Monday, April 29, 2013

Amazon Book Review

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Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia
Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia
by James Mace Ward
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $32.15
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5.0 out of 5 stars Proving, again, that good intentions pave the road to HellApril 29, 2013
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Czechoslovakia and Jozeph Tiso are the Rosencranz and Guildenstern of World War II. They are trotted on and off stage to make some plot point, but then whatever happens to them, happens to them off-stage. James Mace Ward's Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia remedies this imbalance by placing Tiso and the pre-World War I history of central Europe on center stage.

Prior to reading this book, the only thing I knew about Tiso was that he was a Catholic priest and that he had collaborated with the Nazis by deporting Jews to Germany. He was therefore a stock villain, the prototypical fascist. The truth is much richer, more educational and far more nuanced than the stock phrases make out.

Tiso was born in the kingdom of Hungary, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As such, he was part of the "Magyarization" of the Slavic Slovak population, by which the ascendent Hungarians, aka Magyars, were attempting to reduce the diversity of their share of the empire. Tiso seems to have gotten along fine with this project - being thoroughly Magyarized - until the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, at which point the possibility of an independent Slovakia presented itself. Tiso joined that program and never looked back, albeit to protect himself and Slovakia from Hungarian irrenditism, he had to place Slovakia under the protection of the numerically and economically more powerful Czeks.

Tiso himself was a priest and pastor. Throughout his life, he attended to his pastoral duties of saying mass and hearing confession. He also seems to have been a stock type in the fascist playbook - an opportunist - long before fascism ever existed. Thus, he seems to have zig-zagged between certain positions depending on political need. For example, Tiso was not known as an anti-Semite, until immediately after World War I, when he played the anti-Semitic card against those who opposed his political party, the Ludaks, then when he became an establishment politician, and received push-back for having traded in hateful anti-Semitic stereotypes, Tiso dropped the antisemitism for a long period of time, until, again, it was useful as a Nazi collaborator.

According to Ward, Tiso had two fundamental "good intentions" that colored his politics. First, he wanted to provide social welfare to all Slovaks. Second, he wanted to protect Slovak identity from foreigners, particularly the Slovak Catholic identity. Although these were partial "goods," as Tiso who was a Thomist should have recognized, they were partial "goods" that would lead Tiso into making compromises that eventually led him into a position where he materially, if not formally, another Thomistic distinction, had abandoned his principles.

The personality of Tiso remains unclear to me, even after reading the book. Ward does an excellent job of preventing the facts and not intermixing his opinions into the facts, but people are complicated. Tiso was motivated by his desire - his feeling of an obligation to do the good contained in his two principles - but he also seems to have been an ambitious and vain man. His politics thwarted his desires to rise in the Catholic Church, and therefore led him to focus on politics. His involvement in politics was problematic with his religious commitments, particularly after he assumed leadership of the Slovak Republic. Tiso held himself out to be a devout and obedient Catholic, but he disobeyed both his own bishop and the Pope (and appears to have lost his monsigneurship because of his disobedience.) Pius XII advised Tiso to resign as head of state, castigated Tiso for the injustices committed during his rule, and refused to lift a finger to help Tiso when he was captured after the war. Interestingly, one reason for concern that arose when Tiso assumed the position of head of state was that he - a priest - would be collecting loyalty oaths from his ecclesiastical superiors, the bishops.

Ward's examination of Tiso also sheds a light on the snake-pit of international relations during the inter-war period. I'm sure that I wasn't alone in being puzzled at how easily Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1991. The fact is that relationships were never good between the Central European Slav populations. Slovakia went from forced Magyarization policies to forced "Czechisation" policies in the new republic. The Czechs outnumbered the Slovaks two to one and had the same incentives to bring diverse populations into conformity as had the Hungarians. Further, the Czechs were secularists and their anti-clerical impulses did not make a good mix with the heavily Catholic Slovak population.

Then there was the issue of "bubble populations" and irredentism. Large portions of Slovak territory had sizable Hungarian and Polish populations, and those governments wanted those territories with those populations under their control. Likewise, The Czechs had set themselves up in their area as a kind of "master race" over the Sudeten German populations in the same way that the Austrians had been the "master race" over the Czechs in the old empire. I was surprised to find that the Sudeten Germans comprised as much as 20% of the Czech region, and didn't have political input commensurate with their numbers. I have never understood the "justice demands" that were felt by Chamberlain and others as supporting the Munich Accord, but this book gave me a sense of what the people at the time were thinking, as opposed to what we now know they should have been thinking.

The result was that as the Germans under Hitler were biting off bits of Czech territory, Hungary and Poland were biting off bits of Slovak territory.

Tiso's final rise to power happened because of the opportunity provided by Hitler's desire to destabilize the Czechs. Tiso went back and forth between possible protectors before deciding that the Germans looked like the winner. Tiso then declared Slovak independence and was appointed head of state, in a series of political moves that are complicated and bear examination.

However, after making Germany the protector of the Slovak Republic, Tiso learned that he had made a deal with the devil. He was pressured into declaring war on another Catholic Slav state, i.e., Poland, he was forced to send Slovaks to Germany as virtual slave labor, he was forced to deport the 40,000 or so Jews in Slovakia, and, finally, after attempting to save some Jews from deportation, he was forced to send the remaining Jews to Germany. Ironically, a fair percentage of the "Jewish" population who were deported to Germany were actually Catholics whose parents or grand-parents had converted.

Tiso was captured after the war, tried and executed. Slovaks and others still argue about the legacy of Tiso. Ward points out the anomalous fact that Tiso never had anyone executed and he was never protected by a corp of bodyguard, but seemed to have been loved by his fellow Slovaks for his attention to them.

Nonetheless, one hopes that there came a moment when the Catholic priest Jozeph Tiso realized that the fact that he, a Catholic priest was deporting Catholics to their death at the hands of a regime condemned by the Catholic Church, was a sure sign that he had made a wrong turn somewhere in his quest to bring his good intentions to reality.

This is a well-written book. It was written as a dissertation. I liked the way that Ward summarizes the points of his chapter. I think that it did fill in a big hole in my knowledge about Catholicism and fascism as well as the history of Central Europe. I recommend it, albeit with the caveat that perhaps it will be more appreciated by readers who have a more general knowledge of the general subject area.

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