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
While the tumultuous years from 1914-1945 are surely the most researched, and written-about in modern history, the story of the priest-turned-president Jozef Tiso and the fascist Slovak Republic he presided over has been inaccessible to the Anglophone world.
But no longer.
With the publication of James Mace Ward’s Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia, English-speaking readers can follow the development into the ethnic, national, political, and religious landscapes of Eastern Europe between the wars, and thus to the background of the world we inherited when the continental empires fell.
A professor of history at DePauw University, Ward has produced a serious work of scholarship, which explores the complex motives behind Tiso’s dual role as both a Catholic priest and as a leader of the Slovak People’s Party (the so-called L’udáks), culminating in a Nazi collaborationist presidency.
He participated in the prosecution of the Holocaust and was ultimately executed by a post-war Czechoslovak tribunal.
While many see fascist Slovakia as a footnote in the overall history of the Second World War, Ward explains that the Slovak experience was very much a defining example of the struggle for Central European peoples to define their future after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German empires.
A young political priest active in Magyar politics in the Felvidék (Hungarian Slovakia), Tiso entered the fray during the First World War alongside L’udák leader and fellow clergyman Andrej Hlinka, to defend Catholicism against the modern secular forces of Social Democracy and Communism.
Tiso associated Catholicism with Slovak nationalism and forwarded both, as love (of the nation) and truth (in the word of God). This put him in direct conflict with the socialist and communist Left, but also with Capitalism, in which he believed, love of the nation would be poisoned with individualism and spirituality sabotaged by materialism.
Despite his early ties to the Hungarians, in the twilight hours of the First World War, Tiso fought hard to extricate the Slovaks from the Magyar yoke, and to ensure Slovak autonomy within the proposed Czechoslovak republic.
Throughout the interwar years, he fought to secure the Slovak nation from claims on nearly all sides: emerging Hungaian and Polish states looking to reclaim territory, a Left-leaning, Czech-dominated government in Prague, and the spectre of Bolshevism to the East.
In Ward’s telling, Tiso emerges as a sly, adept, and opportunistic political animal, deftly balancing his relationships with the Czech republicans, Slovak centrists, L’udák radicals, Hungarian territorialists and, later, the Nazis.
Despite a genuine devotion to Catholicism, Tiso allowed the pre-eminence of nationalism to drive his political manoeuvres. This included his on-again, off-again embrace of anti-Semitism (on both Catholic and nationalistic grounds), and his eventual alliance with Nazi Germany, which helped him secure an independent Slovak Republic.
While an ally of Germany, Tiso nonetheless attempted to maintain a measure of Slovak independence, resisting German requests for their involvement in eastern offensives, or the imposition of ministerial SS "advisors" who would have cemented Slovakia’s status as a Nazi puppet.
In addition, Tiso had to fend off constant political assaults by the pro-Nazi wing of the L’udáks, headed by Vojtech Tuka and Alexander Mach: Hitlerite sycophants who preferred the full authority of the Reich and less of the Catholicism Tiso held so dear.
However, in spite of Tiso’s professed desire for a Catholic corporatism mirroring Dolfuß’ Austria, he very much established a Slovak Gleichschaltung, and though it "lacked the brutality usually associated with fascism and totalitarianism," Tiso not only built Jewish ghettos and applied Nuremburg-esque laws, but in the summer of 1942, deported over 50,000 Slovak Jews, most of whom ended up in the gas chambers.
As Ward explains, Tiso’s actions as a ruler were largely calculated "within [a] triangle of idealism, fear, and opportunism." His complicity in Nazi crimes against the Jewish people is beyond refute, however, and study of Tiso as a figure suffered a case of arrested development in the decades after his death.
The Czechoslovak court was largely communist, and, though his Holocaust guilt is clear, the trial reeked of revenge rather than justice (he was, in fact, tried for crimes against the Czechoslovak people, not against the Jews).
Later, he became a martyr in the eyes of right-wing Slovak nationalists. Thus, Tiso remained a populist symbol – for Czechoslovaks, of backward, fascist evil; for Slovak nationalists, a martyred independence fighter – and no serious historical work of any kind was carried out under Communism.
Ward’s study is highly specialised and can be dense at points. A scholarly text of considerable academic prowess, it is not an ideal starting point for a reader without prior knowledge of Slovak and/or Central European history.
For a more accessible general history, consult A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival by Stanislav Kirschbaum or Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed by Mary Heimann. However, Priest, Politician, Collaborator is an important contribution as history, including valuable insights into the Slovak people, thus closing a rather considerable gap.
After the collapse of Communism and the Velvet Divorce, Slovak historians began a neo-empiricist reassessment of the Tiso regime. But the competing mythologies have been hard to counter in mainstream Slovakia. The nation remains populist and folkish to a large extent – many point to a still adolescent political consciousness.
Others point out that, excluding Tiso’s six-year reign, Slovaks existed under not only political but also cultural domination for over a thousand years. Slovakia is an old nation, but a young state, and in many ways still trying to understand itself.
Today, a resurgent anti-EU, nationalist bloc is emerging, harkening back to earlier extremism. It is in this context that understanding Tiso is so vital. With Ward’s book now being translated into Slovak and Czech, perhaps his scholarship will further assist Slovaks in their quest to understand their past, and determine their future.
Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso
and the Making of Facsist Slovakia
by James Mace Ward
Cornell University Press (April, 2013)