Slovenia is as old as the hills and yet as new as a few decades ago. Slovenia as a 'people' can trace its origins back at least a millennium and a half. But Slovenia as a nation-state is a much more recent entity; not until June 1991 did Slovenia arrive as an independent republic. Slovenia's story begins with the mass migration of Celts, but by the late 13th century the Habsburgs moved in and stayed for more than six centuries.
The area of present-day Slovenia has been settled since the Palaeolithic Age. Stone implements that date back to 250,000 BC have been found in a cave near Orehek southwest of Postojna.
During the Bronze Age (roughly 2600 to 800 BC), marsh dwellers farmed and raised cattle in the Ljubljansko Barje – the marshland south of present-day Ljubljana – and at Lake Cerknica. They lived in round huts set on stilts and traded with other peoples along the so-called Amber Route linking the Balkans with Italy and northern Europe.
Around 700 BC the Ljubljana Marsh people were overwhelmed by Illyrian tribes from the south who brought with them iron tools and weapons. They settled largely in the southeast, built hilltop forts and reached their peak between 650 and 550 BC, during what is called the Hallstatt period.
Iron helmets, gold jewellery and situlae (embossed pails) with distinctive Hallstatt geometric motifs have been found in tombs near Stična and at Vače near Litija; you’ll see some excellent examples of these findings at both the National Museum of Slovenia in Ljubljana and the Dolenjska Museum in Novo Mesto.
Around 400 BC, Celtic tribes from what are now France, Germany and the Czech Republic began pushing southward towards the Balkans. They mixed with the local population and established the Noric kingdom, the first ‘state’ on Slovenian soil.
In 181 BC the Romans established the colony of Aquileia (Oglej in Slovene) on the Gulf of Trieste in order to protect the empire from tribal incursions. Two centuries later they annexed the Celtic Noric kingdom and moved into the rest of Slovenia and Istria.
The Romans divided the area into the provinces of Noricum, Upper and Lower Pannonia and Histria, later called Illyrium, and built roads connecting their new military settlements. From these bases developed the important towns of Emona (Ljubljana), Celeia (Celje) and Poetovio (Ptuj), where reminders of the Roman presence can still be seen.
The Early Slavs
In the middle of the 5th century AD, the Huns, led by Attila, invaded Italy via Slovenia, attacking Poetovio, Celeia and Emona along the way. On their heels came the Germanic Ostrogoths and then the Langobards, who occupied much of Slovenian territory. The last major wave was made up of the early Slavs.
The ancestors of today’s Slovenes arrived from the Carpathian Basin in the 6th century and settled in the Sava, Drava and Mura River valleys and the eastern Alps. In their original homelands, the early Slavs were a peaceful people, living in forests or along rivers and lakes, breeding cattle and farming by slash-and-burn methods. They were superstitious, seeing vile (both good and bad fairies or sprites) everywhere and worshipping a pantheon of gods and goddesses. As a social group they made no class distinctions, but chose a leader – a župan (the modern Slovenian word for ‘mayor’) or vojvoda (duke) – in times of great danger. During the migratory periods, however, they became more warlike and aggressive.
From Duchy to Kingdom
In the early 7th century, the Alpine Slavs united under their leader, Duke Valuk, and joined forces with the Frankish kingdom. This tribal union became the Duchy of Carantania (Karantanija) – the first Slavic state, with its seat at Krn Castle (now Karnburg), near Klagenfurt in modern-day Austria.
Within a century, a new class of ennobled commoners called kosezi had emerged, and it was they who publicly elected and crowned the new knez (grand duke) on the knežni kamen (‘duke’s rock’) in the courtyard of Krn Castle. Such a process was unique in the feudal Europe of the early Middle Ages.
In 748 the Frankish empire of the Carolingians incorporated Carantania as a vassal state called Carinthia and began converting the people to Christianity. By the early 9th century, religious authority on Slovenian territory was shared between Salzburg and the Patriarchate (or Bishopric) of Aquileia, now in Italy. The weakening Frankish authorities began replacing Slovenian nobles with German counts, reducing the local peasants to serfs. The German nobility was thus at the top of the feudal hierarchy for the first time in Slovenian lands. This would later become one of the chief obstacles to Slovenian national and cultural development.
With the total collapse of the Frankish state in the second half of the 9th century, a Carinthian prince named Kocelj established a short-lived (869–74) independent Slovenian ‘kingdom’ in Lower Pannonia, the area stretching southeast from Styria to the Mura, Drava and Danube Rivers. But German King Otto I would soon bring this to an end after defeating the Magyars in the mid-10th century.
The Germans decided to re-establish Carinthia, dividing the area into a half-dozen border regions (krajina) or marches. These developed into the Slovenian provinces that would remain basically unchanged until 1918: Carniola (Kranjska), Carinthia (Koroška), Styria (Štajerska), Gorica (Goriška) and the so-called White March (Bela Krajina).
A drive for complete Germanisation of the Slovenian lands began in the 10th century. Land was divided between the nobility and various church dioceses, and the German gentry were settled on it. The population remained essentially Slovenian, however, and it was largely due to intensive educational and pastoral work by the clergy that the Slovenian identity was preserved.
From the 10th to the 13th centuries, most of Slovenia’s castles were built and many important Christian monasteries – such as Stična and Kostanjevica – were established. Towns also began to develop as administrative, trade and social centres from the 11th century.
Early Habsburg Rule
In the early Middle Ages, the Habsburgs were just one of many German aristocratic families struggling for hegemony on Slovenian soil. Others, such as the Andechs, Spanheims and Žoneks (later the Counts of Celje), were equally powerful at various times. But as dynasties intermarried or died out, the Habsburgs consolidated their power. Between the late 13th century and the early 16th century, almost all the lands inhabited by Slovenes passed into Habsburg hands.
By this time Slovenian territory totalled about 24,000 sq km, approximately 15% larger than its present size. Not only did more towns and boroughs receive charters and rights, but the country began to develop economically, with the opening of ironworks at Kropa and mines at Idrija. This economic progress reduced the differences among the repressed peasants, and they united against their feudal lords.
Raids, Revolts & Reformation
Attacks by the Ottoman Turks on southeastern Europe in the early 15th century helped to radicalise landless peasants and labourers, who were required to raise their own defences and continue to pay tribute and work for their feudal lords. More than a hundred peasant uprisings and revolts occurred on Slovenian territory between the 14th and 19th centuries, but they reached their peak between 1478 and 1573. Together with the Protestant Reformation at the end of the 16th century, they are considered a watershed of the Slovenian national awakening.
In most of the uprisings, peasant ‘unions’ demanded a reduction in feudal payments and the democratic election of parish priests. Castles were occupied and pulled down and lords executed, but none of the revolts succeeded over the longer term.
The Protestant Reformation in Slovenia was closely associated with the nobility from 1540 onward and was generally ignored by the rural population except for those who lived or worked on lands owned by the church. But the effects of this great reform movement cannot be underestimated. It gave Slovenia its first books in the vernacular, thereby lifting the status of the language and thus affirming Slovenian culture.
Habsburg Reforms & Napoleon
Reforms introduced by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa (1740–80) included the establishment of a new state administration with a type of provincial government; the building of new roads; and the introduction of obligatory elementary school in German and state-controlled secondary schools. Her son, Joseph II (1780–90), went several steps further. He abolished serfdom in 1782, paving the way for the formation of a Slovenian bourgeoisie, and allowed complete religious freedom for Calvinists, Lutherans and Jews. He also made primary education in Slovene compulsory. As a result of these reforms, agricultural output improved, manufacturing intensified and there was a flowering of the arts and letters in Slovenia.
But the French Revolution of 1789 convinced the Austrians that reforms should be nipped in the bud, and a period of reaction began that continued until the Revolution of 1848. In the meantime, however, there was a brief interlude that would have a profound effect on Slovenia and its future. After defeating the Austrians at Wagram in 1809, Napoleon decided to cut the entire Habsburg Empire off from the Adriatic. To do this he created six ‘Illyrian Provinces’ from Slovenian and Croatian regions, and made Ljubljana their capital.
Although the Illyrian Provinces lasted only from 1809 to 1813, France instituted a number of reforms, including equality before the law and the use of Slovene in primary and lower secondary schools and in public offices. Most importantly, the progressive influence of the French Revolution brought the issue of national awakening to the Slovenian political arena for the first time.
Romantic Nationalism & The 1848 Revolution
The period of so-called Romantic Nationalism (1814–48), also known as the Vormärz (pre-March) period in reference to the revolution that broke out across much of Central Europe in March 1848, was one of intensive literary and cultural activity and led to the promulgation of the first Slovenian political program. Although many influential writers published at this time, no one so dominated the period as the poet France Prešeren (1800–49). His bittersweet verse, progressive ideas, demands for political freedom and longings for the unity of all Slovenes caught the imagination of the nation then and it has never let it go.
In April 1848 Slovenian intellectuals drew up their first national political program under the banner Zedinjena Slovenija (United Slovenia). It called for the unification of all historic Slovenian regions within an autonomous unit under the Austrian monarchy, the use of Slovene in all schools and public offices, and the establishment of a local university. The demands were rejected, as they would have required the reorganisation of the empire along ethnic lines. Slovenes of the time were not contemplating total independence. Indeed, most looked upon the Habsburg Empire as a protective mantle for small nations against larger ones they considered predators like Italy, Germany and Serbia.
The only tangible results for Slovenes in the 1848 Austrian Constitution were that laws would henceforth be published in Slovene and that the Carniolan (and thus Slovenian) flag should be three horizontal stripes of white, blue and red. But the United Slovenia program would remain the basis of all Slovenian political demands up to 1918, and political-cultural clubs and reading circles began to appear all over the territory. Parties first appeared towards the end of the 19th century, and a new idea – a union with other Slavs to the south – was propounded from the 1860s onward.
The Kingdom Of Serbs, Croats & Slovenes
With the defeat of Austria-Hungary in WWI and the subsequent dissolution of the Habsburg dynasty in 1918, Slovenes, Croats and Serbs banded together and declared the independent Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under Serbian King Peter I. Postwar peace treaties had given large amounts of Slovenian and Croatian territory to Italy, Austria and Hungary, and almost half a million Slovenes now lived outside the borders.
The kingdom was dominated by Serbian control, imperialistic pressure from Italy and the notion of Yugoslav unity. Slovenia was reduced to little more than a province in this centralist kingdom, although it did enjoy cultural and linguistic autonomy. Economic progress was rapid.
In 1929 Peter I’s son Alexander seized power, abolished the constitution and proclaimed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But he was assassinated five years later during an official visit to France, and his cousin, Prince Paul, was named regent. The political climate changed in Slovenia when the conservative Clerical Party joined the new centralist government in 1935, proving that party’s calls for Slovenian autonomy hollow. Splinter groups began to seek closer contacts with the workers’ movements; in 1937 the Communist Party of Slovenia (KPS) was formed under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ).
WWII & The Partisan Struggle
Yugoslavia's involvement in WWII began in April 1941 when the German army invaded and occupied the country. Slovenia was split up among Germany, Italy and Hungary. To counter this, the Slovenian communists and other left-wing groups formed a Liberation Front (Osvobodilne Fronte; OF), and the people took up arms for the first time since the peasant uprisings. The OF, dedicated to the principles of a united Slovenia in a Yugoslav republic, joined the all-Yugoslav Partisan army of the KPJ, which received assistance from the Allies and was the most organised – and successful – of any resistance movement during WWII.
After Italy capitulated in 1943, the anti-OF Slovenian Domobranci (Home Guards) were active in western Slovenia and, in a bid to prevent the communists from gaining political control in liberated areas, began supporting the Germans. Despite this assistance and the support of the fascist groups in Croatia and Serbia, the Germans were forced to evacuate Belgrade in 1944. Slovenia was not totally liberated until May 1945.
The following month, as many as 12,000 Domobranci and anti-communist civilians were sent back to Slovenia from refugee camps in Austria by the British. Most of them were executed by the communists over the next two months, their bodies thrown into the caves at Kočevski Rog.
Crisis, Renewal & Change
In 1987 the Ljubljana-based magazine Nova Revija published an article outlining a new Slovenian national program, which included political pluralism, democracy, a market economy and independence, possibly within a Yugoslav confederation. The new liberal leader of the Slovenian communists, Milan Kučan, did not oppose the demands, and opposition parties began to emerge. But the de facto head of the central government in Belgrade, Serbian communist leader Slobodan Milošević, resolved to put pressure on Slovenia.
In June 1988 three Slovenian journalists working for the weekly Mladina (Youth) – including the former prime minister, Janez Janša – and a junior army officer who had given away ‘military secrets’ were tried by a military court and sentenced to prison. Mass demonstrations erupted throughout the country.
In the autumn Serbia unilaterally scrapped the autonomy of Kosovo (where 80% of the population is ethnically Albanian) granted by the 1974 constitution. Slovenes were shocked by the move, fearing the same could happen to them. A rally organised jointly by the Slovenian government and the opposition in Ljubljana early in the new year condemned the move.
In the spring of 1989 the new opposition parties published the May Declaration, demanding a sovereign state for Slovenes that was based on democracy and respect for human rights. In September the Slovenian parliament amended the constitution to legalise management of its own resources and peacetime command of the armed forces. Serbia announced plans to hold a ‘meeting of truth’ in Ljubljana on its intentions. When Slovenia banned it, Serbia and all the other republics except Croatia announced an economic boycott of Slovenia, cutting off 25% of its exports. In January 1990 Slovenian delegates walked out on a congress of the Communist Party.
In April 1990 Slovenia became the first Yugoslav republic to hold free elections. Demos, a coalition of seven opposition parties, won 55% of the vote, and Kučan, head of what was then called the Party of Democratic Renewal, was elected president. The Slovenian parliament adopted a declaration on the sovereignty of the state of Slovenia. Slovenia’s own constitution would direct its political, economic and judicial systems; federal laws would apply only if they were not in contradiction to it.
On 23 December 1990, 88.5% of the Slovenian electorate voted for an independent republic, effective within six months. The presidency of the Yugoslav Federation in Belgrade labelled the move 'secessionist' and 'anticonstitutional'. Serbia took control of the Yugoslav monetary system and misappropriated almost the entire monetary issue planned for Yugoslavia in 1991 – US$2 billion. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Slovenian government began stockpiling weapons, and on 25 June 1991 Slovenia pulled out of the Yugoslav Federation for good. ‘This evening dreams are allowed’, President Kučan told a jubilant crowd in Ljubljana’s Kongresni trg the following evening. ‘Tomorrow is a new day.’
Indeed it was. On 27 June the Yugoslav army began marching on Slovenia but met resistance from the Territorial Defence Forces, the police and the general population. Within several days, units of the federal army began disintegrating; Belgrade threatened aerial bombardment and Slovenia faced the prospect of total war.
The military action had not come totally unprovoked. To dramatise their bid for independence and to generate support from the West, which preferred to see Yugoslavia continue to exist in some form or another, Slovenian leaders attempted to take control of the border crossings first. Apparently Belgrade had never expected Slovenia to resist, believing that a show of force would be sufficient for it to back down.
As no territorial claims or minority issues were involved, the Yugoslav government agreed on 7 July to a truce brokered by leaders of the European Community (EC). Under the so-called Brioni Declaration, Slovenia would put further moves to assert its independence on hold for three months provided it was granted recognition by the EC after that time. The war had lasted just 10 days and took the lives of 66 people.
The Road To Europe
Belgrade withdrew the federal army from Slovenian soil on 25 October 1991, less than a month after Slovenia introduced its own new currency – the tolar. In late December, Slovenia got a new constitution that provided for a bicameral parliamentary system of government. The head of state, the president, is elected directly for a maximum of two five-year terms. Executive power is vested in the prime minister and his cabinet.
The EC formally recognised Slovenia in January 1992, and the country was admitted to the UN four months later as the 176th member state. In May 2004, Slovenia entered the EU as a full member and less than three years later adopted the euro, replacing the tolar as its national currency.