Central European buddy list

Which countries are BFFs and which aren't?

As Hungary and Poland recently united to block the EU’s pandemic rescue package in defense of their illiberal regimes, I thought it would be worth noting some of the deeper roots of this alliance. I mean not just the fact that both countries are currently run by similarly inclined nationalist populists with a weak commitment to the rule of law. I am thinking of the long-standing friendship between the two countries that goes back in history and is summed up in the phrase “Pole and Hungarian brothers be”. I’m not saying that this older friendship is the cause of their current actions; only that it provides some helpful context.

And since I was going down that route, I thought I could write a bit about friendships in the region more generally. I took inspiration from an article a number of years back in Slate entitled “The Middle East Buddy List”. That article was intended to explain who got along with whom in the Middle East and labeled each dyad as friend, enemy, or “it’s complicated”. Here I’ll try to map out a few of the relationships in Central Europe, particularly in the Visegrad four - Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

To call any of the relationships in Central Europe “enemies” is a bit too strong and so my aim is simply to capture popular prejudices and historical associations. I tried to draw from published literature and history and I am open to additional suggestions from readers. Also, I’ve started here with just the four countries, but if there is interest, I will try to add more nationalities, not to mention minorities (Roma, Jews, etc.), though the latter could get depressing.

Czechs, as seen by:

Hungarians: This relationship has seen ups and downs before coasting to a peaceful conclusion. Hungarians once looked down on less successful rivals for influence in the Habsburg Empire like the Czechs who in their view were too focused on commerce and money as opposed to the more militaristic and aristocratic Hungarians. More serious controversies emerged after WWI when Czechoslovakia was awarded the province of Upper Hungary (i.e., Slovakia) including many Hungarian-speakers. Revisionism against that state of affairs continues, though it is now directed at Slovaks rather than Czechs. Under communism, Hungarians could be proud that they violently won some freedom from the Soviets in 1956, while Czechs more peacefully surrendered theirs after 1968, a confirmation of old stereotypes. The loss of a common border after 1992 has taken most of the geopolitical rivalry out of the relationship, except in competition for foreign investment. According to Bart, Hungarians view Czechs as “sober-minded, beer-drinking, and somewhat dull people.” The word Czech is sometimes used in Hungarian to connote something unpleasant (a Czech state of affairs means to be in deep trouble).

Poles: Cultural and linguistic similarities not to mention a common history of rule by foreigners meant that Polish views of Czechs were mostly friendly in the deeper past. Independence for both after WWI, however, led to disputes over the border and ultimately the Seven-Day War around Těšín. Bad blood and different mentalities probably stood in the way of mutually beneficial relations between the wars, but these were mostly restored under communism despite Poland’s participation in the Warsaw Pact invasion. Today Poles see Czechs as pub-going and cowardly Pepiks (short for Joseph), only concerned with their own world in contrast with the more heroic Poles. Similarly, Poles are fond of recalling the postwar Czech film “Nobody knows anything” in reference to their southern neighbors. Polish journalists have recently become fascinated by their southern neighbor and written several bestsellers about it.

Slovaks: Their views of Czechs might be summed up by Randall Jarrett’s line about Americans’ views of Brits: “You are smarter than us, but we are better than you.” Better as in more god-fearing and moral, not to mention tougher and closer to the soil. As the little brother in the relationship who had supposedly received a helping hand from the older brother but had to put up with his superiority, Slovaks have a litany of gripes against Czechs from insensitive bureaucrats to economic injustices, all encompassed by the phrase Pragocentrism. Since the Velvet Divorce, this griping has mostly disappeared and Slovaks have assumed the role of Canadians consuming the culture and attending the universities of their larger neighbor, but not subsuming themselves. Through it all, a sense of brotherhood survives for two small nations with mutually intelligible languages and many of the same cultural touchstones from 70 years in a common state. Politically, newly elected leaders of both countries make their first foreign visits to their former country-mates despite divergent political spectra.

Hungarians, as seen by:

Czechs: Czechs were once envious of Hungarians for their superior position in the Habsburg Empire and then rivals after both became independent. During communism, Czechs took advantage of the freer atmosphere in Hungary to gain a glimpse of Western rock bands and consumer products while enjoying vacations at Lake Balaton. Today Hungary mainly elicits a ho-hum from most Czechs as the loss of a common border has eliminated most sources of controversy even as their political systems have diverged. The difficult and funny-sounding Hungarian language is sometimes parodied by Czechs.

Poles: The mutual love of Poles and Hungarians is memorialized in the well-known ditty: “Pole and Hungarian - two brothers, good for saber and for glass. Both courageous, both lively, May God bless them.” The roots of the special relationship may be in the bonds of their two noble classes, the importation of a popular Polish king, Stephen Bathory, from Hungarian Transylvania, and Hungarian offers of aid when Poland was threatened. Under communism, Poles shared with Hungarians a bit of breathing space from Soviet hegemony, won through their stubborn civil societies. Today, Poland’s nationalist leaders serve as one of the only EU supporters of Hungary’s similarly inclined regime.

Slovaks: It is all too easy and thus common for Slovaks to blame their troubles on the Hungarians who after all ran their territory as Upper Hungary for nearly a millennium and attempted to Magyarize the native Slovak population. Since independence, the presence of a Hungarian minority making up 10% of the population of the Slovak lands has aroused the suspicions of Slovak nationalists worried about the threat of losing a chunk of their already small territory. They are helped along by the provocative actions of nationalist Hungarian governments who have granted citizenship rights to Hungarians living abroad. The long period of coexistence, however, means that aside from language, their peoples share a good bit of folk culture, national feeling, and religiosity. 

Poles, as seen by:

Czechs: While in older days, the two nations had friendly relations as both were trying to throw off the yoke of foreign oppressors, independence in 1918 led to a brief war over territory, known as the Seven-Day War, and then mutual suspicion. Soviet rule again brought their people together and again as victims of foreign oppressors, which the Poles defied more actively. Today, Czechs see their northern neighbor as a slightly backward and far more religious version of themselves. Some cross the border to buy cheaper food or consumer goods, which they carry home in large satchels known as “Polish bags.” Indeed, Poles have a reputation among Czechs as wheeler-dealers given their freedom to set up small businesses under communism.

Hungarians: As Fischer puts it, “Oddly enough in a region where nations spent most of their time trying to figure out which of their neighbors they hated the most, the Poles and Hungarians were centuries-deep friends.” This is commemorated in a short rhyme similar to the one above - “Pole and Hungarian - two good friends, fighting and drinking at the end”. As mentioned above, the friendship may be due to common enemies, non-overlapping territorial interests, and similar social structures with intermarrying nobilities. (Czechs and Slovaks, by contrast, are both more plebeian countries as their nobles became mainly German or Hungarian speakers.) More specifically, a Polish general helped Hungary during the Revolution of 1848 and there was Polish support for Hungary at traumatic moments like Trianon, WWII, and 1956. It may thus not be a coincidence then that current nationalist governments in both countries have found their way to each other in support of a Christian Europe and opposition to the EU.

Slovaks: Despite sharing a common border, Slovaks do not have strong stereotypes about Poles. This may be a consequence of the border being mostly mountainous or possibly the fact that so much of Slovak mental energy is taken up by rivalries with Hungarians and Czechs. Like Czechs, Slovaks see Poland as a land of cheap, sometimes lower quality, goods. Similarities may play a role as well. As a mostly Catholic nation, Slovaks are less likely than Czechs to look down on their Catholic brethren across the Tatras. 

Slovaks, as seen by

Czechs: Czechs viewed (and to an extent still view) Slovaks as little brothers, who they could help grow up with investments in education and industry. As a result, they feel hard done by Slovak restlessness under Czech rule and perceived betrayals during WWII and the Prague Spring. It continues to be a mystery to Czechs why Slovaks pushed for separation and independence when they were so much better off in partnership, albeit a lopsided one. Nevertheless, the shared history and culture mean that Czechs view Slovaks more positively and sympathetically than any other country, even as they see differences like Slovaks’ greater religiosity and more militant nationalism. They sometimes refer to Slovaks as halušky (a boiled dough popular in Slovak cuisine) or Janošiks (the Slovak Robin Hood). Many claim to enjoy the softness of the Slovak language.

Hungarians: According to Bart, “Hungarians do not consider Slovaks strangers… which, of course, does not prevent either side from holding a grudge against the other for offenses suffered as a result of the two nations competing against each other.” The Hungarian grudges today are over the supposed mistreatment of Hungarians in southern Slovakia and the environmental consequences of a dam that was once a joint project of the two countries, but which Hungary then renounced. 

Poles: Slovakia is a weakly enough defined concept among Poles that a popular song refers to the “Czech Tatra mountains”, the phrase “Slovak lands” (Slowaczyzna) has been used in place of Slovakia, and the Slovak national hero, the bandit, Juraj Janošik has been appropriated as a Pole. Historically, Poles could have sympathy for Slovaks’ experience with Magyarization (given their own experience with Russification and Germanization), but their ties with Hungarians (see above) and different enemies and allies put a damper on closer relations.

Sources:

Bart, István. 2002. Hungary & the Hungarians, the key words: a concise dictionary of facts and beliefs, customs, usage & myths. Budapest: Corvina.

Fischer, Tibor. 2002. Under the frog. New York: Random House.

Jagiełło, Michał. 2006. “Slováci poľskymi očami. Obraz Slovákov v poľskom pisomnictve do roku 1918.” In Jacek Purchala and Magda Vášáryová, eds. Kto sú Slováci? História, kultúra, identita. Krakow: Medzinárodné centrum kultúry v Krakove.

Roberts, Andrew. 2005. From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Svejk: A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Szczygieł, Mariusz. 2014. Gottland: Mostly true stories from half of Czechoslovakia. Melville House.

Surosz, Mariusz. 2011. Pepíci: dramatické století Čechů polskýma očima. Praha: Plus.