In the summer of 1944 the Tiso regime was rotting from the inside. The unity forged under the tutelage of Nazi imperialism had cracked as the different competing interests splintered and this combined with the splits among the generals. General Ferdinand Catlos was the minister of national defence of the “Slovak State”, but was one of those officials who realised the tide was turning against Nazi imperialism and the Tiso regime. He sought to make a deal with the new imperialist power or preferably broker a rapprochement with the Benes government.
He issued a memorandum to Moscow in July, which made an offer to carry out a coup against the Tiso regime and join with the Soviet army in exchange for Slovak independence after the war. It perfectly spells out the general’s rationale for supporting the Tiso regime and then trying to break with it. It explains that Slovakia, “as a state dependent upon Germany” and “whose foreign policy is contradictory and is conditioned to act according to Germany’s”, had to “declare war against the USSR and her allies”. But now that “German strength is breaking and in Slovakia the bond of dependence is loosening… a small nation in the position of being so dependent must accommodate to powerful neighbours [my emphasis].” Catlos’s aim was to ensure that Slovakia’s ruling class could hang onto its position, and to get rid of the Tiso regime if that was the price that had to be paid. “We want to wait out in the interests of our nation so that Slovakia does not become another unfortunate Italy,” the memorandum warned. To do this he wanted to draw Soviet fire on German divisions in Hungary and—eventually—allow the Slovak Army to depose Tiso.
While the plan to focus on Hungary was not out of sync with Soviet strategy, it still risked an independent ruling class emerging and so was not taken up. However, it was all part of broader machinations among the generals, which would actually impact on and weaken the uprising.
The plans for the Slovak National Uprising were tied to the fate of Soviet Union imperialism from the beginning. There were two plans for the uprising, one “defensive” and the other “offensive”. The latter involved an insurgent Slovak Army moving towards Eastern Slovakia and helping the Russian army capture the Dukla pass on its way into the country; the former was for rebel forces to take control of central Slovakia, liberate as much territory as possible and hold out for the Russians to arrive. While seemingly different scenarios from a military point of view, both involved relying on helping the Soviet Union to “liberate” the country.
The two heavily armed infantry Slovak divisions and their airforce group in the East were crucial to both plans. But neither of these divisions would ever see action against the Tiso or Nazi forces. Both were disarmed by the 24th Panzer Division without a shot being fired on 31 August 1944 and the airforce group left to Soviet held territory.
Yet the uprising would not break out at its planners’ own choosing. Not long after Romania had switched sides, Soviet army lieutenant Peter Aleksejevic Velicko’s partisan group captured and killed a Nazi military detail on 27 August 1944 that was making its way from Romania. The Nazis were aware that the Tiso regime was fracturing and was unable to suppress Soviet partisan activity on its territory. To deal with the situation Wehrmacht and Waffen SS troops moved into Slovakia on 29 August 1944.
The generals split among themselves again, and weakened the possibilities for the SNP succeeding. So while Catlos announced on the airwaves that Nazi forces had occupied Slovakia and called on the army to stand down, the SNP’s commander General Golian issued orders to begin the uprising. During this critical moment General Malar, the corps commander in Eastern Slovakia, left his post in Eastern Slovakia and headed to Bratislava. He then also made a plea on national radio for Slovak troops to stand down and not to take part in a “premature” uprising.
The uprising’s planners had tried hard to get Malar’s backing despite him being an ally of “Catlos’s man” since both had fought together against the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, and now this reliance on the officer corps showed its real weaknesses. With Malar having sided with the regime against the uprising, the SNP leadership now looked to Colonel Talky who headed the airforce group. General Golian’s call for a mobilisation had relied on the “defensive” plan for the uprising, but instead of carrying out this plan Talsky flew the group to Kalinuv and Lvov, which were held by Soviet forces, to try and convince Marshal Konev to mount an offensive.
Eventually, Konev launched the Dukla Pass operation on 8 September, but Soviet forces only reached Bratislava on 4 April. The USSR’s primary aim was to push south and decisively defeat Nazi forces in Romania and Hungary, where there were important supplies of oil. The remaining forces in Eastern Slovakia, namely General Ludvik Svoboda’s 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps, fought on but did not liberate Kosice and Presov until 19 January 1945 and Banska Bystrica, the epicentre of the SNP, until 26 March 1945.
During the uprising the Soviet Union managed 682 successful flights into rebel held territory with 610 tons of supplies and 2,000 soldiers, namely Czechoslovak parachutists. But these flights often came with strings attached—and sometimes political commissars on board—and were primarily meant for the Soviet partisan units rather than Slovak forces.
The dominant narrative is that the Slovak National Uprising was “premature” and puts the blame on different military commanders. But the reason it broke out when it did and its failure were because of the reliance on the generals and how it was tied to Soviet imperialism. Malar’s “treachery” and Talsky’s leaving gutted the Slovak army in the East and the military strength of the uprising, but both were in keeping with trying to maintain or egain the ruling class’s position.
The Slovak National Uprising
Nonetheless, the insurgent forces were initially successful in capturing large swathes of territory in central and eastern Slovakia. While the SNP’s plans were hampered from the beginning by imperialism and the generals, it would be wrong to dismiss the Slovak resistance and the uprising as just playthings of imperialism and the generals.
There were serious clashes between the old order and the SNC, as soon as the latter declared on 1 September 1944 that it was the ruling body in the liberated territory. Benes did not want some “Slovak National Council” ruling Slovakia, which could then have its own base, but rather for it to be subordinate to the London government when its time came to restore the inter-war republic. But the SNC’s leaders, including many Communists, were serious about liberating Slovakia from Tiso and Nazism as part of a revolt from below. During the uprising itself a delegation flew to London to carry out negotiations with Benes but remained committed to the idea of the SNP and an “equal Slovakia” in a post-war republic.
That was also evident with some of the political developments that took place. In liberated territory the network of RNVs began organising political administration and basic economic life. New RNVs, which had not been part of the set up before the SNP also sprang up, were part of the local overthrow and then local administration. The individual committees had some autonomy from the SNC and the insurgent military command and took their own initiatives, whether that was recruiting into the rebel forces or providing social support for soldiers and fleeing civilians.
The Communists and the Social Democrats also held a “unity conference” on 17 September 1944, which was attended by around 700 delegates from 46 districts, tens of workplaces and 12 partisan groups. The two parties merged their local party organisation and the mass organisations that they had set up before the war.
Most importantly, the Social Democratic and “Red Union” were merged and set up in the liberated territory. The unity conference of the trade unions, held on 15 October, was attended by around 200 delegates from 130 plants, which was not insignificant given the political and military situation. The final resolutions called for workplace union committees to be placed in charge of running factories.
These were genuine demands, but Moscow had no intention of allowing them to be fulfilled. Gustav Husak from the KSS was joined by Jan Sverma, who had been dispatched from Moscow to let the KSC influence the political direction. Following the war there were indeed factory committees and original calls for nationalisation were fulfilled, but these bodies would be controlled by the new trade union bureaucracy and would only be used as a passive stage army during 1946-1948.
Meanwhile, the RNVs would lose their grassroots elements and were succeeded by official governing structures. When Eastern Slovakia was finally “liberated” by Soviet and Czechoslovak troops in 1945, the “Kosice Governing Programme” was set up. While it had some roots in the uprising, it was not a genuine grassroots organisation. Integral to it was the new “National Front” that was the basis for the post-war government, which was used by Stalin to increase influence in Eastern Europe.
The old ruling class managed to temporarily regain some control of both the Czech lands and Slovakia under the sponsorship of Soviet imperialism, but it would not be a lasting triumph. Firstly, with the onset of the Cold War trying to balance “neutrally” between the West and the Soviet Union, while relying increasingly on the latter, was not possible in the long run. Either one of the imperialisms would have to win out—and Moscow’s tool for doing so was the reconstituted KSC.
The old ruling class was dislodged in the KSC’s palace coup in 1948. The Communist Party was not leading the resistance any more and was not a revolutionary organisation willing to agitate among workers after the war. Instead in line with Moscow’s policy it took over and would rule a “state capitalist” regime where workers had no power. The Communists would also play a key role as talk of “autonomy” was quickly abandoned in favour of a centralised state apparatus.
Secondly, the contradictions within the ruling class did not disappear under the new path of state capitalist development. It merely found expression in conflicts between the different parts of the new ruling bureaucracy in the industrialised Czech lands and the less developed Slovakia. This is what partly lay behind the differences between the “conservative” and “reforming” wings of the KSC during the 1968 Prague Spring (although now the largely “conservative” Slovak bureaucracy favoured centralised development instead of autonomy). It would again resurface during the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, with Czech capital wanting to cut itself loose from “dead weight” and the new Slovak ruling class wanting to pursue development autonomously.
The uprising had genuine potential, but was limited from birth by the ability of the old Czechoslovak ruling class to assert a degree of control and its relationship to the Allied and Russian imperialist powers. It was this twin pressure that ultimately allowed the Nazis to crush the uprising.