Archive for December 2011
The recent death of Václav Havel, first Czechoslovakia then its largest successor state the Czech Republic, was the occasion for a post at the Economist‘s Eastern approaches blog describing how Havel and the dissident movement that he led never really took off in Slovakia.
Havel’s struggle against the communist Leviathan earned him stature abroad but puzzled most Slovaks at the time. The eastern part of communist Czechoslovakia suffered considerably less repression following the Soviet invasion in 1968. During this so-called “normalisation” era official propaganda, which portrayed Havel as a traitor, built a wall of misinformation between the two parts of the country.
For the Slovaks the 1970s were less about politics than they were about improving living standards. A booming arms industry brought jobs and other perks to this former agricultural backwater, effectively vaccinating Slovakia against the gloom and defeatism that gripped Bohemia and Moravia to the west.
There were, of course, “islands of positive deviation”, the phrase coined to describe Slovakian groups that engaged in anti-communist resistance, either actively or simply by “living within the truth”, as Havel put it in “The Power of the Powerless”. Many of them went on to advise Havel on Slovak matters after the wall came down.
But they were few. Only about 40 of the nearly 2,000 people that signed Charter 77, Czechoslovakia’s showcase human-rights manifesto, were Slovaks. Most of them were reformist communists expelled from the party after 1968 or intellectuals, among them Dominik Tatarka, author of the acclaimed anti-Stalinist novel “Demon of Conformity” who was described by some as the Slovaks’ Milan Kundera or Czesław Miłosz.
The “secret church”, the pillar of anti-communist opposition in Catholic Slovakia, eschewed Charter 77 as too political. Alexander Dubček, the Slovakian communist leader of the “Prague Spring“, also opted out.
As one would expect, the comments do contain a fair amount of to-and-fro between Slovaks and their opponents, thankfully with only a couple of disparaging references being made (as one would expect) to the Nazi satellite state of Slovakia reflecting Slovakian illiberalism, etc. Constructive comments predominate–the signal-to-noise ratio is actually fairly good–and they amplify on the reality that in Communist Czechoslovakia, Czechs and Slovaks had fundamentally different experiences. Nostalgia for Communist Czechoslovakia is stronger in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic because of Slovakia’s greater difficulties in transition, but that speaks to circumstances not underlying illiberalism. Slovaks didn’t sign Charter 77 en masse not because of a disinterest in democracy but rather because the networks of Czech dissidents didn’t extend into Slovakia. Overt post-1968 dissidence in Czechoslovakia arguably started off first in Slovakia, with the Bratislava Candle Demonstration of 25 March 1988 demanding religious freedom. And to a non-trivial extent, Havel and post-Communist Czechs didn’t pick up on the various both major and minor–everything from the impact of economic reform on Slovakia’s heavy industry to insulting names for neighbourhoods–that made the dissolution of Czechoslovakia possible.
It’s an irony, but in Czechoslovakia Czechs and Slovaks didn’t build a particularly intense relationship. A look at what happened to Czechoslovakia’s southern peer, Yugoslavia, shows that this is a good thing. Both countries were post-First World War formations, Hapsburg successor states (in whole or in part) assembling different Slavic groups into what was imagined to be a new national community (West Slavs in Czechoslovakia, South Slavs in Yugoslavia), eventually coming to grief because of a lack of rapport between the two largest groups. Yugoslavia was substantially an extension of the kingdom of Serbia into the South Slav-populated lands of Austria-Hungary where fears of Italy prevailed; Czechoslovakia was a product of Czech initiatives with the Slovaks, one of the more peripheral nationalities in the Kingdom of Hungary, who aligning with the more developed Czechs for want of more attractive partners.
Czechs and Slovaks didn’t have much shared history, in contrast to Serbs and Croats. The modern boundary between the Czech Republic and Slovakia dates back centuries; ethnic Slovaks in the Czech Republic weren’t a problematic minority at all, just post-war immigrants to a Czech Republic needing labour. (Post-war Roma migrants from Slovakia to the Czech Republic were and are seen as problems, but they are primarily unpopular because of their ethnicity not because of their ancestral geography.) There were resentments between Czechs and Slovaks, the latter resenting Czech assumptions that Slovak difference was solely the product of backwardness and without merit, but nothing to compare to the much greater tensions between Serbs and Croats, or–inside Czechoslovakia–between Czechs and Germans. Czechoslovakia fell apart in the early 1990s without the violence that marked Yugoslavia, but that was possible only because of unrestrained ethnic violence that of the 1940s, dominated by the expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s Germans–a population comparable in size to that of the Slovaks–after the Second World War. Germans, as I noted in my 2008 review of a book on the expulsion, were seen as a perennial threat to Czech identity; Slovaks, at most, were an economic burden.
And so, with just enough negative associations to make a split sound desirable to Czech and Slovak leaders, and not enough sentiment for Czechs and Slovaks to want to prevent their country’s dissolution or to make life difficult for people and ethnic groups they didn’t care much about for good and for ill, Czechoslovakia split.