ANNIVERSARIES, especially the ones which have the potential to tear the still-soft scabs from historical wounds, are far too easy to abuse. Historical anniversaries far too often produce a whole army of self-made historical experts who gather at squares to share their versions of history, with no other role than to provide a licence to hate, humiliate and attack.
March 14 is undoubtedly such a traumatic day for Slovakia and it promises to remain so for many more years.
March 14, 1939 is the day when the wartime Slovak state, a puppet of Nazi Germany led by Jozef Tiso, a Roman Catholic priest, emerged. There have always been historians and politicians who tried to camouflage the rotten core of this part of Slovakia’s history, when according to historical sources, some 70,000 Slovak Jews were sent to concentration camps. By doing so, however, they have been pouring oil on the fire of extremist groups who do not care so much about history as about the chance it provides to identify enemies and groups to hate.
This year, they celebrated the 70th anniversary of the creation of the regime, one which largely excluded Jews from public life based on the Nuremberg Decrees of 1935 and, in fact, became the only collaborator-state to pay the Nazis for the deportation costs of its own Jews.
According to newswire reports the “congratulants” of the wartime Slovak state were mostly young, shaven-headed males dressed in black who shouted nationalist slogans. It would be extremely hard to tell what they really stand for except extremism. One of their leaders said he would test democracy and applied his rather peculiar ‘test’ by greeting the crowd with a Nazi salute.
Yet, there is a deep-rooted misunderstanding in these young men of what real democracy is and what it means to celebrate totalitarian regimes which not only limited but completely killed democracy for large groups of people. These regimes not only exterminated democracy, but also many of their own people who were somehow different in race, origin or belief.
This is happening as observers and analysts are warning of the dangers of radicalisation by far-right groups. But at the same time, organisations wearing the uniforms of oppressive regimes meet at squares and offer what they call solutions to society’s problems through hate, xenophobia and racism.
At the end of last year, a Budapest court dissolved the Hungarian Guard paramilitary group, a branch of the non-parliamentary far-right Jobbik party, whose idea of neighbourly relations is to block border crossings.
But the court’s ruling in no way means that the roots of these movements in Hungary have been weeded out. Similarly, two rulings in Slovakia did not weed out Slovenská Pospolitosť: outlawed as a political party in 2006 and as a civic association in November 2008 – but still in evidence on March 14, 2009.
Nevertheless, outlawing such political movements are clear signals that modern European societies must send whenever such groups start seeking to validate their existence.
Governments should keep their distance from political forces that demonstrate sympathy for controversial and oppressive regimes instead of giving these parties legitimacy by becoming their partners.
As the Sme daily noted on March 14, the parties of Slovakia’s ruling coalition differ over historical interpretations of the wartime Slovak state. While the Smer party considers the emergence of that state to be a tragedy, its junior coalition partner, the Slovak National Party (SNS), regards it as a very important day in the history of the country, the daily noted.
Some SNS members have a history of commemorating the anniversaries of the wartime Slovak state. SNS MP Rafael Rafaj once proudly said that President Tiso was one of the greatest Slovak personalities, along with Andrej Hlinka and Milan Rastislav Štefánik.
And indeed, Rafaj was only defending the assessment of a fellow SNS deputy, Jozef Rydlo, who said that Tiso was the greatest personality of Slovakia’s 20th century history.
Though political party officials rarely make good historians this does not deter them from trying to use and manipulate history in a way that suits their ambitions.
Tiso and the Slovak state truly belong in the hands of experienced historians with the integrity and skills necessary to properly handle the fragile historical facts which are at such risk of being deformed when handled in haste, or malice.
Besides, statements of politicians and their sympathies for certain historical figures are signals for different sub-cultures in society who, whenever room is created for them, begin to spread their contempt for coexistence between different groups of people.
They care very little about historical truth, let alone about truths that would help nations to reconcile their pasts and learn the lessons necessary to ensure that the darkest days of history never return.