The First Slovak State in 1,287 Words

The First Slovak State in 1,287 Words

March 17, 2011

By Allan Stevo

Those who brought about the First Slovak Republic were traitors to Czechoslovakia. They helped give Czechoslovakia, without a fight, to the Nazis. They helped make it seem internationally like Czechoslovakia had dissolved from internal conflict. They are arguably not traitors to the Slovak nation, because their actions largely kept Slovakia out of the war and therefore, somewhat prosperous, according to common accounts of those times.

Tiso

The head of the First Slovak Republic, independent as of March 14, 1939, was a Roman Catholic priest, Josef Tiso. In this largely Catholic county, you can imagine how confusing it was to determine whether decisions were Tiso’s own, were political, or were the Christian thing to do. He’s become a symbol of a bad time in history.

I do not consider Tiso innocent, but I wonder if history has too casually vilified the man. That’s easy to do while watching the history channel on your couch with 70 years of hindsight. As far as I can tell, Tiso ought not be flatly vilified for what happened.

Tiso was a politician empowered by the Nazi government and surrounded by wolves who were more brutal than him. From Tiso’s perspective, the Slovak government could have been much more extreme. After the end of the war he was sentenced in a highly politicized trial and hung.

Hungary Wanted Slovakia Back

Free from Hungary for less than 20 years, it must have been very difficult for some Slovaks to imagine that they would once again become nothing more than “Upper Hungary.” Felvidék the Hungarian word for “Upper Hungary” is understood to virtually every Slovak adult even to this day. Would the Slovak nation survive the next round of “Magyarization”? Realizing that Czechoslovakia would no longer exist and in the face of this persistent Hungarian threat, a Slovak-Nazi partnership might not have felt ideal, but Germany promising some level of Slovak autonomy must have felt pretty appealing. Shortly before independence, both Poland and Hungary would receive slices of Slovakia and Hungary would come later for a second helping. Regardless, my guess is that the average Slovak in 1939 couldn’t care less about what capital city claimed authority over him.

The Start of the War

Slovakia was there alongside Germany from the start. On September 1, 1939, a fact that I was not taught in world history class,  Slovakia participated in the first military campaign of WWII when, along with Germany, it invaded Poland (according to this fantastic book translated into English by David Daniel).  They were there on June 23, 1941, when the Slovak army joined the German attack on the USSR, (ibid) They fought on the front lines, but also did lots of dirty work behind the front lines that included putting down insurrections among their fellow Slavs.

The Holocaust

Of the many groups that died in concentration camps, as is widely known, the Jews are the most numerous. Slovakia has the unpleasant distinction of having a government minister actually agree to pay the German government 500 Reichmarks per deportee to deport Slovak Jews to Southern Poland (where Auschwitz is located).  500 ℛℳ corresponds to $200.80 in 1938 according this website and that would buy about $3,110.00 worth of household items in 2011 according to this website.

The process did not begin with an overnight deporting of Jews, it involved a drawn out and systematic deprivation of rights, especially for Jews, that proved to be a slippery slope. The Slovak laws pertaining to Jews, modeled on the German Nuremberg Laws, gradually set the stage for “emigration laws.” This is the issue for which Tiso has most significantly become a symbol – apolitical leader, and a Christian cleric, at the behest of a foreign power, deporting his own citizens to camps where they would die. The sick irony of the Slovak collaboration with this is that the Slavs were next on Hitler’s list of “races” to be exterminated.

In contrast with the government’s more well-publicized deportation of Jews, some Slovak families tell stories, even today, of a grandfather or grandmother who helped to hide Jews in war time.  Sometimes this was a neighbor, sometimes a total stranger.  In Israel several hundred Slovaks, according to this PDF, have officially been named “Righteous Among the Nations” for the risks they took to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

The Slovak Safe-Haven for Central European Jews

Kirschbaum adds an important detail about this period: “From October 1942, when the last transfer [of Jews to concentration camps] took place, to August 1944, Slovakia, as a result of the activities of the Jewish Central Office in Bratislava, became a haven also for other Central European Jews, according to the findings of the International Committee of the Red Cross after the war. Slovakia was a safe haven because there was stability in the country…”

German Soldiers

“The German Soldiers that stayed in our village were so clean and polite to my parents, but the Red Army soldiers who ‘liberated’ us were animals who caused so many problems for many families,” or some similar statement has been said to me an uncountable number of times. I cannot verify the statement, but the fact that it survived 40 years of Soviet indoctrination speaks to its credibility.

Slovak National Uprising

The Slovak National Uprising was a partisan uprising against Nazis.The uprising brought with it so many consequences that it is difficult to use either “good” or “bad” to describe it. It is notable that when the front came to Slovakia, some Slovaks participated in the uprising. The partisans also brought terror—Kirschbaum quotes a German envoy’s telegram “where people have helped the partisans, it was far more from fear than sympathy for their cause.”

After the war, communists were fantastic at truthfully pointing out some of the villainy of the Nazi times. The Slovak National Uprising Museum in Banska Bystrica, in English, is not to be missed. The Slovak film Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street) (1965) is the best holocaust film I’ve ever seen and not at all graphic. During partisan fighting, it was hard to say which killers on which sides were friends or enemies. The Czech film Musime si pomahat (Divided We Fall) (2000) does such a good job depicting this terror with some dark humor.

Dukla Pass – Soviet Tanks Still Stand in Slovak Fields

Eastern Slovakia’s Dukla Pass is where a lengthy period of fighting took place towards the end of the war. Today, the fields are still littered with Russian tanks that broke down 68 years ago (more about the fighting and military maps).  As the Red Army passed through Kezmarok, it trashed and then tried to burn down a library for fun.

American Bombs

American planes came up from Italy and bombed Slovakia. Bratislava’s Apollo oil refinery, according to the book Konecna Zastavka: Slovkenso! accounted for 1.3% of the refined oil production of the Third Reich. The imprecision and magnitude of the bombing made it dangerous for civilians.The book is touching and tells the stories of US Airmen who crashed in Slovakia.  Though written in Slovak, every photograph (and there are many) are captioned in English as well. American aid followed American bombs, and to this day, a man I know refuses to eat fish because of a case of food poisoning he received from a can of Alaskan salmon.

Hungarians and Germans After the War

After WWII, the treatment of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia was pretty ugly. A well-written compact account of it in this book available here for free, here for purchase. Germans whose families had been here several hundred years were uprooted and deported as well. While nowhere near as bad as the treatment of the Jews, this set the tone for the inhumane actions of the post-Nazi, communist government that would soon take power.

The most degrading treatment of human beings over and again was visited on the people of this land from 1939 to 1989. The regimes were of different names, but as the book The Road to Serfdom points out, their techniques and professed ideals were so very similar.

By the end of the war, it was clear that a human life was not valued as a human life in Central Europe, you were but a member of another tribe, whether that be Jew, Slovak, Gypsy, Hungarian. You were but a member of another group in society, whether that be peasant, worker, capitalist, trade unionist, collaborator, homosexual, Christian, Jew, democrat. Your value to society was nothing more than a few adjectives or nouns that could describe you.

When referencing the two authoritarian regimes that came upon this land from 1939 to 1989, it is very common for an older Slovak to point out “Stalin killed more than Hitler.” It’s a phrase that encapsulates so much about Slovak culture, about Slovak history. Around the world, it is common to say Hitler was a scoundrel, and communists were saviors. It is common to say that Hitler was the absolute worst and his evil actions are incomparable.  Anyone who will stand up and say that Hitler was not the worst human being out there, is guilty of blasphemy in the temple of popular orthodoxy. It is common to say that communism is, in theory, a just system. In Slovakia, which so commonly scorns political correctness quite regularly Slovaks will simply say “Stalin killed more than Hitler.” Just by going about their days, going about their lives, Slovaks have so often taught me: The truth is the truth, no matter who it offends.

For every 1,000 people that witness an event, there are 1,000 stories. For events we were not witness to, there are many times that. Our personal interpretations of history, especially our own history, are in constant flux. I invite you to tell the story of the First Slovak State in 1,287 words or fewer. I welcome you to post it in the comments section, or post any recollection you may have or have heard from those times. Anything that you can share with me about the region at the time, about Slovakia, about the war I will find of interest. I welcome you to share your stories in the comments sections below (or shoot me an email at 52WeeksInSlovakia@gmail.com if you’d prefer to be less public about it). No matter where you lived at the time, no matter how old or young you were, the tiniest memory of the First Slovak State will be of interest to me.

Thank you for reading and thank you for sharing.

Allan Stevo is a writer living in Bratislava, Slovakia. His work can be found at www.52inSk.com and www.AllanStevo.com.

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Comments

  • Dear Friend

    Congratulations on this excellent piece and thank you for providing so many excellent references.

    I have heard the sentiment “Stalin killed more than Hitler” many times, sometimes to make Nazi crimes seem lesser, sometimes because it is a historical fact that must not be forgotten. There was however one difference that is worthy pointing out: A large proportion (some claim the majority) of Stalin’s victims died of hunger or a consequence of neglect. During the purges the regime filled so many GULAGS with prisoners of conscience, criminals and POWs without providing any food or medicine, simply because this regime was not even able to feed its own citizens. My great uncle who spent 5 years in a GULAG and then another 4 years trying to get out of the USSR reported of horrible death rates in the camps but it was not the systematic killing of the Nazis – it was more a result of simultaneously putting millions into prison camps and then forgetting about them. My grandfather told me of his time as a prisoner of war that the Russians, not having enough food for themselves were still sharing what little they had with the prisoners. These are just two stories, nothing more. They do not provide comfort to any victims of Stalinism nor should they excuse any crimes against humanity committed in the name of Stalinism. I believe however that the proximity that Slovakia had to a Communist Regime often makes the terrors of the Nazis appear to its people like a “lesser evil” and I personally find this a disturbing and dangerous tendency. I think one should stop making comparisons (even though I might have done precisely that) and look at each regime as a seperate chapter, each of them providing its unique lessons. There is a lot of knowledge to be gained by studying these terror states but I think little from comparing Nazis with Khmer Rouge or Maoists or the Turkish massacres in Armenia, all of which were crimes against humanity on an unbelievable scale.

  • Jan,
    You make an insightful distinction that I have not thought about – were the Nazis more methodical and intentional than the Soviets. Excellent point that I want to take more time and consider further. More importantly, your suggestion that it’s hard to compare one totalitarian regime to another makes a good point.

    That great uncle of yours sounds like he had quite a difficult 9 years. Your grandpa makes an interesting point about humans caring for one another – the hungry Russians giving their bread to the hungrier POWs.

    Thank you for your kind words Jan and thank you for getting this discussion started, Jan. I hope that many more comments will follow. I suspect that there is so much about WWII that can really only be known by those born and raised in a culture and I hope I might hear a few of those.

    Last week a 90 year old man told me that when the front came West the Russians stored three “canons” in there yard, a story I had never heard, despite having been in that yard some 50 times. The canons were rolled up a hill and used to shoot at German soldiers 40 km away. The same man was part of a dispatch of Slovaks ordered to guard the body of Andrej Hlinka, a nationalist Slovak priest who died in 1938, before Czechoslovakia split. He had been a mentor to some of the leaders of the First Slovak State. Sometimes the graves of leaders passed are rallied around and visited. When the Russians came, he told me, they took Hlinka’s body from the mausoleum and threw it in the River Vah, never to be seen again.

    Thank you again, for your comment Jan. Now, who’s next. Who will step up and inspire me with their insight, or their memories, or the memories passed on to them?

  • I think Jan has some real wisdom to add to this discussion. Stalin was in power for 31 years, while Hitler was in power about 12 years. Stalin was the dictator of nations with a total population of over 250 million people, while Hitler was the dictator of a nation with a population of about 75 million. The comparisons can go on endlessly. One thing we can be absolutely sure of: they were both evil, ruthless men.

    Also, I think the comparison of how people think about the German Soldiers being “clean and polite” versus the “animals” from Russia doesn’t really tell the story very adequately. The troops had very different missions, and arrived with very different experiences.

    Thanks for writing about this era. It is very interesting, and has many lessons that we should learn. One might be that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” extends to our neighbors in other countries, of other tribes, races, cultures, languages, etc.

  • Kent,
    Thank you for adding to this. You make a good point that the size of the nations makes comparison more difficult and that beyond a certain point of badness, there is no need for a comparison.

    If you have a second, I’d like to hear more about the different missions between the Russian and German soldiers. Since my first month here, I’ve been slightly astounded at the thought that a Nazi soldier could have been polite, since I grew up with this idea that the Nazis must totally have been the worst in all ways. From my very limited knowledge of WWII, I assume that you are saying – Nazis came with the intent of occupying a somewhat passive population, while the Red Army came through as part of the front and the stragglers behind the front, constantly passing through potentially hostile territory. Is that the distinction between their missions, or am I totally off?

    Thanks again for the input, Kent.

    Allan

  • I think you have summarized my sense fairly well. The German’s came first, and were there as “friends” of the reigning government – indeed, their puppet, Tiso. The Soviet troops came to drive out the Germans, and they brought the war home to Slovakia in a real way that hadn’t been present previously.
    The Slovak resistance may have been betrayed by Stalin, and had helped to split the nation more vividly into right and left camps. The result, it seems to me, may have left the population far less happy with the state of things, and thus they would see the Russians in a very different light.
    It is harder to estimate the mindset of the Russian soldiers, or their relative discipline. Were they fresh troops brought in to occupy the country, while the battle hardened troops went on into Germany proper? Or, did the ones who had lost so many comrades at Dukla stay behind as occupiers.
    There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that says the Russian were not good guests when they showed up in other countries, whether Poland, Germany and, apparently, Slovakia. Certainly the same could be said of the Germans when they took over Poland, and where a high level of brutality was endured by the Polish people.
    I am afraid that as I think of this time, I am left with far more questions than answers. For instance, what classes were the soldiers from? Were they educated? Did they come with money, or were they low-paid conscripts? Did their leaders think it was important to maintain “cordial” relations?
    Once again, thanks for the article. I appreciate the effort to raise such an important time and to connect it to today.

  • Michael Charnego (Cernega)

    Apr 17th, 2011

    I had a very good friend in a man named Joseph Krupa who died in the US 2 years ago. He was born in the US but went back to Slovakia with his family when he was 6 months old. He grew up in Slovakia. He relayed many stories to me and I wish I had documented each in his own words. One story was that when the Germans came to Eastern Slovakia, they had local people helping to build roads. He was one of the workers. He said that when they first went to the road field office to be paid they thought there had been a mistake. The money they were paid was more than they had ever earned at a job in their life. I was surprised to hear that they were paid anything and that it, apparently, was not forced labor.

    Under Communism Joe was forcibly taken away from his family during the night. He was an American citizen, having been born here. He was not considered a Slovak citizen. He was sentenced in court for high treason. He was asked if he loved America. He said he did because it was the country of his birth and he had no control of where he was born. He had to be born where his mother was. Joe was sentenced to life in prison and spent over 11 years in various Russian prisons along with other political prisoners and clergy. He was finally released during a period of amnesty and came to the US in 1968. He had tried to return to the US starting in 1938. A series of events, that are a story in themselves, prevented him from doing so until 1968.

    Joe taught me many things about Slovakia and history. He found my family in Eastern Slovakia. I have visited them and many parts of Slovakia 9 times since 1999. My fraternal grandfather came from the village of Runina. I was told by my relatives in the village that the Germans were on one ridge and the Russians on another during WWII and were shooting over the town. I saw where bullets had chipped off pieces of religious monuments at the village Orthodox church.

  • Hi Allan,

    a very good comprehensive article! I will link to you in a very near future since many of my readers come from a Slovak descent. I myself am 3/4 Czech and 1/4 Slovak so I have some self-interest in it too 😉
    Thanks again for the great read!
    PS: I would love to exchange links if you are up for it

  • Dig a little bit deeper after the “Magyarization” topic`s roots! It seems you were thought about Slovakia`s history rather by Slovakians …FYI there was a “Slovakianization” as well, when they deported Slovaks from all around the Monarchy`s territory to Slovakia, cause that land was actually populated by Hungarians. Slovaks, Rutens etc. lived only in north. If making some calculations you`ll come to this point. After Felvidek was taken from Hungary, more than 1 million Hungarians were thrown out, or ran away from Slovakia threatened by well known tortures what at those times was quiet common and often met as afterwawes of frustration and anger. Today there are 550.000 Hungarians there, and from the WWII the Hungarian population in Slovakia had showed a demographic decline. Today in Slovakia lives 4.200.000 Slovaks. Do the counting, how much could they be at the time of their state`s first birthyears. And a question: What is the difference between Czechs and Slovaks? (there must be a huge difference if Slovaks needed a state of their own! And if they are pretty much like Czechs, than it doesn`t justifies that they forged Hungary`s upper part in to a never ever existent Slovak state, and with less right they did it if that region was never populated by Czechs! And it wasn`t! Got my point? Maybe not…
    A new state born out of Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and the people of this state spoke several slavik dialects, but basically the same language. The Czech language which was also the main and ruler culture. The other ethnics the poorer and uneducated people were deported to the eastern side of the country, to populate the area after Hungarians have left(been kicked out). And in an interesting second somehow someone thought, why not live in two separate states(the idea of territorial autonomies just started to appear). And so these people won a country for themselves, people who never even lived there, and they named it Slovakia, I cant even figure out from where comes this name, when till then there was no such thing as Slovaks, but a lot of Slavic tribes living in the deep forests of the Carpathians`s Tatra. So today a culture is developing there built out of people who call themselves Slovaks, and they have made their state out of thin air, and probably that is the major root of their “Antimagyarism”, cause they know better than anyone, that that land was not gained through 1000 years hard work and struggle, but with shameless fraud.
    Now you got it?

  • This is real sh.t about Slovak state. Nothing you can be proud.
    You know absolutely nothing about fisrt Slovak state. And it´s shame that you producting this false propaganda.

    So what about other side ?

    http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/tiso.pdf

    There are many facts.

    IVANSk (miachong@email.cz),
    Thank you for your note and for your link – http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/tiso.pdf – As far as I can tell, the document at your link suggests that Tiso’s behavior was appropriate. I will add it to my list of items that I have about that period. The Frog/Tiger analogy from Tiso’s trial is uncreative, but interesting.

    As for your suggestion that I don’t know much about the First Slovak State – we both know that’s not true. You are just trying to be insulting. You’ve got to do better than this to make me feel insulted. Better luck next time.

    The next time you comment on this site, IvanSK I’d like to ask you to say something of substance.

    Allan

  • jim stasheff

    Apr 2nd, 2017

    That colorful map with the arrows needs a caption as does the later one and many of the pictures. Tiso is obvious and I recognize The Shop on Mainstreet – which still linger in my mind. Have yu done a piece onthe loss of Ruthenian to Ukraine? Just one comment mentions Ruetens.

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