On March 14, 1939, Slovakia declared its independence from then-Czechoslovakia and became a client state of Nazi Germany until the end of the Second World War.
Following the Munich Agreements of 1938, Slovakia lost its southern territories to neighbouring Hungary but gained greater autonomy within Czechoslovakia.
Slovakia declares independence to become Nazi Germany’s puppet state
With the threat of German forces mobilising on the country’s western borders, Czechoslovak leaders in Prague watched with growing concerns developments in the eastern part of their union, where the authoritarian tendencies of Catholic priest Jozef Tiso became more and more evident following his party’s landslide win in the December 1938 elections. Tiso was briefly deposed by Czechoslovak troops and replaced by Karel Sidor.
To push his territorial ambitions in Central Europe and as Nazi Germany was ramping up plans to get its hands on the entirety of the Czech lands, Adolf Hitler invited Tiso to Berlin in early March 1939 to make a pact with the recently-deposed Slovak leader: threatening to abandon Slovakia to the will of Hungary’s territorial ambitions, and promising to protect and safeguard the integrity of the Slovak state, Hitler urged Tiso to declare independence during a meeting held in the German capital on March 13.
On March 14, the Slovak Parliament, convened at Tiso’s request, unanimously declared independence, breaking from their Czech neighbours who were watching with growing panic German troops amass at the border. While a number of Slovak politicians remained sceptical about the idea, the fear that Slovakia would eventually end up being divided between Nazi Germany and Hungary prevailed.
Jozef Tiso became Prime Minister (and President in October 1939) of the new independent Slovak state and, in a telegram drafted in Berlin a few days prior, dutifully asked for the Third Reich’s protection: the First Slovak Republic was born, immediately becoming a Nazi client state and puppet regime aligned on the Reich’s positions.
The day following the declaration of Slovakia’s independence, on March 15, Nazi Germany’s troops invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia and occupied the Czech lands, renamed as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia directly under German control. With its government in exile established in London during the war, Czechoslovakia was officially erased from the map.
Jozef Tiso’s First Slovak Republic, a pact with the Devil?
A one-party state, the First Slovak Republic was governed by Jozef Tiso and the clero-fascist Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party, the totalitarian, far-right and fundamentalist Catholic party founded by Catholic priest Andrej Hlinka, who had died a few months earlier in August 1938.
The party ruled Slovakia with an iron fist throughout the Second World War, but was regularly torn between its two key factions: radical fascists, led by figures like Alexander Mach and Vojtech Tuka and supported by the infamous Hlinka Guard, regularly clashed with the clerical and conservative wing from which Tiso hailed.
A Nazi puppet state, Tiso’s Slovakia implemented much of the Reich’s anti-Semitic policies in the early years of the war, mainly through the so-called Jewish Code, a replica of Germany’s Nuremberg laws, and the expropriation of Jewish people’s goods and property. Slovakia’s collaboration with Nazi Germany accelerated in 1942, when Tiso agreed to the deportation of thousands of Slovak Jews to German-occupied territories in Poland for “labour duties” (initially as part of a deal to get back Slovak workers in Germany in exchange).
But even when the tragic fate awaiting Slovak Jews became impossible to ignore, Tiso continued to facilitate mass deportations during the following months. According to estimates, over three quarters of Slovakia’s pre-war Jewish population, or approximately 105,000 people, died during the war, most of them after being deported in Nazi concentration camps in 1942.
Following the outbreak of the Slovak National Uprising in August 1944, Nazi Germany directly intervened and occupied Slovakia, but was quickly pushed back by the advancing Red Army, supported by Czechoslovak and Romanian troops. The First Slovak Republic came to a de facto end on April 4, 1945, when Soviet troops occupied Bratislava and liberated the rest of the territory.
The legacy of “independent” Slovakia
Jozef Tiso, who had fled Slovakia during the last period of the Soviet conquest, was arrested in Austria in June 1945 and extradited to the restored Czechoslovakia. Sentenced to death for war crimes and crimes against humanity, he was hanged in Bratislava on April 18, 1947.
To this day, some voices have tried to downplay Tiso’s guilt and justify his actions and collaboration with the Nazis, motivated, according to them, by his desire to safeguard Slovakia’s territorial integrity, only possible, in Tiso’s mind, by siding with Germany. The neo-Fascist party of Marian Kotleba is also known for using symbols and references praising the First Slovak Republic and its leaders, and unofficially celebrates March 14 as Slovakia’s independence day.
Some studies have also pointed out that Tiso, a fanatic supporter of Hitler, was misled by the Führer, whom he described as “God’s instrument on earth” and who duped him into believing Nazi Germany possessed a secret doomsday weapon that would eventually give Germany – and henceforth Slovakia – the upper hand even as the war was drawing to an end. Most historians still agree that Tiso, despite being less radical in his fascist and anti-Semitic views than many of his fellow leaders (and compatriots), was nevertheless directly complicit with Nazi war crimes and knowingly sent tens of thousands of Slovak Jews to their death.
To this day, Slovakia’s declaration of independence on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion continues to be seen as a bitter betrayal by Czechs. The episode was also used in the early 1990s to justify and argue in favour of Czechoslovakia’s split. While Czechs’ lingering resentment towards their neighbour’s “betrayal” lent weight to those pushing for the break-up, some voices in Slovakia hailed the war-time regime as the first time in history the country reached full independence – at least on paper.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.