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Who are the Slovaks? The revival sources of Slovak identity

Publication:14 October 2021

NR 9 2012



Finding testimonies of the presence of the Slovak nation on the historical stage was a difficult task; proving one’s existence in history required a rejection of strictly rational principles and a turn towards myth.

The period of national revival – the moment of “awakening”, “resurrection” of the nation, as the revival poets and activists themselves liked to call this era – may be regarded as crucial for reflections on Slovak identity. The symbols and ways of thinking about the national character, the past and future destiny of Slovakia which emerged in this period belong to the most active strata of collective identity. Above all, they were founded on the intense need to define one’s place in the world, and the strategies of creating them stemmed from the strivings to give the life of the nation a stable character. In an almost unaltered form, sometimes adapted to current political needs, the most important elements of the Slovak national imagination survived the 20th century, and others, today often increasingly reinterpreted, still seem to be an important point of reference.

The beginnings of the Slovak national revival are usually associated with the last two decades of the 18th century and were mostly brought about by academic who thought in the spirit of the Enlightenment; this was the period of a growing interest in local history, and the Reverend Anton Bernolák made an attempt – rejected, as it later turned out – at cod‑ ifying the language. The processes of self‑identifi‑ cation gathered momentum in the next century and their direction was defined by the representatives of Romanticism, headed by the charismatic Ľudovít Štúr. The Romantics responded to the challenges of the epoch in the most comprehensive and consist‑ ent way, creating an image of a particular commu‑ nity and building a system of norms which made it possible to identify with values represented by this community. And it must be remembered that there were few factors working in favour of national inte‑ gration – the Slovaks did not have their own state‑ hood, their position within the so called Uhorsko, that is the lands of the historical Hungarian King‑ dom, was very weak, the highest echelons of socie‑ ty were not interested in the national cause, histori‑ cal and cultural traditions were quite poor, and there was no single standard of literary language. The Ro‑ mantics attempted to overcome the sense of insta‑ bility and state of chaos in various areas of collective life, which led to the emergence of the fundamental elements of national identity and the most important attributes of a modern nation.

One of the most significant issues in the process of building national identity is defining the area of com‑ mon memory, the role of which is to create the basis for a sense of belonging, make communication possible and raising the self‑confidence of the nation. Finding testimonies of the presence of the Slovak nation on the historical stage was a difficult task; proving one’s existence in history required a rejection of strictly rational principles and a turn towards myth, shaped in accordance with national ideology. The intellectual climate of the era undoubtedly favoured such attempts, and mythologising tendencies were also evident in other national cultures of the Roman‑ tic period.

The tradition which Slovaks regard as the brightest, most glorious and most prestigious of their past is the story of Great Moravia. The interpretation of the history of this medieval state as part of Slovak history made it possible to highlight several themes as being important, and desired an ideal image of the Slovak past. These motives include the tradition of possessing their own statehood, adopting Christianity, which also meant joining the Europe‑ an culture, the creation of a literary language and achieving a high level of cultural development. Great Moravian themes also provided good material for creating a  cult of outstanding figures, including both patron saints Cyril and Methodius, and Svatopluk, the leader of the nation. As the tradition of Great Moravia had not been continued in Slovak lands, the interpretations proffered were debatable to say the least, although it did not matter much from the point of view of the mythological order they were part of. The beginning of the existence of the Slovaks as agents of history was thus defined, and both scholarly works and Romantic literature served to confirm this view. Let us also add that the most important enemy of the nation was pinpointed, namely the Hungarians – a savage nomadic tribe, the civ‑ ilising of which the Slovaks played a major role, and then, as a result of evil scheming by these “jealous people burning with hatred”, as Štúr wrote, were conquered by them. The aspect of confrontation be‑ longs to the most significant elements of the revival processes or more generally speaking, of all identity projects. In the Slovak case, this concerns not only Hungarians but also Czechs; we will return to this question later.

The image of past experiences of the Slovaks was supplemented with certain events from the history of the Hungarian Kingdom, of course selected on the basis of ideological criteria. Matthias Corvinus was glorified, regarded as a model of a just ruler of a tolerant multiethnic kingdom, which served to underline the equal rights of Slovaks within the state, both in the past and now. Also subsumed under Slovak history was the figure of the Hungarian nobleman Matúš Csák, who in the late 13th century ruled over the territory of western Slovakia independently of the political centre, which for the creators of the national imagination proved enough to forget his origins and award him the title of dominus Vagi et Tatrae, or call him a descendant of famous Slovak rulers. All these initiatives were based on a selective and deforming approach to the past, as is usual with myths; history became a matter of faith, and the authenticity of certain facts was to be warranted by the authority of the people presenting them.

But  attempts at  defining some fragments of the history of the Hungarian Kingdom as elements of the Slovak historical narrative don’t change the general tendency of experiencing Slovak history under the Hungarian rule as alien. Metaphorically this period is presented as a time of slumber, Slovakia was an “enchanted country” then, only now awakening and discovering its will to live. The most popular artistic expression of this motif is the song Nad Tatrou sa blýska (Lightning over the Tatras) by Janek Matúška, later to become the Slovak national anthem.

Besides a stable vision of past experiences, the sense of collective identity is to a very significant degree founded on a specific concept of space – when there are no state borders, a symbolic defining of a territory considered native is necessary, and then you have to de‑ nominate exceptional places, sites belonging to the sacred national sphere. A special role in Slovak revival culture is played by the Tatra mountains, the most important spatial element of national identification. They are treated as the cradle of the Slavs, which leads to the belief that the Slovaks, the “sons of Tatra”, have preserved the purest Slav values. The Tatras are often identified with Slovakia as a whole, they are its “incarnated idea”, as Jozef Miloslav Hurban, one of the activists and writers from this period, put it. The process of ingraining the symbolic meanings of the Tatras in the national awareness was not only going on in the literary domain, but also through expeditions, above all to the “holy mountain” of Kriváň. “Tatrocentrism”, as Jacek Kolbuszewski called it, was one of the most important marks of Slovak revival culture, and even today sociologists point to the Tatras as being the strongest and most valuable symbol of Slovakia. The territory of native space is demarcated by rivers, with the Danube accorded a special position; its metaphorical images as the Father of the nation were sometimes combined with the motive of Mother Tatra, which on a symbolic level was understood as prophesying that a new era of fullness and perfection in the history of Slovakia would arrive. The position of other places which were endowed with a symbolic meaning and patriotic value, such as the Devín, Nitra or Zobor hills, stemmed from their featuring in the Great Moravian history; they were tangible proof of the past glory and a reason for patriotic pride.

The idea of founding a Slovak state didn’t emerge in the  period of national revival. The  position of the Slovaks was still perceived as too weak to pro‑ mote such a concept; the aim of the activists was a fuller functioning within the existing government structures and in accordance with a strong sense of civic patriotism. Loyalty towards the regime, combined with a belief that the existing constitution and legal system should protect an individual and specif‑ ic ethnic and social groups, define the limits of political action. The Springtime of the Nations provided an opportunity for the Slovaks to articulate their aspirations, who actively joined these events, trying to implement one of the most fundamental assumptions of the national movement – to be present in history as agents rather than passive objects. Although their involvement in combat on the Austrian side, stemming both from civic patriotism and the concept of Austro‑Slavism, and a strong disdain for the Hungarians, didn’t produce any tangible results, it was important in the context of self‑awareness and created a belief that the Slovaks could make an active impact on historical events. Other concepts promoted by Slovak patriots, especially Ján Kollár’s Slavophile idea of one Slav nation and “Slav mutuality” or the Pan‑Slav‑ ic project of Slav unification under the Russian Tsar, were too utopian to be translated into political practice. In this unstable situation the Slovaks’ sense of community could only be based on the language and literature written in it; given the lack of other attributes of a modern nation the turn towards a “philological” definition of national identity seemed the only possible option.

The decision to codify the language, taken in 1843, was the most important action by the Slovak Romantics. The previous standards, mostly the Czech language with elements of Slovak dialects, ensured neither the integrating nor the separating function, so they couldn’t provide a foundation for any specific identity project. The language, in accordance with the ideology of the epoch conceived as the most important element of the national bond, becomes an object of particular care and scholarly research or even an object of worship. Possessing a native language is tantamount to existing as a nation, the language confirms the nation’s will to live and endows the life of the nation with a specific shape. And Slovak was exceptional both against other European languages and within the Slav family. For it was born in the very centre of the Slav element, in its cradle situated in the land of the Tatras; as Štúr argued in his work Learning Slovakian, “No nation has a language such as ours, so rich and diverse, no language is so happy to talk, so open to the world like ours, in no other language is such attention paid to the choice of words […], no other language has so many songs and no other language sings like ours.” The claims about the Slovak tongue corresponded to the belief that the Slovak nation represented the purest form of the character of an ideal Slav. The symbolism of the centre, which in the system of culture always connects with the highest values, confirmed this line of interpretation. Codification proved quite difficult, and be‑ cause of the necessity to achieve a consensus between Catholics and Protestants, it provoked many discussions and protests. Raising the “tongue of carters and shepherds” – as the opponents of the codification disparagingly called the Slovak language – was criticised by the Czechs and some Slovaks as denying the  age‑old connections between the  two nations, a kind of unfounded separatism, which condemned Slovak culture to becoming provincial or even ceasing to exist. But the gesture seems necessary given the confrontational character of the identity processes; the only way for Slovaks to set them‑ selves apart from Czechs while continuing to cooperate with them was to do it in the linguistic domain. We may safely assume that the success of the Slovak language was mostly brought about by literary activity – the Romantic poets sanctioned this linguistic norm; they raised a language assessed by some as the “tongue of a mob” to the status of the language of literature, which meant confirming its potential. Writing in the national language became a reason to be proud of oneself, a form of protest against the inferiority complex and a factor building faith in the future. We can say that virtually until the First Czechoslovak Republic came in to being in 1918, especially in the period of intense Magyarisation in the second half of the 19th century, language was the most important element confirming the existence of the Slovaks as a separate nation.

In Slovak Romantic literature, in texts by such authors as Andrej Sládkovič, Janko Kráľ and Ján Botto, we find the main themes and problems connected with identity‑building processes. And literature be‑ comes a platform for expressing the national ideas, fears and hopes. As a result of its subordination to specific ideological functions, dividing the subjects into worthy of taking up and forbidden, a preference for genres based on folk culture in accordance with the idealisation of the rural population as the class which preserved national values in the least corrupted form, we must consider mainstream Slovak Romanticism as quite distinct from European Romanticism. But when looking at texts written in that period, we should take into account the context of self‑identification processes, which constituted the most important phenomenon of this era.

Answers to questions about contemporary ways of understanding the Slovak identity are usually critical of the 19th‑century strategies of constructing this identity; nowadays the strongly mythologised elements of identity discourse are treated historically, only some political groupings try to make instrumental use of them to further their short‑term goals, especially in Slovak‑Hungarian conflicts. The dominant tendency seems to be a distanced look, resulting from a stable sense of one’s position, belief in possessing the attributes of a modern nation and active participation in supra‑regional and European structures.

O autorach

Rafał Majerek

A Slavonist, literary specialist, member of the Slavonic Culture Committee at the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, teaches at the Institute of Slavonic Philology of the Jagiellonian University. His academic work includes writings on Slovak national and cultural identity in the historical and contemporary perspective, contemporary Slovak fiction, and the reception of Slovak literature in Poland. He is the author of the book Pamięć – mit – tożsamość. Słowackie procesy autoidentyfikacyjne w okresie odrodzenia narodowego (Memory – Myth – Identity. Slovak self-identification processes in the period of national rebirth, Kraków 2009).


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