Events not for idealising nor demonising

PEOPLE should try to avoid both idealising and demonising the Slovak National Uprising (SNP), one of the most significant events of Slovakia’s history, says Ivan Kamenec, a historian with the Slovak Academy of Sciences, who authored several books focusing on Slovakia’s modern history including that of the wartime Slovak state, a satellite of Nazi Germany.

One of many monuments marking the Slovak National Uprising (SNP).One of many monuments marking the Slovak National Uprising (SNP). (Source: Sme)

“The uprising did not meet all its goals and it is necessary to talk about all this rather in normal terms, which means neither as a prosecutor nor as an advocate,” said Kamenec. In an interview with The Slovak Spectator he went on to address several aspects of the SNP on the occasion of its 70th anniversary.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia celebrates the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) as one of its state holidays. How have various political establishments handled this event?
Ivan Kamenec (IK):
Since the SNP is a significant historical event it will never be completely cleansed of ideological connotations. But this all testifies to its importance. For 70 years, each ruling political group wanted to use the anniversary of the SNP for its own benefit. The majority of them have identified with the SNP but at the same time they have been adjusting or, so to say, ‘nationalised’ this event.

After 1989 [the Velvet Revolution], a completely new phenomenon entered the domestic arena in terms of approaching the SNP, which is in fact a rejection of the uprising, while calling it an ‘anti-national coup’ or ‘dirty war’ by certain groups. It was a new moment for the historians because suddenly they had to defend the uprising as a positive moment in Slovakia’s modern history.

TSS: What is the historical and societal significance of the SNP for Slovakia today? And in the international context?
The SNP did not emerge as an isolated event, but the event was part of the European anti-fascist resistance, which was culminating as the uprising broke out. This is one of the most important aspects of the SNP from an international point of view.

When you look at the chronology of events, on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw uprising erupted while at that time Finland, as one of the allies of Nazi Germany, concluded a separate peace agreement with the Soviet Union. Then on August 23, less than a week before the uprising, there was a royal anti-fascist coup in Romania, which turned an ally of Nazi Germany into a member of the anti-Hitler coalition almost overnight. In mid-August, even if a little outside of central Europe, there was an uprising in Paris. A couple of weeks after the start of the SNP, there was a radical change in Bulgaria and the country shifted from being a satellite of Nazi Germany to a supporter of the Allies. Moreover, Hungary also experienced an unsuccessful attempt to shake the inconvenient union with Nazi Germany, but it was oppressed rather promptly by an organised coup. The SNP fit almost organically into this situation in terms of its international importance.

TSS: Do the specifics of the SNP fit into the context of similar anti-Nazi movements in the surrounding countries?
Yes, it has a number of specifics, including the fact that it created for two months another frontline behind the withdrawing German army from the east and, thus, there was a guerilla-type of fighting along with a unified front, which forced the Germans to relocate their units from other areas. Yes, the war would have ended also without the SNP, but it did create this united frontline. The second specific feature was that it liquidated a form of Slovak statehood, rooted in the Slovak state as a satellite of the Nazi Germany. It is very important that it did not eliminate the idea of Slovak statehood but rather the form created in 1939 as a by-product of the Nazi aggression against Czechoslovakia.

TSS: Did a considerable segment of society support the uprising? Could we say that Slovaks were unified in the fight against the Nazi regime?
The uprising, which involved 60,000 army members and about 18,000 guerillas, gained the support of the population. Well, not unambiguously that of the whole nation, because those are only empty phrases that ‘the whole nation rose up’, and such myths damage the idea of the uprising. But it is important to note that in Slovakia, compared to other occupied or even unoccupied countries, the economic situation was relatively stable. There was no paradise on earth, as some are trying to claim, but compared to occupied countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria or even Hungary, the situation was better here. Yet despite this fact, people joined the uprising.

The territory of the uprising immediately after August 29 included approximately two-thirds of the then state where about 1.7 million people lived. The number of the population of the whole of then Slovakia, according to a census from 1940, was about 2.6 million people. Of course the territory of the uprising was narrowing down under the pressure of German units and the number of people on the territory of the uprising was shrinking as well.

TSS: The SNP became one of the emblematic celebrations of the communist regime. How would you characterise the relationship between the communist regime and the SNP?
The SNP had two political goals; one was overthrowing the totalitarian regime and the second to renew Czechoslovakia, but not in the form it existed before 1938. They envisioned an equal partner, because in the former Czechoslovak constitution there was still the definition of a Czechoslovak nation, which indeed did not exist and with such a message they could not get people interested in the uprising. They needed to set a new programme of Slovak statehood as opposed to an independent state which was discredited by a number of very bad decisions, including the treatment of the Jews.

Yet, one of the important forces of the uprising, the communists who grasped power in 1948, devalued the goal of overthrowing a totalitarian regime because they installed another totalitarian system. Since the communist totalitarian regime did not tolerate any decentralisation, there was again a centralised state, but under the flag of the communists.

Some historians and politicians who are critical of the uprising claim that the SNP was a direct road to the communist totalitarian regime, which is not true, because the uprising wasn’t organised by communists only, but also was a result of the civil resistance. The army of resistance was definitely not communist.

TSS: What was the significance of the participation of the foreigners in the uprising?
All the foreign participants deserve respect and gratitude. Yet, many of them found themselves being part of the uprising rather accidentally, except those parachutist units whom the main staff from Kiev were sent to Slovakia to prepare guerilla diversions, and when the SNP broke out the army as the main force had serious problems with these partisans as they did not want to be subordinated to the leadership.

The highest number of foreigners came from the Soviet Union, while many people came from what is now the Czech Republic. There was a French unit including 39-40 captives from the German-French war who then joined the uprising. There were Hungarian soldiers or even German ones, but they weren’t deserters of the German army, but rather, ethnic Germans living in Slovakia. Poles were an important part of the uprising as they were escaping from occupied Poland, as Slovakia until August 29, 1944 was a non-occupied satellite country and it was relatively safe for these people.

Since the SNP was part of the European anti-fascist resistance, all the powers of the anti-Hitler coalition had their military missions here. The first military mission came from the Soviet Union and then the Anglo-American missions.

Of the Nováky Jewish labour camp a group of 200 people was created, who shaped a separate unit and fought here. There were Bulgarians who mostly studied here at universities and then joined the uprising along with some Romanians.

Of course there were Canadians, Dutch and Belgians. There was also a rather larger group of citizens from the former Yugoslavia and some Italian guerillas participating. Representatives of 27 nations or countries were here, but some of them were here as individuals. But they were individuals and one should not overestimate the international aspect of the uprising because nothing can cause as much harm as mythologising these events.

TSS: Are there still unexplored aspects of the uprising?
There always will be things to explore as historiography will never arrive to an absolute truth. Ancient Rome or the revolutions of 1848 are still being studied since every new generation brings a new approach and of course new sources emerge as well.

As for the SNP, historians can focus on the lives of ordinary people, because during the uprising people weren’t only fighting and doing politics, but they live their lives on these territories. They had to supply the fighting units, the pensions had to be paid and health care provided. On the revolutionary area people were being born and dying natural deaths.

We can study the uprising in simpler terms, so that not only the leaders but also the citizens are studied; not only the army but also the soldiers. What do we know about the individual soldiers, about their reasons to join the fight or the reasons of those who avoided the uprising? Historians still owe much to this event, but the same goes for the work of sociologists so that there is more understanding gained about these small histories.

TSS: Why is this historical event of interest to extremist groups?
I have a feeling that demonising the uprising for extremist groups is only a substitute issue because they mostly care about the glorification of the fascist-totalitarian Slovak state and its representatives, against whom the uprising was directed. This is why there are many myths linked to this historical period and some authors would claim that the uprising made things even worse, such as it brought more Nazis who renewed the deportations to Slovakia. Yet such authors forget to mention that before the uprising the Slovak government deported Jews on its own. The attacks on the SNP are aimed at justifying the regime against which the uprising was directed. Yet, there are such extremist tendencies Europe-wide when xenophobic groups target immigrants and Slovakia is not special case in this. However, in many countries such radical movements evoke scorn, but in Slovakia, even if I want to avoid generalisation, one representative of such a regime became head of the region.

TSS: The generation that experienced the uprising is slowly dying out. What does this mean?
Historians have a lot of sources at their disposal, including testimonies of those who remember the events, their correspondence or the memories they passed on to their successors. The uprising, as most events of this kind, are generationally transferable. The family memories are one of the reasons why some younger people are returning to these events either in negative or positive terms; well, in negative terms mostly those [with] ‘shaved heads’, who clearly are not interested in the facts behind these events, but they are rather slaves to ideology.

TSS: What was the relationship of Jozef Tiso, the president of the wartime state, to the Slovak National Uprising?
There are two possible approaches to this theme. One is purely historical, which one can base on existing sources only. After the SNP broke out, Tiso delivered a speech in which he called those involved traitors, criminals and an import from abroad. But then, Tiso as a priest preached that the uprising should be taken with humbleness. The second approach is rather at the level of hypothesis. I have written a publication about Tiso and will draw from that. Whether someone likes it or not, Tiso had great authority, which did not spring from historical qualities or political activities, but rather from the fact that he was a priest.

In the wartime Slovak state, at least two power lines were created: a conservative one which was led by Tiso himself and a radical stream. Yet, both these lines strived to install a totalitarian regime, yet, they preferred different methods. The radicals led by Vojtech Tuka and Alexander Mach wanted to mechanically copy the Nazi model. Tiso initially opposed it but finally he joined this stream since he said that Slovakia would be building National Socialism but in a clero-fascist sense. Yet, Tiso wasn’t just a president but also the prime minister leading the government; he also was the chairman of the ruling party HSĽS, which controlled everything, in a way under the communism everything was directed by the Communist Party. Yet, despite all this, the resistance movement somehow differentiated Tiso from the radicals. But this is only a hypothesis.

In the summer of 1943, Mussolini was overthrown in Italy, which evoked in the ruling circles in Slovakia a kind of shock that the oldest fascist regime in Europe could. Speculation emerged that the role that was played by Victor Emanuel in Italy could be played by Tiso in Slovakia. Yet, Tiso failed to fulfill these expectations. Tiso actually elevated the idea of the Slovak state high above anything else and adjusted it to absolute collaboration with the Nazi regime.

Another myth is that if there was no SNP, the German army would have not come here. They would have come either way. The truth is that they came here when the uprising erupted, but they would have not left Slovakia and left if unoccupied and left it to the approaching Soviet army. Tiso then in his speeches kept condemning the uprising and negotiated with chiefs of the German army.

It is almost incomprehensible that even in 1943 and 1944, Tiso failed to understand that Nazi Germany was walking towards its defeat and he stuck to them to the very end. He saw in Nazi Germany the only rescue for the post-war existence of the Slovak State, which was a big mistake because even without the uprising the Slovak state would have been dissolved. The western diplomats, members of the anti-Hitler coalition already in 1941, when the war became a world war, set the goal of the renewal of Czechoslovakia. Moreover, even if the Nazi Germany won the war, some available documents suggest, that the Nazi Germany did not count with the existence of the Slovak state, or the existence of the Slovak nation. Slovaks were destined to become a local German minority and those who if not able to get Germanised, would be transported to the East. Even after Hitler committed suicide, Tiso sent Dönitz, the new chancellor a congratulatory letter, in which he assured him that the Slovak nation would remain true to Germany until the victorious end. That was the point where he was literarily losing his judgment and intelligence.

TSS: You have spoken about the different myths attached to the SNP. Is the way this period is taught in schools free of these myths?
Perhaps teachers will have a better answer for you. But first of all the education in history is generally underfed. Allegedly, teachers do not like dealing with chapters of modern history. Yet, I think this should not be an issue of teaching history only. I think students could gain knowledge about the uprising also through literature and other forms of artistic expression, movies or theatre. Historians should not have the illusion that they are the ones influencing public opinion the most. One good artistic movie or a good documentary in my opinion can influence a much wider range of people than even the best written history book.

TSS: What is the general attitude of the population towards the SNP today?
It is very difficult to tell. Some of the surveys I looked at suggest that some do not even know what it was, or what happened in November 1989 for that matter, and there is a 25-year difference. One must avoid both idealisation and demonisation as well. One should look at the SNP as one of the most significant events of Slovakia’s history, yet, not talk about it in ideal terms only, as it failed to accomplish some of its goals. Unfortunately, there were guerilla groups which were killing the local German population and that is also part of the event, and trying to conceal it would not be right.

The uprising did not meet all its goals and it is necessary to talk about all this rather in normal terms, which means neither as a prosecutor nor as an advocate. It is necessary to explain that the uprising is part of an endless flow of history and to look at it from a certain distance while understanding that it cannot be taken out of Slovakia’s history.


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