Rehabilitation of the wartime Tiso regime was again the main theme of the struggle between neo-fascist and anti-Semitic elements and liberal and democratic forces in Slovakia. The former increased their activity in 1999, largely in connection with the 60th anniversary of the wartime Slovak state. Several events commemorating this anniversary took place in Zilina, which is administered by former Slovak National Party leader Jan Slota.
THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
Slovakia has some 3,000 Jews out of a total population of 5.35 million. On the eve of the dissolution of independent Czechoslovakia in 1939, there were 135,000 Jews in Slovakia, nearly twice the number that inhabited the Czech lands. Of these only 25,000 survived, and most left the country after the Holocaust. Today the largest Jewish community is in the capital Bratislava; smaller communities exist in Kosice, Presov and Piestany.
The Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in the Slovak Republic is the main communal organization. In general, the Jewish community is an aging one; however, there are signs of a revival of interest in Jewish roots among many of the younger generation. The Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are active in promoting activities for Jewish youth.
The Institute of Jewish Studies, established in 1996 at Comenius University in Bratislava conducts a wide range of courses and other activities related to the Jewish legacy in Slovakia. The Museum of Jewish Culture has built up an impressive collection displaying the rich Jewish heritage in the country and organizes cultural and educational activities, including an international conference on anti-Semitism (see below).
In April 2000, a joint commission was established by the government with the Jewish community to pursue the restitution of Jewish property sequestered during the Holocaust.
POLITICAL PARTIES AND EXTRA-PARLIAMENTARY GROUPS
It is difficult to categorize extremist movements in Slovak political life because nationalist parties and movements often blend xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes with more moderate positions on these issues.
The Slovak National Party (SNS), a partner in the Meciar-led coalition government until it lost the 1998 general elections, is clearly an extremist nationalist party. SNS has been behind the continuing campaign to rehabilitate Jozef Tiso, head of the wartime fascist regime, which was responsible for the deportation of the country’s Jews to the death camps. Despite the loss of its power base, the party continued its efforts to rehabilitate Tiso’s regime under Jan Slota, the controversial former leader of the SNS, who resigned his party position and became mayor of the town of Zilina.
Other extremist nationalist organizations include the fringe Slovak People’s Party (SLS) , which continued to spread xenophobic hate messages, and the Slovak Community (Slovenska Pospolitost), formed in 1996 by skinheads and other right-wing extremists, which together with several other organizations publishes bulletins of its activities on the website of the International Third Position, based in England.
Inter-ethnic violence was on the rise in 1999, especially skinhead attacks on Roma. The new government formed in 1998 has been conducting a study of the situation of the Roma and issues of Roma-Slovak relations (see also ASW 1998/9).
ATTITUDES TOWARD THE HOLOCAUST AND THE NAZI ERA
Rehabilitation of the wartime Tiso regime was again the main theme of the struggle between neo-fascist and anti-Semitic elements and liberal and democratic forces in Slovakia. The former increased their activity in 1999, largely in connection with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the wartime Slovak fascist state (14 March 1939). Various meetings, conferences and masses took place with the participation of former SNS leader Jan Slota, former SNS ministers Jan Sitek and Eva Slavkoska and representatives of the nationalist Matica Slovenska organization (see below), and with the support of nationalist press organs (Slovenska Republika, Zmena, Kultura and Slovenske Narodne Noviny). The theme common to all events was the attempt to whitewash the record of the fascist state and its leader, advocate its social and economic system and stress the need to apply a “Christian democratic state,” based on the wartime model, to contemporary Slovakia.
The anniversary celebrations were centered primarily in the town of Zilina, where the town’s mayor and SNS council deputy Jan Slota praised the Slovak state at a conference commemorating its founding. A book of the conference proceedings was published, The First Slovak Republic 1939-1945 -- The 60th Anniversary of Its Creation. Calling Tiso “one of the greatest sons of the Slovak nation,” Slota asked Slovaks to “pay homage to the Slovak Republic and to all its officials.”
Several “new historians,” the new generation of supporters of the Slovak fascist state, presented their theses at the conference. Their main claim was that the Slovak state was neither fascist nor Nazi. One speaker, Jozef Darmo, referred briefly to “the tragedy of the Jews,” which “thanks to presidential intervention and the self-sacrifice of hundreds of Slovak citizens, had different dimensions than in other countries.” The “new historians” contend that it was not the Jews or the anti-fascists who were the martyrs, but those who practiced extreme forms of nationalism, were accused of crimes against humanity and who were later convicted as collaborators or became émigrés abroad. Hitler is presented as having saved Slovakia from the Hungarians, and as someone who “liked the Slovaks.”
Zilina was also at the center of a heated debate in early 2000 when under local and international Jewish and Slovak pressure the town council had to cancel plans for a memorial plaque honoring Tiso.
On 13 March 1999 some 300 black-shirted skinheads, together with a number of elderly fascist sympathizers, staged a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Bratislava where SNS chairman Stanislav Panis praised Tiso’s legacy. In the evening the participants marched through the city chanting “Slovakia for the Slovaks” and “Glory to Tiso.”
Matica Slovenska, which has played a major role in the Slovak national awakening since its foundation in 1863, organized a conference on the anniversary of the wartime Slovak state at Bratislava’s Istropolis Arts and Congress Center. According to Zmena, Julius Porubsky, chairman of the Confederation of Political Prisoners [under the communists] in Slovakia told participants that Tiso and the clergy had saved the nation from complete destruction.
Another speaker at the conference was the former Slovak émigré and vocal defender of the wartime fascist state Milan S. Durica (see also ASW 1998/9). In his latest book, The Slovak State – Foundation and Duration of the First Slovak State (Bratislava, 1999), Durica no longer accuses the Jews of harming the Slovak nation. He writes instead of the “tens of thousands of Slovak citizens of Jewish origin who became victims of the diabolic machinery of Hitler’s death camps,” but not of the Slovak state’s role in their fate. Referring to the Jewish participation in the Slovak national uprising, Durica hints that the Jewish fate might have been different if “the Jews themselves, particularly in the last phases of 1944, had shown greater comprehension of the situation and collaborated with the Slovaks.”
Several publications, notably Kultura which has appeared since 1998, attempted to whitewash the past by publishing memoirs of politicians from the wartime era, who defended the regime and its alleged democratic and Christian features. In issue no. 13/1999, for example, Kultura wrote that the leaders of the fascist Hlinka Guard and others “only meant well”; if this were the case, a reader might construe that Jewish claims concerning the regime were unfounded.
Describing the constitution of the Slovak state instituted in 1939 as “imbued with Christian spirit,” Slovenska Republika, in its issue of 23 July 1999, claimed it was based on the US constitution and the [spirit of the] French Revolution.” Tis no reference to the anti-Jewish code, which provided the legal framework for ousting the Jews from Slovak society, or to the fact that the constitution was in fact the legal base for a fascist state. This portrayal was intended to raise doubts that the Slovak state, which was allegedly based on Christian principles and modeled on the American and French systems, actually cooperated with Nazi Germany and in the mass extermination of Jews.
RESPONSES TO ANTI-SEMITISM
Members of the Jewish community, as well as liberal and democratic forces, continued to play an active role in combating anti-Semitism, and especially the campaign to rehabilitate the Tiso era. Nevertheless, despite government promises to support these endeavors, historical revisionism appeared to be flourishing. Some papers, such as the liberal SME of 15 March 1999, protested government inaction and the dissemination of neo-fascist propaganda with government money by Matica Slovenska, an official organization which has long enjoyed state support.
The liberal press, which bitterly opposed the Meciar government, has been vocal in exposing extremism, and Jewish topics feature frequently in press reports criticizing historical revisionism and the lack of firm government action. The daily Praca, which published a series of articles on the anniversary events, concluded that certain circles were attempting “to revive fascism.”
The periodical Bojovnik in its issue of August 1999 criticized the conference organized in Bratislava by Matica Slovenska and the revisionist views of speakers such as Durica, who are active in various ways in rehabilitating the wartime record of the Slovak state.
Wide-ranging publishing activity by the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava has contributed to public awareness of xenophobia and racism. For example, in his book Anti-Semitism in the Political Development of Slovakia 1989-1999, museum director Pavol Mestan described the dynamics of historical revisionism and anti-Semitism in the ten years since the collapse of the communist regime.
Several academic and public activities were aimed at combating racism and anti-Semitism, such as the international conference “Anti-Semitism at the End of the Century,” held in Nitra in May 2000 under the patronage of the president of the Slovak Republic, Rudolf Schuster. The president also opened a one-day conference in Bratislava on racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination held on 19 May 2000. According to the Czech news agency (CTK), President Schuster proposed that a Holocaust day be declared on 1 September to commemorate the introduction of anti-Jewish laws in Slovakia in 1940. He made similar statements during his visit to Israel in early 2000.
In the first official reference to the country’s past since Slovakia gained independence in 1993, the government issued a communiqué on the anniversary of the formation of the wartime Slovak state. It stressed that the present Slovak Republic was “a democratic country” and had “nothing to do with the first Slovak state, the puppet state that existed between 1939 and 1944.” It also declared the government was “ready to fight against any manifestations of nationalism, xenophobia and neo-fascism.”
Curbing the latest upsurge in activity on the part of neo-fascist and anti-Semitic elements seems to be a crucial test for a government which is sensitive to local and outside public opinion and has a vested interest in cooperating with Western organizations in combating racism and xenophobia.