- Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia by James Mace Ward
For a Catholic historian, a consideration of the career of Father Jozef Tiso poses an exceptional challenge. Able, intelligent, devoted to his clerical duties (he continued to minister to his parishioners even after his appointment as president and “leader” of the wartime Slovak state), Tiso is one of the rare cases of a serving priest who became the leader of his country. He should, therefore, have been an exemplary figure in the Church’s struggle to respond to the rise of socialism, atheism, unfettered capitalism, and the secularization of modern society by a re-engagement with society. As the author of this superb biography makes clear, however, Tiso perverted this struggle with his chauvinistic nationalism, his own (dubious) interpretations of Catholic theology, and the relentless pursuit of political power. He established a quasi-totalitarian regime with fascist characteristics, collaborated with Nazi Germany, expelled the bulk of Slovak Jewry to its slaughter, and brought lasting shame on the Church and Slovak Catholic nationalism.
Some Slovak Catholic historians have always found this verdict impossible to accept. Émigré Slovak historians lauded Tiso as a hero who had finally fulfilled the Slovak people’s desire for an independent state, had guarded this independence against the expansionist goals of Nazi Germany, had resisted efforts by his radical fascist rivals to seize power, and was always guided by his commitment to Christian morality and Catholic social teaching. After the fall of communism, a new wave of historians in Slovakia took up the struggle for Tiso’s rehabilitation, albeit with limited success. This biography, the product of exhaustive research and an extensive familiarity with existing scholarship, should put an end to such revisionist efforts.
Tiso, an ethnic Slovak who was raised, educated, and entered the priesthood in the hypernationalist atmosphere of late-Habsburg Hungary, initially showed little fervor for the cause of Slovak nationalism. Instead, his mind-set was molded by the rigorous education he encountered in the seminaries he attended, including [End Page 172] the elite Pazmaneum in Vienna. Indeed, this biography offers the finest account available in English of the experience of young seminarians in Hungary at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the Pazmaneum, Tiso developed a lifelong attachment to the neo-Thomist/neo-Scholastic school of Catholic philosophy that manifested itself in the political arena with the emergence of “Christian Social” parties inspired by the call for a new spirit of Catholic “activism” that emanated from the encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.
In 1918, however, as the Habsburg Monarchy disintegrated following its defeat in World War I, Tiso eagerly participated in the Slovak nationalists’ campaign to break away from Hungary and join a new Czechoslovak state. He joined the Slovak People’s Party, which sought to defend Slovakia’s Catholic heritage against the centralizing and secularizing tendencies of the new Czechoslovak government; giving full vent to a ferocious display of antisemitism and then downplaying his hostility to the Jews when politically expedient, Tiso rose through the ranks of his party, displaying an absolute loyalty to the party leader, his fellow priest Andrej Hlinka; exhibiting a natural flair for organization and propaganda, and cultivating a reputation as a moderate—he was even briefly appointed government minister for health from 1927 to 1929. Following Hlinka’s death in 1938, Tiso assumed the leadership of the party and proceeded to exploit deftly the Munich crisis, which handed over the Czechoslovak Sudetenland, to obtain substantial autonomy for Slovakia, which he immediately exploited to establish a one-party state. When he was informed in March 1939 that Germany was determined to invade the rump Czechoslovak state, he proclaimed Slovakia’s independence, legitimizing Hitler’s invasion.
The price paid for that independence was considerable. The German army was granted freedom of movement in western Slovakia; German businesses took control of an increasing share of the Slovak economy; and German advisers became an influential...