Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Slovenia 1945

In 1945, at the end of World War II, in the corner of the Balkans adjacent to Northern Italy which is called Slovenia, there was a massacre. It went little noticed in a world that was reeling from the revelation of worse massacres. Sixty years later, however, the British government expressed regret for the part played in it by the British Army. But the British didn't do the killing. It was Slovenes killing Slovenes. The massacre remained a taboo topic in the country itself until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when dissident intellectuals brought it to light along with other massacres. The shameful memory of the incident still haunts and divides Slovenian society; there's a very good discussion of this aftermath in a TV programme that's available on the Internet (see References). Here in brief is the background to it.

At the time of World War II and for many years after it, Slovenia formed part of Yugoslavia. In 1941, the whole country was invaded and overrun by the Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Hungary. Very soon, resistance movements started up. However, these movements were violently opposed not only to the occupiers but also to one another. On the one hand were the Partisans, communists led by Josip Broz Tito and remotely controlled by the Soviet Union. On the other side were the Chetniks and other guerillas representing the conservative wing in Yugoslav society: loyal to their exiled King and to their respective religions.
"Chetniks and Partisans seldom co-operated, and might shoot each other up; neither had much use for Italians or Germans, except for periods of local understanding at times of crisis."
In Slovenia, however, there was an anti-communist militia that was aided and abetted by the Germans as an ally against the Partisans and so was despised by the latter as German collaborators. This militia was called the Domobranci (Home Guard).

When war ended in May 1945 Tito's partisans controlled most of Yugoslavia, while the British Army started to occupy southern Austria. The anti-communists in Slovenia had hoped that the British would advance into their country and shield them, but they didn't. Ljubljana, the main Slovenian city, was a sharply divided community.
"Many await enthusiastically their liberation by Marshal Tito's partisans, but others are appalled at the prospect of life under a permanent communist tyranny, after four years of Italian and German oppression. Those who openly opposed communism prepare to leave."
Salvation, they thought, lay in fleeing to the British-occupied zone just over the Austrian frontier. Only one route was still open from Ljubljana to Austria. It led northwards over the Alps through the Ljubelj (aka Loibl) Pass. There were two alternatives for negotiating the pass: either march the steep road over the top (elevation 1,367 m) or stumble through a 1,500 m long road tunnel that the Germans had pierced with slave labour but had not had time to finish. Both were dangerous, and the Germans themselves were using the tunnel in their flight from the Balkans as well as controlling access to the summit road.
"So the road is now open, but not the way through the tunnel or over Ljubelj. Young SS men with loaded guns are standing around the mouth of the tunnel and only letting their own troops through... around eight in the evening our convoy of carts is ready to move. Our men look at the SS guards threateningly and approach them nearer and nearer. Some domobranci arrive, take in the situation, take their guns from their shoulders and make ready to fire. The Germans see the seriousness of their situation and the officer in charge orders the civilians to be let through. The convoy starts to move, escorted by domobranci. The road winds steeply uphill in serpentine bends of varying severity. The horses whinny, the carts groan, all the men push the carts to help the beasts which have difficulty climbing the hill."
Despite the hazards, most of the thousands of refugees made it into Austria. In the books Slovenian Phoenix and Slovenia 1945, survivors of the flight tell tales of wartime cruelty, of reviving their battered community in refugee camps for displaced persons, of their emigration overseas (mainly to Argentina) and of building successful new lives through self-help and strong cultural identity. The books are vivid because they draw on eyewitness memories, and in particular on two diaries. One was written by a 38-year old social insurance clerk named Franc Pernisek who fled with his wife and two small children. I've quoted from him above. The other diarist was a 22-year-old Englishman, John Corsellis, who was attached to the British Red Cross and working at the main refugee reception camp in Austria. It's John, still lively in his eighties, who first made me aware of the whole episode and sent me most of the information I've used here. From the stories in these books, some intriguing for historians, many harrowing, I pick out a couple that are especially relevant for this blog.

To be continued.

John Corsellis. Slovenian Phoenix. Privately circulated as a .pdf document, 2009. http://repository.forcedmigration.org/show_metadata.jsp?pid=fmo:5356.

John Corsellis and Marcus Ferrar. Slovenia 1945: Memories of Death and Survival After World War II. London, I B Taurus, 2005. http://slovenia1945.org/. There are Slovene and Italian translations.

Interview with John Corsellis and Marcus Ferrar. Slovene State Television, 2006. http://www.marcusferrar.org/videos.html.

Slovenia. Wikipedia, 2011.

The image is from the jacket of the Italian translation of the Corsellis-Ferrar book by Eva Sirok, edited by Mauro Pascolat, 2008. I find the stark black-and-white photo more appropriate than the sepia-toned one on the English edition.


  1. Insofar as the Cetniks are properly described by a religious appelation they are in fact Orthodox, not Catholic. This is an important distinction.

  2. Thank you for the prompt correction. I've changed the text. It's difficult to describe briefly such a tangled and controversial situation. I was taken aback by the persistent virulence of some of the Discussion pages in Wikipedia, the one on Chetniks for example.

  3. I know what you mean. If you had the chance to walk the streets of Sarajevo and to see what the successors to the Cetniks have done (as I have), you would understand even more why the distinction is so very important. It used to make me both sad and mad that the media only identified Moslems in Bosnia by their religion - Muslim, Croat and Serb should have read Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox, while the war has now given the first named the new identity of Bosniak.