Why is Slovakia confiscating minority-owned property?

A World War II decree is used to take land from Hungarian and German minority communities in Slovakia in what amounts to collective punishment.

Hungarians demonstrate against against the Slovakian language law coming into effect 01 September 2009 outside Slovakia's embassy in Brussels, Belgium on 01 September 2009. Critics say the law considerably restricts the right of ethnic Hungarians living in Slovakia to use their mother tongue. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET
Hungarians demonstrate against a language law in Slovakia, which would limit language rights of the Hungarian minority, outside Slovakia's embassy in Brussels on September 1, 2009 [File: EPA/Olivier Hoslet]

As we mark the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, public debates over what to do with frozen Russian assets are raging. There seems to be growing pressure to seize the property and funds of sanctioned Russians and hand them over to Ukraine to help with its reconstruction.

Though undoubtedly driven by moral outrage over the unforgivable suffering of the Ukrainian people, such a policy – if implemented without careful consideration – could have serious long-term repercussions.

In this context, Slovakia can serve as a cautionary tale.

Since 2017, Slovak courts have supported administrative agencies in applying World War II decrees to seize the property of ethnic Hungarians and Germans without compensation. These laws allow for the dispossession of these two communities on account of their “collective responsibility” for crimes during the war. Thus, people who were not even born during World War II are being deprived of their property on the basis of their ancestry in what is a clear case of collective punishment.

A vivid example is the construction of part of a highway, financed by the European Union, through a suburban district of Bratislava. According to János Fiala-Butora, a human rights lawyer, as many as 250 people have been affected by the mass expropriation of land in the area under the decrees.

No one really knows the total number of cases of dispossession, as there are instances where the heirs of the property were not even aware of their ownership status in the first place.

Using a twisted argument, Slovak authorities claim that the confiscations, in fact, occurred when the decrees were passed and their present actions are a remedy for bureaucratic oversights of the past.

Although Slovak civil society and human rights advocates have pointed out that this is a glaring violation of international human rights conventions and the fundamental rights of citizens, Slovak state officials remain stubbornly unwilling to confront the objective reality staring them in the face.

But how is this even possible?

The explanation is to be found in the confluence of international hypocrisy and a country’s unwillingness to develop a more mature relationship with its history.

In Central Europe, the years after the end of World War II were marked by chaotic, and often horribly violent mass displacement of “undesired” ethnic groups, such as the Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians. The outcome of this was that countries in the region became much more demographically homogeneous.

This policy of ethnic cleansing, which had been undertaken with the blessings of the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, was viewed as a legitimate means to prevent the resurgence of ethnic antagonisms that had been so skilfully exploited by the Nazis as a pretext to set the entire continent ablaze.

With homogeneity being the ultimate goal, the newly restored Czechoslovak Republic also set out to forcibly displace its minorities in order to “Slavize” the cities and towns that had been either German or Hungarian-speaking for centuries.

In an attempt to provide a legal veneer for the cleansings, Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš issued a series of infamous decrees stripping Germans and Hungarians of their citizenship and authorising the seizure of all property belonging to them.

From the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, as many as three million Germans were deported and resettled to Germany. However, the Allied powers were more hesitant when it came to the Hungarians of Slovakia, eventually agreeing only to a “voluntary” population exchange with Hungary.

Most of the Hungarian community, however, resisted the strong pressure to leave and today, some 8.5 percent of Slovakia’s population are Hungarians.

On occasion, despite the generally cordial relations, there are disputes between Hungarians and Slovaks over how to remember these events. The former customarily point out that no official apology, let alone compensation, was ever given to the victims of the decrees, while Slovaks are inclined to bring up Hungary’s participation in the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Neither side is innocent of a kind of competitive martyrology, as both nations have tried to claim a superior moral standing by painting themselves as the victims of the other’s hostility.

But at the end of the day, the truth remains that the ongoing confiscations, as well as other discriminatory policies, effectively relegate the remaining ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia to a second-class citizen status.

This is not to say that progress has not been made. Especially since Slovakia’s EU entry in 2004, the country has moved away from its strong assimilationist approach towards minorities, and certain minority communities have seen improvements in infrastructure and social services. But the desire to preserve one’s own minority cultural and linguistic distinctiveness is either condescendingly ridiculed for being at odds with modernity or perceived as something to be confined to one’s private life.

Any suggestions of recognising the inherent value of minority identities, perhaps by granting their language official status, are roundly dismissed out of hand as a dangerous idea that would upset the peaceful coexistence between the majority and the minorities.

The Beneš decrees, despite every claim to the contrary, are not mere historical footnotes. They remain in effect to this day, enshrining the superior status of the “state-bearing nation” and denying equal recognition to those who do not subscribe to the identity of the national majority. The recent confiscations are thus not an incident but a logical crescendo of a deeply ingrained anti-minority premise.

In view of these bitter sentiments, it is no surprise that many Hungarians of Slovakia, chiefly those more conservative-minded, are looking up to Hungary as the external defender of their interests. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government has certainly earned votes at home for demonstrating its commitment to the fate of Hungarian communities abroad, a stance that has invited accusations of irredentism in neighbouring countries more than once.

However, when it comes to Slovakia, there are strict limits to how far Budapest is willing to push against the Slovak government’s preferences. The European Commission’s decision to withhold EU funds from Hungary over democratic backsliding concerns has left Orbán desperate for allies.

It is no surprise then, that when the issue of property confiscations was raised during a joint press conference last December, the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs chose to remain silent while his Slovak counterpart once again denied any state-sanctioned land grabs.

The only other actor that could credibly speak out against these violations remains the EU. Given Brussels’ appetite for lecturing others on human rights, one might expect to see some expression of outrage at these violations. But so far there has been only silence.

And that did not change even after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a Hungarian citizen’s right to a fair trial had been impeded when the Slovak authorities ordered the confiscation of a forest estate on the basis that the owner had ancestors of Hungarian descent.

Ethnolinguistic diversity is a cornerstone of EU values, but it is being tragically ignored in Slovakia. And the issue of property infringement is not a theoretical issue of diversity, but a grave violation of human rights, which cuts to the very heart of the EU’s raison d’être. These dispossessions are not occurring because the families involved are colluding with an illegal war. They are happening because of the perceived sins of their ancestors.

The questions raised by the potential policy of confiscation of Russian assets are cast in an even sharper light when we acknowledge the ongoing violations in Slovakia. It is hypocritical to claim to defend international rules-based order while turning a blind eye to transgressions in your own union. To oppose the imperialist aggression in our neighbourhood is correct. But to do so while tolerating ethnic-based discrimination within our own borders is lamentable.

Taking a stance against the injustice of ethnic-based confiscations is therefore a matter of principle. It is high time for the European Union, as well as the international community, to support all victims of discrimination.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.