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Journey to the Post-Communist East

Vienna, March 11—Driving into town from the airport, I pass a café called the Espresso Ilidza. On the radio, a reporter discusses the arrangements in Austrian schools for teaching in Croatian. Then comes the weather forecast: for Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Northern Italy. I read the diminutive Neue Kronen Zeitung, clipped to its Zeitungshalter (newspaper stick) like a little flag. In a fighting interview, Frau Klestil, the jilted wife of Kurt Waldheim’s successor as president, tells us she is determined to remain Austria’s first lady. The operetta continues. I am back in Central Europe.

Later, at the editorial meeting of a more elevated journal, a German feminist exclaims: “Eastern men are such pashas.” Yes, a colleague agrees, they could do with some “re-education.” I glimpse a new Central Europe, where Polish men are to be “re-educated” by German feminists.

Then to the fellows’ meeting of the Institute for Human Sciences, a meeting place to rival even the Café Landtmann. Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish medievalist turned Solidarity adviser turned parliamentarian, lectures on The Collapse of Communism and European Security. He makes a politician’s speech, mustering every argument for Poland to be admitted to NATO. Eloquent, as always, but some in the audience are disconcerted. Somehow they had expected him to speak as an intellectual to intellectuals. But times and roles have changed, and Geremek, unlike many from the anti-Communist oppositions of the 1970s and 1980s, has made a clear choice: while he is a politician he will be a politician.

I’m sure he’s right. All we’ve seen in Central European politics since 1989 confirms an old truth. You may, in the course of your life, be both intellectual and politician. Try to be both at once and you’ll be neither.

Bratislava—Before the wars—second and cold—you went by tram from Vienna for an evening at the theater in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, or vice versa. Now you could do so again, if the authorities would only re-lay a few miles of track. Meanwhile, it is just over an hour by train, and you slide across the border as if the iron curtain had never been. Amid the seemingly endless, dusty allotments—small plots of land on which people grow vegetables—I spy garages flying the flags of Volkswagen and Audi, like crusader castles. Giggly Slovak schoolgirls scream pop songs out of the train windows, startling the people digging in their gardens below. But the nice girl sitting next to me demurely studies a German textbook on Betriebswirtschaft (management economics). She hopes to work in the hotel trade.

As I arrive, the government falls. The populist prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, has been ousted by a parliamentary vote, following outspoken criticism of him by the president, Michal Kovác.

On the evening television news, the chubby, avuncular president is shown sitting beside a carefully polished tile oven, with a large bunch of flowers in a vase on the table before him. At one side of the screen, you see a large microphone, held motionless by a female hand with brightly painted fingernails. The President talks about democracy, constitutionalism, civic engagement, on and on, but the more he talks the less he convinces me—because of that painted hand. After about five minutes we briefly catch sight of the lady interviewer. Her feeble “question” gives the cue for another five-minute sermon, delivered to the long-suffering painted hand. President Clinton, or President Mitterrand, or, for that matter, President Klestil, can only dream of such a complaisant medium; but then, they work in a fully fledged democracy.

My acquaintances are divided over whether Meciar’s fall is a good thing. All sigh with relief that the vulgar, nationalist rabble-rouser has got the boot. But some fear this ouster gives him the perfect chance to bounce back—as self-styled victim—in the elections that are due to be held in September. After all, he did it once before, in 1992, after being ousted by the parliament in 1991. Well, we shall see.

Meanwhile, I am in search of old Bratislava—that is, the German-Hungarian-Jewish-Slovak city of Pressburg, and before that the Hungarian royal capital of Pozsony. As I walk the dilapidated streets of the old town in the company of a local journalist, we meet an elderly gentleman in a black felt hat and formal gray coat, with a semi-precious stone on a ribbon round the collar of his slightly grubby white shirt. “Ah, here is the oldest Pressburger!” says my acquaintance, and makes the introduction. This is Jan, Hans, or “Hansi” Albrecht, a retired musicologist and son of a celebrated local composer.

Later, over coffee and cognac in the inspissated gloom of his cluttered apartment, Albrecht tells tales of old Pressburg, while kids smash out the window glass from a derelict house across the road. (“Yes, that house belonged to the Esterházys,” he says; crash goes another window.) He shows me a program for one of his father’s concerts: printed in German, Hungarian, and Slovak. The Pressburg of his youth really was trilingual, he says. Someone would address you in Hungarian, you might reply in German, another would interrupt in Slovak.

Even after the first wave of Slovakization, which began with the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the statistics still show a population of some 15,000 Jewish, 20,000 Hungarian, and 30,000 German citizens of Pressburg, as well as 60,000 Slovaks. It was only the next two waves of Slovakization which effectually purged the city of all but a very few survivors of the other nationalities. First came the proclamation of Slovak independence under Hitler’s protection, in March 1939. (Outside the Slovak Philharmonic’s concert hall, a pathetic gaggle of old men in shabby suits and cheap ties can be seen gathering to celebrate the anniversary.) The fascist puppet state of Father Jozef Tiso got rid of the Jews, and made the Hungarians unwelcome too.

After 1945, the new Czechoslovak government got rid of the Germans. Finally, to celebrate the enhanced status which Slovak Bratislava received after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Communist authorities drove a huge suspension bridge, the “Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising,” across the Danube and through the heart of the old town, destroying the synagogue and much of the old Jewish quarter. On a high wall they inscribed in large letters: “Bratislava, City of Peace.”

Alas, poor Pressburg. Hansi Albrecht, the musicologist, argues that there has also been some cultural gain—the effete, decadent bourgeois culture of the late Habsburg empire has been reinvigorated by an injection of raw Slavonic folk spirit—but one feels an overwhelming sense of loss. Alma Münzová, another charming survivor of old Pressburg, well-read, multilingual, soignée, gives me the text of a talk she recently delivered (in German) on the history of the city. In it, she quotes a wry old joke: “When will things finally get better?” “What do you mean? They already were!” In many ways, to propose multiculturalism in Central Europe really is to suggest going forward to the past.

However, one must beware the siren song of nostalgia. The balance was never even. Before the Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich, or compromise, of 1867, the Austro-German element dominated Pressburg life. After the Ausgleich, the Hungarians there launched a program of systematic Magyarization. At the end of the century, this would arouse the sympathy of visitors such as the historian R.W. Seton-Watson, who described it, under the pseudonym “Scotus Viator,” in the London Spectator. So at the end of the First World War he was among those who advocated that Slovakia—“Northern Hungary,” as it then was—should be taken away from Hungary and joined with the Czech lands, in the newly independent state of Czechoslovakia.

All this is not just history. It has immediate political relevance. For, as a result of the post-1918 territorial settlement, reaffirmed after 1945, and again in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, some half a million Hungarians now live just inside the Slovak frontier, on the north bank of the Danube. In Czechoslovakia, they were a small minority: about one in thirty of the population. In Slovakia they are a much larger minority: about one in ten.

The Slovak government, under Meciar, has been a model of nationalist stubbornness in resisting even the most reasonable demands for bilingual road signs, the restoration of the Hungarian forms of personal names, and so on, despite pressure from, among others, the Council of Europe. On the other hand, it was the now-deceased Hungarian prime minister József Antall who famously declared that he wished to be the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians (that is, roughly 10 million inside Hungary’s frontiers and 5 million beyond them). When Czecho- and Slovakia were splitting up, radical Hungarian nationalists even argued that what was laid down by the Allies in 1920, in the Treaty of Trianon, was the new frontier of Czechoslovakia, not of Slovakia—which would therefore have to be negotiated anew. Incredibly, though Slovakia and Hungary are both members of the Visegrád group, together with the Czech Republic and Poland, Slovakia currently has no ambassador in Budapest.

Slovakia’s Hungarians are represented in the Slovak parliament, by their own Hungarian parties. Except on a few tactical votes (and to some extent, interestingly, in the ex-Communist party) they do not mix with the Slovak parties. Regrettably, the Hungarian and Slovak sides seem to be getting not closer together but further apart. I am told that in a recent poll, 35 percent of those asked thought the Hungarian parties should not be represented in the Slovak parliament.

It is a worrying state of affairs.

Budapest—I cross the Slovak-Hungarian border on the so-called Balkan-Orient Express. Its Romanian carriages provide a very credible setting for a murder. The old peasant woman sitting opposite me puts the Hungarian-Slovak conflict in its proper place. To the Slovak passport officer she says, in Slovak, “I’m Slovak.” To the Hungarian passport officer she says, in Hungarian, “I’m Hungarian.” To neither does she show a passport. Maybe there’s hope for Central Europe yet.

I tell a Hungarian friend that I’m staying at the Hotel Gellért, that splendid art nouveau blancmange on the right bank of the Danube, with its majolica-walled thermal baths and granite-faced masseurs. “Oh,” she says, looking disapproving, “it’s a Forum hotel.” Thinking of the (rather good) Forum Hotel on the Pest side of the river, I’m about to exclaim: “So has the Forum taken over the Gellért?” Then I realize that she means the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the conservative nationalist party which has been in power since 1990 and now faces an election in which the former Communists are favored to win. How out of touch can you get?

She’s right too. I had forgotten how the tone, the decor, the very smell of the Gellért exude that particular aesthetic of populist Hungarianness. Even the “Do Not Disturb” signs to hang out on your doorknob are done in the national colors of red, white, and green.

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