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Celovec leta 1918.
The history of Carinthia, a province of Austria just to the north of the Slovenian border, changed forever on October 20, 1920. Foto: Koroška osrednja knjižnica dr. Franca Sušnika.

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Slovenia’s Defeat at the Ballot Box

Slovenia Revealed
12. July 2017 ob 06:14
Ljubljana - MMC RTV SLO

The history of Carinthia, a province of Austria just to the north of the Slovenian border, changed forever on October 20, 1920. For the region’s ethnic German majority, this was a day of celebration, but for many members of the Slovenian community, it became a day of mourning.

For generations, Germans and Slovenians lived side by side in Carinthia, then a part of Austria-Hungary. Over the years, the Slovenian minority faced a strong pressure to Germanize, but especially in the south, they managed to maintain their national identity.

The turmoil of World War I changed the geography of the region in a dramatic way. Austria-Hungary was defeated in the war and ceased to exist as a country. Southern Carinthia was claimed by two countries: the newly created South Slav State, soon to be known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and a newly constituted Austrian Republic.

The victorious allies weren’t quite certain what the fate of Carinthia should be. After all, most of the population was German-speaking, but Slovenians were dominant in the south. Inspired by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s notions of self-determination, the allies decided to hold a referendum to determine the future of southern Carinthia in 1920. The commission that recommended the referendum knew little about the Slovenian villages in Carinthia, having spent most of the time visiting ethnically German towns, and favored all of Carinthia remaining in Austria.

Two zones were set up: If the southerly Zone A opted for Yugoslavia, the vote would then be extended to Zone B, which included the town of Klagenfurt, the capital of the province.

For weeks in the lead-up to the referendum, both sides fought a fierce propaganda battle conducted mostly in the Slovenian language. Those hoping for a Yugoslav win emphasized that the Slovenian community would be lost in a German-dominated Austria. Meanwhile, various posters claimed that the new South Slav state was Serb-ruled and reminded families that it subjected its young men to military conscription.

In the end, the results came as a shock to many: Even in Zone A, which had a Slovenian majority, most of the voters – just slightly more than 59 percent -- opted for Austria. It turned out that a sizeable chuck of the Slovenian community decided to live in Austria rather than in Yugoslavia. The Zone B vote was canceled, and southern Carinthia became a part of the Austrian Republic.

During the referendum, Austria had promised to respect Slovenian minority rights, but enforced Germanization continued – and even accelerated - for decades after the vote. It wasn’t until after Slovenia’s independence that the Slovenians received more minority rights. With increasing European integration, there is hope that Carinthia’s two linguistic groups will finally find permanent harmony a century after the historic 1920 vote.

Jaka Bartolj