Assessing Jozef Tiso's Politics

Josef Tiso (1887-1947) was one of the most controversial personalities of Slovak public life in the 20th century. He was a Catholic priest and representative of the Slovak People’s Party, subsequently, he became the head of state of the first Slovak Republic. The Holocaust in Slovakia was carried out while he was in power and he was executed after the war for war crimes. Slovak society and researchers are still divided in evaluating his politics. That is why the recent work of Andrzej Krawczyk, a Polish historian, and diplomat, on Tiso’s life and on his Slovakia is a relevant achievement.  Attila Baki reviewed the book based on the Czech translation that was published in 2019.  

Andrzej Krawczyk’s work is not a biography but it discusses Jozef Tiso’s controversial life. It was first published in Polish in 2015 and the Czech translation appeared in 2019.

Around the time of the systemic change, and after he had graduated from the University of Warsaw as a historian, Andrzej Krawczyk joined the Polish diplomatic mission. He spent years representing his country in Prague and Bratislava. In the meantime, he conducted research in 20th century Czech and Slovak history, including Jozef Tiso’s life. The book targeted the Polish audience, however, having read the Czech translation we can confidently say that it will be of value for Czech and Slovak readers and historians.

Krawczyk’s book consists of nine chapters that discuss chronologically and thematically different issues. He begins his narrative in 1887, Tiso’s birthdate, and the narrative stops in the recent past. There is a set of illustrations, chronology, index and bibliography attached to the text. These are not excessive and do not overwhelm the reader.

Krawczyk starts the book by discussing methodological issues that arise when researching the era and mentions that there is a lack of systematic research into the institutions and social history of the Slovak state.

The first chapter is called „The birth of a Slovak patriot” and it looks through Tiso’s childhood and the years until the first Czechoslovak Republic. These are the years when the protagonist becomes conscious. We see an eminent student who is encouraged to become a priest. The student of the High School of Zsolna (Zilina) believes to have encountered Jewish as a „phenomenon”, meaning their relatively high number among students. We also see the contemporary Nitra (Nyitra) where the presence of Hungarians is part of the ordinary experience. At the end of the period, which is also the beginning of a new rule, he appears in the company of Andrej Hlinka, the founder of the Slovak People’s Party. This was his first political experience. The cohabitation of Slovaks and Czechs was politically loaded from the first moment. Their differences ran through the first twenty years of the republic. It was this Czechoslovakia where Tiso became a mature politician, although he did not succeed in his first candidacy for a seat in the parliament. He became a representative in 1925, and between 1927 until 1929 he worked as a minister. Tiso took an active part in bringing the Slovak People’s party into the government. It was a surprising move considering that the party included the demand for autonomy in its platform. He did not always understand politics and the possibilities and operations in it similar to his fellow party members. If the situation so demanded, he adjusted or sought compromise. Some of the more radical representatives, such as Edvard Beneš, did not like his behavior. However, by that time we were in the mid-1930s when Hitler’s moves and will had an impact on the space available for politicians in Central Europe. The end of the first Czechoslovak Republic signified a new era in Tiso’s political career.

50 korona coin of the wartime Slovak State. The slogan says: Trusting ourselves - going ahead in agreement

Chapter four begins with 1939. That was the time when political formations came and went to Europe. In the next four chapters (Birth of the Slovak Republic, War against Poland, The short history of the Slovak statehood and Slovaks at the Eastern Theatre – The Slovak National Uprising) the author takes readers to the Slovak Republic that came to existence out of Hitler’s will. From October 1939 Jozef Tiso held the most important public office of Slovakia as he was the president. By that time the war had started, and the army of the Slovak state took an active role in it from the first moment. By taking part in the invasion against Poland on the side of Germans, Slovakia entered world history as a Nazi ally. However, this move was not a popular one with the Slovak population and undermined Tiso’s popularity. The author presents life in the Slovak state in a separate chapter. He shows how initial positive attitude gradually waned and vanished as the frontline approached, Tiso’s vision about a „new Slovakia” never materialized.

The longest chapter in Krawczyk’s book deals with the Holocaust in Slovakia. This is the most vehemently debated period and aspect of Tiso’s deeds as president of the republic.

The chapter begins with an overview of the life of Jews in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia. This part includes interesting facts such as that Krav Maga self-defense technique was invented in Bratislava.

Between 1939 and 1941 the main goal of anti-Jewish policies was the appropriation of property.  This was a conscious policy that aimed at creating a Slovak middle class. In Tiso’s vision, this would not have been possible without removing people of Jewish origins from key positions. Besides regulation, there were two important events. The first of these was the meeting of German leaders and Tiso in the Summer of 1940. The Germans made it obvious that they were unhappy with the relatively „moderate” anti-Jewish policy. In fact, it was possible to distinguish between the circle of moderates led by Tiso and the group of radicals around prime minister Vojtech Tuka and Alexander Mach, the leader of the paramilitary units of the Slovak People’s Party, the Hlinka Guards.  The second event was the decree of 9 September 1941 called „Codex Jewish” which was a complex set of „legal” measures against the Jews, which was extreme even in contemporary Europe.  In October 1941, official talks between Slovak and German leaders about the deportation of Jews began (during the meeting at the infamous Rastenburg – today: Kętrzyn. Horthy also paid a visit some weeks earlier.) Deportations actually began in late March 1942. The 57 trains carried 58 000 persons to extermination camps.  A number of persons with Jewish origins had an exemption letter from the president. The exact number of these persons is a matter of fierce debate. As Krawczyk makes it clear, the reason for this is that those that wish to rehabilitate Tiso refer to these exemptions as their main argument. Why were deportations from Slovakia discontinued in 1942? The author presents the four arguments that have been advanced. It is certain, however, that in September 1944 thousands of more people were deported.

In the final chapter (Chapter 9 Tiso, the priest, and history), Krawczyk talks of Tiso’s trial and in a short subchapter, about the changes of Tiso’s image in the decades after his execution. In Czechoslovakia, Tiso stood for everything that was old and bad. On the other hand, for those in emigration had a positive image of him.

Krawczyk writes well and manages to address the literature, too. As he himself writes, he makes an attempt to map out Jozef Tiso’s life and public activities in an objective manner.