“There are as many worlds as those that can fit in your head.” The first time I heard this sentence was in 1995, when I began working for the Milan Šimečka Foundation ( Milan Šimečka Foundation is one of the oldest NGOs in Slovakia, established in February 1991. For more details on the foundation, see Over the past 20 years, I have conducted hundreds of interviews using mainly oral history or the biographical method. I seek to capture the memories of witnesses and survivors about their life during the wartime Slovak State, in the post-war period, and during the Communist regime in Slovakia.
Milan Šimečka Foundation is one of the oldest NGOs in Slovakia, established in February 1991. For more details on the foundation, see
Over the past 20 years, I have conducted hundreds of interviews using mainly oral history or the biographical method. I seek to capture the memories of witnesses and survivors about their life during the wartime Slovak State, in the post-war period, and during the Communist regime in Slovakia.
I have been combining these two roles since 2016: I discuss and I explore. I have become a member of the civic initiative “Forgotten Slovakia: Open Debates about Extremism” ( For more details, see
For more details, see
The initiators of
As an ethnologist, I often work in different regions outside Bratislava. I study (among other things) the Holocaust phenomenon and the entire period in which it happened (wartime Slovak State 1939–45) in the social and the respectively cultural memory of the Slovak society (Assmann 2016, 15–44). Even though I had a clear idea in 2016 about the resentments toward the Term used to designate the wartime Slovak State by its admirers from among the members of the current Matica slovenská or by many political representatives and historians – both in Slovakia and abroad.
Term used to designate the wartime Slovak State by its admirers from among the members of the current Matica slovenská or by many political representatives and historians – both in Slovakia and abroad.
One week after the elections, I conducted a training course for secondary-school teachers in the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising in Banská Bystrica. During an informal discussion, some teachers told me that on the Monday following the elections, the school director had called them to his office, blaming them for teaching history incorrectly, and hence being responsible for the fact that some of the those pupils had voted for Kotleba. However ridiculous it may sound, the media articulated similar speculations as well: it was the fault of the teachers that Kotleba’ party to the Parliament. I admit that I was also concerned that ĽSNS had been backed by young people who had cast their votes for the first time. One need not be a genius to realize that by doing so, young people expressed their discontent with the policies of the standard political parties that have long been in power. Unfortunately, they did so by giving support to a party the representatives of which have made no secret of admiring the undemocratic Detailed analysis of the survey “The Slovak State during WWII in the Slovak Collective Memory of 2013” available at:
Detailed analysis of the survey “The Slovak State during WWII in the Slovak Collective Memory of 2013” available at:
In the state of anxiety after the elections, I realized that almost no “established” politician in parliament sought to clearly oppose the representatives of the party with
The first activity was the public discussion and concert
The square was filled with chairs in which a diverse group of audience members sat (in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity). They came mostly out of curiosity, yet they stayed and did not leave. We were, however, afraid of an open clash with ĽSNS supporters and members, but other than a message in the form of party stickers on the chairs in the auditorium, we did not record anything else.
This series continued with events in other Slovak towns – the representatives of the initiative have so far met with the citizens of 15 towns. Until March 2018, the discussions under the
Until March 2018, the discussions under the
The team discussing as part of the
In principle, the day-trip model is standard. The morning is dedicated to meetings with secondary and elementary school pupils in a cultural center, a cinema, or another public place. The discussion moderator, Bán, first introduces the initiative, its objectives, and participants to the pupils. Right from the beginning he emphasizes the willingness of the speakers to reply to all questions within a decent debate, without any invectives or expressions of violence. The students watch the documentary movie by Marek Šulík,
The second part of the Public Against Violence was a political movement established in November 1989 in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was the Slovak counterpart of the Czech Civic Forum (
Public Against Violence was a political movement established in November 1989 in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was the Slovak counterpart of the Czech Civic Forum (
During our third or fourth trip (in Dolný Kubín, Ružomberok), they began openly declaring their support for ĽSNS. In Kežmarok, the native town of one of the ĽSNS parliamentary deputies, they organized a bus trip for their members and supporters to attend the evening discussion.
The topics raised at each public meeting can be split into several areas. The first one concerns the clarification of terms: what is extremism and who is an extremist; what extremism means in politics; and why it is dangerous. Or we talk about the nondemocratic regimes in Slovakia in the 20th century. Since there is always someone who has survived the Holocaust at each discussion, a part of the debate is dedicated to the wartime Slovak State and the Holocaust in Slovakia. Of course, we also talk about the current situation in Slovakia and Europe. People express their concerns and fears about the migration wave from Syria and Africa, as well as their anger and dissatisfaction with the unresolved domestic corruption scandals and causes. According to the manner of formulation of questions and arguments, it is easy to deduce the opinions they identify with and whose fans they are. Another big topical area concerns daily life issues, local topics such as high unemployment, uncooperative citizens of a town, district, or nearby settlement, as well as positive examples of cohabitation or the solution of problematic situations presented by local activists or personalities.
The main idea and impulse for our trips across Slovakia are to demonstrate our interest in those parts of our country where people in general may feel that they have been “forgotten”, that they are of no interest to “those over there in Bratislava”. An important impetus is the notion that not all voters of Kotleba’s party are extremists and that the neo-
I seek to understand local society and its problems through debates. It is about capturing the value orientation of the people involved in the discussions, as well as the causes that influence their opinions. Together with Cliford Geertz, we attempt to carry out a cultural analysis of the local population sample, guess the meaning of their speeches, and formulate (for myself) what they actually try to convey to us (Geertz, 2000, 31).
During field research, I usually assume the role of the listener or observer or the role of the guide through the dialogue. During the
This attempt of mine to interpret public expressions and to analyze shared reality within the discussions of the
The public space of a town – the hall of a cinema or of a cultural center – becomes the place of the voluntary meeting of various groups of people. Their motivations, value orientations, and aims are diverse.
The members of the
Initially, the representatives of the first group attempted to act as part of a legitimate political alternative. Because we publish the debates on the Internet and ĽSNS sympathizers or members even record them, we have realized over time that this group of people is very closely knit and prepares for the meetings in a targeted manner. One thing is evident – they refer to what was said in the previous town, wishing to add or explain things. Their reactions are characterized by specific ideological preparation (questioning or trivialization of the Holocaust, questions about the number of Slavic victims during World War II, or questions about President Jozef Tiso) or populist arguments typically used by ĽSNS representatives (e.g., let us leave the past; we are interested in the current bad situation; Roma delinquency; corruption scandals; migrant threat, threats to Christian Slovakia, and so on).
The second group of actors – people sharing similar values as the representatives of the initiative – discusses specific situations and reacts to arguments, questions, and the speeches of the debaters on site. These actors often directly oppose Kotleba’s party and its opinions. The most numerous group of people is usually silent. What does the exchange of opinions and attitudes indicate?
What I commonly observe among local debaters is that they are not accustomed to publicly formulating their own opinions and talking openly in front of a broader audience. Many of them are unable to hold a discussion with people who have a different opinion. Such confrontation is unusual to them, and from time to time, they do not handle it and leave the place of the debate. Smooth communication is also complicated by the fact that the representatives of the civic initiative are perceived as foreigners, as people who have a different life experience than the locals. It reminds me of a conflict of the center, the capital city, with the local people who feel like they are on the periphery. Such communications are penetrated by stereotypes, prejudices, suspicions, and even distrust (“Why didn’t you come before Kotleba entered the parliament? Where have you been until now? Have you come to preach to us from your Bratislava feedboxes? Who is paying for this Jewish theater of yours?”). Many local people are unable to understand that we come to discuss with them from our own will, that nobody sends us, that nobody is paying us, and that we are not politicians. The discussions are accompanied by an emotional behavior that has its roots in the problematic daily reality of the local debaters. Such moments clearly show the extent of the conflict in terms of the value orientations and preferences. We search for words and arguments to understand the reality in the same way. It is sometimes very complicated. Our perception of the notions of democracy, freedom (personal freedom, freedom of expression), and their meanings is different, and we have a different idea of what it means to live a good and happy life. It is not uncommon to see among local people their preference for social security as a detriment of their own freedom (“I haven’t been happy since 1989; we must deal with our problems on our own; I don’t like this type of democracy”). ĽSNS voters react sensitively, while others designate this party as extremist (“I’m not extremist; I’m convinced Kotleba will put everything in order”); the historical parallels or experience from the recent European past (e.g., war in former Yugoslavia) would not help.
During these debates, I realize that people in Slovakia have little knowledge about history and, additionally, that they equal history with their personal or family historical experience. The result, therefore, is parallel – or even contradictory – memories of the same historic period. I consider it the consequence of the phenomenon that I have long been exploring: the official policies of remembrance of the wartime Slovak State and the Holocaust in Slovakia are more-or-less ambiguous. This results in the relativization and unwillingness to speak publicly about this historic period. At the same time, we are lacking a common narrative about the country’s Communist past. Hence, the debaters are often unable, and even unwilling, to think about their lived past from the perspective of diverse population groups and their different experiences. And in addition to all the facts I observe and react to, there is one more question that I repeatedly seek to answer: are we not providing too much space with these debates to the supporters and members of the extremist ĽSNS? Is it correct that we discuss with them? The first time I faced these doubts was after the debate in Ružomberok, where we saw debaters from the previous place who now openly and proudly claimed to belong to the ĽSNS district organizations. On the way back to Bratislava and during the following days, I raised my doubts several times in conversations with my colleagues from the initiative. I finally accepted the opinion according to which these discussions provide an opportunity to the silent majority, the undecided ones, or those who do not express themselves, that we simply show them that there are also other opinions, other views of the world. I admit that this argument does not always satisfy me.
If I return now to my favorite sentence, “There are as many worlds as those that can fit in your head”, I would like to modify it slightly after my experience from the The author wrote this text in the first half of March 2018, at the time of protest demonstrations in Slovakia provoked by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée: at the time when politicians were dealing with the government crisis and people expressed in public debates and protests their ideas of a
The author wrote this text in the first half of March 2018, at the time of protest demonstrations in Slovakia provoked by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée: at the time when politicians were dealing with the government crisis and people expressed in public debates and protests their ideas of a
It will not be a short journey. There is, however, one condition at its start: make space for the worlds of people around you inside your heads!
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