The ruined castle of Galanta - a jewel of the Esterhazys in the early 20th century
I will clarify, first of all, what I mean by a role. I do not mean some kind of political activism, or some prominent, obvious social activity that will make it obvious to everybody that this is the old nobility speaking. As such, I am neither writing about a political role or, God-forbid, a House of Lords; but neither am I writing about aristocratic balls, or faux-charity organisations whose real objective appears in the self-aggrandisement of its members, legitimate or not. Both of these concepts are silly, indulged by semi-fantasists who thus perpetuate the wrong kind of myth and prejudice about aristocracy.
I mean a role in which the descendants of the historical nobility are a leadership that is moral and social, but not overtly so. A leadership which is liminal, outside of the departments of modern life such as economics, law, celebrity and mass media, and yes even religion. It is a glamour which is unique, because it combines congential privilege, tradition, and most of all a very unmodern attitude to education, learning, and even scholarship. In its nobility, even if unofficial and only a kind of "benign" presence, a country can see history reflected back on itself. Through the names of living descendants of those who made their national history, the public gains a reassurance and a kind of comfort. I do not propose that this is a reason why a nobility should exist in a democracy - I am simply trying to explain why nobilities are proving so fascinating in modern European democracies - this is a well-known fact. It should be remembered that nobility is based on family, not state or nation, or political persuasion. It is thus the strongest opposition to the authoritarian, all-powerful nanny states of today's Western democracies. It is also another reason why traditional nobilities exercise such a fascination in public life. Take the example of the recently shamed Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: a wholly mediocre individual in most aspects, but a Freiherr - viz an endless number of articles and an otherwise incomprehensible popularity. This kind of leadership is provided in many European countries today, and in particularl I should mention those nobilities in present-day Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. All were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Poland partly), as was Slovakia - and the latter three were all Communist, too. Why are the historic nobilities so relatively healthy there, compared to the sickly state in Slovakia? This is even more pertinent since Slovakia was just as aristocratic a society in the past as all these other countries - it was in fact part of the same country as Hungary, where historical nobility today is playing quite a prominent role.
I will propose three arguments as to why the situation in Slovakia is unique, vis-a-vis the other Successor States of the old Empire, as well as other European nations in general. These three reasons are i) wealth, ii) the concept of Slovak nationhood, and iii) the behaviour and mentality of the descendants of Hungarian nobility in Slovakia. The latter two are inextricably interlinked.
Relative material wealth is the most important factor. A nobility simply must be wealthy, otherwise its image will not be one of privilege, it will not be desirable, it will not be trusted. It is a psychological certainty that an aristocracy has to live a privileged lifestyle, of some sort or another, in the mind of the public. This does not necessarily mean a cash-rich wealth, for often this is not the case even in Western European countries. But crucially, an aristocracy must be asset-rich. In the popular mind a descendant of a nobleman living in a dilapidated Central-European castle returned by the "bad" Communists is living a life of privilege, the acme of romantic serendipity, a prince returning to his inheritance - a perfect Western bourgeouis fantasy, but one that has proven incredibly resilient and will continue to do so as long as modernity insists on going forward, and never looking back. With an asset-rich nobility, everything falls into place: the history, which is tangibly manifest in the walls of a palace; the learning, with clever mythological frescos on the walls; and the fantasy, with the possibility that someone could marry the dashing young heir and become a lady. It is almost farcical to realise that this is being written in the 21st century, after all that has happened in the 20th - but sadly, it is true. The bourgeois spirit has proved more resilient than all the tyrannical ideologies of the past hundred years.
The Balogh castle of Nebosja - which was in perfect condition in the early 20th century
This asset-owning romance is slowly taking a real shape in the post-Communist, post-Imperial states (let us call them Successor States) - the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. It is common knowledge and gossip even in the West that the Schwarzenberg, Lobkowicz, Kinsky, Sternberg (etc. etc.) have had their estates returned, to general applause from (aristo)democracy-loving individuals. So with the Poles, most strikingly the return of the Czartoryski collection, which contains a Leonardo painting and the only Rembrandt landscape painting in existence (and the current reigning Prince, Adam, was awarded the Order of the White Eagle by the President of Poland). The same goes with Hungary - where the author Peter Esterhazy famously refused all returns of his family's great wealth (to the confusion and disarray of the Western bourgeois view of things). Property was not only returned, but as we see from the few above examples, old nobility is feted to the point of some mystical hysteria, perhaps in a subconscious effort to erase the uncomfortable memory of the 20th century. "Aristocratic Balls" now occur with frightful regularity, pomp and popularity, and are of course the haunt of the undying parvenu.
But all is silent in Slovakia. No large scale return of property is on the horizon - and as for the small scale, that is also hardly possible. Why is this? Slovakia has had the lion's share of beautiful castles and manor houses in all of Hungary, and certainly the oldest (Slovakia was not overrun by the Turks). The answer I think is twofold - the Benes Decrees, and the hostility of Slovakia towards the aristocracy (which however is connected with my second argument).
The Benes Decrees - that interminable issue. It will remain an issue forever until the Czech and Slovak governments concede that it was tantamount to ethnic cleansing. The fact that Czech President Vaclav Klaus wanted to opt out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union for fear that the Benes Decrees will be deemed illegal, shows what gangsters and intellectual and moral pygmies run these countries.
People in the West on the whole know of the Benes Decrees - they hear their friends say "oh, my family's property was confiscated, because of the Benes Decrees", and so on - and they put the decrees in the same little box as Communist confiscations. They are right, of course, for the decrees are just as immoral - but crucially, they were passed before the rule of the Communists in Czechoslovakia, and written by a man, Euduard Benes, who sanctioned the Communist takeover in 1948. The general point of the Decrees was to inflict a collective guilt on all ethnically Hungarian and German citizens of Czechoslovakia, as a revanche not only for the Second World War (though Czechoslovakia was also a fascist state, in the guise of the Protectorate and an openly fascist Republic of Slovakia), but apparently also for the "sins" of 1620, the Battle of the White Mountain. Yes, much of the Decrees appears like fantasy, and indeed they were cooked up in exile by Eduard Benes, a self-appointed 'head' of the exile government. In the words of the decrees, once and for all, Czechoslovak land will be returned from German and Hungarian (Magyar) hands...to Czech and Slovak peasants. This is why we decree that all property will be confiscated from owners who are: a) persons of German of Hungarian (Magyar) ethnicity, regardless of their nationality; b) enemies and traitors to the Republic...(Decree 12, 1945). And who was regarded as a person of German of Hungarian (Magyar) ethnicity? A German of a Hungarian (Magyar) is a person, who in any census since 1920 declared himself a person of such ethnicity, or a person who since that date was a member of any party of the relevant ethnic minority.
The Benes Decrees are very much in force today, and repeatedly confirmed by the current governments.
The plight of the Sudeten Germans is well-known. But this decree wholly ruined two entire social groups in Slovakia: the Germans, who were settled in Slovakia since the 12th century and were the single most impressive and attractive group there, assuring wealth and fame for our cities; and the Hungarians, who have been living in Slovakia since, well, since the 10th century. For us the latter group is pertinent, because all of the nobility in the south of Slovakia deemed themselves as Magyars, and so did much of the aristocracy in the rest of the country. Not only were their properties confiscated, but many were also forced out of the country and re-settled in Hungary, though many could trace their ancestry to a village in Slovakia to the early Middle Ages. Almost 100 000 Hungarian families had their houses, land, and chattels confiscated and they were forcibly removed from Slovakia into Hungary. And all of this happened before Communism. The Benes decrees are also a problem in the Czech Republic, of course - but their nobility deems itself Czech, and so the process of return is made slightly easier. Also, there was no middle or lower gentry in the Czech Republic, only huge landowners - so decisions there are taken on a case by case basis, it seems. But the Hungarian nobility was Hungarian, and cannot pretend to have represented the state of Slovakia - because Slovakia is an artificial construct. The enforcement of the Benes Decrees is more relaxed in the Czech Republic than the intolerant stance in Slovakia.
The ruins of the Esterhazy palace in Bernolakovo (Cseklesz) - once beautiful in the early 20th century, and still one of the most important Baroque architectural monuments. Now its park is a golf-course for the Slovak nouveaux-riche, but the house is collapsing.
This leads on to my second argument: the concept of Slovak nationhood. A Hungarian nobility as a social class will never be accepted in Slovakia, as long as it remains Slovakia. The entire reason for the existence of Slovakia is its historical opposition to the old Kingdom of Hungary. Whereas the territorial integrity of the old crown of Bohemia and Moravia and the Kingdom of Poland is reflected in their current political states, and where the ideological integrity of old royal Hungary remains strong to this day in Hungary, Slovakia has no such lingering tradition. As a matter of fact, that tradition is not merely not there, it is militated against. Since its very beginnings, Slovakia has politically positioned itself as a nation of poor Slovaks, the peasants and the shepherds, who were finally liberated from under the Magyar aristocratic yoke. The constitution of the Slovak Republic does not mention in a single good word the thousand-year Hungarian kingdom of which it was such an important part; but it waxes lyrical on the 9th century Slavic saints Cyrillus and Methodius, and the leader of Moravia Sviatopolk (Svatopluk), who are seen as the defacto founders of Slovakia. It is myth-making at its best, and yet it destroys a thousand years of history in an effort to entirely re-calibrate the concept of identity in Slovakia. The Magyars were the nobles, and the oppressors. So are their descendants. Accordingly, all Hungarian history is irrelevant, for it is not about Slovaks, who were but dumb onloookers. Forget about Rakoczi's uprising, or the importance of Bratislava throughout the Kingdom's history - it all had to be jettisoned in favour of the idea of Slovakia. Immediately after the First World War, the Slovak part of Czecho-Slovakia embarked on its programme to construct a Slovak culture, consisting almost entirely of peasant songs, dances, traditional dress, peasant food - all such pure, good folklore. All high culture was treated as best irrelevant, at worst testament to the shameless lifestyle of the Magyar oppressive lords. The dignity of plebeian culture was asserted to the exclusion of anything else. There was and is no space for historical nobility in the idea of Slovakia, in any way or form whatsoever. Aristocratic collections of world-important art, which somehow found themselves in the hands of the Czecho-Slovak government, were sold at auction because they did not contain items of peasant Slovak origin. These artworks are now in national museums and galleries in the West.
Naturally, this attitude was only exarcebated by the arrival of Communism; and so, since 1918 until 1989, the idea of history, art, culture, and family was totally emasculated, and successfully. Today Slovakia is regretting this destructive spree, but is powerless to change it. Firstly, it is too late, but secondly, this attitude is also pivotal to the idea of Slovak nationhood. And thirdly, most sadly, this idea has taken firm root in the minds of the citizens of Slovakia, including the descendants of its historical nobility.
Which leads me to my third and final argument: the mentality of the descendants of the nobility living in Slovakia today. I will keep this one short. The answer is that there is almost no longer any such class. The de-culturalisation of Slovakia occurred over the space of three to four generations; the current generation, though their great-grandfathers were royal administrators or landowners, and their grandfathers still remember the days of horse-riding and land-owning; the current generation lives on another planet. It is a planet in which it is impossible to remember the dates of the Second World War, let alone the Battle of Solferino; and a planet in which a popular gangster culture, as gleaned from TV and the internet and combined with a special Eastern European obstinacy and idiocy rules the lives of the young, and irritates the old.
Noble associations or societies abound in Slovakia - but they are tiny and it is impossible that they will be taken seriously. The entire point of a rehabilitated nobility in a Successor State is that you do not need to ask for membership of a club - you should be part of an unspoken one already.