Slovenes of Austria

Location: southern parts of Carinthia
Population: 18,800 (1981 census)
% of population: 2.7% of Carinthian population
Religion: Catholic
Language: Slovene and its dialects

Slovenes have been living in Carinthia, Austria’s border region with Yugoslavia and Italy, since the sixth century. In 1335 the province came into the possession of Austria and after World War I the south-western corner of the region was ceded to Italy and the south-eastern corner to Yugoslavia, with the inhabitants of the Klagenfurt district voting to remain within Austria rather than join with Yugoslavia. As a result of this redistribution of territory about 400,000 Slovenes remained in Italy and 90,000 in Austria. The Slovenes should be distinguished from a group of Slavs who speak dialects known collectively as Windisch, which are of Slavonic base but make use of numerous German words. The term Windisch was originally used by Germans to describe all Slavonic peoples in their territory and was synonymous with Slovene until the late nineteenth century.

During World War II Carinthia was the only province in Austria to put up armed resistance against Germany. Many Slovene farmers were deported to Germany, others escaped to fight with Tito’s partisans against Hitler and others joined right-wing groups.

Article 7 of the State Treaty of May 1955 provided for the protection of the Slovene and other minorities and since that time Slovenes have been granted the right to educate their children in their mother-tongue at state schools and to use Slovene in courts of law and for all official purposes within the province. Discrimination against Slovenes on linguistic grounds is prohibited. Despite these provisions a clause recommending that all place-name signs should be bilingual was not adequately implemented and this caused a great deal of friction between Slovenes and the German-speaking majority. Bombings and other acts of violence were perpetrated by activist groups from both communities. Whilst German activists called for the complete assimilation of the Slovene-speakers into the German linguistic and cultural sphere a small group of Slovene activists were demanding a Slovene Carinthia, preferably linked to Yugoslavia and including the Windisch minority. The Windisch tend to ally themselves more to the German speakers, however, and refuse to be included in the Slavonic ethnic group.

In 1972 legislation was passed to hasten the erection of bilingual place-name signs, but many were torn down by German language nationalists. In 1976 the Austrian government held a controversial language census in an attempt to determine the numbers of speakers of each language. Many Slovene speakers boycotted the census, however, and the government later conceded that the attempt had been a failure. The 1976 Ethnic Groups Act further recognized the rights of non-German-speaking Austrians, and Slovenes today have a thriving cultural life and little cause for dissatisfaction. There are monolingual and bilingual schools, two weekly newspapers, daily radio broadcasts, a cultural centre and two cultural bodies, one Catholic and one Marxist. All parishes in the officially Slovene-speaking areas have Slovene-speaking priests and Slovene is used in church affairs and in the courts in those regions. The number of Slovenes calling for unification with Yugoslavia is tiny and many are now following the Windisch path to assimilation with German-speakers, especially in the tourist areas. In 1987 the Austrian parliament made a decision to end bilingual education in primary schools and to separate German and Slovenes into different areas. This decision has caused anxiety within the Slovene community.

(See also Croats of Austria; Slovenes of Italy)