EUROPA-LISTE: En busca de una cultura europea

Michal Hvoreckýen

Michal Hvorecký

Michal Hvorecký

Goethe, Parachutes und Democracy

What do Slovaks think about Europe and Germany? What do they cherish and value? Our online survey has yielded surprising results.

When Europe is up for discussion, count in the Slovak people. Only ten years ago, French president Jacques Chirac told Eastern Europeans to keep their opinions to themselves (on the topic of the war in Iraq). Now, we want to know what makes out the old continent. Asking the East and Southeast of Europe is nothing if not a gain. It is only together that this gargantuan project, currently faltering on so many levels, can be successfully reset.

„What does Slovakia mean to you, personally?“ I would rather not have to pose this question to someone from Western Europe, for fear of an embarrassing answer the likes of, „What, you mean Slovenia?“
So what does Europe mean to Slovaks? 282 Slovak citizens participated in the Europe List survey – exactly the same as the population of Háj (Áj, in Hungarian), a Slovak village near Košice. In fact, the answers sound as if they had all been given in the same little hamlet.
For Slovaks, Europe mostly signifies freedom of travel, the Euro and diversity. 53 percent identify as „full-blooded“ Europeans and nearly the same amount of people look forward to the future and also anticipate it to be quintessentially influenced by Germany (57 percent!).

Indeed, Slovakia was long reckoned among the proponents of the European idea. Great joy erupted, then, over the prospects of free travel across open borders and of being able to legally work abroad. Joining the European Union confirmed the nation's Western orientation. The Slovak on the street believed EU membership would bring nothing but boons, with no additional obligations, let alone having to account for the debts of other, richer countries. The West proposed to the Slovaks (and to all other Eastern Europeans) an EU resembling an earthly paradise, skipping over the small print.
The unemployment rate in my home country is the second highest in all of Europe, prices are climbing, inflation is at a record high of 4%. The only Eastern European country using the euro as currency is, now more than ever, feeling the bleakness of current circumstances. The newly shared currency notwithstanding, both incomes and pensions have remained significantly lower than in Western or South-Western Europe.

But Europe is still looked up to: structures such as the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum or the Sagrada Familia are seen as the greatest – even Stonehenge made tenth place! But where is Bratislava's St Martin's Cathedral or the futuristic UFO-like bridge over the Danube to Petržalka, and where in the world is St Jacob's Cathedral in Levoča, containing the world's tallest Gothic high altar?

For the Slovaks, the most important European inventions are antibiotics and the parachute; more important than electricity or even democracy. In the Slovak opinion, Europe's greatest literary figure is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe! Pardon – figure? Not quite what they were asking for. And what about the Little Prince or Anna Karenina? It is as if Good Soldier Schwejk had answered, who, by the way, only made ninth place, although he fought so long and satirically on Slovakian soil for the Royal and Imperial Monarchy. The printing press is also popular; after all, it is only thanks to it that we can read „The Sorrows of young Goethe, by Werther.“

The Slovak I know is very proud of his country and of his language; he likes voting nationalist and populist. But in this survey, the country disappears into oblivion, into the politically correct, the prescribed. Slovakia's take on Europe is marked by an inferiority complex. The capital of Bratislava made tenth place! In comparison, Prague is number three for the Czechs, Ljubljana number seven for the Slovenians. No Slovak book made the finals, no artist, no structure. Not even the Czechoslovakian cult film „The Shop on Main Street“ by Ján Kádár and Elmar Klos, which won an Oscar in 1966, made the list.

I was even more dumbfounded by the sports category. I can sympathize with the Slovaks in their not holding any Slovak politicians noteworthy. But not a single hockey star? Two of our top players just won the NHL Stanley Cup! Why do we even have a national sport, as important to us as football is to Germany? Slovakia without ice hockey is like Munich without Bayern or Hamburg without St. Pauli. At least cyclist Peter Sagan (only second place, after Federer) is garnering international success, being currently favoured to win the hundredth Tour de France's green jersey.

So what does Europe mean to Slovaks? The common Slovak, probably from Háj, wants to live in Germany, electricity optional, easy on the democracy, but, if possible, with his trusty parachute; he wants to eat Halušky (gnocchi with sheep's cheese), marvel at the great literary figure of Goethe and view the Eiffel Tower from afar, all the while printing foreign books, chowing down on antibiotics and being a little bit happy. Europe's future speaks Slovak.

Michal Hvorecký
Writer, Bratislava