Bratislava, once at the center of the Empire, is now one of Europe’s youngest capitals.

by James Thomson & Carmen Viragova, with Dardis McNamee

You could say that Slovakia is a new country – established as an autonomous state only after the Velvet Revolution in 1992. But that would be very misleading for this ancient land, which was at the center of Europe and it history for well over a thousand years. Over that time, boundaries, names and rulers changed; peoples, lands and cities remained.

The Slovak capital has gone by many names: It was “Pressburg” to the Austrians, “Poszonyi” to the Hungarians, and “Prešporok” to the Slovaks. Longer ago, in about the 9th century, it had been called “Braslav” after a ruling prince, that became “Bratislava” in the Slovak revival in the early 19th century and again (after some heated debate!) after the Great War.

But the city endured, and for hundreds of years, Bratislava’s location on the banks of the Danube, between Vienna and Budapest, made it one of the most important cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; for nearly 300 years, between 1563-1830, it was the coronation city of the Hungarian Kingdom, of which Slovakia had long been a part.

Thus it was that Maria Theresia, came to Bratislava for her coronation in 1740. It was partly a question of her safety – amid the challenges to her “pragmatic succession,” Hungary alone was securely behind her.

On June 19, according to historian Robert Pick, Maria Theresa set off from Vienna in a flotilla down the Danube, stopping for the night just before the border. In the morning, she was met by members of the Hungarian Diet and ushered across to the Slovak- Hungarian side to prepare her entry. Records describe her wearing a gold-embroidered gown to receive the representatives of the Diet under a pair of pavilions set up for her use. Later that day she and her husband Francis-Stephan entered the city with bells ringing and crowds lining the streets to welcome them – an event that is celebrated to this day with the opulent annual coronation festivities in Bratislava.

With all the pomp, there were still tensions, and negotiations over local liberties threatened to delay the coronation. In the end, Maria Theresa agreed to write into her oath that she would continue to negotiate.

On June 25, as planned, the 23-year old monarch to be knelt before Archbishop Count Imrich Esterházy in St. Martin’s Cathedral, kissed the cross and swore to uphold the laws of the land, as the crown of St. Stephen was placed on her head, the orb and scepter in her hands. She was now “King” of Hungary, as the constitution had no provision for female rule. She then mounted a black steed and rode up “Coronation Hill” in the main square – a large mound of earth collected from across the kingdom – swung her sword to the four corners of the compass and swore to defend the land from all adversaries. She had apparently been practicing for weeks, and in spite of being pregnant yet again (with Joseph, child number four) all went off without a hitch.

But her pleasure was short lived. She was still in Pressburg/Bratislava when she learned of the invasion of Austria by King Frederick of Prussia. Left by her father with empty coffers, she turned to the Hungarian Diet for support, in an impassioned appeal that won them over and forged a bond that would last her whole life.

Altogether eleven Habsburg kings (one a woman) and eight consorts were crowned in St Martin’s over three centuries. And even today, a 150kg gilded copy of St. Stephen’s crown sits proudly at the top of its cathedral tower.

Through these centuries, Bratislava became a well-developed, multilingual city, with a German majority and solid minorities of Hungarians and Slovaks, with an aristocratic class as secular and ecclesiastical authorities, but also a strong middle class of craftsmen and merchants crucial to the city’s economy, and a working class of domestic servants and manual laborers. But there wasn’t yet a Slovak identity, only a few references during the Middle Ages and later, under Hungarian (and from 1867, Austro- Hungarian) rule, which lasted until 1918.

empire to republic slovakia
After Czechoslovakia’s liberation by Soviet and American troops, the 1946 elections saw the Communist Party (KSČ) finished first with 38% of the vote. By the summer of 1947, the party had alienated many voters and was expected to lose the planned elections in May of 1948. When non-Communist cabinet members stepped down in February to protest Communist overreach, the KSČ seized the opportunity to establish a one-party state that lasted for the next 40 years. // © WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Spring of the Slovak Nation

The concept of Slovak identity emerged clearly only in the 19th and early 20th century, as part of a wider awakening, when nationalists looked back before the monarchy for the roots of Slovak history. Between the 7th and 10th centuries, they identified a series of proto-states – Samo’s Empire, the Principality of Nitra and finally the Great Moravian Empire – that had emerged in parts of what is now Slovakia.

Neither the region’s people nor their rulers back then were, in any meaningful sense, “Slovak.” Still, the Great Moravian Empire and its forbears later came to play an important part in the Czech and Slovak romantic nationalist movements of the 19th century.

Early nationalists grasped that language was crucial for identity as a nation, and movement leader Ľudovít Štúr chose the central Slovak dialect as the basis for an official language. His literary endeavors and those of his friends and followers helped codify this dialect and thus establish the language which is spoken to this day. A poet, publicist, teacher and philosopher, and member of parliament, Štúr’s ideas blossomed with the Revolution of 1848, when his followers passed a pan-Slavic program of demands for autonomy from Hungary and established a Slovak National council in Vienna. He even fought with the Austrians against Hungarian claims and was placed under house arrest.

Despite the Slovaks’ partial success, and the military defeat of the Hungarians, Budapest quickly regained the ascendancy after 1849, and the process of Magyarization – the encouragement, and sometimes coercion, of subjects of the Kingdom of Hungary to become Hungarians – gathered pace.

The Breakup of the Empire

Before the Great War, Slovaks who committed to a national identity had begun to seek allies abroad. As the war stretched on, it quickly became clear that the Czechs would be their best allies. Together, Slovaks and Czechs were inscripted in the Imperial army to fight on the eastern front against Russia and, later, in the south against Italy.

Historically, though, ties between the two peoples had been relatively weak. Still, their languages were close, and cooperation between Slovak and Czech diaspora communities in the United States, Russia and France, and between Slovak and Czech soldiers in the Czechoslovak Legions alongside the Allies, provided the foundation for one of Europe’s more successful experiments in 20th-century multi-national statehood.

Czechoslovakia was born in 1918, midwifed by an appropriately diverse triumvirate of leaders. Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who served as president until 1935, was the son of a Czech mother and a Slovak father; Edvard Beneš, who became foreign minister, was Czech; and Milan Rastislav Štefánik, the pre-eminent military leader of the three who became war minister, was a Slovak. Štefánik’s untimely death in a plane crash in 1919 meant that the remaining two leaders became the leading politicians of the first Czechoslovak Republic.

This imbalance has been used by some to paint the interwar state as little more than a vehicle for Czech domination of the Slovaks. But historian Dušan Kováč argues that Czechoslovakia in fact provided shelter for Slovakia’s political immaturity. In 1918, Slovakia was desperately short of educated administrators and professionals. The once-trilingual capital – renamed Bratislava in 1919 (Pressburg and Poszony were deemed insufficiently Slavic) was quickly drained of its educated Germans and Hungarians. The Czechs, who had a long tradition of university education in their native language, filled the gaps, and fanned out across the new country to take up jobs as senior policemen, teachers and administrators.

It was a curiously benign “colonialism,” if you can even call it that: The language in which they taught and administered was frequently Slovak. Crucially, Slovaks started to enter universities and the senior ranks of the military, and now had access to jobs which had previously been closed to them under Hungarian rule.

Certainly, Slovakia remained less industrialized than the Czech lands. And there was grumbling among Slovak politicians about how little power was delegated to Bratislava. But after all, Czechoslovakia between the wars was one of the world’s ten most industrialized states, which is surely something. The disparagement of Czechoslovakia by present-day Slovak nationalists probably has less to do with its supposed failings and more to do with a desire to justify what came after it.

A Strange Independence

It is Slovakia’s great misfortune that its first taste of independence was so bitter.

Hitler’s aggression, and the craven response of Britain and France in particular, had, by late 1938, condemned Czechoslovakia to the dismemberment that followed. Abandoned by its allies, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist on April 15, 1939, with the complete German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. A day earlier, Slovak leader Jozef Tiso had agreed to a demand from Hitler to pursue Slovak independence. The ensuing Slovak State – to distinguish it from the modern-day Slovak Republic – was a puppet of the Third Reich.

Their sham “independence,” however, still allowed Tiso and fellow nationalists like Prime Minister Vojtech Tuka and Interior Minister Alexander Mach, sufficient freedom to impose an increasingly aggressive anti-Semitic laws, codes and regulations which culminated in the arrest and deportation (to Nazi death camps) of some 59,000 Slovak Jews in 1942 alone.

By mid-1944 a broad range of Slovaks – from principled nationalists to priests, soldiers and communists – had resolved to launch armed resistance against the regime. The Slovak National Uprising, as it later became known, began in late August, on the eve of Nazi occupation. It was rapidly crushed by the Wehrmacht and the SS, backed by a government-backed militia, the Hlinka Guard, who proceeded to execute thousands of Slovaks in a series of reprisals that continued until the Red Army liberated the country in late 1944 and 1945.

Brief Interlude

With the Russians came the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, led by Edvard Beneš. The government set up shop in Košice, present-day Slovakia, the first major city to be liberated, and laid out its program there in April 1945. With Nazi Germany’s final defeat in May, the government returned to Prague, and Czechoslovakia was re-formed.

But real independence remained elusive: Stalin had earlier persuaded his wartime allies to agree that Czechoslovakia would fall within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The Communist Party seized power completely in 1948, and all political opposition was swiftly crushed. The early years of Communist rule were characterized by show trials and executions – in which the party purged its own ranks as well as liquidating opponents – by collectivization and largescale industrialization, especially in Slovakia. Later came mass housing projects to provide for the rapidly urbanizing population. More cynical observers noted that projects like Petržalka in Bratislava, helped dilute the liberalism of the capital.

By the 1960s, pressure for social change led communist leader Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, to press for “socialism with a human face” as a way of loosening the state’s monolithic control of not just the economy but of political thought. The wave of openness and self-expression this unleashed – the so-called Prague Spring of 1968 – made Dubček and his allies hugely popular, while setting off alarm bells in Moscow.


Czechoslovakia Breaks in two, to Wide Regret

Against the wishes of many of its 15 million citizens, Czechoslovakia today split into two countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic. An excerpt.

by Stephen Engelberg (The New York Times – Jan 1, 1993)

© COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES ARCHIVES

A multi-ethnic nation born at the end of World War I in the glow of pan-Slavic brotherhood, Czechoslovakia survived dismemberment by the Nazis and more than four decades of Communist rule only to fall apart after just three years of democracy. Czechoslovakia’s breakup, though peacefully accomplished, adds new potential trouble spots to a Central Europe already convulsed by nationalism. While the Czech Republic’s 10.3 million people are almost entirely Czech, Slovakia’s population of 5.2 million also includes nearly 600,000 ethnic Hungarians already anxious about the new Government.

The split, which became effective at midnight, was cheered in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, by bonfires and joyous speeches in the main square.

“Two states have been established,” Vladimir Meciar, Prime Minister of Slovakia, said on Thursday. “Living together in one state is over. Living together in two states continues.”

There was no similar ceremony or celebration in Prague, which was for 74 years the federal capital.

The Czechoslovak flag, which has been adopted by the Czech Republic as its own, remained atop Government buildings as the clocks tolled midnight. Czechoslovakia’s federal television, which became Czech Television at midnight, marked the occasion by playing the Czechoslovak national anthem, which has verses in both the Czech and Slovak language, one last time. Shortly after midnight, it played the anthem of the new Republic, with only the Czech verses.

Czechs in bars and their own homes drank to the new year rather than the birth of a new nation.

Miriam Huskova, a 22-year-old graphic artist, expressed the sentiments of many Czechs. Just three years ago, she stood in Prague’s Wenceslas Square with hundreds of thousands shouting, “Havel to the Castle,” a then seemingly outrageous demand that Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright, take power from the Communists.

On Thursday night, as Czechoslovakia’s final hours ticked away, she stood pensively at the fog-shrouded castle. “Three years ago, people came together,” she said. “The atmosphere was a little like Christmas eve. That’s ended, and it’s sad.”

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