Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 11
20 March 2000

Josef TisoS L O V A K I A:
The Legacy:
The Tiso plaque controversy

Michael J Kopanic Jr

Although Slovakia first proclaimed its independence 61 years ago this month, even today the issue remains a political hot potato. Slovak society is deeply divided between those who herald Slovakia's first bout with independence in 1939 as something to commemorate, and those who see it among the darkest moments in the nation's history. At the center of the controversy is the image of Jozef Tiso, the leader of the wartime Slovak state.

The recent plan to place a plaque dedicated to Tiso in Zilina, resurrected the long standing debate about whether the man's legacy is one of fame or shame. The dedication was scheduled to take place on 14 March 2000, the anniversary of Slovak independence in 1939. The celebration of the Tiso plaque has been cancelled, largely due to national and international protests. But the debate rages on in Slovak society.

Historical background

Few figures in Slovak history divide the nation more than the legacy of Monsignor Jozef Tiso. The Roman Catholic priest succeeded Rev Andrej Hlinka as the leader of Hlinka's Slovak People's Party, a populist party which had stressed Slovak nationalism and Catholic issues. The party rigorously pursued autonomy for Slovakia, and as James Felak's insightful book indicates, even "At the Price of the Republic."

In an "Autonomist Bloc" with three other smaller parties, it captured over 30 percent of the vote in the last pre-war elections in 1935 and became the largest single party in Slovakia. After Hlinka's death in August 1938, Monsignor Tiso presided over the creation of an autonomous Slovakia in a Czecho-Slovak state. The formal declaration of Slovakia's autonomy occurred on 6 October in Zilina, at the site of the Catholic House where the plaque was supposed to have been dedicated on 14 March 2000.

In 1938 the Czechoslovak government of president Eduard Beneš had found itself weakened and compelled to accept Slovak autonomy. Just a week earlier, the Munich Pact had stripped the countries of the Sudetenland and its defensible western borders. Tiso would later serve as the president of the Slovak state which came into existence on 14 March 1939. Under duress from Hitler and the German Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, Tiso flew to Berlin on 13 March and met with the German leaders.

Even though they pressed Tiso for an immediate answer to whether Slovakia wanted independence from the Czechs, Tiso deferred a definite answer until the Slovak parliament voted on the issue. With a Hungarian army mobilized to occupy Slovakia and reclaim its pre-1918 boundaries, the parliament opted for independence under German protection. Of course, protection had its price, and Slovakia became an ally of Germany during the Second World War.

The Nazis pressed Slovakia to conform not only to its foreign policy, but also its policy toward the Jews. Slovakia adopted stringent laws, which limited the rights of its 80,000 Jewish residents. Given the historical animosities between Jew and gentile in East Central Europe, it was all too easy to find those willing to cooperate with the Nazi attempt to rid their lands of the "Jewish menace."

As the war dragged on, Hitler sought his "final solution," and client states such as Slovakia were instructed to transport their Jews to Poland. Many Slovaks who participated in the process claimed they had no idea that the Jews were going to death camps but rather to a new Jewish homeland created for them in Poland. Regardless, given the Nazi record, those Jews leaving Slovakia could hardly expect an improvement under German rule. Ultimately, most of Slovakia's Jews perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other death camps. This has left a bitter legacy.

Historically, an argument has raged over Tiso's position on Jewish policies. Some, such as the historian Milan Durica, believe Tiso actually helped protect some Jews from deportation, particularly those who benefited the Slovak economy and received exemptions. Others claim Tiso wholeheartedly endorsed and participated in the process, and thus bore full responsibility. Even though Jewish leaders warned Tiso that the deportations might lead to extermination, he did allow them to take place in 1942, and the Slovak government even paid 500 Reichsmarks for each Jew sent to Germany.

A strongly anti-Semitic speech which Tiso delivered in August 1942 is often cited as evidence of his complicity. Deportations did halt later that year, but only after protests from Slovak bishops. They resumed again after the Germans moved into Slovakia in 1944, following the outbreak of the rebellion which came to be called "the Slovak National Uprising." The German army quickly snuffed out the rebellion and resumed deportations.

Few Jews from Slovakia survived the war. As the Soviet Red Army made its way into Slovakia, Tiso fled to nearby Austria, into the American zone. After the war, the US turned Tiso over to the restored Czechoslovak government. Tiso and others who had collaborated with the Germans were eventually put on trial.

Over 8,000 people were found to be guilty of collaboration, but the Tiso case became the most politicized and received the most publicity. He was the head of state, a priest, and a Slovak. The Communists used the trial to discredit religion and Czechoslovak centralists used it to vilify the idea of Slovak independence.

Tiso was found guilty of treason against the Czechoslovak Republic, the Slovak Uprising of 1944, and guilty of collaboration with the Germans. He was sentenced to death. The non-Communist Democratic Party attempted to have the sentence commuted to a prison term. But the Communists and President Beneš refused to change the penalty. On 18 April 1947, Tiso was executed by hanging.

This would have been the end of the story had Tiso been unpopular in Slovakia. But Slovak society has remained deeply divided about how to interpret Tiso.

While his accusers decried him as a fascist quisling, others looked at Tiso as a defender of Slovak national interests. To the latter, he was a virtual George Washington in clerical garb. His execution turned him into a virtual martyr. Tiso had been so well-liked that he used to stroll the streets of Bratislava without a guard. Many also remembered that economic conditions in Slovakia were much better than in the rest of Europe during the war, and they credited Tiso for sparing Slovakia an earlier occupation by Hungary or Germany. They do not necessarily blame Tiso for what happened to the Jews.

After the war, émigrés from Slovakia fled to the United States, Canada and elsewhere. Many of them reinforced the idea of Tiso as a protector of the Slovak nation. He was presented as a martyr who had sacrificed his own well being for the sake of the nation. To this day, the overwhelming majority of Slovak-Americans and their Catholic fraternal organizations have accepted this more favorable picture of Tiso and the wartime Slovak Republic. Such a picture was also easier to accept after the war because of the spectre of Stalinist style Communism haunting Europe.

Within a year of the Tiso trial, the Communists had seized power in Czechoslovakia and proceeded to wage vicious attacks against the Church and the clergy. Tiso was presented as a fascist traitor and to speak of him in a positive light was considered a treasonable offence. It is little wonder that after the fall of Communism in 1989, the whole Tiso issue would be re-examined.

The problem is that any talk of Tiso does not just rest with historians but has become an emotional political issue, which easily leads to name-calling and flaring tempers. The mere publication of this article could easily anger people from both sides of the issue, because it does not take a particular stand. Instead, I am trying to explain the reason why the dedication of a memorial to Tiso has stirred such a controversy.

The decision to dedicate

The decision to dedicate a memorial to Tiso on 14 March resulted from a Zilina city council meeting on 17 February 2000. It was not clear who introduced the proposal but 40 of the 41 council members present voted for the motion. The plaque was to be placed at the Catholic House which is occupied by a group of nuns from the Sisters of Saint Francis. Zilina has been traditionally a stronghold for the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS) and for former Prime Minister Vladimír Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Of the 45 council members 39 belong to either the SNS or the HZDS.

Ján Slota, the mayor and former SNS party chief, has a reputation for indiscretions, some of which parallel Haider's statements in Austria. Many SNS members have always held the former Slovak leader Tiso in high regards, even the party itself has made no specific official pronouncement regarding the scheduled March dedication. However, they did comment on it: SNS Deputy Chairman Viliam Oberhauser told journalists on 18 February that his party had "no objection" to the planned memorial. "In the center of Rome there is a memorial to Mussolini," and Tiso was a "historical personality who deserved this gesture." Likewise, the French daily Le Figaro on 18 February quoted SNS chairwoman Anna Maliková as stating that the SNS would not reject "en bloc" the whole Tiso period, but the SNS were hardly "Tiso's heirs."

Those opposed

The Zilina city council probably did not realize the storm of protest they would instigate. As news of the upcoming dedication spread, both the US embassy in Bratislava and the Jewish community of Slovakia protested against the decision of the council. The Slovak weekly Domino Forum published a scathing article which not only attacked Zilina council but also some prominent politicians in the government that had remained silent about the issue.

The Federation of Jewish Communities denounced the decision as "an attempt to rehabilitate fascism." It stated that this was not an "isolated act by a mentally sick person, but a new attack against Slovakia's efforts to be integrated" into the European Union and a "gross violation of the law" (Agence France Presse, 19 February 2000).

The organization accused Tiso of having perpetrated criminal acts during the war, which led to the deportation and ultimate extermination of over 60,000 Jews from Slovakia. The American Embassy gave its support to the Jewish body's statement.

The Slovak government also unanimously condemned the decision by the Municipal Council in Zilina. The government wanted the council to revise the planned dedication. The Prime Miister told a press conference that "the Slovak government considers glorification of Tiso incompatible with the values Slovakia adheres to." Earlier the Slovak government official in charge of human rights and minorities requested that the chief prosecutor investigate the town's decision. A private lawyer has also filed a legal challenge against the town council.

The decision comes at a sensitive time because of the recent controversy surrounding Jörg Haider's participation in the government of Austria. Dzurinda's government wants to avoid the same flurry of European protest that Austria has experienced. Especially at a time when Slovakia is attempting to enter pan-European such as NATO and the EU. Since the opposition parties dominate the city council of Zilina, it was easy for Dzurinda to denounce the decision.

Catholic Church reaction

Although the plaque was to be placed on a Catholic building, Catholic Church officials in Slovakia decline to address the issue. A Catholic official for the Nitra diocese said that a plaque commemorating Tiso was "not a church matter." Speaking on behalf of the sisters who occupy the building, Sister Ludvika had said she had "nothing against" the commemoration and the plaque (Slovak Spectator, 28 February to 5 March 2000).

Thus, even though Tiso was a Catholic priest, the Church views the whole controversy as political and lacking any religious significance. Coming on the heels of Pope John Paul II's attempt to mend fences with the Jewish community, the Church does not want to stoke old fires. The Pontiff has expressed remorse for the individual sins of Catholics in the past, especially during the Holocaust. He has asked the Jews to forgive their sins over the centuries. In the same manner, the prominent Jewish leader, Elie Wiesel, has joined the Pope's call for engendering the healing process. But Wiesel would add that healing does not necessarily involve forgetting the lessons of history.

Dedication cancelled

After all the public clamour on 7 March, Zilina Mayor, Ján Slota, decided to postpone the unveiling of the Tiso plaque. Slota blamed fears of violence for the decision. He claimed that the nuns who occupy the Catholic House had received disturbing threats. Slota commented that he had received information that "so-called democrats, or the brainwashed young people" were "preparing provocations" to disrupt the ceremony. Slota added that "this would be a defamation of the ceremonious act" and had therefore resolved to ask the city council to postpone the placing of a plaque to a later date (CTK, 7 March 2000).

In the interview on Slovak Radio (7 March 2000), Slota elaborated on his decisions. Slota stated that the plaque was "meant to mark a historical event which cannot be deleted from the history of Slovakia and from the history of our town. On the other hand, I cannot help commenting on the campaign which the so-called democrats unleashed, for example, against the nuns who live in the Catholic House. There have been various phone calls threatening to break windows, threats to other members of the municipal council, various anonymous phone calls, letters and so on." Slota inferred that the ceremony would still take place, but at a later time when things had cooled off. Judging from the reactions of those opposed to the commemoration, that will not happen any time soon. The interpretation of Tiso's legacy will continue to remain a figure that divides Slovak society for years to come.

Michael J Kopanic Jr, 13 March 2000



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