Slovaks of Czechoslovakia

Location: Mainly in Slovakia
Population: 4.8 million
% of population: 31.3%
Religion: Mainly Catholic
Language: Slovak

The Slovaks are a Slavonic people living mainly in Slovakia, the eastern portion of present day Czechoslovakia, where they constitute over 85% of the population. Slovaks lived in Slovakia long before the Magyars, known today as the Hungarians, invaded the Danube basin at the end of the seventh century and made Slovakia part of the Kingdom of Hungary. The area was later incorporated into the Hapsburg Empire. Latin was the official language of Hungary until 1793 after which Hungarian became the official language. At about the same time Slovak was first codified by the Slovak scholar Bernolak. The rights of minorities, Slovaks, Croats and Serbs, within Hungary and the Hapsburg Empire became one of the central issues in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

During the revolutionary year of 1848 there was a Slovak insurrection against the Magyars and Ludovit Stur proclaimed a short-lived independence for Slovakia. After 1867 when the Magyars gained considerable autonomy within the Hapsburg empire the position of the Slovaks deteriorated. Despite the submission of the Slovak memorandum of 1861 by Stefan Marko Daxner which called for minority rights for Slovaks, the authorities in Hungary pursued a concerted policy of Magyarization. The Matica Slovenska, the only Slovak cultural institution was closed as were three Slovak high schools. All Slovak primary schools were later abolished and Slovaks were officially referred to as “Slovak-speaking Magyars”. The results of this assimilation policy were that in 1918 only a handful were able to write in orthographical Slovak and the numbers of Slovaks had declined dramatically. Almost all secondary school pupils considered themselves to be Magyar rather than Slovak and total assimilation seemed probable with only the Catholic and Lutheran clergy, due to their economic independence, in a position to defend Slovak national interests. Among them was Andrej Hlinka who founded the Slovak People’s Party in 1905 to fight in the Hungarian Parliament for Slovak rights.

The defeat of the Hapsburg Empire, the Russian Revolution, and the ensuing confused situation in central Europe immediately after World War I allowed the proclamation of a short-lived Slovakian Soviet Republic in July 1919 which lasted three weeks. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon allowed the formation of Czechoslovakia which was to be a federated union of Czechs and Slovaks. However the Czechs dominated the new state from the outset and while the position of Slovaks in the new state was considerably better than before, there was still discontent. The Slovak People’s Party continued its fight for national rights and although it was the strongest party in Slovakia it was always outvoted by the combined votes of the Czech or Czechoslovak orientated parties. The collapse of Czechoslovakia following the Munich agreement with Nazi Germany led in March 1939 to the setting up, under Nazi suzerainty, of the “Slovak Republic” under the clerical-fascist leadership of the Slovak People’s Party now led by Jozef Tiso who had succeeded Hlinka. The Slovak republic strengthened national consciousness and saw the creation of Slovak faculties and the founding of the Slovak Academy of Arts and Science.

The defeat of Nazi Germany saw the end of the Slovak republic and the recreation of Czechoslovakia except for the loss of Sub-Carpathian Ukraine to the USSR. The Agreement of Kosice in 1945 granted some self-government to Slovakia. The Communist Party, which was to rule after 1948, was initially in favour of a distinct Slovak identity and autonomy and the 1948 Constitution provided for organs of Slovak self-government. However this was soon replaced by centralization and the Slovaks again fell under greater Czech domination than before 1939. A campaign against Slovak nationalism in the 1950s saw the execution of Vladimir Clementis and the imprisonment of Gustav Husak and other leading Slovak communists and the subordination of the Slovak party to Prague. The 1960 Constitution openly articulated extreme centralism and reduced even further Slovak self-government.

After 1963 there was a resurgence of Slovak cultural nationalism and some limited improvements. One of the main strands of the reform movement, which blossomed in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, was the question of national equality. In Slovakia this was, according to opinion polls, more important than the issue of democratization. (In the Czech-lands however democracy was the main issue with national equality only in seventh place.) Husak, now rehabilitated, became deputy Prime Minister in charge of constitutional reform. The Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 and the ensuing occupation saw the gradual dismantling of the liberalization measures introduced during the Prague Spring under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek. There was however no reversion to the previous subordination of the Slovaks vis-à-vis the Czechs. On October 28, 1969, the constitutional law on federation was adopted by the National Assembly and Czechoslovakia was divided into two federal states and Slovak statehood restored in the form of the Slovak Socialist Republic. Husak replaced Dubcek as defacto leader of Czechoslovakia. Although the new arrangement, which remains to the present, does not grant full parity nor a complete ban on majoritization, there are substantial safeguards against the Czechs using their numerical strength to outvote Slovaks and the Slovaks are assured a powerful position in enactment of all-state legislation within the framework of the communist system.

(See also Hungarians of Czechoslovakia)