Kollai, István: Szlovákia királyt választ [Slovakia Elects a Monarch] Reviewed by László Öllös

Kollai, István: Szlovákia királyt választ [Slovakia Elects a Monarch]. Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 2021, 260 p.

A central point of Kollai’s book is found in its concluding part, notably, “The foregoing chapters have discussed a number of events of the past millennium; yet, one might draw some general conclusions resulting from those events, one of these conclusions being that present (current) conflicts of interests do influence one’s view of past events. The current trends in the issue of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia results in a strategic conflict of interests between Hungary and Slovakia, which could also alter the views on the past.”

Well, that’s probably true, as shown, indeed, by this book. An important and wellknown theory of nationalism (see Karl W. Deutsch) considers it to be a tool of political elites, used by them to mobilize the masses; in order to have the capacity to mobilize, it is clearly necessary for them to construct an appropriate national ideology (cf. Elie Kedourie).

For the most part, Kollai discusses an aspect that plays a key role in achieving this aim, specifically, textbooks. Analyzing the history textbooks in Slovakia, he considers the historical events and figures that have been viewed in differing and contrasting ways in the two cultures.

The author provides an overview of most of the debated topics, using a similar methodology in each case: he examines the points of view on the given topic, paying special attention to the doubted and controversial ones. He then describes the one we find in Slovakian history textbooks from a range of historical periods, considering the similarities as well as the differences between them.

His first topic is the geographical space occupied by Great Moravia, one of the most sensitive issues. This is followed by a presentation of the Slovak interpretation of the period of the Hungarian Conquest (of the Carpathian Basin), going on to discuss the issues concerning the foundation of the Kingdom of Hungary and the co-existence of Hungarians and Slovaks in the Kingdom. Checking the details, we find some further questions of great interest. For instance, “Were the Moravians Old Slovaks?”, or “Blonde Scythians and Slavs following Avar fashions: stories of origins on unstable ground.” Also, “The Duchy of Nitra: A Slavic duchy within the Kingdom of Hungary?” – and so on and so forth. He discusses the issues concerning the patriarchal cross, the early medieval ethnic situation in the Northern Carpathian region, the debate around Máté Csák (Slovak Matúš Čák Trenčiansky), the interpretation of the Holy Crown as a Slovak symbol, the role of Slovak legions in the 1848 revolution, the Beneš Decrees, among other things.

The chapter on the problems of the Slo vakization of personal names includes a telling sentence of methodological importance: “We might as well quote Vladimir Mi náč, editor-in-chief of the Slovak Bio graphical Lexicon, who says, ‘This is our own sovereign territory that we populate with people such as

Balaša’ (Hungarian Balassa).”

Let us make it clear that the chief weakness of the book lies in its having been published in Hungarian only, although its Slovak translation would be more than welcome. The overall picture suggested by it to us, i.e. the readers, is more than interesting. These problems cannot be solved or clarified by debating historians who specialize in these particular fields, since such debates are hardly heard, if at all, outside conference venues. Yet, the primary target audience would (and should) be the two nations’ public, with the specialists of the other party playing a secondary role: specifically, national identity is mass identity.

The author’s choice of his topic is excellent: by studying textbooks, he provides an analysis of an especially relevant kind of machinery in the formation of such a mass identity. During the development process of the idea of nationalism, there have emerged several models of how national pride may pervade the folk spirit, and how estate identity and loyalty can be altered by it. One of its instruments is the all-pervasive historical glory that derives from joint past actions as examples of community identity. These must be interpreted as elements of the nation’s history, not caring about the fact that modern national identity did not exist at the time these events had taken place. Should there be gaps in the story, they must be filled, which can chiefly be achieved by assimilating the past: people or events that can – at least partially – be associated with the ethnic past of the present nation should be fully integrated into it.

Kollai gives a list of such attempts and the surrounding debates in his book, providing a detailed description of the parties’ claims and views. The reader is thus given a detailed picture of most issues concerning the nationbased “creation of history” in Slovak-Hun garian relations – more specifically, about the grandiosity of the fight for an exclusive interpretation of the past.

István Kollai is able to critically consider all of such matters because his system of values reaches far beyond them. As he writes, “Therefore, the attractiveness of the common internal inheritance of the Visegrád area greatly depends on how it is personified, which now, in 2020, appears weaker than the powerful images of common external enemies. Put differently, the collective identity of the member states of the Visegrád Group in recent years has not been inspired by their common heritage, but, instead, a common concept of external enemies, including “Brusselian” politicians and the migration problem. This may have a demoralizing effect on these societies, without any promise of stable future cooperation. It would be better to see any kind of common thinking within the Visegrád Group that is founded upon common heritage rather than a shared view of enemies, although it would certainly be a much greater and risky political challenge to accomplish.”

Furthermore, as the author says (in Footnote No. 502), “There have been ideas of co-operation between Central European nations due to external threat, none of which lasted, such as the attempt at co-operation of the nations oppressed by Russian and Austrian absolutism […], the opening attempt of Czechoslovakia fearing its end by Germany […], or the collaboration of opposition forces in Central Europe against the Soviet Union; none of them proved to be fruitful or lasting.”

Kollai thinks, therefore, that the common heritage of Slovak-Hungarian co-existence should be popularized instead. He formulates the concluding remark of his book as follows: “… it certainly is a more difficult way to im prove the relations between neighbours than creating images of a common enemy, but it might have more lasting and much betterresults.”

We must emphasize, repeatedly, that the main weakness of this otherwise excellent book is that it has not been published in Slovak, which needs to be done – and in a way that makes the book accessible to a wide range of readers (rather than published in the usual, limited, number of copies for the narrow circle of specialists). Let me repeat, national identity is mass identity. Using the Internet, in the 21st century, would make this possible at a low cost.

All we need is strong will.

László Öllös