This article will examine the Catholics on the south-eastern end of the Church’s traditional reach, those of the Czech lands, Slovakia and Hungary. The three Churches here had vastly different experiences during the war years. For the Czechs, the war had come early, in the wake of the Munich agreement of 1938. No other country suffered such a prolonged occupation, and few had such a surreal experience. Shorn of most of its majority German-speaking land in the Sudeten, the Czechs would have been justified in fearing the worst. After all, they were Slavs and Nazi ideology had little time for Slavic peoples. However, somehow the Czechs were seen as different, and they never suffered to the same extent as the Poles or the Russians.
The Slovaks, another Slavic people, entered into a full-blown alliance with the Nazis. For centuries, their country had been part of Hungary. Since 1918, they had been incorporated into Czechoslovakia, which fell apart in 1939. Always somewhat resentful of their more prosperous compatriots, a tide of Slovak national awareness had been building up against the Czechs. This was enhanced by the threat of Hungary, which sought to reclaim vast swathes of southern Slovakia with a Hungarian majority population. These were, indeed, lost, with Hungary enjoying Nazi support for this annexation. The rump Slovakia became officially independent in March 1939, with a German puppet regime installed in Bratislava.
The third country examined here, Hungary, had an even stranger recent past. Between 1861 and 1918, she had been one half of the Habsburg double monarchy, partnering Austria. The so-called Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen had included much of Slovenia, Croatia, Transylvania and Slovakia, as well as Ruthenia. These were all lost in the wake of the defeat in the First World War, at the Treaty of Trianon. This was to the Hungarians what Versailles was to the Germans, and Hungarian public life was dominated by an irredentist drive: the lost lands had to be re-conquered.
In all three countries, the Catholic Church had held a strong institutional position during the long centuries of Habsburg rule, but its popularity varied enormously. In Slovakia the Church was regarded as a bulwark of Slovak identity, and priests were prominent in its nationalist movement. For centuries, the Church had given the mountain-dwelling Slovaks an outlet to celebrate their national culture. In Hungary, the Church was part of the mainstream in the west of the country. Here, however, memories of the Reformation lingered, and large swathes of the country were dominated by Calvinist churches. Amongst those who had favored the old monarchy, the Church was most popular. The old Emperor, Franz Joseph, had been a fervent protector of the Church and it, in turn, had provided his dynasty with unswerving support. This had not endeared it to the Czechs, who had struggled with the monarchy for years.
The upper echelons of the Church had been filled by Austro-Hungarian noblemen, and this did not change immediately after 1918. In some places, as for example in the Czech seat of Litoměřice, German-speaking incumbents were left in place, even if the majority of the population spoke Czech. In Slovakia, the Bishopric of Rožňava was filled by Hungarian-born Lajos Balós de Sipek. For the Czechs, finally, there was the long memory of the Hussite Wars of the Middle Ages, which nineteenth-century historians had transformed from a theological conflict into a national war against the Church. There were, then, rather a large number of factors at play that determined both the reaction and the experience of the Churches in the three countries.
The Czech Church faced an enormous challenge when the country collapsed in 1939. The separation of the Sudeten Germans the previous year had caused a great loss in Catholic numbers. This added to the problems created in 1920, when twenty percent of Catholic Czechs had left the Church in protest against its pro-Habsburg stance. In addition, the Slovak part of the country, with its more deep-rooted Faith, had also gone its own way. Somehow, though, the Church managed to gain a deep-seated appreciation for the role it played in resisting the common Nazi enemy. The Germans tried to obstruct the Church, but were reluctant, for whatever reason, to use the same force as they had in Germany or Poland. They managed to obstruct the Czech Antonine Eltschkner from taking his post as Bishop of Budejovice, but that was the extent of their success.
The full extent of Czech Catholic resistance is hard to determine, however, as the priests who were arrested were ranked with Slovaks. Although it is a safe guess that most of these were Czechs, we cannot be sure.
Nonetheless, in Dachau alone, there were 109 Czech/Slovak priests, a quarter of whom died. What is also clear is that the Church emerged from the War with its credibility much enhanced as far as nationalists were concerned.
The Slovak experience was vastly more complex. In the aftermath of the First World War, a Slovak priest, Fr. Andrei Hlinka, had founded the Slovak Peoples Party, a far-right nationalist movement seeking independence. In March 1939, as the Nazis invaded the rump of the Czech Lands, his successor, Mgr. Josef Tiso, declared independence. In a 63 seat parliament, 16 seats were taken by nationalist priests. One of their first actions was to begin a persecution of the Jews, a persecution that would lead to the virtual extermination of Slovakia’s Jewry. Tiso declared:
“I think that no one has to be convinced that the Jewish element posed a threat to the life of the Slovak State […] We acted according to the law of God: Slovakia, dispose of your enemies! In this sense we establish order and will continue to do so.”
This hardly chimed with Vatican policy, and is a reminder that the Catholic Church’s history in the war is a complex one. Inside Slovakia, although Tiso had the support of a large number of clergy, many also resisted. The vicar of Bratislava, Fr. Pozdech, wrote to the Nuncio in Budapest, Mgr. Angelo Rotta, who was involved in rescuing many Jews, pleading for the Vatican to intervene. The Bishop of Presov, who headed the Byzantine-Catholic Church in Slovakia, wrote to the Vatican to depose Tiso.
In 1943, the Vatican intervened, and ordered the episcopate to denounce the anti-Jewish actions of the government. They issued a pastoral letter, which many priests refused to read from the pulpit. At times, one feels that what Hitler wanted in Germany, namely a compliant Nazi Church, had been realized in the puppet state of Slovakia. The Apostolic Delegate in Bratislava, the Vatican’s representative, Mgr. Burzio, wrote to Tiso:
“the injustice wrought by his government is harmful to the prestige of his country and enemies will exploit it to discredit clergy and the Church the world over.”
In his report to the Vatican he wrote of Tiso’s reaction, “I couldn’t see a shred of compassion or understanding for the persecuted”.
Tiso was not excommunicated, and the reasons remain unclear. That his actions were roundly denounced by the Vatican is obvious, too. Until the archive on Slovakia is completely accessible, judgment needs to be reserved. In Hungary, in the meantime, the staunchly Catholic regent, Admiral Horthy, had managed to keep the Nazis and their ideology at bay, even though Hungary had joined Germany in the hope of regaining the lost lands of the Trianon Treaty. In this, he had the full support of the Nuncio, Angelo Rotta, who was recognized for his effort to save Jews in Hungary and Bulgaria with the title of Righteous Amongst the Nations by Yad Vashem. Rotta continued the fight. even when Horthy was removed from power by an indigenous Nazi party in 1944, but he could not save all Jews.
Hungary’s Catholic Church’s resistance to the barbarism of the Nazis contrasts sharply with what happened north of the border in Slovakia, or even in the Czech Lands. It is a balm after the bitter taste of Mgr. Tiso and the Slovak priests who defied the Vatican and defiled the Gospels.
Hungary’s episcopate, led by Cardinal Serédi, fought the Nazis with all their power. The list of Catholic institutions, organizations and individuals who risked their lives for the Jews, including the 70,000 and more Jewish refugees from elsewhere living in Hungary, is endless. Taken as a whole, the experience of the Catholic Church in the three Central European countries was extremely diverse. Fortunately, the evil in the heart of some so-called Catholics was more than matched by the self-sacrificing goodness of most.
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.