Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 11
20 March 2000

Politics without a Past by Shari J Cohen B O O K   R E V I E W:
Politics without a Past: The absence of history in postcommunist nationalism
Shari J Cohen
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1999.
ISBN 0822323990

Magali Perrault

In Politics without a Past, Shari J Cohen analyses the legacy of "two totalitarianisms" (the Nazi Slovak puppet state of 1939 to 1945 and Communism) in a post-Communist, independent Slovakia.

She argues that both the country's Fascist and Communist pasts have had, and still have, a deep impact on Slovak post-Communist politics, but she challenges the "sleeping beauty"/"return of history" conceptions of post-Communist politics, which consider the resurgence of pre-Communist traditional nationalisms as the main challenge to democracy.

According to Cohen, Communist socialisation processes and the regime's failure to allow any serious discussions and reflections on the Slovak past left Slovaks without a shared historical narrative after 1989. Crucially, she concludes that the main problem for Slovak society is not nationalism but, on the contrary, the fact that post-Communist Slovakia is a nation without a unifying ideology. In this context, the success of a politician such as Vladimír Mečiar can be explained not by the appeal of nationalism among the Slovaks but by the fact that Slovaks today, for the most part, are uncommitted to any ideology or any specific view of the "meaning" of their history: "while [Mečiar] became the classic demagogue, the fact that his arguments were based on lack of commitment is what is crucial to understand" (p 21).

Cohen introduces a useful typology of Slovak elites, which she divides between "ideological" and "mass" elites. She defines the "ideological" elites as the "heirs to a pre-Communist, nation-building process through which, during the Communist period, they developed or preserved historical consciousness" (p 5). The "mass elites" are, in contrast, the "elites who had no connection to any alternative ideology and who were solely formed by the official Leninist socialization process" (p 5). Mečiar is the most significant embodiment of these "mass-elites," and Cohen thus conceptualises and theorises what others, such as Miroslav Kusý, have suggested before: "Vladimír Mečiar is not principally a Slovak nationalist and never has been. He is an extremely pragmatic politician and as such he never follows any predetermined principles or concepts. He always goes for success."[1]

Cohen tells us how these two elites came to compete for political predominance in post-Communist Slovakia and examines why the "ideological" elites gradually lost ground and eventually gave way to the "mass-elites," who were more in tune with a population which, as a consequence of Communist socialisation, was "not equipped or inclined to try to assess the validity of politicians's claims." In other words, the mass elites (Mečiar but also most of the leaders of the Slovak National Party) won because "they reflected a society that was just like them" (p 21) and simply adopted the politics of opportunism.

The victory of the mass-elites was furthermore facilitated by the deep divisions within the ideological elites. The (limited) number of Slovaks who had not been completely submitted to Communist socialisation had two fundamentally divergent historical reference points, and anti-Communism remained their only, insufficient, common denominator. In 1989, the "democrats" (Martin Butora, Fedor Gál, Miroslav Kusý, Martin Šimečka, etc) constituted the bulk of the founders of the revolutionary movement Public Against Violence and looked to the interwar First Czechoslovak Republic as their role model. They were deeply committed to the maintenance of Czechoslovakia as the common state of Czechs and Slovaks. In sharp contrast, the "nationalists" tended to reject the Masaryk legacy and tried to rehabilitate the wartime Slovak state in the name of Catholic traditions (for politicians such as Ján Čarnogurský who after the Velvet Revolution founded the Christian Democratic Movement) or of broader national motives (in the case of a small group of émigrés).

In this context, "the appeal of Mečiar came... from his ability to cast himself defensively in opposition to the proposals of the democrats on the one hand and the nationalists on the other." This was clearly evidenced during the electoral campaign of Mečiar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) in June 1992, when the party took an extremely ambiguous position, for instance, on Czech-Slovak relations. Characteristically, the platform of the HZDS stated:

"[t]he development of Slovakia ... is strongly dependent on a qualitative change of constitutional organisation. In order to allow the Slovak Republic to tackle its difficult economic and social problems, its organs must have sufficient competencies. The solution of internal problems is also closely linked to international politics. In this context, Slovakia must have the possibility to develop direct relations with the other States. This requires the transformation of the existing federal structure uniting Slovak Republic and Czech Republic into a structure of sovereign republics whose each would become subject of international law."[2]

However, at the same time, the HZDS put forward (and subsequently implemented) a three-point programme which included the adoption of a declaration of Slovak sovereignty, the drafting of a Slovak constitution and the election of a Slovak president (while claiming that this was not equivalent to independence).

Several aspects of Cohen's thesis seem more contestable. Firstly, Cohen contends (p 7) that "Slovakia... had a very weakly articulated nationalism at the time Communism appeared." In his influential History of the Czechs and Slovaks (published in 1943), Robert Seton Watson indeed argued that the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 "saved" the Slovaks, since "there can be little doubt that in another generation... assimilation [with the Hungarians] would have been complete".[3] Yet the more recent research of scholars such as Peter Brock, Owen Johnson or David Paul has nuanced and even contested Seton-Watson's gloomy portrayal and has emphasised the relative dynamism of the Slovak national movement in the 19th century.[4]

The most important reason for the failure of "Czechoslovakism" (the merging of the Czech and Slovak nations into a "Czechoslovak" nation) was tentatively that the Slovaks, like the Czechs, had by 1918 developed a sense of their national identity strong enough not to allow it to be merged easily into a larger "Czechoslovak" identity. It was extremely difficult to build a Czechoslovak nation-state the starting point of which was two nations aware of their distinctiveness (if only because of their use of two separate literary languages since Ludovít Štúr's Slovak codification in the 1840s). To put it in the more theoretical framework developed by the Czech historian Miroslav Hroch, by 1918, the Slovak national movement had already begun the last phase (characterised by the rise of a mass national movement) of its development [5] and this impeded the subsequent integration of the Czech and Slovak nations into one "Czechoslovak" nation.

What is more, scholars such as Carol Skanik Leff or Yeshayahu Jelínek have emphasized the nation-building character of the Slovak state of 1939 to 1945 and showed that "quite apart from the specific ideological content of the clerical regime, the Slovak state was a watershed in the consolidation of Slovak national self-affirmation."[6] Therefore, broadly speaking Slovak national identity is of a somewhat paradoxical nature. The self-assurance of the Slovaks, for instance, sharply contrasts with the Czech reflective attitude towards their national identity:

[T]he Slovaks appear to have a self-confidence about what a Slovak is which one might compare with that of the English, Scottish or Welsh. They do not appear to need the endless self-defining "philosophies" of national history that the Czechs have.[7]

This is also what the Czech scholar Vladimír Macura acknowledges when he stated that "Czechs 'often' feel 'insecure' about their 'conscious identity'... we are not Czechs because we exist... our closest neighbours, the Slovaks, with whom we shared a state for three quarters of a century, have no problems with their identity: they are Slovaks because they are Slovaks."[8] Slovakia has often been said to experience identity problems following the establishment of the independent state in 1993, but the concept of Slovak statehood was, in many ways, more firmly anchored among the Slovak population than the notion of Czech statehood was among the Czechs. Significantly, whereas the Slovaks had no problem with finding the name of their independent state, the Czechs wrangled for some time in search of a name.[9]

Secondly, even if we accept Cohen's starting point, a problem still remains as far as the validity of her choice of Slovakia as what she calls "a single theory-developing case" (p 7). The concept of post-Communism is itself debatable and is perhaps dangerous if it assumes that the transitions or transformations follow a single path and are the result of a "uniform experience." Even Croatia (perhaps the closest case to Slovakia as far as the Second World War past is concerned) had in Tito's Yugoslavia a very different experience with Communism, and this might significantly reduce the applicability of Cohen's model to other Central European states.

Thirdly, Cohen is right to argue that the absence of an ideology which "might have served to integrate Slovak society" is problematic. Yet, in the long-term, one could wonder whether a population wary of ideologies might not become a potential force for consensus and an opportunity after all. This, of course, implies, as Cohen implicitly suggests, that future Slovak leaders will manage to turn their current "egoism" into a positive "individualism." Here, the author uses the distinction made by Ken Jowitt between the "amoral" pursuit of "short-term personal interest" (egoism) and individualism, which "means the moral primacy of the individual" and "derives from human nature rather than being a product of unique historical/cultural factors" (p 7 and 198-199).

Overall, Cohen provides us with a much-needed, illuminating analysis of the historical background of Slovak post-Communist politics. She shows how and why Slovakia has failed to address the legacy of the Nazi puppet state, especially as far as anti-Semitism is concerned. Her discussion of the role of nationalist émigrés in post-Communist Slovakia is also interesting, and there is probably a lot more research to be done in this field.

Politics without a Past is a timely book which should be of interest to all observers of Slovak politics but one that also deals with an issue (how to cope with the legacy of Fascist totalitarianism after more than four decades of Communist socialisation) which is clearly relevant to many other Central European states, such as Croatia and Latvia.

Magali Perrault, 17 March 2000

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  1. Miroslav Kusý, "Always Ready to Wave the Flag," (translated from "V. Mečiar je čistý pragmatik", in Lidové Noviny, 16 /06 / 1992, p 8), The Guardian, 17 July 1992.
  2. Tezy volebného programu HZDS, Bratislava, 1992, quoted in Miroslav Novák, Une Transition Démocratique exemplaire?: L'émergence d'un système de partis dans les pays Tchèques (Centre Français de Recherche en Sciences Sociales, Prague, 1997), p 145
  3. Robert W Seton-Watson, A History of the Czechs and Slovaks (Hutchinson & Co, London, 1943), p 283.
  4. Peter Brock, The Slovak National Awakening : an essay in the Intellectual History of East Central Europe (University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo, 1976), pp.53-54 ; David W. Paul, "Slovak Nationalism and the Hungarian State," 1870-1910, in Paul Brass (ed.) , Ethnic Groups and the State (Croom Helm, London and Sydney, 1985), p.145 ; Owen V. Johnson, Slovakia 1918-1938 : Education and the Making of a Nation (East European Monographs, Boulder; University of Columbia Press, New York, 1985), p 10.
  5. Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe : A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985) esp p.22-24. According to Serhy Yekelchyk, this is evidenced by the emergence in the years 1890 and 1900 of political parties, such as the Slovak National Party (created in 1868, but increasingly active in the 1890s) and the Slovak People's Party (founded in 1905) (Serhy Yekelchyk, "Nationalisme ukrainien, biélorusse et slovaque", in Chantal Delsol and Michel Maslowski (eds), Histoire des Idées Politiques de l'Europe Centrale, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1998, p 384).
  6. Carol Skalnik Leff, National Conflict in Czechoslovakia: the Making and remaking of a State, 1918-1987 (Princeton University Press, 1988), p.90. See also Yeshayahu Jelínek, The Parish Republic: Hlinka's Slovak People's party, 1939-1945 (East European Monographs, Boulder, 1976), p 132.
  7. Robert B Pynsent, Questions of identity : Czech and Slovak Ideas of Nationality and Personality (Central European University Press: Budapest, London, New York, 1994), p 152
  8. quoted in Pynsent, ibid., p 152
  9. Bohemia-Moravia, "Česko","Velká Morava" (Great Moravia), "Česko-Moravská" or "Česko-Moravská-Slezská republika" (Czech-Moravian-Silesian Republic) were presented as alternatives to "Czech Republic." See for instance Susan Greenberg, "A splitting headache", The Guardian, 28 August 1992, p 19; Jan Ziełonka, Security in Central Europe (Adelphi Papers), p 3.


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