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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. “National projects” and their regional framework

The Slovenes and the Yugoslavs

Ivan Cankar
Traduction de Olga Vukovič

Texte intégral

1Title: Slovenci inJugoslovani (The Slovenes and the Yugoslavs)

2Originally published: a lecture at the social-democratic society Vzajemnost, 12 April, 1913, published in the social democrat’bulletin, Zarja, 15–17 April, 1913

3Language: Slovene
The excerpts used are from Ivan Cankar, Izbrana dela (Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga, 1973), pp. 314–326.

About the author

4Ivan Cankar [1876, Vrhnika (Ger. Laibach Altober, present-day Slovenia) -1918, Ljubljana (Ger. Laibach)]: story writer, playwright, poet and essayist. He was the eighth child in a broken family. His father was a tailor who abandoned his trade after a garment shop was opened in Vrhnika, and moved to Bosnia, forsaking his family. Despite the hardships endured by his family, the extraordinarily intelligent Ivan received generous support for his schooling from the noblemen of Vrhnika. After graduating from secondary school in 1896, he went to Vienna, where he initially pursued technical studies, but soon shifted to Slavic studies. In 1907, following the introduction of universal suffrage for parliamentary elections, he was nominated by the Slovenian Social Democrats as a candidate, but was not elected. An intellectual with an independent mind, Cankar adopted a critical attitude towards the expressly pro-Serbian radical circles, particularly the Ljubljana group of secondary school students who, during 1912 and 1913, published the paper Preporod (Revival). Before the First World War, the Preporod group was the only political movement in Slovenia that took an anti-Austrian stance and advocated the establishment of a Yugoslav state outside the Austrian monarchy. Their political views were rejected not only by all political parties, but also by the majority of eminent Slovenian intellectuals. Similarly, Ivan Cankar’s views were not widely shared, although he was far from being pro–Serbian. As a consequence of the lecture presented here, the Vzajemnost (Mutuality) society was dissolved, while Cankar was sentenced to one week in prison. This, as he himself argued, had turned him into a martyr. In August 1914 he was again imprisoned until October for supporting the Yugoslav idea. He died on 11 December, 1918, as a result of an accident. Ivan Cankar was the most renowned representative of modern Slovenian literature. He had renounced realism, the dominant trend in Slovenian literature of the time, countering it with the neo–romantic principle of subjective narration. He argued for the critical role of literature in social issues, while his own social views, influenced by Nietzsche’s philosophy, were frequently anarchistic. Cankar’s story Hlapec Jernej in njegova pravica (Bailiff Jernej and his justice) has been translated into all major world languages. His thoughts on Yugoslav and Slovenian nationhood and related issues were essential for the shaping of political trends in Slovenia between the two World Wars. During his life, his work was viewed as being substandard, ideologically problematic and socially detrimental, but after his death, the blame turned into categorical praise, and he was perceived as a folk visionary and a prophet.

5Main works: Erotika [Eroticism] (1899); Za narodov blagor [For the welfare of the people] (1901); Kralj na Betajnovi [The king of Betajnova] (1902); Na klancu [On the slope] (1902); Hiša Marije Pomočnice [The ward of Our Lady of Mercy] (1904); Martin Kačur (1906); Hlapec Jernej in njegova pravica [Bailiff Jernej and his justice] (1907); Pohujšanje v dolini Šentftorjanski [The scandal in the valley of St. Florian] (1908); Hlapci [Servants] (1910).


6At the time of the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, the Yugoslav idea enjoyed massive support from eminent public figures in Slovenia. Those rare individuals who expressed doubts about the political ties with “Balkan Serbia”—such as the politician Ivan Šušteršič, the leader of the Slovenian People’s Party until 1917—were subdued by a common pro–Yugoslav feeling that was infused with the imperative to make radical changes. However, at the time of Cankar’s lecture, the atmosphere was quite different. Before the First World War, Slovenian politics was primarily dominated by the national issue. The tense national relations within the monarchy during the late nineteenth century compelled the Slovenian political parties to modernize and re-articulate their national demands. These, however, remained modest: the conservative and the liberal party called for linguistic equality and the establishment of Slovenian cultural and educational institutions, and the policies pursued by the social democrats did not have a greater emancipatory potential. In contrast to Cankar, social democrats argued that the national issue was not a political question but a cultural one, and that national autonomy was to be defined as the right of every individual to decide to which nation he or she wished to belong. Therefore, although the Yugoslav cause had been an integral part of Slovenian politics ever since the end of the nineteenth century, the movement it stimulated was not uniform. Its activity varied from region to region and over time, and it mainly involved intellectuals who were members of the middle class more actively concerned with the national issue.

7In 1908, the most influential political party at the time, the conservative Slovenian People’s Party, presented what came to be known as a tripartite program for the reorganization of Austria-Hungary. One year later, the representatives of Slovenian social democracy drew up the ‘Tivoli Resolutio’in which they demanded the unification of all Yugoslavs (within the monarchy) into a unitary, autonomous national entity with a common language. Ivan Cankar opposed the plan and was the first among the eminent public figures in Slovenia to articulate the idea that Austria-Hungary was not the only possible administrative framework for the preservation of Slovenian national individuality.

8In the period preceding the First World War, it was the Balkan Wars and related Austrian foreign policies that disconcerted the Slovenian intellectuals. In their search for political orientation many of them turned to Ivan Cankar. He eventually decided to deliver a lecture at the Mestni dom (Municipal house) in Ljubljana, which at that time was the main venue for public events in the capital. On Saturday, 12 April, 1913, Cankar appeared before an audience of around 250 people to deliver the lecture entitled ‘The Slovenes and the Yugoslavs.’ The event was organized by the social democratic educational society Splošna delavska zveza Vzajemnost za Kranjsko. Cankar sharply criticized the policy of the Austro–Hungarian monarchy which backed the independence of Albania in order to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea. Moreover, he spoke about the Slovene’stance on the idea of Yugoslavia and was critical toward Yugoslav integralism, but openly expressed support for a prospective “federal Yugoslav republic.”

9Cankar was a determined supporter of the Yugoslav idea, but envisaged Slovenia’s accession to the new Yugoslav state as a political deal and not a cultural issue. Three years after his death, in 1921, this romantically articulated idea found its political expression in an autonomist declaration signed by 43 Slovenian intellectuals which paved the ground for the mass autonomist movement in Slovenia. The signatories demanded, among other things, autonomy for the already fragmented lands inhabited by the Slovenians. During that same year, the demand for the autonomous cultural development of Slovenia became the main focus of the largest political party in Slovenia, the Slovenian People’s Party, which politicized the issue by petitioning for the legislative autonomy of Slovenia within the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The autonomist stance remained the dominant element of Slovenian politics until the Second World War, and it was legally and formally implemented within the framework of a federal socialist Yugoslavia after the Second World War.


The Slovenes and the Yugoslavs

11Before I explain my modest thoughts about the so-called Yugoslav issue, insofar as it concerns us, Slovenes, I must say something that would otherwise be self-evident, but at the present time it has to be particularly emphasized. I declare that I do not speak in the name of any political party, and even less so in the name of the entire nation, but humbly in my own name. Such a statement is necessary because during the recent weeks and months I noticed that certain high-handed individuals spoke in the name of the whole nation, which has certainly not appointed them to speak on its behalf. Perhaps not many of you will agree with me, but everyone has the right to his own reason and judgment, and everyone has the right, and, moreover, the duty, to say what he thinks. In our part of the world and at the present time in particular, this is somewhat dangerous. […]

  • 1 The battle at Lozengrad (Tur. Kirklareli) was fought between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire on 24 (...)
  • 2 The battle at Kumanovo (in Ottoman Macedonia) was fought between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire on (...)

12The victories of the Balkan countries swiftly brought the Yugoslav problem to the forefront of Europe’s attention. In fact, Europe has only now become aware of this problem which was announced to the world by Serbian and Bulgarian guns. It is unfortunate that it had to be announced in such a way. We Slovenes openly rejoice at the brilliant advance of our southern brothers. But this joy turned sour at the thought that their advance came at the cost of rivers of young blood. No rational and honest young man can help being filled with ire at the thought that this horrible bloodshed would not have been necessary if Europe, with its miserable diplomacy, were what it claims to be, but what it has never been and, sadly, will probably never be— the guardian of culture and civilization. Ever since the Congress of Berlin, meaning for more than 30 years now, Europe has reared and fed at the expense of its own peoples a pack of idle counts and barons whose task is to ponder over the situation of the Balkan Peninsula. Even if they continued to ponder it for another thirty years, nothing would change. To the Serbs and Bulgarians, such an approach to resolving their vital question seemed a bit too protracted and too boring, so they simply solved it themselves at Lozen-grad1 and Kumanovo.2

  • 3 Leopold graf Berchtold (1863–1942): Austro–Hungarian Foreign Minister at the outbreak of the First (...)

13As you know from the daily newspapers, such a solution to the Balkan problem did not go down well with European diplomats, and particularly not so with Austrian ones. Diplomacy feeds off problems, and if problems are resolved just like that and without diplomacy, what, then, are our dear Berchtolds3 left with to do? We could see, and can still watch, how everything that crawls and walks around the Vienna Ballplatz and its environs foams with rage. Someone observing this from a distance would find it detestable and ridiculous at the same time. Until now, Austrian diplomacy has been like a toothless, nagging old hag sitting in her chimney corner and saying the rosary. But all of a sudden, this hag flew into rage, jumped from her chimney corner and began to brandish the rosary to the surprise and ridicule of all of its neighbors. For us Slovenes this is by no means merely a detestable and ridiculous comedy; we are too painfully involved to be able to laugh. If someone has failed to notice it earlier, he must have recognized by now that we are not solely Slovenes, and even less so solely Austrians, but rather we are an extremity of a large family that inhabits the territories stretching from the Julian Alps to the Aegean Sea. When the first shot was fired in the Balkans, its echo could be heard in the most remote of our villages. People who never ever cared about politics now paused to watch the great drama, not only with interest, but also with compassion in their hearts. Something was awakened in us all, something similar to the yearning of a prisoner. And something else stirred within us, something that is becoming ever more important and valuable—the glow of that strength, self-confidence and life that burst forth in the southern parts and fell upon the Slovenian lands as well. The weak man saw that his brother was strong and began to have trust in himself and in his own future. How strange the expression of this trust can be, I shall explain a bit later.

  • 4 This is an allusion to the Austrian flag of the time.

14When the guns announced the grand Yugoslav night, our darling official Austria was reminded of the Yugoslav problem and set down to resolving it in its own fashion. First, it imprisoned some people in Carniola, Styria, and Dalmatia for high treason, then had several Serbian students beaten at the Vienna Graben, and finally declared paper war on Serbia and Montenegro. For Count Berchtold, the Yugoslav problem has thus been solved, but for other ordinary people it remained as unresolved and complex as it had ever been. Someone possessing natural, peasant logic, someone who knows nothing of diplomacy, politics and the state attorney, would not find the Yugoslav problem complicated at all, and moreover, would not think of it as a problem. Such a man would say: “If these four nations think that they are akin to each other and that their life would be the easiest and the best if they were united, let their wish become reality, let them, in the name of God, form the federal republic of Yugoslavia!” […] This most natural resolution of the Yugoslav question has until now appeared as a utopia to us all, and perhaps it is a utopia. The obstacles are so big and numerous that they appear insurmountable to us. However, utopias have always demonstrated a strange propensity to become reality. Around 1850, Heinrich Heine, who definitely was not a foolish man, called united Germany a “winter tale.” In 1856, the great thinker, philosopher and historian, Max Stirner, made much fun of student-idealists who dreamed of a Greater Germany. Fifteen years later in Versailles, Wilhelm I was crowned German emperor. I give this example only to show that utopias should be treated with caution. And speaking of historical memories, let me mention something else. Just a few moments earlier I amused you at the expense of official Austria and its diplomacy, but now I’d like to ask for its forgiveness. History teaches us that the foolishness of Austrian diplomacy has always been a blessing for European nations. If there were no Austrian diplomats, the birth of Greater Germany and Greater Italy would probably have been seriously delayed. They are again eagerly active and perhaps they will succeed, given time, in making the Yugoslav utopia come true. Everything takes place according to the principles of Hegel’s dialectics: when stupidity reaches its peak, it turns into wisdom. If some English statesman sat in Vienna instead of Count Berchtold, he would have forced the Austrian and Hungarian potentates, immediately following the first Serbian victory, to grant to the Yugoslavs on this side of the yellow-black fence4 the rights they are entitled to. […] Yet Austro–Hungarian statesmen act quite the opposite, and therefore they are even wiser. With all their might they push towards separation their most loyal, acknowledged and combat-tried patriots, that is, the Slovenes and the Croats. Man is made to look instinctively, unaware, in the direction of light when left in the dark. Mother Austria would act wisely if it allowed some light into the house, so that her children would no longer feel the need to look out through the window. Or, to stay with the example, instead of so doing it strives and tries hard to extinguish the light that still shines outside, while chasing the children away from the window. […]

  • 5 Cankar refers to Slavko Cuvaj de Ivanska (1851–1930), a ban of Croatia during 1912–1913.

15For official Austria, which is an exponent of German imperialism, the Yugoslavs are simply stumbling blocks on its way. It cannot move them, to the last man, to Canada or South America, so it obstructs their political, economic and cultural development wherever possible and as much as possible. Indeed, it is a bit strange that the state should hate a large part of its own citizens; however, this oddity is happening: Parliament without rights in Bosnia; Cuvaj’s absolutism in Croatia5; proceedings for high treason in Dalmatia; forceful Germanization in Slovenia. That is the Yugoslav policy of official Austria. However, Count Berchtold’s ideals are not also our ideals. I have already clearly stated what that distant goal is, one that dwells in all hearts, a goal that is natural and will be achieved, despite all and everyone, much like everything that is propelled by a natural drive comes true. I say “a distant goal,” because the obstacles on the path leading to the achievement of that goal are today still insurmountable, at least seemingly so. The Yugoslav tribes are scattered among five and a half countries. Within the Austro–Hungarian monarchy itself, we are carved up into miniscule pieces, so to say. The political contacts among these pieces are almost made impossible. One could say that in political respect, despite having one scepter and one anthem, Zagreb is almost further away from Ljubljana than Paris is from Madrid. An enormous effort and enduring patience is needed to remedy what history and malevolent politics perverted. Over the past few years we have begun to seek paths to establish political contacts among at least those bits of the Yugoslav body that are condemned to life within the monarchy. To my mind, we have now really found the only way that is possible and appropriate—it is the way that brings closer kindred political parties in individual countries […]

16As you have seen, I have treated the Yugoslav problem for what it is: as an exclusively political problem; a problem of a fragmented tribe which cannot gain recognition until it unites into a whole. That is all there is to it! For me, there is no Yugoslav question in the cultural or linguistic sense. Perhaps it did exist at some time in the past, but it was resolved when the Yugoslav tribe split into the four nations with four completely independent cultural lives. We are brothers by blood, and nephews at least by language, but in terms of culture, which is a result of several hundred years of education, we are much more alien to each other than our farmer from Gorenjska is alien to his Tyrolian counterpart, or our vinedresser from Goriška to the one from Friuli. Whether the blame is on history, or on someone else—I, who have established this fact, I am certainly not to be blamed for this. It is dangerous today to state explicitly such banal truths. […]

  • 6 Trust only yourself.
  • 7 Primož Trubar (1508–1586): Slovenian protestant priest, writer, and translator.
  • 8 France Prešeren (1800–1849): Slovenian poet.
  • 9 Fran Levstik (1831–1887): Slovenian poet, dramatist, and linguist.

17For the time being, it is sufficient if we all assert our Yugoslavianism by memorizing the old Serbian saying: Uzdaj se use i u svoje kljuse!6 Even the most hoarse Illyrians would acknowledge this much: if at some point in the future the Yugoslav nations become united—and it is not only my burning desire but also my strong conviction that such a union will be realized—then that union cannot be executed in any other way but as a union of equal nations with equal rights. This simple thought points us to the field which we must plough and where we must sow seeds, not only for ourselves, but for pan–Yugoslavianism as well. This field is our beautiful Slovenian field. Under the Austrian master, in our prison and in poverty, and oppressed by many troubles, we raised our culture to such a level that it is our beauty and joy. It is an expression that our nation’s power does not lag a bit behind the power that was demonstrated outside Lozengrad and Kumanovo. We should strive to achieve inner health and power and to be at least intellectually rich (if not in other respects), so that at some point in the future we do not have to ask our brothers for charity, but that we can bring them gifts; or, even better, that our brothers come to us to receive gifts, even before we offer these to them. Our Illyrians, enthusiastic to the point of dizziness, have not only overlooked Slovenian culture (at any rate they’ve never learnt to speak Slovene), Trubar,7 Prešeren8 and Levstik,9 but they also brushed aside themselves, their name and their homeland. […] Their conduct has become a delirium by now. Thank God that they are not many, they could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand […]

  • 10 Edirne (Gr. Adrianoupolis), in present-day Turkey, was occupied by the Bulgarian army during the F (...)
  • 11 Bitola (Gr. Monastiri, Tur. Manastir,) in present-day Republic of Macedonia, was occupied by the S (...)

18There is another thing which leaves one in two minds whether to laugh at it or cry over it. It is the question of the Yugoslav language, one which is not posed by Austrian diplomats, the masters of foolishness, but by enthusiastic people who have no knowledge of any language. We can already feel the harsh consequences of this issue—our papers present such a sloppy Slovene that even a retired post office clerk feels revolted. I have respect for radicalism, which has always been a nice virtue of the youth. However, if that radicalism requires that Slovenian should fall only because Odrin10 and Bitolj11 have fallen, then I gratefully reject that radicalism […]. And I find most repulsive, yes, repulsive, those people who without cause or reason connect the Slovene language with the Yugoslav political issue. They are offering it just like that, throwing it across the border, without even asking who would be prepared to pay more. I have not yet met a Croat who would come to us to offer his Croatian. But here, it is different! We are so fed up with our culture that we find it redundant and would happily throw it over the fence. (Cultural scandal!)

19I have said what I think is urgent and useful, if we want to achieve our Slovenian, cultural goal, and our Yugoslav, political, goal. Let everyone do what they can; I have done so!


1 The battle at Lozengrad (Tur. Kirklareli) was fought between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire on 24 October 1912.

2 The battle at Kumanovo (in Ottoman Macedonia) was fought between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire on 23–24 October 1912.

3 Leopold graf Berchtold (1863–1942): Austro–Hungarian Foreign Minister at the outbreak of the First World War.

4 This is an allusion to the Austrian flag of the time.

5 Cankar refers to Slavko Cuvaj de Ivanska (1851–1930), a ban of Croatia during 1912–1913.

6 Trust only yourself.

7 Primož Trubar (1508–1586): Slovenian protestant priest, writer, and translator.

8 France Prešeren (1800–1849): Slovenian poet.

9 Fran Levstik (1831–1887): Slovenian poet, dramatist, and linguist.

10 Edirne (Gr. Adrianoupolis), in present-day Turkey, was occupied by the Bulgarian army during the First Balkan War.

11 Bitola (Gr. Monastiri, Tur. Manastir,) in present-day Republic of Macedonia, was occupied by the Serbian army during the First Balkan War.


Olga Vukovič (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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