In the last days of August 1944, Slovakia, a peaceful island in war-ravaged Europe, suddenly became a theatre of war. There occurred an armed rebellion against the Slovak Republic sponsored by Czech-leaning politicians, ambitious army officers and communists. On the pages of the world press the incident passed almost unnoticed; if it appeared it was completely lost alongside such events as the gallant stand of the Poles in the Warsaw rising (August-September), the Allied landing on the south coast of France (August 15), the fall of Paris (August 23), the capitulation of Rumania (August 23), the Finnish withdrawal from the war (September 2), the Soviet declaration of war on Bulgaria (September 5), etc. While on a world scale the Slovak uprising was an insignificant development (e. g. there is no reference to it in the 'Chronology of the Second World War' published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs), on the Slovak scale it was an undertaking of vast dimensions. It started spectacularly; in the first days it spread over more than a half of Slovak territory and, by the time it was liquidated with the help of the German troops at the end of October 1944, it had cost Slovakia some 40,000 dead, immense material losses and irreparable losses in terms of human suffering. It failed largely because of its untimely start, confused leadership and lack of popular appeal.
There are many puzzling features concerning this affair which to an outside observer must be without parallel in history: Here is a nation which takes up arms to fight against its own state, to sink its political individuality into a synthetic agglomerate state, to renounce its national birthright for a second-rate citizenship. However, beyond these absurd appearances lie more fundamental reasons which, if not more logical, are at least more plausible.
The emergence of independent Slovakia in March 1939 was an epoch-making event in the life of the Slovak nation. It was enthusiastically greeted by Slovaks of all political shades and there was definitely no active opposition either by the Communists or the pro-Czech elements. Unfortunately, but inevitably, the state was born with German assistance. It asked for, and was promptly granted, German protection and was only six months old when World War II broke out. Yet in this short space of time (March-September 1939) it secured recognition not only from its neighbours (Germany, Poland, Hungary) but also from the neutrals (Switzerland, Sweden, the Vatican) from and England, Italy and the Soviet Union.
The war and Slovakia's inescapable geography put the state into the Axis camp. With the approaching defeat of Germany its existence was placed in jeopardy. Dr. E. Beneš, the self-exiled president of pre-Munich Czechoslovakia, had no difficulty in convincing the Western Allies and the Soviet Union that the Slovak problem was an internal problem of post-war Czecho-Slovakia which would be best solved by the restoration of the status quo ante 1938.
This development led to a profound soul-searching among those politicians of pro-Czech orientation who in 1939 – expecting that the new state would outlast at least their life span – renounced and denounced their previous centralist past. When in 1943 they belatedly discovered that their appraisal of the situation was wrong, they cast their remorseful eyes towards Dr. Beneš. But they were somehow afraid to approach him empty-handed and decided to undo their former betrayal of pro-Czech sentiment by a new treason towards their own state. Dr. Beneš then conceived the idea of a Slovak uprising in his name and for the restoration of the Czecho-Slovak Republik in its pre-Munich form. In December 1943 – against a strong British advice – he signed a state treaty of mutual assistance and post-war cooperation with the Soviet Union. Within a fortnight the Slovak liberal-agrarian politicians concluded an agreement with the Slovak Communist underground. In this fateful alliance – called the Christmas Agreement – they vowed to take over the political, legislative, military and administrative power in Slovakia „at the first suitable opportunity“ and to restore Czecho-Slovakia as a common state of the Slovaks and Czechs.
For the Communists this step was a radical departure from their earlier political program. When in the spring of 1939 the Komintern approved an independent Communist Party of Slovakia, the party vehemently and persistently advocated a free and independent Soviet Slovakia. In a similar vein the Czech Communist leadership in Moscow in March 1940 informed the Czech Communist underground: „We are fighting for complete sovereignty of the present Slovak state . . . The old conceptions concerning Slovakia are being abandoned. The Slovak state is a given basis in the struggle for the full freedom of the Slovaks.“ This attitude was changed in the summer of 1941 when the Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Union. Then the Soviet Union recognized Beneš as the president of Czecho-Slovakia and the Slovak Communists were ordered to twist their political line accordingly. With some reluctance they obeyed, since „theirs was not to reason why ....“
The Communist and liberal-agrarian conspirators found helpful allies among the army generals and officers, some of whom were of Czech origin and most of whom were trained in the old Czech schools and in the robust Czechoslovakism. It must also be said that the war against Russia was unpopular even while the Germans were winning. After the Stalingrad debacle its unpopularity among the people and soldiers only increased.
In April 1944 Dr. Beneš sent to Slovakia his special emissary, Cpt. J. Krátký. The plans of the military uprising soon took a concrete form. It was decided to open the Carpathian passes to the advancing Red army. The key role in this operation was assigned to two Slovak divisions (about 25,000 men) in Eastern Slovakia under Gen. A. Malár. Other military personalities involved in the preparation of this plan were: the Minister of National Defense Gen. F. Čatloš, the Chief of the General Staff Col. J. Golián, Col. Talský and a host of colonels, majors, captains, etc. It was said about them that „they were oppressed by the burden of their Iron Crosses, Knight Crosses and other German medals, impressed by the performance of the Allied and Red armies and depressed by the grim outlook concerning their future employment.“
The plan was well designed, but it took too much for granted. The Russians to whom the plan was submitted by two special envoys early in August 1944 did not like the idea of an uprising which was burgeois-conceived and sponsored, and refused to commit themselves to any coordinated action. Instead, in July and August 1944 they dropped over Central Slovakia several groups of trained partisans. These found Slovakia a fertile soil for subversive activity. The Slovak government was afraid to publicize their presence by a bold, energetic and large scale action. The small army units and police patrols – geared by their officers for a general uprising – when sent to fight the partisans were ineffective and in many cases even joined them. Late in August there were some 3,000 partisans (according to the Communist count 8,000) roaming the mountainous terrain of Central Slovakia. Their terror was aimed primarily against the Germans. But since there were no German troops in Slovakia, they looted and terrorized the indigenous German population (the so-called Volksdeutsche). On August 28 the partisans and the soldiers of the Turčiansky Svätý Martin garrison stopped the international express and massacred the German military mission on its way from Budapest to Cracow. On August 29 Gen. Čatloš announced over the radio that the Slovak Government had called the German army to restore law and order.
This call on German military assistance, triggered off by the provocations of the Soviet partisans, was later declared to be the beginning of „the glorious Slovak national uprising“. On August 30 Col. J. Golián indeed issued an order for a general rising, but it was obvious that the day was neither of his choosing nor to his liking. The untimely start caught the military leaders off-guard. One of them, Gen. Malár, spoke over the Slovak radio and denounced the action as suicidal and premature. As a result the two well-equipped divisions in the East did not join the uprising and were disarmed by the Germans early in September. Likewise the military garrisons in West Slovakia were willing to listen to Čatloš or Malár but not to Golián and thus in this crucial moment they did not join in. (The following West Slovak garrisons refused to join in : Nitra, Bratislava, Sereď, Trenčín, Hlohovec, Nové Mesto nad Váhom). The men of the Trnava garrison and some of those of Piešťany obeyed Golián's call, but they did not fight as expected of them. Instead they rapidly retreated towards the centre of the uprising.
The uprising spread only over those districts of Central Slovakia which were infested by the partisan infiltration. In the beginning the military leadership had at its disposal some 10,000 men under arms (16 batallions and 10 companies of infantry, 13 batteries of artillery) whose number was increased by military conscription to 60,000. (The number of partisans increased in the same time from 4,500 to 13,000) There was no lack of light arms and ammunition, but heavy weapons and aircraft were in short supply. (Altogether 26 aircraft and 12 tanks. On August 31, 38 aircraft flew from Eastern Slovakia to the Russians and these were never returned.)
But what the uprising lacked most was an able and united leadership. It was directed from at least three centers: London, Moscow and Banská Bystrica. In addition the soldiers did not see eye to eye with the partisans, who formed fighting units of their own. The partisans had their own Soviet commanders, received their orders and directives from Kiev and refused to coordinate their actions with those of the army unless it suited their own interest. They saw in the army a tool of the bourgeoisie and thus a class enemy – only a degree better than the political enemy, the Fascists. The partisans claimed for themselves all the equipment flown in or dropped over Slovakia by the Russians.
Originally the Communists shared the political power with the Democrats (i. e. the liberal-agrarian participants of the uprising) on a fifty-fifty basis. But by clever manipulation and aggressive action on their part, and inexperience on the part of their partners, they soon made themselves the dominating factor in the whole venture. With this development Moscow ceased to look at the Slovak revolt as it did at the Warsaw rising and started to provide some support. In military terms it was only a token help, often misplaced and ineffective (they sent some 150 bazookas which were of no use against the German medium and heavy tanks; the Czechoslovak fighter regiment of 21 planes after its arrival from the Soviet union was mostly grounded for the lack of fuel, spares and ammunition which the Soviets failed to provide), but on the political side they flew in the top Czech Communists operators (Rudolf Slánský and Jan Šverma) who were to help their Slovak comrades to get rid of the liberal-agrarian Kerenskys. After the Red army failed to force its way into Slovakia through the Dukla pass the Soviets allowed the transfer of the decimated 2nd Czechoslovak paratroop brigade (2,000 men) from the Carpathian battlefield into Central Slovakia. But it was too little, too late and was to no avail. The uprising was liquidated in less than two months, on October 27, with the Russian front 140 miles and 150 days away from Banská Bystrica.
The German troops, invited to restore law and order, set about liquidating the rebellion in their efficient, methodical and ruthless manner. The Reichsführer-SS, H. Himmler, entrusted SS-Obergruppenführer G. Berger with the task. Berger started the operation with 2,800 men, 9 light field guns and with an arrogant optimism („Ich hoffe, dass in 4 Tagen die Anglegenheit beendet ist“ — he wrote to his chief). The insurgents put up some tough resistance, especially the French partisans at Strečno (August 28 – September 4) and the Slovak army units counterattacked at Telgárt (Sept. 5-7). The Germans were forced to involve more and more troops. At the end of September SS-Obergruppenführer H. Höffle (who replaced Berger) was in command of some 18,000 troops. Towards the end of October this number was finally increased to 32,000.
In the pacification of Central Slovakia the following German army and SS units participated: Tatra Panzerdivision (178th), 14th SS-division („Galizien“), 18th SS-division („Horst Wessel“), 20th SS-division (regiment „Schill“), parts of the 19th the 108th divisions, the brigade „Dirlewanger“, and some smaller units of the police and mountain troops. It is, however, important to note that these troops were not all used simultaneously and continuously and that, being undermanned, understaffed and underequipped, they were divisions in name only (the so-called Schattendivisionen, i. e. shadow divisions). They moved in three directions – from west, east and south – towards the strategic center of the uprising – the triangle Banská Bystrica – Zvolen – Brezno nad Hronom. In spite of at least threefold numerical superiority and excellent defensive terrain the insurgents yielded one position after the other: a few fell after some hard fighting (Čremošné, Baťovany, B. Štiavnica), others were abandoned in panic.
After the liquidation of the armed rebellion the army units were either captured or dispersed. The partisans, led by more experienced Soviet officers, managed to retreat into the mountains in more or less coherent groups, leaving behind their heavy weapons, transport vehicles and ammunition. Their subsequent hibernation in the deep and often inaccessible forests of Central Slovakia was largely of a defensive nature and till January 1945 it did not interfere with the German war effort to any appreciable extent. The complete collapse of the military uprising in the midst of favorable circumstances cannot but remind one of the words of F. Engels written about the Slovak uprising of 1848: Die Slowaken die die Gebirgpässe innenhaben, würden bei ihren zum Parteigängerkriege vortrefflichen Gegenden gefährliche Gegner sei, wenn sie veniger gleichgültig gestimmt wären. (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, No. 194, Jan. 13, 1849).
The uprising was not the affair of the Slovak people. It was the concern of a small group of short-sighted politicians, mercenary officers and Communists. It lacked the spontaneity with which it was posthumously so generously credited. Apart from some sincere single-minded Communists most of its Slovak participants were either misled or forcibly conscribed into it. Cries like „Death to the German occupants!“ sounded hollow, because the German occupation was the result and not the cause of the partisan activity. Catchphrases like „For free Czecho-Slovakia!“ were uninspiring since even the simplest Slovak knew that – as far as freedom was concerned – no Czecho-Slovakia could ever be a substitute for Slovakia. The Slovak state of 1939-44 with all its drawbacks and limitations was still the richest form of freedom and independence within the memory of all Slovaks. To an ordinary Slovak the fruits of independence were real and tangible, the horrors of fascism hardly perceptible. Any attempts to make him rise against his own state in the name of antifascism were bound to fall flat.
Nobody with sense pours out the baby with the bath water. Yet that was what the self-appointed leaders of the armed rebellion against the Slovak state actually did. Twenty years later one may ask: „To what good?“ Definitely not to the benefit of their nation. And as for their own vain glory and mercenary rewards, these were all of very short duration. As for „dramatis personae“ of a Greek tragedy, the men of 29th August one by one fell in disgrace or worse at the hands of those to whose voice they had listened when conspiring against their own state. In 1948 the Communists got rid of their liberal-agrarian partners (Lettrich, Josko, etc.) and in the subsequent Communist purges of 1949-54 everybody who was anybody in the uprising (Žingor, Husák, Šmidke, Novomeský, etc.) was shot, imprisoned or degraded.
VNUK, František: Neuveriteľné sprisahanie. Trenčín : Vydavateľstvo Ivana Štelcera, 1993. 185-191s. ISBN 80-900537-6-9.