Wartime Slovak state still divides opinion

Read more about the Slovak state, Tiso and deportation of the thousands of Jews from Slovakia in an article retrieved from our archive.

Extremists used to meet at Jozef Tiso's grave (picture from 2007).Extremists used to meet at Jozef Tiso's grave (picture from 2007). (Source: SME)

WHO IS responsible for the thousands of Jews deported from Slovakia to be murdered in concentration camps? Was the wartime Slovak state really as prosperous as some like to say? The Slovak public and historians are divided on such issues, even as experts note that much of the discussion is still driven by emotion rather than proper knowledge of the past.

Slovakia recently marked the 75th anniversary, on March 14, 2014, since the emergence of the first independent Slovak state that was created with the backing of Nazi Germany. That state is known to have deported some 70,000 Jews to death camps and expropriated their property, then worth billions of Slovak crowns.

Apart from the facts, however, several well-rooted myths linked to the war-time state have prevailed in Slovakia, particularly the image of an economically prosperous state, or the myth about the state’s president, Jozef Tiso, protecting Jews from deportations demanded by Nazi Germany, the Museum of Slovak National Uprising General Director Stanislav Mičev told The Slovak Spectator.

The fact that it was the first independent Slovak state in history brings a deeply emotional component to the topic. Some focus only on certain aspects, highlighting statehood while ignoring the totalitarian regime, Ivan Kamenec from the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) noted in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.

“It is not considered what this state was like, but just the fact that it existed,” Kamenec said, adding that the notion of statehood is often valued much more than other factors, “which is always dangerous”.

If Slovaks want to cope with this part of their history they need to approach it without emotions, he added.

“While looking at the wartime Slovak state or any other part of our modern history, we need to have the strength for critical self-reflection of our history,” Kamenec said, “and not take out all the unpleasant things and pretend that it is not our business.”

Prevailing myths

Some have cited economic prosperity when defending the wartime Slovak state in the past, including former Trnava Archbishop Ján Sokol, who infamously told the TA3 news channel in late 2006 that the wartime state brought benefits.

“I respect President Tiso, I respect him very much, as I remember when I was a child we were very poor, but during his time we had a high standard of living,” Sokol said.

Historians, however, question the alleged prosperity of the wartime state.

Prosperity in that era is more legend than historical fact, Katarína Zavacká, a historian from the Institute of State and Law of the SAV, told The Slovak Spectator in 2009.

“Some Slovaks lived in prosperity, but all the rest had a ration-ticket system, so what kind of prosperity was that?” she said.

Another popular myth is that Tiso protected Jews who were supposed to be deported to Nazi camps by issuing exceptions for them, according to Mičev.

“However, those who spread this myth do not say from whom [Tiso was protecting Jews],” Mičev said. “They would have to admit that it was against him [Tiso] alone.”

The most popular myths are that the wartime state originated as a result of a national effort and that it was a renewal of a Slovak state that existed in medieval times during the Great Moravian Empire in the 9th century. Slovak state representatives were promoting this idea, but the truth is that the wartime state was a product of Nazi aggression, Kamenec said.

“Those myths can be easily busted, but they have strong emotional roots,” Kamenec said. “In such cases it is a much more difficult process.”

The myths are a result of inadequate knowledge of that historical period. Part of Slovak society sees only the bright side of the period of the Second World War in Slovakia, while the other part sees only the cons, and that is likely the problem. The first Slovak state should be viewed within the context of international events and depicted comprehensively in its complexity, Alena Bartlová, a researcher at SAV Institute of History, told The Slovak Spectator.

Society and teachers

Slovaks lack interest and are indifferent towards the first Slovak state, according to Mičev. Moreover, little time is devoted to education about modern Slovak history, which results in poor knowledge among students, he said.

It would be great if the education system allowed teachers to devote a sufficient amount of time to this part of Slovak history so students will not learn about it only from their grandparents or political agitators, Bartlová said.

Even Kamenec admitted that history teachers at schools generally do not have enough time to teach this subject properly, and modern history should be taught even as part of other subjects like literature, he said. History teachers are not the only ones to bear the responsibility for peoples’ quality of knowledge about the past.

Šimon Seman from the non-governmental organisation People Against Racism, however, claims that the curriculum gives enough space for teachers to devote time to the wartime Slovak state.

“It depends on each history teacher, whether they stress the national-emancipation dimension of the Slovak state or whether they talk about it as a time of totality, lack of freedom and violation of human rights,” Seman told The Slovak Spectator.

History textbooks should devote much more attention to the Holocaust and the underground fight against the Slovak state that culminated in the Slovak National Uprising.

Historians also split

In the same way that society is divided in its opinion on the wartime Slovak state, so are historians. Here, too, political and religious orientations are reflected, as is civic courage, according to Bartlová.

Historians need not absolutely agree upon everything; however, the important thing is to argue by using facts, Kamenec said.

“It is wrong when the critical stance towards the Slovak state, the circumstances of its origin, its regime and representatives, is represented as hostile towards Slovak statehood and the idea of the state as such,” Kamenec said.

Historians are divided mainly over their opinions about who is responsible for the crimes and the thousands of Jews sent to death camps, according to Kamenec, who believes that Slovaks bear some of the guilt for what their first state did to minorities under pressure from Nazi Germany.

Historians and their research, however, have no impact on the wider public, just the most intellectual spheres of society, according to Bartlová.

“I presume [people] are probably worried about completely different daily life problems,” Bartlová said.

Kamenec disagrees, arguing that every published book on the wartime Slovak state draws a lot of attention no matter whether it is good or bad.

“No other part of modern history causes such a bipolar conflict in opinion,” Kamenec said. “History becomes particularly interesting when it changes to rumour”.

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