On 4th February 2020 Dr. Thomas Lorman of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies gave a very interesting talk to The Friends on the historical process of urbanisation in Slovakia.

LormanEventFeb2020 Photograph from left to right: Peter Jamieson, Chairman FOCH; Dr. Thomas Lorman, Central Europe specialist, SSEES, University College London and Elena Mallicková of the Embassy of Slovakia at the lecture. Image copyright FoCH

Before the 19th century Slovakia was overwhelmingly rural with just a few scattered mining and market towns plus Bratislava (then known as Pressburg in German and Presporok in Slovak), which was already a political centre, having been the capital of Hungary for over 300 years. Only during the period 1867-1918 did the urban population of Slovakia reach 10%, with about 65% of the total population still being involved in agriculture. During the first Czechoslovak Republic and up to 1948 Bratislava became the first city in Slovakia to have 100,000 inhabitants but the total urban population increased only to between 18% and 25%. It was not until the period 1948 to 1989 that Slovakia became predominantly urban, with 55% (nearly three million) living in towns of more than 5,000 in 1990.

The 1867-1918 period saw a great development and modernisation of Hungary (of which Slovakia was still a part) and the urbanisation of Slovakia was largely driven by migration of Hungarians into its towns, unlike the situation in the Czech lands, where the incomers were largely Czech, and Bohemia was the only part of Austria-Hungary with an urban majority. Thus the expanding towns in Slovakia became increasingly dominated by Hungarian architecture and in Košice for instance the proportion of native Slovak speakers fell from 40% in 1880 to 15% in 1910. At the same time two-thirds of the Slovaks who were emigrating to Budapest ceased to describe themselves as Slovaks. The leading Slovak nationalists, who resented being ruled from Budapest, continued to come mostly from rural areas and were founding rural newspapers, clubs and cooperatives, and two-thirds of Catholic rural parishes had some form of local organisation. Consequently, the collapse of Hungarian authority in Slovakia at the end of the First World War resulted in the rapid formation of over 300 Slovak national councils, mostly in rural areas.

Over 100,000 Hungarians fled from Slovakia in 1918/19, many of them from urban areas, and particularly officials. A new bureaucracy of Czechs and Slovaks was created in the towns and in Bratislava the proportion of Slovaks and Czechs rose from 15% to 55%. The total population of Bratislava grew rapidly, especially during the prosperous 1920s, rising from 78,000 in 1910 to 138,000 in 1939. However, at the same time hostility was growing towards what was seen as rule from Prague, mirroring the earlier reaction to rule from Budapest.

The period 1939-1948 saw a significant depopulation and degradation of Slovak urban areas, with the expulsions of Czech bureaucrats in 1939, of many Jews starting in 1942, and of Germans and urban Hungarians in 1945-7, coupled with the departure of many Slovak intellectuals, and war damage and casualties in 1944-5. However, the Communist Czechoslovak government that seized power in 1948 recognised the need for reconstruction as well as desiring to industrialise and transform Slovakia on the Soviet model in order to break the rural traditions and to close the gap with the Czech lands. All those factors plus the negative impact of collectivisation of agriculture led to a rapid expansion of Slovak towns and cities with the proportion of Slovaks in Bratislava reaching 95% by 1961.

The new Bratislava consists largely of flats but (like Košice) it still has farms on its outskirts. The construction of a new bridge across the Danube in 1967 connected the vast housing district of Petržalka (the largest such area in Europe) with the main part of Bratislava, though at the cost of the destruction of much of old Bratislava, especially its former Jewish quarter. The result is that Slovakia is now as built up as the rest of Europe, with Bratislava today having a level of prosperity well above the European urban average and retaining its sense of being a real capital.