Slovenia and Its Poet

Who are the upstart Slovenes who took all Europe by surprise when they declared their independence last June and set off the train of unpredictable events still unfolding in Yugoslavia? How dared they question the geopolitical arrangements made on their behalf after World War II, let alone the 1918 treaties that settled Europe’s boundaries for the better part of this century? This tiny nation of fewer than two million people has never known sovereignty or independence. For nearly a thousand years it was subjected to German and Austrian assimilation (and for seventy to Yugoslav neglect), yet somehow it has managed to survive with its identity, its language, and its culture intact.

The vicious civil war now raging in Croatia has tended to overshadow the less deadly conflict that preceded it on the territory of its northern neighbor. Yet that first encounter between federal forces and the breakaway republic’s makeshift militia carried incalculable risks at the time, if only because it was the first such clash since World War II. This was all the more surprising because, unlike the Croatians and Serbians, the Slovenes are not a belligerent people with a history of violent struggle to support their aspirations. They have had no insurgent armies, no equivalents of the IRA, ETA, or PLO, nor are they known to be particularly quick to anger. On the contrary, they are a peaceable, law-abiding, even somewhat smug people, “bourgeois” in both the good and the bad senses of the word (the Serbs call them Shvabi—“Swabians”—to make fun of their Germanic sense of order). They are like the Czechs (with whom they were united at the time of the great migrations): sober, clever, hard-working, self-deprecating. One of the nationality jokes popular in Central Europe holds that when a Slovene meets a foreigner he invariably introduces himself with the words: “Excuse me, I’m a Slovene.”

Slovenia is inescapably a part of Mitteleuropa, that geographical, political, and cultural conglomerate whose center includes Bavaria, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and whose outer limits stretch as far as Lithuania to the north, Italy to the south, Switzerland in the west, and the Ukraine in the east. The world’s statesmen thought they had put Mitteleuropa to rest when Austria-Hungary was dismantled, and it seemed buried forever under the new empire centered in Moscow. But its legacy has proved strong, and its ghost has returned to haunt Europe. If democracy is to have a chance at all in this region, it may be thanks to folk memories of Mitteleuropa.

Slovenes love opera (and operettas). They consume a great deal of coffee and cake with whipped cream. Their favored musical instrument is the accordion, their national dance a form of polka. They are an Alpine people, the only Europeans, apart from the Norwegians, to have their own word for “ski” (it is pronounced “smooch”—its suggestion of the national tendency to sentimentality is not off the mark). But the Slovenes are also cosmopolitan and outward-looking, with a keen sense of history. Ljubljana, the…

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