Slovak Uprising 1944 – celebrated as well as condemned

The end of August marks the 70th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising – seen as one of the most important events in the Czech and Slovak 20th century. Yet besides the well-established narrative of a heroic fight against fascism, we are again witnessing revisionist and openly manipulated interpretations of the event that aim to legitimize a fresh wave of nationalism. Thus the Uprising has once again served to the political agenda of the day.

Foto: CreativeCommons/Bratislavská župa


The anti-fascist uprising centered in Banská Bystrica, also known as the Slovak National Uprising (SNP), carried on for two months and involved over 80,000 rebel combatants who, at its peak, controlled 20,000 square kilometers of territory. Since 1945 until the present day, a large part of the Slovak society as well as its dominant political and intellectual elites have considered the SNP to be one of the most significant heroic moment of Slovak history.

Now amidst  the celebration of the Uprising’s 70th anniversary, the still waters of public life were stirred by news of a new website dedicated to the commemoration, which Slovaks celebrate annually on the 29th of August as a public holiday. The website´s visitors are greeted with images of a crossed out Czech Lion, Star of David and Hammer and Sickle, and the slogan, “The uprising is the death.”

One of the most important connotations associated with the SNP is redemption by blood, from the sins committed through the collaboration with Nazi Germany. A response quickly followed, from none lesser than the directors of the major historical institutes. In a joint declaration, they condemned the revisionist website and suggested its founders were not so much interested in debating and interpreting history, but rather, striving to uncritically “legendarize” the Slovak State of 1939-45 and rehabilitate the images of its top officials, who, after the war, were convicted of Nazi collaboration.

However in terms of commemorating this historical event, this conflict is not unique – quite the opposite. Since 1944, a range of more or less binding interpretations of the Uprising have come to see the light of the day, and invariably they have proven to be an interesting litmus test of the political and cultural developments in Slovakia. They range from the original presentation of the SNP as a coordinated action of the domestic and foreign, and the civic and communist resistance through highlighting of the role of Communists underscored by a socialist building ethos of the communist dictatorship to the efforts to “dis-ideologization” of the topic that went hand in hand with the revived polemic with the “ľudák” (Slovak Nazi collaborators during the WWII – ed. note) interpretation of the Uprising as a contra-national coup d’état, which was endorsed by the Slovak State as well as the Reich propaganda already in 1944.

The metamorphoses of the metanarrative of the Uprising can be analyzed from multiple perspectives. I have chosen to focus on the official image of this historical occasion in relation to the (intra) political changes from 1944 to the present.

In the whirl of the war

The Slovak State of 1939-45 was in its own terminology, a self-standing, Christian nation that was looking for its place in Hitler´s New Europe. Nevertheless, more or less everything was happening under the direction of the Nazis, who insured the future of the region by a vassal treaty on friendship and cooperation. In the summer of 1944, when it was already well known that illegal groups had been preparing for an armed resistance on domestic soil, the president of the state, Jozef Tiso, proclaimed: ‘No one has ever been able to give Slovaks and Slovakia as much as the Slovak State… there is not a single Slovak who would be willing to succumb to some kind of terror or enemy propaganda in order to give up his statehood’. However, this optimism proved shortsighted.

After the Uprising’s breakout, which was also joined by a sizeable part of the local population, the insurgents declared a war against Fascism and in support of the restoration of Czechoslovakia, which was irreconcilable with the existence of the Slovak State. The official propaganda thus began to label the Uprising as a coup d’état of irresponsible Czechoslovak and Bolshevik gangs that had succeeded in misleading the common people. The armed resistance was eventually crushed after two months of fervent fighting, and the sad accounts of violence and murders consequently became an essential element of Uprising memory culture. Nevertheless, until the demise of Tiso’s regime, the officially endorsed image of the Uprising remained a negative one.

A victory in the spirit of piety and cooperation

The liberation of Slovakia and the subsequent end of the WWII in 1945 represented a major turning point: incumbent Slovakian leaders were criminalized and expelled from public life on account of their collaboration with the Nazis, and their places were taken by politicians, who had often actively participated in the Uprising. For them, the Uprising epitomized a symbolic ticket into the (at this point still cooperative) victorious anti-Nazi coalition. This tendency was also confirmed by the Slovak National Council, which, as an official representative body of the newly liberated Czechoslovakia on the Slovak territory, decided in its very first meeting on the 19th of May 1945 that selected cities, villages, military formations and various institutions would be named after the Uprising heroes.

In order to punish the Fascists and collaborators, a relative consensus prevailed in the contemporary political discourse perceiving the events within the context of a “good” and “evil” dichotomy. The official discourse stressed the ideas of “resistant people” and a “Slavic solidarity” going up against “Fascist oppression”. The Uprising was supposed to legitimize intentions that included the “punishment of Germans, Hungarians and collaborators”, the “imminent uprooting of last remnants of Fascism”, a “new division of the means of production (land reform and nationalization – author note) and a reform in the area of culture and education”, etc. The first anniversary took the form of a massive manifestation of unity and cooperation with the great aim of rebuilding the war-torn landscape and recreating the society in the spirit of social and national unanimity.

Historian Ľubomír Lipták points out that after the war, resident populations spontaneously began to mount local memorial plaques commemorating the atrocities of 1944. Simple crosses, stone cairns as well as massive pylons built by former brothers in arms, families, and engaged citizens appeared directly on sites marking bitter struggles, tragedies and the last resting places of the fallen soldiers. This “bottom-up” initiative, inspired by common bonds and experience, was carried out in the spirit of a traditional reverence for the fallen. 1

In the name of progress

Already in the first years after the war it became obvious that the message behind the Uprising would turn into a subject of ruthless disagreements, as former comrades stood in opposite corners of the political arena. The advent of the dictatorship of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) sliced this Gordian knot for several decades to come. The celebrations and commemoration were predominantly held in the spirit of the mantras of Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship, the heroic fight of the Communists and with relentless accentuation of economic achievements and commitments to build a “new society”. The official interpretation was subject to party control and the differing experiences and perceptions of individuals were gradually draped by centrally arranged celebratory rituals and ideological formulas.

The historical event was primarily portrayed as a “Communist Uprising”. The significance of non-communist resistance was slowly but surely toned down and its representatives became criminalized and physically liquidated, as was the case of the insurgent commander Viliam Žingor, who was executed in 1950 after a sham trial. Similar fates even met high-ranking Communist chieftains, such as the key representative of the insurgent Slovak National Council Laco Novomeský, or later the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the KSČ and Czechoslovak president Gustáv Husák. Both were sentenced among the others in 1954 to long terms of imprisonment, for an “incorrect” policy of the Communist Party of Slovakia during the Uprising.

Declarations of a positive relationship with the Soviet Union remained a key element of the memorial festivities until 1989. After 1948, even the visual aspects of the commemorative culture began to change, as the monuments and plaques became increasingly adorned by communist symbols, like stars, hammers and sickles. Interventions of state administration also became increasingly visible in the construction of new memorials, which, instead of remaining primarily in the “spots of the acts”, were moved to important public sites, elevated locations, and into the main squares and centers of cities and villages.

Interpretations of the Uprising were also influenced by political rehabilitations of the persecuted Communists and the thaw of communist grip in the years before 1968. For example, Gustáv Husák who was released from prison in 1960 and rehabilitated a couple of years after regularly took part in debates on SNP, and in 1964 published his memoires. While historians, like Jozef Jablonický, 2 began to explore the topic of non-communist resistance. Thus in this period, the narratives of a non-communist resistance even made it back into the celebratory tribunes, as the Uprising stories became more diverse and populated.

However, as a consequence of the Soviet occupation of 1968 and the massive purges that followed, this process came to an abrupt end. Many of its protagonists fell out of favor and were forced to exit public life. This was also the case with the historian Jablonický and his Czech colleague Vilém Prečan. Husák’s book Testimony of the Slovak National Uprising became the official canon, which was successfully spread around via an expensive film production resulting in an eight-episode television series named The Uprising History. Despite its historic inaccuracy, Slovak public TV has regularly broadcasted the series into the present day.

Uprising in the democratic tradition after 1989

After 1989, Slovaks continued to officially celebrate the SNP as an extraordinary event. Similarly to the past, important domestic and foreign elites were invited to attend the commemorations, which were thoroughly covered by the mass media. Nevertheless, a new space for research was opened, and a new wave of publications followed. The Communist movement and Soviet aid ceased to dominate the story, and even some “new”, pan-European topics such as the holocaust emerged as an important part of the debate.

At the same time, several explicitly critical standpoints based on the “ľudák” tradition entered the Uprising discussion, which portrayed the SNP as an “anti-Slovak coup d’état”. Perhaps the most significant act of such contribution was a 1993 conference followed by an eponymous publication titled Dies Ater – The Misfortunate Day, 29th August 1944. In the post-1989 period, the story of the Uprising once again becomes more populated and complex as the various military and civil resistance groups reenter the scene, yet simultaneously, the focus shifts to the serious transgressions of Partisans, such as robberies and civilian homicide. Thus the reintroduction of a plurality of opinions has not only resulted in a “repopulation”, but also in the return of ambivalent appraisals, which juxtapose narratives of “national salvation” against narratives of “tragedy”.

The Uprising appears to have a very strong tradition and some studies show that as many as 80% of respondents identify with its interpretation as a positive moment, and view it as one of the most renowned chapters in our history. However, Elena Mannová has recently pointed to an interesting phenomenon: sociological queries after 1989 show that part of the respondents sympathizing with the Uprising simultaneously support the Tiso regime. 3 A similar tendency is also reflected in the current Slovak historiography and the gradual creation of a “new” story of the given period. A story, which, as was the case with previous ones, is conditioned by present-day alternatives, and the needs and ideas of its authors and audience.

The aforementioned website designed to commemorate the 70th anniversary is another example of new attempts to reopen the discussion, which repeat claims that, to a great extent, are already known, and thus again resort to manipulated historical schemes which do not contribute much to a new debate. Revisionist historians grouped around “Matica slovenská“ (state-sponsored organization aiming to promote Slovak culture and patriotism – ed. note) argue in a similar manner. This trend, however, goes hand in hand with the development of the so-called new nationalism, which strongly resonates in Central Europe with the aim to move away from values that are associated with liberal democracy and the EU. And it is precisely this aspect that gives the current debate on the Uprising in 1944 its magical attraction.


The article is based on research which the author published in co-authorship with Michal Kšiňan. See Michela, Miroslav – Kšiňan, Michal. Slovenské národné povstanie (Slovak National Uprising). pp. 8–35. In Kšiňan, Michal et al. Komunisti a povstania: ritualizácia pripomínania si protifašistických povstaní v strednej Európe (1945–1960). (Communists and Uprisings. Ritualisation of Remembrance of the Anti-Nazi Uprisings in Central Europe (1945-1960): Krakow : Spolok Slovákov v Poľsku -Towarzystwo Slowaków w Polsce, 2012.

See also: Člověk ve válce a válka v člověku. Projekt „Dějiny sousedů – Visegrádské země ve vzájemných pohledech a perspektivách“ byl podpořen z prostředků International Visegrad Fund (no. 31210032). (_A people at war, a war in people. The project „The history of the neighbors – Visegrad countries in mutual views and perspectives“ was supported by International Visegrad Fund (no. 31210032).

Notes:

  1.  Ľubomír Lipták, Pamätníky a pamäť povstania roku 1944 na Slovensku (Memorials and the Memory of the Slovak Uprising of 1944), Historický časopis (Historical Revue) 1995 – 43, p. 364.
  2.  Jablonický, Jozef. Povstanie bez legiend (The Uprising without Legends). Bratislava, 1990.
    Jablonický, Jozef. Glosy o historiografii SNP: zneužívanie a falšovanie dejín SNP (Comments on the Historiography of SNP: Abuse and Falsification of the History of SNP). Bratislava: NVK International, 1994.
  3.  Mannová, Elena. Slovenské národné povstanie a politická pamať (Slovak National Uprising and Political Memory), pp. 215 – 230, in: Ivaničková, Edita (ed.). Z dejín demokratických a totalitných režimov na Slovensku a v Československu v 20. storočí (From the History of Democratic and Totalitarian Regimes in Slovakia and Czechoslovakia in the 20th Century), Bratislava: HÚ SAV, Prodama, 2008.
Miroslav Michela

Miroslav Michela

is currently working as an assistant professor at the Institute of Czech History, Faculty of Arts Charles University and researcher at the Institute of Historical Sciences, Slovak Academy of Sciences. He is a co-founder of online journal: www.forumhistoriae.sk. His fields of interest are: History of Slovakia and Central Europe in 20th century, foreign relations, propaganda, nationalism, politics of memory.