A Problem of History, Historiography or Ideology?

By Antonia Bernard

Translation from French coordinated by Anton Škerbinc

The state of Slovenia was founded on the 25th of June 1991. It is evident that this political act of enormous significance for Slovenes did not come about overnight, but was the result of a long process of maturation which began more than two centuries ago. It is natural that such an act should be accompanied by - besides political actions such as free elections, the breakdown of Communist Yugoslavia, and the victory of the Opposition - a deep soul-searching concerning politics as such, the idea of nationhood or history. These reflections were not restricted to the intellectual elite; they extended into many other communities within the broader population. History thus represents an important part of soul-searching involving the community; it is the base on which rests the national conscience. The newly acquired freedom that now can be exercised in so many areas cannot ignore history with its different strata, from the most recent events to the most ancient ones - strata that the writers of history have often considered as set in stone, although they are very much alive and sensitive to the present realities.

The Venetic theory, that emerged in Slovenia at the beginning of the eighties at a crucial moment of the national existence, is the stereotypical example of this questioning of historical truths that are considered firmly established. Or is it only an echo of the time? Does it have to remain as a temporary trend for a nation, proud and happy, to find a new interpretation of its past. Or could it be of interest to the specialists and lead them down new avenues of investigation? How does this theory fit into the written history of Slovenia? Does it demand changes in interpretations?

In Slovenia, this new vision of the past gives rise to furious polemics. It separates the historiographic establishment from a part of the population and underlines the divisions within the society as a whole. It raises a considerable number of strictly scientific issues but also issues that are political, ideological, and sociological. Amongst the Slovenes abroad, notably those in Austria and Italy, as well as amongst the sympathizers of the Spring parties and the Catholics one can find many supporters of this theory; whereas the old Communists reject it with their last ounce of energy. Beyond its strictly scientific content, the Venetic theory acts as a catalyst for political and ideological division.

Having neither the familiarity nor the experience of having studied these questions in depth, I will present here only the main points.

The first articles relating to the new theory of the history of the ancient Slovenes appeared in the early 1980s in the Slovenian journal of Vienna Glas Korotana, founded and directed by Rev. Ivan Tomazic. The articles mentioned "Slovenian symbols" including the linden tree, the black panther, and the Ducal Throne of Carinthia. Obviously, at that time in Slovenia -- still nominally Communist and solidly in the Yugoslav fold -- these kinds of articles would have endangered any publication, just like the "secessionist" writings of Boris Pahor in Trieste. Finally, the sum of these historical studies was published in 1988 in Vienna in German, under the title Our Ancestors the Veneti. note 1 The book was immediately translated into Slovenian and published in Ljubljana, Slovenia. . note 2

The following year, The Slovenian State of Carantania was published by three publishing houses in Vienna, Koper and Ljubljana.note 3 The works generated a widespread response in the Slovenian media, but also abroad (Frakfurter Allgemeine, Die Welt, La Stampa, etc.). Three more works containing refinements, updates, excerpts of reviews and responses to critics have been published since, as well as a digest of the principal theses, destined for the public at large. note 4

The first book was recently translated into Italian and English. One should emphasize that the authors, including the two who do not live in Slovenia, do not have formal training as historians, and therefore have no ties to the History Department at the University of Ljubljana. Ivan Tomazic was born in 1919 in the Karst region of Slovenia, occupied by Italy between the First World War and the Second World War. He studied theology in Spain and Rome, and entered the priesthood [1943]. Later he moved to Vienna, Austria, where he started an association to help students of Slovenian background, mainly from Carinthia. Jozko Šavli, born in 1943 in Tolmin, Slovenia, studied in Ljubljana, and received his Ph. D. in Social Studies in Vienna. He now teaches in Gorizia, Italy. Matej Bor (1913 - 1996), born near Gorizia, studied Slavistics in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is mostly known as a poet, a writer, and a dramatist of the Resistance, which means that he was, more or less, an official author. He was the president of the Union of Slovenian writers and a member of the Slovenian Academy. Later in life he devoted himself more specifically to linguistic studies, and it is he who undertook an interpretation of the Venetic inscriptions.

However, even if one of the authors were part of the establishment, we must first and foremost underline that this new vision of Slovenian history was generated entirely outside the institutions of professional historiography.

So, what is this Venetic theory that provokes so much enthusiasm in one camp and so much contempt and sarcasm in the other? Generally it is considered that the Slovenes are descendants of the Slavs who in the 6th century arrived as far as the eastern foothills of the Alps. Supported by a few documentary sources this hypothesis is upheld by present-day Slovenian scholars, as well as those who, after [the Czech] Šafarik, have studied the ancient history of the Slavs. These historians paid very little attention to the Slovenes because they simply did not recognize them as a separate people. Bogo Grafenauer, an authority in Slovenia, considers that two migrations took place - one through the Balkans and the other from the north - and occupied a territory much larger than the Slovenian lands of today. note 5 However, many questions remain unanswered, and the little that is known can be interpreted in different ways.

On the one hand, the ancient authors generally speak of their neighbours as "Veneti". Opinions differ as to whom they refer. Certain historians have presented as fact a link between "Veneti" and "Slavs"; others separate "Veneti" from "Venedi"; yet others deny all connections between "Veneti" and "Slavs". The Lusatian culture, well known on account of the rich archaeological discoveries of relatively recent times, remains itself an enigma: "It has been impossible till now, despite numerous theories, to determine to which people it should be attributed." note 6

On the other hand, there is not one Slavic people from the Baltic to the Adriatic who has not tried to claim connection with the "Veneti" or to resolve the "Venetic mystery". The question is the more troubling as one can locate the Veneti in several European and Asian places without being able to establish a connection between them.

It would be dishonest to say that the three authors claim that the Slovenes descend directly from the Veneti. However, they energetically refute the idea that their Slavic ancestors came from the marshlands east of the Carpathians during the 6th century. On the contrary, they see themselves as the original inhabitants who lived in the area before the Roman Empire.

This is how Ivan Tomazic explains the theory: "My intention is to present in this publication, in a clear and accessible manner, important evidence showing that we Slovenes are people rooted in central Europe since time immemorial. We created our own social system and the first form of statehood before the Roman times (Noric Kingdom). We reestablished them in the Middle Ages and we have maintained the same foundations of social and judicial organization in the traditions of our village community up to modern times." note 7

The authors reject all connections of this civilization with the Slavs beyond the Carpathians, but they do link it to the Venetic culture of Lusatia, and with the brilliant Venetic culture of northern Italy. As far as the authors are concerned, this civilization survived despite Romanization in the Noric kingdom. The latter was succeeded by the Principality of Carantania, which itself survived the Frankish conquest in the 9th century and continued into modern times. note 8

To argue against the arrival of the Slavs into the Slovenian regions, the three authors use the same meager sources as the historians who accept this thesis, but give the sources an opposite interpretation. The most important documentary source is The History of Langobards (Historia Langobardorum), written in 797 AD by the learned monk Paulus Diaconus. He devoted several lines to the attacks by the Avars, the Langobards, and the Slavs on the territory of Istria, then under Byzantine control. Tomazic considers these Slavs to be mercenaries. Elsewhere Diaconus speaks of the incursion of the Bavarians into the "Sclavorum provincia". According to him, the Bavarians returned with a rich bounty. For the supporters of the Venetic theory these two statements prove the existence in that territory of a rich constitutional state ("provincia" is used elsewhere for "state"). To create such a state would have been impossible in a mountainous region in one or two generations after the arrival of "barbarians" from the Pripet swamps. "We conclude from his writings that the Slovenes were indigenous inhabitants, and therefore that they were the ancient Veneti." note 9

The Fredegarii Chronicon supports their thesis, since in 623 AD it equates the Veneti with the Slavs: "Sclavi coinomento Vinedos", and speaks of the "marca Winedorum" and the "Walucus dux Winedorum". The same theme occurs in the "Vitae S. Columbani", where the author speaks of the "Country of the Veneti who consider themselves also Slavs" [Termini Venetiorum qui et Sclavi dicuntur].

Thus, where historians habitually find confusion in the classification of neighbouring, little known people, our authors hold a contrary view regarding this identification of the Veneti and the West Slavs. Also, we should remember that the Germans and the Hungarians have always used the name Veneti to designate Slovenes even though it was a derogatory term. note 10

Once the idea of Veneti/Slavs became plausible on account of the interpretation of historical sources, our authors attempt to reinforce it with etymology, through the toponymy [study of place names], and above all through the interpretation of the numerous inscriptions belonging to the Este-Etruscan civilisation. We first find the map of Friuli - a region [northeastern Italy] where the Venetic/Slavic language had to yield to the spreading of Latin. There, the Slavic toponyms are very numerous: Gorizza, Sclavons, Gradisca, Sella, etc., in different forms. The [official] Slovenian historians customarily account for these place-names by pointing to the forced settlement of peasants from Slovenian territory under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchs of Aquilea. According to our authors, these toponyms date back to Roman times, just as do for example Tergeste, Tergolape or Oderzo, based on the Slavic word "trg, terg" [market town].

However, these toponyms extend much farther to the west; they are found wherever the settlement of the Veneti is documented. Thus, there is Bregenz (from bregec dim. of breg - shore) on the shore of "Lacus Venetus" [Lake Constance]. Drava [river] is derived from dreti, derti - to rush, same as the name of the river Derotchia in Switzerland. Cervino comes from cer; in the name of the mountain chain Pic de la Meije one could find the root of meja, meya. In the Hohe Tauren, our authors have drawn attention to a multitude of interesting names: besides the Grossvenediger, there are Pösch, Pötschah, Pötschenjoch, from pec - rock; Dober, Daber Alm, Daber Spitz, from deber - narrow valley, canyon, etc. note 11

But the authors go even further. They try to explain certain words from Brittany in light of their theory. It is true - one finds Veneti in the south of Brittany. From the similarity between Breiz and breg they conclude that the origin of this name could be Venetic/Slavic. They indicate other similarities of vocabulary: ozaac'h, ocak - ancestor; marc'h, marha, mrha - beast, etc. note 12

Without a doubt, the most audacious proposals found in these works emanate from the writings of Matej Bor, who undertook the study of the Atestine tablets in light of the Venetic theory. Here the justification becomes much more difficult, because if Bor's thesis were to be proven correct, it would be in opposition to many studies already published in this field. Eminent international specialists, such as C. Pauli (Leipzig), H. Krahe (Jena, Germany), G. B. Pellegrini, A. L. Prosdocimi (Italy) or M. Lejeune (France), studied these inscriptions and classified them. They interpreted them as containing traces of the Illyrian language, but generally, it was thought that they represented mostly names of people. Bor studied these inscriptions one by one, letter by letter, giving priority to those found in Slovenian territory, notably on a jar found in 1911 at Škocjan. Bor believes there are Venetic/Slavic words and sentences on it. At the same time, he also offers a new interpretation of what the Venetologists call "tabule alphabetiche", in which he identifies a table setting out the grammar of the verb jekati (compared to the Slovenian verbs jekniti, odjekniti). note 13

As for Jozko Šavli, he contests a delicate point of Slovenian history - the absence of historicity. If it is generally agreed that an embryonic Slovenian state, the Principality of Carantania, existed between the 7th and the 9th centuries, it follows that this state fell first under the domination of the Bavarians and later the Hapsburgs, and that there is no real continuity between Carantania and the modern Slovenia. It should be remembered that Carantanian territory lies now [largely] within the boundaries of Austria. Šavli tries to establish a continuity by basing it on the pre-Roman Venetic culture, which according to him, persisted in the kingdom of Noricum, which was the predecessor of Carantania. The state of Carantania continued to exist, he says, until 1728 through the act of allegiance to the Hapsburgs. note 14

This is to say that the Slovenes would have been organically and politically connected as an historic element to the Hapsburg state. He insists on the fact that the feudal families such as the Eppenstein, the Spanheim, the Auersperg, et al., were of native Slovenian stock, note 15 and that the continuity of the state was based on feudal rights, not on language. note 16

From Šavli's point of view this continuity is also supported by symbols such as the black panther, which adorned the coat-of-arms of Carantania, but would have been of Venetic origin because it was found carved on rocks in the territory of ancient Noricum, dating from Roman times. note 17 Amongst the symbols transmitted from generation to generation, he recognizes the linden tree, "tree of the Veneti", the bee [apis mellifica carnica] or the wide-brimmed hat.

It is difficult to summarize in a few lines this abundance of hypotheses, of which some appear at first completely plausible, whereas others seem to be pure fantasy. For some of these the authors cite sources, and for some they rely more on their imagination or intuition. One can sense that it is the work of amateurs, unaccustomed to scholarly procedure. The facts and the ideas are intermingled and over-interpreted in a disorderly fashion which resembles something baroque, quaint rather than a rationally constructed thesis.

These theories that unite the Slavs and the Veneti in former times, even if considered by other West Slavs, notably the Poles, are certainly not new for the Slovenes. At the beginning of this century J. Mal, H. Tuma, and D. Trstenjak undertook some research in this direction. For the first Slovenian historians such as J. V. Valvasor (1641-93) or A. T. Linhart (1756-95) there was no doubt about the identity between Veneti, Slavs and the residents of the Carniola [Slovenia]. In France we find this certainty with C. Robert. The idea of Slavic settlement on the Dalmatian coast before Romanization is also found in the work of Orbini. note 18 In all cases, the three authors raise a considerable quantity of problems, questions, and hypotheses. First of all, we can reproach them in a general sense: they claim to have resolved, as if by magic, the problems that have plagued the specialists for more than a century, and then they affirm with the characteristic candor of amateurs, that they have thrown light on obscure points. The staff of an entire academy would be needed to tackle so many issues at the same time. But we also have to admit that the questions discussed here are part of a larger sphere of the past that has been hardly studied; it is not just Slovenian, but common to this region where the cultures and the people overlap each other. And Slovenian historiography is relatively young.

On the other hand, and this reaches beyond matters that are strictly historical, these works are part of our age and they highlight the problem of writing history after the fall of Communism. For the Slovenes, the removal of the Marxist yoke, even though it was less of a burden than elsewhere, contributed to the emergence of their statehood. Suddenly, history resurfaces, disorganized and disrespectful. Like the three musketeers, our authors allow themselves to question everything and ride roughshod over recognized authorities such as F. Kos or B. Grafenauer, who could hardly be accused of intellectual dishonesty.

Not too long ago one could have appeared ridiculous if one did not believe in Marxist historiography, even in some highly intellectual environments of the so-called free world. And yet, if one approaches these new books from a neutral standpoint and without fear of inviting ridicule one has to admit that these amateurs bring something like a breath of fresh air to the Slovenian historiography which until now was idling in its cozy microcosm of unquestioned absolutes. The authors came in from the periphery at the same time as [Slovenian] authors from the USA and Argentina came with their banned publications. Without questioning the great ability of the best Slovenian historians, nevertheless, one can say that the university historiography, which was the only one in existence since the last war, had a hard time resisting the institutionalized dogma. And did it really try to free itself from it? Whereas theatre and poetry, which admittedly developed partially outside the influence of the institutions, indulged in an orgy of new, tolerated freedom. Meanwhile, the historians were content to study the past in the light of somewhat relaxed Marxist ideology.

The peasant uprisings of the 15th-16th centuries, where the notion of social class and national identity were interwoven into a happy marriage, could only have attracted some historians. note 19 On the other hand the glorification of accomplishments of the Communist-led Resistance was not without influence on one's career! Undeniably, times have been difficult and many subjects were taboo in the distant past as well as more recently. And man, scholar or not, survives more easily on bread than on truth.

Moreover, in past times, the Slovenian people were rather fond of history, at least in popular or romanticized versions, which explains the success of the historical novel, and the publication in a popular edition of the first serious history of Slovenia at the beginning of this century. note 20 Under Communism, the writing of history was discredited in the eyes of the public; but this did not prevent the publication of very highbrow studies in specialized and poorly circulated journals. Like everywhere else in the Communist sphere, students swallowed the official line without question and took it in stride. For many graduate students, it was better not to question the established order if one day they wanted to have the precious "Dr." in front of their name. It would be worn like a medal and signify that they belonged to the elite of the nation.

Clearly, one cannot assert that ancient history is forbidden territory (for scholars) even though Tomazic, Šavli, and Bor maintain that their Venetic theory calls into question Yugoslav unity, which is based, according to them, on false history taught by professors more concerned with politics than with truth. But the fact remains that everything that seemed the slightest bit innovative was not well received. For example, the history of the Slovenes at the Isonzo [Soca] front [during First World War] was virtually ignored until the amateur historians began to study it. The period between the wars remained a "terra incognita", and one had to wait for the advent of independence to see the publication of the first study about the seizing of the power by the Communist party... note 21 So it is hardly surprising that amateurs replaced professionals and that this occurred at the very moment when freedom of speech was regained. Some amateurs had already become involved in the gathering of local and regional historical data (Škofja Loka, Ruše) and generated compilations, some of which contain extremely interesting and well-documented studies. These amateurs had a much freer approach. They often compensated for their lack of methodology with curiosity, for their lack of knowledge with energy, and an absence of prejudgment or ideological rigidity.

It is therefore difficult to disassociate this history from the period in which these amateurs worked. Their writings are simply an expression of freedom regained. Our authors claim not to have been swayed by the contemporary scene, but their ideas were received by the public in this context. Besides, they did not escape the vigilance of the political police, who saw in their books, as well as in the national program published by the Nova Revija, danger for the established order, that is to say, for Communist Yugoslavia. note 22 The Belgrade newspapers protested vigorously, thereby implicitly granting to the Venetic theory national, if not historical importance.

Changes in the life of a nation have always been accompanied by reflections about the future as well as the past. Many famous speeches or pamphlets are proof of it, as for example the "Address to the German Nation" by Fichte, the "Address to the Nation" by Renan, etc... They rapidly become incomprehensible and seem absurd when they are not considered in terms of the time and place in which they were conceived. On the other hand, historians do participate in the life of a nation; they love and serve that nation, even if they have to compromise their scholarly impartiality in order to do so. A nation's history is never neutral, even the oldest part of it. Just think of the heated controversies over the origins of the first Russian state. These three amateur historians are even more immersed in the "context of the moment", and this national preoccupation appeared everywhere and is illustrated frequently.

Jozko Šavli does not conceal it: "The problem of the image of Slovenia and its place in the historical framework, culture, and geography of Europe is related to its historical position. During the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Slovenes were considered to be a people who had not created their own national history. From the comments of the historians one could conclude that their role since the 9th century was secondary and that they constituted a passive element on the fringe of any movement involving politics and society." note 23

However, these three historians are not the first to use history to support present-day concerns. The "Investiture of the Dukes of Carantania" was mentioned in all history textbooks. During the Communist rule, this helped promote a type of people power. It allowed Tomazic, Bor, and Šavli to see in it an example of modern democracy. note 24 The myth of Napoleon, liberator of the Slovenes and founder of Yugoslavia, was never questioned by the professional historians, any more than "Illyria revived", the famous poem by Vodnik (1811), in which the poet considers the Illyrians, that is to say, the Slovenes, as indigenous residents and their civilization to have preceded that of the Romans. Our amateur historians do not say anything different. Could there be a history for historians, and another one for the people? By approaching history through national or even nationalistic sensitivity, our three authors repeat many current cliches and thereby make the same errors that they attribute to others. Thus the concept of historicity has hounded the Slovenes since the 19th century. Historians usually explain the incorporation of Slovenes into Austria and later Yugoslavia by the absence of an aristocracy, who, in the past, were the disseminators of political ideas. Tomazic and Šavli are at pains to demonstrate that an aristocracy did exist, essentially relating it to the Venetic origins. note 25

Another cliche is the idea of blood relationships, on which rests pan-Slavism in all its forms. It is clear that the concept of Yugoslavia, for lack of historical, cultural or political unity, relied principally on presumed ethno-biological unity. From this is derived the repeatedly used expression "brother" or "blood brother" that was so frequently employed before the creation of the first Yugoslavia. How can one not see in the Venetic theory, which separates the Slovenes from the other Slavs in the Balkans, an attempt to deny these ethnic bonds, even if this was not the intention of the authors?

It is probably because they touch on all these cliches as well as the national myths that the theses of Tomazic, Bor, and Šavli have encountered such a huge response with the public. The newspapers were wide open to debates and polemics that created a large amount of interest. Other amateur historians directed their search in this direction and quite a few teachers adopted the new theses.

For the institutional writing of history it presented a real challenge. One could no longer ignore this "parallel history" that started to invade the major newspapers; whereas the Slovenian historians were rather a secluded, desk-bound community. They quickly published The History of Langobards, by Paulus Diaconus, so the public could judge for itself. note 26 A compilation of articles had to refute the arguments of the amateurs and stem the polemics. note 27 Besides serious and dignified articles, such as one from B. Grafenauer, there were articles that resembled lampoons more than anything else. At all events, this questioning of the established truths created a sense of unease. The historians felt obliged to respond to legitimate questioning by the public. Thus, A. Pleterski published an Ethnogenesis of the Slovenes in the big daily newspaper Delo using the traditional form of a serial story. note 28

Click here for the Conclusion and the Response by the author Ivan Tomazic.