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EDITORIAL

Heavy historical baggage

MASSED marchers, neo-Nazi groupings that offer frustrated youngsters licence to kick anyone labelled “the enemy”, sub-cultures devoted to collecting trashy Nazi relics and reading speeches by shady figures from the past that continue to haunt present generations who lack the necessary historical self-reflection, and extremist politicians: none of these make good historians.

MASSED marchers, neo-Nazi groupings that offer frustrated youngsters licence to kick anyone labelled “the enemy”, sub-cultures devoted to collecting trashy Nazi relics and reading speeches by shady figures from the past that continue to haunt present generations who lack the necessary historical self-reflection, and extremist politicians: none of these make good historians.

Unfortunately, however, it is precisely such people who frequently and shamelessly trumpet their dubious interpretations of history whenever it suits them, guaranteeing them attention among those in society who are angry and ready to lash out.

Every year, one day before the Ides of March, youngsters dressed in uniforms resembling those of Slovakia’s wartime Nazi militia, along with a handful of pensioners clinging bitterly to memories of the early 1940s – or, more often these days, the filtered memories of their parents – gather in squares to commemorate what is one of the darkest and most traumatic anniversaries in Slovakia’s history: the establishment in 1939 of the Slovak State, a puppet of Nazi Germany led by Jozef Tiso, a Roman Catholic priest.

It is almost the same story every year: supporters of the Nazi puppet state meet on March 14 at one of Bratislava’s squares and then march to the grave of Tiso while shouting the same predictable slogans every year: ‘We won’t give away Slovakia’, ‘Slovakia for Slovaks’ or ‘Vivat Tiso’.

They are typically citizens vulnerable to manipulation by extremist leaders, who, by attacking a wide range of minorities, get the moment of fame and attention they hunger for.

Local media reported that in Bratislava this year, according to the SITA newswire, an estimated 200 people attended the celebrations of the 72nd anniversary of the Slovak State. The founder of the banned Slovenská Pospolitosť extremist movement, Marián Kotleba, described them as a “handful of the brave against the whole system”.

Kotleba called on Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic to delete the paragraph of the Criminal Code which penalises incitement of hatred based on race, nationality or ethnicity, describing it as an obstacle to freedom of opinion and what he called “scientific exploration”, SITA wrote.

Of course, the March 14 performance of those youngsters, few of whom would probably be able to cite even basic facts about the wartime state or the activities of its leaders, could hardly be characterised as “scientific exploration”.

Nevertheless, there are still historians trying to re-package the rotten core of Tiso’s state, disregarding the fact that, obedient to Hitler, it sent some 70,000 Slovak Jews to Nazi death camps while actually reimbursing the Reich for the costs of deportation. No re-interpretation can soften this fact or make it more ‘acceptable’ for a democratic country.

Yet the streets will always have their self-made historians and there will always be sub-cultures who decades ago retreated into the dark caves with what they believed was the truth, and who have never really emerged since. Instead, they continue to polish their rings and plates adorned with Nazi swastikas, and search internet sites to extend their collections, caring very little about the victims of the regimes which produced their cherished mementoes.

March 14 is still wrapped up in many myths that continue to be abused by extremists. Historians and political scientists repeatedly remind us that the Slovak State had many of the attributes of a totalitarian state, and oppressed the rights of the majority of its own citizens. But this awkward fact, of course, hardly enters into the type of rally talk in which the extremists are involved every year.

Perhaps especially around the Ides of March there should be some more substantial debate: the broadcast media could skip one of the episodes of its apparently interminable soap opera series and host a debate of historians over the issue; though the hopeful premise for such an initiative is that the wider public cares, which might well be a forlorn hope.

The hope that one day these people will eventually melt away, like the dirty snow under the rays of the March sun, is wrong: they will not just disappear.

History is sometimes heavy, rusty and difficult to handle, and sometimes it is very fragile. This is why it should never be treated like a football, kicked by those who do not understand the importance of historical interpretation. Without care, future generations will be able neither to carry their unresolved historical baggage nor put it where it belongs.


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