Lately both Hungary and Slovakia are preoccupied with a sixty-year-old story, the so-called Beneš decrees. I bet most people in either country, if you had asked them about these decrees a few years ago, wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about.
For a little background one has to go back to 1918 and the creation of Czechoslovakia. This was a great diplomatic accomplishment by two university professors turned politicians, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš. These two men had campaigned assiduously during the First World War in the capitals of the great powers in the hope of creating a Czechoslovak state. The new state included the historical provinces that had belonged to the Czech Crown–Bohemia, Moravia and the Sudetenland–as well as the northern mountain ranges of Hungary where the majority of the population was Slovak. The historical borders on the west were not changed, although almost half of the population in these provinces was German. On the East more Hungarian territories were incorporated, including Ruthenia (now part of Ukraine) and large, purely Hungarian territories on the left bank of the Danube beceause the Czechs insisted on a defensible border. Thus, Czechoslovakia became a miniature Habsburg Empire as far as the nationality composition of the country was concerned.
With the exception of the Czechs no one was entirely happy with the new status quo. The Germans wanted to join their kin in Austria, the Slovaks (and even the Ruthenians) wanted autonomy, and the Hungarians felt robbed. Even the Allies eventually realized that Czechoslovakia was unlikely to be a stable country because of its multi-national nature. Just to give a few figures. In Slovakia in the 1920s there were 2 million Slovaks, about 800,000 Hungarians, and close to 100,000 Ruthenians. In the country as a whole the Czechs constituted 51%, the Slovaks 16%, the Germans 22%, the Hungarians 5%, and the Ruthenians 4% of the population.
With Hitler’s rise to power Czechoslovakia began to disintegrate. First the Sudeten Germans were incorporated into Germany, followed soon enough by Hungary demanding certain territories and eventually marching into the Ruthenian-inhabited territories as well, and, finally, Slovakia becoming a puppet state of Nazi Germany. The Czech lands became a German protectorate. Beneš, who by that time was prime minister, escaped to the West and in London established a government-in-exile and convinced the Allies that since Prague was under foreign occupation, the government-in-exile was the only true representative of the Czechoslovak state. Thus, Czechoslovakia got out of the war victorious (and was returned to its former territorial state, reincorporating the Sudeten Germans, the Hungarians, and the Ruthenians) in spite of the Slovaks who were, until the last minute, in the wrong camp.
Beneš felt that the cause of Czechoslovakia’s downfall was its multi-national nature and decided to convince the Allies to give him a free hand as far as ethnic cleansing was concerned (except in those days they didn’t call it that). In a presidential decree he declared the collective guilt of all Germans and Hungarians living in Czechoslovakia and began to expel 3.5 million Germans under apparently very harsh circumstances. He began expelling the Hungarians too, but the Allies after a while stopped the forced exodus.
The other day the Slovak parliament reaffirmed the validity of the Beneš decrees, minus the notion of collective guilt. What prompted this rather unfriendly action? Pál Csáky, the new president of the MKP (Magyar Koalició Pártja; homepage: http://www.mkp.sk/), a right of center Hungarian party in Slovakia, without consulting with anyone, initiated parliamentary action concerning the decrees, including compensation for those who had lost their property as a result of the expulsion. Well, the idea of compensation is exactly what the Slovaks didn’t want to hear. They responded by reaffirming the Beneš decrees (meaning no compensation) without bringing up the old accusation of collective guilt. The response may seem a tad illogical, but it was very pragmatic. There was no way the Slovaks wanted to get sucked into the compensation scenario, so they did the best they could under the provocative circumstances.
Now it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath. There’s no reason to undermine Hungarian-Slovak relations over this issue.