Why Slovakia?

Coby Lubliner

A few years ago I began to write a little essay with the title “Why Not Czechia?” It was to be of a linguistic nature; the point was to understand why it was that, when Czechoslovakia broke up into its constituent Czech and Slovak Republics, the latter quickly became known as Slovakia, but the former has retained, at least in English, the full formal name of the Czech Republic instead of becoming Czechia.

I think I know the reason. Slovaks themselves call their country Slovensko in their own language, and use Slovenská republika only for formal purposes (much as the everyday name that the French have for their country is la France, not la République Française); it is natural for them, therefore, to refer to Slovakia, or something equivalent, when speaking a foreign language. Czechs don’t have this freedom, for in their language Čechy does not designate the whole country, only the part that in western languages is known as Bohemia or some cognate thereof (German Böhmen, French Bohème, and so on). They are, consequently, stuck with Česká republika. This fact hasn’t prevented their German-speaking neighbors to adopt Tschechien almost universally, while in Spanish and French one sees Chequia or Tchéquie alternate with the respective “Czech Republic” equivalents. The English-speaking media, however, seem to be overcautious in such matters. I have taken it upon myself to make reference to “Czechia” at every opportunity, though I doubt that I have enough influence to change matters significantly.

I never worked out the essay. And my interest in matters Czechoslovak has shifted from the purely linguistic to the historico-political, and has led me to wonder why the separation was necessary, or, more specifically, why Slovaks needed to have an independent state of their own. A recent visit to both republics (following one in 1990, shortly after the end of communism but before the split) has made me ponder the question even further.

(Update, 2017: In the years since this was written, Czechs – at least those in Bohemia, perhaps not so much in Moravia – have restored Česko as the native name of their country as a whole, by analogy with the Czech names of neighboring countries – Slovensko (Slovakia), Rakousko (Austria), Německo (Germany) – and the government now prefers that the short form be used in other languages.)

* * *

Bratislava is a charming city with pleasant squares, attractive cafés, a castle on a hill, medieval and baroque churches, an opera house and a concert hall, a few modern office buildings – in short, pretty much what you might expect in a European city of its size (about half a million).

It is also billed as Europe’s newest national capital. But, among the European capitals I have visited, it’s the one that feels the least like a national capital. Embassies and ministries are discreetly tucked away in handsome, but not spectacular, old patrician residences. Even Skopje, of similar size and also a fairly new member of the European-capital club, seems more capital-like, not to mention much smaller cities such as Nicosia and Luxembourg. Bratislava still feels essentially like a provincial metropolis.

Where I have written “national capital” I have meant it, of course, in the usual sense: the seat of government of an independent state. Actually, Slovaks have considered Bratislava their national capital for over a century, ever since they began to regard themselves as a nation, some time in the nineteenth century. The opera house – built in 1884 – has, for example, been called the Slovak National Theater since the beginning.

“National capitals” that are not the seat of a sovereign government are not unknown in the West: Barcelona, Cardiff and Edinburgh are examples. They are the capitals of territories whose peoples regard themselves as nations (within a larger nation); they harbor institutions that are labeled “national” (the National Theater of Catalonia, the National University of Wales, the Scottish National Gallery). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland even field “national” teams that participate in international competition in soccer, rugby and cricket. Indeed, rivalry among the four nations that made up the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century (England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland) is at the origin of “international” sports competition, which became international in the modern sense only when France joined in.

But there’s a difference between the relation, on the one hand, of the Catalan nation to Catalonia or the Scottish Nation to Scotland, and, on the other hand, that of the Slovak nation to Slovakia, just as the relation of the French nation to France differs from that of the Polish nation to Poland. As I have pointed out in previous essays (MailBombs and Car Bombs: the Basque Conundrum and Turkey’s “Turkish Problem”), in the East it is ethnicity that determines the nation; in the West (with the two exceptions of the Basques and the “Catholics” of Northern Ireland) it is territory, whether or not forming a sovereign state. In this regard, Slovakia not a western-style nation state, but rather a national state in the eastern mold: it is the homeland of the Slovak nation, but not all of its citizens are necessarily Slovaks; there are “Slovakians” (if I can coin such a term, by analogy with “Serbian” as distinct from Serb or “Croatian” as distinct from Croat) who are not Slovaks but Magyars or Gypsies or (Carpatho-)Rusyns, and who define their nationality as such. (The Magyars are likely to present themselves, in English, as Hungarians, but I am trying to draw the same distinction between ethnic nationality and citizenship; the Rusyns are ethnically Ukrainian, but they have, for the most part, refused to identify as such; the Gypsies nowadays prefer to be known as Roma.)

Why, then, is Slovakia now an independent state? Or, equivalently, what defines the Slovak nation?

In a recent survey of Slovak history one reads, in reference to Czechoslovakia:

Slovaks, who were greatly outnumbered by the Czechs, differed in many important ways from their Czech neighbors. The Slovak economy was more agrarian and less developed than its Czech counterpart; the majority of Slovaks were practicing Catholics while the Czech leadership believed in limiting the power of the church, and the Slovak people had generally less education and experience with self-government than the Czechs. These disparities, compounded by centralized governmental control from Prague, produced discontent among Slovaks with the structure of the new state.

But interregional differences of this nature are found in a great many countries without thereby producing a secessionist dynamic. Something else must have impelled Slovaks to feel themselves as a distinct nation.

An ethnically based nationality is usually defined, in contradistinction to neighboring nationalities, by language, religion, or both. Other factors of a cultural or historical nature are rarely, if ever, decisive, and when the two main ones coincide, as in the case of Serbs and Montenegrins, the distinction becomes difficult to sustain, and this is why there isn’t much force behind the secession movement in Montenegro (Montenegrins think of themselves as speaking Serbian, though their dialect is actually closer to Croatian).

(Update: Only three years after this was written, the above was proven wrong; with the help of the Bosniak and Albanian minorities, a referendum for the independence of Montenegro passed by slightly over the required 55%. In the 2011 census a majority of ethnic Montenegrin Serbs declared themselves to be Montenegrins rather then Serbs, but a majority also declared Serbian rather than Montenegrin to be their language.)

In the case of the Slovaks, the religious picture is just about the same as for the Czechs – a Catholic majority with a sizable Protestant minority – so that it’s really just language: the use of something called Slovak both as vernacular and as the language of culture and education. There is an area in eastern Moravia, bordering on Slovakia, that is called “Slovak Moravia,” because the local dialect is more Slovak than Czech. But since the region has always been part of the “Czech Lands,” the standard language has always been Czech (when it hasn’t been German), and so the people consider themselves Czechs.

It is true that until the latter half of the nineteenth century, nearly all Slovaks were peasants; the urban population of Slovakia was, in proportions that varied with time and place, mostly German, Hungarian and Jewish. And, like most European peasant populations, Slovaks were mostly illiterate, unless they happened to be Protestant; educated Catholics were pretty much limited to the clergy. And Slovak Protestants were literate in Czech, not Slovak.

* * *

At this point, a digression about religion and language – more specifically, the differing attitudes toward language of the Catholic and Protestant churches – may not be out of place. (I have discussed this matter at greater length in Reflections on Diglossia.)

As is well known, the Roman Catholic Church used primarily Latin for most formal uses – liturgy, canon law, bulls, encyclicals and the like – until Vatican II. The vernacular was, in the main, limited to such primarily oral functions as sermons, hymns, personal prayers, or individual pastoral letters intended to be read aloud in church. (Preaching “in the vulgar tongue, in order that the people may understand” was enjoined by Church councils at the time of Charlemagne.) And since the goal was common understanding of speech or song, there was good reason for the vernacular being used to be close to the local dialect, and no need for standardization.

One of the crucial innovations of the Reformation, in both the Zwinglian-Calvinist and Lutheran currents, was the stress on Bible reading by the faithful themselves as a crucial step on the path to salvation. This meant that, since the masses were not expected to learn Hebrew and Greek, translations from these sources – and not from the Vulgate – had to be made, and a modicum of universal schooling (never a high priority in the Catholic church) had to be provided. But a Bible translation is a major undertaking, and it was not be expected that every language variety would get its own version. Instead, if a translation was already available in a language that was reasonably close to the locally spoken dialect, then this translation would be adopted by the local Protestant church, and its language would become the one in which the young would be schooled, especially if this language already enjoyed some cultural or political prestige. Thus it was that the Huguenots of southern France who spoke some variety or other of Occitan (including Gascon and Provençal) got their Bible in French. This was true even in Bearn and Lower Navarre, which, ruled by the House of Albret, were politically independent of France and thus unaffected by Francis I’s ordinance of 1539 making French the only legal language; indeed, a Bearnese variant of Gascon was the official language there long after the rest of southern France switched to French. Queen Jeanne d’Albret made Calvinism the official religion of her realm, and while she commissioned rhymed Psalm translations (for singing purposes) in Bearnese, as well as a bilingual (French-Bearnese) catechism (for children), that was as far as it went: the clergy were made to pronounce Au Diu bibent (Gascon for “by the living God”) when swearing upon the Bible, but the Bible on which they swore was in French, and so were church services. She understood, however, that for those of her subjects who spoke Basque – a language totally unrelated to any other – learning to read the Bible in French would be no simple matter, and therefore she commissioned a translation into Basque; while the project was not completed (only the New Testament was done before Jeanne’s son and successor Henri renounced Protestantism in order to become Henri IV of France), it marked the beginning of Basque as a written language. Protestantism was eventually suppressed in most of southern France, but it retained a stronghold in the Cévennes region, and as late as the 18th century travelers passing through it were astounded to find southern peasants who actually knew French.

Similar cases are found throughout Europe. Scotland was an independent kingdom when its Parliament accepted the Reformation, but had no problem with adopting the Bible in English, rather than bothering with a Scots translation. In Denmark, when Christian II made Lutheranism the state religion, he also ruled over Norway and Iceland. It was the Danish Bible that was introduced into Norway (where a kind of pan-Scandinavian Danish was already used as the written language in the 15th century), but Icelanders (whose language is in the Scandinavian family, but significantly different from those spoken on the mainland) got their own Bible. Now, Sweden could probably have made do with the Danish Bible as well, but King Gustavus Vasa, having only recently freed his country from Danish rule, insisted (for political reasons) on a Swedish Bible whose language would be as different from Danish as possible; but he also saw to it that his Finnish subjects got a Bible of their own.

End of digression.

* * *

For Slovak Protestants (who by 1600 were a significant majority) it was natural to use the Bible in the already existing, quite easily understood Czech version by the Bohemian Brethren (the Kralice Bible). After the Thirty Years’ War, however, the Catholic church made a strong comeback, eventually bringing some three out of four Slovaks back into its fold, and resumed the traditional habit of saying mass in Latin while preaching and singing in the vernacular: German or Hungarian in the cities, the local Slovak dialect in the countryside.

The Enlightenment that swept Europe in the middle of the 18th century set the stage for the enlightened despots who took charge of the continent’s political destinies: Frederick the Great in Prussia, Charles III in Spain, Joseph II in the Habsburg lands. These were pragmatic monarchs, interested in the modernization of their realms and with little patience for archaic relics such as local languages and customs. Joseph II, in particular, made Germanization of his realm (except in the Italian-speaking provinces) into a key policy. A reaction was soon to come, first on the part of Czechs and Hungarians, with the Slovaks not far behind. Indeed, this reaction marked the beginning of a vernacular revival throughout Europe.

In 1783 Slovakia’s first newspaper appeared in Bratislava; it was published by Protestants, and was consequently in Czech. The Catholic reaction came swiftly: in 1787 a priest named Anton Bernolák published a grammar of a proposed standard Slovak that he based on the dialects of western Slovakia, especially those of Bratislava and Trnava (the seat of the Catholic theological faculty). This language became the medium of numerous literary and educational works written mainly by other priests, the most prominent of being Jan Hollý, who wrote poetry commemorating the Slovak past and translated Latin classics.

For half a century Slovak society was marked by a religious-linguistic split. Catholics used Bernolák’s standard Slovak as the language of literature and education, while Protestants remained true to Czech. In so doing they championed the unity of Czechs and Slovaks, an ideal that was in turn a subset of that of pan-Slavism. The most prominent representatives of this movement were the poet Jan Kollár and the historian Pavel Jozef Šafárik.

In the 1840s, under the leadership of Ľudovít Štúr, a more specifically Slovak nationalist movement took hold, in the face of a Hungarian movement that promoted independence from Austrian rule but, at the same time, Magyar dominance of historic Hungary (including Slovakia). Aware of the need for mass education, the Protestant Štúr realized that neither Czech nor the western-dialect-based Slovak of Bernolák was close enough to the dialects spoken by most Slovaks, and he therefore proposed a new standard based on the dialect of central Slovakia. This was generally accepted by both Protestants and Catholics, and so it was that Slovaks developed the sense of being a nation with its own language.

The Czecho-Slovak movement, however, did not die out. A Czecho-Slovak National Council was formed in Paris, with the Slovak astronomer M. R. Štefánik (who was also a general in the French army) as its spokesman, and the ideology was carried across the Atlantic by Czech and Slovak migrants to the United States, who held joint assemblies urging an independent Czechoslovakia. Their calls were heeded by Woodrow Wilson, the champion of national self-determination. When in the wake of World War I the political map of Eastern Europe was reconfigured on the basis of national states, three states stood out by virtue of being multinational: the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. What made them distinctively multinational was not the mere coexistence of several nationalities in a politically independent land – just about every country had those – but the fact that more than one nation actually had its homeland there; in the others, the minority nationalities had their homelands – if any – elsewhere. The USSR was formally organized as a federation of republics, each of which was eventually named for the nationality for which it served as the homeland (even if the nationality did not constitute a majority of the population); each constituent republic might in turn include territories of lower status that also served as national homelands. Yugoslavia’s multinational nature was acknowledged in the name under which it was founded: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Montenegrins were considered Serbs, while Macedonians and [Muslim] Bosnians were not acknowledged to exist); Serb domination, however, created a great deal of interethnic tension, culminating in the creation of a Nazi-sponsored Croat state during World War II. After the war, under the leadership of Tito, a federal structure modeled on the USSR, was adopted, but with an even higher degree of autonomy for the various nationalities.

Czechoslovakia also acknowledged its multinational nature in its name, and the Slovak language was given equal status with Czech, but in an indirect way: the official language of the republic was declared to be “Czechoslovak,” with Czech and Slovak recognized as equally valid variants. From a purely linguistic viewpoint, this is not an untenable position. Compare, for example, the ingredient list, printed in both languages, on a package of coffee biscuits that came with my cappuccino in a Prague café.

Czech. Složení: pšeničná mouka, cukr, kandysový cukr, rostlinný tuk, kandysový sirup, sůl, prášek do pečiva (uhličitan sodný, uhličitan draselný), skořice, vanilka.
Slovak. Zloženie: pšeničná múka, cukor, kandisový cukor, rastlinný tuk, kandisový sirup, soľ, prášok do pečiva (uhličitan sodný, uhličitan draselný), škorica, vanilka.
English translation (not on the package). Composition: wheat flour, sugar, candy sugar, vegetable fat, candy syrup, salt, baking powder (sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate), cinnamon, vanilla.

To a reader accustomed to a language whose writing is as phonetically capricious as English or French, the discrepancies seem to be on the order of minor differences in spelling conventions. But Slavs like their orthographies to be phonetic, and to Slovaks such contrasts as mouka versus múka (flour) or cukr versus cukor (sugar) have been enough to convince them that they form a distinct nation from the Czechs. When, in the post-Versailles Czechoslovak Republic, the numerically dominant Czechs did not concede the Slovaks the expected political autonomy, Slovak resentment built up, and – as in Croatia – was eventually exploited by Nazi Germany with the result of a Fascist Slovak state being created under the leadership of Monsignor Jozef Tiso (the Archbishop of Bratislava, no less), the Slovak equivalent of Croatia’s Ante Pavelić.

Following the war, however, Communist Czechoslovakia – unlike Yugoslavia – did not immediately establish a federal structure. What limited autonomy Slovakia had was taken away in 1960 during the Czech-dominated rule of Antonín Novotný, and the resulting Slovak resentment was one of the factors leading to the Prague Spring of 1968. With Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, in charge, Czechoslovakia was finally reorganized as a federal state with two coequal constituent republics.

But it was too late. Following the fall of communism, there was a rush to remove all relics of the previous regime, and somehow the coexistence in the same state of republics representing different ethnic nationalities was viewed as such a relic. And so the velvet secession, whose tenth anniversary was celebrated this past New Year’s Day, took place. Not only did the Czechs not want to hold on to Slovakia; there was a definite attitude of “good riddance” towards a land they regarded as backward. One unfortunate result on the Czech side has been the denial of citizenship to Gypsies living in Czechia who were regarded as being of Slovakian origin, a decidedly “East European” action that had to be rescinded under pressure from the European Union (which Czechia, like Slovakia, is about to join).

For the past decade Slovakia has been muddling along like any other post-Communist East European state: problems with national minorities, dissension between champions of privatization and those of continued state ownership of economic resources, conflicts with neighbor states, contention between advocates of close ties with (and eventual membership in) the European Union and those of reliance on the United States. The Slovakian government was among those that backed the United States’ unilateral action in Iraq; how that backing will be rewarded is yet to be seen. The news agency TASR has recently reported that

[in] a meeting in Washington, DC, on April 9, US president George W Bush told Slovak president Rudolf Schuster that the US administration had prepared reconstruction plans for Iraq and that Slovakia would have a role to play.

Bush asked Schuster to thank the families of Slovak soldiers in Kuwait. Slovakia was among the countries that expressed support for US-led action in Iraq, sending a unit of 75 chemical specialists to Camp Doha in Kuwait to assist in humanitarian aid efforts in the event of a chemical attack.

Bush said he expected Slovakia to be a strong member of NATO after it joins in 2004. Schuster agreed, saying, “We can contribute with production and development of some military systems where we have good experience. A lot of jobs can thus also be created [in Slovakia].”

April 22, 2003

© 2003 by Jacob Lubliner

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