Handle history with care

POLITICIANS rarely make good historians. They neither have the emotional distance nor the independence to handle historical figures, who are like brittle skeletons that might break if touched with haste.

POLITICIANS rarely make good historians. They neither have the emotional distance nor the independence to handle historical figures, who are like brittle skeletons that might break if touched with haste.

Nationalist political forces eagerly claim to be the ones who carry on the grand messages and heritage of historical figures - real or self-declared fathers of nations, founders and saviors. With the fathers of patria usually dead, they can hardly protest against politicians using their names.

Political parties sometimes arrogantly think they have the license on historical truth and propose laws to glorify or condemn historical figures - even the ones that historians approach with caution, as though they were small golden boxes that might contain some unpleasant historical truth.

The Slovak National Party (SNS) proposal for a law glorifying Andrej Hlinka, a Catholic priest who served as chairman of the Slovak People's Party between 1918 and 1938, is a controversial move.

The Slovak People's Party was renamed Hlinka's Slovak People's Party in 1925, and after Hlinka's death, Jozef Tiso took over the party. Tiso branded his name into Slovak history as the controversial president of the wartime fascist Slovak State, and under his rule, more than 60,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps.

Hlinka belongs to the historical institute of the Slovak Academy of Science rather than to the Slovak Parliament. His role in Slovakia's history should be discussed without emotion, with much care, as though handling those brittle skeletons or fragile porcelain.

It is the height of arrogance for the SNS to think that a law can finally answer questions about Hlinka's role in Slovak history that Slovak historians have not been able to answer for decades.

The SNS law, in fact, would grant Hlinka the title of the "Father of the Nation". And the party has made sure that the process of proposing such a law turns into a theatre of absurd.

SNS boss Ján Slota - who is notoriously known for his corrosive statements about Hungarians, Roma, homosexuals and other minority groups - passionately defended the law, and said that everyone who fails to lift their hand for the vox Hlinka should be ashamed in front of the whole nation.

Slota's public appearances have far transgressed the limits of political good taste (which, within the SNS, have been extraordinarily flexible anyway). This is one reason for political observers to take proposals coming from the SNS kitchen with a certain suspicion. Another SNS member compared Hlinka to Mahatma Gandhi, which comes across as a rather strange comparison.

Some SNS members also have a history of commemorating the anniversaries of the wartime Slovak state, which between 1938 and 1944 served as a puppet of Nazi Germany, and SNS member Rafael Rafaj once proudly said that its president, Tiso, was one of the greatest Slovak personalities, along with Hlinka and Milan Rastislav Štefánik.

In 2000, the Žilina municipal government - inspired by then-mayor Slota - approved the installation of a plaque with Tiso's image on the city's Catholic House. Observers called the decision insensitive at best, considering the fact that Žilina was one of the biggest concentration centres where Jews were kept before their further deportation.

Meanwhile, the opposition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) also submitted its own law on elevating Hlinka to the nation's pedestal, suggesting that Hlinka has been a unifying element throughout Slovakia's history and he does not belong to any historical party.

Unfortunately, one can hardly shake the impression that two parties submitting similar laws trying to glorify a historical personality are in fact competing, and it is in no way a competition of historical interpretations.

At certain point, however, the KDH said that for the sake of the historical personality, they would be willing to reconcile with the SNS over the law.

To the great surprise of Slovak media as well as the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), Miklós Duray - who Slota has always viewed as the arch-enemy of his party - supported the KDH law. But his party boss, Pál Csáky, recalled that there was a similar law passed in 1939 under the fascist Slovak state about the merits of Hlinka, according to TASR newswire.

Rafaj said that personalities form history, and those who do not know their past and disregard it will have no future. However, paradoxically, the SNS originally proposed that the bill include an article that would punish those who publicly question Hlinka's merits, which would have made it really hard to search for the historical truth about Hlinka's role.

Though, the SNS dropped the article, many are still asking the question: does a democratic country in the 21st century need a law about the father of the nation?

-Beata Balogová

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