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O scurtă reflecţie pe marginea dezbaterilor legate de statul slovac în timpul celui de-al Doilea Război Mondial

Juraj Šuch



A Short Reflection on the Debates related to the History of the Slovak state during the second World War



Exchange of views on the meaning of the events connected to the Slovak state during WWII in the history of the Slovak nation which were spurred not only among historians but also involved public attention became possible after the fall of the socialist reign by the „velvet revolution“ in 1989. During the previous 40 years of communist government, which had offered the public only one „correct Marxist –Leninist solution“ to all problematic issues in the history of the Slovak nation, any discussions which could compare different approaches to history had not been permitted. This way many aspects of controversial events in the history of the Slovak nation became taboo and these „blank pages“ significantly participated in the „traumatic“ reaction to discussion in the new plural democratic society in the last decade of the 20th century. The spectrum of different views on the meaning of the history of the Slovak state mirrors specific problems in the development of the Slovak nation and the understanding and thinking about history among Slovak historians in the last three decades of the 20th century. In the next 3 sections of this article I will briefly outline important points in the history of Slovak nation, the reactions of the public to M.S. Durica`s book A History of Slovakia and the Slovaks concerning the history of the Slovak state and its aspects as challenging themes for further considerations.

 Almost all Slovak historians and members of the public see the direct origin of the Slovak national development and statehood in the kingdom of Great Moravia in the 9th century. With the existence of this kingdom is connected the evangelic mission of Cyril and Methodius who were invited by the Moravian ruler Rastislav from the Byzantine Empire in 862.These two missionaries who arrived in Great Moravia created a new alphabet and the first Slavonic script (Glagolithic). They gradually translated the Bible and liturgy of the church into a new literary language, Old Church Slavonic. They started training clergy for Rastislav`s new Moravian church. The pope was suspicious of their activities so they decided to defend their work in Rome. The new pope Hadrian II endorsed their use of the Slavonic liturgy in 868 and Methodius was made Archbishop of Panonnia and Moravia. Their work probably did not have an immediate long-lasting impact on the situation in the Church in Great Moravia because of changes in Rome (Stephen VI banned Slavonic liturgy) and Methodius`s followers were expelled from Great Moravia in 886. Eventually they found refuge in Bulgaria. Rivalry among sons of the king Svatopluk, the Franks` attacks and especially the invasion of Magyar tribes from the East participated in destroying Great Moravia. The last recorded battle between the Magyars and Moravians was in 907 near Bratislava. The Slav population was probably integrated gradually for several decades into the new structures of the Hungarian kingdom ruled until the 14th century by the Arpad dynasty and actively participated in its history. Only the foundations of churches and fortresses, several archeological sites and fragmentary information in medieval chronicle remain from the very short history of Great Moravia. In comparison to neighboring nations (Polish, Hungarian and Czech) the Slovak cannot point to the existence of an “attractive Slovak” kingdom in the last millennium which could be connected with won battles, a royal court and crown, etc. In the time of formation of modern nations in the 18th century the Slovak scholars, without the deeper knowledge about the history of Great Moravia and the Hungarian kingdom that we have nowadays started defending in their articles the right for their own national development in the shadow of the glory of the Hungarian kingdom, which was identified only with Hungarian (Magyar) nationality. In the argumentation fiction (myths) and historical facts were very often interwoven. In 1848 the intolerance of Magyar leaders (Lajos Kossuth) toward the right of other nations for their own cultural development led the leaders of Slovak national movements (despite many common liberal ideas) to join the Habsburg army which fought against the Hungarian revolutionaries. The aspiration of the Slovak leaders to a certain kind of autonomy remained unfulfilled after the defeat of the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1849. After the Austro-Hungarian Com-promise the Hungarian oppression of Slav minorities increased. All three Slovak high schools and the cultural institution Matica Slovenska were closed until 1875. The defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of Czechoslovakia stopped strong Magyarization and preserved the existence of the Slovak nation. The Czechoslovak Republic was a centrally and uniformly organized state.

 The central and liberal state economy did not protect the weaker Slovak economy and caused social unrest (strikes during which there was sometimes some bloodshed). On the other hand, the history of the 1st Czechoslovak Republic is connected with rapid cultural development in Slovakia. A new educational system was introduced, from elementary to university level, where Slovak was the language of instruction (in 1919 Comenius University was founded with the help of Czech professors and significant help from Bohemia, providing resources for new Slovak libraries and schools). During the 20s over 200 periodicals were in circulation, The Slovak National Theatre was established, several Slovak films were made and Slovak radio broadcasting started. Increasing self-confidence of the Slovaks had its effect in politics where Slovak politicians started to represent interests of the Slovak public. Some Slovak political parties called for more decentralization and later for autonomy during the Depression. One of the most influential political parties was Hlinka`s Slovak Popular Party. This party mainly had the support of the Catholic population which dominated in Slovakia. The party line was to the center and leaned towards the political concept of an authoritative, national oriented system. The Czech politicians followed the program of Czech statehood by which the Constitution referred to the Czechoslovak nation and Czechoslovak language which was supposed to be used in two varieties – Czech and Slovak. The concept of a Czechoslovak nation was necessary for Czech politicians to get clear majority over more than 3 million Germans, 600 thousand Hungarians and Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Jews and Poles.

 During the Munich crisis the majority of Slovaks declared themselves willing to defend the Republic. After the Munich Agreement the representatives of the Slovak political parties met and the leaders of Hlinka`s Slovak Popular Party took advantage of the situation to present their independence program which was accepted by the Prague government. On October 7th 1938 was appointed a regional government led by Jozef Tiso and Czechoslovakia became a Federal republic. In November, Southern Slovakia with a Hungarian and Slovak population was ceded to Hungary. The representatives of Hlinka`s Slovak Popular Party made a bid for power under the banner of national unity which excluded all leftist parties. In December’s election the Slovak electorate saw for the first time a “united list of candidates” (prepared by the leaders of Hlinka`s Slovak Popular Party) on which only a few members of other political parties were mentioned in the margin. The relationship between the governments in Prague and Bratislava during the short existence of post-Munich Czecho-Slovakia continued in tension caused by the general political confusion in central Europe at that time. The Prague government reacted to rumors of possible Slovak independence by sending in troops on 9th March 1939 and the premier in Bratislava Dr. J Tiso was deposed. Hitler invited him to Berlin and offered him two options: declaring indepedence on its own or the annexation of Slovakia by Hungary. Tiso succumbed to the pressure and asked the President of Czecho-Slovakia to summon the Slovak parliament which proclaimed the Slovak Republic on 14th March 1939. On the next day Hitler invaded Bohemia and Moravia. The policy of the Slovak republic was coordinated and some way controlled by several treaties with its “protector” Nazi Germany. A seemingly “peaceful” life in a “quiet republic” whose president was a priest had its dark side with the history of deportation of Jews. This “peaceful time” finished with the breaking out of the Slovak National Uprising at the end of August 1944.

The preparation of the uprising started with the signing of the Christmas Agreement between communist and democratic resistance organizations. The communist organizations had substantial supplies sent by planes from the Soviet Union (guns, partisan instructors, equipment, etc.). According to the plans the uprising should have opened up Eastern Slovakia to the approaching Red Army and then two Slovak divisions should have helped to liberate Slovakia. Confusion in Slovak military headquarters caused the disarming of these two divisions of the Slovak army by the German army located in Eastern Slovakia, so the uprising occurred mainly in central Slovakia where the Czechoslovak Republic was re-established. After one month of fierce fighting the Germans put down the uprising and the Slovak soldiers had to retreat and hide in the forests with the partisans. Despite the liberation of Slovakia by the Red Army and the supportive role of the Soviet Union, the majority of Slovaks voted for democratic parties in the first elections after WWII. Because post-war Czechoslo-vakia was a centrally governed state the will of the Slovak public was outnumbered by Czech voters whose majority voted for the Communist party.

 After February 1948, when the Communist Party took control of Czecho-slovakia for the next 40 years, a myth was created which overestimated the significance of the role of the partisans and communists during the uprising. Until the „velvet revolution“ the Slovak public did not have a real chance to meet with interpretations of history other than the Marxist-Leninist, which was written from only a „progressive“ perspective. Since 1989 most people have become very suspicious of any work written by former historians who were connected in some way with communist ideology. More trusted historical works seem to be those books whose authors were emigrants or did not share communist ideology. Some of the leading figures in this group of historians are M.S. Durica, R. Vnuk and R. Letz who approached Slovak history from a nationalist and catholic point of view. Their interpretations of Slovak history were presented to the public by some media as scientific without any impact of marxist or czechoslovakist ideology. These historians supported the split of Czechoslovakia and Meciar`s Movement for democratic Slovakia, which was in coalition with the Slovak national party. In 1996 a book A History of Slovakia and the Slovaks written by M.S.Durica stirred discussions about delivering it as an educational supplement to all primary schools.

 The historians from the Slovak Academy protested in an open letter to the ministry of education where they stressed that this book „is a thoroughly unprofessional handbook, full of basic factual errors and misinterpretations that stand in defiance of accepted knowledge“ ([3], 35). All readers can agree that Durica`s book is not primarily designed as a history of Slovakia and the Slovaks but is rather a chronological reference book. More than a quarter of the book refers to the events of the Slovak state in 1938- 1945.

 A reader who is a little familiar with Slovak history can notice Durica`s use of the words slav and slovak in the history of Great Moravia with the purpose of giving impression that this was not a Slav but a Slovak state. The most surprising statements which illustrate the ideological commitment of the author are related to the history of the Slovak state, that is described as a „good“ island of peace and harmony during WWII which fulfilled the Slovak desire for its own state. A critical reader will agree with the following statements from the previously mentioned letter by the historians of the Slovak Academy.

„Durica`s portrayal of the Holocaust of Slovak Jewry is simply unacceptable, unethical and defies present scholarly evidence. Although Durica acknowledges the existence of the Holocaust, he first supplies incorrect and often contradictory figures which diminish the actual number of victims and then places full responsibility on Germany. He describes the Slovak leadership, especially President Tiso, as the saviors of the Jewish population, when in fact they were directly responsible for the deportations. In his efforts to exonerate him, Durica stresses that President Tiso never signed the so-called Jewish Codex, even though it is well-known (although perhaps not to Durica) that President Tiso never signed any government decrees. He does refer to some reports of the Sicherheits-dienst, in which the Germans indicated their dissatisfaction with the Slovak government’s handling of the Jewish question. Yet, he completely omits any mention of the German regime’s positive assessments of the Slovak leadership`s performance in this regard. Nor does he mention Tiso`s anti-Jewish speeches and the anti-Jewish propaganda program of The Hlinka Slovak People`s Party. The author also discredits himself by obviously tampering with Vatican documents. The published documents (which are also available in Slovak) make clear the very critical position of the Vatican towards the racial laws and the deportation of Jews. In Durica`s account, however, the position of the Vatican towards the Slovak government is portrayed as one of praise… As cynical as it sounds, Durica claims that the number of Jewish public schools at the time actually increased. There is no mention in the book that the Jews were expelled from all universities and secondary schools, including apprenticeship schools, and that Jewish children were also segregated in public schools. Most repulsive of all is his portrayal of daily life in the Jewish camp (p. 162) as one of gaiety and happiness. Here, he literally claims that Jewish doctors in the work camp could use gold when it was not available to common Slovak citizens. In Durica`s account, it appears that to have been a Jew in Slovakia was in fact a stroke of good fortune” ([3], 37).

In Durica`s reply to the Response of Slovak historians to M.S.Durica`s book we can read „that this chronology, as every chronology is a certain selection… I tried to choose events which have direct relation to the history of Slovakia and the Slovaks with special attention to the facts which are evidence or proof of the old ethnogenesis of the Slovak nation in the area of Slovakia from the second part of the first Millennium to the present time and to the historical roots of Slovak statehood“ ([2], 11). He believes that it was useless to mention in his book  already known facts, but „nothing was like the pseudo-scientific, marxist-czechoslovakist ideology – dictated distortion of historical facts as in the period of Slovak autonomy and the Slovak state 1939-1945“ ([2], 12).

Durica regards as czecho-marxist any interpretation of Slovak history where people in Great Moravia are mentioned as Slav and not as Slovaks; Tiso is responsible for the deportation of the Slovak Jews; the Slovak national uprising was something positive in the history of the Slovak nation. Selection and description of (some doubtful) historical facts determined on the basis of the ideological position of the author caused the loss of any professional value of the book. Despite this fact, discussing this book illustrates many aspects of the writing and reception of historical accounts.

The division between two camps of historians (who supported or opposed Durica`s vision of Slovak history) mirrored public division. Both camps of historians referred to their own respect of „truth“ in historical facts and blamed each other for being ideological in writing history. Durica and his opponents presented the public their own selection of trusted facts. In the reactions of non-professional historians supporting the delivery of Durica`s book to schools was stressed the opposition between the professorial degree that the author gained in a Western University (Padova) and the „communist“ past of the historians from the Slovak academy. Sup-porters of historians from the Slovak academy opposed the nationalist tone and pseudo-Catholic, non-ecumenical perspective presented by Durica`s book. They realized the importance of a history textbook to the formation of the historical consciousness of a young generation.

Public outcry could not be overlooked by the European Commission, which indirectly funded Durica’s book with 80,000 ECU. After domestic and international political pressure the Prime minister Meciar announced on 27th June 1997 the withdrawal of the controversial history textbook from schools.

The discussion about Durica`s book revealed the importance of several issues which were not openly presented in published articles but are dealt with by contemporary theoreticians or philosophers of history.

One of them is related to the role of the historian’s individual imagination and his literary skills in the construction of a historical narrative. The construction of a historical account is directly connected to the endowment of certain data with a meaning that differentiates historical narrative. The various approaches to the past with the historian’s individual skills participate in the creation of some kind of heterogeneity in the historical discourse that in some way reflects the heterogeneity of our society. Most people have a problem accepting this fact and try to select only one “correct perspective” of the past. The search for a “correct” version of history should be connected with looking for criteria that could be the basis of selection. In the previous century most people uncritically relied only on one (politically dominant) way of presenting facts that were not confronted with various options. They supposed that their chosen version was true because the past “reveals” facts and meanings that are automatically described by a group of professional historians. Any different versions were considered as false and influenced by “wrong” ideology. This conviction is close to the belief of reconstructionists –G. E. Elton, G. Himmelfarb. They think that a historian with a good education, professional skills and painstaking work can reconstruct the past “in its own terms”. This view is close to the understanding of history almost of all Slovak historians. The positivist understanding of history does not offer any reasonable solutions to a clash of two different visions of history.

Detailed research on history (and mainly historical narrative) at the end of 20th century showed that information (data) from sources does not automatically reveal the “truth” about the past but that historians join known facts from sources and endow a description of events with meaning in their narrative. In the process of construction of a historical narrative are involved the historian’s imagination and the chosen approach that participate in the creation of an individual feature of every historical work. Every difference in the historian’s work contributes to the heterogeneity of the historical discourse; this opens up the question of the scientific nature of history. According to a constructionist, historical reality is then more like a neutral and amorphous flux that gets its form in an historical narrative. This can explain why one historical event can be described in one narrative as a tragedy and in other narratives as a romance or comedy. In this view historical work is considered as “verbal structure in the form of narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, an icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them” ([4], 2). The constructionist position implies relativism and stresses the “broad line” which divides fiction and reality in historical work. The supporters of a more relativist notion of history produce work where it is sometimes impossible to distinguish the “real” past from the historian’s fantasy (e.g.Simon Schama`s book Death Certainties). Despite a comfortable explanation of relativity, every historical interpretation of a constructionist understanding of history asks serious questions about historical writings focusing on tragic events like the Holocaust, WWII. Most of the public (and historians as well) in Eastern Europe, indoctrinated by traditions of positivist and later by communist historiography, have no idea about many aspects of writing history and expect only clear, simple unambiguous answers which could divide history into “black and white” and get rid of all the surprising problematic questions arising from debates among historians. In my opinion philosophers of history and historians in post-communist countries should face a serious problem in how to cultivate public knowledge about the past (historical consciousness), an understanding of history that cannot avoid knowledge about the methodological aspects of writing history. This has to be implemented into the teaching of history in elementary and secondary schools. Teachers should develop students` skills to analyze primary and secondary sources instead of giving students only historical facts and subject knowledge. This way of teaching history is more demanding for teacher and students but students are forced to realize the ideological and political dimension of any interpretation of history.

 Without being aware of these aspects, historians and the public cannot effectively “resist” the writing about the past that is against the spirit of a democratic society. The discussions about Durica`s book are evidence that a deeper understanding of history is important for it can lead to responsibility and rejection of the historical works which try to falsify or rehabilitate a totalitarian and antihumanist vision of history. The chance to replace a communist vision of history with a nationalist one is still quite attractive for people who previously lived in a “safe old system” and now live in an unstable transitory society that is looking for a new identity and legitimacy.




[1] DURICA, M.S.: Dejiny Slovenska a Slovákov Bratislava: SPN 1996

[2] DURICA, M.S.: Priblížiť sa pravde, Bratislava: SPN 1998

[3] LIPTAK, L. and KOVAC D.: Slovenskí historici o knihe, In Kritika a Kontext 1997 No.2-3, p.34-37

[4] WHITE, H.: Metahistory, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press 1973

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