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WWII: History often blends with the present

“HISTORY always mingles with politics and the present,” Ivan Kamenec of the Institute of History at the Slovak Academy of Sciences said when commenting on the coming 70th anniversary celebrations in Moscow marking the end of World War II.

Ivan Kamenec(Source: SME)

History would not have its meaning if it was recognised only based on the claims of some historians. The past can be explained, but cannot be atoned and it is important how we understand and explain it now, the historian stressed. The Slovak Spectator talked with Kamenec about the end of WWII in Slovakia, about the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) and about the liberation of the country by the Red Army and what impact it had on life of ordinary people.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Recent discussion of the anniversary in Slovakia is connected mostly with the participation of Prime Minister Robert Fico in celebrations in Moscow. Russia, in general, is in the centre of all talks about liberating the country. Is that approach justified?

Ivan Kamenec (IK): The celebrations of the 70th anniversary of WWII end are entwined with the current events in Russia, like the annexation of Crimea, the involvement of Russians in Ukrainian crisis, though the Russian officials deny it. There are two levels. First, after June 1941 the Soviet Union in WWII really played one of the most important parts in the fights, especially on the European continent, which neither Slovakia nor members of the anti-Hitler coalition denied. Second, the Soviet Union really contributed the most to liberating Czechoslovakia. This was agreed at no less than two conferences: in Tehran in November 1943 and in Yalta in January 1945. At the time Czechoslovakia already was, from the point of military and also political development, pitched into the sphere of interest of the Soviet Union.

The liberation and the present are two levels of historical development. It is not possible to connect or divide them by routine as they need to be evaluated in two levels: on the one hand we cannot forget about the Soviet soldiers, and on the other hand that they were not deliberate bearers of the Soviet Union’s imperialistic goals. They fought for liberating their own country, as well as Czechoslovakia.

What happened after the war or what is happening now offers many reasons for comparing these two events. But their comparison is a very sensitive thing and should not be limited only to who will and who will not go to Russia. The celebrations also have a military part where Russian troops march, which possibly were involved in occupying Ukraine last year and their members now fight alongside Ukrainian separatists. Several EU and global leaders expressed their opinion, but they will go to Russia, including [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel. She will however not attend the military parade, like our prime minister and Czech President [Miloš] Zeman.

TSS: How do you assess the contribution of Russia from the point of the historical development at the end of the war? Can we say that one totalitarian regime replaced the other?

IK: Yes, we can. Each had its specifics. But the Nazi regime here lasted seven years, while the communists lasted 41 years. This has its role when reflecting both of them. We cannot compare them from the point of quantity, meaning how many victims the first regime had and how many had the second. Every murder is murder; either it is one person, 10 people or 1 million people. The chronological principle is very important here. The society needs to cope with both these totalitarianisms.

TSS: Some historical sources say that the Soviet soldiers were more cruel than the Nazis. What do you see behind this behaviour? How did it impact the approach of Slovak people to them?

IK: Atrocities appear in every war. Unfortunately, not only the Red Army, but also armies of the democratic countries were doing them. The atrocities of the Red Army were in some way revenge for what the Nazi armies did on the territory of then Soviet Union. But the thing is that the fights in Slovakia took nearly nine months. The raids and raping were more visible than on territories where the liberation was quick. Moreover, the German raids and atrocities were better organised and less visible. It evoked other feelings in people.

Historians also cannot evaluate history only based on experience of individuals. It is a very difficult, structured process which is evaluated by so-called big history. For ordinary people there is small history, composed of their experiences, hopes and disappointments. The events like WWII and the liberation belong to the part of the history transferred to other generations. And this should be handled very sensitively. We cannot yield to generalisations. If we placed the WWII events and the liberation in an imaginary pan of historical morals, the positive would prevail.

WWII was the war of survival of the democratic system, though the regime which was not democratic contributed to this survival. And it was also the war which prevented the liquidation of whole nations, not only Jews and Roma. The documents which are already published suggest that the Nazis planned physical liquidation of minor nations or in a better case their enslavement. And even the claim that if there was no end of the war the Slovak state would continue to exist is nonsense. The Nazi documents suggest that in case of victory they did not plan any Slovak state or the Slovak nation.

TSS: What was the mood in society before the arrival of soldiers? How did ordinary people assess the war?

IK: The war concerned them only in a way that they wanted to survive and continue their normal life, and that neither of sides commandeered their reserves. Slovakia was still an agricultural country. A major part of people joined the SNP, not in a way of taking weapons and going to the frontline or the woods, but because they supplied the partisan units. People were not only fighting, but also living during the SNP.

TSS: How did the arrival of soldiers impact life in the country and its inhabitants?

IK: The liberation of Slovakia started in October 1944 and lasted until April 1945. There were, however, also fights during the first two months of the SNP. It naturally impacted all people who wished for the war to end. If they did not submit to the propaganda, they knew the war will end by defeating Germany. Only some fanatics, including politicians, kept saying even in the first months of 1945 that Germany was able to overturn the course of the war. Germans were destroying the whole factories, were taking the fuel, animals. When retreating they took anything they could use. They also applied the scorched earth policy, but were not very consistent as they did not have time. They however damaged any possible roads and bridges. This was one of the heritages of the war in Slovakia.

TSS: How did these events impacted the life after war?

IK: The feeling of liberation from war appeared. But with every convulsion certain disillusion comes. This appeared after the years 1918, 1938, 1939 and even 1989. People expected their situation to radically improve, but it did not happen. Also the problems with supplies started.

There was still a strong fascist base which attacked the Czechoslovak statehood. At the time claims appeared that the SNP destroyed the Slovak state, but it is absurd. This is said by people who either want to lie intentionally or do not know the documents. In one of the first declarations in 1941 concerning Czechoslovakia the countries of anti-Hitler coalition agreed on restoring Czechoslovakia in its original borders, regardless of the uprising. The Slovak state did not have a chance to survive after the war as it was a result of the Nazi aggression in 1939 against Czechoslovakia. Post-war developments accounted for many of the main requests of the Slovak anti-fascist resistance: the equality of Slovakia in Czechoslovakia and the establishment of democratic system. The irony is that all these things were eventually eliminated by the supposed liberators, the Soviet Union.

TSS: The SNP was an important milestone for Slovakia as it changed the attitude of the Allies. How did Slovaks perceive the partisans and foreigners who joined it?

IK: At the beginning there was big enthusiasm.[The partisans] believed that if their plan was successful and the two eastern Slovak divisions would open the way through the Carpathian passes and the Red Army would arrive, Slovakia would be liberated very quickly. However, the plan failed. The Nazi army started occupying Slovakia from the west and disarmed the eastern Slovak divisions.

The SNP also has moral importance. It started when Slovakia was occupied by foreign armies. If a domestic army resists the occupant, it is a positive signal. Some say that the SNP was not national. Though not the whole nation joined it, it was a significant part of it. It originally erupted in two thirds of the Slovak territory where some 1.8 million people lived. The area later tapered as the partisans had to retreat. But they found support on this territory, either voluntary or forced. The SNP was also part of the European anti-fascist resistance. It was not an isolated action somebody had made up. It also created a frontline in the base of Nazi retreating armies.

TSS: Where there any places in Slovakia where no fighting took place?

IK: I think yes. The fights were quick at some places. It depended which localities were of strategic importance either for one or the second army. Some municipalities were less damaged and some more. For example, Liptovský Mikuláš was liberated but when [Soviet] soldiers left, it was seized by Nazis again. Bratislava was liberated quite quickly.

No fights took place in Slovakia by 1944, but the war was present here. Several thousands of Slovak soldiers died or got injured in the war. There was also this supposed solution to the Jewish question. In 1942 some 58,000 people were deported, most of whom died in the death camps. This was felt here, though not always directly.

TSS: What other nations, except for the Soviets, were liberating Slovakia?

IK: There was a Czechoslovak and also a Romanian army. The US army did not fight in Slovakia. It made it to [Czech town of] Plzeň, but there was a line set by the Alliance. It was a question of prestige and the Soviets wanted to liberate Prague, for example.

TSS: What was the Nazi propaganda like in the end of the war? How did it describe the progress of the Red Army and gradual liberation of Slovakia?

IK: The war propaganda overestimates the war successes. This was made also in Slovak propaganda. If you look at the government press during SNP times, the soldiers and partisans were described as traitors or criminals. There were very natural descriptions of priests being excoriated. Such cases have made it also to the present-day literature. Propaganda has always been very strong and every politician knows its power. And what is the worst, is that they are making monkeys of people. 

TSS: The post-war order determined the political future of then Czechoslovakia. Why was the country in the Soviet sphere of influence?

IK: The spheres of influence were divided in Tehran, and especially in Yalta, and finally confirmed in Potsdam. Czechoslovakia did not have any significant role in these negotiations. Moreover, at the time it had a deal with the Soviet Union. Though some criticise [then president Edvard] Beneš for selling Czechoslovakia out, even Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland which did not have such a deal landed under the influence of the Soviet Union. Only in case of Czechoslovakia it happened later. Czechoslovakia had so-called limited democracy until February 1948 and it held rather democratic elections in 1946, though a big portion of parties could not run in elections. Moreover, the perception of the Soviet Union was different then, it was a liberator.

TSS: What was the reason for Czechoslovakia to sign such deal with the Soviet Union?

IK: Unfortunately, Czechoslovakia had very bad experience with western countries. It had been one of the most loyal allies to France and in 1938 in Munich it was literally thrown overboard. It was not that western countries did not realise the importance of Czechoslovakia in western Europe, they slightly underestimated the politics of the Soviet Union. Also the historical documents show that the country had changed. It was not considered the totalitarian nation which spreads its ideology as in 1943 Stalin dissolved the Comintern, which was the institutional representative of it.

Moreover, nobody could deny the fact that between 1941 and 1944 the Soviet Union bore the main burden of the land fights in Europe. This brought huge victims, both human and material, which left huge influence in European and also Czechoslovak public. This however started to lose value after 1948, and then after the first half of the 1950s. And then this view of the Soviet Union and the Soviet mission was completely trampled after the 1968 occupation [of Czechoslovakia].

Topic: World War II

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