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 capital, is a model small metropolis, with handsome public buildings, concert halls, art galleries, theaters, universities, and a wonderful Tivoli park extending into the very center of the city. Artists and scientists visit from all over the world. Slovenes pride themselves on keeping up with the latest artistic and intellectual developments, and if there is a touch of provincial naiveté in that pride, it is no worse than that to be found on the other peripheries of Europe.
This intellectual tradition also smacks of Mitteleuropa, of course, as does the Slovenes’ passionate desire to be part of a larger (and Western) world. It is despair at seeing this world slip away from them, and fear of being relegated once again to historical anonymity, that has inspired their unprecedented national uprising. Their nightmare is to be dragged down by feckless southern neighbors to a sort of third world status, just when Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary are rising from their knees to rejoin Greater Europe.
The crisis facing Slovenia can best be understood, perhaps, through its literature. Slovenes are intensely proud of both their language (one of the richest, as well as the most archaic, of all the Slavic tongues) and their literary traditions. If the mark of an independent people is to be found in its poets (as opposed to its armies), Slovenia qualifies handsomely. Its very identity as a modern nation was largely created a century and a half ago by the great France Preeren, whose cultural position recalls that of Pushkin in Russia and Mickiewicz in Poland (the comparison is not exaggerated).
In today’s Slovenia, it is not at all fanciful to see Edvard Kocbek (1904–1981), Preeren’s worthy successor, as the spiritual and intellectual father of the drive for national independence and self-fulfillment. Kocbek was an extraordinary figure—poet, philosopher, religious thinker, editor, soldier, and politician, in a way which would be unthinkable in our society. His first book of poetry, Zemlja (“Earth”) came out in 1934, but it was not until 1963 that a second, Groza (“Terror”) appeared; a third, Porocilo (“Report”) was published in 1969. When his Selected Poems finally appeared in two volumes in 1977, they included poems from no fewer than three earlier collections that had remained unpublished after the war. He was also the author of a collection of short stories, three volumes of brilliantly observed war memoirs, and numerous essays on religious, philosophical, political, and literary themes.
The reasons for the disjointed development of his literary career were political. Having begun his education in a Catholic seminary, Kocbek later rebelled against the established church, and under the influence of the Spanish Civil War (and of a visit to France) founded a Christian Socialist party in Slovenia, of which he eventually became the leader. During World War II Kocbek led his Christian Socialist guerrilla movement into an alliance with Tito’s Partisans, and after the war was briefly vice-president of Slovenia. He broke with the Communist leadership almost immediately (eight years before Djilas), and for the next fifteen years he was banned from publication and public life, although, unlike Djilas, he never went to jail for his opposition.
During that period he published numerous translations from the French and German under a variety of pseudonyms, and continued to write theoretical articles “for the drawer.” When the ban was lifted in 1961 his articles began to appear in youth magazines—the only ones that dared publish him—and in 1964 his new book of poems, Terror, won the prestigious Preeren prize. Nevertheless, he continued to be harassed, denounced by politicians, and cold-shouldered by the cultural establishment right up until his seventieth birthday in 1974, when an interview he gave for a Festschrift in his honor provoked a storm of abuse in the Party-controlled press. Only in the last two years of his life was he able to enjoy a brief period of peace, and a belated celebrity (never acknowledged by the Communist authorities) as the grand old man of Slovene letters.
It was an exemplary Central European life, and it left a deep mark on today’s generation of Slovene thinkers and leaders. In his writings, Kocbek’s exploration of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds gave way to a profound examination of the conflict between the individual’s ethical impulses and the demands of the social order, especially after the victory of the Partisans under Communist leadership. As a guerrilla leader himself, Kocbek did not belittle the Partisans or question the necessity of armed struggle against unjust invaders. But he questioned the doctrine that the ends justify the means, even during wartime.
Through his Christian Socialist movement, Kocbek offered an example of an ethically grounded armed resistance that was both an alternative to the more ruthless Partisan model, and indigenously Slovenian. He demonstrated that the Slovenes could organize themselves and fight, so that in the present standoff between the Slovene militia and the Yugoslav army, it is the Kocbek tradition that the militia draws on, while the federal army openly describes itself as the keeper of the Partisan flame.
Meanwhile, in his poetry, stories, and essays Kocbek developed a philosophy of personal freedom, and of ethical and social responsibility. Drawing on older Slovenian and Central European traditions, he offered a powerful alternative to Marxist determinism. More than that of any other modern Slovene figure, his work came to symbolize the spiritual and political aspirations of an entire generation. If the small and hitherto unnoticed nation of Slovenia has suddenly captured the world’s attention with its principled resistance and fortitude, the example of this fine poet suggests some of the reasons why.
October 24, 1991