The Slovak Question: A Candid View

by Dr. Sean Gabb, June 9, 1992

As any kind of common state, the prospects for Czechoslovakia look bad. Following last week's general elections, to Federal and State assemblies, the question now seems not if but when its two halves will divide. Counting together the nationalists and the socialists - who tend on the whole to favour independence - the various Slovak representatives may be as much as 80 per cent in favour of separation from Prague, or a degree of further devolution so wide as to mean the same thing.

This may not be resisted by the Czechs. Led by Vaclav Klaus, leader of the majority Civic Democratic party, they seem after 74 years to be resigned to "as painless and civilised" a dissolution of the common state as can be achieved.

Painless and civilised or not, however, it will probably mean trouble. A dividing of Czechoslovakia in two may cause endemic instability throughout a region so far considered the most stable in the former Soviet Empire. Though tidier than before the 1945 mass-expulsions, Central and Eastern Europe remains a jumble of nationalities. In greater or lesser degree, every border is an artificial line, leaving large national minorities on either side. Almost every border, therefore, is either disputed or resented. Change one, and the precedent is set for other changes. To be specific, more than 12 per cent of the population in Slovakia is Hungarian. This minority, concentrated on the north bank of the Danube, has already been granted citizenship rights by the Hungarian Government. It is demanding at least greater autonomy, together with more respect for its language and culture. In a long dispute between Prague and Budapest over a hydro-electric project on the Danube, it has taken the Hungarian side throughout. In an independent Slovak state, calls for reunion with Hungary would inevitably grow - never mind that a majority of those living on the north bank of the Danube are in fact Slovak.

I doubt if any of this would lead to civil war on the Yugoslav model. Unlike the Balkans, Central Europe has no tradition of inter-communal violence. Also, the age structure of its population is West European: there is a shortage of young men with nothing better to do than shoot at each other. Nevertheless, any precipitate change in borders will cause enough instability to delay for several years an extension of the European Community east of Vienna.

Now, the standard reaction to all this is to blame the Slovaks. They are fascists. They are Communists. They are uneducated. They are stupid. They are Jew-hating, semi-feudal papists. They are always wrong, the Czechs always right. So at least I often read and am told.

This is, however, untrue. Compared with the Czechs, the Slovaks are undoubtedly a simple race. They seem last week to have shown themselves far less wise in their choice of political leaders. Even so, their dislike of the common state is not frivolous. It was founded in large measure on deception, and has often been maintained at considerable disadvantage to the Slovaks.

Czechoslovakia was formed after the Great War as a homeland for all the northern Slavs in the Habsburg Empire who were not Poles. Prior to its formation, the Czech leaders, Masaryk and Benes, went to great lengths to assure the Slovaks and Ruthenians that the new state would be a genuine federation and not an empire ruled by the wealthier and more numerous Czechs. On the 30th May 1918, for example, Masaryk put his name to the celebrated "Pittsburgh Agreement", guaranteeing to the Slovaks their own administration, parliament and courts of law, together with the use of their own language in their schools and all other public affairs. This agreement secured the support of the American Slovaks and of American opinion generally for a common state.

Yet Masaryk had already assured the British Foreign Office that "The Slovaks are Czechs". He never intended to allow them their promised autonomy. He conceived no greater role for them than as ballast in his Czech state - to create a "Czechoslovak" majority and so justify the submersion of the 36 per cent of the population who were Ruthenian, Hungarian, German, Jewish and Romany.

Again, at the Paris Peace Conference, Benes assured the Allies that Czechoslovakia would resemble Switzerland in its constitutional structure. At the same time, he was busily keeping Andre Hlinka, a Roman Catholic priest and leader of the Slovak People's Party, from arriving in Paris to suggest how this might be done. First, Hlinka was denied a passport by the Prague Government. When he obtained one from the Poles, Benes denounced him to the French as "an agent of the Vatican and the Habsburgs", and had him expelled. On returning home, Hlinka was imprisoned without trial for six months. By the time he was released, Czechoslovakia had been born as a unitary, centralised state ruled from Prague.

For the next two decades, total Czech domination was maintained behind a facade of democracy. The administration was filled with Czechs to the near exclusion of all other groups. The Czechs were heavily over-represented in Parliament. Subcarpathian Ruthenia, for example, with 725,000 inhabitants, returned nine deputies. Prague, with 800,000 inhabitants, returned 45. According to its population, Slovakia should have returned 69 deputies. It returned only 58.

This control of the government machinery enabled a censorship of the minority press. The Slovaks suffered particularly hard. A biography of Hlinka was allowed to be published in 1934 only after the deletion of 34 passages critical of Masaryk. Indeed, under section 11 of the Protection of the Republic Act 1923, to criticise Masaryk in front of two or more persons was made a crime, punishable by a maximum of six months' imprisonment.

In general, while the Constitution conferred all the usual rights in the Western tradition, specific laws nullified these in practice. It is often said that Czechoslovakia was the most open of Central European societies in the 1930s. This is true - but only because all the others by then had collapsed or were collapsing into the most naked tyranny.

It was the maintenance of Czech supremacy that lay behind the 1938 Munich Conference. The large German minority in the Czechlands was treated by Prague as it treated all other minorities. During the 1920s, every approach from Berlin or Vienna to discuss better treatment was rejected. By the 1930s, this minority was simply waiting for a time when Germany would be strong enough to detach it from the Czechs. This time came in 1938. Certainly, Hitler was a beast. His government was the worst that Germany had ever known. But it cannot be denied that the national grievances which he used to justify his foreign policy before 1939 were legitimate. If Czechoslovakia had become the second Switzerland that Benes had promised, its German minority would never have turned as it did to Hitler for protection.

In the destruction of the first Czechoslovak Republic, the Slovaks took no active part. Shortly after Munich, German and Italian arbitration awarded their southern regions to Hungary. The Hungarians showed their own respect for national minorities by sacking every Czech and Slovak in state employment throughout these regions. A few days before the German annexation of all the Czechlands in March 1939, Hitler summoned Josef Tiso, another Roman Catholic priest and Hlinka's successor as leader of the Slovak People's Party, to Berlin. A telegram was put in front of him, requesting German protection of an independent Slovak state. Sign this, he was told, or Slovakia would be divided between Germany and Hungary. Little wonder that he signed it.

The history of this state is unfortunate. It persecuted the Jews. It stripped them of their property and citizenship, and deported 58,000 to the Polish concentration camps, where most were by one means or another murdered. There were lesser persecutions of Czechs, Gypsies and Hungarians.

Yet, though all this is disgraceful - and has been openly denounced as such by Jan Carnogursky, the current Prime Minister - it is worth asking what else the Slovaks could have done at least with regard to their Jewish policy. Slovakia was at the centre of the Nazi empire. Its continued autonomy rested on Hitler's personal whim. When asked for its Jews, it had little choice but to comply: the alternative would have been occupation. Except they were formally independent, the Slovak authorities played no greater role in the Holocaust than the native authorities in the most of the occupied countries. Indeed, so far as they were free to choose their role, they were often less thorough. For example, the Deportation Act 1942, in its wording a disgusting measure, narrowed the definition of Jew and allowed exemptions to be granted in special cases. Tiso granted more than 10,000 of these, saving an estimated 30,000 people from the Germans.

The Allied victory led to the recreation of Czechoslovakia, less Subcarpathian Ruthenia, annexed by the Soviet Union. Again, there was no thought of making a genuine confederation. Indeed, for the humiliations of the previous six years, the Czechs took a horrible revenge. The entire German minority was expelled. Three million people were told to pack one suitcase, and were then pushed across the border into Bavaria. Everything they left behind was confiscated. An estimated 300,000 died during the transfer. Slovakia was treated as a conquered province. Tiso was hanged after an openly unfair trial. Under a 1943 agreement signed between Benes and Stalin, thousands of less important Slovaks were deported to the Soviet Union to be worked to death in the labour camps.

The Communist regime of 1948-89 oppressed Czechs and Slovaks with equal severity; and, with the post-war settlement of Central and Eastern Europe upheld by Soviet arms, the national question was forced into quiescence. After 1968, the Slovaks were allowed the semblance of autonomy. There was a show of independent institutions established in Bratislava. Everything, however, was subject to final control by the Party.

The 1989 Revolution led at once to a grant of real autonomy to Slovakia in all matters but defence, the economy and international relations. Today's Czech leaders cannot be blamed for the fault of their predecessors. But their virtues are being exercised 70 years too late. In 1919, the Slovaks would have been content with far less than has been granted and is offered. Today, distrust of Prague has become a fixed tradition. Even genuine shows of goodwill are often received with suspicion.

Nor has every active point of dispute been settled. In the Federal Government's handling of the economy, a whole new grievance has arisen which has been sufficient to restore the issue of independence to the Slovak political agenda.

Czechoslovakia is currently in the middle of one of the most radical schemes of economic reform ever attempted. Its purpose is to transform a command economy into a market economy within less than five years. It is an exciting attempt. But, while for the Czechs this has proved a splendid opportunity, for the Slovaks it appears at the moment only a crippling burden.

For all their record of corrupt oppression, the socialists left the Czechlands with something like a modern industrial base, something able to prosper in a free market economy. They turned Slovakia into the world's largest weapons factory: and the world since 1989 has needed neither Slovak weapons nor the steel and chemicals used in their manufacture. Accordingly, while unemployment in the Czechlands is stable at around 4 per cent, it has already reached 14 per cent in Slovakia, and is expected to rise still further.

In their attempts to deal with this problem, Slovak politicians have repeatedly been hampered by Federal control of macroeconomic policy. Undoubtedly, the Slovak politicians who shout the loudest about this have no better alternative than to start printing money, with price controls to cover the resulting inflation, and restored central planning to cover the resulting shortages. Even so, the feeling is common across the whole spectrum of Slovak political opinion that monetary policy has been set purely in accordance with Czech needs, and that Slovakia has been left to adjust accordingly or go under.

And so, while a dissolution of Czechoslovakia will be bad for everyone, we in the West must be careful not to blame without trying to understand. Slovak independence is not simply a cause manufactured and exploited by a handful of ranting demagogues. It is a common and largely respectable aspiration - quite as legitimate today as Czech nationalism was in the last decades of the Habsburg Empire.

If the Western powers wish to help avoid, or reduce to a minimum, instability in Central Europe, they must not rush to condemn the Slovaks - however bad their timing and disregard of consequences - for behaving as any proud nation ought to behave given the choice.