journalistic practice is to invite representatives of rival communities to most discussions. It is worth adding that the media plays a crucial role in shaping the attitudes of the citizens, also towards history.

But Slovak historiography cannot be reduced to just two tendencies or two stable ideological poles. Such a vision would be much too simplified. But this division is a real reflection of the polarity of views observed within a group of historians debating the character of “national history”[5]. In recent years a group of young academics has emerged, who do not refer in their research to the conceptual patterns described above. And although the Slovak community of historians should not be spoken of in black-and-white terms, I wouldn’t like to pass judgement here on its evident methodological and generational fragmentation. But the delayed development of Slovak historiography is closely connected with a strong impact of political ideologies and impossibility of overcoming a subordinate position despite the changes in 1989.

It seems that the biggest challenge for Slovak historiography is “keeping up” with the newest thinking in this field and confrontation with the still present and propagated nationalist paradigm in speaking about history. The nationalist rhetoric belongs to the factors which have a general social impact. It precisely defines the Slovak “territory”, “culture”, “character” and “duties”. It is based on the idea of continuity of “national history and space”, culminating in a sovereign state. And although I mention one nationalist paradigm, I want to stress that we can observe more tendencies within it. To a large extent they refer back to the arguments from the first half of the 20th century, above all from the period of the First Czechoslovak Republic. This means that the primordialist or perenialist[6] outlook on the subject of nation is still dominant in academic debates, even if it is no longer a norm in the scholarly discourse. One of the most influential contemporary experts on theories of nationalism, Rogers Brubaker, has made a categorical claim that primordialism is now dead, even if authors writing about ethnicity and nationalism still refer to it. No serious scholar shares the view routinely associated with primordialists, for it would mean placing oneself outside the mainstream of academic debate. But in Slovak discussions we are hearing repeated claims about the more than millennial existence of the “Slovak nation”, for example in the attempts at reintroducing the term “old Slovaks” in the context of the early Middle Ages. And although I do not intend to discuss this problem in detail, I would like to emphasise that Brubaker’s claim has not met with a wide-ranging response in Slovakia. Our historiography is still relatively little open, rarely quoting foreign authors and theoreticians and only sporadically taking part in international academic projects or research teams. Foreign authors specialising in the history of Slovakia and Slovaks are usually treated as “enthusiasts” or “apprentices” unable to understand the Slovak reality. I regard this mistaken view as one of the most important factors contributing to the vitality of the Slovak nationalist rhetoric, which is becoming a significant element of public and professional discussions.

Historical culture under the aegis of the eights

The term “historical culture” was invented by Jacques Le Goff as naming the space between society and its past, accommodating both scholarly discourses and public debates. And Lubomír Lipták defined three levels of memory: the official one, represented by the power structures, the academic one, that is the results of research work, and personal, connected with private experience. We are confronted with these categories when analysing the status of the figure eight anniversaries in Slovak societies.

Prime Minister Robert Fico proclaimed 2008 as the year of reinforcing national identity. He recently confirmed his decision during the celebrations of the 16th anniversary of independence: “Through participation in such events we try to unambiguously demonstrate our attitude towards the Slovak past. Politicians should serve as an example in these matters.” He thus legitimised the government policy of strengthening certain interpretations of history (for example, through participation of political activists in collective ceremonies and celebrations). The 100th anniversary of the tragic events in Černova[7] was celebrated in the same spirit. And parliament passed a resolution on the contribution of Andrej Hlinka in the struggle for the freedom of the Slovak nation and independence of the Slovak Republic. An important political act was also the remembrance of the national rising from 1944 and the confirmation by parliament that the Beneš decrees[8] cannot be revoked. What’s more, in early 2008 Juraj Janosik was publicly proclaimed to be an authority for the prime minister and his political party. The arguments I spoke about earlier, whether the early medieval inhabitants of today’s Slovakia may justifiably be called “old Slovaks”, broke out. Battles continued concerning the figure of Milan Rastislav Štefánik (active in the Slovak independence movement before the First World War, one of the founders of Czechoslovakia), claimed by most political parties as their patron. Also the saints Cyril and Methodius are highly desirable in this context. We also observe an unflagging popularity of Milan Hodža, essayist and prime minister of Czechoslovakia between 1935 to 1938, “appropriated” above all by the strongest party in the previous government (SDKU – Slovak Democratic and Christian Union).

The issues described above show a growing interest of politicians in manipulating history. Almost all important politicians follow this line. Prime Minister Fico recently said: “Respect for decisive historical events and figures is a duty of every modern European nation. Only in this way can a stable national memory be built. An indifferent attitude towards ourselves, towards our history, would strike back at us. We have to shape the attitude of Slovaks to history, to its important figures.” In the prime minister’s statement a political agenda is identical with a civic and official vision, while at the same time a homogeneous society is promoted. Combining national, state-building, social, Christian and anti-Fascist motives is an undoubtedly interesting phenomenon. These motives correspond to the profile of specific political parties and more importantly, they are heavily loaded emotionally. This also finds its expression in the rivalry between particular political agents, both between the coalition and the opposition and within the allied camps.

Alongside the collective recreation of history one more tendency is present – forgetting. Some historical narratives gain currency and some lose it. This means that the Institute of National Memory (Ústav pamäti národa), recently celebrating its tenth anniversary, found itself in a quite schizophrenic position. Groups constantly emphasising the need to hold communism to account (or trying to invigorate and consolidate Slovak-ness) are assessing the work of the ÚPN as unnecessary, costly and unprofessional. The institution, which was founded amidst bitter political struggles, has to bear its cross and constantly justify its existence.

Connections between history and politics are reflected not only in politicised judgements about the past. Some intellectuals and scholars have been taking part in the debates on history and politics. They have used this opportunity to present their own concepts of Slovak history/the history of Slovakia. Groups have emerged which support the efforts of politicians (both in government and in opposition) or on the contrary, criticise their behaviour as a foul exploitation of the past for their own purposes. It has also been confirmed that many years after the “Ďurica affair” the bipolarity among Slovak historians has been maintained. The debates have demonstrated that the group which interprets history through the concept of the nation is stronger in confrontation with the “silent majority” (I mean here mainstream academics and some young historians), consistently avoiding controversial issues in open debates. Well-known problems, questions and interpretations are rehashed, which only keeps up the tension. We are now observing a return of the subjects from the mid-1990s, which divide not only historians but also ordinary citizens. Discussions about the meaning of the tragedy in Černova and controversies surrounding Hlinka have provoked conflicts extensively covered by the Slovak media. Two public statements were announced containing contradictory opinions on the historical role of Hlinka and the resolution on his contribution to Slovak independence. But these two perspectives still didn’t represent a wide spectrum of Slovak opinion. Historians supporting the legitimisation of the historical importance of Hlinka, mostly members of the Institute of the History of the Slovak Motherland, emphasised the part he played in the national history of Slovakia. The liberal community (again branded as Bolshevik or Jewish-Bolshevik) pointed at the controversial aspects of his biography and at the harmfulness of politicising history. The matter was finally resolved when the resolution was amended (Andrej Hlinka was not anointed as a “Father of the Nation”) and passed by parliament, although the activists who had kept the discussion going were left frustrated. But we still don’t know the answer to the question about the impact of such a form of legitimisation of history on Slovak historical culture. Is it again going to depend on party directives (as under the totalitarian regime)? Perhaps it is down to historians to resolve this problem? Or perhaps a compromise between the citizens should be worked out?

I am not saying that only historians and other specialists may claim the right to interpret history. But is it not dangerous that in our times the line of interpretation is defined by the political establishment, which has a bigger impact on the shape of historical culture than the intellectual elite studying these issues for many years?

Although many years have passed since the collapse of communism, there is no compromise regarding the separation of academic debates and ideological propaganda. Or perhaps lack of interest and silence is a sign of such a compromise?

Undoubtedly this situation stems from a general distrust in the professionalism of historians, who are still treated as representatives of specific ideological options rather than as specialists in their respective fields. It should be remembered in this context that the community of historians is present on the public scene mostly during ideological arguments in the media, provoking strong emotions. As I have already said, certain interpretative patterns are often repeated which are more remindful of mythological narratives and incantations than of aiming at a rational recreation of the past.

And it also seems that there is no general interest in history among Slovaks. The public is increasingly weary of historical subjects and the interpretations offered are narrow or simplified. But Slovak history from the period 1938 to 1945 is still quite popular, for a claim has developed in Slovak historical culture that history was marching towards sovereignty and independence during this period. Therefore the terms “territory” and “nation” (“national territory”) are highlighted and interpretations are based on a linear notion of the historical process. A positive attitude to the state which excluded, robbed and exiled thousands of Slovak Jews is gradually emerging. I won’t venture at naming the reasons for this process in this article. I will just mention the fact that a major role is played here by the views of various academics, politicians or important churchmen. I mean here, for example, a clear distinguishing between (Slovak) statehood and the authoritarian regime (that is its specific form under the Slovak Republic in 1939–1945), which has met with a wide-ranging response among Slovaks. Such a perspective, no doubt characterised by a marked moral relativism, leads to diminishing the social responsibility for evil, increased tolerance for violence and acceptance of the (old)new historical narrative. The nationalist rhetoric also appears in discussions about complex problems involving difficult moral issues. What’s more, the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 or the end of the Second World War provokes only a minimal – and rather formal – interest in the Slovaks. What fascinates them is the “facts” about Xena, the belligerent princess, and other products of the contemporary media industry. The question is, what next?

 

The article is a shortened and slightly modified version of the text “Pripomínanie a kanonizovanie minulosti. Úvaha na margo niektorých diskusií o dejinách Slovenska,” Forum Historiae 2008, no 1: Variácie s pamäťou a dejinami, accessible on-line: www.forumhistoriae.sk/FH1_2008/texty_1_2008/Michela.pdf (September 21st 2012), written within the research project P12: „Program rozvoje vědních oblastí na Univerzitě Karlově. Historie v interdisciplinární perspektivě. Formování a vývoj národních identit ve středoevropském prostoru v 19.a 20.století.”

***

[1] The author refers here to the events of March 25th 1988, when people demanded religious freedom and the respect for human rights on Hviezdoslav Square in Bratislava. The demonstration was brutally suppressed by the officers of Verejna Bezpečnost (all footnotes from the translator into Polish).

[2] A Thousand-year-old Bee is the title of a novel by Petr Jaroš from 1979. In 1983 Juraj Jakubiski made a film based on this book.

[3] Elena Mannová, Der Kampf um Geschichtslehrbücher in der Slowakei nach 1990, in: Umbruch im östlichen Europa. Die nationale Wende und das kollektive Gedächtnis, edited by Andrei Corbea-Hoise, Rudolf Jaworski, Monika Sommer, Insbruck 2004, pp. 125–135.

[4] Derived from Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party (Slovak: Hlinkova slovenská ľudová strana), an interwar Slovak right-wing party representing a fascist and clerical nationalism.

[5] Juraj Podoba, Rejecting Green Velvet: Transition, Environment and Nationalism in Slovakia, in: Dilemmas of Transition: The Environment, Democracy and Economic Reform in East Central Europe, edited by Suzan Baker, Petr Jehlicka, London 1998, pp. 129–144.

[6] Primordialism treats the nation as the crucial, primary and unchanging category of individual and collective identity, whole perenialism refers to the longevity of today’s nations.

[7] On October 27th 1907 in Černová, the authorities bloodily suppressed a manifestation of the inhabitants, who wanted the newly built Catholic church to be consecrated by a local priest of nationalist-ecclesiastic orientation and a well-known defender of Slovak rights, Andrej Hlinka (1864–1938), today one of the most controversial figures in Slovak history.

[8] Beneš decrees were issued by the government of the Czechoslovak Republic in exile in 1940–1945. They regarded, among other things, the disowning of the Sudetenland Germans and people of Hungarian origin who were deprived of Czechoslovak citizenship and then forced into exile.

About authors

Miroslav Michela

A researcher at the Institute of History at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and a lecturer at the Philosophical Department of the Charles University in Prague. He is editor-in-chief of the periodical Forum Historiae and specialises in the history of Slovakia and Central Europe in the 20th century. In 2009 Kalligram publishing house issued his monograph Pod heslom integrity, on Slovak-Hungarian relations during 1918 to 1921.

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