Even if Slovenia remains a mainly unknown country, it had a rich and complex history that can interest and also fascinate everyone who takes the time to learn some about it. The actual Slovenian territory indeed has signs of human settlement dating back to 250,000 years ago.
As a tourist visiting Slovenia, being aware of its past will help you understand and discover its fantastic heritage while traveling and exploring all of its historical wonders, traces, and numerous cultural places.
Slovenian history is unusually broad and compelling as the Slovenian territory was inhabited since the 5th century BC. From then, it was part of several prestigious formations: the Roman Empire, the Habsburg rule, and, more recently, the Kingdom and the Republic of Yugoslavia before it became the modern democracy.
Let’s peer back in time with a quick summary of the dense Slovenian history to make you appreciate your discovery of the country even more.
Slovenia’s Early Years
The first inhabitants of the actual Slovenian territory were Neanderthals. You can find most of their traces in a small village near the town of Cerkno, Šebrelje, or in the region of Inner Carniola, in Hells Cave in the Loza Woods.
During the Iron Age, the Illyrian and Celtic tribes were the first to permanently establish the region until the conquest of the area by the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC. In the region of the Pannonians especially, the Illyrians were inspired by the Celts from whom they borrowed many material and cultural aspects.
In the 4th and 3rd centuries, the present-day Slovenian territory was mostly settled by Celtic people, who named many present places at the time, like the Bohinj Lake or the Drava river. The central Celtic tribes were the Boii, the Carni, and the Latovici. They created the first state ever in the territory, Noricum.
The Roman Empire Era
When the Romans conquered the Pannonian provinces, present-day western Slovenia was integrated into the region composed of Venetia and Histria. With the annexation of Nauricum to the Roman Empire, the cities started to expand and emerge. The Roman settlers were mostly located in the towns of Emona (the capital, Ljubljana), Poetovio (the current Ptju), and Celeia (Celje) that we still know today.
In Today’s Ljubljana, you can find many traces of this ancient Roman heritage. Numerous archeological remains are dating back to the year 14 AD. This ancient civilian town was inhabited by 3 to 6,000 people and had a lot of secrets to discover. If you are eager to visit one of these old sites, you can go see, for example, the ancient garden Rihard Jakopič.
Slovenian territory started to develop a the time. Roads with trade and military purposes were constructed to connect the provinces of Pannonia with Italy. This period also marked the assertion of Christianity in the territory, when the local population started to be Romanised.
However, the territory’s strategical position regarding the access it offered towards the Italian peninsula finally led to the abandonment of the region by the Romans. Indeed, it was constantly under the assault of several barbarian armies during the migration period.
By the end of the 4th century, the territory was abandoned, and most cities were destroyed at this time. The local population had to move and establish fortified towns in the Highlands area. With the Roman departure, present-day Slovenia was integrated to the Ostrogothic Kingdom around the 5th century.
The Settlement of Slovenes’ Slavic Ancestors
The ancestors of the present-day Slovenes are Slavic people who started moving from their homeland around the early 5th century, motivated by the Huns’ arrival. They began to settle in the Eastern part of the Alps around the year 550. These Slavic settlers are supposed to be originated from the actual Moravia.
At the time of the second Slavic wave of migration, after the departure of the Lombards (the last German tribe in the territory) to Italy in 568, Slavs began to dominate the region. They founded Carantania around 660, the oldest known Slavic state before it rapidly fell under the overlordship of the Frankish Empire in 745 after a short life.
The Middle Ages
When the Frankish Empire took over Carantania, the Carolingians started to name it Carinthia and convert people into Christianism. For the first time on this land, Germans replaced the Slovene nobility, and the Patriarchate of Aquilea and Salzburg shared their religious authority on the territory. All of these alterations deeply affected the development of Slovenia, its culture, and its nation.
The Frankish Empire, defeated in the second part of the 9th century, was shortly replaced by an independent kingdom of Slovenia in Lower Pannonia, until King Otto I “The Great” made it the 6th duchy of the Holy Roman Empire.
The historical regions of Slovenia, the Styria, the Carniola, and the western Gorizia developed around the 10th and 11th centuries, as well as the Germanisation of the land was driven. However, the Slovenian identity was preserved thanks to the clergy’s educational and pastoral action.
Between the 11th and 14th centuries, a significant part of the Slovenian castles was built by the notable ancient feudal families. The Dukes of Spanheim, the Counts of Celje and Gorizia, and eventually, the Habsburg Family succeeded in consolidating the historical Slovenian land.
At this time, the famous Sticna and Konstanjevicna monasteries, amongst dozens of others, were established in the territory. This period also marked the beginning of the towns’ development in administrative, social, and trade matters.
The Early Habsburg Rule
The period between the late 13th century and the early 16th century was dominated by the Habsburg, which had grown from one German aristocratic family between many to a hegemonic dynasty.
This time was particularly marked by economic development and progress through the exploitation of mines and ironworks, but also by an expansion of the territory. Slovenia was then more massive than its modern size, covering about 24 thousand square kilometers. This Monarchy was the first organization that included all of the current Slovenian regions.
Development of the Slovene Language and Religions
In Slovenian territories, the arrival of the Protestation reformation in the 16th century matched and instigated the development of the Slovene language. As the reformation was spreading into the lands, the Protestant preacher Primož Trubar and its companions wrote the first known books in the Slovene language from 1550 to 1589.
These 25 books written by Tubar were at the origin of the creation of a literacy tradition, permitting to unify amongst the dozens of dialects spoken in Slovenian lands. It also contributed to creating a unifying agent, a sense of identity that would lead to the birth of national awareness.
The second half of this century also marked the beginning of the Slovene book’s printing, contributing to the Slovenian national awakening. It is also the time where the Bohorič’s alphabet, defining the old Slovene orthography, was structured by the Protestants.
Even after the Counter-Reformation, between the 16th and 17th centuries, the Protestants’ strong legacy remained after their expulsion from the Slovene lands. This impregnated tradition of Slovene culture was then partly integrated into the Counter-Reformation led by Thomas Chrön, the bishop of Ljubljana.
The Many Troubles of The 15th to 17th Centuries
Most of the Slovenian territories endured several revolts and raids that deeply affected them, especially the southern area.
Wars With the Ottoman Empire
The almost constant wars between the Habsburg and the Ottoman army particularly shaped the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Slovenia never was part of the Ottoman Empire on the contrary to some of its Balkany neighbors, but it suffered relentless attacks during this whole period.
The first Turkish incursions started notably in 1408 and 1411 with the aim of controlling the region to ensure the little resistance of the Croatian and Slovenian territories. For 150 years, the Ottomans took the local population, burned cities, and destroyed monasteries.
Some flourishing towns like Vipavski Križ and Kostanjevica na Krki never recovered from the attacks. There were up to 132 villages totally destroyed by 1599, before the beginning of the war with the Republic of Venice. These early attacks were the most destructive, but less expansive incursions were led later in order to subdue the local population.
People lived in constant fear of attacks, so they started to organize their defense. Three hundred fifty fortified places (called “tabors”) were constructed in high locations at this time, and the Slovenians also paid for the fortification of Croatia to make it a military defense area. If you come to Slovenia, you will have the chance to visit one of the country’s many fortresses.
However, the Ottomans-Habsburg wars deeply affected the population in many ways. First, a lot of men were conscripted in Styria, Carniola, and Carinthia. Also, the question of the ruling of the region by the Ottomans threatened their Christian identity.
Nevertheless, the Turkish were defeated in 1593 by the Carniolan nobility during Sisak’s battle, diminishing the risks for the Slovenian lands significantly. In the 17th century, several incursions were led, but the most significant threat was the Venetian-Habsburg wars.
The Peasant Revolts
This Middle Age period was also notably marked by peasants revolts that added to foreign invasions and many natural disasters. Slovenian lands were particularly affected by the plague during the 15th century, but its population still severely diminished from 1500 to 1700 because of it until the last great epidemic in 1712-15.
The territory also suffered from many damaging earthquakes that significantly destroyed most of the famous castles, such as Bled, Planina, and Turjak, but also a majority of towns. All of these awful events that took place between the 15th and the early 18th centuries contributed to the fomentation of peasant revolts.
During this period, we can count about 150 episodes of local rebellions against the increasing injustice of the feudal system in Slovenian territories. The best-known revolts are the Carinthian Peasant Revolt of 1478, the joint Peasant Revolt of Croatians, and Slovenes of 1573, the Second Slovene Peasant Revolt that took place in 1635, and the Tolmin Peasant Revolt of 1713.
The revindication progressively evolved throughout the many revolts. From a desire to go back to their ancient rights with the decrease of their determined obligations concerning production and work, Slovenian peasants finally reclaimed fundamental changes in the feudal system.
They did not obtain this, but the unreasonable request did ease thanks to fear of reprisals. The structure of feodality then evolved at the same speed as the countries of Western Europe.
The Birth of a National Movement
After all of the difficulties that punctuated the precedent period, the early 18th and early 19th century marked an episode of peace for Slovenian lands. Economic reforms made by the Habsburg rulers allowed the territory to boost its activity.
With the former Slovenian city of Trieste becoming a free port in 1718, the economic situation bettered by the middle of the 18th century. It was combined with political and administrative reforms that permitted to improve the living conditions of the Slovene peasantry without hurting the admittedly weak bourgeoisie.
The Napoleonic Period
The short period of French occupation in Slovenian lands was one of the first steps towards national awareness. Between the years 1805 and 1813, the territory was attached to the autonomous Illyrian Provinces, which were part of the French Napoleonic Empire.
In this short amount of time, the French rule and ideals contributed to spreading the idea of national consciousness and political unification of Slovenians. Indeed, many of the achievements and models of the French Revolution were implemented at the time.
In the field of justice, we can particularly note that the rulers introduced equality before the law, nationalization of the judiciary, and the use of both Napoleonic and Penal Code. But also, it permitted to emancipate the Jews that were, for example, forbidden from settling in Carniola.
Furthermore, even if they did not really put an end to the feudal system, the French implemented a unification of the tax system combined with the abolition of some tax privileges. It is also at this time that the Church and the State were given separated powers.
With the invasion of the Illyrian provinces by Franz Tomassich and its Austrian troops, the short-lived French interim came to an end. Slovenian territory got back in the Austrian Empire, but the seeds of national sense were sawn in the minds of the population.
Slovene National Awakening
The idea of a Slovene nation started to expand between the 1820s and the 1840s, in particular through the development of the Slovene folklore and language. The collection of folk songs by philologists marked the beginning of the standardization of the Slovene language.
The Slovene national consciousness was especially widespread by the intellectual circle that advocated for the individuality of the Slovene culture and language. We can particularly mention the famous Romantic poet France Prešeren, which was a big supporter of this idea and contributed to its expansion through his art, like his Zdravljica poem that is now the current anthem of Slovenia.
At the time, this idea clashed with the Illyrian movement supported by a minority of militants. Started in Croatia and developed in Carinthia and Styria, it aimed at the idea of a unification of Slaves through the merge of Slovenes into a vast Slavic nation.
The movement for national unification massified nevertheless in the frame of the Spring of Nations in 1848. At the time, the popular and political movement United Slovenia emerged and claimed an autonomous and the unified Kingdom of Slovenia within the Austrian Empire, initiating the path of Slovenian future political activity.
The Slovene National Awakening developed and gave birth to many institutions, able to create a livable structure to Slovenes. The foundation of economic, cultural, and political structures succeeded in compensating for the lack of political representation and led to the adoption of a constitution in 1860.
With the new political and civil rights granted by the constitution, the national movement strengthened despite the opposition between progressists (the Young Slovenes) and conservatives (the Old Slovenes). Rallies, but also theaters and publishing houses, massified the adhesion of the population to the movement.
However, the end of the 19th century knew his long history of difficulties in the territory. The conservative Catholics and the anticlerical progressists were confronted in a cultural war, while the increasing industrialization exacerbated social tensions.
Socialists and Catholic socialists movements massified in this context, as the idea of Yugoslavia, a union of all the South Slavis, emerged. In the early 20th century, new tensions were added with the nationalist radicalization of Slovene, Italian, and German speakers in the Austrian littoral, as the national struggles increased in all areas with different ethnicities.
The beginning of the 20th century also marked one of the biggest waves of Slovene migration. Between the 1880s and 1910, about 300,000 inhabitants (one Slovene in six!) left the country, affecting the country’s population growth deeply.
The Yugoslav Era
The end of the First World War in 1918 spelled the collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the seizure of power by staunch nationalists in present-day Slovenia but also Croatia and Serbia on October 6.
Right next to it followed the declaration of Independence of the State of Slovenes, Serbians, and Croats that became a kingdom in December.
In 1929, it officially took the name of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Since 1918, the Yugoslav entity evolved to survive the different events of the tumultuous 20th century.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia
This plurinational state was a monarchy, first ruled by King Peter I of Serbia, that subsisted until its capitulation in April 1941. Even if this formation was particularly unpopular amongst Slovenes at first, it rapidly gained their adhesion.
Indeed, Yugoslavia adopted its constitution of 1921 regardless of the disapproval of 70% of the Slovenes but managed to satisfy them by guaranteeing a significant level of cultural autonomy and making their economy and arts flourish. Slovenes were then represented in most of Yugoslavia’s governments, even at the prime minister’s post: it was the only non-Serbian one.
However, the declaration of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929 marked the suspension of the civil liberties granted by the constitution, which was then abolished. From this time, Slovenes relentlessly voted for the Slovene People’s Party. This is a conservative organization that fought for an autonomous Slovenia within a federalist Yugoslavia while it was more and more centralized.
As a consequence of the 1929 world economic crash, the autonomous Communist Party of Slovenia was founded in 1937, in a context of leftist and rightist growth of radicalism. Slovenia was indeed the most industrialized part of Yugoslavia.
Fascist Occupation and World War II
The link between Slovenia and fascism dates back to the collapse of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire when Italians started to feel threatened by middle-class Slovenes in the city of Trieste. Fascists squads like the Black Shirts started to attack Slovene shops in order to implement the Italianization of the town and of the whole region during the 30s.
After the beginning of World War II, Yugoslavia was pressured into joining the Tripartite Act after Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, as Hitler wanted to protect the area while preparing the invasion of the Soviet Union. They signed an agreement in March 1941 but were rapidly invaded.
Five Slovene settlements lost their authority at the time, and the Province of Slovenia was established by Italians. Justified by some rebellion acts, the Italian organized ethnic cleansing in the area. Three thousand five hundred civilians died amongst the 35,000 that were deported in Italian camps.
An Anti-Imperialist front was set up by the Communist Party of Slovenia, some of the Christian socialists, and some cultural walkers. The liberation front was led by the Communist party and start to liberate territories from 1943. By the end of WWII, the whole Slovene land was freed by the Slovene partisan army, with the help of the Yugoslav and Soviet Armies.
On November 29, 1943, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established, and Slovenia was declared a part of it within the context of the alliance between Tito and Stalin. With the new frontiers drawn after the war, Slovenia recovered its littoral.
The Italian-populated towns of the Adriatic coast, such as Koper, Piran, and Izola, knew a massive emigration. The Italians were also being followed by all the people eager to escape communism and the nationalization of private property.
The Socialist Republic of Slovenia was mostly autonomous by the beginning of the 50s, after the split between Tito and Stalin. Since Yugoslavia was not part of the Eastern block, the territory benefited from relatively broad freedom in matters of economic and personal freedoms.
After the death of Tito in 1980, Yugoslavia did not really hold together anymore. Multi-party democracy was inaugurated with the elections of Spring 1990, leading to the defeat of the former Communist party.
Independence of Slovenia
After Slovenes expressed their will to live in an independent country, Slovenia acquired its independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991.
Birth of a Democratic Nation
The Democratic Opposition of Slovenia (DEMOS), a democrat and socialist coalition led by the famous Jože Pučnik, was defeated on the second round by the communist Milan Kučan at the occasion of the 1991’s elections. He assured a non-violent process in order to quit Yugoslavia in the best conditions.
The Republic of Slovenia adopted its first constitution on December 23, 1993, through the vote of the Assembly. The country was immediately recognized by Croatia and became a new member of the United Nations in 1992.
Under the direction of Janez Drnovšek, Slovenia’s second Prime Minister, the country decided to orient Slovenia towards the West, on the contrary to other former Yugoslav or Communist states. It mostly consisted of an economic and social gradual transition that mainly focused on Slovenia’s trading and market.
Since Drnovšek became president in 2002, Slovenia has joined many of the world’s major organizations after the consultation of Slovenians through referendums. Slovenia then integrated NATO and the European Union both in 2004.
Fascinating Slovenian History
To conclude, Slovenia is a small but fascinating country that has a lot to offer, and that could make you learn a lot. Now that you have some basis, you will be able to understand all of the influences and stories that have shaped Slovenia throughout the centuries.
You will soon discover the many riches of the country in person and know where to learn more about Slovene history. Do not hesitate to visit ethnographic or historical museums in order to complete your knowledge, and to book guided tours if you want to get dived into the history of ancient places.
For example, I recommend you to admire the remains of the Roman civilization in Emona, to visit one of the many impressive medieval castles, to walk the path of peace reminding of WWII! However, there is still much more to discover about Slovenia, its folklore, language, and customs: do not hesitate to read these other articles that will make you want to come right now.