Letter from Bratislava, Slovakia: Two States for Two Peoples

By Barry Rubin

                                                                                                                                Bratislava, Slovakia

 A Czech friend, who has achieved considerable success in life since then, reminded me that for several years he was a window-washer under the Communist regime. The government of the proletariat believed that the worst thing it could do to people who had dissented was to send them into the proletariat. During that period, he was very active in the democratic opposition.

 Since he spoke good English, he was often asked by his comrades (probably not the right word) in the anti-Communist struggle for freedom to be the guide for visiting Western sympathizers. Often, he recounts, these were Western leftists eager to explain to those Czechs engaged in the battle for liberty that Marxian socialism was really a great idea, they just needed to make a few adjustments.

 Imagine if you will, people who had grown up in an ideological dictatorship that sent people to prison for making the wrong joke being lectured by a bunch of spoiled, well-dressed Western intellectuals on the splendor of their prison.

 That’s a familiar image today, with many gays, self-identified feminists, Jewish leftists, and leftists in general (including those pretending to be liberals) extolling ideologies and systems that would pound them into the ground.  Who are they, for example, to criticize the treatment of women as one step above cattle since after all that’s the local custom? And, they continue, the women really like it!  Yesterday’s reactionary racist chauvinism is today’s multicultural progressivism! 

 In Central Europe the experience with Communism is still recent enough that people get it. I wanted to make a point about al-Qaida versus the Muslim Brotherhood. “How many of you,” I asked the audience, “have read Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism an Infantile Malady?” Several of them laughed, no doubt having been assigned to reading it like Western students get their American history from Howard Zinn and their political thinking from Saul Alinsky.

Al-Qaida, I explained, was like those now-obscure anarchists that Lenin ridiculed. They only know how to do terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood (and Hizballah, Iran’s rulers, and Hamas, along with others) are like the Bolsheviks, they know how to organize and maneuver. That’s why they are far more dangerous.  Everyone remembers Lenin but nobody remembers the anarchists and revolution-now leftists he ridiculed back in 1920.     

Incidentally, I don't know if this is original or not but it reflects Central European opinion pretty well. A top Czech intellectual said in a speech: "In 2008, by electing Obama, the American "proved" they aren't racist. In 2012, by voting against Obama, they can prove they are not stupid." He said it, not me.  

 Like all countries with a heroic past, the Czech Republic has settled into institutionalization and a degree of forgetfulness. Economically, the country is doing as well as anyone in Europe today. But the big disappointment, both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is corruption. Unfortunately, even in a democracy government officials steal. That problem cannot be eliminated; it can only be reduced by limiting their ability to do so.

 I suggest to local colleagues that there should be a regular program of having those suffering under Communism and the dissidents who overthrew it speak to schoolchildren about their experiences. There is nothing like hearing first-hand, as I did from a friend in Lithuania, about how a stubborn and all too outspoken little girl refused to join the Communist Youth Group in his school and soon disappeared from that class forever. Years later, he tried to find her and couldn’t.

 Apparently, however, this kind of speaker’s program is hardly being done in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Memories of life under Communist rule and the struggle it took to get rid of it may soon be forgotten.

 Instead, I’m told, television stations are now showing Communist-era films—and even new productions—that include no explicit political material but purport to show that things were pretty good in those days.

 Bratislava was, before World War Two, 30 percent Slovak, 30 percent German, 30 percent Hungarian, and 10 percent Jewish. As happened elsewhere, the Jews were killed or fled during the war; after the war, the Germans and Hungarians were deported. Result: ethnic cleansing with no bad publicity or decades of violent conflict.

Of course, during the war, Slovakia became a German protectorate whose government--led by a Catholic priest no less!--eagerly persecuted the Jews.  My remaining relatives here were deported to concentration camps. At least one was murdered; two survived and I am searching for them; and of four others I still know nothing. When the liberal government-in-exile returned, it quickly kicked out the remaining Germans and the Hungarians, whose home country's government had been a Nazi ally. 

 This was common in central Europe. On the side of my paternal ancestors, in their town, the Jews were killed, the Poles fled, and the Byelorussians were overwhelmed by ethnic Russian settlers brought in by the hundreds of thousands by the Soviet government. In my great-grandfather’s town, the Jews were killed, the Germans thrown out, and Polish settlers brought in.

 My maternal ancestors’ towns in Slovakia followed the same pattern as Bratislava  

 All of this is forgotten—along with the massacres and disposition of so many ethnic groups by those who today often profess themselves pure and benefitted from those demographic shifts. Or perhaps some of those whose own past behavior is too recent in their memory have a sense of realism about how the world works. At any rate, the singling out of one country as sinful in the world—a sort of global scapegoat--is not exactly an accurate reflection of history.

The relationship between Czechs and Slovaks is a remarkable success story. Thousands of Slovaks study or seek work in the Czech Republic. While the languages are not as close to each other as you might think, years of watching television and interaction has made a lot of people fluent in both.  Indeed, their differences were externally induced, with the Czechs more influenced by the Germans (or Austrians, to be more accurate) and the Slovaks by the Hungarians.

A Slovak graduate student insisted at one of my lectures that this two-state solution is a great role model for the Middle East. So I asked him: "Have you ever wanted to kill a Czech? If terrorists blew up a Czech kindergarten would you cheer? Would you like to wipe the Czech Republic off the map?"  No, not quite the same.

 On the other hand, the Czechs and Slovaks today offer a model of how nation-states offer more stable entities if they are just satisfied with what they have.

 I'm very fond of both of these countries. The architecture is fascinating; the food better than you think; and the people are very friendly. While they lack Mediterranean warmth they have wonderful senses of humor and are superbly unpretentious. These are people who don't want to rule the world, they just want to be left alone by it. They also have a refreshing sense of realism about things like identity, dictatorships, ideology, and the preciousness of liberty. I hope they influence the rest of the EU more than it influences them.