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.
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.
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…”
“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 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.