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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Socialism and the nationality question

The Romantic face of Slovakia

Michal Chorváth
Traduction de Pavol Lukáč

Texte intégral

1Title: Romantickά tvάr Slovenska (The Romantic face of Slovakia)

2Originally published: Prague, Vaclav Petr, 1939

3Language: Slovak
The excerpts used are from Rudolf Chmel ed., Slovenska, otázka v 20. storoči, (Bratislava: Kalligram, 1997), pp. 242–261.

About the author

4Michal Chorváth [1910, Slovenské Pravno (Hun. Turόcábrahámfalva) – 1982, Bratislava]: literary critic, essayist, poet and translator. Between 1928 and 1936 he studied medicine at Charles University in Prague. Later, between 1936 and 1940, he received degrees in philosophy and aesthetics from Comenius University in Bratislava. Chorváth belonged to the young pro-communist intelligentsia, with a close relationship to the avant-garde group DAV. In this period he wrote poetry and published in many left-wing literary and cultural journals. Later, his main interest shifted towards literary and drama criticism. In 1944, he took part in the ‘Slovak National Uprising’ and became an ardent advocate of the Uprising against its critics. After the Second World War, he occupied several official positions related to the political and cultural activities of the Communist Party. After the communist coup in 1948, he was elected a member of the ‘Slovak National Council,’ and lectured at Comenius University. Between 1953 and 1954 he was the editor-in-chief of the communist cultural weekly Kultúrny život (Cultural life) and also wrote for the daily Pravda (Truth). Together with Ladislav Novomeský he became a prominent theoretician of socialist realism as well as one of the major figures shaping Slovak communist cultural policy. After 1955, he turned again to literary and academic activity, working for publishing houses and the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He became politically active only after the suppression of the Prague Spring communist reform movement in 1968. He became a member of the federal Parliament in Prague and head of its cultural committee. Chorváth was one of the prominent advocates of a synthesis of communist ideology with Slovak culture, and in many ways instrumental in turning this idea into reality.

5Main works: Romantická tvár Slovenska [The romantic face of Slovakia] (1939); Za nove obzory [For new horizons] (1953); Cestami literatúry [On the paths of literature] (1960); Davisti a film [The DAV-group and cinema] (1983); Básnické dielo Jána Kostru [Ján Kostra’s poetic work] (1962); Literáme dielo J ana Poničana [Ján Poničan’s literary work] (1972).


6During the interwar period, powerful national ideologies presented a great challenge to radical socialist and communist politics in Czechoslovakia. In 1918, Slovak social democrats were supporters of the unified state with the Czechs. Later, the party merged with the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, and, with Ivan Dérer as its principle leader, became a major site for promoting the ideals of Czechoslovakism, a political trend that aspired towards the unitary state of the Czechoslovak political nation. A completely different path, however, was taken by the left-wing branch of the social democrats, many members of which participated in the short-lived Slovak Soviet Republic in 1919—an offshoot of the Hungarian Soviet Republic—only to establish the Communist Party of Slovakia in January 1921 under the initiative of Slovak, German, Hungarian and Ruthenian radical socialists. In May of the same year, the party united with Czech, Polish, German and Jewish communists from Bohemia, creating the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPCZ) with numerous national sections and an increasingly centralized administration.

7As early as 1921, the issue of centralism versus autonomy was disputed among Slovak communists. Slovak nationalism, along with the changing policy of the Comintern regarding the national question, became a major issue of debate and contestation in the intra-party politics of the 1920s. At the same time, in the public sphere Slovak communists could hardly compete with Slovak autonomists represented by Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party, which styled itself as the sole defender of Slovak national interest in the Republic (see Martin Rázus, How to reach an agreement between the Czechs and Slovaks). After the Bolshevization of the party that was introduced by the new leadership of Klement Gottwald after 1929, the CPCZ launched a harsh critique of ‘bourgeois Czechoslovakia’ and ‘Czech imperialism,’ and included among its political instruments the right of self-determination for all Czechoslovakia’s nationalities up to the point of secession. This was to change only after the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany and the turn towards the concept of popular front in mid-1930s. The CPCZ joined the bandwagon of the ‘defense of the Republic’ and started to support the Czechoslovakist line, which was met favorably by the Czech public, but which further alienated the Slovaks and the national minorities.

8This meant a dilemma for the young Slovak communist intelligentsia that emerged in the mid-1920s, gradually replacing in leadership the older generation of the anti-Habsburg struggle. The main cultural mouthpiece of the new generation was the revue DAV, which endorsed political and aesthetic radicalism, national pride and warm emotions towards the Slovak homeland. Its main aim was to modernize and enrich Slovak indigenous culture with humanistic and socialist values (see Ladislav Novomeský, The current state and the development of Slovak culture). Critical to the concept of unitary Czechoslovak state from the very beginning, the young Slovak communist intellectuals had to look for a way between the Prague’s centralist policies—also endorsed from the mid-1930s by the leadership of CPCZ—and the Slovak autonomists dissatisfied with the position of Slovakia in the common state. Michal Chorváth’s essay is one of the most interesting attempts to deal with this dilemma. In his broad social-cultural analysis of Slovak romanticism, going far beyond the standard Party politics, he takes as his point of departure the common stereotypes of the ‘characterological’ differences between the “rationalist” Czechs and the “Romantic” Slovaks. In his careful scrutiny of the Romantic legacy, Chorváth clearly renounces all the contemporary organicist and neo-Romantic discourses searching for substantive or authentic fundaments of national life and, instead, speaks for a synthesis of universalist rationalism with the Romantic emotional strength present for instance in popular culture.

9The essay, which was published in 1939, the year of the breaking up of Czechoslovakia, came out too late to stir up any serious polemic or intellectual debate. It remained the most interesting work of Chorváth who later, as so many of his DAV colleagues, became a prominent communist ‘apparatchik.’ It is an eloquent example of his generation’s ambition to create a specific Slovak socialist culture by combining their Marxist political and social stance with a deep understanding towards national emotions and the traditions of national culture. As such the essay has been elevated or condemned during the post-war communist dictatorship depending on the changing position and acceptability of Slovak national communism. Despite the political career of the author, even nowadays the essay remains one of the most important contributions to Slovak political thought and national criticism.


The Romantic face of Slovakia

11The idea of Romantic Slovakia is so firmly rooted in the minds of Czechs and Slovaks who seek to characterize the differences between their natures and to determine the mutual relationship of the two cultures that we encounter this notion in literary publications, political comments and newspapers almost every day. Although the necessity of this term in the analysis of Slovak-Czech relations is obvious, except for rare and unsatisfactory exceptions there cannot be found, in the scientific research of Slovak culture or in popular presentations of its results, a precise definition, or an insight on what consequences the term might have for evaluating the lives of the two nations, which are driven by fate to continuous mutual influence. Researchers and critics obviously rely on those Romantic definitions that have been delineated and established for the understanding of Western cultures, and especially for the needs of artistic criticism. I am not aware that these definitions have been thoroughly analyzed and convincingly defended in relationship to Slovak culture, especially in its current form. […]

12In this treatise we could not avoid mentioning these problems for they influence the direction of our research. There is a considerable difference between the common definition of Romanticism and Slovak Romanticism. In any field we focus on, in which the Romantic nature is most prominent, we can detect features that don’t appear Romantic and their connection with the excited and chaotic mood, the eternal fountain of Romanticism, can only be inferred. The efforts to harmonize these features at any price appear to be mistaken. It will be more effective to explore Slovak Romanticism as an independent cultural phenomenon whose nature is to be determined. If we succeed in this, the relationship between Slovak Romanticism and Romanticism in general will reveal itself. Our intention is to strive for an appropriate description of Slovak Romanticism in all its important aspects.

13The reasons for writing about Slovak Romanticism using such a provisional definition are many but two stand foremost in our mind. First, there are many concrete problems in Slovak Romanticism, the solution to which will determine the further development of Slovak culture in the near future. The reader will easily identify these problems and their importance from the following lines. Second, I find it important to explain to people outside the Slovak environment why this and that is happening in Slovakia, why this and that is said or written here. If Slovakia’s characteristic feature is Romanticism, as opposed to, for example, Czech rationalism or, more precisely, Czech Classicism, both sides must understand the polemical arguments of their opponents and their actions in quite a different light than they were meant, for both sides interpret them in their own fashion, according to their respective worldviews. […]

The nature of Slovak Romanticism

14Slovak Romanticism is a modern movement. It emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century and is clearly related to the vigorous development of learning in Europe, especially east of the Rhine and north of the Alps. It is typical that it has touched primarily new nations, Germanic and Slavic ones, which, despite having absorbed Christian civilization, have retained a fresh memory of their barbarian past in the folk tradition.

15The blossom of the Romantic movement was determined by the decline of religious feeling and the disintegration of medieval social stratification. The criteria of spiritual life, deemed objective and valid before, had lost their force, and a replacement for authority was to be sought in subjective belief. Thus subjectivity is the first characteristic of the new movement. Revolt is the second, for to loosen the new social organization, freedom of conviction and scientific research was needed. This was impossible to achieve without revolutions against the power-holders, who understood that once there was freedom of exploration, their power would vanish. The development of science strengthened the implementation of rationalism to an unprecedented extent. On the opposing side there was a new eruption of mysticism and a search for new artistic and spiritual sources in the celebration of nature and human instinct. The knowledge of the basic elements of human nature brought forth cynicism and cruelty on the one hand and sentimentality and the tragic, leading to the Weltschmerz of the Romantic man, on the other. Results included impetuousness in research and boredom following a mystery solved too quickly.

16The awareness of the unity of mankind faded away, replaced by nationalism; broad Latin or French education was replaced by the study of the specific nations striving to prove their independence as quickly as possible. On the other hand, slogans of equality and fraternity awakened humanism, which had been lulled into sleep by the previous age. We see that the Romantic movement is, from its beginning, composed of contradictions and that its real aim is the endless voyage towards new dreams of nebulous and uncertain content. This underlines the mystique of action and oeuvre. The new spiritual slogan of the Romantic man is evolution, the unstoppable march of progress, captivating every individual.

17In Slovakia Romanticism captured only the most educated layers of society: the people in general remained untouched by Romanticism. This is shown quite clearly by the limited success of the Slovak uprising of 1848. Yet the educated layer, steering Slovak culture in the Romantic direction, determined its nature. If there was some resistance from the older generation, the young have broken it with their élan and activities, surpassing everything hitherto done in Slovakia.

18There are various explanations for the fact that Romanticism scored a complete victory in Slovakia, dominating till the end of the century and, in a sense, till today. The usual one is that Romanticism is a part of Slovak tribal and Slavic nature. This theme is usually developed by claims that the geographical nature of Slovakia has imprinted its features on the Slovak character and that nature’s influence has struck a sentimental chord, facilitating perceptions of natural and, in general, aesthetic beauty. Others say that the climatic difference between mountain ridges, where Slovaks spend most of their lives, and the deep valleys, helped to mould a character prone to extremes, that hard life generated resilience and fortitude, that the enclosure in mountain valleys helped to preserve the original customs and characteristics and, finally, that Slovakia, placed between East and West, had taken part in Western as well as Eastern learning. Fiction or fact, the truth is that Štúr’s generation, laying the foundations of modern Slovak culture, was convinced of the rightness of these theses and thus made Romanticism one of the chief features of the Slovak nationality. […]

19The first traces of Slovak Romanticism lead us back to the Reformation and Counter Reformation. Reformation means religious subjectivism, and though the Counter Reformation fought it successfully, it did not have the strength to root out the Protestant minority, which, because of constant harassment from the Catholic side, had to stay alert for battle at all times. Of course, religious disputes did nothing to support the retreat of religious subjectivism, nor of religious fanaticism. This is one of the reasons for the often-cited religious devotion of Slovaks.

20Thus, at the time when Romantic ideas began to influence Slovakia, the seed of Romanticism was already planted. The last source of Slovak Romanticism was the national idea and the fight against Magyarization in the former Kingdom of Hungary.

21Magyars and Slovaks have looked for the refuge in nationalism for the same reasons. National pressure is often quoted as an impulse, yet there are reasons of greater importance for our research. Europe’s cultural unity was falling apart and each cultural centre began to emphasize its own cultural hegemony. Magyars, as the founders of the state and holders of central power, claimed an exclusive cultural mission for their nation. Slovaks, on the other hand, saw no advantage in adopting the language of a small and relatively insignificant nation, and their intelligentsia started to lean towards the Slavic world, closest to them in language and culture. That this concept was dangerous for the Hungarian state was shown clearly over the course of a century, and thus attempts to destroy the Slovak nation followed. Yet the Hungarians did not have enough power to do it. The feeling of Slavic mutuality, on the other hand, was only in its infancy and the support from the Slavic world was merely superficial.

  • 1 Pavol Jozef Šafárik (1795–1861): Slovak philologist, poet, literary historian and ethnographer, on (...)
  • 2 Ján Kollár (1793–1852): Slovak poet, writer, archeologist and literary historian, the m ain source (...)
  • 3 The generation of Slovak patriots with the central figure of L’udovít Štúr (1815–1856) entering pu (...)

22The competition between Magyars and Slovaks was an unequal one. The Magyars could refer to their splendid history—the Slovaks had no such thing. Yet, the historical authenticity of a nation was, in the age of growing interest in history, a strong argument. Slovaks have reached for it through the pens of Šafárik,1 Kollár,2 and Štúr’s generation.3 Slovak Romantic history was founded, placing Slovaks at the centre of the Slavic world, reinforcing nationalist ambitions. A great interest in popular education and folk art was born, perceived now and in the past as the proof of the original Slavic culture and a thousand year-long history of the Slovak nation. This is the starting point of Slovak Romantic nationalism.

23This Romantic reverie of Štúr’s generation and its followers had its counterpart in the whole of contemporary Europe and would not have presented a danger had the Slovaks had the opportunity to implement their goals in political praxis and prove their worth in the face of harsh reality. Yet history teaches us that they were gradually stripped of any possibility of coordinated cooperation, their significant political activities were stifled at the very beginning, and by the 1870s they were deprived of their very last educational and cultural institutions. In such a situation the critical force of the Slovak intelligentsia began to fade and the level of education declined. The propensity towards daydreaming and reverie grew stronger. […]

24The second half of the last century was a time of a great industrial, political and cultural expansion for the former Kingdom of Hungary and for the rest of the world as well. Slovakia, the most industrialized part of the state from time immemorial, having the largest number of cities, had played, up to recent times, the most significant political role. It was the core of the state before the Turks were driven out and it seemed poised to demonstrate its importance in this period too. Yet in the changed national situation Slovakia could not show its worth, or more precisely, it could assert itself only if it yielded rapidly to the pressures of Magyarization. Every element lacking deep roots fell away and lost the connection with the Slovak community. At once the nation lost its yeomanry, its most politically experienced element, together with the bourgeoisie and its economic power. A harsh moral shock followed, for the rapid changes did not permit a real assimilation and the superficially Magyarised layers were of most unsound quality. Magyar megalomania, drunk by the apparent successes and growing political powers, did not feel the need to examine its gains and isolate itself from elements seeking merely to jump on the bandwagon. This seemingly phenomenal success thus became the seed of the inner disintegration of the Hungarian nation and foreshadowed its political bankruptcy.

  • 4 Magyaron: a term with strong negative connotations for those ethnic Slovaks who have accepted Hung (...)

25The most interesting point here is that the Magyaron layer,4 which occupied Pest, Slovak cities, and local administrations and which was recruited to a large extent from the Slovak environment, stood between the two nations as an independent subversive layer influencing, through its origins and familiar connections, the Slovak national organism too. Almost no patriotic Slovak family was without its renegade, who, though despised, remained a part of the family circle. It is also worth mentioning here that after the 1918 revolution this Magyaron layer found, to a large extent, its way back into the Slovak nation.

26What we have to explore here is the nature of the Magyaron influence. Slovak art has characterized this layer quite precisely, depicting its moral cynicism and proclivity towards carefree living. Each of our elder compatriots can testify to it from their own experience. The Magyarons perceived the daydreaming of Slovak patriots as a ridiculous exaggeration and a sign of inferiority. They were keen on destroying the Romantic visions of Slovak patriots through the analyses of man stripped down to his instincts, which, as they thought, justified their defection. Just as Hobbes observed that, after the loss of all values, the only remaining one was that of power and state, so his unknowing followers thought that the idea of the Magyar state and its power would outweigh the universal and humanistic dreams of Slovak patriots. Thus the Magyarons acted as the first apostles of disillusionment in the Slovak environment, leaving their mark there.

27At the end of the last century the decline of the primary oneiric Romanticism becomes obvious. The cause was not so much the influence of the Magyaron element, as the fact that the dream of a great upheaval and liberation of all Slavic nations did not come true. Czechs recovered from this shock quite easily and their critical attitude towards the Romantic dream of nationhood started to spread into Slovakia too. The young generation attempted political action again, with much success. And though their work was of great importance, their critical attitude led only to the disillusionment and ideological desertion of the majority of the Slovak intelligentsia, and to a new, intensified oppression from the Magyar side. We cannot predict what would have been the end of this realistic movement had the World War not interrupted it.

28With the First World War and the entry of Slovakia into the Czechoslovak Republic, all conditions changed and Slovak Romanticism developed a completely new face. It is remarkable that this enormous change, fulfilling almost every Romantic dream of the older generations, did not generate a new wave of Romantic visions. That can be ascribed to two reasons. The most important one is that the Slovak nation changed from an esoteric church into a mass organization, including the previously lethargic Slovak people. On the other hand, under the direct Czech influence, the critical attitude of the new generation was reinforced. We must also not forget that those layers of the nation hitherto estranged by the Hungarian spirit had again rapidly adapted to the changed situation and claimed their place in the nation. It is hard to presume that they would lose the foreign spiritual veneer so quickly.

29But there were other, more consequential reasons. The young generation had to cope with new ideas they had lost touch with during the last decades. Fin de siécle was experienced in Slovakia only individually; now it was necessary to cope with it at once, and in the name of the whole national culture. Painful personal misgivings were joined by the national ones: are we a nation at all? Are we robust enough as a nation and as individuals? Do we posses a true cultural creativity? A new wave of naturalism and cynicism following the First World War put more emphasis on these questions.

30Unfortunately, the Czechs, who had solved these questions in the 1890s, had no sympathy for such issues and dismissed them under the heading “Romanticism”. They were full of state-political designs and did not see that the Slovaks were occupied with completely different problems which had to be solved before they could become their equal partners. True, the split of Slovaks into the Czechoslovak and Slovak movements occurred only inside the Slovak body politic, and only there did it carry its real significance, yet the Czechs had nevertheless adopted a one-sided attitude, not seeing that the issue was not the struggle to preserve the state, but an important moral question about whether the Slovaks really were capable of cultural creativity on their own, whether they were equal members of the world community. It was not possible to exclude the Czech influence, yet it cannot be denied that it should have been more sensitive and devoid of self-righteousness. Slovaks, on both sides, were demonstrating impatience, for it was felt that this was a crucial period. An aversion to the patronizing attitude arose, strengthened by those who hated Czechs, because, in this new situation, they had lost their power, or exclusive claims to property. The Czechs have supported them unwittingly, by their lack of insight into the game and their power policy, which has played into the hands of their opponents. The Slovaks could not but see that the Czechs were the decisive political and economic element in Slovakia, and that they had no interest in giving up this influence to new, impatient people.

31We can’t blame the Czechs; on the contrary, they are to be praised for their efforts to provide education to the widest strata of the population. Yet, if they understood the matter, they would have to know that the first result of democratization in an educational system is the flattening of the peak levels. Considering that this leveling went hand in hand with high demands on cultural and political leadership of the newly arising bourgeois intelligentsia, we can understand the potential and real consequences. We see why the young generation, having had immense difficulties getting into state politics—there were times when this was impossible—felt an aversion to the Czechs and looked for its place in the ranks of the opposition.

32These facts had not only a state-political but also a cultural impact. We have mentioned that Slovakia was only now hurriedly acquainting itself with the new ideas of the end of the last century and in them experienced its personal and national insecurities. It is not surprising that they would turn them into a tool against Czech rationalism and Czech cultural influence in general. It was a mix of both Romantic ideas and disillusion that were, however, united by their contempt towards rationalism and the emphasis on the value of idea, or fiction, in human life.

33The new ideology, hard to classify as Romantic, yet obviously stemming from the Romantic disillusion, prevailed more easily due to the separation from the official, academic science—there was much to criticize it for, still it had preserved a scientific spirit—and thus appeared as purely Slovak and anti-Czech.

34The young generation, having no hope of a career in universities or state administration, deprived of control over public and economic life, embraced politics, art and journalism. Growing up without scientific critique—for the rift between them and Czechs and Czechoslovaks grew steadily—the young generation has slowly lost certitudes and dared to make ever-bolder promises, thinking it would know how to fulfill them if it only had the political power. And thus the political takeover became its chief program, and everything else conformed to it. […]

35Slovakia’s misfortune is that it did not have a personality with universal authority in the last decades. The chief remedy could arise out of the secondary and tertiary schools. Since these were of low level in the past regime and Slovakia does not have enough educated teachers today, it is hard to expect a radical change in the foreseeable future. Thus the Slovak academic revival won’t arrive for another decade. […]


36Slovak Romanticism cannot be regarded as the final shape of Slovak nature and culture, but at most as one of its aspects, albeit a dynamic one, like a gap that needs to be bridged. Romanticism is not dangerous per se; what is dangerous is the lack of its counterweight, rationality, resulting in unbalanced cultural development. Dangerous is the lack of a sense of measure and equilibrium, all of this supporting confusion and passivity. To overcome this uncertainty is imperative for Slovak culture and its future.

37The Romantic face of Slovakia hasn’t been and isn’t its only face today. The fact that the common people have not participated in it, providing an example of balanced and at the same time creative culture, cannot be overemphasized. Naturally, we cannot go so far as to perceive folk culture as an ideal: that would be to repeat the initial mistake of the Slovak Romantics. Higher culture is inevitable; any return to the primitive would be a mistake. It is exclusively the tenor of such folk culture, which cannot be imitated, only developed, that can serve as a model.

38To make this possible in Slovakia, first several spiritual constants, without which artistic creation is impossible, must prevail. The gap between nationalism and universalism must be bridged to enable comparison with other cultures. Slovakia must get rid of the feeling of inferiority, hindering in various ways its reflection of self and others. Finally, it must create a critical research method, enabling it to pronounce opinions of more than a momentary value, more than the dilettante “perhaps”, “could be either way”. As for the ethical renaissance, what Slovakia needs is less moralizing and more emphasis on self-control and systematic effort.

39This is the way that could lead toward a new, higher Slovak culture, in which the notions of “people” and “intelligentsia” would lose their present exclusive character. The beauty of Romanticism would not necessarily be lost; lost would be the marks of tepidity, confusion and dilettantism, typical of contemporary Slovak Romanticism. This will happen sooner or later. If Slovakia is to fulfill its historical role, whatever it may be, any other development is unfathomable.

40Finally, we have to add that the turmoil resulting from spiritual uncertainty, central to this essay, is not an exclusively Slovak phenomenon, even if it, perhaps, did not acquire the same acuity and urgency elsewhere. To master it at home and at least in its immediate surroundings may be the cultural and historic role of Slovakia.


1 Pavol Jozef Šafárik (1795–1861): Slovak philologist, poet, literary historian and ethnographer, one of the first promoters of Slavistics as a specific academic field.

2 Ján Kollár (1793–1852): Slovak poet, writer, archeologist and literary historian, the m ain source of Pan- S lavic ide ology of his time.

3 The generation of Slovak patriots with the central figure of L’udovít Štúr (1815–1856) entering public life in the mid-1830s and credited with the development of a coherent Slovak national program.

4 Magyaron: a term with strong negative connotations for those ethnic Slovaks who have accepted Hungarian language and culture at the expense of their own Slovak heritage.


Pavol Lukáč (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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