Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The struggle of the Slovenes for their language

For the Slovenes as well, their language was the most important point of distinction from the ‘others’. In the era of nationalism, there status as one of the smaller ethnic groups in the region meant that the struggle for emancipation and linguistic equality were the main focal points.

By the mid-nineteenth century the process of forming the modern Slovenian language had been completed. Language reforms created a binding standard language derived from the various rural dialects and the buried tradition of a Slovenian Bible language from the days of the Reformation pioneered by the Lutheran preacher Primož Trubar (1508–86), who created a written form of the Slovenian dialects. Writers like France Prešeren (1800–49) and Fran Levstik (1831–87) were read by members of the newly formed reading and cultural associations. The founding of the Društvo sv. Mohorjeva publishing company in 1852 was instrumental in heightening a Slovene national awareness.

Language now became the primary distinguishing factor and replaced the previous identity as Carnolians, Styrians or Carinthians. The creation of the adjective ‘Slovenian’ is a mark of the recognition of the Slovenes as a nation defined by its language. Until well into the nineteenth century speakers of the Slav dialects in the eastern Alps were known in German as Wends or Windians. This name was now replaced by the term Slovene, ‘slovenci’ in the Slovenian language, and the historical term Windian was used pejoratively for assimilated Slovenes or those seeking assimilation with the German culture.

The Slovenes saw themselves as a rural and village people. Educated urban classes in Slovene society were more strongly exposed to cultural assimilation with the dominant German or Italian languages. The focus in Slovene national politics was therefore on farming cooperatives and village associations.

Education was a particularly sensitive area. During the nineteenth century considerable progress was made in increasing literacy in the hitherto mostly illiterate population of Carniola. In Slovenian-speaking areas of Styria, Carinthia and the coastland, the pressure to assimilate had to be resisted, as schooling in these regions was mainly in German or Italian. A comprehensive network of Slovenian educational institutions had to be created. There remained a dire shortage of higher education institutions, grammar schools and universities with classes in Slovenian.

The education system was the setting for the most radical aspects of the nationality problem. National school associations fought for the preservation of the ‘popular basis’, which brought about an entrenchment of the fronts in Carinthia and Styria. It led ultimately in 1895 to the Cilli [Celje] school dispute, when the local Slovene politicians demanded the establishment of Slovenian-speaking parallel classes in the grammar school in the Lower Styrian town, a German-speaking enclave in a Slovenian-speaking region. This assertive demand for equal treatment was a challenge to the conventional language hierarchy in the region, which was blown up by the German Nationalists into a frontal attack on German culture. The immoderate reactions escalated into a political crisis whose shockwaves reverberated throughout the entire monarchy.

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

    Nation-building – national programmes and positions

    Nation-building was part of the emancipation by large sections of the population from feudal dependence. In line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the nation – understood as a community of free citizens – was to become the sovereign in place of feudal potentates.