Slovakia's Long Road to Democracy

By Mason, John W. | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Slovakia's Long Road to Democracy

Mason, John W., History Today

Slovakia's general election in September will focus attention on a nation that is little understood in the West. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's damning image of Slovakia as `the hole of Europe' is only an extreme example of the type of reaction which this small central European country, of just over five million people, evokes among foreign observers. As a new state, independent only since 1993, Slovakia has few fixed historical markers to help place her into a recognisable framework.

The `return to history' sparked off by the revolutions of 1989 after almost a century of totalitarian experiments (fascist and communist) had important consequences for the Slovaks. Never before had they controlled their own history. Unlike their neighbours -- the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians -- the Slovaks cannot claim ever to have been an `historic nation'. Today Slovakia has been left out of the first group of central European countries seeking to join the EU and NATO -- an exclusion from the mainstream mirrored in Slovakia's own rather obscure historical experience. Until recently history seems to have happened to the Slovaks rather than the reverse, a fact that goes some way towards explaining their present-day politics of self-injury.

The 1989 revolutions unleashed forces which swept away not only the Yalta settlement of 1945 but also the Versailles settlement of 1919. For Slovakia this meant independence from the Czechs, with whom the political marriage had lasted since 1918. The divorce baffled many Western observers, but it is important to understand why they joined together in the first place. It is perhaps possible only now to view the Slovaks in the light of their own history and not merely as junior partners of the Czechs.

The Slovaks and Czechs are ethnically kindred peoples who share a common ancestry stretching back to the Great Moravian Empire of the ninth century. But from the tenth century their paths diverged. The Slovaks were incorporated into the Kingdom of Hungary and remained there for more than a thousand years until 1918. The Czechs kept their independence until their defeat at the hands of the Austrians at the battle of White Mountain in 1620, and thereafter defined themselves in relation to their new German-speaking Austrian overlords. The Slovaks, meanwhile, struggled to keep their identity under Magyar rule. At the heart of the `Slovak question' in the present century has been the gap between the economically and culturally developed Czech lands and a less developed Slovakia.

The Slovaks revived their national consciousness on the basis of their language in the 1840s, but their hopes for some kind of autonomy were dashed; in the two generations after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (1867) they were systematically magyarised. By 1914 the number of active Slovak nationalists had dwindled to about a thousand and even R.W. Seton-Watson, the greatest Western champion of the Slovak cause, described them as `isolated from the major currents of European affairs'.

There was nothing inevitable about the linking of the Czechs and Slovaks in a common state: the idea had few advocates before 1914. The Czechoslovak state that came into being in 1918 was the product of a tactical alliance which made geopolitical sense at a time of collapsed empires in central Europe. Without the Slovaks the Czechs would have been in a minority in their own new state. For the Slovaks political union with the Czechs offered a chance to escape from Hungarian rule. The existence of a sizeable multi-national Danubian state in 1918 was seen by both Czechs and Slovaks as the best protection from revisionist claims by Germans and Hungarians against the post-war settlement.

The role of Slovakia within the Czechoslovak state dominated Czech politics in the interwar period. The largest Slovak party, the nationalistic Slovak Populist Party led by the Catholic priest, Andrej Hlinka, was consistently excluded from power under the Czech system of proportional representation; this created a `politics of failure' in which Slovak nationalists could point to Prague centralism as the source of Slovakia's ills. …

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