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Events not for idealising nor demonising
25 Aug 2014 Beata Balogová Politics & Society
PEOPLE should try to avoid both idealising and demonising the Slovak National Uprising (SNP), one of the most significant events of Slovakia’s history, says Ivan Kamenec, a historian with the Slovak Academy of Sciences, who authored several books focusing on Slovakia’s modern history including that of the wartime Slovak state, a satellite of Nazi Germany.
“The uprising did not meet all its goals and it is necessary to talk about all this rather in normal terms, which means neither as a prosecutor nor as an advocate,” said Kamenec. In an interview with The Slovak Spectator he went on to address several aspects of the SNP on the occasion of its 70th anniversary.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia celebrates the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) as one of its state holidays. How have various political establishments handled this event?
After 1989 [the Velvet Revolution], a completely new phenomenon entered the domestic arena in terms of approaching the SNP, which is in fact a rejection of the uprising, while calling it an ‘anti-national coup’ or ‘dirty war’ by certain groups. It was a new moment for the historians because suddenly they had to defend the uprising as a positive moment in Slovakia’s modern history.
TSS: What is the historical and societal significance of the SNP for Slovakia today? And in the international context?
When you look at the chronology of events, on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising erupted while at that time Finland, as one of the allies of Nazi Germany, concluded a separate peace agreement with the Soviet Union. Then on August 23, less than a week before the uprising, there was a royal anti-fascist coup in Romania, which turned an ally of Nazi Germany into a member of the anti-Hitler coalition almost overnight. In mid-August, even if a little outside of central Europe, there was an uprising in Paris. A couple of weeks after the start of the SNP, there was a radical change in Bulgaria and the country shifted from being a satellite of Nazi Germany to a supporter of the Allies. Moreover, Hungary also experienced an unsuccessful attempt to shake the inconvenient union with Nazi Germany, but it was oppressed rather promptly by an organised coup. The SNP fit almost organically into this situation in terms of its international importance.
TSS: Do the specifics of the SNP fit into the context of similar anti-Nazi movements in the surrounding countries?
TSS: Did a considerable segment of society support the uprising? Could we say that Slovaks were unified in the fight against the Nazi regime?
The territory of the uprising immediately after August 29 included approximately two-thirds of the then state where about 1.7 million people lived. The number of the population of the whole of then Slovakia, according to a census from 1940, was about 2.6 million people. Of course the territory of the uprising was narrowing down under the pressure of German units and the number of people on the territory of the uprising was shrinking as well.
TSS: The SNP became one of the emblematic celebrations of the communist regime. How would you characterise the relationship between the communist regime and the SNP?
Yet, one of the important forces of the uprising, the communists who grasped power in 1948, devalued the goal of overthrowing a totalitarian regime because they installed another totalitarian system. Since the communist totalitarian regime did not tolerate any decentralisation, there was again a centralised state, but under the flag of the communists.
Some historians and politicians who are critical of the uprising claim that the SNP was a direct road to the communist totalitarian regime, which is not true, because the uprising wasn’t organised by communists only, but also was a result of the civil resistance. The army of resistance was definitely not communist.
TSS: What was the significance of the participation of the foreigners in the uprising?
The highest number of foreigners came from the Soviet Union, while many people came from what is now the Czech Republic. There was a French unit including 39-40 captives from the German-French war who then joined the uprising. There were Hungarian soldiers or even German ones, but they weren’t deserters of the German army, but rather, ethnic Germans living in Slovakia. Poles were an important part of the uprising as they were escaping from occupied Poland, as Slovakia until August 29, 1944 was a non-occupied satellite country and it was relatively safe for these people.
Since the SNP was part of the European anti-fascist resistance, all the powers of the anti-Hitler coalition had their military missions here. The first military mission came from the Soviet Union and then the Anglo-American missions.
Of the Nováky Jewish labour camp a group of 200 people was created, who shaped a separate unit and fought here. There were Bulgarians who mostly studied here at universities and then joined the uprising along with some Romanians.
Of course there were Canadians, Dutch and Belgians. There was also a rather larger group of citizens from the former Yugoslavia and some Italian guerillas participating. Representatives of 27 nations or countries were here, but some of them were here as individuals. But they were individuals and one should not overestimate the international aspect of the uprising because nothing can cause as much harm as mythologising these events.
TSS: Are there still unexplored aspects of the uprising?
As for the SNP, historians can focus on the lives of ordinary people, because during the uprising people weren’t only fighting and doing politics, but they live their lives on these territories. They had to supply the fighting units, the pensions had to be paid and health care provided. On the revolutionary area people were being born and dying natural deaths.
We can study the uprising in simpler terms, so that not only the leaders but also the citizens are studied; not only the army but also the soldiers. What do we know about the individual soldiers, about their reasons to join the fight or the reasons of those who avoided the uprising? Historians still owe much to this event, but the same goes for the work of sociologists so that there is more understanding gained about these small histories.
TSS: Why is this historical event of interest to extremist groups?
TSS: The generation that experienced the uprising is slowly dying out. What does this mean?
TSS: What was the relationship of Jozef Tiso, the president of the wartime state, to the Slovak National Uprising?
In the wartime Slovak state, at least two power lines were created: a conservative one which was led by Tiso himself and a radical stream. Yet, both these lines strived to install a totalitarian regime, yet, they preferred different methods. The radicals led by Vojtech Tuka and Alexander Mach wanted to mechanically copy the Nazi model. Tiso initially opposed it but finally he joined this stream since he said that Slovakia would be building National Socialism but in a clero-fascist sense. Yet, Tiso wasn’t just a president but also the prime minister leading the government; he also was the chairman of the ruling party HSĽS, which controlled everything, in a way under the communism everything was directed by the Communist Party. Yet, despite all this, the resistance movement somehow differentiated Tiso from the radicals. But this is only a hypothesis.
In the summer of 1943, Mussolini was overthrown in Italy, which evoked in the ruling circles in Slovakia a kind of shock that the oldest fascist regime in Europe could. Speculation emerged that the role that was played by Victor Emanuel in Italy could be played by Tiso in Slovakia. Yet, Tiso failed to fulfill these expectations. Tiso actually elevated the idea of the Slovak state high above anything else and adjusted it to absolute collaboration with the Nazi regime.
Another myth is that if there was no SNP, the German army would have not come here. They would have come either way. The truth is that they came here when the uprising erupted, but they would have not left Slovakia and left if unoccupied and left it to the approaching Soviet army. Tiso then in his speeches kept condemning the uprising and negotiated with chiefs of the German army.
It is almost incomprehensible that even in 1943 and 1944, Tiso failed to understand that Nazi Germany was walking towards its defeat and he stuck to them to the very end. He saw in Nazi Germany the only rescue for the post-war existence of the Slovak State, which was a big mistake because even without the uprising the Slovak state would have been dissolved. The western diplomats, members of the anti-Hitler coalition already in 1941, when the war became a world war, set the goal of the renewal of Czechoslovakia. Moreover, even if the Nazi Germany won the war, some available documents suggest, that the Nazi Germany did not count with the existence of the Slovak state, or the existence of the Slovak nation. Slovaks were destined to become a local German minority and those who if not able to get Germanised, would be transported to the East. Even after Hitler committed suicide, Tiso sent Dönitz, the new chancellor a congratulatory letter, in which he assured him that the Slovak nation would remain true to Germany until the victorious end. That was the point where he was literarily losing his judgment and intelligence.
TSS: You have spoken about the different myths attached to the SNP. Is the way this period is taught in schools free of these myths?
TSS: What is the general attitude of the population towards the SNP today?
The uprising did not meet all its goals and it is necessary to talk about all this rather in normal terms, which means neither as a prosecutor nor as an advocate. It is necessary to explain that the uprising is part of an endless flow of history and to look at it from a certain distance while understanding that it cannot be taken out of Slovakia’s history.More from Politics & Society
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