‘Great Moravian State’: a controversy in Central European medieval studies
By Jiri Macháček
Studia Slavica et Balcanica Petropolitana, Vol.1 (2012)
Abstract: Great Moravia is a controversial theme within Central European Medieval studies. Rather than being a standard subject of academic research it is a phenomenon that has been a constant in Central European modern political discourse. The idea that Great Moravia was the earliest state of Central European Slavs, which was a direct predecessor of the statehood of the Czech Přemyslids, the Polish Piasts and the Hungarian Arpáds family, remains very much alive in the Central European region. The weak point of the earlier approaches consists in the fact that the state was taken to be an axiom, the existence of which was not questioned. The contemporary line of research examines Great Moravian statehood from a more critical point of view. Just as with modern European medieval studies it turns to ethnology as well as social and cultural anthropology, where it hopes to find support for its interpretational models and new terminology.
Introduction: Great Moravia is a controversial theme within Central European Medieval studies. Rather than being a standard subject of academic research it is a phenomenon that has been a constant in Central European modern political discourse ever since the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. It was there that the Czechoslovak delegation used Great Moravia in its arguments when campaigning for recognition of their new state. The historical legacy of Great Moravia has served to this day as an instrument for cementing the legitimacy of national states in the Central European regions, whilst generating some negative responses which are sometimes based on questioning the traditional location of the core of Great Moravia within the territory of the former Czechoslovakia.
There are even more paradoxes linked to Great Moravia. Although ever since the end of the 19th century its study has been one of the most important tasks of Czech and Slovak, and partly also Polish and Hungarian, historical research, it was long neglected and marginalized by West European medieval studies, which considered Great Moravia to be, in a more favourable light, a «Sonderfall» /special case, and in a less favourable light, the «Wilden Osten»/ Wild East. According to the traditional assumptions of Czech historians the first fully developed Slav state arose in Moravia in the 9th century, dominating East Central Europe politically, militarily and culturally. However, from the perspective of Western (mostly German) research, Moravians were one of the many nationalities subjected to the Frankish Empire, within which they became part of the Bavarian Eastern March («Bayerisches Ostland»). This controversial approach to Great Moravia has been reflected to this day in sources such as Wikipedia where in the Czech version the map of the territorial extent of Great Moravia depicts an empire governing the whole eastern part of Central Europe, while in the German and English versions under the Francia keyword the same area is described as Abhängige Gebiete/Dependent Territories — a mere periphery of the Frankish Empire (see the keyword Fränkisches Reich/ Francia in the German and even the English version of Wikipedia).
The reasons for the different interpretation of one particular historical situation can be seen in the special nature of Great Moravia, which constitutes both a divide between late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and at the same time a boundary between the western (Germanic), eastern (Slav) and nomadic (Avar and Magyar) worlds. For traditional historiography the subject is difficult to approach, partly due to the fact that written sources related to the history of Great Moravia are scarce and the dominant role in its study over the past fifty years has been taken over by archaeology. The situation is not made easier by the fact that the interpretation of the historical significance of Great Moravia continues to be strongly politically exploited. Its existence is even referred to in the preambles of past and current constitutions of some states (The Constitution of the Czechoslovak Republic from 1948 and The Constitution of the Slovak Republic from 1992). It goes hand in hand with widespread opinion that Great Moravia laid the foundations from which the present East-Central Europe gradually developed.