Karl Polanyi’s Background

It is testimony to the growing interest in The Great Transformation that one of the younger generation of researchers on Karl Polanyi’s work is Gareth Dale currently at Brunel University in London. His publication record on Polanyi  – several books and articles in peer reviewed journals, as well as editorial board memberships – is already large, varied and well-established.

An important part of Gareth Dale’s work has been to place Polanyi in his personal cultural and historical environment in a way that adds a valuable micro-social dimension. I will develop this more in a later post.

I was curious to know what it was about Polanyi’s background that was so unique: how different his background and previous experience was from my relatives who fled from Czechoslovakia in 1939. They, too, were on their way to America with visa passes, presumably from the Horthy Government, though of course events were moving so quickly by then that it could possibly have been Jozef Tiso, though I would plumb for Miklós Horthy. The time gap is too narrow for it to have been Tiso, who only became prime minister on 14 March 1939 and in October that year became President of Slovakia. Chamberlain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939. Even a quisling like Tiso needs some time to adjust to his new subservient position.

This also give some clues as to the origins of the separate Slovak state that we now have. It was clearly Hitler’s work after having occupied the Sudetenland. But the final split between Slovakia and the Czech Republic came after the end of Communism in 1992. I am afraid I don’t find the Wikipedia item on the dissolution of Czechoslovakia: reasons for the division very helpful, as it fluffs over the explanation. My understanding is that the Czechs were not happy with the EU (and Euro) and NATO membership.

The Last President of Czechoslovakia was Václav Havel from 1989 to 1992. But I would suggest that Slovakia has been decidedly more neoliberal and west-friendly than the early Czech Republic Presidents. Since the EU is a neoliberal construction tied to the apron strings of its US benefactor this makes more sense, though why Slovakia is so neoliberal I hope to be able to clarify in a future post.

A partial explanation may be found in the words of my uncle, Sándor Kovács, himself a Hungarian Slovak. He was crazy about children and spoiled me rotten. He loved to take the pram out to show me off, and often said that you won’t find most Slovak fathers out pushing a pram, but that it was much more common among Czechs. He was also very generous – almost too generous for my parsimonious mother – who berated him for spoiling me by taking me home by taxi! I don’t know what made him so generous, but it was probably his experience in 1923/4 after the Treaty of Trianon when hyperinflation reached record levels. Hungarian bank notes reached mind-boggling values, of, for example in  the 100 trillion pengö Bank of Hungary note, an example of which is shown on the Wikipedia page. Hyperinflation was even worse in 1945/6 but by then my uncle was safely in London. Whether his brother, Béla, also experienced the 45/6 hyperinflation is not certain, as he came to Britain soon after the ending of the war. So many questions to ask that I never even thought of asking as a teenager.

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