Paramilitary boot camps and Slavic blood rhetoric: When the War Comes lifts lid on Slovak Recruits

'When the War Comes', photo: HBO Europe

Jan Gebert’s powerful new documentary When the War Comes delivers sometimes shocking insights into the Slovak Recruits, a group that run paramilitary boot camps and promote an extreme nationalist ideology. One scene even shows their charismatic leader extolling the virtues of Slavic blood in a talk at a primary school, while the film ends with the fresh-faced autocrat announcing plans to enter politics. When we spoke, I asked Gebert what it was about the Slovak Recruits that first grabbed his attention.

Jan Gebert,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“When I realised that there was such a paramilitary group in the EU, not really far from my home, that was led by a guy who was 19 at that time and that the guy was actually trained in Russia by Cossacks when he was 15, I almost immediately realised that there was something very interesting going on.

“It was confirmed during my first visit, because I was totally shocked by their appearance.

“I don’t mean the military gear. I don’t mean the guns. I was really shocked by their mediocre, ordinary profile.

“They were very mainstream looking, in a way very normal looking people.”

I wanted to ask you – who are the members of the Slovak Recruits?

“It’s a variety of people. What shocked me most was the fact that they didn’t really match any of the stereotypes that you would have about people like that, about fascists or the extreme right.

“These guys were very, very normal in their private lives.

“For me this was actually the most disturbing moment. Because once ordinary people start to do extreme things, then there is something really wrong in the society.

“As for the profile of the people, you wouldn’t guess it but the leader is a student of the Faculty of Arts at Comenius University in Bratislava. He studies archaeology, so he’s a humanities student.

“The other fellow is an expert on chemistry and diabetes. These are the people who lead the group.

“And the other members are really everything: they are stupid, they are smart, they are successful, they are not.

“If you randomly picked 10 people on the street you would probably get a very similar sample to the people who are members of the Slovenskí Branci.”

The film is called When the War Comes. What is the war of the title?

“I think it’s some kind of fiction, some enemy that is behind the borders, some enemy that is within us, somebody we need to fight.

“That’s their idea, and that’s where the title comes from.”

So if somehow there were, I don’t know, a lot more migrants entering Europe or something, they’re ready to fight them off?

“I’m not really sure if it’s that much about war that they’re preparing for.

“There’s a strong ideology behind it. Most of them silently share very similar political views.

“If you randomly picked 10 people on the street you would probably get a very similar sample to the people who are members of the Slovenskí Branci.”

“Even though they don’t talk about it open during trainings, you realise that they admire Vladimir Putin and all strong hand regimes. That is something they like.

“The reason that they joined the group is very similar – they are looking for solid ground in an uncertain world, I would say.

“Generally they express it in different ways. Politically they look for a strong hand and during weekends they look for a weapon.

“Because it’s the same kind of thing that would give them status, give them the feeling that they are in control of their lives.

“It gives them the feeling that they are real fighters. They are fighting for something that is beyond them. Something unique, something very special and something great.

“They believe that they would fight for the nation, one day, they would fight for their country, they would protect it from the contamination of different cultures.

“This is something that they do not have in their lives, probably.

“They are lacking that, because most of the lead normal, ordinary, maybe kind of boring lives and this is something kind of special and it gives them status.

“I think maybe the reason these people joined the group is very similar to the reason why people from, I don’t know, the French suburbs join ISIS.”

'When the War Comes',  photo: HBO Europe
There’s one quite remarkable scene where some of them are in a school and they’re speaking about the superiority of the Slav race. How was that possible?

“I think the main protagonist of the film is actually the silent majority and the silent society.

“These people, the Slovak Recruits, have a lot of silent or open support in the society, even among the directors of schools.

“So from time to time they manage to sneak into a school because they pass themselves off as a sports-military organisation.

“They have good contacts and they have some school directors that sympathise with them.

“From time to time they really manage to have a lesson in a school – and then there is a big fuss around it.

“These guys are very smart in a way. The leader Peter once told me that they do it on purpose three weeks before recruitment drives, because it gives them publicity.

“And they know that nothing would actually happen to them.

“Because nobody actually stops them. Not parents, not the police, not anybody.

“The society is really responsible for their success and for them growing.

“That’s what I wanted to point out in the film.”

“I don’t think that it’s right to instil this Pan-Slavism and to talk about Slavic blood, to spread this paranoia about migrants, to admire dictators.”

There’s also a scene where we see the main guy, Peter Švrček, speaking in a TV interview and he seems quite reasonable. Then away from that interview we hear his real thoughts. Is the case that Slovak people are only hearing the first part, only what he’s presenting in such interviews? Maybe they don’t really know what he and his group actually believe in?

“That’s really possible. And for me it was a big challenge, because he’s very media-conscious and he wants to be in control of his image.

“He was always willing to show me only the part where is strong and nice and very solid – it was very difficult to get into the film moments where he’s not in control, some situation where he is really authentically himself.

“He’s very smart because he is a nice guy. He’s a nice guy.

“And I think that in a normal political context he would not do such things.

“I’m not sure if this is the right word, but he abuses this nice side of himself to make this kind of nice facade of the whole organisation.

“But on the other hand, underneath it, there is something really, really rotten, something really sick.

“I don’t think that it’s right to instil this Pan-Slavism and to talk about Slavic blood, to spread this paranoia about migrants, to admire dictators.

“I don’t think it’s right.

'When the War Comes',  photo: HBO Europe
“And what shocked me is the fact that they are kids, they are teenagers. For me, it’s a kind of rebellion.”

Given that many of them are teenagers and it seems that in total there are around 200 of them, are they actually dangerous?

“It might sound very strange, but I’m not interested in paramilitary groups or the militarisation of society.

“For me, they were more like a reflection of the tendencies that I see in Europe or in the whole West now.

“It’s a tendency toward authoritarian regimes, toward totalitarianism in a way.

“I think these people are also a kind of rebellion against democracy, against capitalism, against all the 28 years of democracy we’ve had.

“You might call them fascists by the way they look, but they also admire Stalin, Putin, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia during communism.

“So they pick different elements from different dictatorships and they mix it and blend it into one.

“Within their organisation they create their own rules that are very similar to the mechanism of how all dictatorships start.

“You might call the Slovak Recruits fascists by the way they look, but they also admire Stalin, Putin, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia during communism.”

“Peter abolishes elections in his organisation and he says that he wants to have his rank permanently, for life.

“Then he substitutes the names of the recruits with numbers, so there is a reminder Nazism in a way.

“But he doesn’t see that and he creates his own totalitarian community.

“What’s scary is that this guy, with the encouragement of society, feels that he can impose this vision, which he already imposed on his group, on the whole of society.

“He wants to become a politician and the society lets him. It gives him the green light.

“That’s the story I wanted to tell: how a group that is extreme becomes mainstream, because the society accepts it.”

At the end of the film the leader, Peter Švrček, tells the others that he’s entering politics. Do you have a sense that he could make an impact in Slovak politics?

“There is definitely a demand for it. Most of the people they meet really approve of what they do.

“And if it’s not him, it’s going to be somebody else.

“But I think there is a demand for a fascist with a human face.

'When the War Comes',  photo: HBO Europe
“It’s very difficult to foresee what will happen in Slovakia. Because it can turn out that there’s a move to clean up the corruption and get rid of the corrupt politicians, and to make the democracy stronger.

“But on the other hand that in the polls Kotleba, the other fascist in Slovak politics, is getting more points, during this crisis.

“This can be another effect, because I think once the system is so corrupted people can lose faith in the whole system – in democracy, in capitalism – and only the populist’s like Peter Švrček will benefit out if it.”