Pub Talk Has No Place in Cafes

I’’ve had enough and I have been saying this and writing this for some time now. I’ve had enough of constantly commenting on Slovak-Hungarian relations, on this unfortunate so-called Hungarian or rather, anti-Hungarian, card, on the fear of autonomy, of Orbán, the Carpathian parliament, the Hungarian Guard and other irredentists, of a Hungarian irredenta, to comment on the phobias and traumas of a Trianon revision or annulling of the Beneš decrees, on fear of the past which every idiot believes himself or herself to be competent to make pronouncements with an arrogance that is possible only in pubs since we Jánošík’‘s children have never felt at home in cafes and salons. I guess we have left those places to be frequented by the Hungarians even though even our very own Ľudovít [Štúr, the codifier of written Slovak] seems to have been quite at ease when visiting the Ostrolúckys [the affluent and educated family of his friend Adela Ostrolúcka]. But then he was not the kind of Slovak we know from our villages and valleys, even though he was not particularly keen on the Hungarians either.

Heating the universe

As I have said (and written), I’ve had enough and yet I fall for it again and again; I respond to questions from the electronic media, I respond to newspapers’‘ requests for articles, I am unable to say no despite knowing that no matter what I say, no matter what I write, all that it amounts to – for the most part – is raising the temperature of the universe. This time, however, I am writing of my own free will or rather, driven by despair, as it seems to me that once again the glass runneth over  – not for the first time and, sadly, not for the last.

I have not been spared anything when it comes to this agenda or issue and in fact- and this is only seemingly a paradox – I have been under more serious attack over the past twenty years, since the advent of democracy. I have been accused of being anti-Slovak, pro-Hungarian, pro-Soros, pro-liberal, cosmopolitan, in short, I have not been spared in spite of the fact that ever since I was a little boy I had no other desire than to be a historian of Slovak literature, of Slovak identity or, to put it in other words, of those things that have shaped us during the national revival and romanticism, the period I have been professionally involved with since my university studies.

I have been spared nothing (even though my story might be uninteresting and incomprehensible for the younger generation) – after all, more than half a century ago I was not admitted into the state youth organization on the grounds (at the time when proletarian internationalism was blossoming!) of being cosmopolitan! But neither was I spared some thirty years later, when the legions of my patriotic compatriots first took to the streets, these people whom I used to call neo-nationalists, and whose purely Slovak blood, as pure as the streams in the Tatra Mountains, circulated in their veins which had until recently been purely communist and often saturated by their cooperation with the state security, ordering those of us who did not share their self-proclaimed pro-national primitivism, into the exile of the anti-national back yard. There is no way you can defend yourself against something like this, all you can do is survive and hope to be spared.

A reliable game

Following the 1998 elections it seemed that Slovakia finally woke up, or even stood up. Alas, it was just a brief illusion but it lulled us to sleep very effectively – for a whole eight years. During those eight years we have succeeded in getting integrated into the community of developed democratic countries and the professional players of the anti-Hungarian card were relegated to the sidelines. However, even though the national issue was not on the agenda of the 2006 election campaign, it did not take long before the good old déjà  vu made an appearance (a note for my fellow-countrymen: day-zha vue – i.e. we’’ve been there before) trying to get us back to where were were in the early nineties, a time when in the name of the privatization plundering that benefited mainly those pro-national fellows all sorts of nasty things happened that have since long lapsed both morally and legally and the citizens, aware of being powerless, have given up on them altogether.

But recently, as part of the we’ve-been-there-before scenario the same old people in a new guise have appeared on the scene handing out badges of entitlement to national pride. The Czechs, after all the more developed nation – even though, to the observer of their current internal politics, it does not always seem that way – have stuck to their popular slogan If you don’’t jump you’re not a Czech. Here in Slovakia, as the most recent [presidential] election has shown, we prefer a slogan that is more music to our ears: If you don’’t like Hungarians, you’re a better Slovak or, translated into contemporary language: we should not even give them voting rights, it’’s unheard of to let a minority decide for the majority, for example, when it comes to electing the president!  This election had one definite plus that went unnoticed – it finally turned Vladimír Mečiar into a thing of the past – but somehow we also missed the fact that Mečiarism has become transformed and relocated under our very noses. That is one of the reasons why it was possible to bring back, with impunity, the popular and, apparently, still reliable, game in which the good, pro-national Slovaks play the bad, anti-national Slovaks, in a game that continues to attract enough spectators, i.e. voters, to our provincial stadiums. They all sit there moaning: dear oh dear, what will become of us if Viktor Orbán gains power in Hungary (actually, the man really is deputy chairman of the European people’’s parties, a great friend of Berlusconi’’s and he has just allied himself with pro-Fascists in the name of the nation), if Csáky and Duray [of the Hungarian party in Slovakia] will move into the presidential palace in Bratislava and if Hungarians in Slovakia will cast their vote; it’’s high high time for us to consolidate, to unite against all this evil. Since 1988 we have naively forgotten about this philosophy of our independent statehood, we have allowed ourselves to be lulled to sleep but it has made a comeback, not through a back window but through a triumphal arc.  And it has succeeded in uniting my fellow-countrymen, in consolidating them, although I hope not quite yet normalizing them.

This philosophy of fear is very popular among my fellow-countrymen in spite of the fact that it is the opposite (or perhaps the dark side) of our Jánošík [the Slovak Robin Hood] mentality, rebellion or, dare I say it, resistance. Except that by being afraid, or more precisely, by only inciting fear you are actually deceiving the citizenry, intimidating them and imposing on them your own inferiority complexes and traumas, presenting them as something that concerns the whole nation and thereby advancing an agenda that goes beyond spreading alarmist information. However, spreading fear by invoking the nationalism of someone else, let us say a neighbour, a nation or a state (that in itself may not be inhabited solely by angels or lovers of Slovaks and all things Slovak) demonstrates very low civic and national self-confidence – not the best calling card for politicians who claim to be able to lead society out of crisis, and not just the economic one.One would like to assume it is not the job of politicians to conjure up the atmosphere of the cold war and exclude others but rather to create a good neighbourly atmosphere of cooperation and understanding.

An armed ceasefire

Slovakia has been based (and not just since yesterday) on two models of civilization – to simplify somewhat, on the principles of an open and closed society. These two models do not communicate with each other, they exist in a sort of permanent fictitious armed ceasefire but the tensions in the social arena are rising so that one spark might be sufficient to cause an explosion. It is an irrational and untenable situation and that is why everyone passes over it in silence rather than comment on or, heaven forbid, analyse it.

However, this uniquely Slovak feature (you will not find it in the Czech Republic although, in a slightly modified form, you are quite likely to find it in Hungary and, to some extent, in Poland) is linked to something else that is typical of the closed model: something that is equally irrational and thus intangible and easily abused, not just in elections: it is the cold war between the Slovak majority and the half-million-strong Hungarian minority, an issue that is irrational but that is very specifically aimed at excluding the Hungarians in Slovakia and placing them in a ghetto. In this respect the internal cold war is based on a very dangerous foundation, the ethnic one. That is one of the reasons why it is worth reminding ourselves that many grave crimes – not only in the recent past, as in former Yugoslavia, or those of Nazi Germany a long time ago – have been committed in the name of national unity and harmony.

Long gone is the the time in history when our identity was formed primarily by defining ourselves in opposition to others, especially the Czechs and the Hungarians, yet many of my fellow countrymen continue to live in the past, without often really being familiar with our history; they rely on old myths instead. Somehow they have failed to realize that we live in a different Europe now. In a Europe that, in addition to the rights of nations, holds human and civic rights in equal respect. The former set of rights, linked to power and groups, have been used as a pretext not just for privatization and plunder but also for murder and killing and wars, while the latter, we might say liberal, rights, have been able to achieve by peaceful means a certain degree of change and to  make this world, which is not always very humane, a more civilized place. However, if there is no harmony and balance between the human rights of individuals and rights of nations, things will turn bad – for citizens and nations alike. Luckily, it was this discord that made the Mečiar regime collapse. Its fate should be a reminder to its active and passive disciples alike. Otherwise we can’’t expect to be spared a permanent state of déjà vu.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Slovak in the SME on 11 April 2009. 

We are grateful to Rudolf Chmel for the permission to publish this text in English.