ANNIVERSARIES of the rise and fall of countries, uprisings, revolutions and the births or deaths of historical figures, have an almost irresistible appeal for politicians who are always ready to turn any celebration or commemoration into their own publicity stunt. Unfortunately, whenever politicians abuse such occasions – which are an opportunity to nurture people’s sense of history and their understanding of historical lessons and messages – they also contribute to people’s ignorance and apathy towards the lessons inherent in that history.

It seems that most Slovak politicians have never really learned how to mark a significant historical event in a dignified fashion without treating it as a party congress or a low-profile family festivity. This year Slovakia is marking several significant anniversaries – unfortunately providing all the former and future candidates for state posts, politicians, ex-politicians or wannabes an array of opportunities for self-marketing. Little do they know, however, that they are among the major causes of larger apathy toward these events and their commemoration.

Rafael Rafaj, the former right-hand man of Ján Slota (among the most controversial politicians this country has ever had), serves as a tragicomic example of the phenomenon. Rafaj, whose Slovak National Party (SNS), fuelled by hate speech towards minorities, has now sunk to complete political insignificance, is running for the European Parliament. He campaigned by dressing up as General Milan Rastislav Štefánik, one of the founding fathers of the first Czechoslovak Republic.

Rafaj’s appearance at the commemoration of the 95th anniversary of the death of Štefánik, a real Renaissance man among the historical personalities who shaped our nation’s history, fed ironic comments on the social sites. This make-believe show, though, is harmless compared to the presence of extremist-cum-governor Marian Kotleba at other such events.

Kotleba, since making it to the Banská Bystrica governor’s office on a wave of general public frustration, is ‘entitled’ to invitations to a range of public events. This poses a dilemma for hosts over whether to ‘honour’ state protocol by inviting an extremist to commemorate people or events, especially those in sharp contradiction to everything Kotleba stands for.

Will he, for example, attend in August the 70th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) against the fascists during the Second World War, which eventually earned Slovaks a place among the ranks of the victors in 1945? Even though he has in the past called it a ‘coup’?

Well, Ľubica Kolková, the mayor of the Bratislava borough of Devín, did not see much of a dilemma in deciding whether there was a place for Kotleba at the celebration of next year’s 200th anniversary of the birth of Ľudovít Štúr, the leader of the Slovak national revival in the 19th century. He was not welcome, she said, even though he had come. Held in Devín and organised by the Matica Slovenská cultural organisation (which is partly funded by the state), critics have long said the group should have been dissolved long ago.

“Such people will never be welcome in Devín,” Kolková said in her address, according to the Sme daily. “We cannot welcome a man who spreads xenophobia and hatred only because he was elected in Banská Bystrica.”

Part of the audience applauded while some people booed the mayor, who described Kotleba’s reaction as “smiling and enjoying the attention he evoked”.

This year Slovakia marked the 75th anniversary of the darkest period in the country’s history – the founding of the wartime Slovak state, an entity which in fact paid Nazi Germany to deport its own Jews to concentration camps.

The most recent issue of ‘Our Region’, the self-proclaimed official newspaper of Banská Bystrica Region, all paid for from regional coffers, praised the Nazi-allied Slovak state.

The fact that there are people in this country who did vote for Kotleba suggests that there are still lessons to learn from history and that unless politicians leave history to the historians and avoid twisting messages whenever and on whatever occasion it suits them, part of the population will simply never develop a sense of history. Instead they will keep feeding myths and misinterpretations to their children.

Perhaps the statute of Svätopluk, a ninth-century regional leader who has become an instrument of ideology and politics according to some historians, illustrates very well how things might work when politicians usurp the work of historians. The statute polarised society as many viewed its installation at the Bratislava Castle as an effort by Smer to win the hearts of nationalist voters.

When Prime Minister Robert Fico unveiled the statue shortly before the June 2010 parliamentary elections, he said he wished for it to become a destination for pilgrims to honour Slovak nationhood. The first ‘pilgrims’ were a group of about 60 right-wing extremists, including Kotleba.