Slovenia, Misfit in Yugoslavia

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 149-150:

Ljubljana: known in German as Laibach, a place more historically associated with the Habsburg Empire than with any particular nation-state. Here in 1821, one of the crucial congresses was held to stabilize Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, in the very sound of its name Laibach recalls such personages as Metternich and Castlereagh. I was last in Ljubljana in October 1989, just a few weeks before the Berlin Wall fell, on a concluding trip through Yugoslavia, from where I had reported often during the 1980s. This was still twenty months before the start of the war there. But I would ultimately leave Slovenia out of the final version of Balkan Ghosts, even though it had been a member of the Yugoslav federation, while I would include Greece in the manuscript though it was a long-standing member of NATO. Greece, I had argued to my editors, was Near Eastern despite its ties to the Western alliance, while Slovenia was Central European despite being for so long a part of the largest Balkan country.

Ljubljana in 1989 has left a deep imprint on my memory. A section of my diary from the period, published as a travel essay in The New York Times, records: “Mornings are a blank canvas. Not until 9:30 or so does the autumn fog begin to dissolve. Then the outlines of steep roofs, spires, leaden domes, statues, and willows and poplars emerge like an artist’s first quick strokes. At first it is a pen-and-ink with charcoal. By mid- or late morning come the richer colors of the palette: facades of orange and yellow ochers, pinks, sandy reds, and dazzling greens. As for the architecture itself,” I went on, “it is not only baroque and Renaissance but also Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and so forth. This was partly because, with the exception of five years of Napoleonic rule, Ljubljana between 1135 and 1918 was inside the Habsburg Empire, and thus artistic influences from the far-flung domain filtered in.” Truly, I was infatuated with the city.

But there is even more from my notebooks about Ljubljana that I did not publish at the time: Men smoking in the damp and cold hotel restaurant while waiters talked and ignored customers amid loud rock music (Blood, Sweat & Tears singing “Spinning Wheel”). People had ravaged eyes under matted hair, without the blow dryers and designer glasses that were already ever-present in nearby Austria at the time, and everyone with bad-quality shoes. It was a place where people began to drink early in the day. And yet one after another of the persons I interviewed back in 1989 complicated those initial impressions. For Yugoslavia was already starting to fall apart, even if it wasn’t yet in the news. “The Serbs look backward while we look forward: away from the archaic system” of Tito’s Yugoslavia. “In Slovenia, Tito [a half-Slovene] has been completely forgotten.” “Slovenes are like conscientious objectors in the Yugoslav federation.” “We watch Austrian television, not Serbian television.” “We are a small country that looks out, Serbia is a great country that looks in.” All in all, in October 1989, Slovenia was a poor and downtrodden place by Western standards that, nevertheless, evinced a distinct bitterness about having to prop up the even poorer and yet more powerful states within the Yugoslav federation, notably Serbia. Yugoslavia had, in a political and cultural sense, dragged Slovenia southward into the Balkans, and away from its rightful place in Central Europe, to which Slovenia’s own Habsburg legacy entitled it. Indeed, it was Slovenia’s very resentment over that fact which caused it, like Poland and Hungary, to fiercely aspire towards membership in the West, and thus towards liberalism and free markets.

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Filed under Austria, Balkans, Germany, Hungary, language, nationalism, philosophy, Yugoslavia

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