Slovakia: The Past is Now

We recently covered the “Europa XL/Zelfportret Europa” portrait of the Czech Republic. Now it’s time to take up that country’s sister republic, Slovakia, which came into its own as an independent country only with the so-called “Velvet Divorce” of 1 January 1993. Did that “divorce” really ever need to come to pass?

Most historians, and many Slovaks (not “Slovakians,” President Bush) maintain that it did not, that the two peoples had a history of living together in one state for many decades (since 1918) and neither side particularly wanted to split from the other. Under this view, the split was simply caused by the curious coincidence that, in the early nineties just after Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution,” politicians came to power in both the Czech/Moravian part of the country and in Slovakia who viewed making a split happen as a good move towards furthering their own ends. In Czech/Moravia, that was premier Václav Klaus (now Czech president), who liked the idea of splitting off the country’s economically under-performing half to take it out of the way of the particular vision of capitalism and privatization that he intended to install in his own part of the country. And, for Slovakia, that was Vladimír Meciar, who of course saw as the best guarantee of the consolidation of his political power the sort of rabid Slovak nationalism that demanded nothing less than complete separation and the formation of a new, independent Slovak state.

Sure, there were obvious long-standing cultural differences between Czechs and Slovaks – that’s why, ethnologically speaking, “Czech” is not merely a synonym for “Slovak” nor vice-versa. Language was one: Slovak is certainly a different language from Czech, although closely-related. (I would call the differences narrower than those between German and Dutch, perhaps closer to the differences between Danish and Swedish.) And these nations have had very different enemies to contend with through the ages: for the Czechs, it has been the Germans, for the Slovaks the Hungarians, although their experiences are also similar here in that both these antagonists came close at certain points to largely wiping out Czech resp. Slovak culture. But were these cultural differences really so gaping back in 1992 (when the decision was made) or since then to even require a separation of Czechoslovakia into those two component nations? Perhaps Ivan Strpka’s structured essay on Slovakia in Trouw, part of the Zelfportret Europa series which we are about to review, especially in comparison with the earlier entry for the Czech Republic can help you judge for yourself on that question.

Yes, our guide today through Slovak culture is the Slovak poet Ivan Strpka. (The Czech and Slovak languages share, among many other characteristics, their both regarding both the letters “r” and “l” as allowable vowels; “wolf” in Czech, for example, is simply “vlk”.) That shadowy shape you see behind him in his picture is Bratislava castle, by the way, quite appropriate as that ranks up with Tatra mountainscapes as canonic images of Slovakia, as the windmill is to the Netherlands. He made his debut as a poet just as Stalinism was descending again on Czechoslovakia, i.e. after the invasion in 1969, and is also a pop musician. He belongs to a fraction of Slovak poets, called the “Lone Runners,” whose main common characteristic is that all of them refuse to belong to any fraction; he was also active in the “Velvet Revolution” as it played out in 1989 in Slovakia. Here are his Zelfportret Europa choices for his native land.

  • Painting: “Tatra Ballade,” by Vladimír Popovic, a work in papier-maché and wood. Bad start: First of all, if it’s a “painting” at all, it doesn’t rely too much on actual paint for what it tries to convey. Second of all, it’s otherwise definitely what you could call “avant-garde”; in the accompanying caption Strpka claims it depicts, against a snow-white background of the Tatra mountains, “a knight, his princess, and the white dame,” in a way that alludes to a number of “struggles”: “between nature and culture, between pure survival and making history, between idea and reality, between emptiness and room for Man.” Well beyond my ken; is Strpka trying to maintain that Slovakia is itself an “avant-garde” country. I don’t believe that (apart from certain elements of economic and tax policy, but that’s not what we’re talking about here).

  • Photograph: Bratislava, 21 August 1968, by Ladislav Bielik. (© Ladislav Bielik, taken in Bratislava, Slovakia on the 21st of August, 1968, by kind permission of the O.K.O. Agency, Slovakia. I’ve enlarged this photo deliberately, as it doesn’t come from Trouw but rather directly from Ladislav Bielik’s son, Peter.)

    That’s much better; here we have the photo, that was quite famous for its time, of a worker in a Bratislava square (at Comenius University, as it happens) baring his breast in despair to an invading Soviet tank. Just as we saw in the entry for the Czech Republic, Slovak culture was also deeply influenced by life under the Communist dictatorship from 1948 to 1989 – although notice, in the Czech cultural portrait, that only indirect aspects of the 1968 “Prague Spring” period of liberalization and Soviet invasion of that August are presented (Jan Palach; rejoicing over the 1969 hockey victory over the Soviet team), and not something directly from that invasion, as here.

  • Person: Milan Rastislav Stefánik. General Stefánik was a World War I hero, who worked as a diplomat for France but also had a major hand in the creation of the “Czech Legion” of Czech-Slovaks taken prisoner by the Russian army, who re-organized into a military unit in Russia and fought the Bolsheviks all the way across Siberia, as they struggled to reach the port of Vladivostok for evacuation back home. Then, at the end of the war, he was largely responsible together with the Czech Tomas Masaryk for the creation of the new Czechoslovak state – and he certainly was mainly responsible for the Slovaks going along with that rather than trying to create their very own state at that time. Stefánik’s icon status was assured when he died in the crash of an airplane he was flying himself in 1919 to return to Slovakia for the first time after his long exile. Now Bratislava’s airport bears his name – although most international air traffic to that region still goes through Vienna’s Schwechat airport.

    Stefánik is a fine choice for Slovakia’s archetypical person, but there another, darker choice was also available, namely Monsignor Josef Tiso. He was the Roman Catholic priest who was also head of the Slovak puppet-state during World War II under the Nazis. Yes, whereas Hitler insisted on occupying Bohemia and Moravia (i.e. the rest of Czechoslovakia) and making it a “protectorate” – essentially incorporating it into the Greater Reich – he was willing to allow an independent state under Tiso, as long as it followed his orders, including those involving rounding up the Jews for deportation (and, although this was kept quiet, extermination). Why would Tiso also qualify as the archetypical Slovak? One, he embodies the country’s Catholic heritage – Slovaks have been and remain much more religious than the Czechs – and, two, he of course embodied a desire to have an independent Slovak state, an independent Slovak destiny, no matter what.

    Of course, that destiny was hardly very “independent” under the Nazi’s – and you can also say that modern Slovakia’s existence is really not so “independent” considering its membership of the European Union. And when it was “independent” – i.e. from the “Velvet Divorce” at the beginning of 1993 to its entry into the EU on May 1, 2004 – Slovakia had a hard time of it, narrowly escaping ostracism from most of the rest of Europe (not to mention descent into dictatorship) due to the thuggish antics as premier of the very same Vladimír Meciar who had been instrumental in gaining that independence. And there’s a further irony to add to Slovakia’s history during World War II: From gladly assisting the Nazi’s by rounding up their Jews, the Slovaks turned around in the summer of 1944 and launched a massive uprising against the Nazis and the German army, which although it was eventually crushed substantially impeded that army’s ability to oppose the advancing Red Army. Monsignor Tiso, still head of state as the rebellion broke out, was glad to grant permission to German army units to move in to try to snuff it out. This so-called Slovak National Uprising stands in stark contrast to resistance efforts against the Germans by the Czechs which (other than the famous assassination of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942) basically amounted to an uprising in Prague in during the very last days of Nazi Germany’s existence.

    So I think Father Tiso would have been a better choice for illuminating the many wrenching contradictions in Slovak history, and that just within the twentieth century.

  • Object: The walking-stick. OK – but then what about that implied allegation of “Slovakia as avant-garde” from the choice of the archetypical painting? Still, the walking-stick is OK, as much of the territory of the country consists of steep mountains.
  • Text: The last words of many Slovak fairy-tales, namely “and they lived happily ever after.” This is an interesting choice; and Strpka even backs that up to include more of the typical text, like “and he [i.e. the hero] was rewarded with the hand of the princess and half of the kingdom. There was a magnificent wedding and they had many children.” Writes Strpka: “This is Slovak existentialism and a Slovak scenario in a nutshell.”
  • Song: “Riddle,” by Dezo Ursiny (a very Hungarian name, rather than Slovak proper, by the way). The lyrics, translated into Dutch, are given in full in the entry; the song has to do with how love is a mysterious riddle (“I cut an apple in two, yet it remains whole”). Ursiny comes from the Slovak pop-music scene into which Strpke himself has dipped.
  • Poem: “My Song,” by Janko Král (a proper Slovak name, here; his last name means “king”). This time, the text is left in Slovak, which is probably good since there is a lot of repetition in it, as in a children’s song. The point of this choice is that Král was one of those 19th-century Slovak literary figures who re-awoke the Slovak national consciousness and literally saved the language from extinction at the hands of the dominant Hungarian culture. “Don’t sleep, don’t sleep, my little dove” runs the song, and the allusion to the suppressed Slovak culture is obvious.

  • Food-dish: Bryndzové halusky. Yes indeed – potato-dumplings in sheep’s cheese. In his caption Strpka agonizes over whether he should have picked these or maybe some other food instead – Slovak bacon? Apple-pancakes? – but no worries there, he has chosen very well. There’s no need for any literary or historical explanation, either; rather, please simply write down the name – that’s “bryndzové halusky” or alternatively “halusky s bryndzou,” and don’t forget the little upside-down hook over the “s” that I’m not able to reproduce for you here – and go look for a true Slovak restaurant in which to order it. (Sadly, probably only during your next trip to Slovakia; is there even a Slovak restaurant in New York City, for instance, or London? Well, there’s always Google.)

  • Place: Mount Sitno (1009m high). Of course. “Place” in a Slovak context has got to mean the Tatras. (Asserting that it has got to mean “Bratislava” would be to make the same sort of mistake we accused Ivan Klima of making in the Czech Republic entry, namely mistaking the capital/dominant city as representing the country as a whole.) Mount Sitno is all-the-more appropriate as a choice by virtue of the many ancient castles Strpka reports are in the vicinity – castles of ancient Hungarian princes, by the way. Just because Strpka also spent many of his own childhood hours wandering around the mountain by no means disqualifies it as the perfect representative Slovak place.
  • Event: The present time. How do you like that – is that “thinking outside the box,” or what? Sure, Strpka concedes, he could have chosen the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 (and so the first political recognition of the Slovak nation); or indeed the official establishment of a written Slovak language in 1843 by Ludovit Stur (and so the first codification of the Slovak language), or of course the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. But in his view the most important Slovak “history” is happening in the present-day, as the proper conditions for the emergence of a truly free Slovak culture, within Europe, are finally in place.

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