Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule/The Slovaks of Hungary

3616496Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule — The Slovaks of Hungary1915Thomas Čapek



THE Slovaks, a branch of the Slavic family, numbering between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 people, and kinsmen of the Bohemians, inhabit the northwestern provinces of Hungary. There is not uniform agreement among Slovak scholars with reference to the ethnic affinity of this people with the Bohemians. Are the Slovaks a direct offshoot of the Bohemians or a separate branch of the Slavic family? Ethnologists find convincing arguments for and against both theories. Bohemians, as may be surmised, take the ground that they and the Slovaks are one—one in language and one in racial traditions and that nothing divides them except political boundaries,—the Slovaks being subject to the rule of Hungary, Bohemians owing allegiance to Austria. Samo Czambel, a learned Slovak, published a book recently on the grammatical peculiarities of his mother tongue in which, contrary to the almost universal opinion of philologists that Slovak is but an older form of Bohemian, he contends that the old grouping of Slovak jointly with Bohemian is wrong; and that the language should be treated as an independent Slavic idiom, precisely in the same way as Polish, Russian, etc. But, though grammarians may disagree about this or that Slovak or Bohemian root or termination of a verb; though they may fancy they see a difference where probably none exists, the people themselves have no quarrels to pick, no disputes to adjust. On the contrary, they have always been good neighbors[1] and loyal friends. As for real differences of speech, these are so slight that a Slovak will understand a Bohemian as readily as an Englishnan from Yorkshire will his cousin, the Yankee. One is reminded of the closeness of the two languages when one recalls that Slovaks of the Protestant faith read at their church services from the Bohemian Bible. Recently a meeting of representative Bohemians and Slovaks[2] in New York passed a resolution, in which occurs this significant passage: “Nothing now separates us, except that we owe political allegiance to two different states, one to Austria, the other to Hungary. Remove that barrier, and it will be seen that the Bohemians and Slovaks are one in language, one in blood, one in national faith, indissoluble and indivisible.”

According to the census of 1910, a census, by the way, notoriously unreliable, Slovaks number 1,967,970. If an enumeration were taken free of intrigue and coercion, the actual number of Slovaks, it is asserted, would be nearer 2,500,000; and, were we to include as Slovaks the opportunists who everywhere go with the ruling element, and further, were we to add those who are compelled, for various reasons, to conceal their nationality, the actual number would not be far from 3,000,000. Outside of Slovakland Slovaks are scattered throughout Hungary except in Transylvania. There are few districts in Hungary in which they do not live. The various settlements in the interior of the country are in part ramifications of Slovakland proper, which formerly extended further south into Hungary than at present and in part colonies, the origin of which dates back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

When did the Slovaks come to Hungary? Probably the question could best be answered by saying that they had always lived there. Certain pseudo-historians wish to make it appear that the Slovaks are descendants of immigrants from Bohemia who fled to Hungary to escape religious and political persecution. The truth is, however, that their ancestors occupied the Carpathian highlands from the dawn of history. The Slovaks of Hungary are not immigrants, and no authoritative historian has successfully disputed their claim to priority as one of the earliest inhabitants of the Kingdom of St. Stephen.

Down to the middle of the last century no one of the languages spoken by the different racial elements in Hungary acquired predominance. For the purposes of every-day life each race was free to use its mother tongue. During the mediæval period Latin was the medium of communication among the cultured classes. Latin was gradually superseded by the German language and the Slovaks, though grieved at the wanton suppression of their vernacular, did not feel that their national existence had been threatened by the innovation. But when, in 1867, Austria concluded with Hungary the Act of Settlement, whereby the dual system of government was introduced, and the Magyars secured for themselves ascendency over all the other races in the kingdom, the danger became acute, and has been growing steadily since, until now the Slovaks are menaced by denationalization. True, the Law of Nationalities was promulgated soon after the Act of Settlement, ostensibly for the protection of non-Magyars; but this law, in the words of Plutarch, “is like a spider web and would catch the weak and the poor; but may easily be broken by the mighty rich.” Bitter experience has shown that under the Law of Nationalities, the very acts which the law was designed to prevent or regulate, have been perpetrated with impunity, either by omission or commission.

Students of Slovak nationality have been expelled by school authorities from seminaries and secondary schools for Pan-Slavic propaganda. Pan-Slavism in the case of these unfortunate youths consists in the reading, recitation, or circulation of literature in one of the Slavic tongues.

Journalists are prosecuted or jailed for alleged seditious articles against the Hungarian State; newspapers are mulcted in ruinous fines, in many cases tantamount to their suppression. In countries enjoying the blessing of freedom of speech and press, de facto and not only de jure, the articles which Hungarian prosecuting attorneys construe as seditious, would be regarded as an honest and fearless criticism of the acts of government. There are few Slovak journalists who have not served terms in jail or whose newspapers have not been fined.

To plead one’s case in the courts in the Slovak language, notwithstanding the express provisions of the Law of Nationalities permitting this procedure, would be prejudicial to the litigant’s case in the lower courts and impossible in the higher courts.

A patriotic Slovak may not hold a government position of any trust or importance. One aspiring to an office in any way connected with the government, directly or indirectly, must of necessity renounce his nationality—or, in the alternative, conceal his true inward feelings, both before his superiors and before his friends.

Apparently with the object of making the world believe that Slovakland has always been Magyar, the Hungarian Government is abolishing the ancient Slavic nomenclature of villages and towns, replacing it with Magyar names, and this crusade is undertaken in districts where from times immemorial no other speech had been heard but Slovak.[3]

A visiting Hungarian statesman boasted before an American audience in New York City that the laws of Hungary were as broad and liberal as those in the United States. If such were the case, why are not Slovaks permitted to establish schools and organize themselves into societies as freely as in the United States? In the early seventies of the last century the government closed all the Slovak secondary schools (gymnasia) on the pretext that they fostered among the pupils and professors Pan-Slavic propaganda. Since that time, and despite the plain language of the Law of Nationalities, assuring to every race education in its native tongue, Slovaks have been unable to obtain from the authorities consent to the reopening of even one higher school. Think of a nation of two millions and a half, living in the heart of Europe, not having one higher school for the education of its youth! In 1875 the government confiscated the funds of an educational institution, and with the money undertook to publish at Budapest a “patriotic Hungarian journal.” At the University of Budapest, the Slovak idiom is studiously ignored by the instructors, though the Slovaks are heavy taxpayers, and even a biased census concedes 10 per cent. Slovak population in the country. Slovak elementary schools are fast disappearing; those that still remain in Slovakland are either mixed, that is Slovak-Magyar, or pure Magyar. Under the provision of the Apponyi Law, Magyar is the only recognized language of instruction in elementary schools in Hungary which are attended by twenty or more Magyar children. Since the normal schools are all Magyar, it is obvious that the future teachers of Slovak children will have no means, except by private study, to learn the language of their little charges.

Neither Vienna nor Budapest will listen to their appeal for justice. The Lord is too high and the Emperor-King too far away to hear and see the Slovaks. The Rumuns in Transylvania may hope for succor from their motherland, Rumania; Italians in the unredeemed provinces may look forward to the time when Italy will liberate them from Austrian misrule; even the Serbs in Southern Hungary find new courage in resisting oppression by reason of their nearness to their brothers in the Serbian Kingdom. Whence shall Slovaks look for sympathy and help? Their nearest kinsmen, the Bohemians, who, of all the nations, best understand them, are themselves held down by an alien oppressor and unable to give them other than moral aid.

“In comparison with the Government of Magyarland the Government of Austria is a model of tolerance.”[4]

This is the opinion of an Englishman who knows conditions in Hungary well. Exterminate the race, suppress its language, obliterate every evidence of its existence: that is now and has been for decades the policy of the Hungarian Government toward the Slovaks. Some time ago the American Slovaks formulated a demand for autonomy in a memorandum which they sent to influential friends and to those whom they hope to win as friends. The memorandum “voices the sentiment and national aspirations, not only of Slovaks living in the United States, but also interprets the mind and the will of their brothers, inhabiting, since times immemorial, the ancestral homelands of the race.” That the American Slovaks took the initiative in issuing the memorandum is not hard to understand. “The Slovaks at home are not permitted to approach their king with grievances, the last deputation to him having been denied admittance. Slovaks, therefore, are made to feel that they have no king, only a government—a government, however, that knows no mercy, that feels no remorse, that offers no hope, that fears no punishment. If Slovaks are resolved to speak at all, if they wish the world at large to know the measure of their wrongs, under existing conditions, they can only appeal through the medium of their compatriots in the United States.”

Of the Magyars as a nation the Slovaks do not complain. It is the Hungarian Government which they accuse of oppression.

When the time approaches to re-draw the map of Austria-Hungary, the Slovaks will ask to be freed from the Hungarian yoke. And if they cannot have a government of their own, their second choice is to co-operate with the Bohemians toward the establishment of a confederacy that shall include the autonomous states of Bohemia. Moravia. Silesia, and Slovakland. Thus to the present ethnical unity of Slovaks and Bohemians another bond would be added, that of political unity.

References: The Slovaks of Hungary, The Knickerbocker Press, New York, 1906, by Thomas Čapek; Racial Problems in Hungary, Archibald Constable & Co., Ltd., London, 1908, by Scotus Viator. Die Unterdrückung der Slovaken durch die Magyaren, Prague, 1903.

  1. “The Slovaks and Their Language” (Slováci a ich Reč), by Dr. Samo Czambel, Budapest, 1903.
  2. Among the Slovak spokesmen at this meeting was Editor Milan Getting, of New York. At a subsequent conference was present Albert Mamatey, President of the National Slovak Society.
  3. The very words “Slovak,” “Slovakland,” “Slovak nation” are tabooed in Hungary, and school books containing them prohibited. Hungarian officialdom refers to Slovakland as the Hungarian Highlands.
  4. London Times, January 20, 1915.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

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