Slovaks On the Move

Geography buffs find particularly interesting places in the world where major urban centers come close together but under different jurisdictions: the greater New York City metropolis, say, or the Liège-Maastricht-Aachen area in NW Europe. But there is one other that is more interesting even than these, featuring major urban centers once divided by the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, and that is the Vienna-Bratislava area along the Danube. (Which, if you enlarge it even further, also includes the Hungarian city of Mosonmagyaróvár – OK, we’ll forget about that one for now . . .)

Indeed, a major Bratislava residential area known as Petržalka (to the south, and infamous for its very many drab panelák Communist pre-fab high-rise apartment buildings, still there today) has for years crowded right up to the line beyond which no one was allowed to be seen, lest they be shot. Ever since that regime fell in 1989, travelers heading to Bratislava on the bus from Vienna’s Schwechat airport (e.g. your humble blogger) have still found it remarkable the way the villages and fields lying to that city’s east abruptly give way to crowds of buildings once you cross the border.

But now there is no more “border” – that part of the world is now in the EU’s Schengen Area. Slovaks are no longer constrained, and so now they’re breaking out::

Novinky: Bratislavané se stěhují do Maďarska a Rakouska:



“Bratislavans are moving to Hungary and Austria,” it reads. Yes: “moving,” as in “house.” This article – and note, it’s on a Czech news website – mainly discusses Slovak settlement in two neighboring places, namely the Austrian village of Wolfsthal – which you ride through on that airport bus – and the Hungarian town of Rajka, in the other direction but still only about 20km from Bratislava.

As recently as 2007, there were only three Slovaks in Wolfsthal, out of a population of around 720; now it’s 230 Slovaks making up a population of 900. The mayor, Gerhard Schödinger, certainly speaks Slovak – he has a Slovak wife! (And he used to be an Austrian customs official, back when there was a border.) As we can see, he also makes sure that the public signs dotting this Austrian town are bilingual German/Slovak. The Slovaks living there like it mainly because, well, everything is so German – “It’s peaceful here,” says one, “with beautiful Nature, order and safety in the streets” – but also because the Austrian government offers great social welfare benefits, topped off by easily-attainable and cheap loans of up to €50,000 for home improvement.

Then there is also Rajk, Hungary, down the Danube’s right bank, where a full one-half of the population of 3,000 is Slovak, and where the signs are also bilingual and Slovak is heard everywhere on the sidewalks, in the pubs, etc. The attraction there is not so much government benefits; prices are simply much cheaper, including for real estate. This is partly due to the fact that Hungary is still on the forint – Slovakia uses the euro, you’ll recall – which gets steadily cheaper these days.

Poor Little Brother Makes Good!

All this is very remarkable, and not just in the sense of a wave of Slovaks bursting our of the cruel Cold War bounds that once contained them. I mean: Slovaks living in Austria? Slovaks living in Hungary? To anybody with any historical sense, that has to prompt a double-take. How can Slovaks belong in Austria, the rich Western European paradise which for so long was just barely visible over the border (but a bit more visible via Austrian TV and radio, always available to Slovaks even in the bad old days)? And how can Slovaks belong in Hungary, a country with which Slovakia unfortunately has had nationalist tensions ever since Czechoslovakia was first created in 1918 (and, actually, still does today)?

To boil things down to the common denominator, Slovaks could never belong in these places because Slovaks (even before 1918) traditionally were the poor, backward people destined to bow down before both Germanic and Hungarian “superiority.” (The same applied in their relations to the Czechs, which dynamic was one of the main reasons for the break-up – twenty years ago this past January 1, in fact – of Czechoslovakia.) Not anymore though, clearly. Indeed, in the past few years the Slovak economy has done far better than the Hungarian, on occasion even than the Austrian – and, as we noted, they’re on the euro (possibly a mixed blessing, to be sure). Slovak democracy is much healthier these days than Hungarian, if not than Austrian . . . as we can see in this very article, which mentions an anti-Slovak demonstration in Rajk last October by members of Hungary’s right-wing extremist Jobbik party as the only cloud on the horizon there.

After that incident, though, everyone (including even the local Jobbik leader!) was at pains to make clear that Hungarians and Slovaks got together very well in Rajk and were confident of doing so in the future, no matter what the national-level Slovak-Hungarian tensions may turn out to be. So those Slovaks with the initiative and financial wherewithal to do so continue to stream into Austria and Hungary, to reside there as they seek the best life available for themselves and their children, notwithstanding differences of culture, language or nationality. It’s something like this that may even convince me, someday, that the sentiments of the great German poet Friedrich Schiller, captured in his “Ode to Joy” embedded in the fourth movement Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (also the EU’s official anthem) might have some basis in reality:

Thy [i.e. Joy’s] enchantments bind together
What did custom stern divide;
Every man becomes a brother,
Where thy gentle wings abide.

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