7 minute read


History & Background

The Slovak people, one of Eastern Europe's smaller Slavic groups, achieved a degree of recognition, autonomy, and finally national independence only during the twentieth century. At the start of the twenty-first century, Slovakia was an independent republic seeking full membership in NATO and the European Economic Union. Linguists have noted the relationship between the Czech and Slovak languages within the greater family of Slavic languages; yet a combination of history and geography have encouraged each group to seek its own destiny, despite the close proximity.

The nature of Slovakian geography has imposed a degree of isolation. The country stretches on a west-east axis from the Danube River on the western border to the Carpathian Mountains on the eastern border with the Ukrainian Republic. The northern border is adjacent to Poland and the Czech Republic while the southern border abuts Hungary. The high Tatra Mountains along the northern border have minimized the contact and influence of Poland. The remaining borders have contributed to a chaotic history. Historian R. W. Seton-Watson (1965) has observed that the Slovaks had no discernable, separate history among the early Slavs, had a distinctly separate history from Bohemia (historically, the Czechs to the northwest), and were generally viewed as part of the history of Hungary. While the Czechs were heavily influenced by German affairs, the Slovaks were influenced by the Hungarians or Magyars. Nineteenth century romantics attributed a colorful past to the Slovak people.

Not until the end of the ninth and into the beginning of the tenth century, nearly 100 years after the death of Charlemagne (A.D. 814) as a point of comparison with western European history, did the presence of the Slovaks become discernable. According to Seton-Watson (1965), the presence of the short-lived Moravian state (A.D. 896-906) drove a permanent wedge between Czechs and Slovaks. Much of the history of the Slovaks was under the influence of Hungary, populated by the Magyars, an Indo-European Finno-Urgic people from the steppes of central Asia whose progress into western Europe was halted by Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great on the Lechfeld of Bavaria (A.D. 955). Of profound significance, both the Slovaks and the Magyars were christianized by the western Latin church as represented by the missionaries St. Adalbert of Prague and St. Stephan, who was also crowned the first king of Hungary. The presence of the Latin church meant that the Slovak language would use the Latin alphabet, which would, in turn, strengthen the ties to and influence of Western Europe. For centuries, Latin was the official language of Slovakia. Western Slovakia came under the jurisdiction of the bishopric of Erztergom.

As a counterbalance to the political power of the Hungarian nobility, the monarchy began to encourage German colonization of Hungarian towns, whose existence was guaranteed by a royal charter. This included those towns north of the Danube in Slovakian homelands. German settlers brought along their own legal code, the Magdeburger Recht, which insured that town property could only be sold to Germans. This code laid the basis for future discrimination against the Slovaks. Subsequently, the development of a wealthy German urban class would free the Hungarian monarchy from its uncomfortable dependence on the Hungarian nobility. For their part, the Slovakian people, largely rural and illiterate, lived in feudal servitude to the Magyar nobility.

Ironically, the situation was intensified by the Ottoman invasion and occupation of Hungary south of the Danube River (A.D. 1526-1711), a fact which brought even more of the nobility into historically Slovakian lands, and created the opportunity for more ethnic friction. The history of the Slovaks was tied to Hungary for centuries. The rural Slovakian people lived north of the Danube, often in the isolated valleys of the high Tatra Mountains, still subject to an increased population of Magyar émigrés who had moved their exiled capital to Brataslava (Pressburg in German) on the western Danube border. The eventual defeat and withdrawal of the Ottoman Turks allowed Hungary to reclaim its identity. The Bohemian phase of the Thirty Years War strengthened the Hapsburgs, eventually placing the crown of Hungary under the complete control of this hereditary dynasty with the Treaty of Karlowitz on 26 January 1698.

The eighteenth century saw increased centralization and Germanization under the empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II. Not until the nineteenth century with the growth of nationalism under the impetus of romanticism and the legacy of the French Revolution did the Slovak people begin to emerge with their own national aspirations and desire for autonomy. Slovak nationalists and patriots had begun to follow a path of cultural politics as a means of establishing national identity. This task was aided by the presence of the Jesuits, who were among the first to give the Slovakian language a literary expression. In 1787 the priest Anton Bernolak published a Slovak grammar, and in 1792 founded a Slovak literary society at Trnava. Jan Holly translated the major classics of western civilization into Slovak and wrote his own epics to provide a literary heritage for the Slovakian people. The efforts of these cultural revolutionaries and nationalists were encouraged by the Revolution of 1848. Ludevit Stur gave voice to nationalist, romantic, and pan-slavist sentiments. Slovak nationalists such as Stur conducted revolution on two fronts, against the Germans in Vienna and against other non-Magyar minorities. Magyarization of Slovak schools became a sore point. For a time, Stur was the much abused, only Slovak member of parliament. His death in 1856 deprived the nationalists of crucial leadership. Yet they were able to celebrate a small victory in the founding of a Slovak Academy of Law and a chair of Slavonic at the university in Pest.

With the establishment in 1867 of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, the Ausgleich, a new era for non-Magyar minorities ensued. The Czechs were the only minority to benefit from Law XLIV, Article 17. The promise of Slovakian schools did not materialize. From 1869 to 1911, a deliberate policy of the central government reduced the number of Slovak primary schools from 1,921 to 440 (Seton-Watson 1965). The Slovak priest Father Hlinka led the nationalists with a voice, which became increasingly demagogic and anti-Semitic. By the end of the nineteenth century, the seven Slovak representatives in the Hungarian parliament were badly treated and often incarcerated. The Magyar elite continued to pursue the policy of Magyarization. Backward and impoverished living conditions, including alcoholism and tuberculosis, encouraged heavy migration to North America. According to Seton-Watson (1965), the Middle Ages in Slovakia ended politically in 1848 but continued economically until 1918. This Slovak community abroad proved to be an important source of funds, and had considerable influence on the planning of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's design for post-World War I Europe. In July 1918, a Slovak congress convened in the U.S. city of Homestead, Pennsylvania, demanding Slovak autonomy. In December 1918 there was agreement on a union with the Czechs, which was ultimately affirmed by the treaties of Versailles and Trianon (1919 and 1920). However, the republic of the Czechs and Slovaks suffered from the same malady that had affected the Austro-Hungarian empire: unhappy and dissatisfied minorities, the fate of most of the states carved from the old empire. In the case of Czechoslovakia, the Sudeten Germans were the loudest, most unhappy minority, along the border with Germany. The industrial Czech half of the county also placed Slovakia at a disadvantage in terms of wealth and resources. The Munich crisis of 1938 and the subsequent German occupation of the remainder of Czech lands in March 1939 led to the establishment of a Nazi German protectorate, the Slovak state under the Catholic priest Father Josef Tiso as premier. After World War II, Tiso was executed as a war criminal, and the pre-World War II borders of Czechoslovakia were reestablished, minus its substantial German population.

From its post-World War I inception, the Slovaks had been dissatisfied with the nature of the state created. They viewed the Czechs as replacements for their Hungarian rulers of the past, and vigorously advocated federalism throughout the 1920s and 1930s (Gawdiak 1989).

Despite the experience with the March 1939 clerical fascist state and German protectorate under Tiso, and despite the centralization of the post-World War II communist government, Slovak national aspirations were not quelled. When Soviet communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and Czechoslovakia once again emerged as a democratic republic, Slovakian nationalism guaranteed that the Republic of Czechoslovakia was to be short-lived. On 1 January 1993 a constitution for an independent Republic of Slovakia was born.

At the start of the twenty-first century, this new Slovak Republic had a population distribution of approximately 85 percent Slovak and 11 percent Hungarian (Magyar), a potentially prickly problem. The remaining ethnic minority distribution is among Czechs, Moravians, Silesians, Roma (Gypsies), Ukrainians, Ruthenians, and Germans. A law passed in 1995 makes Slovak the official language and also recognizes Hungarian. About 60 percent of the population is Roman Catholic with the remaining religious affiliations distributed among the following groups: Protestant, 8.4 percent; Orthodox, 4 percent; and other, 17.5 percent. Atheists constituted 9.7 percent of the population (CIA 2000). The Slovak Republic signed an agreement in late 1998 to settle questions regarding the redistribution of former Czechoslovakian federal property and continues to negotiate with Hungary concerning the Glabcikovo Dam.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceSlovakia - History Background, Constitution Legal Foundation, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education - NONFORMAL EDUCATION