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)

Review of James Mace Ward, Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014). Xii + 362 Pp., ISBN 9780801419888.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

Jozef Tiso was the only Catholic priest ever to become the head of a modern European state, namely the short-lived and ill-fated Republic of Slovakia during the turbulent and violently destructive years of the Second World War. Installed as President in 1939, he served until the final months of the war, when he was forced to flee to Germany and take refuge in a Benedictine monastery. Taken prisoner by American occupation troops, he was extradited back to Czechoslovakia, placed on trial as a war criminal, sentenced to death, and executed in April 1947. Branded as a fascist collaborator by his political enemies, he was mourned by faithful Catholics as a martyr to his faith. Fifty years later, when Slovakia regained its status as an independent country, the arguments about Tiso and his legacy still continued. We can therefore be grateful to James Ward for the first comprehensive treatment in English of this controversial figure, which most capably examines the rival views for and against this priest-politician and his convoluted policies in which religion and nationalism overlapped and often collided.

ward-priestWhen Tiso was born in 1887, Slovakia was an outlying rural part of the Hungarian kingdom, an enclave of conservative Catholicism staunchly resisting the approach of modernity, particularly in the commercial field. His education and spiritual formation as a young priest were in the highly reactionary tradition espoused by Pope Pius X. But at the same time, he welcomed the emphasis on social action, and the need for Catholics to promote a vibrant corporate life, along with engagement in corporate Catholic politics. He became the editor of a local Slovak newspaper, stressing the Catholic values of solidarity and modesty and attacking both the free-thinking Socialists and the rapacious capitalists, especially the Jews.

The downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and the revolutionary events which followed only increased Tiso’s involvement in the political affairs of his community. He especially deplored the Communist revolution in Hungary, led by Bela Kun, a Jew, which only encouraged Tiso to throw his support behind the newly created nation of Czechoslovakia, and particularly to give allegiance to the Slovak People’s Party, led by another priest, Hlinka. As Ward puts it, Tiso was reborn as a nationalist, recast as a politician and redirected onto a Czechoslovak path. But in this new nation, Catholic Slovaks found themselves as a backward minority. The Czechs were more numerous, better educated and more progressive. During the 1920s Tiso’s role was therefore one of promoting Catholic and Slovak autonomy, and resisting any lessening of Catholic influence, especially in the schools where progressives argued forcibly in favor of secularization. As the champion of a religious minority in a highly fractured multinational state, Tiso found plenty of scope for his political activism.

In the 1930s Europe was overwhelmed by political extremism, revolutionary violence and totalitarian regimes. Czechoslovakia was threatened by its rapacious neighbors, Germany, Hungary and Poland, each seeking to claim parts of its territory. When Hitler launched his campaign to regain the Sudetenland in 1938, the resulting turmoil led to a large-scale international crisis, which led in turn within a few months to the dissolution of the Czechoslovak state. This presented the opportunity for Tiso and his allies in Slovakia to advance their claim to independent sovereignty, and Tiso promoted himself first as prime minister and then as president, despite the well-publicized remonstrance of Pope Pius XII, who objected to any priest holding such a partisan political position. Tiso ignored the Vatican, and instead rallied his followers around the new opportunities now available to Slovakians.

In fact, his options were few. German predominance in central Europe was made clear when he was summoned to Berlin in March 1939. In Ward’s view these meetings were the most decisive in his life. Hitler proved to be cordial, and offered his help in advancing Slovakian nationalism under German auspices. He accepted this offer of protection even without the approval of his own legislature or executive, as the best way of heading off the Hungarian or Polish claims on Slovakian territory. But the price was to be paid later when Slovakia was drawn into the German attack on Poland, and later on the Soviet Union. This agreement also strengthened Tiso’s hand against the intrigues and rivalries of his compatriots, some of whom were more radical in pursuit of a system patterned on the Nazi example. But Tiso, as a priest, was also aware that his dream of a Catholic corporate life was threatened by the Nazis’ clear antipathy to the church in Germany. He was therefore obliged to adopt a balancing and flexible course, which enabled him to dissemble about his ultimate intentions. While voicing public admiration for Hitler’s leadership, privately he expressed misgivings. His public image as a priest hid his capacity for outflanking his opponents but earned him the respect of his compatriots. In the view of one of the German envoys, Tiso was “without doubt the craftiest, most powerful and most level-headed politician in Slovakia”. But a more critical view was taken by the newly-appointed papal Apostolic Delegate, Giuseppe Burzio, who reported to his superiors in the Vatican: “The question is how long Tiso’s political convictions and especially his conscience as a priest let him march hand in hand with his National Socialist masters”.

One aspect of his policy which was to arouse much controversy concerned his treatment of the Jewish minority. In Ward’s view, Tiso was not motivated by religious prejudice or racial paranoia, but by more pragmatic grounds. He sought to recapture the wealth which he believed Jews had extracted from the Slovak people, and was prepared to grant exemptions for those Jews considered indispensable such as doctors. In early 1941 Tiso supported measures to “Aryanize” businesses when thousands of Jewish firms were transferred to “Christian hands”. There were then squabbles over the spoils, even corruption in the bureaucracy. These steps escalated in March 1942 when the Slovaks signed an agreement with the Nazi authorities to deport young Jews to work in labour camps in German-occupied Poland. In April the first transports took several thousand Jews out of Slovakia. There is no evidence that Tiso objected to the patently cruel enforcement measures. On the other hand, protests were aroused by numerous Slovak dignitaries, including the bishops, and above all the Vatican. The Slovak representative there was summoned by the Cardinal Secretary of State himself and Slovak’s inhuman policies were soundly berated. From Bratislava the Apostolic Delegate reported that “the proposed deportation of 80,000 Jews would condemn the great majority to certain death”. But these representations were not enough to overcome Tiso’s prevarications or the radical measures implemented by his subordinates. The Vatican’s impotence aroused not merely feelings of frustration but of betrayal. As one of the senior Vatican officials commented in July 1942: “It is a great misfortune that the President of Slovakia is a priest. Everyone knows that the Holy See cannot bring Hitler to heel. But who would understand that we cannot even control a priest”. Nevertheless these cumulative protests from the Catholic bishops denouncing the inhuman deportation measures did have an effect. From mid-1942 until August 1944 deportations ceased.

By the end of 1943 it was clear that Germany was not going to win the war. Tiso tried to save his Slovak state in the face of the impending German defeat, but his record of collaboration doomed both his government and his attempt to build a Catholic political entity. The war was increasingly unpopular and Tiso’s prestige sank rapidly. In 1944 Slovakian insurgents tried to overthrow his regime, but this led to an immediate escalation of the German military presence, and the eventual suppression of the revolt. But the advance of the Red Army from the east proved unstoppable. In March 1945 Tiso’s government collapsed, and he was forced to seek refuge in a monastery in Germany. But his plea for asylum in the Vatican was refused. And in July he arrested by American occupation troops and extradited back to Slovakia in shackles. His subsequent trial as a war criminal before a court staffed by Communist or pro-Czech advocates was an opportunity to denounce him and his policies. The verdict was never in doubt. He was able to make a last appeal to his Slovak nation before he was taken to the gallows in April 1947. But with his execution, Tiso became a symbol of war-time complicity or alternatively a Slovak martyr.

Ward devotes his final chapter to describing the historiographical and political battles over Tiso’s legacy. Condemned as a clerical fascist collaborator by Czechoslovakia’s new rulers, it was left up to émigrés to celebrate him as a staunch Catholic and anti-Communist. It was only in the 1990s that a few historians in the now independent Slovakia began to seek a more balanced verdict. The first Slovakian biographer described him as a talented advocate for Slovak autonomy but found his participation in the Holocaust inexcusable. Subsequent evaluations were equally ambivalent. But with Slovakia’s admission to the European Union, and with the advocacy of Pope John Paul II, the arguments for a renewed commitment to Catholic or Christian values in Europe’s constitution echoed many of Tiso’s concerns. The battle for the soul of Europe still continues. But for many observers in the post-communist era, the Slovak hierarchy’s defense of Tiso compromised the church and dissipated the moral capital built up by years of Communist persecution. In Ward’s opinion, Tiso’s personality was constantly caught up in contradictions. His attempt to combine his loyalties to his church and his nation tore him apart but were part of his heritage from the era of the Hapsburgs. He was, in Ward’s view, a “Christian National Socialist” in whom three theologies struggled for supremacy. The first was a traditional Catholic belief in which God sets the agenda, and in which priests function as moral experts. The second was a more nationalist understanding of social values, while the third is the more current evaluation of individual human rights which sees the Holocaust as the epitome of evil and excoriates any priest or politician who collaborated in such disasters. Tiso will likely remain a figure of controversy so long as the future of central Europe and its values continue to be unresolved. But we can be grateful to J. M. Ward for his penetrating analysis and detailed exploration of his mainly Slovakian sources.