Outbreak of the war
End of the war

A question of options: the national positions of the Slovenes

Slovene national politics were characterized by a struggle on several fronts against German and Italian hegemony claims. After the outbreak of war in 1914, the continued existence of a Slovene nation was put into question. Yugoslavism became a political option, but the Slovene political camps were divided as to how the idea should be put into practice.

Slovene national awareness developed slowly and for a long time took the form of a gradual awareness-raising of the masses. The political landscape was comparable to that of the other Austrian Alpine countries. Most of the predominantly rural population was conservative and Catholic, loyal to the Emperor and the Austrian Monarchy. Slovene society in the nineteenth century had few representatives of liberal ideas.

In daily political affairs the gradual approach prevailed. The first political success was the achievement of a majority of Slovene members in the Carniolian parliament in 1867. Slovene national policy was generally loyal to the Vienna government. In contrast, for example, to the Czechs, Slovene politicians offered their active cooperation in the Reichsrat in the hope of finding support for the national emancipation of the Slovenes in German-speaking areas to counter the claims of the German nationalist and Italian irredentists.

The basic posture of the national leaders was to emphasize the distinctive Slovene national identity with the long-term aim of federalization of the Monarchy. The primary demand was the amalgamation of Slovene settlement areas into a separate crown land. This would have called for an adjustment of the historical borders and it was flatly rejected by the German-speaking majorities in Styria and Carinthia. Relations between the two language groups deteriorated after 1900, and in 1908 the first violent confrontations with fatalities took place in various cities.

Trieste was a further source of conflict. The rapidly growing Slovenian-speaking population among the workers and petty bourgeoisie through migration to the flourishing port, the only industrial centre in an otherwise agrarian region, led to a hardening of the fronts. The increasingly assertive demands of the Slovenes in Trieste led to violent clashes with supporters of Italianitá in the Adriatic port city.

The idea of Yugoslavism crystallized increasingly as a political option, as the limits to the development of a relatively small Slovene nation were soon recognized. The Slovenes themselves could not agree on the feasibility of an amalgamation of the southern Slav ethnic groups. The Catholic conservatives supported the idea of closer cooperation with the Croats, with whom the felt the most cultural and confessional affinity. Liberal groups, recalling the development of Serbia into a regional power in the western Balkans, preferred rapprochement with the Serbs. The pro-Serbian stance solidified during the Balkan crisis in 1912/13, in which Serbia was seen by the Slovenes as the moral victor. More radical anti-Austrian groups remained for the time being an extremist minority.

When the First World War broke out, the mood was one of resignation in view of the severe official measures against nationalist agitators. When Italy entered the war in 1915, Slovene settlements in the Isonzo region became a theatre of war. Given the gloomy perspective of an existence as a threatened ethnic group in a central Europe dominated either by the Germans, should the Central Powers be victorious, or an Italian empire on both sides of the Adriatic should Italian claims prevail, a future as part of a southern Slav state appeared to the Slovenes as an increasingly attractive option.

Translation: Nick Somers


Pleterski, Janko: Die Slowenen, in: Wandruszka, Adam/Urbanitsch, Peter (Hrsg.): Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Band III: Die Völker des Reiches, Wien 1980, Teilband 2, 801–838

Rumpler, Helmut: Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie [Österreichische Geschichte 1804–1914, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005

Štih, Peter/Simoniti, Vasko/Vodopivec, Peter: Slowenische Geschichte. Gesellschaft – Politik – Kultur, Graz 2008

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    “Viribus unitis” or prison of nations?

    The multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary formed a relatively stable environment for the co-existence of the many ethnic communities. The much-vaunted “unity in diversity” was in fact overshadowed by numerous inequalities. This was illustrated above all in the differing weight of the various language groups involved in political and economic rule. These inequalities were increasingly challenged by the disadvantaged nationalities. As a result, the nationality issue dominated political affairs, leading to destabilisation of the Monarchy.


  • Development

    National attitudes to the war

    The Habsburg Monarchy as a state framework for the smaller nationalities of Central Europe was not seriously questioned before 1914, either internally or externally. With the outbreak of war, representatives of the nationalities initially emphasised their loyalty to the Monarchy’s war aims.