The ancestors of the present-day Slovenes began settling in the area of their present homeland during the 6th century of the Common Era, moving south from the area of Moravia in the present-day Czech Republic. At this time the Avars, warlike Central Asian nomads like the Huns of the previous century, were both allies and overlords of many Slavic tribes, and it was under their sponsorship that Slavs established themselves north of the Balkans despite resistance from the Germanic Lombards and Bavarians.

Approximate location of Carantania (orange)
During the 7th century, however, conflicts arose between the Slavs and Avars, and by the 8th century a Slavic realm named Carantania (occupying some of the same space as present-day Austria and Slovenia) had achieved independence. Late in that century, however, the Frankish Empire under Charlemagne destroyed what was left of the Avars and incorporated the Slavs of Carantania (as the Duchy of Carinthia) into the newly proclaimed Holy Roman Empire — and, not quite incidentally, into the Christian Church. The Duchies of Carniola and Styria were organized later; between them these three duchies took in most Slovene territory, but also much that was populated by German-speakers who would one day be Austrians.

From the time of Charlemagne forward, the Slovene territory was part of the “crown lands” of Austria, which proved to be the longest-lasting part of the Holy Roman Empire. (It kept that title until 1806, when Napoleon was busily reorganizing Europe, after which it was simply the Austrian Empire, and then, from 1867 onward, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.) The Slovenes were content to be ruled by nobles who didn’t speak their language; that was a common social arrangement in much of Europe well into the 20th century.

Although Slovenes occasionally suffered raids and depredations during the long wars between Austria and the Ottoman Empire, their country was too mountainous to interest the Turks greatly. The high road to conquest led toward Vienna — and Croatia, besides being more directly on that road, was easier country to march through. So the Habsburgs, rulers of the Empire since the 14th century, never tried to turn Slovenia into a military buffer, as they did with Croatia.

Napoleon’s revisions of the European map brought Slovenia close to something like nationhood for a short time, even though the Slovenes hadn’t asked for it. In 1809, having forced Austria to give up all its territory along the Adriatic coast, he put together the “Illyrian Provinces,” which were nominally a part of France though not contiguous with it at any point. The Provinces included the Dalmatian coast and other parts of Croatia, and they didn’t take in all of present-day Slovenia, but the Corsican Upstart made Ljubljana (better known at that time under its German name, Laibach) their capital. Napoleon’s creation didn’t survive for long, however: in 1813, during the war that sent him into exile for the first time, the Austrians took it all back, and the Illyrian Provinces were no more.

The Romantic Age in the first half of the 19th century saw the rise of cultural and political nationalism in many parts of Europe, and in the middle of the century, the Austrian Empire was shaken by nationalist uprisings among several of its constituent peoples, most significantly the Hungarians. But most Slovenes were disinclined to revolt. National consciousness and the desire for independence did begin to stir among them, but most wanted home rule within the Austrian Empire rather than full freedom. Slovenes were distributed among several Austrian provinces, and a movement arose aimed at uniting them, still under Habsburg rule. However, the monarchy wasn’t interested. The Empire survived the shock of upheaval among its other subject peoples, but in the aftermath began to loosen its grip just a little. The Duchy of Carniola (which included Ljubljana and was almost entirely Slovene in population) was granted a parliament of its own. The parliament’s powers were quite limited, however, and of course its existence didn’t benefit Slovenes who lived in Carinthia, Styria, or other provinces.

Kozler's map of Slovene territory
A wealthy Ljubljana lawyer and businessman named Peter Kozler, of German ethnicity, took the Slovene cause to heart, and in 1848 (the year of national uprisings all over Europe) drew a map of the “Slovene land and regions.” But he didn’t publish it until 1854, when “the Spring of Nations” was pretty much over. Nevertheless, the map included a line indicating what Kozler considered the appropriate border for a united Slovenia, and this caused the Austrian military authorities to suppress publication and imprison him briefly. (According to the Wikipedia article about him, the proposed border on Kozler’s map was red. The copy reproduced here has no red line on it, but a thin, dark blue or green line sketches a border similar to the one Slovenia has now, although it optimistically encloses several areas that were eventually given to Italy or left in Austria.) Kozler was far from ruined by his misadventure — he went on to found the Union Brewery, still the country’s largest, and was a generous donor to Slovene cultural institutions and causes.

Since political independence wasn’t in the cards, many Slovenes did as Kozler did, and redirected their energies toward cultural independence. Their native tongue had lately become a literary language through the work of the poet France Prešeren and others, and this was a source of national pride. But at the same time Slovenes began to fear that they would be linguistically and culturally overwhelmed by the Germanic ascendancy, and they petitioned vainly for a national university that spoke their own language.

In 1867, Austria worked a power-sharing arrangement (the Ausgleich or ‘Compromise’) with the Hungarians that kept Emperor Franz Joseph on his throne. As part of the deal, Hungary got control of some parts of the empire, but not Slovenia, which as an Austrian “crown land,” remained under Austrian rule. Slovene troops, especially Alpine regiments, fought on the Austro-Hungarian side in World War I. It’s not easy to say how enthusiastically they fought. At the end of the war, probably no one on that side had much enthusiasm left.

By then it was clear to all concerned that the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy was history, and Slovene politicians joined those from other South Slavic areas in proclaiming (on October 29, 1918) the “State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs.” The order of names implied no disrespect for Serbia, which wasn’t included in the state. The Serbs referred to were those who lived in Bosnia and Croatia, although many of them seemed to prefer the idea of joining the Serbian kingdom.

Serbia had a different idea of South Slavic unity, and Serbia had an army. After the Armistice, Italian troops began to move in on the territory their government had been promised to induce them to join the Allies. This included a good deal of Slovenia and Croatia — not only the entire Dalmatian coast, but Ljubljana and everything to the west of it — and the Slovenes and Croats had no way to halt this encroachment. The only way to do that was to propose a new South Slavic union that would include the Kingdom of Serbia.

The Kingdom is proclaimed (December 1, 1918)
A delegation was sent to Belgrade, and the “State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs” was quickly replaced by the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes,” which included both Serbia and Montenegro. The new Kingdom was proclaimed on December 1, 1918. (In the picture, an artist’s conception, King Alexander I is the younger of the two figures in uniform. A portrait of his recently deceased father, King Peter I, hangs on the wall.)

A conference to construct the new kingdom politically followed soon after the proclamation. Serbs considered that they had borne the most terrible hardships during the war, and despite that had played a significant role in defeating the imperial oppressor. They were, moreover, the most populous component of the newly created nation, and the only one with any experience in self-government. All of these claims were based in fact.

Serbia therefore felt entitled to take the lead in setting up a government. Monarchy, though on its way out, wasn’t quite finished yet, and many Europeans still considered a monarchy essential to the legitimacy of a nation. As several countries in the Balkans, including Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania, had achieved independence during the 19th century, they had been provided by Europe’s Great Powers with rulers of proven royal blood — usually German princes who were not in a position to succeed to the thrones of their own countries. The Serbian monarchy, by contrast, was held by descendants of the first local leaders to rebel against the Turks, and the king, though head of state, was subject to a democratic constitution. These circumstances may have helped dispose the Croats and Slovenes to accept the arrangement. But the young king Alexander I, who had succeeded his father King Peter during the war, intended, within the limits of his constitutional role, to be the leader of his nation. His father had done this very successfully, but he had had only the nation of Serbia to lead. And Alexander, unfortunately, seems not to have been overendowed with political judgment.