It is taking place quietly, without anyone noticing, nobody is talking about it, yet something is changing nonetheless.
Not long ago I took part in two events organised by the Hungarian Institute in Pozsony (Bratislava) where representatives of cultures sat together who had not communicated much with one another before. The organisers invited a Hungarian university professor and me to discuss the fate and future of Central Europe. The discussion took place in a so-called neutral venue, in a Christian centre called Quo Vadis in the inner city of Bratislava. Csaba Gy. Kiss arrived from Warsaw, as he often flies to Poland to give university lectures. We talked a lot about this strange region made up of Europe’s smaller and very small nations. During my diplomatic service in Canada relationships with post-Communist European states and statelets were managed in the Canadian Ministry by a department called Central and Eastern Europe. Since Canadian or US citizens did not have a clue about them, they were lumped together and were dealt with as the unknown East.
It was then, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean that I understood what it meant to be not only European but also Central European. It was tiresome to explain – as it was also for my Czech, Hungarian and Polish colleagues – that although our countries were situated to the east of the “iron curtain”, we were not “eastern”. We are a strange formation upon the southeastern frontiers of old Europe, an advanced bastion of Europe in the proper sense of the word, the easternmost corner of Western European civilisation and culture. One time I showed my Canadian partners the churches of the Szepesség, Eperjes and Kassa, boasting the outermost gothic battlemented rims. To the east of our region there are only onion domes, belonging to a totally different culture. The Foreign Ministry of Canada has been restructured in the meantime, and our countries now belong to the department of Central Europe.
Central Europe – not to make the Poles upset – is the mixture of Europe’s small and medium-sized nations on the margins of the wise and developed West and the unknown East. Like other borderlands, this region has also endured a lot from its mighty neighbours.
In the age of the Great Moravian Empire the Franks wanted to seize control of it from the west and Byzantium from the east. The nations of the region were forced to unite in order to stand against the conquerors. It was more of a forced grouping than an alliance: supranational states came into being and became regional superpowers. For a short while it was Great Moravia then throughout the Middle Ages it was the Hungarian Monarchy. The ethnicities or nations resisted the penetration of foreign cultures. Let us remember the Mongol attack from the east and the Ottoman one from the southeast. Following the battle of Mohács in 1526, Hungary disintegrated as a political and military power. The Habsburgs took control of the region and with the help of foreign mercenaries waged several wars against the foreign (Muslim) invaders through centuries. In the end, they managed to drive out the Ottomans from Central Europe. They were the commanders, but the conscripts were Austrians, Slovakians, Hungarians, Croatians, Slovenians, Serbians. Our ancestors. Central Europeans.
Csaba Gy. Kiss and I ran through this fast-forwarded historical excursion during our discussions. At times we disagreed, sometimes we did not agree. Facts seem different from different angles. We agreed however that our nations protected Western Europe through history. While the cathedrals of Chartres and Notre- Dame were being built in France, we were decimated by the Tatars.
Central European nations have another valuable currency. Our nations had to survive two 20th-century totalitarian regimes. The average French, Belgian, Italian – not to mention the Brits or Swedes – experienced the Nazi or Fascist rule only for a short time. When these regimes disappeared, our nations had to suffer Communist rule under Soviet dictatorship for long decades. This is an unparalleled double historical experience.
The West criticises Central European states because we have a different idea about the preservation of European identity and cultural heritage. We are not inclined to believe the innocence and peaceful intentions of millions pouring in from different civilisations. History has indeed taught us to show caution and to have legitimate distrust. This sentiment is shared by all of us Poles, Slovaks, Czechs and Hungarians.
The shift in thought and interpretation takes place slowly and quietly, but it is here.
István Käfer is a dedicated Professor of Hungaro-Slovakian studies at Pázmány Péter Catholic University. We met during Communist times, when we managed to get to Esztergom, Pannonhalma and Budapest during an organised trip. He did not translate my novel about Maria Theresa because he did not like the enthusiasm my protagonist Ferenc Ádám Kollár exhibited for the coronation of ancient Slovakian rulers. Shall I resent him? No way. We confessed to each other that we were both faithful Christians and this had connected us. István, an octogenarian a few years younger than me – rather unusually at our age – obsessively searches and interprets all that connects Hungarians and Slovakians in our history. I attended his lecture in the Primate’s Palace in Bratislava.
I am just finishing my historical novel about the life of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. I did not miss the chance to include the figure of Jozef Ignác Bajza, the author of the first Slovakian novel and that of Anton Bernolák. Emperor Joseph visited twice the general seminary based at the Castle in Bratislava, which provided education mostly for Slovakian ordinands.
He went there to check how the clerics followed his orders while preparing for pastoral care in their national language. He was interested in their conditions and whether they took walks in the city. Many of them grouped around young Bernolák such as Fándly, Palkovič and Sándor Rudnay, who later became Bishop of Esztergom, Hungary’s primate and cardinal. Käfer’s study helped me a lot when I was writing about Rudnay, viewed by both Hungarians and Slovakians as their own.
We have many “common” historical personalities. In those days scholars understood one another quite well, primarily in Latin. Hungarians – Hungarian magnates to be precise – were not too enthusiastic about Joseph II and rejected German as a language for communication. Half a year after the death of Joseph II, Clause XIV promulgated by the Diet of Hungary in Buda then in Bratislava prioritised Hungarian language in schools and universities.
Latin was kept in defiance as the language of official administration. Following the enthusiasm for national languages in the next 200 years, the paths of the Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Serbian languages parted. As people were expected to speak German and Hungarian, debates between Central European nations were conducted in an imposed language.
Today we are all free. Those small nations (Latvians, Estonians, Slovenians and Slovaks) which did not have statehood from the Middle Ages till the 1918–20 Paris Peace Conference received the not particularly flattering title of “not a historical nation”.
We had to be grateful to our bigger neighbours to gracefully take us in. And by now – after 1989 – these strange ties of an illusive union had torn apart and lo and behold – 23 new individual states appeared on Europe’s map.
Supposedly we are formally free. We all have our own states. We negotiate as equals. Trampling on one another, we pour into the integrated Europe, not looking left or right.
Erudites, writers, academics and university professors living here meet from time to time and size one another up with a superficial understanding of history, each peering out from its own “nest”, through the lens of their own cameras, without much sense of community. It is because so many events, grievances and injustices separate us.
We are members of the European Union, yet an honest handshake or forgiveness is nowhere in sight.
Oh the languages! We noted with both Hungarian professors that the youth – the hope of Europe – communicates first and foremost in English. The young Slovakian man or woman speaks in English with the Hungarians, moreover sings in English. My God! What has a thousand years of cohabiting become? Let us remember the saying of our Hlinka in October 1918: “Our thousand-year marriage with the Hungarians did not work out, so we must divorce.”
Of course it would be difficult to convince young people to learn their neighbours’ language. English has become today’s Latin. However we have too much to lose if we do not get to know one another more thoroughly.
A Slovakian historian has duly noted that writing about his country’s history is absurd without a good command of the Hungarian language. I learned from the Hungarian professors that there is a young historian in Hungary who learned Slovakian and wrote an interesting book about Štúr. We can speak English with our travel group, or when we attend jazz concerts or dinner parties. We should not write about other nations without knowing their language if we wish to inform our readers with expertise.
Those who are afraid of losing their identity by speaking the language of the “enemy” know too little and are actually harming themselves.
This is why we welcome Hungarian professors who now and then visit Slovakia and speak our language.
We have been bickering for over two centuries. Not just the Slovaks and Hungarians but all of us in the region. We all have grievances. It seemed in the beginning that we were fighting because one was the oppressor, the other the oppressed. One was the aggressor, the other the victim and vice versa. Not long ago – maybe even today – it was considered witty to grumble and mock the other. There are plenty of suitable themes in history.
Now we all have our states, at least in our “Central and Eastern” Europe. We could all be content without the need to deride one another. Come on! In recent years it is not only the Slovaks and Hungarians that annoy each other but also the Hungarians and Romanians, the Croats and Serbs, the Ruthenians and Ukrainians… and the Hungarians and Austrians too. (Burgenland! It was the Hungarian Esterházy family who paid poor Haydn to play in the palace of Kismarton, today named Eisenstadt.) Croatians and Slovenians are fighting over a tiny piece of coastline.
I remember from my years of being a diplomat when the Slovak Republic fought with every one of its neighbours: with Austria (diplomatic protests), the Czech Republic (distribution of assets), Ukraine (the Ruthenians), Poland (Slovak minority) and Hungary (Géza Jeszenszky). Could intelligent politics be conducted like this? I could not really understand this in Canada. We viewed Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary with hatred and envy because the West favoured them and they became NATO members while we were left out… Those were really strange times.
Self-reliance – whether political or cultural – does not mean that we should look down on others. One needs to mature over time to become self-reliant, one needs to pass the test of adulthood. To respect the other means to respect the older, the more experienced. They also have to get used to “nations without history” and new states. It is interesting to note that only Slovenia and Slovakia were able to adopt the euro, and economically they are more successful than several of their neighbours.
Self-reliance however does not save us if we do not know exactly where we belong, who we should stick together with and who we should be wary of. We should not allow ourselves to become the prey of petty politics. We should look after ourselves and our region.
More than quarter of a century has passed since the breakup of 1989. New generations have grown up. Our duty is to pass down our knowledge based on our life experiences and our historical experiences. Our views are changing too. We live in a dynamic world where the pace of change is overwhelming. The flood of information overloads us rather than provides knowledge. We still have our common sense though and the warnings of our genes, of our historical experiences. I am myself reconsidering a number of my opinions. I see now quite a few things differently than 20 years ago. New threats appear. We anticipated some of them, but not all of them. The Europe we joined was very different from today’s Europe.
Our intelligentsia should have a better inkling about the changes around us. It is impossible to predict what will happen in the next years, let alone the next months. It is indeed important to pay attention to global threats, climate change and the diminishing natural resources. But this type of “stock-taking” should not blind us.
Europe, or rather the whole Euro-American civilisation is in danger. It has arrived at a stage where it is rejecting itself, giving up its own basic values, and this weakening of our roots exposes us to increased attacks by other civilisations.
And this is where all Europeans – including all Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs – have to ask the question now: “What is the current state of Europe?” Which leader could represent European society the same way as its founders (Churchill, Schuman, Adenauer, de Gasperi, de Gaulle) did a long time ago? All of them were pillars of European civilisation, statesmen deeply committed to Christian values. How do the leaders of the European Union confront the greatest crisis since the Second World War?
Slovak, Hungarian, Polish and Czech intellectuals are now joining the game. The whole of Central Europe is joining the game. This part of Europe does not agree with the careless attitudes of Western European leaders who are giving up our European identity. In their attempt to keep economic prosperity, they are importing millions of migrants from other parts of the world in the name of a false humanity.
Time has come for cooperation among neighbours, to draw conclusions from history. Not to rip open old wounds but to get closer to one another again, with trust. To cooperate.
Of course these are beautiful ideas, but it is difficult to put them into practice. No-one is so naive as to believe that Hungarians and Slovaks can suddenly just embrace each other with a hug and forget everything through heartfelt tears. I witnessed such explicit attempts at reconciliation when I was serving as a member of the first democratically elected Slovakian Parliament.
František Mikloško, then President of the National Council of the Slovak Republic initiated the acknowledgment of Slovakia’s role in the Holocaust. A declaration regarding the expulsion of Slovakia’s Germans followed. I actually composed the text for the declaration which was voted by the Parliament in February 1991. This peace-marathon should have been continued with some sort of Slovak–Hungarian reconciliation. We travelled to Budapest in 1992, but during this first and only meeting with the Hungarian parliamentary delegation it became clear that a proper reconciliation was not possible. New elections took place, new parliaments formed and the issue was consigned to oblivion.
There are not any theatrical reconciliations in Europe, and there will not be any either. The change in our world is irresistible. History, as well as politics have left us behind.
The so-called V4 countries, the Visegrád 4, have started to irritate Brussels even though it began as a childish alliance, a diplomatic game with tedious courtesy meetings and mandatory government protocol. By now they have become a problem for the top dogs in Brussels. Four countries with different political landscapes unexpectedly stuck together. Hungary has had a stable rightwing government for a few years now. Poland also rejected liberal dogmas at the last election and has chosen the Western European style with a conservative approach. The Czech Republic has a centre-left government, though both the current and former presidents have made statements that went against Brussels. And Slovakia, despite its laments, still has a centre-right coalition with a moderate Slovakian national party and a moderate Hungarian–Slovakian party sitting side by side. This is accompanied by exasperation, threats, sneers and insults. But the fact is irrevocable.
Dear Slovakian, Hungarian and Czech intellectuals: politics has overtaken us. Fervent Slovakian ultranationalists are posting Viktor Orbán’s latest speeches on Facebook. We noted at once that we have a European political leader who bluntly says what millions of people are thinking not only in Hungary but in Pozsony (Bratislava), Kassa (Košice), Prága (Prague) and Krakkó (Krakow) too. The former Czech president Václav Klaus’s eurosceptic statements are also circulating on the web, expressing similar views with the Hungarian Prime Minister or the President of Poland about the threats to Europe. The complaint against the migrant quota was filed not only by the Slovakian Prime Minister but also by the Hungarian one, even though they belong to different political camps. Daily politics has overtaken us.
Historical experience has overtaken us. We had been neighbours for 350 years with the Ottoman Empire. Folk songs, tales, legends as well as the scornful, threatening letters to our towns by Muslim commanders bear witness to this era. Our ancestors sacrificed their lives on the borderland between two worlds, two civilisations. My ancestors from Selmec (Banská Štiavnica) chose to destroy the gothic arches of the local church in order to build a fort against the Turks.
The Ottomans never occupied Selmec, nor Vienna thanks to the Polish army. Do we need any other reasons?
It is possible that today’s western Europeans can do without the Greco-Roman heritage, Christianity, the courage of explorers, the trust in common sense and unstoppable progress. They are completely indifferent, living only for the moment, only interested in cheap labour, and they get annoyed by the sounds of children crying. They cannot bear children and they do not want to have their own since they consider them as an inconvenience. They are more interested in the children featured in sensationalist television news programmes. They are happy to play sex, unable to bear suffering and they get rid of pain readily with euthanasia. They got bored with themselves, with sex, with their ancestry, with their homeland. Total boredom. Sartre would be happy. To fight for something makes no sense for them. They have given up. Let us read Houellebecq.
However in the eastern part of Europe there are still some odd Central Europeans who might be backwards – probably not through their own fault although who knows. Some of them, not all, believe in old superstitions. They are carrying these within themselves, passing them on from generation to generation. Their literature is also strange, often preoccupied with the past. There are some who are still looking for ideals and paragons.
These are the lesser known Slovaks and the better known Hungarians. But they are both of the same kind. No multiculturalism. Who knows what they will be capable of in the future?
I think I know the answer. They have not lost their healthy common sense yet. They are not waiting for salvation from across the ocean, or from Brussels. They are still capable of reconciliation. Not even that is needed. It is good enough if they just live side by side, without quarrelling. They say hello, they sometimes smile at each other, genuinely, as people do. They hold out their hands, mutually of course.
Then they go to the door. They feel safe from any unwanted visitors. Quietly and closer.
The time is coming.
Translation by Zsófia Bod