Another March 14 has come and gone, the day every year when a few sullen skinheads and misguided oldsters around Slovakia get together to hail the memory of Jozef Tiso, the leader of the country's World War II 'independent' republic. Each year, Slovak society seems to make further progress in examining and judging the nature of that wartime state, and this past week was no exception - the fact that an international conference of rabbis had the confidence to meet in Bratislava on March 14, and the extent to which police were mobilised to protect them from Tiso-intoxicated skinheads, shows that the country may be close to making its final peace with the crimes committed in Slovakia from 1939 to 1945.
What remains, however, is for Slovak society to draw the full lessons of Tiso's Slovak Republic - that defending the welfare of a majority of citizens does not excuse allowing horrible crimes to be committed against a minority. As one can still see in recent skinhead attacks on dark-skinned foreigners in Bratislava, and especially in the sluggish police and media response to these crimes, some elements of society still prefer to ignore the misery of the few as long as the happiness of the many is not threatened. While connecting the events of 61 years ago to the behaviour of a few hooligans today may seem a stretch, there can be little doubt that were Slovak society to render a final verdict on the Tiso years and the deportation of 70,000 of the country's Jews, it would help people see skinhead beatings as well for what they are - an assault on the principles that support Slovak statehood, independence and national prosperity.
Coming to a verdict on Tiso has proven difficult, however, because the alternatives presented to Slovakia's pre-war leaders were bitterly unattractive. After the failure of Britain and France to defend the integrity of Czechoslovakia at the Munich conference of September-October 1938, it was clear to the Slovaks that Prague was no longer able to look after Bratislava's defence and foreign policy needs. This fact was brought home to Slovaks on November 2 that year, when Germany and Italy redrew the frontiers of Slovakia giving Hungary 10,390 square kilometres of Slovak territory including 854,217 inhabitants in such towns as Košice, Rožnava and Rimavská Sobota. To protect itself from further divisions among Hungary, Poland and Austria, Slovaks felt they had to declare independence and secure German recognition.
Slovak independence was also attractive for Berlin, which wanted to prove to the world that Czechoslovakia was collapsing through internal strife rather than as a result of German pressure. Thus it was that Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest from western Slovakia's Bánovce nad Bebravou and an independence-minded politician in the Slovak People's Party, was summoned to Berlin on March 13, 1939 to meet Hitler. Tiso was given two choices - declare 'independence' as a Nazi client-state, or see your country parcelled out among your neighbours. Tiso duly presented the independence motion to the Slovak parliament on March 14, where it was passed unanimously by Slovak deputies.
What followed in Slovakia, many historians have written, could not have come as a surprise to anyone in the government. Slovak troops participated in the invasion of Poland in September 1939, while most of the country's Jews were deported to death camps in two waves in 1942 and 1944. A repressive constitution was adopted, 'Aryan' laws were passed and no elections were held despite the fact that Slovakia was in theory a republic. Tiso, after his capture in Austria in 1945, was hung as a war criminal in Bratislava's SNP Square.
Then as now, few Slovaks actively supported Tiso's rule. Peter Pares, the British consul serving in Bratislava on March 14, 1939 reported that "a week after the declaration of independence the inhabitants of Bratislava are still unable to show great enthusiasm for the present state of affairs. The general impression is one of apathy or pessimism." On the other hand, many Slovaks during and after the war were thankful for the cultural and economic growth Slovakia experienced under Tiso, particularly in comparison to the destruction wreaked on surrounding countries. This period of relative prosperity, added to the fact that Slovakia was independent at least in name, has made many Slovaks reluctant to condemn Tiso outright for the horrors visited on the country's minorities.
The same reluctance, and perhaps a dose of the same apathy noticed by Peter Pares, is evident today when it comes to condemning racially-motivated attacks on foreigners and Slovak Romanies. Slovakia is independent, on its way to the EU and NATO, and increased prosperity is just around the corner; those who harp on the theme of racism are sometimes seen as party-poopers out to spoil the country's image just as success comes within reach. And while every society must decide for itself how vigorously to defend the rights of its weakest members, one cannot help but feel that in Slovakia such a decision would be made far easier if people could agree on how they feel about Tiso's wartime Slovak Republic.