We all have to start somewhere. Pan-Slavism didn’t just materialise out of the ether, it didn’t simply show up unannounced at the ideological table on a sunny afternoon. It grew and grew from other ideas, from the minds and hearts of small numbers of men who in turn opened up the minds and hearts of countless others. Pan-Slavism traces its roots back to two Slovak gentlemen, one of whom met his demise 165 years ago today.
Ján Kollár was born in the small town of Mošovce, home to the largest amateur volleyball tournament in Slovakia. Kollár was born into an evangelical family, and as per usual he disagreed with his father’s vision for his future. Papa Kollár wanted Ján to be a butcher, whereas our Ján was more interested in books. This led to him leaving home aged 16.
After studying under our old buddy František Palacký in Bratislava, Kollár headed to the German university town of Jena, which just so happened to be the home of German Romanticism and nationalism. Kollár was swept up by the ideological excitement of it all, but his work led him to retrace the history of the Elbe Slavs in Thuringia, who had been comprehensively obliterated by the Germans in the 9th century. Kollár became obsessed with Slavic unity.
Kollár wasn’t alone in his mission, working closely with another Slovak by the name of Pavel Jozef Šafárik. We’ll tell the tale of Šafárik another time, as he truly does deserve his own piece. Kollár’s three years in Jena left a huge mark on the young non-butcher, and he moved to Pest (today’s Budapest) with ideas in his head. In Pest he became Pastor to the small and economically destitute Slovak community.
Kollár’s Pan-Slavic pride grew and grew, but he brought it to the people with creativity and vigour as opposed to blind anger. He primarily stayed in the public consciousness as a poet, and his 1824 epic poem ‘Slávy dcera’ (The Daughter of Slava) became in many ways the Pan-Slavic bible.
The poem was a 151 sonnet tour de force that was divided into three cantos, and it told the story of the triumphs and defeats of the Slavs. Kollár also spoke of a glorious future of Slavic supremacy and rule, which can clearly be filed in the ‘Unfulfilled Prophecies’ folder.
There was obviously a romantic element to the poem too, and many of the verses concentrated on an ideal lover by the name of Mina, who was indeed the daughter referred to in the title. The real life version of Mina was Kollár’s childhood sweetheart Frederika Schmidt, whom Kollár eventually married 16 years after they had first parted.
After serving the people in Pest, Kollár moved to Vienna to work as professor of Slavonic archaeology. Kollár only stayed in Vienna for three years, although readers should not think that this was because of any sea legs of poor professional performance – it was death that cut short Kollár’s tenure in the Austrian capital.
Ján Kollár’s role in the national and literary revival of the Slavs cannot be overstated, but his position in Slovak history is somewhat muddled. It was Kollár who brought modern culture and linguistics to the Slovaks, notably with his 1834 collection of folk songs called ‘Narodnie zpievanky’ (National Songs). This collection is credited with strengthening the cultural consciousness of the Slovaks.
But Kollár didn’t exactly jump into the Slovak cause with two feet. He famously said that the live of the Slovaks was sans history, stating that there resides a ‘numbing emptiness and spirit-destroying wasteland’. That isn’t likely to put smiles on faces. Kollár was vehemently against developing a Slovak literary language, preferring instead to develop Czech and introduce Slovak influences to that language.
Kollár viewed the Czechs with immense admiration, taking adopted pride in their history of statehood and established literary and scholarly traditions. The Czechs weren’t in a constant battle for their own national existence in the empire – that fight was a daily reality for the Slovaks. Kollár saw a union with the Czechs as the Slovaks best hope.
The Czechs weren’t exactly thrilled with this, with many influential figures cynically believing that Kollár wanted Slovakize the language. Kollár’s Pan-Slavic stance led to him having a good relationship with most of the top figures in the Czech national revival, but the cynicism and skepticism was difficult to shake off.
All new ideas are met with cynicism however, and Kollár stayed focused in his desire for intellectual and ideological unity between the Slavs. Kollár focused on the nation as opposed to the state, acknowledging the importance of the state whilst emphasising that the nation stood above all. Kollár believed that the state existed to protect and promote the culture of the people, with the nation sitting as a rights-bearing entity within the state.
The nation was to be best served by a free exchange of ideas and individual respect, and it was up to the people to nurture the nation. Kollár’s dream of Pan-Slavic unity was based on language, history, tradition, culture and education. He viewed the Slavs as ‘one blood, one body, one people’, hence the title of this article. Kollár devoted the better part of his life to encouraging cultural unity among the Slavs, giving birth to an idea that blossomed in the decades following his death.
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