Vol 1, No 2, 5 July 1999

A Brief Historical Background: Hungarians in Slovakia

Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD

To some extent, conflicts of interest between Slovaks and Hungarians were inevitable given their historical experiences and the surge of nationalism in the post-Communist world. Knowing the turbulent history of Slovak-Hungarian relations since the late nineteenth century, no far-sighted scholar would expect a multi-ethnic picnic after Communism was buried.

Before 1918, the Hungarian government had attempted to purge the Slovak people of their native language, and this left them with a bitter taste for anything Magyar (i.e., the Hungarian tongue). Slovaks were compelled to learn Hungarian in their schools before 1918, and social mobility hinged upon donning a Magyar cloak.

All that changed when Czechoslovakia was born following the First World War. The Slovaks were free to develop their own language; the former majority Hungarians became a resented minority.

The 1920 Czechoslovak Constitution guaranteed equal rights for all nationalities and granted them the right to use their native tongue in public and at religious and cultural events. Minority languages were accepted in the courts and in local and state administrative offices wherever minorities comprised twenty percent of the population. This was actually the lowest limit in interwar Europe. Despite these concessions, Hungarians in Slovakia never accepted the First Czechoslovak Republic's legitimacy.

Neither did interwar Hungary. Revanchism and attempts to redraw the borders of the hated Treaty of Trianon found widespread approval among the Hungarian population both in Hungary and in its lost territories. When the opportunity arose, Hungary seized southern Slovakia with the blessings of Nazi Germany in the so-called Vienna Award of November 1938. Hungarian rule, although short-lived, exacerbated the bitter legacy of Slovaks and Hungarians in the region. Slovaks retained a dreaded fear of ethnic Magyars as a possible fifth column, and many Hungarians left Slovakia after the war.

Although few would praise the overall record of Communism in the region, one must admit that the Communists did cool down some of the potential hot spots. Whether in Tito's Yugoslavia or in southern Slovakia, nationality issues were sidelined in favor of the new task of attempting to build socialism. The Communists never fully solved the nationality problem; they simply delayed its reemergence by sweeping it under a rug. At the same time, one might argue that nationality conflicts became rarer and were gradually diminishing as the years passed since the Communists' seizure of power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. The Communists in Slovakia guaranteed cultural autonomy in exchange for acquiescence to the power hierarchy which descended from Prague. There was at least a little something to the Communists' claim of internationalism.

Since the Velvet Revolution

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 and all that has happened since then has unraveled the Communist blanket of protection. The policies of the post-Communist governments in Slovakia exacerbated the tension of the Slovak-Magyar relationship in Slovakia. Already in 1991, Slovakia sought to discontinue the usage of Hungarian language signs. This was just the beginning.

Hungarians account for approximately 560,000 people in Slovakia today, or about 10.8 percent of the population according to the 1991 census. In the districts of southern Slovakia, 54.4 percent listed themselves as Slovak and 42.9 percent, Hungarian (Slovakia and the Slovaks, ed. Strhan and Daniel, Bratislava, 1994, p 268).

With the separation of Slovakia from the Czech Republic, the Hungarian minority lost a potential Czech ally and was forced to make deals with other Slovak opposition parties.

The Slovak National Party (SNS) played on fears of Hungarian revanchism to garner political capital. Visions of Hungarian attempts to separate southern Slovakia from the Republic remain a vivid part of Slovakia's historical memory. The SNS led the charge to keep that memory alive and ticking.

Former Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), had no clear ideological leanings apart from retaining power. It courted the support of the SNS in an attempt to put together a viable coalition government. In search of willing partners to form a government, the HZDS allied with the right-wing nationalist SNS and the left-wing Association of Workers of Slovakia (ZRS). The odd match led to a 1994 election victory for Meciar's motley crew.

Before independence, the Slovak National Party's main goal was the creation of an independent Slovakia. After Slovakia and the Czech Republic dissolved their marriage, the SNS continued to pound the nationalist drum to a different beat. Concerns about Hungarian separatism ranked high among the SNS's issues. Meciar acceded to the party's wishes to whittle away at ethnic minority rights in exchange for the party's participation in his coalition.

The effort perhaps climaxed on 15 November 1995, when a controversial Slovak Language Law was passed. It stipulated that all official documents had to be in Slovak and allowed only vague concessions to minority ethnic groups. To Hungarians in Slovakia, it appeared to be a direct assault on their national identity.

The legislation also soured relations between Bratislava and Budapest and was one of several factors leading to the European Parliament's passing a resolution which recommended that the Slovak government respect democratic principles. Earlier, the United States had also sent a demarche to the Slovak government.

Even though Slovakia signed a state treaty with Hungary the following March, the minority question remained a thorn in Hungarian-Slovak relations. It also helped toss Slovakia out of the first round of EU accession talks in 1998.

Michael J Kopanic, Jr, PhD, 1 July 1999

Back to primary article on the new Minority Language Law in Slovakia.








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