The Slovak people continue five centuries to 1938

Continuing the brief history of the Slovak people from the narrative begun earlier, through the modern era, we see very clearly illustrated that history is the history of peoples, regardless of where borders might happen to lie. The land settled by the Slovaks was bordered to the southeast by the “Magyars” (Hungarians), to the southwest by Germans (Austrians), to the north by Poles, and to the east by the Bohemians (Czechs). Tensions with the non-slavic and even Polish neighbors are understandable enough; in addition, though ethnic and linguistic cousins, the Bohemians were often in tension with the Slovaks in a way that might be compared to Yankee and Southron in our country. The Bohemians tended to be more urban, educated, and sophisticated, while the Slovaks tended to be more rural, agricultural, and traditional. With that in mind, I pick up the narrative given in Kovacs’ book.

We resume the story at the death of the Hapsburg (Austrian) King Albert II in 1439. Seventeen years earlier he had married Elizabeth, daughter of the German king Sigismund, who also held the scepter over Bohemia and Hungary. (Recall that at this time “Hungary” included the land we know as Slovakia as well.) In 1438, following the death of Sigismund, Albert was crowned king of Hungary, and then Bohemia. The latter was contested, however, and during the ensuing war with the Bohemians and allied Poles, he was also named Holy Roman Emperor by the Diet at Frankfurt — which office however he was never able to assume. His wife Elizabeth reasserted force into Hungary/Slovakia, rule over which was assumed by her son Ladislaus the Posthumous. The incursions of the Turks were taking place, so that within a couple of decades the only region still held by the Magyars was in fact Slovakia. Slovaks took part in the government. But for three hundred years the back-and-forth and divided loyalties of the lesser nobility meant that no political and cultural center of gravity developed for the Slovak people.

The Austrian Emperor Joseph II (1780-90) limited the historical rights of the Hungarian representatives and “did not have himself crowned King of Hungary.” By mentioning that, I suppose Kovac means to suggest that the Emperor simply ruled, and by not calling himself “King of Hungary,” in effect amalgamated Hungary directly into his own originary domain. By Germanizing the Empire, the otherwise divided loyalty of the “foreign” nobility reemerged in nationalistic tendencies. Both Magyar and Slav developed a sense of their racial roots. The Magyars tried to root out the Slovak language. Revolution broke out in 1848, as it did also throughout Europe. Slav, Magyar, and German were in three-way tension. The upshot for this story was a proclamation of renewed Slovak rights read on March 28, 1848 by a triumvirate of Louis Stur and, interestingly enough, two Lutheran ministers. The fallout of the revolutions was that the Empire recognized all nationalities in the realm. A new Imperial Constitution in 1860 turned some of these rights back, but this was answered by a Slovak Convention in 1861, which dispatched a memorandum to the Emperor in the hands of Roman Catholic bishop Stephen Moyses. As a result, high schools using the Slovak language were established, as well as a scientific society headed by Moyses.

Then the Prussians defeated Austria, in 1866. The settlement led among other things to the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867, in which the monarchy was divided into two states. The new Magyar hegemony led to renewed suppression of the Slovaks, even in the historical city of Nitra. The editors of Slovak newspapers were persecuted and imprisoned. (Think of Lincoln doing the same thing here.) But as the century came to a close, the patriotism of the Slovak people only increased. They were led by Bishop Moyses and a Lutheran, Karol Kuzmany. Something like a Slovak Renaissance in letters and science took place. Yet the suppression also continued, such that in 1907 the Slovak language was forbidden in the schools. From 1875 to 1914 nearly a million Slovaks emigrated to the US.

This base of expatriates itself became a political force that was decisive in the formation of Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of WW1. What happened was that the Moravian Thomas Masaryk approached the Slovak astronomer Milan Stefanik, then working in France, with the proposal of a Czech-Slovak alliance for the common goal of freedom and independence. These men came to America and the upshot was the Pittsburgh Agreement which assured Slovak rights and independence. After the war, the Allies defined Czecho-Slovakia with Masaryk as the first President. Stefanik was to be the Minister of War. However, his plane was shot down under suspicious circumstances on the way to his triumphant return. Kovak implies that the third power broker, Edward Benes, was responsible.

Despite that, the new settlement was at first joyfully received by the people. But resentment gradually set in at the naturally predominant position assumed by the Bohemians. 250,000 more Slovaks emigrated between 1922 and 1926. Andrew Hlinka became a leader resisting the “moral dissolution” brought by the Czechs, in “defense of the Slovak and Christian traditions of his nation.” In 1933 “Nitra was the scene of great jubilee celebrations, which recalled to the memory of the Slovak nation the dedication of the first Christian church on Slovak territory.” (101) In 1937, “Bratislava was the scene of riotous demonstrations, which were organized under the motto ‘Na Slovensku po slovensky’ (in Slovak in Slovakian).” The America-resident Slovak League Delegation brought a ceremonial copy of the Pittsburgh Agreement for the 20th year anniversary celebration, featuring the final public appearance of Andrew Hlinka, and attended by 100,000 Slovaks. It was June 5, 1938.

Just then Hitler was demanding that Czecho-slovakia find a solution to the Sudetan problem, or he would solve it for them. The events that cascaded make for a very interesting story indeed, and will be the subject for the final installment of this review.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *