We have to keep pushing the stone of Sisyphus

Although I have tried to look at Slovak-Hungarian relations from an almost cosmic vantage point, whenever it seemed to me that they have reached rock bottom it turned out that I was wrong, and the bottom had not yet been reached. For most of my life I have approached this issue with scepticism but while handing over to Hungary’’s President Árpád Göncz my letters of credence as Ambassador of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic to Hungary with Václav Havel’’s signature, I must have succumbed – at least for a while – to the magic of the day and started believing in democracy of almost cosmic dimensions.

Bitter feelings

I was rapidly cured when in the close proximity of politicians, both Slovak and Hungarian whom we often used to discuss in frank, i.e. undiplomaticac, terms with my old friend, the then Hungarian President.  Perhaps I may be allowed to confess that we shared the most sincere interest, based not only on intellectual experience, in getting relations between Slovakia and Hungary to a natural level that might qualify as truly friendly. Sadly, the friendship between a president and an ambassador was not sufficient to transform the nature of relations between two neighbouring countries and nations although we have hopefully made our small contribution.

That is why, two and a half years later, as I was leaving my post as the last Czecho-Slovak ambassador,  I could not help feeling bitter about the state of Slovak-Hungarian relations which had, in this short period, declined from an initial euphoria to freezing point.  To some extent, the credit for this can be ascribed to identifiable culprits (who, in a trick popular in the history of politics, liked to be addressed as architects of conciliation if not peacemakers).  Even in those days Slovak Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar had nightmare visions of Hungarian army battalions preparing to attack our borders even though the military envoy that I had dispatched to check the situation never encountered anything but a few bored border guards on his personal reconnaissance missions.

Politicians suffering from inferiority complexes, who until then – perhaps through no fault of their own had never left our mountain villages and valleys – suddenly tried to impose their atavistic stereotypes and traumas upon the country as a whole. Politics has always relied on bullshitting and politicians have recently honed their bullshitting skills to perfection, leaving decent citizens seemingly powerless and vulnerable. This is the case especially in the kind of directed democracy where politicians (having got to know some of them quite well I don’’t understand what makes them think they have know it all) try to tell the citizens what they should think, who they should honour and who they have to thank for being so well off.  And, first and foremost, they try to tell the citizens who is the enemy that they ought to be afraid of because he poses a direct threat to their life. The cultivation of this kind of trauma that may have its roots in history, particularly its mythical version, may be a favourite pastime of politicians but it is dangerous for everyone else.

In the name of the nation

In this situation, what is a citizen to do if he dares to think critically and is not willing to stoop to the lowest common denominator to make himself understood by his fellow countrymen? What is homo intellectualis to do, that almost extinct species whom nobody cares about and whom politicians regard as a weirdo at best and an enemy at worst because he makes our simple world unnecessarily complicated.

He no longer needs to emigrate, following in the footsteps of the eternal Polish wanderer Witold Gombrowicz.  But he needs at least a tiny grain of human, individual and therefore civic, courage to tell them what he thinks of them.  Unfortunately, I am not aware of any other therapy for national inferiority complexes and dimwitted nationalism. In his Memories of Poland the exile Witold Gombrowicz tried to jolt the Poles out of their narrowly Polish, parochial reality, he wanted them to turn into spiritually free and mature human beings, capable of coping with the world and history.  He elaborated on this idea in his novel Trans-Atlantic: he wanted to defend Poles from Poland (which, let us not forget, was then, at least partly, under communist rule), he wanted to stop them from passively succumbing to their Polishness but rather to keep it in perspective.  He pointed out that Poland had shaped the lives of Poles over the centuries, while reminding them (and today also us – Slovaks, Hungarians and maybe even Czechs) that nation is not just something beautiful and lofty but also something dangerous we ought to be wary of.

We remember only too well that disgraceful things have been committed and are being committed to this very day, not just in the name of the working classes but also in the name of the nation.  That is why, following the great Polish writer, I offer the following recommendation: if we really want to cope with the world and history, let us jolt ourselves out of the narrow confines of our parochial reality, let us not passively or even recklessly succumb to our national feelings but let us approach them with a perspective  that is critical and admiring but, above all, as free individuals.

Cheating at cards

The changes of 1989 ushered in democracy and the free market and at the same time, initially through a side entrance, the habit of cheating at cards. Although we did not spot it at first, the cheats started winning and they continue to win, laughing in our faces, rejoicing in their millions and billions.  What is it that the new saviours and protectors of our, luckily only virtual, sovereignty, have to offer to our naïve and impoverished fellow countrymen? It is fear, that reliable old totalitarian medicine.  This time it is the fear of a neighbouring nation and its minority and the promise of ensuring our protection.

While such fears may seem to be a symptom of personal perversion or reveal a case history of inebriated nationalism, in the cool and rational light of the day, taking into account  geopolitical realities makes these fears appear not only laughable but also tragic. Especially if, in a slightly more sophisticated form, these fears are being transmitted further and being presented as an almost universal reflection of actual Slovak-Hungarian relations.

When Vladimír Mečiar and Gyula Horn, with pomp and circumstance and under enormous pressure from the West, signed the Good Neighbourly Relations and Friendly Cooperation Treaty between the Slovak and Hungarian Republics in Paris in March 1995, I expressed my doubts as to whether there will be anyone around willing to put it into practice.  Thirteen years later those doubts have grown even more as there is no sign at all of anyone willing to carry out this beautifully (and, it is tempting to say, almost ironically) named treaty.  All we can see is macho talk and gestures and the odd uncouth action here and there, evidence that the dominant political life in Slovakia has not yet managed the transformation from the pub to the café, let alone the drawing room.

Sitting  down to talk

If, however, on both sides of the Danube, we had it in ourselves to realize that we are all part of Europe in terms of politics, economy, military security and maybe also culture,  we should not give up on civilized communication that could bring us back to the table.

Yet we can sit down at that table and talk only if both parties realize what this historical row is really about: the half a million strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia. Interested parties on both sides of the Danube must bear in mind that the Hungarian minority in Slovakia has been de facto inhabiting two communities: a cultural and linguistic one on the one hand and a civic and administrative one on the other.  Slovak and Hungarian politicians, regardless of their ideological orientation but particularly those that are currently in power, have to respect this reality.  This applies to those wishing to assimilate the Hungarians living in Slovakia (my personal advice to them is that this is a futile endeavour, no matter what textbooks are being used) as well as those trying to revive the skeletons in the rotten old cupboard of Horthyite revisionism.  In present-day Europe, where state borders no longer exist, this should not be that difficult to grasp for politicians who have retained at least some capacity for rational thinking.  The rest, like it or not, must be deemed extremists!

Intellectual duty

I have long maintained that politicians have only ever harmed Slovak-Hungarian relations. This conviction is based on many years of experience working with politicians and being one of them myself. Having the courage to stand up to the views or convictions of the majority is clearly outside the politicians’’ comfort zone. In the best case scenario this ought to be within the comfort zone of real statesmen, if we could find people worthy of this name in Slovakia or Hungary today.  And it ought to be the duty of intellectuals, if there are any around.  It is a closed circle. And the voters, ordinary citizens resorting to good old prejudice instead of resolving pressing day-to-day problems, don’’t give a damn about what intellectuals think.  The term statesman does not mean anything to them, as they have got more used to vulgar and primitive gestures they can understand and relate to because this is what sounds more plausible in a smoke-filled pub. They do not desire any reconciliation. Perhaps they would not even mind throwing a punch themselves, and not just in a football stadium.

Is there any way out of this vicious circle?  It is difficult to think of a way out at a time when open society seems to be losing the battle throughout Central Europe, the crisis of values seems to be deepening, nationalism is on first name terms with populism and the voice of the intellectuals is drowned.  We have to keep pushing the stone of Sisyphus uphill despite the knowledge that, in Adam Michnik’’s words, our scribbling might not do much good but it is certain to do some harm.  Even though, and I know this is small consolation, such harm will surely be less than that caused by politicians.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Slovak in the Fórum, the Saturday supplement of the daily SME on 18 October 2008

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