"Our first-ever experience with running our own, even if not very sovereign, state strengthened Slovakia's confidence to demand and aspire to independence"
ALTHOUGH the Slovak World War Two state sent 70,000 of its Jewish citizens to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps, many of the country's leaders and historians still argue that the 1939-1945 Tiso government was an important experiment in self-rule for Slovaks, without which the current state might not have prospered.
Political leaders in the countries which forced such genocide on Slovakia - Germany and its axis allies Austria and Hungary - are now challenging retaliation taken in 1945 by the then-Czechoslovak government. They claim that decades-old 'victor's justice' is incompatible with modern international law.
Bald truth is being twisted as central European states approach membership in Nato and the European Union. It's to be expected, as conservative parties go to the polls this year in all four countries mentioned, but it's once again brooking what this part of the world needs most - liberation from the prison of history.
Slovak Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský gave an interview this last week in the weekly Domino fórum which was well received because for the first time he admitted his father, a member of the Tiso parliament, was jointly responsible for the anti-Jewish policies of the Tiso administration that were in full flower long before Hitler gave Tiso an ultimatum in 1939 - declare independence, or see your country split between Germany and Hungary.
But in many other parts of the interview Čarnogurský waffles on the hard questions. The anti-Jewish decrees were "regarded as a somewhat extravagant form of the pursuit of a certain political course". "Tiso chose the course of moral compromises... I don't feel competent [to judge whether these compromises legitimised evil]." "It's not my position to tell the Vatican what it should have done with Tiso." "Our first-ever experience with running our own, even if not very sovereign, state strengthened Slovakia's confidence to demand and aspire to independence."
Ján Čarnogurský is not a racist, he's a victim of Slovakia's 'survivor mentality', in which the continued existence of the Slovak nation outweighs all other concerns, and turns the murder of 70,000 Jewish compatriots into a "lesser evil" that he doesn't feels competent to judge even 60 years later.
Anyone who reads Slovak history written by Slovaks will know that the world war two state is the subject of some of the fuzziest thinking since the Ronald Reagan administration. 'Twas always thus, when personal interests drive the way facts are interpreted. Slovaks do not take a critical view of their history, Čarnogurský says, because "we have a tendency to mythologise our past. Whenever we lack enough facts to fasten our myths on, we look for substitute truths."
Expatriates living in Slovakia will recognise some of the cart-before-the-horse forms the Slovak view of reality takes. Given the national penchant for melancholy, people firmly believe the economy is in crisis despite evidence to the contrary. Given the abiding fear of illness, medieval recipes for health trample modern medical knowledge. Given the love of strong leaders, Vladimír Mečiar remains top dog despite evidence that his government looted public coffers and oppressed Slovak citizens.
Čarnogurský's explanation? "Simply because that's the way we are."
American writer Norman Mailer, in an otherwise silly book called Tough Guys Don't Dance, proposed that all of us have a 'cancer switch' inside which is thrown abruptly by a single grave act of cowardice, or corrodes over time from a thousand small self-betrayals. The idea is that we were all born with the potential to do our best, but often follow a worse path which we simultaneously condemn.
Čarnogurský again: "Slovakia's damnation is that we don't meet evil head-on, but skirt around it in various detours."
What separates Slovakia from the West, and prevents the country from overcoming its trance of inferiority, is the belief that principles are negotiable. That the extermination of an ethnic minority is not too high a price to pay, given the ardor of the desire for self-rule. That people can pay only lip-service to Euro-Atlantic integration and the ideas behind democracy, and still secure something beyond economic and cultural colonisation.
Slovakia is in a profound moral crisis that has been deepened by the Dzurinda government. With Mečiar, most intelligent people knew what to expect, and the larceny of the 1994-1998 administration was seen as something that had to be endured. But those same people have been deeply disturbed by the corruption and cynicism of politicians who claimed to be men of democratic principle. If they have lowered the flag, who is left to raise it?
Fuzzy thinking knows no borders. The United States, the champion of democracy who emerged the strongest from world war two, is now telling Slovaks who to vote for in 2002 parliamentary elections, but pretending they aren't interfering in domestic politics. As if parents who told their children "you won't get ice cream unless you eat your carrots" weren't trying to influence behaviour.
But this part of the world, with its tumid national dreams, can't afford the luxury of white lies. British writer Martin Amis said once that "the pain is in the mail for all of us. It's just a question of when it arrives." What Slovakia is now enduring is the arrival of built-up historical pain - the centuries of serfdom, the bitter choices of wartime 'independence', and the disappointments of statehood.
The only path worth walking in life is towards the people, and countries, we would rather be if worse instincts didn't interfere. Those instincts, which more than anything else have to do with lying, must be fought.
25. Mar 2002 at 0:00