The Politics of National Identity

Bozidar Jezernik (Ljubljana).

Slovenian national identity as a specific individuality emerged after the March revolution of 1848 within the framework of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, as part of the process of modernisation, i.e., the transition from a feudal to a capitalist system. Arising capitalism brought an end to feudalism, and the citizenry started to deman national freedom in order to develop their own economic power. On the ruins of feudal society a new system was growing, and cultural life was marked by the national movement. The cultivation of domestic language and history, domestic literature and folklore, invoked a love of nation (Loncar 1911: 55-6). To the Slovenians, devoid of their own state, the idea of a nation as formulated by the German romantics was most attractive, giving as it did ‘to nation an independent life to state’ (Vosnjak 1913: 541). 

On account of the internal divisions regarding attitudes towards the Church and politics, among the Slovenian population of the Inner-Austria territories, there was no awareness of national cohesiveness. ‘To such lengths has gone the alienation of the politically disunited brothers of this our Slovenia that the Carniolan has been stinging and biting Slovenian Styrian more foully and bitterly than has any German, Italian, etc.; nor have any Carinthians and Styrians manifested any warmer affection towards their brother Carniolans’ (Apih 1888: 22-3). During the Spring of Nations, the promoters of Slovenian national spirit endeavoured to bring about a change in this situation, and to arouse the sense of solidarity or awareness ‘that they (i.e. Slovenian people, B. J.) all form part of such a commune, with their blood and lives, their benefits and obligations,’ since the allegedly first basis of nationality, which is that of blood kinship, ‘creates the material need for communally shared activity to defend in comradeship and to preserve wherever on Earth a certain number of people by acquiring and mutually exchanging the vital necessities and aids of life’ (Rogac 1860: 13).

If the proponents of national ‘awakening’ were to construct a Slovenian nation, they had to stand for something - both culturally and politically: this inevitably meant distinguishing the Slovenians from the non-Slovenians. The emerging Slovenian bourgeoisie, however, had an added interest in creating the feeling of solidarity and exclusivity, since it was economically and politically not powerful enough to compete with the German and Italian bourgeoisie on an equal footing. On 6 June 1875, the first Slovenian political daily, the Slovenski Narod, warned its readers that German unity represents a danger for ‘us, the Slovenians, and it could crash us.’ ‘The Germans feel as one body, one soul; let us Slavs, and especially Slovenians - who are exposed to the greatest danger - work on that, so that we, too, feel and work as we were one body, one soul. Svoji k svojim (Each to his own), that the defense may be solid!’ (Ω 1875b: 1).

At the occasion of ceremonial unveiling of the first ‘national monument’ dedicated to ‘the first Slovenian poet’ Valentin Vodnik, a performance was given of Svoji k svojim, written for this occasion by Josip Vosnjak. The content is briefly as follows:

Pilkovic, a retired judge and landowner, a man of ancient family roots and enthusiastic admirer of Vodnik, wants his daughter Zora to marry a distant relative, the young jurist Teodor Plevel. Zora, however, is more attracted by the character and other qualities of the young physician Dr Slavec, a regular visitor to the Pilkovic house. Teodor puts on the appearance of being a Slovenian, in order that he might gain both Zora and the Pilkovics’ estate, yet at heart he is a passionate opponent of the Slovenians and an adherent of Carniolan ‘Germania.’ When Pilkovic gets to know both suitors, he reluctantly dismisses Teodor and betroths Zora to the more reliable Dr Slavec. Since Pilkovic has just received an invitation to attend the celebrations in honour of Vodnik, he sets off for Ljubljana together with the young betrothed couple. The play enjoyed great success, particularly because it concludes with Vodnik’s apotheosis, as arranged by Mr. Jos. Kocelj. Namely, in front of Vodnik’s decorated bust, a song recital was given by members of the ‘Sokol’ society and by the department of the citalnica (reading-room) singers of ‘Illyria Revived.’ This was a most touching scene and one which must have delighted all and brought tears to the eyes of many (Anon. 1889b: l).

Thus, the national idea, translated into the slogan Each to His Own!, became an instrument for putting forward particular cultural, political, and also economic interests. They began, politically with small steps. When, in Celovec (Klagenfurt), the newspaper Slovenec appeared with its very first issue it was welcomed with words of encouragement by the correspondent from Ljubljana:

‘Whoever is in any way able to do so, may he subscribe to Slovenec as soon as possible. It will not be easy, yet true love overcomes all and sacrifices all for love of the homeland, however, our magnates and financiers care little or even not at all for the homeland. Then we will urge our relatives, mayors in the country and other acquaintances and friends of ours, and afterwards parishes and communal reading-rooms, that they should not forget Slovenec. Furthermore, we will appeal to the coffee-houses, inns, and hostelries also to subscribe to Slovenec, so that they too may do something for us, who bring them our kreutzers’ (-s-. 1865: 3).

After March 1848, the conflict of nationalities was real, but it also served to conceal class conflicts. Slovenian newcomers used it to force their way into an established social class, as Slovenian nationalism assisted the rising Slovenian intellectuals to oust German lawyers, teachers and state officials (Taylor 1941: 21-2). With the help of solidarity, Slovenian national leaders successfully kept back their political opposition. So, the Ljubljana bell-founder Samassa, for instance, who ‘cast his vote and who got elected throughout against us, native Slovenians,’ in 1875, received an appeal from his 57 workers ‘for God’s sake to abandon his German-leaning politics, or else they would do away with his bell-foundry’ (Anon. 1875: 3). At that time, Samassa bell-foundry recorded was marking two centuries of successful work in Ljubljana, and in every church in Carniola or in the neighbouring lands, the bells bore its name. On account of Samassa’s political activities, however, the Slovenian Church authorities no longer wished to place their orders from his company. ‘Slovenian Church heads listened to the voice of national journalism and started to place their order for bells in Wienner Neustadt rather than with the Ljubljana bell-founder, who cast his votes for nemskutarji 1 and stood for election by them! And they did the right thing! It is not immoral, it is right, it is good in these days, when the individual, all our nation, is fighting a fierce ’’struggle for survival,” that nobody - at least a wise and objectively judging person - would be opposed to such an action’ (Ω 1875a: 1).

This national battle was, of course, a double-bladed sword. It was exploited not only by the Slovenian political leaders but also by their opponents, the nemskutarji, who furthermore boycotted the narodnjaki (nationalists) and deprived them of their gains. In 1877 the Ljubljana Slovenec even praised this manner of dealing with political opponents, in order to win over its like- thinkers to engage in more decisive action in this sense: ‘Let us give support to our own people, let us give ourselves to that word of honour, and then the glory of nemskutarji will soon be brought to an end, for there are surely twenty Slovenians to every single nemskutar; then it will be easier for all to live with us, rather than against us. If we act in this way, we will drive away the self-seeking profiteers, as the Romans did with the elephants of Pyrrhus, and with them will also fall the nemskutar economy! Fortitude and energy!’ (Anon. 1877: 3).

A warning against the possibility of misusing the slogan of Each to His Own!, on account of pursuing personal interest, was given by Dr. Janko Sernec in the newspaper Slovenski Narod in 1881. According to Sernec, among the Czechs and Slovenians the widespread slogan was ‘on the face of it, beautiful indeed, but of only little validity,’ for the ‘iron rule’ of good husbandry demands that goods be bought ‘either there where for the same price they are better, or where an equal product is a better buy, or else from the place which is closer.’ Therefore, he proposed a new slogan, which was: ‘Let the national tradesman be the tradesman who has the best national goods and at the best price! Let the national worker, or doctor, or lawyer be the one who works most conscientiously, intelligently, diligently and at the best price! Let our national craftsmen and farmers produce and process many goods, at the true price and truly of excellence! Like this, we will surely advance, even faster than with the slogan: Each to His Own!’ (Sernec 1881: 2).

Several years later, writing more critically about the rhetoric of ‘the dear nation,’ an anonymous columnist in Slovenec noted that ‘profiteers,’ by using the sacred national rights, love towards the homeland, national support, national companies and suchlike, concealed many ‘dubious dealings.’ Some people would, in fact, make ‘out of the nation a defensive wall from behind which they could carry on with their scheming to their heart’s content.’ The anonymous columnist wrote:

‘We have national officials, national tradesmen, national innkeepers, tavern and coffee-house owners, craftsmen, artisans etc. Today, everything is national, particularly the tradesmen, who under the guise of this emblem so often swindle the people. The same is also done by the craftsmen. And a lawyer, once he had warmed himself a little in the national sunlight, also fleeces the national people. One should not, therefore, be surprised if the people have recourse to an honest adversary. All are crying out: Each to his own! Do not abandon us, we stand by the nation!’ (Anon. 1889a: 1).

Nevertheless, calling upon the people to do business with political fellow- thinkers and to boycott opponents remained on the agenda right up until the First World War. When members of the Ljubljana (German) gymnastic society, Turnverein, began preparations for their celebrations, the comment in Slovenec was:

‘No law may prohibit us from buying from a Slovenian-minded merchant or craftsman. No law can prevent us from recommending Slovenian businesses throughout the entire country. And furthermore it is our constitutional right that we may endeavour to ensure that influential posts in the administration in the Slovenian lands, whether in the judicial, financial or political administration, be assumed by men who will respect the Slovenian nation and will not set up German staging- posts upon Slovenian land. This is our national work...’ (Anon. 1903: 4).

Such appeals did fall on fertile soil, whenever it was possible to associate them with powerful feelings. The most tangible fruits were brought following the September events of 1908 when, for instance, Dr. Triller at a gathering in the Municipal Chamber addressed his audience as follows:

‘Fellow Slovenians, think what is happening with your Slovenian money. We Slovenians are ourselves to blame for this! Who is maintaining the Carniolan Savings Bank? We, ourselves. Who is supporting our German traders? We ourselves, and first of all our ladies! We must uncover this great canker on our body! Among us, all that is of our own production is criticised, while all that is foreign made is good!
This calls for an economic battle, so that our nemcurji may become humbled. I do not say that you should boycott hem, for that I dare not say, but I am saying to you - do not support them! Let us follow the example of the Czechs, who in the economic field have already killed their opponent. Let us follow their example, so that also in imperial Vienna they will recognise that Austria will be Slavic, or else will not be!’
Triller’s speech was received with ‘tumultuous approbation’ (Anon. 1908a: 6-7).

The firing by the Austrian army during demonstrators in the streets of Ljubljana, which resulted in the deaths of Rudolf Lunder and Ivan Adamic, aroused fierce bitterness among the Slovenian population of Ljubljana. The day after the incident, the Slovenians hung out black flags as a sign of mourning. Black flags were also displayed by the German business, but the Slovenian populace would not allow this to be done (Anon. 1908b: 2). At the same time, Ljubljana also started to notice Slovenian signboards above all the shops. German signs had been removed by the shop-owners, on the whole, ‘quite peacefully, without much ado’ (Anon. 1908c: 1). Those German signboards which had not been removed by certain shop-owners aroused resentment among the townspeople and gave rise to demands that ‘all, even the smallest German signs are removed,’ for: ‘The City should display its Slovenian appearance. Not only the signs of various businesses, but also the street signs must be immediately replaced with monolingual Slovenian signs. Ljubljana is Slovenian!’ (Anon. 1908b: 2).

Thus Ljubljana became for a while ‘only-Slovenian’, and ‘national Ljubljana’ was the firmest pillar of Slovenianness. Once the Slovenian awareness had become entrenched in the centre of the national territory, there arose the need to raise the national awareness also on its outer margins. For this purpose, through the establishment of the St. Cyril and Methodius society, numerous diverse activities were organized, in which by the sale of national postcards, national revenue stamps or national safety-matches, contributions were collected in support of compatriots living in the borderlands. ‘-What type of matches do you buy?’ was, for instance, a question posed by the Slovenec.

‘Let every fellow-thinking man ask this of his friend, let every fellow-thinking woman ask this of her friend. Our matches are those which display on the cover, between linden leaves, two fraternal hands holding the Slovenian flag, and which bear the inscription: For the benefit of borderland Slovenians. Everywhere demand to be given only these matches, and buy them! Do our landladies everywhere have these matches in their kitchens?! If you do not have them, buy them straight away!
By doing so, you will also be adding our work in saving those of our Slovenian brothers whom the foreigner on the border wishes to denationalise. Buy from those merchants who stock our matches! Until now, we have been all too little resolute in demanding to be given our matches. From now on it will be different!’ (Anon. 1910: 7).

Such appeals became even more direct immediately after the end of the First World War, when on 2 January 1919 the Ljubljana edition of Jugoslavija, for instance, called upon its subscribers, saying:

‘Away with German newspapers from our coffee-houses, inns and barber-shops! Subscribe to Slov. newspapers!’ Furthermore, in an article published on the same page, the author took to task the ‘Kavarna Avstrija’ (Coffe-house-Austria) in Ljubljana, which at that time had still not changed its name, and the owner of which was allegedly of the opinion that ‘all those who demand the removal of German newspapers are-asses.’ In the article, the comment on the coffee-house owner’s opinion was curt: ‘In Carinthia the Germans are killing our people, yet we are supposed to support their filthy newspapers’ (Anon. 1919a: 2).

Only a few days later, the call to an economic boycott of the German competition became general and open:

‘If we observe our purchasing public, we notice that they continue buying their required goods from various nemcurji, Schmitts, Worms and Bodenmullers. We had thought that, with Yugoslavia, all the German and nemskutar companies would vanish from our territory. Yet it is not so - we are continuing to go on with all-German propaganda in our homeland! We fear that the Slovenian public is still not ready to topple such German pillars, not by brute force but rather by ignoring their shops. Only once that happens will the Germans move to where, in their opinion, they belong and to where the all-German heart calls them. It is high time that also the supply for sale of various provisions should be withheld from such merchants, that they may no longer be able to continue filling their pockets with Slovenian money. Every nationally sensitive Slovenian will be indeed most unpleasantly afflicted to hear how arrogantly, yes, provocatively, such merchants still continue in our midst to publicly carry on with their nemskutarija’ (Anon. 1919b: 3).

The slogan Each to His Own! had been successfully implemented in the national struggles on Slovenian lands. Amongst the Slovenian inhabitants of the Inner-Austria there became established an awareness of affiliation to a political community far beyond the regional boundaries, and also a sense of solidarity between them. The symbolic construction of the community and its boundaries does, however, have - and in this instance did have - an oppositional character: the Slovenians and Slovenia were two identities, defined in relation towards others, i.e. towards non-Slovenians. In concert, with the ‘awakening’ of Slovenians from ‘centuries-long slumber,’ the wall of exclusivity, which divided them from their non-Slovenian countrymen was erected. Those who were not domorodci (natives) became tujci (foreigners). This wall, for instance, excluded the Auerspergs who lived in Carniola for centuries and were a family with an outstanding influence in the fields of Carniolan politics, military, economy and culture. While at the end of the nineteenth century, the historian Peter von Radics spoke about the renown poet and politician Anton Alexander Count of Auersperg as ‘the greatest son of Carniola’ (von Radics 1885: 19), in the following century his name was virtually forgotten.

References Cited

Anon. 1875. Zvonar g. Samassa; Slovenski Narod, April 27, p. 3.
Anon. 1877. Pyrrhova zmaga; Slovenec, August 4, p. 3.
Anon. 1889a. Narodni „humbug”; Slovenec, April 23, p. 1.
Anon. 1889b. Vodnikova slavnost. Dne 29. julija; Slovenec, July 3, pp. 1-2.
Anon. 1903. Turnarska slavnost; Slovenec, June 6, pp. 4-5.
Anon. 1908a. Demonstracije v Ljubljani; Slovenec, September 19, pp. 6-7.
Anon. 1908b. V znak sozalja; Slovenec, September 21, p. 2.
Anon. 1908c. Ljubljana brez nemskih in dvojezicnih napisov nad trgovinami; Slovenec, September 22, pp. 1-2.
Anon. 1910. Nasim - nase vzigalice!; Slovenec, March 26, p. 7.
Anon. 1919a. Kavarna „Avstrija”; Jugoslavija, January 5, p. 2.
Anon. 1919b. Izzivajoci nemskutarji; Jugoslavija, January 8, p. 3.
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Ω. 1875a. Prvi sad; Slovenski Narod, April 28, p. 1.
Ω. 1875b. Vnanja nemska politika; Slovenski Narod, June 6, p. 1.
Radics, Peter von. 1885. Ftihrer durch Krain. Laibach: Verlag von J. Giontini.
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Taylor, A. J. P. 1941. The HabsburgMonarchy 1815-1918. London: Macmillan and Co. Vosnjak, Bogumil. 1913. Studije k problemu jugoslovanske narodne misli; Veda, pp. 524-572.


1Words such as nemskutar or nemcur were derogatory terms to describe those persons who adopted German habits and manners of speech.