When we analyse the case of Czechoslovakia, it turns out that in the long-term this model is probably not viable. I ask myself the question, what now, what happens to us – will European ideas prove equally weak in the future? Even if people have a better, more prosperous life, even if our modernising effort starts to produce results, will an average inhabitant of our part of the continent still vote for democracy?
Łukasz Galusek: In this issue of Herito we are talking about countries which don’t exist any more. So it is natural that we would like to focus our attention on the differences between today’s Slovak Republic and Czechoslovakia. First, however, I would like to go back even further into the past. You belong to the first post-war generation who grew up in the belief that all evil ended with the Second World War and, more importantly, had rightly been buried with it. Your generation – as was the official line – is only looking forward, “is building a new paradise on Earth”. But thanks to your parents, thanks to the town where you were born, Banská Štiavnica, you have also retained an earlier world in your memories – not just the interwar Czechoslovakia, but also the Slav-German-Hungarian Štiavnica from the times of the dual monarchy. This “dowry of memories” has proved important in your adult life and your career, as you confessed in the book, Krátke listy jednému mestu (Short letters to a certain town).
Magda Vášáryová: If you are born in a house where the date 1562 carved in stone is visible above the cradle, then you grow up not only with a sense of what has been but also with the belief – like in the case of Štiavnica – that this past is immensely important.
When I was born, Štiavnica had been reduced to having a small town status, but I inherited a memory of it as a place which had once been one of the most important towns of the Hungarian Kingdom; as a place which owed its position to its inhabitants – industrious, inventive, hardworking, and well-educated. I remember that it was common for someone to speak German at home, Hungarian to a neighbour and Slovakian in the street; and in my family it was so …
But the moment came when we succumbed to the communist propaganda, maintaining that “all the past was evil, while we will build a paradise”. (I am allergic to such declarations, especially that they are even sometimes heard today). So there came a time when we relinquished the memory of our towns and cities, such as Banská Štiavnica, to which I am greatly attached and I consider myself partly shaped by the ideas and people who created this town in the past. Unfortunately, since Romanticism, only peasants and the poor have been regarded as “true” Slovaks, Slovenians or Estonians. Somehow, a well-to-do, prosperous farmer didn’t square with the notion of the “salt of the earth”. Not to mention a manufacturer or merchant – what an improper occupation, in a way, suspect. I understand the reasons for such thinking in the times of Romanticism and the Spring of Nations but the persistence of this stereotype or even fuelling it proved a successful method of maintaining and executing power by the communists. Unfortunately, the result is that establishing a bond with the Hungarian Kingdom is not easy for Slovaks today, although we have every right to regard ourselves as the “salt” of the Kingdom. For it was not Hungarian – Magyar – in the ethnic sense. The Hungarians shared it with Slovaks, Romanians, Croats, Ruthenians, Germans, Jews and Serbs. Today’s Slovakia was not only the leading country of this kingdom, for over three centuries it was the Hungarian Kingdom. When Buda remained in Turkish hands, today’s Bratislava – then Pressburg, Pozsony or, as we called it, Prešporok – was its capital and coronation city, with the parliament and the senate (called Uhorský snem).
Now we, Slovaks, have to overcome this Romantic “burden” which drove us away from the city into the countryside, and the fact that our royal cities with their culture do not seem to belong to us. Something which was repressed from our consciousness for decades doesn’t seem to exist any more. This is what happened to our cities and our tradition of urbanity. But what are we to base the modern Slovakian identity on if not urban culture?
Ł.G.: Alien character of the city is a problem of many Central European national cultures, not just the Slovaks, hence the great importance of everything which could help to overcome this feeling, to work out (rediscover?) the urban idiom of our cultures.
M.V.: One could also look at it from a more down-to-earth, everyday perspective. It is ironic for me that migration from the villages to the cities has been going on for several decades but even the second generation, that is the offspring of the new arrivals, say “we are going home” when visiting the village where their parents were born. And they also cultivate a “rural” lifestyle in the city. In my opinion this is very bad for the development of cities when their inhabitants don’t go to exhibitions or concerts, and don’t even take walks in their city, and when the weekend comes, they leave for the country and prefer to watch parsnips and carrots grow. Strange.
Ł.G.: At some point, the following description of the relations between the countryside (Slovak) and the city (alien) appeared: it is us, anonymous Slovaks, arrivals from the villages, who have built the cities. House by house, quarter by quarter. No plaque, no monument mentions our names but without our labour there would be no metropolises – Budapest or Vienna. Is there a way of finding your place in the past of this countries regarded by everyone as “not mine”?
M.V.: This stems from the persistence of another stereotype – that Slovakia is a farming country. How could such a mountainous country be a farming country? How can you squeeze a livelihood from a tiny field or garden? Even if someone worked such a field or garden during the summer, he had to leave home for a large part of the year and find another job – Slovaks were building Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Brno. This is one side of the matter. The other side is a tradition we should invoke. The tradition of this land in the 15th and 16th centuries, when they were a kind of vanguard of industrialisation in this part of Europe: 615 metal works, goldmines, silver mines, copper mines; Kremnica, Banská Bystrica, Banská Štiavnica. Tiny fields and cucumber plots were cultivated for home consumption, but the country developed and its inhabitants lived well thanks to something quite different. Why doesn’t today’s Slovakia feel the heritage of this country from the past?
When I think of the tiny fields, it is in the context of something else. I mean the estates of the gentry and aristocracy which were as prosperous as these wonderful cities. The decline of this economic form was caused by the law of the Hungarian Kingdom, much less business-friendly than regulations in the Habsburg countries. This law enforced the division of family land between all the offspring rather than passing the homestead, for example, to the oldest son. The effects were soon felt. In a short while, we really started to believe that we were peasants – like in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Communism petrified that and today this stereotype casts a shadow over our entire culture and politics.
Ł.G.: So how did the Slovaks welcome Czechoslovakia? For the Czechs, “discovering” Slovakia proved to be extremely important in the process of gaining national self-awareness. The 19th-century Czech “wakers-up” were keen to say that it was enough to go 20 kilometres to the north or west of Prague to meet Germans, while if you went east, after a two-days’ journey you were still among your own and discovered how large the Slav world was. Such thinking was one of the things from which the Czechoslovak idea was born.
M.V.: We, the Slovaks, and ultimately the Czechs as well, approached it in a pragmatic way. Frankly speaking, we had no tradition of cohabiting with the Czechs, which I want to emphasise also because an opposite view persists, for example, in Poland. For 700 years we belonged to the multinational Hungarian Kingdom, where Latin remained the official language until 1830! The leading protagonists of the Hungarian period of reforms, such as Count István Széchenyi, without whom Hungary would not have been reborn as a modern nation, communicated in German, and they didn’t speak Hungarian so much – which they only started to learn as late as the 19th century – but used it to express their nationalist attitude (and most of them didn’t manage to shed their Hungarian accent). Unfortunately, their successors, aware of their Hungarianness, mistakenly believed that a necessary condition of maintaining the integrity of the former Hungarian Kingdom was “awakening” the Hungarianness of all its inhabitants. Štúrovci, a young Slovakian intelligentsia, the people who codified the Slovak language, fought against the Magyarising tendencies (they were equally unsuccessful with the Croats, the Romanians in Transylvania, and the Serbs in Voivodina). Unfortunately, to the Hungarians themselves, any other solution seemed inconceivable. The Austro-Hungarian agreement only confirmed their belief that only Magyars/Hungarians should live in the Hungarian part of the monarchy. The peak of the Magyarisation came in the first decade of the 20th century.
Masaryk’s concept of Czechoslovakia came from a different line of thinking, although it was to a large extent dictated by pragmatic factors. As Masaryk understood it, to increase the power of their arguments the Czechs needed the Germans, Slovaks and Ruthenians in the new country. And thanks to this, at the Paris peace conference in 1919, Masaryk represented not six million Czechs but 13 million inhabitants of Czechoslovakia!
The Slovaks joining Czechoslovakia happened a bit “on the quick side”. On October 28th 1918 the Pittsburgh Agreement from May of the same year, which provided for the creation of a common country, came into force; it had been concluded on Masaryk’s initiative by Czech delegates and Slovak émigrés in America. It meant that Czechoslovakia had already existed when Slovak delegates met in Martin to discuss the possibility of establishing such a state. What comes to mind in the context of the memorandum about joining the common country issued in Martin is the pressure of a fait accompli, despite the fact it was a sovereign Slovak decision. Things were happening really fast. The Slovaks didn’t treat seriously the proposals of Mihály Károlyi, the prime minister of the Hungarian People’s Republic, who tried to save the country after the break-up of Austro-Hungary and promised them a lot. Too late, nobody believed him. I must admit that it took me many years to realise why Hungarians write, even today, that the Czechs “stole” the Slovaks from them after the First World War. Later, when Czechoslovakia broke up, there were even Hungarians saying: “We warned you, didn’t we?!” Now I know why.
Agata Wąsowska-Pawlik: How did the Slovaks feel in a country which, if you excuse this comparison, fell from the sky a bit like deus ex machina?
M.V.: What’s more, this country came into being against the grain of geopolitical trends, so to speak. If you look at the map there is this seemingly eternal gravity from the north to the south, from Sweden to the Adriatic. And suddenly a new country appears which goes sideways. A prosperous country, just a few years later very rich and very powerful. In 1948 Czechoslovakia holds the tenth place on the list of the most modern, the most industrialised countries of the world. If they could, the communists would write about children running barefooted before the war but since the times of Bata practically everyone has had shoes. As a matter of fact, this is a much larger question. It is the question of whether we, not just Slovaks but all Central Europeans, are capable of competing in terms of civilisation with the rest of Europe and the world. If we want to change anything, if we desire modernisation, we must release such thinking in ourselves. The success of the first Czechoslovakia could be an example of that.
A.W.P.: Although Czechoslovakia turned out to be the most fortunate solution after the break-up of Austria-Hungary, many claimed that it was built on weak foundations. How do the Slovaks see it?
M.V.: The problem is that we didn’t take part in the armed struggle for its creation. During the conflict regarding the border with Hungary in southern Slovakia, Czech legionists fought for it alongside a handful of Slovaks, as well as some French and Italians. People were even joking that the Slovaks looked on very surprised for they didn’t know what the fighting was about. In the end the border was defined rather arbitrarily, along rivers. The Hungarians have not accepted its shape until today, and just before the outbreak of the Second World War when there was the first Vienna arbitrage, which resulted in the change of the border and transferring some Comitati with Slovaks living there (almost one million Slovaks) to Hungary, Vojtech Tuka, then the prime minister of the Fascist First Slovak Republic, cut the matter short: “God gave, God took away.” His Slovak was poor, spoken with a strong Hungarian accent, which makes the whole matter even more bizarre.
Neither did we fight for Carpathian Ruthenia. When things came to a head, we decided that it was the Czechs’ business, which was untrue since there is a Slovak minority still living there today. The village of Slemence lies on today’s Slovak-Ukrainian border. Two villages, to be exact – Veľké Slemence i Malé Slemence. Why two? When Stalin said where he wanted the Soviet-Czechoslovakian border to run, not one of us protested, let alone fought for it. And the border cut Slemence in two. This unfortunate “God gave, God took away“ became a sort of key to the 20th-century history of Slovakia. In 1968 the federation was more important for us. People thought more about parting than about building democracy. Along these lines we arrive at 1993, when the Velvet Divorce happened, without fighting and bloodshed, as there had never been any fighting and bloodshed between Slovaks and Czechs. I, myself, was proud of the fact that we parted peacefully, that we were such a peace-minded nation, but in truth we have never fought for our country.
Ł.G.: The architects of the first Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Milan Rastislav Štefánik, were people of ideas most of all. By the way, Štefánik was a Slovak and Masaryk was a half-Slovak on his father’s side.
M.V.: I once dared to compare Masaryk and Piłsudski to show the possible differences between Poland and Slovakia (Czechoslovakia) at that time. Piłsudski was a soldier, not a philosopher, and that made him realise that Poland could not be kept united by democracy during the 1930s, but that a different method was needed: the use of force and authoritarianism. Masaryk was not a soldier but a sociologist, and his Czechoslovakia was a country of ideas and remained such despite the growing authoritarianism and militarism of the 1930s. It remained a virtually helpless republic, a mainstay of democracy, freedom, and tolerance. Germans lived there and only after the war were they forced to leave. The Ruthenians (Lemks) had their schools and although they were liquidated by the communists, they are now functioning once again, and the Lemks had something to return to. And still this state founded on ideals proved too weak, despite the fact that after 30 years of existence it had become the tenth strongest economy in the world. But it was not enough, which worries and even appals me. Was this fiasco caused by historical circumstances or perhaps we should draw some more general lessons from this story?
When we analyse the case of Czechoslovakia, it turns out that in the long-term this model is probably not viable. I ask myself the question, what now, what happens to us – will European ideas prove equally weak in the future? Even if people have a better, more prosperous life, even if our modernising effort starts to produce results, will an average inhabitant of our part of the continent still vote for democracy? I am observing what is happening in the Ukraine, in Hungary, and I am happy that we had things we can invoke in our history.
A.W.P.: Is Czechoslovakia fondly remembered in Slovakia?
M.V.: The declaration, “I have never had anything against Czechoslovakia,” or even “I wanted Czechoslovakia to keep on existing,” is not a political liability. Moreover, Prime Minister Fico is arguing that the Slovak national railways should merge with the Czech ones.
In this state, the Czechs and Slovaks maintained their separate character. The first and second Czechoslovakia were truly democratic countries, the third one was communist. We have to remember that previously the Slovaks didn’t have an educational system, as they were subject to Magyarisation. It was the Czechs who helped us to organise it again. They supported our new cultural institutions – the theatre and the radio. But we never had a common minister of culture or a common educational system. Cultural institutions were always separate. In a broad political sense we were a federation. We never had to learn Czech, just as the Czechs never had to learn Slovak. Although you have to admit that the Czechs were fascinated with us. They sent photographers and filmmakers to document the rich Slovak culture, our folklore.
Ł.G: In Poland we remember very well the achievements of Karel Plicka, an excellent Czech photographer, and his three great cycles often reprinted as albums: Prague, Veltava and Slovakia. His images have engraved themselves in our memory as images of Czechoslovakia.
MV: The two nations really came closer to each other, although we weren’t helped in it by a common language, such as Serbo-Croatian (in the 1920s an unsuccessful attempt was made to create a Czecho-Slovak language). However, we had a common television where one presenter spoke Czech and another Slovak, and nothing was translated. The Czechs gradually started to understand us! I remember when as a six-year-old I went to a village in Šumava (south-western Bohemia) and wanting to buy a pencil, I said in Slovak: “prosim si ceruzku”. The surprised assistant said she didn’t have any daughters (dcery in Czech), she only had sons. (A pencil is tužka in Czech). The situation was completely different 15 years later, largely thanks to television.
A.W.P.: And how did the Velvet Divorce affect the Slovak culture?
M.V.: First of all we, the Slovaks, lost ten million recipients of our culture. I emphasise the word “we”, for Slovaks still read Czech books and there even is no need to translate them, while the Czechs forgot the Slovak language, which we taught them ourselves. There are now two televisions – Czech and Slovak. The Slovaks watch Czech films, although the Czechs themselves don’t seem interested in telling us about themselves. I recently gave an interview to the Czech daily, Mladá fronta DNES, which I summed up with, “You are not interested in us any more!” A Czech generation is growing up which does not understand Slovak; strangely enough, even the Slovak minority in the Czech Republic, about 300,000 people, doesn’t need Slovak newspapers, as they are satisfied with the Czech ones. In any case Czech bookshops don’t sell Slovak books and kiosks don’t sell Slovak newspapers, even in Prague, whereas Czech books and journals are something natural in Slovak bookshops.
A.W.P.: Is the appraisal of the common country changing with time?
M.V.: Twenty years have passed since our “divorce”, which is enough to also take a look at the new epoch. When we speak about ideas on which states are founded, I still wonder what idea our Slovak Republic is founded on. Just on the fact that we speak Slovak? In fact, not all of us do.
And there are voices urging the rejection of the European idea, which was so vital for us; we wanted Europe and we wanted to join Europe. Hungarians say: “What do we need Europe for?” the Greeks say: “The euro must stay, for without the euro terrible poverty awaits us, but we do not need your ideas.” Who will be the next to dare say it?
It is a great pity that so few books and documents were published shedding light on the arguments about the establishment of Czechoslovakia. What were the arguments for and against in 1918, what strong and weak points of the new state were predicted? It could be an important point of reference in analysing the problems we are struggling with in today’s Europe.
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