After one thousand years without a state, Slovakia improbably and quite suddenly arrived on the scene as a European nation at the end of the 20th century. This was quite an astounding feat for a people that had spent a millennium playing second, third or fourth fiddle to Hungarians, Czech and Hungarians. Slovakia as a nation state is something of a miracle. It is now a solid member of the European community of nations. This is quite incredible, when one considers that prior to independence in 1992, the Slovaks had only ruled themselves for a grand total of five years and that was as a rump state, under the sway of Nazi Germany. For all intents and purposes, Slovakia, whatever its growing pains, has in just over two decades become the kind of state all new and small nations would do well to emulate. A success story in nation building is a rare thing in the late 20th and early 21st century, but Slovakia has managed it quite well. This is no small feat considering both its more recent and distant history.
The Difference Between Us – Slovaks & Czechs
The Slovaks often get confused with their western neighbors, the Czechs. This is mostly due to the fact that Slovakia was the lesser partner in the nation of Czechoslovakia which existed in two unstable phases from 1919 to 1939 and 1945 to 1994. The Czechs were the dominant partner in the relationship. The Czech part of the country was industrialized and relatively prosperous, a cultural and intellectual hub, politically and economically driven by the beautiful, historic city of Prague. The differences between Czechs and Slovaks go back for centuries. During that time, the Czechs had fomented religious dissent and revolted against Catholicism. This rebellion had remained a strong part of their historical memory, along with golden eras such as Greater Moravia and the Kingdom of Bohemia. The Czechs had been ruled by their own kings for long stretches. Unfortunately for the Czechs, their major historical problem was the power and dominance of the Germans both inside and bordering Czech lands.
The Slovaks developed quite differently. Up until the early 20th century, most of Slovakia, especially its central and eastern portions was largely undeveloped. This was largely due to the mountainous and heavily forested topography of the region. The Slovaks were peasants, toiling in the fields or the forests. Religion was a major part of life for Slovaks who inhabited largely remote and isolated areas. The Slovaks were and still are today solidly Catholic. The Catholic Church became an outlet for Slovak nationalism in the latter half of the 19th century. Priests often took up the mantle of national autonomy or independence, since Slovak intellectual life was suppressed. Slovaks were virtually shut out of political and economic life by their Hungarian overlords. For centuries on end, Hungary ruled over what is now Slovakia. For instance, what is today the Slovak capital of Bratislava was for several centuries the seat of government for Hungary, as its nobility fled from the Ottoman Turkish occupation. The city was known by its Hungarian name as Poszony. For 250 years the kings and queens of Hungary were crowned at St. Martin’s Cathedral on the edge of Bratislava’s old town. This was a Hungarian and to a lesser extent German city.
Fits & Starts – The Beginnings of a National Slovakia
The countryside was quite the opposite. Though Hungarian nobles and landed gentry were the ruling class, Hungarians as a whole were a distinct minority. Prior to World War One, only three out of every ten inhabitants of the area that is today Slovakia, were ethnic Hungarians. In the late 19th century, the Hungarians tried to forcibly convert Slovaks into Hungarians through a policy of Magyarization. This only succeeded in boosting Slovak national consciousness. The cataclysm of the First World War allowed Slovakia to finally break free of Hungarian rule, only to become a lesser partner of the Czechs. The Slovaks actually made a deal with the devil during World War II in order to finally procure their own state.
As the Czechs watched with horror as Czechoslovakia was dismembered, the Slovaks were allowed a rump Slovak state by the Nazis. A first pseudo-independent Slovakia was created, lasting all of five troubled years. In yet another attempt at independence Slovaks rose up against Nazi rule in what became known as the Slovak National Uprising in late 1944. The uprising was violently put down, with 30,000 killed in the process. After the war, it was back to the future in Czechoslovakia. This time communism took hold and repressed nationalism. Only after the fall of the Iron Curtain were national sentiments allowed to surface once again. This eventually brought about the quixotic Velvet Divorce with the Czechs in 1992, where both sides agreed to peacefully go their own way. Slovakia was finally on its own and quite astonishingly on its way.
The Art of the Possible – Slovakia & the European Union
Like so many post-Communist nations that were once part of the Eastern Bloc, the Slovaks have had problems with corruption and political instability. Despite this, Slovakia has hedged a healthy dose of European Union money to greatly improve the nation’s infrastructure. The road and rail network has been expanded. Pro- growth economic policies have made the country a hotbed for businesses from abroad to relocate. Slovakia has also been able to use its geo-political position beside the Czech Republic, one of the most prosperous Eastern European states, as well as alongside Austria, one of the wealthiest countries in Europe to great advantage. These relationships have allowed it to develop much faster than many would have believed possible. A people that had never really enjoyed their own nation until 1992 is coming full circle.
Today Slovakia is a member of the European Union, NATO and the Euro currency zone (for better or worse). Slovakia has even leapt ahead of its historically dominant neighbor Hungary. Slovaks now earn more per capita than Hungarians. All that being said, Slovakia still has major challenges to confront. Wages are low. There are not enough jobs for highly educated young Slovaks who often flock to other European Union nations for jobs. The eastern part of the nation, outside of a few urban areas, is economically backward. Meanwhile, the environmental legacy left behind by forty-four years of communism has left many rivers and landscapes heavily polluted. Despite these challenges, Slovakia has solidified itself as a viable player on the European scene.
People Without A Past – Slovakia Looks Forward
Why has Slovakia become a successful nation-state? There are many measurable reasons, but economic and education statistics only go so far in providing explanations. Perhaps some of Slovakia’s success can be attributed to its lack of a past. Slovakia is a forward looking nation, because it has little choice. For one thousand years it was subsumed under more, powerful and larger entities. The lack of any kingdom, principality or other type of organic, Slovak political-historical state until the latter part of the 20th century gives it little reason to yearn for the past. While some nations such as Hungary seem to have too much history and are forever longing to reclaim past greatness, the Slovaks have too little history to recall or lean on. All they can really do is look forward. The future will be whatever the Slovaks decide to make of it. Judging by the past 22 years, it looks as though they are well on their way to making history.