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No Saint: Jozef Tiso and the Holocaust in Slovakia

James Mace Ward, Visiting Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and PhD Candidate in History, Stanford University

Date & Time

Feb. 8, 2006
11:00am – 12:00pm ET


There are two schools of thought about the life of Joseph Tiso. The first, and by far the most prevalent, holds with the outcome of the trial that convicted and executed him: that Tiso was complicit in the genocide of Jews in Slovakia. The second school of thought is that the trial actually martyred one of the strongest defenders of the Slovak nation and a secret protector of Jews against the Nazis. James Mace Ward presented evidence that the second school of thought—a decidedly minority position—is without merit. Although Tiso was less radical in his fascism than some of his contemporaries, he whole-heartedly sanctioned the expropriation and deportation of Jews and had full knowledge that they were being sent to their deaths.

Ward attributed the sources of Tiso's anti-Semitism to four influences. First, as a Catholic, he was influenced by Catholic doctrine, which was at best ambivalent about Jews. Second, Christian social movements were on the rise throughout Europe, which were exclusionary to Jews. Third, the rise of nationalism in Slovakia went hand in hand with anti-Semitism, since Jews were accused as being linked to Hungary and therefore "Magyarizers." Finally, Tiso was influenced, Ward asserts, by modern racism, which preached that as a different race, Jews were inferior.

Tiso began his career as a Catholic priest in Austro-Hungary, and quickly climbed in the ranks. As such, he operated primarily in the Hungarian language. Yet, immediately after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of Czechoslovakia, Tiso transformed himself overnight into a Slovak nationalist and career politician. In 1918, Tiso's political philosophy was avidly pro-Slovak and anti-Semitic. However, he toned down his rhetoric after it became clear that anti-Semitism conflicted with Christian social doctrine ("love thy neighbor") and this hypocritical view paid poor political dividends. For the next 20 years, Tiso's political career (primarily as Minister of Health) continued with no evidence of anti-Semitic behavior, even as his political party began to model itself on the German Nazis and anti-Semitism became more popular. Tiso maintained his moderate stance, and was even accused by some radicals of being "soft on the Jews."

This ended in 1938 when a series of events triggered the erosion of Jewish rights in Slovakia. First, the Sudatenland was given to Germany, bringing the German border much closer to Bratislava. Second, Slovakia won increased autonomy within Czechoslovakia. Third, the First Vienna Award which settled territorial claims between Slovakia and Hungary awarded a sizable piece of rich agricultural land to Hungary—calling into question the economic viability of Slovakia. Slovakia, therefore, as a very insecure regime, looked to Germany to secure its footing. By launching the expropriation of Jewish property, Slovakia's new President Joseph Tiso was able to show that Slovakia was a good friend to Germany as well as improving the economic position of Slovaks. Germany first approached Slovakia with an order to begin deporting Jews in 1940. President Tiso resisted pressure from the Vatican and Jewish groups to end deportations, since he was essentially sending Jews to slaughterhouses. Ward's sources show that Tiso had full knowledge that deported Jews would be murdered. Moreover, although there is evidence that Tiso saved the lives of a number of Jews (though far below the 40,000 purported by his defenders) Ward cited a conversation in which Tiso regretted exempting 18,000 Jews from expropriation and deportation, since he was convinced that the remaining Jews were sabotaging the economy.

After the 1944 civic anti-Fascist uprising in Slovakia, Tiso lost domestic support and truly became a puppet of the Nazis. At that time he continued to support deportations, since he saw the Jews as the leaders of the revolt. In 1947 Tiso's trial ended with his execution by hanging. Although as a moderate, his rule was surely preferable than if the radicals had been in power, Joseph Tiso was, Ward argues, no saint.


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