Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)
BRATISLAVA – On the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party.
Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, keeping an eye on things. The din grows louder, headed our way.
“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”
No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It's the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” -- Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. -- they don’t boast nearly the appeal of their extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.”
As fish-out-of-water expats, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia's pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.
On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Under the leadership of the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler's plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.
These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”
So here's the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.
Without a camera, I fumble for my iPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police -- I'm always at my bravest with cops around -- I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.