From snowy peaks to frothing waves, for the Slovenes, transition is a state of being

by Faris Kočan & Kaja Primorac

The Republic of Slovenia is one of the youngest countries in Europe, but like its neighbors in Central Europe, it has a long history – a territory the stage again and again for the great conquerors of history. The monuments to this storied past are everywhere, and many cities – like Emona (Ljubljana) – are still called by their Roman names. Slovenia was particularly interesting for the Great Powers since it offers access to the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, the Alps and the Pannonian Plain. A hub for shipping and transport over water and land, the site of ports and highways, including the motorway network (Slovenika and Ilirika), names and sovereignty changed, with cultural patterns spilling over and blending. The typical Slovenian will order “pizza burek,”– a mixture of traditions from the Balkans and the West, intertwining here, in the middle of it all.

Through all the transitions over the last 500 years, there has, however, been one constant – Slovene wine culture. And there is no better way to tell a story of the Slovenes than through this oldest of the world’s vines. Of the many legends surrounding the territories of the Slovenes, the one about the Old Vine is indisputably real, a tale of how the grape variety of “Žametovka” came to be grown in the town of Lent, Maribor, over 400 years ago. It is a story of incredible endurance, persistence and will to live, that can be easily understood also as a story of this South-Slavic nation, residing between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea.

DEEP ROOTS

The first vine was planted in front of the house on Vojašnička Street 8 in Maribor during the Middle Ages, when the region was still continually threatened by Ottoman invasions. Maribor suffered from the sieges several times, and Slovenes were trembling with fear from the Janissary, the Ottomans’ fearsome Pretorian Guard. As the Turks were returning home from the unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1529, they tried to conquer Maribor for the last time, almost successfully. Legend has it the attack was so unexpected, the people of Maribor forgot to fill the moat with water, so the enemy charged the city and began destroying the walls, on which the sprout of the Old Vine was growing. With the town surrounded, a shoemaker’s apprentice managed to escape under cover of night, dressed as a Turk, and dropped the locks that were holding the water. The torrential flood took the invaders with it, and as the people of Maribor rejoiced in the repulsion of the enemy, the Old Vine took strength from water in the trenches nurturing its roots.

In the years following, there were repeated city fires across Slovene territory, as the houses were made of wood and the roofs thatched. But even though the house just behind where the Old Vine grows burned down several times, the vine lived on. It also witnessed the defeat of the Counts of Celje, a mighty noble house that could have put Ljubljana on a par with other capitals of Central Europe. With this opportunity lost, Slovenia fell into the hands of foreign masters, and the never-ending transitions began. Through the deep economic crisis of the feudal system, the Old Vine survived, growing through the times of peasant uprisings under the slogan “leukhup, leukhup uboga gmaina”  (Let’s come together, you poor peasants) and “stara prauda” (Old taxes).In the 18th century, the Slovene lands were divided among the Habsburg dukes of Carniola, Styria and Carinthia, and the Count of Gorizia, while the coastal towns and northern Istria belonged to the Venetian Republic, a duchy under the Habsburgs following the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797.  Part of the Slovene territory became Napoleon’s Illyrian Provinces, and the rest Habsburg. After the defeat of Napoleon, these lands returned to Austrian rule.

SPRING OF PEOPLES

And as the Old Vine awaited spring each year, the awakening reached the Slovenes. During the revolutions in 1848, the first comprehensive Slovene national program was created on the wings of the country’s economic power, the liberal bourgeoisie called for a United Slovenia (Zedinjena Slovenija) and demanded the abdication of the nobility. Three days after the March Revolution in Vienna, demonstrations also reached Ljubljana, destroying towers and other signs of authority. “To be a persistent part of the Austrian, not the Germanic Empire,” the Slovenes wrote, because they were overwhelmed by the fear that the Austrian Empire would be absorbed into the new German state. They were also annoyed by the omnipresence of the German language in the lands of Slovenes, hampering the development of their own national identity.

At the same time, though, it was compulsory education, first introduced by Empress Maria Theresia in 1774 and later expanded, that helped Slovene culture to flourish: It was explicit Habsburg policy to teach children in their native language, leading to the first comprehensive dictionaries and grammar books in Slovene being created in this period. In the 1860s and ’70s, the phylloxera blight ravaged the continent, spelling catastrophe for winegrowers throughout Europe, as the parasite, attacking at the roots, killed most vines. Again, the Old Vine survived everything, as its roots were deep within the banks of the river where the phylloxera could not survive.

The Slovene nation also underwent a second spring at the same time – despite the fierce suppression by the absolutist Viennese authorities under Chancellor Metternich, the idea of a United Slovenia stayed anchored deep in their consciousness. In 1861, Slovene reading rooms were created, and in the years that followed, Slovenian media was born – Naprejand Južni sokol (1863), Slovenska matica (1864), and Slovenec (1865). The Austro-Hungarian settlement of 1867 (Ausgleich), triggered a new wave of Pan-Slavism among Slovenes. In 1868, the Styrian people began to hold large, open-air meetings, and Slovene MPs, whose regions were part of the crown land of Styria, submitted their demands to the Imperial provincial assemblies.

Arguably, that’s where the political life of Slovenes started, which a few years later led to establishment of the Catholic People’s Party (1892) and the People’s Progressive Party (1894). The First World War was not as important for the Old Vine as it was for Slovenes, because one of the key front lines was running just across the Slovene ethnic territory. Yet the latter witnessed the persecution of 951 persons from Maribor, Celje and Ptuj after the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo.

Slovenes just like their brothers across the Empire, were convinced the war against Serbia would be short and decisive, so mobilization went smoothly. Italy’s entry on the side of the Entente Cordiale was another important milestone for Slovenes, since the fight against the Italians was considered as a struggle for Slovene territory. This was also very evident in 1916, when the soldier Matičič and his colleagues during the battles of the Isonzo got their hands on an Italian map showing the Slovene territory that the Entente promised Italy after victory of the war. In the same year, the Yugoslavian Club around Anton Korošec was formed in the National Assembly in Vienna, bringing together all South-Slavic MPs. The Corfu Declaration of July 20, 1917, proposed by the Serbian government in exile and signed by the Yugoslav Committee, paved the way for the foundation of the Yugoslav state a little more than one year later.

At the end of World War I, both the Old Vine and Slovenia were subjected to two rapid transitions – the dissolution of AustriaHungary enabled the formation of the state of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, which only a month later merged with Serbia, forming the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

INDEPENDENCE, SHORTCHANGED

The dream of independence and freedom for the Slovenes, however, proved short-lived, with the new Yugoslav state being even more centralized than the Empire. This development culminated in 1929 with King Alexander I of Yugoslavia pronouncing himself dictator. The Old Vine, meanwhile, ended up in one of the nine newly created banovins (regions), namely in Banovina Dravska. It was this region that went on to become a cradle of culture for Slovenia in these years – 240 newspapers and magazines were regularly published and the National and University Library, the Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Modern Gallery were established.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was swept away in the brutal assault of the Axis powers in the Second World War. All three occupiers, Germany, Italy and Hungary, seized the Banovina Dravska in the spring of 1941 and schemed to destroy the Slovene nation. On April 26, 1941, the Liberation Front of the Slovene Nation was built, with Slovene partisan units joining the fight to liberate their country from the occupiers. The war ended in 1945, with the partisans across Yugoslavia being the only indigenous resistance movement in all of Europe driving out the Nazi forces on their own.

The Old Vine and the Slovene nation persisted once again. Slovenia became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, declared on November 29, 1943, and de facto reestablished after the war. It was a Socialist one-party state, but one with greater personal and economic freedoms than the other countries of the Eastern Bloc, thanks to Tito’s “No” to Stalin’s pressure in 1948. As Maribor became one of the industrial centers of Socialist Yugoslavia, more hydroelectric power plants were built in the ’50s and ’60s, and the level of the River Drava rose to more than three meters, upending the longstanding balance of the root system of the Old Vine, which began to die slowly.

As the vine withered away, the Yugoslav state followed. The death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980 and the subsequent takeover of powers by Slobodan Milošević led to the end of the common state in stages. After rising tensions and confrontations in the 1980s, Slovenia declared its independence on June 25, 1991. The following war for independence lasted only ten days and ended at the negotiating table, costing the lives of 19 Slovenian soldiers of the Slovenian defense forces and 44 of the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA). Slovenia was spared the upheaval, ethnic cleansing and civil war that wreaked the other parts of Yugoslavia in the following years. In October 1991, the last soldier of the YPA left Slovenian territory.

Since the last political transition, the Old Vine is now for the first time officially located in a country not only inhabited by Slovenes, but also run by them. After the transition, the Republic of Slovenia has turned rapidly away from the Balkans and towards the West, and therefore, without hesitation, obtained full membership in the UN (1992), and later also in the Euro-Atlantic alliances (NATO and EU in 2004). Yet, Slovenia is just getting started in dealing openly with the aftermath of World War II and the war for independence, one generation being hardly enough to come to terms with so much history to digest. A majority of Slovenes had lived most of their lives in a Socialist country, putting them often at odds with the open, and often hypercompetitive market of a globalized world.

For some, this turns into outright Yugo-nostalgia, at least for the certainties of that epoch, conveniently glossing over the many flaws and restrictions of the Socialist regime. Yet overall, the last transition to independent statehood and a respected member of the European family is perceived as incredible progress by most Slovenes. Having their own state is merely the start for a nation that might be small in numbers, but exceptional in performance. The story of the Old Vine of Maribor, now again recovered and still bearing grapes every year, is a parable of the story of the Slovene people, who have managed to survive with persistence and perseverance.