In 1944 thousands of people made a heroic gesture. And today?

The Slovak National Uprising was successful morally rather than in military terms. People understood that in a certain moment one can no longer just watch and wait for a satisfactory resolution, that others will do it for us.

(Source: Ivan Székely)

The walk from Špania Dolina to the rebel  Mor Ho bunker takes two hours. The path in Staré Hory ends just above a slope. Only a steep path through wild apple trees leads down to the heart of the partisan republic, where an eponymous magazine was once published.

What happened?

The place has been cleared, it looks like a hobbit house. There is a view over the forests to Donovaly and beyond, to the peaks of  the Nízke Tatry, the Lower Tatras, in central Slovakia. In the hills above Staré Hory, there was fighting: German units and the Hlinka guards, traitors, collaborators, opportunists who persecuted the members of the Slovak army.

They caught generals Viest and Golian near Staré Hory. The insurgents would come down from there with news from the front, or to seek provisions. They stayed there from the summer of 1944 until the spring when there was nobody left to fight against anymore, when the front reached Banská Bystrica and the north. The Russian units advanced, the Romanian units advanced, the allied air force were supplying food and arms, and the insurgence turned into a political issue. Everyone sensed that the future of Czechoslovakia was at stake up in the mountains above Banská Bystrica, above Strečno, and in the Štiavnické hills.

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But even before the Bolsheviks and Russian commissars took control of the dynamics of the uprising, before Stalin decided that support for the Czechoslovak resistance would become an excuse to take control of the country, something unprecedented happened in the minds of the people.

One day before the evacuation started, tens of thousands of men and women had no idea that on August 29 they would rise up against the fascist regime of the so-called Slovak state, and with that decision would put Slovakia on the side of the Allies. One day before the Uprising broke out, most of the future insurgents lived their wartime lives in the background of the front. They could rely on the local fascist propaganda telling them that Slovakia was an alleged oasis of peace and prosperity, a shameless lie that some historians repeat until this day. By the summer of 1944 Slovakia had deported most of its Jews and after the Uprising broke out, they started dispatching trains carrying Roma too. The price Slovaks paid for the so-called prosperity of the Slovak state were the state-organised murders of their own citizens, for which the state compensated the rest with the possibility of buying pork brisket from their butcher. The cowardice, the squealing, the dishonest life were at their peak just before the Slovak National Uprising (SNP).

The test of characters

My grandmother worked in the Grand hotel in the High Tatras’ town of Smokovec at that time. She and my grandfather were sent to the Dachau concentration camp after their own staff reported them for hiding a Jewish family in the hotel. It was done by Slovaks, those whose children and grandchildren  today claim that they have nothing to do with that time, that we cannot keep repenting and feeling shame for something we did not do. After all, we were unwitting, they say, we just thought that the Jews from the house next door left for their holidays or something, never mind the fact that none of them returned for three years or ever.

On the night of August 29 there were more than 80,000 people who even six years after being fed the propaganda did not succumb to it. Not all of them believed it was right to have their “own state” at the price of teaming up with Hitler. Not all believed that the deportations of Jews and political murders were Tiso’s way to fight bolshevism. There were tens of thousands of families in Slovakia whose members joined the resistance movement.

Fascist historians from the exile, or their followers from the Nation’s Memory Institute, like to say that we are influenced by communist historiography, that everything we know about the uprising is a result of political rather than historical ideas, that we do not actually know how it really was, that the times were hard. But people's characters are not tested in resorts where everything works alright, but in the moments where one needs to make fast decisions, right and definitive. In this sense, the insurgents took their heroic approach to life into Slovak history and politics and they enriched us with that heroism. That made us a moral political nation and put us on the same level with those European countries that made the cultivation of moral heroism a tool with which to fashion their own historical perception

Small nations haunted by fear of extinction, who feel their historical existence just randomly occurred on the margins of big countries, only rarely make the grade to heroism. Slovakia has made it to an extent that greatly exceeds the proportional possibilities of a small country to interfere with history.

And today?

We have given thousands of lives to the European resistance movement, and thousands of stories of help and courage. SNP was successful morally rather than in military terms. People understood that in a certain moment one can no longer just watch and wait for a satisfactory resolution, that others will do it for us and we will again get out of it as we always did. Countries must also deserve their existence with their courage to change history and cultivate heroism.

In contrast with the events of 1944, not much has remained of our ability to confront ourselves with the components of destruction. In the summer of 1944 the Nazis had problems with the train of rebels; today the state has a problem with the Nazi patrols on trains.

The lack of ability to give living testimony from the SNP through clear attitudes, and the failure to name the real danger, cowardice and malice from fear and political calculation, are characteristic of those who are in political posts today.

The SNP was turned into a sterile tribune of small-mindedness, where we convince ourselves that we are so very awesome thanks to our smallness and the malice that we are cultivating.

The uprising no longer resonates in us, only wanderers visit the Mor Ho bunker, and in the onetime centre of resistance in Špania Dolina fascist kids in uniforms come to clean the streets. And we are scared; we are scared of foreigners, of migrants, of art and of television, we are scared of literature and of demons in videogames, we do not want to be heroes. And the fascist historians are talking their talk about Bolshevik conspiracies and that “there was no other option”.

Where is the courage that we inherited from the insurgents, and when will we start the evacuation?


Ed. Note: “Start with evacuation”. In response to the start of the Nazi German occupation of Slovakia, Slovak Army Lieutenant Colonel General Ján Golian issued this code for military units on the evening of August 29, 1944, which signalled the start of active military defence against the occupation.

Michal Havran is a theologian, editor-in-chief of This opinion piece was first published in the Sme daily on August 25.

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