Slovenians endured biggest displacement wave during WWI

Ljubljana, 22 February - The wave of refugees that fled from the Soča Valley during the Isonzo Battles in the First World War has attracted the interest of historian Jernej Kosi, who says this was the biggest displacement of people from Slovenian lands in modern times. Between 1915 and 1917, around 120,000 people were forced to flee or were forcibly evacuated from their homes.

Ljubljana Historian Jernej Kosi. Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Historian Jernej Kosi.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ljubljana Historian Jernej Kosi. Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Historian Jernej Kosi.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ljubljana Historian Jernej Kosi. Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

Historian Jernej Kosi.
Photo: Anže Malovrh/STA

A researcher at the Ljubljana Faculty of Arts, Kosi believes that the phenomenon, which has never been researched very thoroughly, greatly affected the Slovenian history of the 20th century.

The Refugees: a Never-Ending Story

Kosi is researching the exodus as part of the Refugees: a Never-Ending Story project, headed by Petra Svoljšak of the Milko Kos Historical Institute at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts.

The main idea behind the project is to investigate the issue of refugees in the modern history of Slovenia, beginning with the First World War, which according to Kosi had started waves of involuntary migrations due to armed conflict.

Kosi is researching the WWI displacement of people from the Soča Valley and the Kras region further into Austria-Hungary from three points of view - the state, the refugees and the people in destination areas.

He wants to shed light on how a state confronts having to provide for thousands of citizens fleeing conflict zones, how refugees experience and survive a world that is completely foreign to them, and how the local population reacts to the arrival of refugees.

According to Kosi, the local population often reacted negatively to refugees: "There are plenty of accounts about how Slovenian-speaking people in Kranjska [NW] reacted to the arrival of Slovenian-speaking people from Goriška [SW]."

Despite speaking the same language and all believing themselves Slovenians, the refugees and locals often saw each other as being different. Refugees were considered "newcomers, 'good-for-nothings', people who will pose a burden for the locals", Kosi says.

State ready for refugee wave, but only on paper

Austrian authorities had to deal with a million fleeing civilians in late 1914 and early 1915 following an unsuccessful campaign against the Russian forces that were advancing towards Austria from the east.

When the first clashes began between Austria-Hungary and Italy in late May 1915, the authorities were allegedly ready for the new wave of refugees.

But Kosi says that in reality things bordered on chaos: a part of the population was not informed about the outbreak of the war and were taken by Italian forces, and another part started fleeing uncontrollably once bombs started to fall.

A part of the population was evacuated as planned, with trains taking refugees inland, towards Graz. There, officials classified them with regards to their political views, nationality and their wealth.

Slovenians were then taken to refugee camps in Bruck or Steinklamm, or refugee centres and apartments. The more affluent families were excluded from the classification and could choose where to stay.

Misery and hunger

Austrian authorities tried to help the fleeing people as much as they could and did everything in their power to make life bearable for the refugees, but Kosi says that the situation was far from peachy.

Just months after the beginning of the war, Austria-Hungary had to come to terms with the fact that it was not capable of feeding the army and civilians alike. This translated into thousands of civilians living in a general state of misery and a lack of food. Towards the end of the war, people were dying of starvation in throngs, according to Kosi.

Women face additional tasks during displacement

Most refugees during the First World War were women, elderly people and children as a majority of men had been conscripted. This meant that women suddenly found themselves in new roles, Kosi says and notes that before the war they had been mainly considered second-rate citizens.

"In the catastrophe, an opportunity arose for temporary emancipation, which can be considered a minor positive consequence of the flight in contrast to all the negative aspects of the civilian exodus," he says and adds that things, including gender relations, returned to "normal" soon after the end of the war.

Reactions of refugees, authorities and local population universal throughout history

Despite the common notion that the humankind learns from history, Kosi believes that the opposite is true at most times. Just as he studied WWI refugees, Slovenia faced the recent refugee wave and Kosi noticed that reactions of the refugees by local people and the authorities were similar to those from a century ago.

"There's always room for people and countries to decide to react in one way or another," he says and adds that the issue of refugees is worth studying and has to be deliberated, as migrations will certainly determine the history of the 21st century.

Kosi hopes that Slovenia will never again experience such an exodus as the one from the Soča Valley. Above all, humankind should work to prevent such refugee waves from happening anywhere, so that "millions of people who are fleeing their homes at this moment can find a place to settle down or return to the area they are fleeing from obvious reasons".

Jernej Kosi

Jernej Kosi is an assistant professor of contemporary history at the Ljubljana Faculty of Arts and a post-doctoral researcher at the Political History Institute in Budapest, Hungary. His research is focused on Slovenian nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, migrations of civilians in WWI and the history of the north-eastern region of Prekmurje in the interwar period.