Home » Borderlife » All of a sudden, the homeland was gone – the legacy of World War I for Slovenia

All of a sudden, the homeland was gone – the legacy of World War I for Slovenia

In connection with the HistoryCampus Europe 14/14 in Berlin, young Europeans from 40 different countries dealt with the legacy of the Great War for their countries and for themselves. Tamara Čakič from Slovenia wanted to dig deeper into the consequences of WW I for her homecountry and interviewed Bojan Balkovec, professor at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ljubljana and at the same time one of the organizers of the Slovenian EUSTORY competition. They spoke about the war, its influence on Slovenia and the Slovenians as well as its current perception in society and in Slovenian history teaching.

Bojan Balkovec particularly highlighted the importance of historical sights and monuments for educational purposes. Both of them were able to deepen their exchange during the HistoryCampus in Berlin where they actually met when Tamara Cakic shared the story of her great grandfather who fought for the newly established State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs after the end of WW I with the EUSTORY competition organizers at the opening of the EUSTORY Annual Network Meeting in Berlin on 8 May. Here is the summary of the talk they had before they both came to Berlin.

What kind of influence did the great war have on Slovenia? 
It actually had a wide range of influence. The first is definitely that our state collapsed, our homeland was gone. In 1914 men joined the army in order to protect the homeland and the emperor, and when they returned this homeland was gone and so was the emperor. »The homeland is gone, so what did we then fight for?« one might ask. 
As second we could mention the industrial emancipation of women. Of course women worked in factories even before the war (like the Tobacco factory in Ljubljana), however during the war we find them working in the heavy industry, which was before then exclusively men's domain. 
Thirdly, despite the fact that Slovenia had quite a small number of casualties (however, taking into account the amount of population this number was not so small), there were of course many dead soldiers. Consequently, families were facing the loss of the breadwinner, which was particularly hard for the peasant families. The consequences of such family tragedies reflected also in the economic field, where different kind of social allowances were introduced in the time period following the War. 

Bojan Balkovec (Photo Kristi Hodak)

Bojan Balkovec (Photo Kristi Hodak)

In addition, as women worked in the heavy industry, they also got injured while doing their jobs. Since the factories they worked in were mostly under military management the national government decided that these women deserve identical welfare and health services as men who were injured during the war.
Slovenians also witnessed repercussions in the national body: changes of the borders, a new, different international environment. The war also caused hunger and shortages of necessities in general. People replied to these repercussions with activating themselves in society and organizing different humanitarian actions where they collected what the most affected people needed.
So there was really a wide range of consequences, from these more serious and severe and all the way to the more bizarre ones. One, belonging in the latter category might be the fact that there was no church-bell ringing, since all the bells were re-melted into cannons. This is certainly quite bizarre, but it still affects people psychologically since it changes their every day life. Another psychological affect imposed on the population was the relative proximity of the front on the Soča river. The front was only 100 km away from Ljubljana and people could hear the cannons booming in the distance on daily bases. Ljubljana and the surrounding towns were actually the outskirts of the frontline, which means they also had to deal with numbers of heavily injured soldiers who were sent to the hospitals from the front line.

This brings us to yet another influence the war had on the population. Namely, the governments moved the civilian population living near the front line. Some of these refugees moved to live with their relatives while others were sent to refugee camps (many Slovenian refugees were placed in the refugee camp Wagna near Leibnitz, Austria). In both cases they had to change the known environment and leave their homes and face the uncertainty. 

Names of dead soldiers of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire on wooden walls in Javorca (Photo Tina Gotthardt)

Names of dead soldiers of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire on wooden walls in Javorca (Photo Tina Gotthardt)

What about the consequences that became visible after the war?
These were quite different in character. Firstly, there was a big and important question of perception of this war as »our war«. There was a smaller issue in this aspect. Namely, after the Great War Slovenians were included in the framework of the new state, where winners of the war were Serbs while Slovenians used to be a part of the losing party. Hence, the atmosphere was filled with Serbian pride and heroism. The issue of winners and losers of the war being now united in the new state is also visible when we look at some of the monuments. There we can see inscriptions stating: »These men died for their homeland.« and the logical question which follows should be: »For which homeland exactly?« Some of them had died for the king Karađorđević, while the others died for the Emperor. However, there were no bigger problems stemming from these historic differences, which were overcome by the nations unified in the new state.

I should also mention the fact that the Emperor's soldiers of Slovenian nationality were firstly sent to Galicia, the most faraway and the most Eastern front in the War. However, when Italy entered the war some of the Slovenian soldiers were moved to the new front with Italy. More particularly, this was the part of the front based on the Soča river (which runs in the nowadays border region between Slovenia and Italy), which meant that they were practically fighting 'at home', defending their own homes. What happened here was that it somehow 'clicked' in the heads of the Slovenian soldiers that now they are not fighting merely for the Emperor but first and foremost for themselves, their families and their homes. This definitely contributed to the toughness and resistance of these soldiers, witnessed on this particular front.  

One of the more unusual aspects of the consequences of the Great War is the situation concerning the number of people who were in Russian war captivity. After the release from the captivity it took them one or more years to return home and it often happened that they were announced dead in the meantime. However, despite the fact that these people suffered in the war and had to bear its consequences they were never officially considered as being victims of the war (where they would 'join' the fallen and the injured).
In the case of Slovenia and Slovenians the consciousness of the Great War was more or less present only in the area where the frontline has extended. In the Western Europe this consciousness was present all-over population since there were massive casualties on the fronts.
The Great War, its developments and its legacy also definitely contributed to the establishments of the new state. To be more precise: On 30 May 1917, while the Austrian parliament was out of function, Anton Korošec, the president of the Yugoslavian club read out the so called »May Declaration«, which foresaw the unification of the South Slavic nations into one political formation still in the framework of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Slovenians still pledged their loyalty to the Empire and the Emperor, although they obviously recognized themselves as not only and exclusively Austrians, but also politically identified their Slavic ties. Their claim was a three-part Empire of Austrians, Hungarians and South-Slaves. However, the Austrian authorities did not react positively to this claim. In the summer that year we witness the first phase of a large historical shift, when people in Slovenia started a campaign in the support of the Declaration. Once again, people in Slovenia still felt 'Austrian' and kept their loyalty to the Emperor, but there was recognition that Slaves deserve their equal part in the Empire, similar to the position of Austrians and Hungarians. At that point Slovenians were not »destroyers« of the state yet.

Still, in May 1918 the development of events came to the breaking point. Both previously opposing political parties became united under the idea of patriotism. The differences between two opposing political blocks in Slovenia were put aside in the spirit of national consciousness and this was definitely one of the consequences of the Great War. 
In August 1918 Slovenians established their own political institution, called the National Council, which meant that there were in fact two parallel authorities in the Empire. Later on the Council even appointed the National Government and started to depose Austrian officials working in Slovenian territory. The unity of Slovenian political parties did not last long, but it was certainly an occurrence connected with the influence of the War.
The Great War did not influence only the national consciousness of Slovenians; it also decisively changed and re-drew the national borders. Consequently a large group of people was left behind the borders of their homeland and new national minorities were created. That caused the issue and challenge of the question of minorities. Italians began strong Italianization of Slovenian minorities living in the Italian territory and thus the change of borders meant a loss of national identities for a particular group of Slovenians.

If we move to the question of remembrance, is it important for Slovenians to remember and preserve the memory of the Great War for the next generations? Is it important to learn about the Great War in schools?

Well, the problem in teaching history is that there is more to teach with every year passing by. In primary schools the curriculum foresees teaching about the Great War in two topics: first is the Great War in political sense and the second is from the economic and industrial viewpoint. However, this obligatory discussion about the Great War can be covered in merely two lessons. What is more, in the curriculum for gymnasiums the topic of the Great War is not specifically mentioned as a separate topic but is foreseen to be mentioned and covered in few lessons combined under the topic of »Conflicts in the 20th Century«. As a teacher you can easily face the issue of what to stress and why to focus on it. Still, the Great War can be exposed in more than just one way. 
Firstly, the Great War truly represents the end of the 'old world'. The old and mighty empires collapsed with the beginning of the Great War – the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and its pre-existing formations) that persisted on our territory for more than 600 years was gone with the end of the Great War. 
Secondly, the Great War is worth the attention in schools due to the fact that the world became global at that point in history. World became a community that is aware of itself, its connectedness and mutual influences on each of its parts.
Thirdly, despite everything, the Great War should be mentioned as a time period, which at least slightly improves the status of women in society. From the most bizarre improvement of women beginning to show their ankles and shortening their hair, to more serious changes and improvements in the political and economic field.

Young Europeans visiting Javorca cathedral (Photo Tina Gotthardt)

Young Europeans visiting Javorca cathedral (Photo Tina Gotthardt)

The next aspect of the Great War worth focusing on in schools is of course the industrial and technological development, which is sadly inherently connected with military technology. Beside that, we should also stress that this war was truly common, universal war. It touched and influenced everyone; all were victims of that war in one way or another. Before 1914 only people living in the direct proximity of the battlefield and those living in the villages through which armies passed, felt the war and its consequences. The others were not affected by the wars before – except maybe with a new tax or so. 
In this aspect the Great War and its commemoration does and also should serve as a warning for the future. The monuments and material legacy of the Great War, such as the chapel on Javorca, which the participants of the 2013's EUSTORY Youth Academy in Ljubljana also visited, should be visited and their meaning and the message they contain should be acknowledged.

Should schools include more visits to the memorial sights and historically relevant monuments? 
Well, it is certain that people should know (and learn) about history and we should therefore educate children and our youth about it. However, visits to the historical monuments should be conducted strictly in the spirit of remembrance and not as a sort of 'pilgrimage' or means of indoctrination. The monument itself should be presented as a warning stemming from historical experience. In the case of the Great War visits of the memorial sights should call for a discussion about reasons for the War, its meaning for the affected societies, its consequences and its legacy.

Should we then change the existing history curriculum or at least its part of dealing with the great war? 
There are also other options of how to alter the existing approach. We could definitely include examples from the Great War in other subjects taught at school. Subject of ethics and civil education (which teaches pupils about current events in politics, about society and the state) could certainly include historical examples in order to explain the development of political or social practices known today.
There is always more to history than the mere facts about this or that front and battle. Behind all that are personal stories and experiences and it is important that after all that time, after 100 and more years, we still educate our youth about what happened and how the people were affected on daily bases. EUSTORY academies and projects such as History Campus Europe 14|14 help to reveal a more personal aspect of great historical events. I believe historical events are never too far away; we should always remember them and use the lessons they contain

As Mr Balkovec nicely concluded, time that passed since certain historical event took place should never serve as an excuse or reason for that particular part of history to be forgotten. I believe that history offers us plenty of advices and lessons that are based on past experiences, decisions that proved as grave mistakes or unforgettable victories. I do believe that history could fulfil its role as a life’s teacher; however, societies tend to neglect this hidden value of the past times. In my opinion, we should remember past events and always ask ourselves what were the reasons behind it, what was its legacy, what meaning and impact did it have on people years, even centuries ago and what impact does it have on us today. We should remember and hopefully be smart enough to see the similarity of nowadays’ decisions and developments to the ones in history and thus recognize whether we are on the path of repeating mistakes, accepting decisions that already worked or making our own way in facing new and unprecedented challenges.