Prague, Czech Republic – Undoubtedly tied together by geographical, linguistic, and cultural proximity, the two offspring of late Czechoslovakia have stood divided for almost thirty years. But has the “Velvet divorce” really affected Czech-Slovak relations, or how distant can two such close relatives really be?
A shared history?
The Czech Republic and Slovakia are arguably two of the closest and most similar couples of European nations, having been united in a single country throughout most of the 20th century, shared numerous political ups and downs, and bound together by a common cultural heritage – not to mention their languages, in large parts mutually understandable. But “sharing history” might be more problematic than we think.
Though in the early days of Czechoslovakia the official approach was to promote a single nation of “Czechoslovaks” – a novel concept conjured up throughout World War I and culminating in 1918 – the inhabitants of the two regions found themselves in widely different environments. Either physically, economically, and even culturally, considering that Slovaks had for centuries been part of the Hungarian kingdom, whereas Czechs were linked to the Austrian and German spheres.
Though this factor might have been enough to give birth to some degree of animosity, other elements contributed to poison relations between the otherwise intertwined nations.
Contrary to the Czech lands, an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse, Slovakia remained severely underdeveloped and was still a largely agricultural system. New infrastructure – transport, education, and bureaucratic – had to be established to bridge the gap. Moreover, Slovaks only appeared as one ethnic group among others cohabiting in interwar Czechoslovakia, and were even less numerous than ethnic Germans.
The most important offices were still mainly held by Czechs and located in Bohemia, a situation which failed to reflect the fast-developing class of more educated Slovaks. The eastern half of Czechoslovakia soon saw Czech presence as a sort of colonialism. Friendly and good-natured perhaps, but colonialism nonetheless.
In 1938, Czechoslovakia was brought to its knees by the Munich treaty, in which Western powers conceded large parts of the country to Hitler who claimed ethnic Germans living there were being oppressed.
Slovakia gained significant autonomy within the weakened republic and went on to declare “independence” from Prague on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Czech lands in March 1939. The First Slovak Republic, effectively a German puppet state during World War II, came to be in troubled times, and would fuel Czech resentment for decades to come.
Czechoslovakia was reunited at the end of war, and the following 40-year-long period of socialist totalitarianism saw the two nations grow closer once more – even if this could easily be linked to the communist regime elegantly sweeping any signs of dissent under the carpet. Once democracy prevailed, the aspirations for greater Slovak autonomy came back to the surface, leading to a greater federalisation and subsequent dissolution of Czechoslovakia in January 1993.
Even though Czechs and Slovaks have long seen themselves as “brothers”, the belittling sticker of “smaller brother” applied to Slovakia became a bitter source of frustration standing in the way of a truly equal partnership.
A single nation no more
The relations between the two newly independent states quickly evolved. The division took place peacefully (if not by popular vote), toning down the bitterness of the “weakened” party and curtailing the boldness of the “strong” – a phenomenon all too common throughout history in cases of national breakups.
To claim that there weren’t any tensions, however, would be wrong. The Slovak nation finally found itself independent after centuries of subjugation by foreign powers, and wanted to make the most of it. Laws were introduced to ensure that Slovaks would have access to films and multimedia content (especially fairy tales and other media aimed at children) dubbed in their native language as opposed to only Czech (which had been the norm until then), and teachers set out to “purify” the Slovak language of excessive Czech influence.
These two examples, among many others, are a testament to the Slovak nation’s efforts to develop a strong sense of national identity which they still proudly carry to this day.
On the other side of the border, Czechs retained their friendly, if slightly condescending, attitude towards their eastern neighbors. The end of the need for governmental maneuvering and mutual concessions in a shared political environment relieved a lot of tension.
An interesting and highly symbolic trend emerged against this backdrop. As time passed, large parts of the Czech Republic – particularly younger generations in Bohemia – began losing their knowledge of the Slovak language. The two idioms were not drifting apart and remained as linguistically close as they had been half a century before. But the two nations did, exacerbated by a growing lack of interaction with one another.
Tellingly, this estrangement wasn’t mutual: Slovaks retained a much stronger knowledge of Czech than the other way around – perhaps through movies and TV shows that were still not dubbed, because Slovaks studied in Czech universities more often than the other way around and, finally, possibly as some historical remnant of past relations.
Two countries, one family
The fact that such a trend exists at all, if only on the Czech part, might give the impression that some significant estrangement is taking place. This is not the case. In countless polls conducted since 1993, researchers have many times over determined that the two groups retain a highly positive perception of one another. Even the mutual stereotypes appear strangely flattering. For the most part.
According to the survey conducted by psychologists from the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, the main stereotypes Slovaks associate with Czechs are that they tend to be friendly, helpful, sympathetic, and pleasant. Some respondents also mentioned attributes associated with dominance, such as assertiveness, unruliness, and a degree of pride.
Surveyed Czechs, on the other hand, described Slovaks as honest, cheerful, temperamental, and kind. In general, the mentioned traits largely repeated themselves, revealing how similarly the two groups perceive each other. The negative attributes were the only ones where the division could truly be felt, with Czechs describing Slovaks as nationalistic while themselves being perceived as arrogant. These two characteristics conveniently illustrates the legacy mentioned before.
Existing research indicates that the main factor underlying positive relations between two given groups are close relations between their individual members. The Czech-Slovak situation serves as a perfect example.
According to the same survey, the respondents’ average amount of friends or family members living in or originating from the other country is beyond comparison to other neighboring countries. Half of all surveyed Slovaks mentioned having relatives in the Czech Republic. Likewise, Slovakia was the nation in which the largest number of Czechs admitted to having family members. A similar result could be observed when they were asked about friends and acquaintances.
Even though the last three decades have brought significant changes to the Czech-Slovak relations, the two nations have not become strangers, far from it. No one knows what the future holds, but Czechs and Slovaks today remain closely connected, mutually understanding (despite some linguistic hiccups) and largely respectful towards each other. Siblings remain siblings, even if they no longer share the same house.
By Michal Miesler
Born in Olomouc, Moravia, Michal studies at Charles University in Prague. An amateur writer aiming to make his living in journalism, he’s a history buff, can talk about literature and cinema for hours, and is always up for some heated political debate.