Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Slovak tragedy

This is a short but informative work about Jozef Tiso, the leader of the pro-Nazi Slovak state during World War II. The author, Ivan Kamenec, is a Slovak historian specializing in the Holocaust. His book on Tiso was published in 1998 with the support of George Soros' Open Society Fund. As far as I know, no English translation exists. The Slovak title is “Tragédia Politika, Knaza a Cloveka: Dr Jozef Tiso 1887-1947".

Dr Jozef Tiso (1887-1947) was a Catholic priest, politician and activist. When Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, the new state turned out to be centralized and dominated by the Czechs. While secular and Lutheran Slovaks nevertheless supported the Czechoslovak state, Catholic Slovaks as a general rule didn't, instead demanding autonomy for Slovakia. The autonomist movement was channeled through “Hlinka's Slovak People's Party” (HSLS), led by Andrej Hlinka, which soon became the largest party in Slovakia, controlling about one third of the votes. Tiso was Hlinka's confidante and rose quickly in the party hierarchy. During the 1930's, the HSLS moved increasingly towards authoritarian positions. While the party was never explicitly fascist, the family likeness with Mussolini or Dolfuss is obvious. At the death of Hlinka in 1938, Tiso succeed him as HSLS chair. The new leader quickly experienced his baptism of fire, being one of the men responsible for smashing Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Munich agreement. In October 1938, the HSLS staged what was in effect a coup, prohibited most other political parties, and declared Slovakia autonomous. In March 1939, on the eve of the Nazi German invasion of the Czech lands, Tiso turned Slovakia into an independent republic after a personal meeting with Hitler himself in Berlin. The HSLS leader served as president of this artificial state until the bitter end in 1945, but lost most power in 1944, when Nazi German troops occupied Slovakia in response to a pro-Allied revolt which Tiso's regime had failed to suppress. Tiso left Slovakia during the last months of the war and went into hiding in a German monastery. There, he was found and arrested (ironically by the Americans), extradited to Czechoslovakia (which slowly but steadfastly slipped into the Soviet orbit) and sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out in 1947. At the time, Czechoslovakia was still governed by a coalition government of Communists and democrats.

Needless to say, Tiso is an intensely controversial figure still today. He played the same role in his homeland as Quisling in Norway, Pétain in France or Pavelic in Croatia, i.e. the role of Nazi German collaborator. On the other hand, many Slovaks feel that they weren't given a fair shake in a Czech-dominated Czechoslovakia. Technically speaking, Tiso's authoritarian Catholic republic was the first independent Slovak state in history. When Slovakia became independent again in 1993 (now as a secular democratic republic), the question on how to look at Tiso's first attempt at Slovak statehood became a burning issue. Naturally, nationalists (usually Catholics) have a positive view of him, often trying to downplay or even deny Tiso's collaboration, his responsibility for the Holocaust in particular. Secularists, leftists, Lutherans and perhaps pro-Western Catholics reject his legacy, often vehemently. With the exception (I think) of the pro-Western Catholics, Tito's critics instead pay tribute to the SNP, the Communist-democratic revolt against Tiso's collaborationist regime.

Kamenec, while trying to sound neutral (to the point of viewing Tiso's life as a tragic drama rather than the gradual unfolding of evil) is nevertheless hotly critical of the man and his legacy. Tiso was a virulent anti-Semite from the start, a trait that suited him well during his days as a Nazi stooge, even earning the admiration of Hitler (who usually didn't think very highly of Untermensch hiwis). The Vatican protested the HSLS regime's deportations of Jews to the death camps, but to no avail. Tiso didn't even save Jews who had converted to the Catholic faith! Kamenec also points out that Nazi Germany had no particular plans to replace the Catholic nationalist Tiso with his adversaries within the HSLS, Vojtech Tuka and Alexander Mach, despite the fact that the latter were ideologically closer to German National Socialism. Rather, Berlin preferred a balance of power between the different factions of the HSLS, but never to the point of decisively challenging Tiso's authority – the priest was simply too useful. The Nazi German authorities assumed that Tiso, due to his nationalism and his peculiar dual role as president and clergyman, had widespread support among the common man in Slovakia, and was thus the best option available for keeping order. (A few German diplomats and secret service agents didn't trust Tiso, but Kamenec believes that Berlin didn't take their gossipy cables seriously.) When Tiso failed to suppress the pro-Allied resistance movement, Nazi Germany lost its patience, occupied Slovakia and suppressed the revolt themselves with typical Nazi brutality and bestiality. Tiso failed to protest, instead vehemently supporting the Nazis, once again making himself useful to the Führer. While some high-ranking HSLS cadre defected, Tiso never became a Slovak Horthy or Badoglio, preferring loyalty to the Reich to the end.

Apart from describing his “tragic” political career, Kamenec speculates about the man behind the headlines. What kind of person was Msgr Dr Jozef Tiso? On the one hand, he seems to have been well educated and well heeled, as behooves a Catholic clergyman. He was very much part of the elite, intensely ambitious and “political”. As a politician, he was mercurial, negotiating with Benes or Hodza one day, conspiring with German and Hungarian irredentists the next day, diplomatic and pragmatic in some contexts, demagogic and rabble-rousing in others. Above all, it's obvious that he craved power and had a strong authoritarian streak, viewing the Party and the nation as identical, constantly centralizing all effective decision-making to himself. More surprisingly, he was also strongly parochial, despite his high learning. The first time Tiso traveled by airplane was in 1939 during the fateful trip to Berlin. Hitler was the only foreign head of state he ever met, and he seemed to have difficulty telling apart Nazi propaganda about the splendid course of the war from actual realities on the ground. Kamenec also believes that Tiso became increasingly isolated in power, to the point of being personally shocked by the 1944 pro-Allied revolt, which he apparently didn't see coming at all. As Tiso's position became increasingly more difficult, rather than showing his diplomatic pragmatism and shrewdness, he retreated into a kind of thick-headed stubbornness, to the point of repeating even the most absurd propaganda lies with a straight face, as when he claimed that the Nazis could still win the war, or that the pro-Allied revolt (organized by native Slovaks) must have been orchestrated by well-monied Jews who had somehow escaped into the Tatra hills, arms in hand, presumably straight from the concentration camps…

I find it hard to agree with the author's “tragic” take on Tiso. The Slovak Duce rather comes across as an intolerant, power-obsessed, semi-parochial and frankly malign man, i.e. exactly the kind of person who tends to become an authoritarian leader. That being said, it's really a pity that this short, concise and highly informative book haven't been translated to English. It could be of considerable interest for, say, students of World War II.

Final point. Since “Tragédia Politika, Knaza a Cloveka” is published with the support of George Soros, the author at several points includes veiled polemics against Vladimir Meciar, the controversial prime minister of Slovakia 1994-98, who was a nationalist and populist. Soros at one point singled him out as one of his main targets. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of modern Slovak politics, but the fact that Kamenec can't help drawing certain parallels between the HSLS and Meciar's HZDS clearly shows that the “tragedy of Tiso” is still being played in Slovakia…

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