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A century ago, plebiscite left Slovenian minority on Austrian side of the border

Ljubljana, 8 October - Two years after the end of World War I, a Slovenian minority would end up on the other side of the Karawanks following a plebiscite in Carinthia that determined the border between Austria and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. While the outcome of the vote was the product of several factors, what followed was a period of revanchism.

Völkermarkt, Austria
A protest rally in Völkermarkt held on 9 May 1920, ahead of the Carinthian plebiscite.
Photo: National Museum of Contemporary History

Klagenfurt, Austria
Members of the Slovenian plebiscite commission in Klagenfurt.
Photo: National Museum of Contemporary History

The plebiscite was held on 10 October 1920 under the provisions of the Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed a year earlier by the allied powers that won World War I on the one hand and the Republic of German-Austria on the other.

While parts of Carinthia now in Slovenia (Meža Valley and Jezersko) were to be incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the fate of southern Carinthia down to the Klagenfurt basin was to be determined by a plebiscite, under the principle of self-determination championed by US President Woodrow Wilson.

Before the vote, the Klagenfurt basin was divided into two zones; Zone A in the south with a predominately Slovenian speaking population and the smaller Zone B, which comprised Klagenfurt and its surroundings. Zone B was to hold a referendum only if a majority of voters in Zone A would have opted for what had already at the time been known as Yugoslavia.

However, with the turnout at almost 96%, 22,025 ballots or 59.04% of the vote cast was in favour of Austria, against 15,279 or 40.96%, who opted for Yugoslavia.

In their 2003 textbook, historians Dušan Nećak and Božo Repe estimate that at least 10,000 Carinthian Slovenes voted in favour of Austria, while some historians estimate a majority of the Slovens eligible to vote opted for Austria.

Despite having posted military victories ahead of the plebiscite, the Slovene side suffered a diplomatic defeat at the Paris peace conference and another one at the ballot box.

A mix of factors and interests decided the outcome

Historian Andrej Rahten, a former Slovenian ambassador to Austria, says that several factors were at play in the outcome of the plebiscite, however the battle for Carinthia had already been lost during the Habsburg monarchy.

"Even before World War I, Slovenians in Carinthia saw an adverse demographic trend, going from one quarter of Carinthia's population in the 1900 census by speaking language, which was biased methodologically, to a good fifth in 1910, and then, in the first post-plebiscite census in 1923, to one tenth."

Rahten, talking with the Slovenian and Austrian press agencies, STA and APA, in a joint interview, says the key role in the decision for the plebiscite was played by US President Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

If it had not been for France's support of Yugoslavia, the demarcation would have been even more harmful for Slovenians, he says; if you asked the Americans, they would have assigned Carinthia north of the Karawanks to Austria even without a plebiscite.

This was because of the belief that Austria, which had to accept secessions of some other border territories with practically no referendum rights, should be given some territorial concession lest it should become part of some great Germany.

Rahten believes the plebiscite result would have been very different had it not been for the Karawanks mountain range, which represented not only a physical but also a psychological barrier.

"The decisive element was economic reasons"; for centuries Klagenfurt and Villach had been traditional markets for Carinthian farmers, while now they were supposed to be replaced by Ljubljana.

Similarly, British historian Robert Knight offers economic interests as one possible explanation why Slovenians opted for Austria, along with the appeal, or lack thereof, of Yugoslavia with respect to Catholicism or the monarchy.

The Austrian propaganda played an important role; it emphasised economic benefits of the undivided Klagenfurt basin, regional identity, links between Slovenian- and German-speaking inhabitants and the cultural differences between Catholic Austria and Orthodox Serbia as the leading nation in Yugoslavia.

Historian Tamara Griesser-Pečar, in one of her articles, also notes the significance of the Carinthian Slovenians' attachment to their land, as well as social, economic, religious and political reasons and their bad experiences with the Yugoslav authorities.

After plebiscite, broken promises and revanchism

A vital factor why Slovens opted for Austria would have been Austria's pledge to protect the minority's rights, passed by the provincial assembly in Klagenfurt in September 1920.

However, as early as 25 November 1920, Arthur Lemisch, the head of the province's provisional government, publicly advocated in the provincial assembly for Carinthian Slovenians to be Germanised within a generation.

The nationalist sentiment in Austria only grew between both world wars, resulting in further assimilation of Carinthian Slovenians. It was not until 1955 that they had their rights guaranteed in the Austrian State Treaty but they are yet to fully enjoy them.

Rahten and Knight, a historian from University College London who has studied the fate of Carinthian Slovenians, have talked to the STA and APA about the dark period in the wake of the plebiscite, about revanchism, persecution and scaremongering.

The Slovenians who voted for Austria were expected to assimilate, become German, while the others had to be induced to move south through a mixture of "pressure, persuasion and structural coercion", says Knight.

There were also opposing forces as for example in Social Democracy, "but by and large, Carinthian politics was also aimed at intolerance, exclusion and ethnic homogenization", although Knight does not see that as something distinctly Carintihan.

"The plebiscite definitely made the tensions only worse and it took decades, through change of generations, for those first months of revanchism to be gradually and slowly put behind," Rahten says.

He notes physical assaults on people accused to have voted for Yugoslavia, even if they may have not, arson attacks on the homes of Slovenian patriots, and the perpetrators going punished.

Before the plebiscite, Carinthian officials had been promising that no one would be hurt, that everyone would enjoy equal rights, that Slovenians would be better off than in the old Austria, but just the opposite happened.

"The promises were soon broken. What followed soon after can simply be called revanchism (...) which led to the Slovene elite being driven out of Carinthia," says Rahten, noting that an estimated 3,000 refugees fled Carinthia after the plebiscite.

At the same time, "the political impotence when it came to protection of the Slovene minority's rights in Carinthia was offset by very harsh measures taken against the Germans who were left in Yugoslav Slovenia", such as forced Slovenisation of German schools.

Centenary celebrations in a buoyant mood

The relationship between the majority and minority in Austrian Carinthia had begun to mend only after Slovenia declared independence in 1991 where Austria played a key role in the country's international recognition.

Like in the case of the Slovenian minority in Italy, the atmosphere for the minority in Carinthia improved further after Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and the Schengen area three years later.

Knight, noting that the centenary celebrations appear to have taken a different course after neglect of the Slovenian minority and its language in the past, believes the main emphasis of commemoration of 1920 should be on honouring the promise made publicly on the eve of the vote, that is to preserve the minority's unique identity.

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© STA, 2020