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Why Slovakia?

This small mountainous country is now independent and free. However, is rightwing Slovak nationalism being encouraged by the Church for its own ends? It has implemented a five-year plan to “evangelise” the whole country and is still hoping to push through the unprecedented “conscience concordat”. This is not what many Slovaks had hoped for when they got free of the Communist dictatorship.

Why Slovakia?

 On Pope John Paul II's visit to Slovakia the year before it joined the European Union, he revealed his plans for it.

In the near future your country will become a full member of the European Community. Dearly beloved, bring to the construction of Europe's new identity the contribution of your rich Christian tradition! [1]

The pope regarded the Slovaks as soldiers for the Vatican’s “battle for the soul of Europe” and called on them to help re-evangelise a secular continent from the east. [2] To prepare for their missionary role their society was to be transformed, and part of this was to be achieved through concordats with the Vatican. But why, among all the ten new European Union members, was Slovakia the country chosen for the most far-reaching concordat to date?

Slovakia was a rural, conservative and very Catholic land but when it was freed from Communism it was still federated with the larger, industrialised, and very secular Czech republic. The Vatican needed to separate Slovakia from its less amenable partner, and it lost no time in beginning the job. 

It was just a few months after the “Velvet Revolution”, the bloodless liberation from Communism, that Pope John Paul II made his first trip to Czechoslovakia. He visited Prague, the capital of the Czech part of the federation, and then he flew on to Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak part. There the Pope kissed the ground, as if he had arrived in a different country. The message was understood. Three years later, after the “Velvet Divorce”, the president of the new Slovak Republic thanked the pope for encouraging the breakup of Czechoslovakia or – to put it more diplomatically – for the “anticipated recognition of Slovak independence”. [3]

More decisive than this symbolic gesture was the position taken by the Catholic bishops in this crucial period. The chairman of the Czechoslovak bishops’ conference, as well as the Slovak bishops, accentuated the abstract right to self-determination and did not call for the referendum which “would have prevented the splitting up of Czechoslovakia”. [4]

A third type of Vatican involvement is its constant attempts to link Catholicism with Slovak nationalism. After the Velvet Revolution at the end of 1989, Slovakia, like other East European countries looked back to its pre-Communist past, to the last time when it had been an independent nation. This was the fascist Slovak State of 1939-1945. There was no other model available, since the Slovaks’ pre-war participation in a democratic Czechoslovakia, when many felt they were overshadowed by the Czechs.

Today the Church, the Christian political parties and a group of revisionist historians are all promoting the wartime Slovak state as a golden era, “an ideal society, where the Roman Catholic social doctrine prevailed”. [5] They laud it, even though it was a German “protectorate” with a Nazi puppet regime. It was also so tightly controlled by the Catholic Church that it was known as “the parish republic”. [6]

The close alliance of Catholicism and Fascism was not unique to Slovakia, of course. It was found in many other European countries, as well: in pre-war Austria under Dollfuss, in Salazar's Portugal, in Romania under the Iron Guard, in Pavelic’s Croatia, in Horthy’s Hungary, in Vichy France and, of course, under Generalissimo Franco, who called himself “Leader of Spain by the grace of God”.

All of these, to varying degrees, exemplified “clerical fascism”, that is to say, “fascist regimes in which clergy played a leading role”. [7] And wartime Slovakia certainly fits this definition, since it was run by Catholic clerics. The President, Monsignor Josef Tiso, was a Catholic priest and he led a clerical political party which had been founded by Father Andrej Hlinka, another Catholic priest. Sixteen of the 63 Members of Parliament in Tiso's regime were also Catholic priests. The Pope didn't take long to give his blessing to this arch-Catholic new state. It took the Vatican 45 years to recognise Israel, 56 years for Haiti and 58 years for Italy – but less than four months after the founding of the First Slovak Republic its ambassador was being fulsomely welcomed by Pius XII. [8]

Less than two months later Monsignor President Tiso allowed the Germans to use his  territory as the staging area for its troops and then joined the Nazi attack on Poland that began WWII. Tiso's Slovakia was “Germany's first ally”. [9]

“We acted according to the law of God: Slovakia, dispose of your enemies!”

Not only was wartime Slovakia thoroughly clerical, it was also unequivocally fascist and even racist.

The totalitarian regime persecuted not only political dissidents, but also those who did not stem from the same “tribal clan” (genus). The notion of “genus” in the People’s Party’s (HSLS) understanding was extremely close to the notion of “race”. [10]

As in Germany, the affinity between the Church and the Nazis was based on their shared anti-Semitism and their common belief in authority. [11] And, indeed, the clerics who ran Slovakia proved to be eager henchmen of the Nazis, exhibiting few twinges of conscience over the Holocaust. Contemporary newsclips of Tiso and Hitler suggest their closeness. This sanctified republic rounded up and shipped some 70,000 Slovak Jews off to Germany and then justified it religiously. Monsignor Tiso said, “We acted according to the law of God: Slovakia, dispose of your enemies!” [12]

On 8 August 1942 President Tiso, still serving as the priest of Banovce, spoke from the pulpit in Holic:

As regards the Jewish question, people ask if what we do is Christian and humane. I ask that too: is it Christian if the Slovaks want to rid themselves of their eternal enemies the Jews? Love for oneself is God's command, and this love makes it imperative for me to remove anything harming me. [13]

Today, however, the Church is busily whitewashing Slovakia’s pious fascist past. Cardinal Korec has stated that Tiso opposed the establishment of a Nazi-dominated Slovak state and never signed a single death sentence. [14] What he fails to mention is that Monsignor Tiso simply let the Germans do the job. In fact, he even paid Germany for the deportations making his government the only one in World War II to do so – 500 Reichmark for every Jew shipped off in the cattle cars.

A young Slovak Jew describes his moment of truth on the journey to the Auschwitz extermination camp:

…Up and down the train the officers began to shout: ‘All men between sixteen and forty-five out!’ At first nobody moved because they could not believe their ears. This was against the rules, contrary to the principles which Monsignor Tiso, President of Slovakia, had expounded over and over again. In the newspapers, on the radio, he had never tired of saying: ‘It is a basic principle of the Christian faith that families should not be separated. That principle will be observed when the Jews are sent to their new settlements’. [15]

The men were herded out of the car and as their mothers, wives and daughters stretched their arms through the narrow barred windows, the men tried to spring forward for one last touch. But the guards beat them back and they beat the women's hands, too. As the train slowly moved away and the young man heard the anguished cries of women and children, whose wrists were bruised and broken, he finally realised that they had been betrayed.

In Germany, even if the churches had a sorry record of endorsing the Nazi government, at least they did not form it. Therefore, at war’s end they quickly realigned themselves with the victors – and whitewashed their record. In Slovakia however, the Church cannot even attempt to dissociate itself from the Fascist wartime state since priests were in firm control of the country at all levels. The Church must fall back on the excuse that, although they wielded power, they were pawns of the Germans and that therefore their hands are not stained with the blood of all those whom they were – so sadly – obliged to hand over. [16] In fact, a revisionist Slovakian historian has gone so far as to declare that Tiso dared to do something the like of which “no other statesman in Europe dared – he saved Jews, not liquidated them”. [17] Even Tiso’s execution at the war’s end as a traitor and war criminal has been given a nationalistic and religious gloss. He is increasingly being portrayed “as the saviour of the Slovak nation during World War II and a martyr for Slovak independence”. [18]

 

The landscape, too, is now being “rewritten” to remove discordant evidence of massacres on Slovak soil, of resistance to Tiso’s state and of the final liberation by the Red Army. Thus streets have been renamed, statues taken down and monuments destroyed. [19]

The Church wants to rewrite Slovak history and even edit the landscape because it has a mission for this country. In 1995 on his second trip to Slovakia – now an independent land – John Paul II hinted to the Prime Minister about his plans: “A new model can be instituted in Slovakia with establishment of a society respectful of Christian values. This model could considerably influence the future of the world.” [20] Five years later the Slovak bishops recruited "more than fifty professionals" to help them draw up a plan for this “new model”. The result turns out to be a blueprint for a Church-saturated society. And eight years after that the next pope, Benedict XVI, repeated the message claiming that “Slovakia holds great potential for revitalizing the soul of the European continent”. [21]

In 1997, on the eve of elections, the Vatican judged that the Slovak government would be most vulnerable to political pressure from the Church. Accordingly, Vatican "Foreign Minister" Tauran, an expert on concordats, was sent to instruct the Slovakian bishops on their negotiations with the government. [22] This resulted in three concordats since then, and two additional ones that the Vatican is now pressing for. [23] One of these is the concordat about Catholic conscientious objection, which was temporarily halted due to criticism by EU legal experts. The other is the finance concordat whose original aim was to introduce a “church tax”; however, the Catholic Church is now pressing to maintain the status quo: an annual subsidy according to “present needs”, which tend to be ever higher. [24]

Whether or not Slovakia has been “revitalizing the soul of the European continent”, it has aligned itself with other Eastern European countries that have heeded the Vatican's call to resist the implementation of gay rights. The fault lines are clear. In 2014 Slovakia joined Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, and Croatia in passing a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage. This separated it from the Western European countries (some of them traditionally Catholic) which had already legalised it, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, England, Spain, France, and Portugal. [25] The strategy is clear: whenever possible, protect Vatican policies against future legislation by enshrining them in a concordat. And, when that is not feasible, push to enshrine them in the country's constitution. This will also serve to make it harder to liberalise the country's laws.

As usual, the Vatican got its timing right. The centre-left ruling party, SMER was facing an election within a year and reached an agreement with the Christian Democrats which a gay group called political opportunism. [26] While these negotiatons went on behnd closed doors, the Vatican's role in the 2015 referendum was visible to all. This sought to limit use of the word “marriage” to the union of a man and a woman, to ban adoption by gay couples and to allow parents to opt their children out of school classes dealing with sex education or euthanasia. It ultimately failed because of the low turnout [27] but not before dire warnings were issued in pastoral letters [28] and the Pope himself urged Slovaks to "protect families". [29]

Two decades after the end to Communism in Czechoslovakia, many Slovak democrats have begun to wonder if their country is still being steered from abroad – not from Moscow, as before – but from the Vatican.

Further reading

"No Saint: Jozef Tiso and the Holocaust in Slovakia", Wilson Centre, 8 February 2006. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/no-saint-jozef-tiso-and-the-holocaust-slovakia

Justin McCauley, "Book Review: The Tale of Jozef Tiso: Priest, Politician, Collaborator"
James Mace Ward tells the forgotten history of fascist Slovakia, accessible for the first time to English-speaking readers, Vienna Review, 21 August 2013. http://www.viennareview.net/vienna-review-book-reviews/book-reviews/the-tale-of-jozef-tiso-priest-politician-collaborator

John S. Conway, "Review of James Mace Ward, Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia", Contemporary Church History Quarterly, Volume 21, Number 1,  March 2015. https://contemporarychurchhistory.org/2015/03/review-of-james-mace-ward-priest-politician-collaborator-jozef-tiso-and-the-making-of-fascist-slovakia/ 

Notes

1. Martina Grenova, “Pope urges Slovaks to bring Christian tradition to Europe”, Insight Central Europe, 13 September 2003. http://incentraleurope.radio.cz/ice/article/45200 

2. John L. Allen Jr.,“Pope's health status competes with message: In Slovakia, he honors martyrs under communism, stresses right to life”, National Catholic Reporter, 26 September 2003.

3.  Frans Hoppenbrouwers, “Nationalistic Tendencies In The Slovak Roman Catholic Church”. Religion in Eastern Europe, Volume XVIII, Number 6, December 1998. The author is a Roman Catholic Church historian and secretary of studies of the Dutch Roman Catholic relief organization, Communicantes.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Pavol Mestan, “New interpretations and deliberate misinterpretations of the Jewish question in Slovakia: some remarks”, South-East Europe Review 2/2000, 173-179, p. 179. This is the translated title of Dominik Tatarka’s famous 1948 Farská Republika, about the country's wartime totalitarian regime.

7. “Clerical fascism”, Wikipedia.

8. “Discours du Pape Pie XII au nouvel Ambassadeur de Slovaquie près Le Saint-Siège, S.E. M. Karol Sidor”, 7 July 1939. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/speeches/1939/documents/hf_p-xii_spe_19390707_ministro-rep-slovacca_fr.html 

9. “Transports from Slovakia”, Aktion Reinhard Camps, last update 18 July 2005.

10.  Prof. Pavol Mešťan and Prof. Alexander Rehák, “Catholic Church of Slovakia involved in attempts to exculpate Fascism”, unpublished ms., 2004. 

11. Johann Neumann, “The churches in Germany before and after 1945”, lecture at the University of Tübingen, 1995.

12. Hoppenbrouwers, ibid.

13. David Cymet, History vs. Apologetics: The Holocaust, the Third Reich and the Catholic Church, 2010, pp. 327-328. Google reprint

14. Matt Kantz, “Slovak cardinal defends record of president”, National Catholic Reporter, 22 October 1999.

15. Rudolf Vrba, I cannot forgive, London, 1963. pp. 56-57.

16. Hoppenbrouwers, ibid. See the section, “President Josef Tiso: an innocent bystander?”

17. Quoted by Mestan, p.177. 

18. U.S. Department of State, “Slovak Republic Human Rights Practices, 1995”, March 1966. This is a description of the exhibit in April 1995 sponsored by Matica Slovenska, and attended by Education Minister Slavkoska attended on opening day.

19. These include the monument marking the mass graves in Kremnička of over 700 Slovaks murdered by the Germans on suspicion of aiding the resistance and the one marking the graves in Zvolen of the Red Army troops who finally liberated Slovakia in 1945. Further monuments have disappeared from Prešov and from Banská Bystrica, two towns that were central to the Slovak National Uprising and the final liberations. [See in:Bojovník of May 8, 1994 and Bojovník 40:8 of April 6,1995 ] From a manuscript by Dr. Alexander Rehák of the Prometheus Society of Slovakia, October 2005.

20. Prime Minister Vladimer Meciar quoted by Ladislav Hubenak, “Secular Humanism in Slovakia”, International Humanist News, 4 December 1995.

21. “Society Should Aid Young Families, Says Pontiff”, Zenit, 14 September 2007. http://www.zenit.org/article-20505?l=english 

22. Hoppenbrouwers, ibid.

23. “Society Should Aid Young Families, Says Pontiff”, Zenit, 14 September 2007. http://www.zenit.org/article-20505?l=english 

24. Hoppenbrouwers, ibid.

25. “Slovakia votes Saturday on measure to define true marriage”, Life Site News, 6 February 2015. https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/slovakia-votes-saturday-on-measure-to-define-true-marriage

26. Ibid.

27. “Referendum invalid, turnout low”, Slovak Spectator, 8 February 2015. http://spectator.sme.sk/c/20053434/referendum-invalid-turnout-low.html

28. “Slovakia enshrines true marriage in nation’s Constitution”, Life Site News, 14 June 2014. https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/slovakia-enshrines-true-marriage-in-nations-constitution

29. “Pope Francis encourages Slovaks to protect families”, Slovak Spectator, 5 February 2015. http://spectator.sme.sk/c/20053385/pope-francis-encourages-slovaks-to-protect-families.html


 

 


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