Why Nationalists March Through Bratislava Today

Why Neo-Nazis March Through Bratislava Today

March 14, 2011

Allan Stevo

Radical elements of society are likely to congregate in Bratislava this week once or several times to celebrate the anniversary of the formation of the First Slovak State (March 14, 1939  – May 8, 1945).  For nationalist and neo-fascist reasons and perhaps also anti-Semitic reasons, they remember this holiday with pride and show that pride publicly.  There are numerous groups with these feelings, as well as lone wolves.

The group Slovenská Pospolitosť is perhaps the most well-known of them in Slovakia. As Slovakia was, in many ways, a Nazi puppet state during WWII, it makes sense that extreme elements of society would be most interested in remembering this piece of Slovak history, but it’s not fair that they have been allowed to so effectively monopolize the day.  It’s a part of Slovak history for all Slovaks, heck, for all people of Central Europe.

Slovakia is a Fast-Moving Place

While many outsiders may look to Slovakia and think that it is backwards and stagnant, from my eight years here I can entirely say that Slovakia is a fast moving place.  Faster than the U.S., faster than any developed economy around the world.  That is the nature of a developing economy, and even more so when a country has yet to write its own independent history.  Change happens here very quickly, and several different factors are causing age, experience, seniority, and academic diplomas to become less important factors for achieving individual success.  It could very well be a beginning-of-career-30-year-old and not a mid-career-55-year-old central to tomorrow’s mornings most widely felt change.  The rules have yet to be written here.  In a situation like that, it’s easy to feel left behind.

Some People Feel Left Behind

Left behind is exactly how some people end up feeling in Slovakia, and radical political groups might present comforting solutions to those feelings of injustice.  This was once a communist country where your father and mother were promised that if they would just work hard and follow the rules, they would live a comfortable enough, a prosperous enough life and be cared for from cradle to grave.  And then in 1989 the rules change.  There were plenty of good people who did what they were told and ended up feeling like they had had the rug pulled out from under them. That’s a situation that it’s easy to feel left behind in.

Good people might work hard and not be able to make ends meet.  Clever people might not work hard, but might live quite well.  That’s true everywhere around the world.  It can be hard to make sense of that sometimes.  That too can make a person feel left behind.

At any age it’s easy to feel left behind, to feel like the world owed you something that you didn’t get. Before the disillusionment with politicians has set in, it is the young who might so eagerly turn to a politician to remedy that situation.

Their Followers Must Have Some Reason

I don’t believe that any socialist, any communist, any Nazi, any fascist, any statist that I have encountered has a good system for the world’s problems.  But I do believe that there are people of all ages who turn out on March 14th because they believe the solutions of certain speakers and writers.  These are people that everyone else glibly dismisses with a laugh as a “Nazi.”

What These Rallies Usually Look Like

These rallies take place seemingly randomly and from time to time.  They include marches to Bratislava Castle and Parliament, demonstrations in public places, and people holding up signs in a place where the Slovak media might find these barely newsworthy demonstrators.  They might take place in response to another person’s celebrations or might take place commemorating some date in history.  March 14 is the day that the First Slovak State came into existence, so this week  includes various events of nationalist and fascist demonstrators.  Extreme groups in no way own the memory of the First Slovak State, but theirs are the most distinct commemorations of the day – with their black clothes, their sometimes paramilitary uniforms, their Doc Marten’s, their camouflage pants, bomber jackets, their gatherings where police and journalists outnumber demonstrators, their Slovak flags, both current and old, their “low per capita hair count” as one friend put it.  They will wear their clothes with Lonsdale logos (because the middle letters “nsda” look like the abbreviation for Hitler’s Nazi party – NSDAP – Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), 18 or 88 written on them, (18 to represent “Adolf Hitler” or 88 to represent “Heil Hitler” based on the positions of the initials of these words in the alphabet – “A” is the first letter and “H” is the eighth letter of the Latin alphabet), or Thor Steinar logos.  When 40 of these guys get together, they seem to get more attention than any other group of 40 Slovaks.  Sometimes there are many more than that, but oftentimes not.

Another friend pointed out that during a March 14th rally “angry and young” was a common denominator among the group.  Because these demonstrators look angry and dress differently, it’s easy to dismiss them.

The Hinlicky Rule

The Hinlicky Rule Goes:

“You shall not criticize the position of another in theology until you can state that position with such accuracy, completeness and sympathy, that the opponent himself declares, ‘Yes, I could not have said it better myself!‘ Then, and only then, may you criticize. For then you are engaging a real alternative and advancing a real argument. Otherwise you shed only heat, not light.”

I do not consider the rule to be pertinent only to theology.  Just because you disagree with an argument, dismissing an honest argument from an intellectual opponent is not a thoughtful response to that argument.  In fact, under this rule, and under a general sense of intellectual honesty, does anyone really have any business criticizing anyone else, a Nazi included, until he or she can effectively present a compelling argument in support of an intellectual opponent’s beliefs?

Holden Caulfield Would Give the Most Honest Guy a Chance

In a country with Slovakia’s history, it entirely makes sense that a person would feel left behind, would feel that he were missing out, but might not even be able to quantify how or why he is missing out.  It’s no surprise that a person would be attracted to speakers that are sympathetic to those concerns and present solutions for justice.

On top of that, those speakers are surely made more attractive when Slovakia (and many other European countries that claim to have freedom of speech) ban what they have to say – banning their websites, banning their literature, putting strong limits on what they can talk about in public, even banning the clothing that is allowed to be worn in public.  These prohibitions on speech are so extreme and prevalent that virtually anyone who talks about Hitler’s good sides can easily be considered by his advocates as an honest martyr of an unjust law who just wanted to get the truth out.

Commonly, in the rest of society, the history of WWII is painted in one light: Hitler = bad, Anti-Hitler = good.  That’s the unanimous tune from the depths of Stalin’s empire in the 1950’s to the halls of power in Washington DC today.  Praise Hitler and it seems you get your face plastered all over the television faster than if you kill someone.  These silly reactions to these groups, all the hoopla that surrounds them only strengthens them, especially so among youth.  We all know the forbidden fruit is sweetest.  Especially when it is so thoughtlessly forbidden.

Maybe a black-and-white approach is currently working in America, where WWII is a distant memory, but in Slovakia, history is remembered by so many as if 1,000 years ago and yesterday are the same.  So, when a Slovak kid sees injustice that no one talks about, when he hears half-truths from history, when he reads work that everyone is trying to silence, of course he feels something alluring.

When he hears many people in a society unable to think any more critically about a significant time in world history than “Hitler = bad, Anti-Hitler = good” that kid is, of course, going to find those with a more nuanced perspective to be more trustworthy.  If some extreme guy is the only one a kid hears speaking in a nuanced way about World War II or the First Slovak State, then that extreme guy easily has a way to hook his potential audience.

Why does a very small group of Slovaks march on March 14 to commemorate a time in human history that the rest of us would much rather forget?  The common answer—“They are just stupid, hateful people”—doesn’t cut it for me.

No Debate Cheats Us All

People believe for a reason and it’s easy to disregard your less-popular intellectual opponent, but I believe the opinion that Nazis or fascists should be dismissed as simply stupid is much more dangerous than anything they could possibly have to say.

Did Nazism and communism carry with it some positives?  Yes.  That’s why people took to it.  Yet while communism is openly debated and studied at schools around the world, Nazism is not.  The murderous Mao can be openly praised, but Hitler not.  I long to see the day when Nazism is not judged on its weak military ability but its weak intellectual foundation and evaluated as a political system.  That means both its proponents and opponents need to be allowed to talk.

Until fascism is discredited there is the possibility of a resurgence of a Nazi-like regime.  It can be resurrected even by a well-intentioned people who seek to kill no one and to be militarily aggressive against no one, as long as it’s under a different cover.  Those who boil it down to nothing but extraterritorial aggression and anti-Semitism are missing the point.  There are many definitions of this word fascist, with this article by Naomi Wolfe making strong and compelling statements about it being a bad system and this article by John Flynn from 1944 doing a better job defining fascism.

Those Nazi beliefs swept Germany and had effects all over the world, including in Slovakia, where a people woke up one day and found their government in bed with Hitler’s.

In the next few days, I will post my version of the tale of the First Slovak State in 1,250 words or fewer.  It is a condensed version of some of the tales I’ve collected from those times.  I’ll also invite you to post any memories you might have had from that time, or tales you might have come across.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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Comments

  • Paul Hinlicky

    Mar 31st, 2011

    I am honored to cited by you, Allan, and pleased with the use you made of my “rule” on a particularly sensitive topic. We will not be able truly, rationally to defeat fascism until we understand why ordinary people like you and me fell for it, believed in it, loved it, sacrificied themselves for it. Demonizing Nazis rather than critiquing them blinds us to our own human vulnerability to false prophets, false messiahs.

  • Paul Hinlicky,
    Thank you for these comments. They are very well put and very quotable. The topics mentioned here become a natural topic for discussion as I go about my life and several times this past week I’ve found myself paraphrasing the comments you’ve made here. Thank you again, Dr. Hinlicky.
    Allan

  • Kudos to you for trying to tackle the subject. IMHO, 1500 words cannot explain all the complexities of this part of Slovak history. Sure, we need to study communism, fascism and every other “ism” so we don’t go back and repeat mistakes of others. As somebody once said: A marxist is an idiot. A person who doesn’t study Marx is even a bigger idiot.
    By the way, the two articles you mentioned define fascism in a different context, time and place. If you’re a libertarian, you’d go with Flynn.
    Unlike in Nazi Germany and Italy, the Slovak fascist state had a Catholic priest leading it. Again, not all Catholics were fascists. My mother lost her teaching job because she was a Lutheran. The only member of my family who ended up in a concentration camp for opposing fascists was my godfather, and he was a Catholic. (But NOT a communist.)
    So good luck with your project.

  • Peter,
    “A marxist is an idiot. A person who doesn’t study Marx is even a bigger idiot.” I’ve never heard that said, but I understand the logic and have read more Marx than almost any self-proclaimed Marxist that I have met. I worry I like it only because of the compliment it offers me. : )

    I am curious about when your mother lost her teaching job. I do not imagine that happening during the First Slovak State and I assume it happened during communism, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ve read and heard that there were Lutherans who knew that after World War II, life would be much better for them because of the constant opposition that they gave the clerics leading the state. However, when the communists came, they proved that thought wrong.

    I agree that the two articles have different takes on fascism, I was hoping to show a bit of a spectrum. I find both Flynn and Wolfe to have some compelling observations to make.

    Thank you for the Kudos and thank you for the good wishes for this project, Peter, but thank you mostly for the insightful comments.

    Allan

  • Interesting post with the somewhat subtle touch at the end of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC; Lincoln’s seat of state bears the fasces on the fronts of its arms.

  • Mr._Ed,
    Thank you for noticing the subtle touch : )
    Allan

  • William C. Wormuth

    Apr 1st, 2011

    I believe many of your comments to be true. However having known people who were in Slovakia at that time, have related many facts. Monsignor Tiso did not form the republik because he believed in Hitler’s Philosophy.

    Monsignor Tiso loved Slovakia and made the agreements with Hilter in order to protect Slovaks from what he believed would be the slaughter of our people.

    I believe He did not know what Hitler’s regime planned for the Jews, Gypsy people and others…By the time the truth came out, it was to late to change things. When it was made public, our people , (and some friends), his the remaining Jews, until the war ended.

    The first Republic made many good changes in Slovakia, especially to the infrastructure. Members of the Hlinkova Garda also did good deeds, one was to help people escape from communists.

    Our Americans have never understood why the Eastern Europeans non-Jewish people did not “complain” about Jewish deportation. The fact is that during the Magyar rule, Jews were given the task of Tax Collecting. In most villages they operated the majority of businesses, for as “free” men they had that privilege. Under the first CzechoSlovak government , the Jews continued as the the Business men and exercised control of the banking system.

    When the deportations began, people believed that finally, they would be able to have those privileges as business owners.

    The film Shop On Main Street is a propaganda film, a tool of communist government but it does demonstrates these facts. People did not HATE Jews but rather envied them enough to accept their treatment.

    Father Austine Zan, who died in the service of the Sister of Sts. Cyril and Metod, was one of Monsignor Tiso’s secretaries. at the end of the war he was hidden by the people in the church bell tower. They helped him escape to Germany, where he served as chaplain to Slovak escapes.

    In trying to have him returned to Slovakia, the communists circulated a photograph to many governments, (including the USA), showing Father Zan, gun in hand, with dead bodies lying around him.

    It took him a long time after his entry into the USA, before he got over his fear of communist retribution.

    What the Nazi’s did was Horrible and yes, Sinful. The question to answer is, Why did the USA and say, England, not stop Hitler before he was able to accomplish the Holocaust?

    Those days are past and we will never know the truth.

    Z Bohom,

    Vilo

  • Dear Vilo,
    Thank you for your note. I have not read enough from Tiso and about Tiso to be able to say what Tiso’s viewpoints were ideologically, but what I have found so far seems to agree with you that Tiso did not join up with Hitler because he believed in Hitler’s political philosophy.

    What Tiso knew and when is difficult for me to say. I believe that there are probably many things about the United States that Barrack Obama or George Bush might not know that you and I see so clearly. People in power can have an almost magical ability to be blind to even the most obvious facts, even facts that we might expect to be so obvious to them. I would have a hard time believing any historian who would say “Tiso did not know about X and day Y” or “Tiso must have known about X before day Z,” because it is very difficult to know what is in any man’s mind or heart.

    I like, Vilo, that you are willing to look beyond the easy explanations and clearly have a very inquisitive sense that encourages you to get below the surface of matters.

    I entirely agree with you about Obchod na korze being a tool of Communist propaganda. I think that even propaganda can contain truth at times.

    And what a good distinction you make, an interesting distinction between hate and envy. In my head, I assumed that deportation of Jews was a result of some combination of hate and cowardice, but I did not consider the issue of envy, a surprisingly common and acceptable feeling among many Slovaks that I know. I will think over the point you have made more. Thank you for the food for thought on this hate v. envy issue.

    Vilo, what you mention about Father Austine Zan is very interesting. Your desire to have him returned sounds like a selfless act. I wish you success with this endeavor. I believed that growing up in the U.S. it was so clear to me that the world was black and white and could always be categorized as such. It wasn’t until I came to Slovakia that I started to really see how difficult it was to say that any single moment in history is black and white. Zan sounds like he faced many trying experiences that most of us have no business criticizing. Thank you for sharing a small piece of his story with me here and thank you for your entire note, Vilo.

    Allan

  • Fascism and Nazism is not the same – similar but not identical. Have you tried arguing with a neo-nazi? These people may not be stupid but they are ignorant – they actually have so-called historians looking to prove the benefits of the Nazi state. It only had benefits for opportunists, it´s benefits and advantages (the thing people always come up with is the Autobahn) were gained by exploiting slave labor, stealing from its victims and plunderinng the occupied parts of the world. There probably is not chapter in history studied as well as this era and the goal of historians recent but also shortly after WWII, in some places, was not to create an evil empire myth but to search for the truth and historians have a pretty accurate picture of what was going on at that time. (I don´t know why being sceptical towards established scientific facts counts as smart these days but it´s a common phenomenon among young people). The only way neo nazis discuss these findings is by discrediting science. This is what I can offer from my experience as historian and having talked to many people who lived during the Nazi occupation on bth sides. However I think you should make your discoveries with fresh eyes, talk to these people rallying in the streets, listen to their frustrations but with all facts checked.

  • Jan,
    Well put, especially your statement about fresh eyes and checking facts.

    I have not tried to argue with neo-Nazis, but I do like to ask people questions about why they believe what they believe and why they act the way they act.

    The Autobahn is an interesting point you bring up, one that I would never have thought of. In the U.S. I’ve heard the statement “Hitler was the first leader to bring his country out of the great depression” said as part of an argument in favor of more military spending/general government spending in order to make the economy behave differently.

    Regarding science, I am skeptical about the existence of “facts.” I think it is acceptable to challenge issues that an earlier generation declared “solved.” Science especially I believe needs to always have a rigorous system of questioning where no one ever is willing to entirely accept anything as an unquestionable fact.

    Thank you for your note, Jan.

    Allan

  • Jan, I don´t know about you, but I personally wouldn´t dare to speak to these people and question their beliefs, asides for ignorance, one common trace that “náckovia” (neo-nazis) have is their love for violence….

  • Miska,
    I do wonder how true your statement is. I have no interest in testing the theory, but when I see Nazis working out at the gym they very often do the weirdest playful, gentle things to each other, until they realize someone else is watching and then start to behave tough again. I have a feeling that the tough guy appearance is about image.
    Allan

  • […] at the complexity of nationalism in 20th century Central Europe.  (Allan Stevo has written on Slovak Nationalism over at his blog, “52 Weeks in Slovakia”.)  From an American perspective, the Slovak […]

  • You are making a common mistake of confusing Nazism, fascism and other isms. German WW2 regime was Nazism. NSDAP stands for Nazionale socialistiche deutsche arbaits partai. National, socialistic, german workers party. That says it all. Fascism is a completely different animal and has to be understood as such (hint, the last fascist state – Portugal under Salazar). As you mentioned, communism, an international socialist movement (as opposed to german, national variety) has been studied extensively, Nazism not as much.
    And therein lies the problem, as the Nazism is tabuized, the understanding what Nazism is and what lead to it are no longer understood and we have confused youngsters marching though the streets.
    There are some good articles regarding a German way to Nazism, the Nazi economy and especially, the point of view of a common German.

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