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Eastern_Europe

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FRANCE PRESEREN
AND THE NATION
THAT ALMOST WASN'T



by Julie Insignares

 

 

The nineteenth century was a critical era for the nation of Slovenia. The people of this small nation found themselves in conflict with two great powers. Pulling from one direction, the German-speaking Austrians of the Habsburg Empire had succeeded in dominating most aspects of Slovene society, including language. On the other hand, many Slavic nations were promoting the unification of all Slavic nations into one large mother country, pulling Slovenia into conformity. The Slovene version of the Enlightenment, particularly influenced by France Preseren through his works and persistence in cultivating the traditional language, developed pride and nationalism that would allow the nation to stand alone as a free, singular entity.

 


THE LIFE OF A POET


France Preseren was born in Upper Carniola, Slovenia in 1800. He spent most of his life in Slovenia and was very much attached to it. Apart from attending school in Vienna, he never left. He was well-educated, as the government had recommended, and studied law with the hopes of opening his own practice. However, poetry and nationalism were his main interests. His most influential works of poetry appeared in a collection of Slovene poetry entitled THE CARNIOLAN BEE which he helped compile. THE CARNIOLAN BEE, the first volume of which was produced in 1830, is a compilation of various works by the numerous Slovene poets who had appeared during this era of romanticism. This series of volumes kept Slovene literary heritage alive during a time when German was so menacingly prevalent. The volumes were delayed publication during the Ljubljana ABC War because of Kopitar's influence in government affairs. Tradition was not something that the Habsburg rulers condoned.
In 1849, after several attempts at starting his own law practice, France Preseren died a poor, lonely man. However, he is remembered daily even today, for his poem entitled Zdravljica ("A Toast") is now Slovenia's national anthem.

 


BACKGROUND

Throughout most of the eighteenth century, Slovenia had been ruled by the Austrian Habsburg Empire. For a brief period at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Slovenia was under French empire ruled by Napoleon. During this period, the Slovene language flourished and was encouraged in schools and everyday life (Singleton, p. 53). But, the German-speaking Austrians regained control in 1813. A map of the Habsburg Empire at the time would show that, although a majority of Slovene speakers were concentrated in the area known as Carniola, many were scattered throughout Austria and Italy. Klagenfurt (Gradec in Slovene) and Villach (Beljak) are two examples of cities known to be occupied by Slovenes in the nineteenth century. The Habsburg Empire was primarily interested in Slovenia for its abundant supply of raw materials and Slovenia was economically dependent on the Empire. This produced a situation in which the ruling class spoke German and the peasants spoke Slovene. The German language was spoken in all relations with the government, in most schools, and in most religious ceremonies. It dominated to such an extent that "Slovene could not be heard outside the marketplace" (Cooper, p. 16). Clearly, this had a detrimental effect on Slovene culture.

The Habsburg Empire was not, however, completely successful in dominating the people. In fact, through its philosophy, it essentially facilitated the change that was about to occur. The rulers believed that the key determinant of power was the strength of the military and, in order to finance this military, "a prosperous, tax-paying peasantry" (Benderly and Kraft, p. 5) was necessary. Thus, the Empire promoted education and this encouraged favorable conditions for change.

 

But the Slovene people did not revolt. Conflicting views arose within the culture and with the nearby South Slav nations, particularly on the subject of the language and alphabet. Around 1831, the intellectual elite, who were highly influential in the affairs of the government because of the Empire's philosophy, were at war with each other over the composition of the Slovene alphabet. This war was called the Ljubljana ABC War. One of the prominent scholars and critics, Jernej Kopitar, led a movement favoring the introduction of a new alphabet that had Cyrillic influences. The Cyrillic alphabet was a characteristic of the language of the South Slav nations. Thus, the implementation of the new alphabet, called "metelcica", would indicate a move toward the unification of all South Slav nations (Cooper, p. 29). Preseren and his supporters were passionately opposed to this movement and its implications. They chose to support the traditional Slovene alphabet, called "bohoricica" and to call for the unification, not of the South Slavs, but of all Slovene-speakers. Preseren succeeded in eliminating the new alphabet from common usage and school system because he had public support. In retaliation, Kopitar had the fourth volume of THE CARNIOLAN BEE delayed and censored (Cooper, p. 29).

Another movement brought Preseren to the defense of Slovenia's culture in 1837. This time three important scholars threatened the Slovene language. Jan Kollar was the first. He advocated a unification of all South Slavs into one indivisible nation. He coined the term "Illyrian" for this nation (Cooper, p. 54). Ljudevit Gaj and Stanko Vraz supported Kollar's views. Vraz believed that Slovenia's predicament was "hopeless... it would be better for them to survive as Slavs, even if that meant abandoning Slovene, than to be swallowed up as Slovenes by the Austro-Germans" (Cooper, p. 55-56). Thus, Gaj started a campaign, supported by Vraz, to eliminate Slovene and replace it with Serbo-Croat. Preseren asserted that Gaj's Illyrian movement put Slovene culture in great danger of ultimate disintegration. He believed that Slovene-speaking people thrived on their language for purposes of identity. In reply to Gaj's efforts, he wrote: "The tendency of our songs and other literary activities is none other than to cultivate our mother tongue; if you people have another goal, then you will achieve it with difficulty" (Cooper, p. 55). Once again, Preseren and his supporters managed to maintain the traditional language and, thus, culture of Slovene-speakers.

 


AFTERMATH

By the second half of the nineteenth century, romanticism had been replaced by realism. Most European nations began to view size and power as a success indicator. The population of Slovene speakers fell into neither of these two categories. The people refocused their goals in order to accommodate the overall consensus that Slovenia would never be an independent entity. Thus, in 1848, the Slovene people formulated a new political program wherein Slovenia was an administrative unit, or state, within the Austrian nation. However, this program was never implemented due to a series of revolutions in Austria that ultimately led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. "Most [of Slovenia's people] remained in the Austrian half of the Habsburg state, but 27,000 found themselves in Italy after 1866 and 45,000 in Hungary after the Compromise of 1867." (Benderly and Kraft, p. 9) These figures may not seem significant but they were major divisions in light of the fact that Slovene speakers comprised only about one million people. By this time Slovenes fondly remembered Preseren as they struggled for political representation.

It was around this time that a group of Slovenes gathered together, united by one common goal, to honor their Preseren and his contributions to their culture. These people formed a cult with the intentions of giving due respect to the first great Slovene poet. The leaders of this movement, Fran Levstik, Jozef Jurcic, and Josip Stritar, republished a collection of his works. Stritar wrote in the books introduction, the following:

When the nations are called before the seat of judgment to give an account of how they used their talents, to tell how they each took part in the universe of human culture, the small
Slovene nation will dare to show itself without fear among the others carrying one slender book, which is entitled PRESEREN'S POETRY. (Benderly and Kraft, p. 59)

 

Today, Slovenes freely remember the life and contributions of France Preseren. Preseren's poem The Toast remains as independent Slovenia's national anthem. "Each of the eight stanzas glorifies one of the nation's attributes: wine, the land, the freedom to come, the future independence of all Slavs, Slovene women, good friends and fellow drinkers." (Cooper, p. 65)
Although Preseren was not a political activist or a party leader, he remains in history books as one of the most prominent figures in the history of the liberation of the nation of Slovenia. He has inspired his people through his love of his country and its language.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benderly, Jill and Kraft, Evan. INDEPENDENT SLOVENIA. Copyright 1994 by

St. Martin's Press, NY, NY.

Cooper, Jr., Henry Ronald. FRANCE PRESEREN. Copyright 1981 by G. K. Hall

& Co., Boston, MA.

Singleton, Fred. A SHORT HISTORY OF THE YUGOSLAV PEOPLES. Copyright 1985

by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Brittain.

Singleton, Fred and Carter, Bernard. THE ECONOMY OF YUGOSLAVIA.

Copyright 1982 by St. Martin's Press, NY, NY.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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