History of Me, Part 7: Slovakia – Survival and Self-Determination

In this edition of History of Me, we take a brief trip to the land of the Slovaks to learn about 1/4 of my ancestors and their struggle to survive. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

A note about ethnicity

Me and my Slovak grandmother

Although I was vaguely aware as a kid that three of my grandparents (and thus, most of my genes) were German, I was definitely aware that my other grandparent was Slovak. Growing up, my Slovak grandmother was really the only person in my family who was referenced as having an ethnicity — my grandpa would tell stories of all the Slovak goodies my grandma’s mom and aunts used to bake, and my dad used to joke about how grandma (and he) had “suntan Slovak” skin. (Unfortunately for my sunscreen budget, I inherited “pasty Prussian” levels of melanin. Womp womp.)

I think part of the reason that my Slovak/Slavic ancestry is seen as “ethnic”/marked as compared to my “normal”/non-marked German ancestry is that Slavic countries are seen as less established (aka “civilized”/white) than German and other West European countries, and German-American immigrants as more established/assimilated/white than Slavic-American immigrants. There’s a sense that there’s a hierarchy or pecking order of whiteness (aka absence of “ethnic-ness”), and Germans might not be at the top but they’re definitely above Slavs/Slovaks.

It’s interesting that this is the feeling I had even growing up, because that dynamic definitely plays out in the history of the Slovak people — both in Europe and here in the USA. (We’ll get into the Europe part below, and save the USA part for the upcoming immigration post.)

The Slovaks: Hanging in there since 500 AD.

For this foray into Slovak history, I read A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival by Stanislav J. Kirschbaum. I honestly didn’t know very much about Slovakia when I started this book — but I quickly learned that the book’s subtitle was merited, as the Slovaks are a pretty small people group, and they have spent a lot of their recorded history surviving domination by larger entities.

The northern Tatra Mountains in Slovakia

Kirschbaum starts out by defining some of the identity questions and terms relevant to the Slovak story: “The term Slovakia, as a geographical and political concept, is relatively recent; it appeared for the first time in the 19th century, in a petition to the Habsburg emperor in 1849. … Yet, for the Slovaks, the land on the northern shore of the Danube and in the Tatras has always been their home, even when the political and geographical boundaries were not always clear.” (p.9)

In this region, “always” means at some varied passersby as early as 500 BC, with some Slavic tribes (the umbrella term that includes Slovaks) arriving as nomads around 500 AD and settling down. These Slavic groups were loosely associated, but began to become more cohesive when faced with outside threats from various marauders.

My two ancestries collide for the first time in about 803, when priests from the Frankish (German) Holy Roman Empire requested permission from the Pope to send missionaries to the Slavs. This was, of course, yet another example of imperial/Christian fusion, as Kirschbaum notes: “the extension of Church authority into the Slavonic lands was an integral part of Frankish-Slavic politics, which had as its primary aim the strengthening of the imperial power of the Franks over the Slavs” (p.25). The Roman (Catholic) Empire baton having been handed to the Germans, they used it to try to maintain supremacy over the Slavs. (This is the beginning of the sense of the Slavs as less “civilized” than the Germans — since Rome and the church joined, the “mission field” was always made of “barbarians”, even once the former barbarians became Christians.)

The Slavs could play this game, too, though. By finding ways to incorporate Christianity and leverage papal authority to escape total conquest by the Franks, a Slavic leader named Mojmir and his nephew, Rastislav, unified some of the tribes into the Empire of Great Moravia, which encompassed modern-day Slovakia and Czech Republic. Though it was surrounded by other powerful peoples and became essentially a vassal kingdom of Franks, it was a time of cultural significance for the people, as they received into their midst St. Cyril and St. Methodius (sent by the Greek Orthodox church) who helped to create and solidify the Old Slavonic language.

This empire was short-lived, however. After barely half a century, Moravia was conquered by Magyars (Hungarians) from east around 900 AD and was subsumed into its empire. Kirschbaum notes that “the history of the Slovaks after the fall of Great Moravia became interlocked until the 20th century in the history of the Hungarian state” (p.38). Now, you may have just read past that, so let me say that again — the Slovaks/Moravians were conquered by the Magyars (Hungarians) in about 900 and didn’t get out from under Hungary’s thumb until 1918. Yes,  THAT’S OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

A. THOUSAND. YEARS. Like a MILLENNIUM. Of subjugation and Magyarization.

And THAT is why “The Struggle for Survival” is an apt subtitle.

Honestly, after learning that, it was hard for anything else in this book to stand out to me. I just had to sit and take in the fact that for this branch of my family, my ancestors were colonized and oppressed in their homeland by the same people for like 40 generations. WHEW. That is some heavy stuff. I kind of still don’t know how to process it, but it feels significant and big.

Polka-dots, Czechs and Slavs

(See what I did there? 😉 )

After 1000 years of subjugation to the Magyars, it’s not surprising that the Czechs and Slovaks would also have a complicated relationship. Basically, they started out as two separate Slavic tribes, and ended up being thrown together by mutual subjugation by the Magyars and desire to strike out on their own. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, it didn’t go quite like they’d hoped…

[Scene: After 1000 years of Hungarian domination, Slovaks and Czechs find themselves liberated from the Magyars in the aftermath of World War I.]

Slovaks: Wow, being forced to speak Magyar and being treated like a second-class citizen was the worst.

Czechs: Yeah, agreed! Just because someone is in power doesn’t mean they should force their ways and their language on everyone else! 

Slovaks: Woohoo! Can’t wait to have our own country!

Czechs: …but wouldn’t you rather share a country with us? Come onnnnnnn…

Slovaks: …I mean, maybe, but really we’d rather have our–

Czechs: GLAD YOU AGREE! I already arranged it with all my Allied friends. 

Slovaks: What? But you didn’t even talk to —

Czechs: And also, the capital will be in our territory.

Slovaks: But what about —

Czechs: And you should speak Czech, because Slovak isn’t really even a real language anyway, just a variant of Czech.

Slovaks: But —

Czechs: Isn’t freedom GREAT???

Slovaks: *stunned silence*

Even though this is a dramatization, I’m not really exaggerating… in fact, the Czechs and Slovaks had this drama about language and culture and self-determination going way back even during the Hungarian period. The Bible translation they both used was in Czech, so even some Slovak Lutherans jumped on the Czech bandwagon — and they were most of the Slovak diaspora, so the Allies heard only support for Czech-Slovak unification — and thus Czechoslovakia was born. It’s a classic example of what happens when you pick and choose who you ask about what they want. (Because, after 1000 years of subjugation, the Slovaks really needed another self-interested superpower telling it what its borders should be and how they should meld with another culture like they were told. *MILLENNIUM-SIZED EYEROLL*)

Should I stay or should I go?

This brings us to the cusp of my ancestors’ immigration. The earliest of my direct immigrant ancestors from Slovakia arrived in 1905, and the latest in 1924. Basically, a lot of the same push factors existed in both pre-war Austro-Hungary and post-war Czechoslovakia as did in mid-19th-century Germany: wars, economic downturn, unemployment, general turmoil.

In addition, of course, were the cultural push factors, such as wanting to get out from under the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s thumb. Society was super multi-cultural, but it was VERY clear which culture was on top: the Magyars. And it’s not like Slovaks were even second — German settlers were given special status to attract their presence, leaving Czechs and Slovaks to duke it out for the crumbs (and we know how THAT went). I mentioned this to my grandpa, that I never knew Slovaks had to speak Hungarian and such, and he immediately replied, “Oh, they [grandma’s mom and aunts] all spoke five languages.” (I counted: Hungarian/Magyar, German, Czech, Slovak, and English once they got here. Wowza.)

Another factor I found particularly interesting: the region that is now Slovakia was known for its mining industry and metalwork, going way back to the Middle Ages. (Kirschbaum notes that “the gold ducats struck in Kremnica [Slovakia] around 1330 were among the most sought-after coins in Europe” [p.55].) But when other more centralized countries began to explore/colonize the “New World”, the gold and silver stolen for “free” was way cheaper than what could be produced in Slovakia, so the entire region’s economy was slowed immensely and fell behind other European powers who got ahead by enriching themselves at the Americas’ expense. Interesting to see the ripple effects of how the colonization and theft here even impacted back to Europe. (Also, another way in which Slavs fall to the bottom of the European hierarchy, hence their more “ethnic” status.)

Given all that, it’s easy to see why some Slovak folks thought they had a better chance in America, the “land of opportunity”, rather than waiting for yet another chance at Slovak self-determination to fizzle out. (They didn’t actually get their own country till 1993, so it took a LONG time.)

Conclusion

It’s super interesting to me that Slovakia — which I’ve been thinking of as an ancient country/people group — in its current nation-state iteration is younger than my sister.

I honestly didn’t know how little I knew about Slovakia and the Slovak people until I read this book — but I’m so glad to have begun my learning journey!

In a lot of ways, the Slovaks are the “runt” of Europe that hung in there long enough to finally be able to plot its own political course. To me, this is a parallel to the determination and survival strength of my Slovak great-grandmother, whose father left the family as soon as he got to America, and whose husband (my great-grandpa) passed away at the age of 37, leaving my great-grandma (age 32) to raise my grandma (age 12), her sister (age 10) and their younger brother (age 2) all on her own. She had her mother and sisters around to help, but still — it must have been a huge struggle to find herself widowed with three young children in a foreign country in 1935. (And remember, English was probably her fifth language.) But somehow, they all made it — and that’s how I think of Slovakia. Hanging in there and surviving the hard times, living in hope that things get better.

And this survival is not without its trauma. My great-grandmother (according to some records I found) struggled with some mental health issues, and died when she was only 55 (a year before my dad was born). Surviving hardship is hard. But we who are here now — both as the children of our ancestors and as the next generation of our peoples — can honor and be grateful for the fact that our ancestors lived and fought to bring us into being.

Next time — finally — the immigration post! Join me as I dive into Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America. (I could not have known how timely of a read this would be right now…)

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