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Ivan Derer:
The Autonomist Movement in Slovakia, 1938

The conception of Czechoslovak national unity upheld by the so-called centralist Slovaks is based on the view that only the closet possible intellectual, cultural and political unity between Czechs and Slovaks can ensure full development for Czech and especially Slovak life. Czechoslovak national unity means that the Slovaks can feel themselves to be the State nation everywhere throughout the whole country, not merely in Slovakia, but also in the Czech territories, that the Slovak language can find full and free application not only in the restricted limits of its own home but also in all the other parts of the Republic. In other words, the Czechoslovak conception gives the Slovaks an all-State, more universal consciousness. This conception makes us a 10-million strong nation and not a mere 2-million fraction. How is it possible that there should be Slovaks who do not understand this conception, and accept a different conception---the autonomistic conception? Why is it that in place of seeing to it that the Slovak language and the Slovak element should take a full and expanding part in the all-State affairs, they prefer to content themselves with the modester position offered by autonomy?

On this occasion I cannot go into all the causes of this phenomenon. One of the causes is Hungarianism, a Hungarian mentality. For nearly a thousand years the Slovaks were part and parcel of the Hungarian State. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the Magyars fell under the Turkish yoke, Hungary consisted really only of Slovakia and one or two smaller territories. The Slovaks in those days had no importance whatsoever. They lived in economic, social and political subjugation. Hungary was represented in the economic, social and political spheres by the free classes, the gentry, the nobles, the priesthood and the townspeople. When serfdom was abolished in 1848, these ruling classes attempted to dominate the liberated masses by means of Magyarization. It was only this Hungarianism that separated the Slovaks from the Bohemians and Moravians. The Hungarian State therefore directed its energies not merely towards maintaining a Hungarian spirit in the ruling and upper classes but systematically inculcating such a spirit in the broad masses of the Slovak people. The autonomist efforts, directed as they are towards an artificial separation of the Slovaks from the Czechs, are in substance relics of the thousand-year-old Hungarianism. This Hungarianism, despite the tremendous harm it did the Slovaks, never succeeded in breaking up the national unity of the Czechs and Slovaks. It produced, however, in the numbers of Slovaks, the desire to see Slovakia separated at least to a certain extent from the Czech lands. This gave rise to the demands for autonomy. The autonomy movement is a relic of the thousand-year-old Hungarianism.

As I have already indicated Hungarianism meant the dominance of the ruling classes and the subjugation of the masses. In the days when Hungarianism manifested itself in the process of Magyarization this meant the predominance of not only the nobility and gentry but also of the townspeople, the bulk of the priesthood and the intelligentsia who had been Magyarized in the schools, over the Slovak masses, totally neglected spiritually and mentally as they were and living a wretched existence. This process of Magyarization, of implanting a Hungarian mentality in the Slovaks, was so intense throughout many centuries in former Hungary, and so completely dominated generation after generation, that even the breaking up of Hungary and the liberation of Slovakia has not entirely freed the Slovaks from the moral conseqluences of the thousand years of subjugation and serfdom.

These conditions are finely described by the Slovak authoress Timrava in her novel entitledTwo Ages. She there portrays the life of a Slovak village before the War. She draws a plastic picture of the moral and mental degradation of the Slovak masses who allow themselves to be the object of every possible provocation on the part of the denationalized intelligentsia, for the thousand-year yoke has blunted them so that they are no longer conscious of human and national dignity. Indeed they have sunk so low that they laud their own murderers and abuse those who make a stand against tyranny. The authoress has found the right expression for that aspect of Slovak life when she exclaims with a pained cry: "Slaves!"

The authoress goes on to describe this same village at another epoch, after the War, after the triumph of the Slovak cause and the Slovak language, after the attainment of all that the best men of the nation had formerly dreamed of in vain. She describes how the masses were helped not merely by the inculcation of self-respect and self-consciousness, by the making of their language the official language and the making of their interests the interests of the State, but also by a cultural, economic and social uplift. With admirable cogency she depicts the characters who have only by pretence or superficially changed their former attitude of enemies to the people, who exploit the slightest possible mistake or shortcoming on the part of the new regime for indulging in ironical, spiteful and trouble-stirring criticism. And the masses, in whose interest the great change has taken place, succumb to these seducers and abuse their own freedom. The one-time apathetic spirit who used to take the greatest oppression as quite a natural thing today passionately criticizes and exaggerates the most insignificant faults; he is satisfied with nothing, and all is too little for him. Again the authoress relieves her feelings with the cry of "Slaves!"

Yes, many of the former Slaves are only nominally free, for the servile spirit is still within them. The autonomist movement is the expression of this survival of servile spirit. The child which awakes out of a long and sound sleep rubs its eyes and does not yet realize that it is no longer asleep, it would like to roll over for another sleep and is angry when its parent rouses it up to greet the bright and happy yet work-filled day. Such is still the state of many Slovaks. That is the very substance of the autonomist and separatist movement. It is a passing condition. I have already pointed out from the results of the elections that the greater part of Slovakia has already arisen from its sleep to the fulness of Czechoslovak life. But there is a minority of the Slovaks who would continue their barren autonomist dreaming. Yet this relic of a thousand-year-old servitude will also disappear. Things proceed slowly of course in the life of nations, and so we shall have to do with the autonomy movement for some considerable time yet to come.

The process must be solved by us Slovaks ourselves. It is our affair. We shall also solve it. I have not the slightest doubt that the Czechoslovak idea will triumph.


From: Ivan Derer, The Unity of the Czechs and the Slovaks: Has the Pittsburgh Declaration been Carried Out? (Prague: "Orbis" Publishing Co., 1938 [Copyright Expired]), pp. 74-78, reprinted in Alfred J. Bannan and Achilles Edelenyi, eds., Documentary History of Eastern Europe, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970), pp. 307-310.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998

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