By Maria Viglasova
The aforementioned words came out of the pen of Jozef Tiso in November 1944, the President of the Slovak State and a Catholic Priest. As part of a letter, was directed to Pope Pious XII. The letter continues as follows: “Our fault consists of our gratitude and faithfulness towards the Germans who not only affirmed of the existence of our nation and its right to independence and national freedom; they have also helped it against the Czechs and the Jews, enemies of our nation.” (1)
In this letter, Tiso was trying to justify the behaviour of the Slovak government whose violent actions against the minority groups, particularly the Jewish one, were causing major worries in Rome.
How did it happen that the Jews and the Czechs were labelled as the “enemies of the Slovak nation” by its highest authority and member of the Church at the same time?
An indication of the answer can be provided when we look through the lens of nationalist discourse and its production. Tiso was at the lead of the very first officially independent Slovak state. A state that was in reality a by-product of the 1938 Munich Agreement. However, Germany did not include the existence of an independent Slovakia in its post-war Lebensraum plans [Lebensraum = the territory which a group, state, or nation believes is needed for its natural development. The German version of this concept refers to policies and practices of settler colonialism]. An independent Slovakia happened to exist as a result of the afore mentioned Hitler’s aggression against Czechoslovakia in the 1938. It was clearly an opportunistic move by which Hitler secured a client state – sadly the only one that declared war on Poland alongside Germany in September 1939.
Nevertheless, the discourse surrounding the creation of the state was full of glorification of the divine purpose of History, which granted the independence to a small, suffering but heroically enduring Slovak nation.
A little more than a year after the proclamation of the new state, visible and striking methods of national socialism were introduced by the government. These aimed at the segregation and exclusion of minority groups, specifically the Jews (the Czechs were “just sent home” (2 – see later). German authorities intervened directly upon the introduction of these regulations. However, this was a very important moment for further pollicisation of the Jewish identity. Therefore, I want to turn the attention to these instances of the late August 1940 and explore how it managed to pave the way to the subsequent exclusion and deportation of the Jews.
Under these anti-Jewish decrees, a Jewish owner of a shop or any other gainful property was obliged to officially label it as “Jewish”. Making it so visible and striking, people started gazing in surprise at their wealth. This led to a realization that all economic life of their newly established country was actually in the hands of the Jews. In his speeches, president Tiso was justifying these measures as necessary for the prosperity of the nation and managed to skilfully support them with citations from the Bible. Although such discourse still did not convince most of the Slovaks to support the total exclusion of the Jews, it made people inclined to ‘believe that certain restrictive measures against their economic superiority should be introduced’ and they would welcome them with favourable feelings. (3)
One year since then, in September 1941, the ‘Jewish Code’ was proclaimed. This was a Slovak version of the Nurnberg laws. Realizing the implications of these, president Tiso did not approve of them first, however, when forced by both internal and external political actors, he had to accept them. He at least appealed to retain for himself the right to grant exemption from the ‘Jewish status’. This was a right which he did exercise indeed (around 1,000 exemptions, protecting 5,000 people), although most of those who were granted an exemption, were Jews that had been baptized in Christian faith. It looks strange therefore that Tiso would later preach that the principles of national socialism are identical with the social principles of the Catholic Church.
It is true (and unfortunate) that the feelings towards the Jews had not been very favourable in this part of Europe long before. Rioting against them – or even by them – was not completely unusual during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a different nationality, different culture, different religion. Many of them very skilled, successful businessmen or great intellectuals. Whether because of their (mostly religious) difference or out of a pure envy, they kept being looked down upon also during the first Czechoslovak republic (1918-1938). One could argue therefore that there was some basis upon which to build this discourse of hatred. Still, its success in the creation of an ‘Other’ surprises me. The Jew came to be officially labelled an ‘enemy within: the one that Slovakia needed to get rid of’…
I started mentioning ‘the Czechs and the Jews’. The former could not serve as a sustainable ‘Other’; Hitler took this option off the table by breaking Czechoslovakia and creating the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The only thing left was to “send the Czechs home, because they were needless and deadwood.” (cited in the aforementioned Tiso’s letter addressed to the Pope (4) )
The remaining were therefore the Jews. There are various explanations of why precisely the Jews were the primary target of this awful Nazi politics in the occupied Europe. I am interested, however, in the underlying discourse that allowed for and supported this exclusion and deportation of the Jews from the wartime Slovakia.
An important fact to understand it is that the head of the government was a Catholic priest and his ruling party was presenting itself as very pro-Slovakian and based on a Christian legacy. Given that much of the population of the back-then Slovakia was Christian – both Catholic (most of the population) and Lutheran, Tiso did not hesitate to frame the discourse in the way that would be portraying the Church as the protector of small nations (5). The fact that he was a priest, ‘serving this small nation’, equipped him with legitimacy in the eyes of most of the ordinary Slovaks, making him very popular (which was one of the reasons that the German allowed him to stay in power).
Pro-Church discourse have had the effect of subtly pampering many of the Church leaders, mostly Catholic, but also Lutheran. When the measures obliging the Jews to wear the symbol of the Star of David and label all their shops and businesses were introduced, there appeared only some random individual protests from the part of the clergy. No official condemnation of the unjust measures against the Jews. The proclamation of the Jewish Code in 1941 meant that now, the episcopate could not keep silent anymore. Yes, they condemned the violent methods. But the bishops overall more concerned with the Jews that converted to Catholicism and their rights as Catholics being compromised; than with the Jews as human beings.
Even though they did admit that the Jews were human beings too, they did so in a way that only pinpointed the requirements and standards of the Church for the Jews to be fully seen as such. This hypocrisy was expressed openly in this letter which was read aloud in catholic churches: “The tragedy of the Jewish people is that they did not recognize the Saviour and crucified him. … The impact of the Jews has been detrimental in our country as well. Within a short time period they usurped the lead of the whole economic life, all this at the expense of our people. They were harming our people not only in the economic realm, but also culturally and morally. The Church cannot be against when the government by its legal measures prevents the harmful impact of the Jews.” (6)
To produce this official stance to the government measures took the Catholic episcopate more than a year – despite that they have been urged to do so by the Vatican ambassador in Slovakia long before. This complacent silence of most of the Church’s authorities contributed to the deportation to concentration camps of 55,000 Slovak Jews (later, in 1944, after the occupation of Slovakia by German forces, the remaining 15,000 were deported.) When the bishops finally spoke in late April 1942, the damage had already been done. Transports to the concentration camps started in March 1942. The first mass and Jewish only transport to Auschwitz consisted of 999 Slovak-Jewish girls and women! (7) These deportations were violently put forward by Nazi radicals in the government, not Tiso. They took pride in announcing that the transports were their own initiative, not enforced by Germany. Sadly, Tiso allowed the transports. Panic was spread and in this moment, people started protecting and hiding the Jews from the government power. But it was too little, too late…
No one knows how many lives could have been saved had there been stronger opposition towards the government measures. What is certain however, is that discourse prising Slovakness and constantly appealing to the need to get rid of the enemies of our nation, mostly Jews, have been the chief factors in allowing the sad and violent exodus of 70,000 Jews from the wartime Slovakia. On the other hand, it was also the complacent and hypocritical silence of the Church authorities that contributed to and gave space to the rise of the official state doctrine of anti-Semitism.
Kamenec, I.; Precan, V; Skovranek, S.: Vatikan a Slovenska republika (1939 –1945) Dokumenty (The Vatican and the Slovak republic (1939-1945) Documents) Bratislava, Slovak Academic Press, 1992
- – A letter written by the president Tiso to the pope Pious XII. on 8th November, 1944
- This is how Cardinal Burzio, Vatican’s ambassador ambassador in Slovakia, described the situation on the 5th September 1940.
- Also: letter written by the president Tiso to the pope Pious XII. on 8th November, 1944
- Official stance proclaimed the by the bishops on the 26th April 1942
- See also: https://spectator.sme.sk/c/20494128/we-were-joking-before-the-trip-women-from-the-first-transport-to-auschwitz-recall.html
Featured image: The first transport of 999 Jewish women from Poprad to Auschwitz in March 1942
Maria Viglasova is a third year International Relations student from Slovakia. Interested in Religion in Politics and Gender issues in Global politics.
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