About project

World War II marks one of the most critical moments in Slovene history. Four occupation regimes – German, Italian, Hungarian and the regime of Ustasha Croatia – divided Slovenes among four different national entities and sentenced them to death, ethnically speaking – also by using methods of genocide. The dimensions of the ethnocide and genocide carried out by the occupiers is evident in the number of casualties (together with the post-war score-settling it comes close to 100,000 or more than six percent of the population); in the forced migrations and border crossings. 58,522 Slovenes were in German and Italian concentration camps, 688 in Hungarian camps, some 400 in Croatian camps, close to 20,000 in confinement and forced labour, and 80,000 in prisons. 571 Jews from Prekmurje were deported; most of them were murdered in Auschwitz. The Germans planned to deport from 220,000 to 260,000 Slovenes, and succeeded in deporting 63,000. Around 17,000 of them managed to escape across the German-Italian border to the German occupation zone. A portion of the 10,000 who had been deported to the NDH from the German occupation zone managed to flee to the Italian occupation zone or got there by legally crossing the border. 17,000 Gottscheers from the Italian occupation zone were moved to the vacated Slovene territories along the Croatian border; after the war they either left Slovenia or were deported.

Slovenes were not shown on the map of the new Nazi Europe, in which the German Reich extended from the North Cape in Norway to the last Greek island, from Moscow to the Channel Islands. They restored their place in the sun with the National Liberation Struggle.

One of the key motives for World War II was the revision of state borders which had been formed after World War I. This revision was carried out to the detriment of smaller nations, including the Slovene one. After the occupation and breakup, state borders between the Axis powers were established in Slovene lands. The borders were set according to the logic of territory division and the planned swift and violent disappearance of the Slovene nation. Only the border with the NDH followed the former rough ethnic division of the territory or (partially) the old administrative borders. It is also the only border which has been preserved to this day.

The occupation of Slovene ethnic territory in 1941 created five different borderlands and borders in Slovenia. They were: the border between Germany and Hungary; the border between Hungary and the NDH; the border between Germany and the NDH; the border between Italy and Germany; the border between Italy and the NDH. Despite the formal annexation of the so-called Province of Ljubljana to Italy, the so-called Rapallo Border was preserved, which separated the Littoral Slovenes from the others. Only the border with Croatia, which was based on older demarcations, has been preserved to this day. 20,000 square kilometres of the present-day Slovene territory was divided by as many as 560 kilometres of occupation borders. They ran from the marshy basins of the Mura and Drava rivers to the summit of Mount Triglav; from the Sotla and Kolpa rivers to Mount Peč above Rateče; from the suburbs of Ljubljana across the Polhov Gradec Hills and the valley of the Sora River to the town of Idrija and onward.

All occupiers enclosed their part of the territory by boundaries that separated individual occupation zones. The formation of these borders was accompanied by war violence, the deportation of population, desertion or migration from one occupation zone to another; simultaneously, due to vital necessity and the partisan resistance (which did not acknowledge this breakup and fought against it), illegal border crossings were being established. All of this inevitably resulted in many traumas and severed the traditional patterns of migrations, agriculture and commerce.

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The three-year project (2018-2020) “Napravite mi to deželo nemško … italijansko … madžarsko … hrvaško! Vloga okupacijskih meja v raznarodovalni politiki in življenju slovenskega prebivalstva/Make this Land German ... Italian ... Hungarian ... Croatian! The Role of the Occupation Border in the Denationalization Policy and the Lives of the Slovene Population” is being implemented by a team of historians and geographers from the Department of History at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ljubljana, the Anton Melik Geographical Institute – ZRC SAZU, the Faculty of Education of the University of Ljubljana, and the Institute of Contemporary History in Ljubljana; the Institute for Ethnic Studies is participating as an external partner. The project is funded by ARRS.

The purpose of this research, popularly called “Occupation Borders”, is multi-layered:

  • Using special techniques to transfer data from old maps to a satellite system, thus pinpointing the course of all the mentioned borders;
  • Discovering the remnants of the borders in the field with the team making use of the so-called lidar techniques, and afterwards gradually, step by step, exploring and recording the remnants of bunkers, watch towers, and barbed wire barriers;
  • With the help of archival material from domestic and foreign archives, and especially interviews, document the life along the borders as vividly as possible. So far, the research team has collected various texts and conducted more than 110 interviews about the hard life of the border population. Their accounts describe how the borders cut through estates, fields and villages; how people were deported because of the border, and how houses and outbuildings were destroyed; how people crossed the borders to make a living, to till their fields on the other side, to smuggle, to stay in touch with relatives, and to satisfy religious and other needs. How, in order to survive, they tried to reach a modus vivendi with the occupiers and their collaborators on one side and with the partisans on the other. Many accounts speak of relatives or fellow villagers dying on the minefields or being shot by guards. The aftermath of the occupation borders, including the minefield-related deaths, marked the lives of the local population for many years after the war;
  • Show the topicality of the situation of that time, since certain practices, such as barbed wiring at the border, the closing of crossings, making it hard to cross the borders, are being revived today. The issue of borders and of crossing them is still a key issue within the European Union, which is said to be without borders, and – even more so – in the Balkans, between the countries wishing to join the EU. The current situation indicates that the European Union is slowly, step by step, and without thinking about the broader implications of its conduct, slipping back into the circumstances of that time.

The research team is pursuing the concept of public history – in the sense of working with people in the field, regularly publishing its results, interacting with the local environments, forestry services, hunting clubs and interested individuals, and involving students in the research.

This research is departing from the ideologized history of World War II in Slovenia, to which we are accustomed. Within the familiar context of large-scale processes, it introduces the history of the so-called little people, who were living in an inhumane wartime environment and (if they were not deported) tried to survive along the occupation borders.

The work of the research team and the research achievements can be followed at: