By Michael Benson
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia— In the summer of 1991, I went with a Slovenian friend to visit her grandmother in an Alpine valley not far from the Italian border. Our underpowered Yugo strained to climb a road whose slope at times must have approached 18 degrees. Slovenia was then still within a legal limbo, officially seceded from Yugoslavia but not yet recognized by most of the world as an independent state. No air travel in or out of the new country was yet permitted because of this legal ambiguity — which didn’t keep the Yugoslav Air Force from periodically sending jets screaming across the tiny nation. The attempted intimidation didn’t work, however, and soon the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav Army shifted its attention and set to bloody work in Croatia and Bosnia. Slovenia was free.
Because of the relative tranquillity with which it gained its independence, it is possible to forget that Slovenia, set to become one of the newest members of the European Union on Saturday, used to be the westernmost republic of the former Yugoslavia. Tiny, low-profile Slovenia, population just under two million, enters the EU with the highest standard of living and most vibrant economy of any of the formerly socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Joining the rest of Western Europe in the EU is a big step, but what I discovered in the high Alps that day was that the invisible border between East and West has passed across tiny Slovenia four times in a single lifetime.
We found my friend’s grandmother, Marija Flajs, working on her small farm surrounded by serrated snow-capped mountains and perfectly situated in flower-speckled meadows populated by some of the most contented-looking cows this side of Switzerland. Marija, who was then 81, still had clear memories of the fighting that had raged in these mountains from 1915 to 1917, during World War I, when the Soca Front (along what the Italians call the Isonzo River) was the largest single killing zone outside of the trench warfare in Belgium. In a situation familiar to most of the small nations of Central Europe, local boys were drafted into the uniforms of both sides to the conflict. Most fought for the Hapsburgs; many also wound up with the Italian forces.
Marija recalled the echo of artillery fire among the peaks that surrounded the Bovec Valley as vast numbers of uniformed men slaughtered each other in appalling conditions. As the award-winning museum devoted to the conflict in the nearby town of Kobarid makes clear, the high-altitude Soca Front was brutal even in a summer without artillery fire, and in the winter many thousands died.
The crash of the Hapsburg Empire (capital: Vienna) soon after the war meant that in late 1918 Marija Flajs exchanged her Hapsburg passport for one issued by an experimental pan-Slavic nation that at first was called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (capital: Belgrade). But by 1929 King Alexander I had renamed the country the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and outlawed all political parties. Slovenia had been shuffled from one vast multinational empire into a smaller aggregate of nations, this one increasingly dominated by a Serbian royal family not known for its sensitivity toward other ethnic groups.
This state of affairs lasted until April 1941, when a simultaneous attack by Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Hungary dismembered the first Yugoslavia. A substantial part of Slovenia was incorporated directly into the Third Reich, with the rest divided between Italy and Hungary. Once again, Slovenes wound up in various uniforms, from those of the Axis powers to the homespun green of the wily Partisan resistance. The Bovec Valley was in the Italian sphere, and Marija exchanged her Yugoslav passport for an Italian one.
In 1945, Tito declared the foundation of a new Socialist Yugoslavia, an entity that like its predecessor included Slovenia as its westernmost republic. Marija Flajs exchanged her passport for one bearing a red star and the name of the new socialist state (capital: Belgrade), which by 1948 had broken with Stalin’s emerging Warsaw Pact, becoming the first nonaligned Communist state and therefore the focus of much good will — and financial support — from the West.
An increasingly prosperous Slovenia remained firmly in Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1991, when it declared independence. Unlike Croatia and Bosnia, Slovenia gained independence with a minimum of bloodshed, largely because the absence of a large Serbian minority meant that the republic was uninteresting to Belgrade’s ruthless advocates of the Greater Serbia project.
When we visited her, Marija Flajs had just exchanged her passport yet again, to become a citizen of the Republic of Slovenia — the first time she had belonged to a country that featured her native tongue, Slovenian, as its official state language, and that had the Slovene capital, Ljubljana, as its center of power. Although she had never budged from her picturesque Alpine valley, Marija had changed her citizenship four times. She didn’t find this particularly noteworthy, however — after so many upheavals, why should she have?
Marija Flajs died in 1996 at the age of 86. I imagine she wouldn’t have been in the least surprised by the latest shift of that invisible East-West border across her high valley. On Saturday, after only 13 years of answering to nobody but itself, Slovenia will become a part of the European Union (capital: Brussels). Although the reissued Slovenian passport will remain just that — the travel document of a sovereign state — it will bring with it most of the rights and all the obligations of the European Union, and Brussels will become the center of authority for a wide spectrum of laws and regulations.
Like the other small nations of Central Europe, Slovenia has some good historical reasons for skepticism about the large multinational structure that it is joining. Will the tiny nation finally become an insider, a country on the right side of history? And even if it does, how long can that possibly last? Will the handful of permanent residents of the Bovec Valley, Marija’s neighbors and friends, have to replace their passports yet again as onrushing history establishes the 21st century’s identity? The record gives ample reasons to believe that here, as in the rest of the universe, change is the only constant.
Michael Benson, a writer and filmmaker, directed “Predictions of Fire,” a documentary about the 20th-century history of Slovenia.