Wedged between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, Croatia and Slovenia oscillate between the desire for more togetherness and the borders in people’s minds

Many things unite Slovenia and Croatia, the two former socialist republics of Yugoslavia that together stretch along nearly 2,000 km of the Adriatic coast – although politicians often seem determined to emphasize the differences. Since the Middle Ages, their ancestors lived in the lands of the Habsburg, sharing rulers and often similar fates. The culture and styles of Gothic, Renaissance, baroque and Greek revival architecture shaped their cities. The landscape, too, has shaped both peoples and cultures. Croatia stretches from the Pannonian Plain and the Dinaric Mountains to the Adriatic coast, with a shoreline of hundreds of islands. Slovenia is shaped by the Karawanken and Steiner mountain ranges in the north, a share of the Pannonian Plain to the east and in the south and west, forests in the craggy lime-stone karst and 46.6 km of Adriatic coast.

The desire for difference precedes the dissolution of Austria-Hungary. New borders created minorities, which threw a spanner in neighborly relations. Efforts to fuse Slovenian and Croatian into a common Illyrian language were met with determined resistance, as described by Ivan Cankar, the great Slovenian poet: “We are brothers in blood and in language at least cousins – yet in culture, which is the fruit of centuries of separate education, we are much stranger to each other than our Upper Krainian farmer is to a Tyrolean one or the Görzer winegrower to the Friulian vintner.” Today, in the two capitals, an Austrian can’t help but be astonished by the familiar architecture. History has left its mark: In Ljubljana, the statue of the poet France Prešeren, champion of the Slovenian language. In Zagreb, the warrior Ban Josip Jelačič, who fought off the revolutionary Magyars. Croatia, even more than Slovenia, is marked by a centuries-long battle against the Ottoman Turks and a deep longing for freedom.

But there is little from the interwar years, the short-lived State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (SHS), and soon after, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The Serb strongman King Aleksander I. Karađorđević ruled with a heavy hand, leading tragically to the invasion by Hitler’s Germany in 1941. The Nazi terror increased under the Ustaša vassal state of Ante Pavelić, leaving wounds that have yet to heal. After 1945, under the largely benevolent regime of Communist Josip Broz Tito, hostilities subsided under strict surveillance. But even Tito never quite succeeded in pacifying them, which Slovenian writer Edvard Kocbek captured eloquently in the novella Črna orhideja (The Black Orchid).

With the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, Slovenia quickly gained independence. Croatia was more heavily affected and it took until 1995 for the Dayton Accords to bring an end to the war in Yugoslavia. Austria was among the first to recognize an independent Slovenia and Croatia, yet the relationship has also been an ambivalent one. In Carinthia, distrust toward the Slovenian minority lingered for a long time. My own Austrian state police records show I had become a “person of interest” when I was just 11, for a children’s holiday trip to Yugoslavia. But it was the vivid cross-border exchange that inspired us. Speaking Slovenian, I could communicate with Serbs or Croats. Acquaintances in Yugoslavia dreamed of the Golden West: visiting the Eisrevue, a bar of chocolate, cheap coffee or bananas felt like freedom to them. When Yugoslavia slid into disorder in 1991, we sat tensely around the radio, following the developments on Slovenian stations.

Today, amid intensive cooperation, travel to Croatia still means passing the external Schengen border. Between Austria and Slovenia, the border controls had disappeared, but now they are back. The precious trust, arduously built by so many, is threatened by fear, real or artificially created. Yet the shared history is there, as is the courage.