A memorial to the fallen at the SNP Museum in Banská Bystrica.
Photos by James Thomson
The Slovak National Uprising - its Slovak initials, SNP, can be found on many streets, squares and other public places around the country - took place in 1944.
Despite being portrayed by post-1948 communist propaganda as the first flowering of revolutionary socialist zeal, it was a broad-based insurrection against the pro-Nazi regime which had ruled Slovakia since 1939.
Communists, democrats, nationalists and Catholics all fought in the uprising, with support from America, Britain and the Soviet Union.
The SNP is not very well-known outside Slovakia, and it was fairly quickly extinguished once the regime invited the German army to occupy the country. But it was to play an important role in the post-war settlement, and Slovaks' sense of identity both within and beyond their country.
By rising up against the Bratislava government and joining the fight against Nazi Germany the rebels earned Slovaks a place among the ranks of the victors in 1945.
Perhaps more importantly, the SNP demonstrated that Slovaks could act independently as a nation. In doing so, they rejected the regime's collaboration in the most odious acts of the Axis powers - in particular, the murderous suppression of political opposition by ruling party paramilitaries, the German invasion’s of Poland and the USSR, and the ritual humiliation of Slovakia's Jews (followed by the deportation of tens of thousands of them to Nazi death camps). It was a cruel irony that political repression was to be resumed by the communist regime less than four years later.
The fascinating story of the SNP is told by a museum devoted to its memory in Banská Bystrica, where the uprising was centred. It is one of the best museums in Slovakia for anyone interested in the country's recent history, with thoughtfully-designed exhibits labelled in English frequently accompanied by short, on-demand videos.
As well as a kaleidoscope of weapons and artefacts from the uprising itself, there are also uniforms and mementoes from the Czechoslovak forces who fought from exile with the British and French, including some who took part in the North African desert campaign. One cabinet even contains the prison possessions of Gustáv Husák, Czechoslovakia's communist president until 1989, who was one of the leaders of the SNP.
The uprising began on August 29, 1944; its military phase effectively ended when German troops occupied Banská Bystrica on October 27, though partisans continued fighting into the following year. The forces of the SNP, which included a large part of the regular Slovak army and which were led by a Slovak officer, briefly took control of much of central Slovakia.
The degree of disruption they caused can be judged by the fact that no fewer than eight US Army Air Force Flying Fortresses, packed with arms and equipment, were able to land at Sliač airbase south of Banská Bystrica before this supply route was closed by the German advance.
The SNP, which lacked tanks, never stood much of a chance once it was faced with German motorised armour (some examples of which are scattered around the grounds of the museum), but the rebels did attempt to make up some of the difference by building a series of fearsome-looking armoured trains. After a series of engagements, these were destroyed or hidden in tunnels as the Germans closed in. But an impressive full-scale model of one of them now stands in a park near the main railway station in Zvolen, a nearby town.
In early October 1944, Czechoslovak units accompanying the Red Army crossed into Slovakia through the Dukla Pass, north of Prešov. However, it was to take several months of bitter fighting before the country was liberated, and in the meantime a series of reprisals and atrocities were carried out by Nazi German forces backed by so-called 'flying squads' of the Hlinka Guard, a Slovak, government-sanctioned paramilitary organisation modelled on the SS.
In total, more than 5,000 civilians were executed and 102 Slovak villages were razed (see accompanying article). More than 200 mass graves were later discovered; one in Kremnička, a southern district of Banská Bystrica, contained nearly 750 bodies.
At the museum's entrance is a memorial to the nationals from 32 groups and countries who took part in the uprising. Many of them were prisoners of war who were released by the rebels and then chose to fight with them. Among the French, British and Americans were Uzbeks, Tatars, New Zealanders and Jews.