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Slovenian victims of WWI honoured in Poland, Ukraine

Warsaw/Lvov, 23 May - Monuments dedicated to Slovenians who lost their lives in WWI in present-day Poland and Ukraine were unveiled in Gorlice and Lviv on Wednesday. The two monuments honour the memory of more than 30,000 Slovenians who lost their lives in the bloody battles on the Eastern Front.

Ljubljana
President Borut Pahor.
Photo: Tamino Petelinšek/STA

The two monuments, designed by Janez Suhadolc, are hand made by Slovenian stonemasons from the Pohorje tonalite.

President Borut Pahor unveiled the monument in Gorlice in south-east Poland together with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda.

The Slovenian president stressed the importance of peace and constant striving for peace in his speech. The seventy years of peace since WWII is the longest period of peace in the history of Europe and a cause for celebration, Pahor said.

"This proves that peace is always possible and must never be taken for granted. It must also not be powered only by the horrible memory of the war but also by the wonderful dreams of a happy future for our children."

Duda thanked Pahor for attending the ceremony a few months earlier at which a monument to the Polish soldiers who had fought on the WWI Isonzo Front was unveiled in Slovenia.

"Slovenian and Polish solders lost their lives here and there. They had not been fighting under their own flags back then. Great political goals have been achieved since and the freedom of our nations was born from the blood of our soldiers," he said.

Defence Minister Andreja Katič meanwhile unveiled a similar monument in Lviv together with Lieutenant General Anatolii Petrenko, the Ukrainian deputy minister of defence for European integration. She said that the monument was an expression of great respect of Ukraine towards Slovenia.

"Galicia is a region of a great historical importance for our nation. This is where the biggest number of our soldiers killed in the First World War found their resting place", she was quoted in a press release from the Defence Ministry.

"After a century, this memory is still painful ... but one hundred years is also a long enough period to surround this pain, which cannot be erased, with respect and responsibility of our generation."

Katič also expressed the readiness to help erect a similar monument in Slovenia to Ukrainian soldiers who were buried in military cemeteries along the Soča River in the First World War.

The Eastern Front in Galicia in WWI was the biggest killing field of Slovenian soldiers. As many as 10,000 lost their lives there.

In the present-day south Poland and western Ukraine, as many as 35,000-40,000 Slovenian soldiers fighting for the Austro-Hungarian empire were killed.

But their sacrifice has never gotten a proper place in the collective Slovenian memory. According to historian Damijan Guštin, the exact number of the fallen Slovenian soldiers has never been determined but merely calculated from the estimated share of total victims.

Historians attribute this to the fact that in the new kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians the historians celebrated Serbia's participation in the war on the side of the winners, while the former soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian empire were forgotten.

Almost three decades later, after WWII, a new social system further diminished the importance of WWI and after 1945 several monuments to Slovenian WWI soldiers on Slovenian land were destroyed.

Later, the Isonzo Front got much more attention because it was the biggest battlefield in history on Slovenian soil although the number of Slovenian victims was much bigger in Galicia.

The importance of the battles in Galicia for the outcome of WWI was also overlooked in the global perspective.

Unprepared for the war, the Austro-Hungarian empire was overpowered by the strong Russian units in the area that belonged to the monarchy since Poland was divided in 1772.

In the first days of the battle, more than 30,000 men were mobilised in Slovenian lands to join the hundreds of thousands in the battles from which the monarchy never really fully recovered.

In three weeks, the Austo-Hungarian side recorded 324,000 casualties and 130,000 soldiers were in captivity. Another 120,000 were left surrounded at the Przemysl fortress and were eventually forced to surrender.

According to some estimates, the Austrian army lost its core in the two months and Germany finally lost its ally in the war in the winter, when the number of victims of the Austro-Hungarian army rose to a million killed, captured, wounded or missing.

The complete Russian success at the front was somewhat diminished by its defeat against Germany at the Battle of Tannenberg.

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© STA, 2018