01 10 06

Will Carinthia Remain German?

Reflections on the "Signpost Dispute" and Experiences with a Film

Translated by Aileen Derieg

Thomas Korschil

After years of dealing with the issue of the Carinthian minority in the course of our work on and with the film "Artikel 7 – Unser Recht!"[1] ("Article 7 – Our Right!"), I am wondering whether we understand the issue better now. How much the film might have contributed to others' better understanding is another question.

The initially apparently trivial story – the conflict over bilingual signposts in southern Carinthia – holds an abundance of chasms at a closer look, which inevitably link this story with larger historical and political contexts. One would think that once these have come into view, it would no longer be so easily possible to disregard them, that a more in-depth confrontation would be inevitable. Again and again, however, public discourse asserts the surface of this issue, at best indirectly alluding to the background or playing it as a kind of trump card in a distorted form.

In practical politics this is evident in the constant reduction and stagnation of the Carinthian "minority question". The fact that the minority is a question at all and that this minority's rights are even debated already indicates the state of the problem.

The negotiations involve bilingual signposts, for which Austria accepted an obligation in the State Treaty in 1955. Nevertheless, posting an appropriate number of these signposts has been prevented up to the present day. Yet even in the case of this one right, the subject is reduced again: bilingual, German-Slovenian topography does not mean merely signposts, but originally covered all public designations and signs, such as schools and public offices, and also maps and surveying land registers. The point is – or was – the visibility and recognition of Slovenian as the second language of the country and thus the recognition of the Carinthian-Slovenian minority in its distinctiveness. In practice, public bilingual designations are often the basic precondition for the functioning of other rights, such as the recognition of Slovenian as an official language or bilingual school education. From the perspective of the Narodni svet koroških Slovencev (NSKS), the Council of Carinthian Slovenes, the minority rights anchored in Article 7 of the State Treaty have not been completely implemented in even a single point.[2]

The course and status of the "negotiations" on signposts illustrate how politics have come to a standstill. Simply the fact that the implementation of constitutionally guaranteed rights has to be negotiated indicates the scandal.

The scenario of 2006 is a nearly identical repetition of 2002. The aim is a consensus between the parties and the still openly German nationalist "Defenders of the Homeland" – not only regarding the smallest possible number of additional bilingual signposts, but also in terms of regulating an end to the discussions: in 2002 in the form of a "settlement of disputes clause", in 2006 euphemistically disguised as an "opening clause". By state decree, the minority's grounds for further "disturbance of the peace" – as which demanding constitutionally guaranteed rights is regularly denounced in Carinthia, even from the highest level – were to be withdrawn, thus rendering Article 7 effectively "innocuous". This consensual assault on the constitutional state was held at bay solely by the refusal of the minorities representative, so that negotiations had to be halted twice without results – both times, coincidentally, only a few months before a parliamentary election; in Carinthia the "defense" against minorities can still be used as an election campaign issue.

Considering the historical background, even just briefly, there is no other description for this scenario than scandalous and shameful. The minority rights anchored in Article 7 of the State Treaty are there because Austria felt an obligation to make reparations to the minority persecuted under National-Socialism; because Yugoslavia gave up its territorial claims to southern Carinthia in return; because the Carinthian Slovenes resisted the Nazi regime – specifically it was the strongest military resistance in the entire "Greater German Empire"[3] – thus contributing to Austria's self-liberation in the sense of the Moscow Declaration. Now, over sixty years later, they are expected to abandon their history and relinquish any entitlement in return for a few signposts more, which do not do justice by far to either the historical or the current distribution of the minority (language). With this expectation, current policies flow into a long continuity of restrictive, case by case and still discriminatory minority policies up to the present.

The effects of these policies were and are quite concrete: as far as can be measured in official demographics, the minority persistently continues to shrink. This fact is unscrupulously used by politicians for further limitations or the non-implementation of language rights: "Why more signposts for fewer Slovenes?" was the question asked by the KHD (Carinthian Defenders of the Homeland), repeated by Governor Haider and finally decreed by Federal Chancellor Schüssel in 2002 – a chain of command that vividly illustrates Austrian minority policies. The fact that censuses are even taken – thus forcing people to state an "avowal" for or against an "ethnic group" – and that percentages are set for the validity of rights, is the fundamental problem of ethnicizing policies that have never been able or willing to recognize a bilingual territory provided for in the State Treaty.

The rapid assimilation of the Carinthian Slovenes throughout the entire 20th century is of central significance in the current dispute (an issue that may not be presented quite clearly enough in our film). Historically this is far more complex than a quasi natural adaptation of a numeric minority to the majority, which is why the "minority problem" would by no means be solved with the disappearance of the "last Slovene". This pertains to the majority in multiple ways. In fact, it is a "majority problem", the core of which lies less in how the Other, the supposedly foreign is dealt with than in the self-understanding of the "majority".

Whereas the proportion of the Slovenian-speaking population in southern Carinthia was nearly 50% around the end of the 19th century (and over 80% in many communities), which was roughly a third of the entire population of Carinthia, these number have dropped by a factor of ten today: to an average of 5% of the population of southern Carinthia and barely over 2% of the population of the province as a whole. Indeed, Germanization was originally also a product of modernization: the Slovenian, Catholic and pro-Habsburger peasantry was confronted with a Protestant and secular, German-liberal bourgeoisie and proletariat. However, the extent of this assimilation was only possible on the basis of German-nationalist ideology and politics, which sought to exclude and devalue everything that was Slovenian (e.g. through targeted educational policies) under the declining monarchy and in the First Republic. Across all the differences of the various systems, German nationalism has been maintained as a fundamental consensus of the state of Carinthia up to the present day. "In Carinthia they pretend that Carinthia is German, as though the province belonged to a naturally, ethnically and linguistically defined majority."[4]

Because such a large portion of the (southern) Carinthian population at least attempted to divest itself of its origins within a relatively short period of time, many are still susceptible to an instrumentalization of identity issues today. The desire for unambiguous identities seems to be so important, because it is a matter of so much uncertainty. Unofficial censuses or projections additionally indicate that the proportion of the Slovenian-speaking population is actually much larger than the official numbers suggest. In his analysis of the language survey in the micro-census of 1999, the sociologist Albert Reiterer found 60,000 Slovenian speakers (as opposed to 12,500 according to the census of 2001), which corresponds to a population proportion of roughly 25% for the bilingual region and 10% for Carinthia as a whole.[5] Consequently, bilingual signposts would have to be provided in about 800 places, rather than a mere 142 as most recently "offered" by the Federal Government.

What come into play here, however, are not only ethnic attributions and situatedness, but there is also a historical, political self-understanding at stake. According to Anton Pelinka, Carinthia is a "European exceptional case", but not because of its history, the existence of a minority or multilinguality; all of that is normal in Europe. What is different about Carinthia is how this is dealt with – especially with the history of National-Socialism.

"In many cases we note that a language from a distant past is used in Carinthia, because the recent past, namely the period of National-Socialism, is a blind spot. Border and border defense battles – just the fact that it is taken so much for granted that these terms are not used to refer to the occupation of Austria by Nazi Germany, but to 1920 and to partisans and the partisan war in conjunction with the liberation of Austria in 1945 is certainly a peculiarity of Carinthia."[6]

Whereas the partisan resistance in Carinthia continues to be ignored on the official side, or even denigrated as treason, nothing hinders the province from officially commemorating loyalty to the Führer and fulfillment of duty at the "returnee rally" at Ulrichsberg every year[7]. "That which cannot be integrated in Europe, is integrated in Carinthia", and at the same time "that which is commendable in Europe, is hidden and repressed."[8]

This is how it is possible that multilinguality is still perceived as a threat today in Carinthia and can be presented as such by politicians. The bilingual signpost threatens a world view that is maintained with distorted images of history and seemingly unambiguous identities. It is a kind of writing on the wall that is not to be read, because it recalls the past that has been split off – recalls origins and the entanglement in crimes, guilt and suffering.

The resulting insecurities continue to be exploited by the political parties. The minority is misused to create majorities. It serves as an issue for agitation and instigation – the Carinthian governor Jörg Haider has repeatedly invoked "popular opinion" virtually as a threat – and for distraction from other issues and the politicians' own failings, especially in economic policies.

What makes this possible again and again is largely due to the media and a passive public, which too often simply accepts issues and the way they are treated without resistance. The precarious position of a Federal Chancellor dependent on the Carinthian governor and the increasing influence of the federal government over the public broadcasting corporation have additionally exacerbated the situation in recent years. If the governor maligns the constitutional court and attacks its president for a decision on bilingual signposts that he does not agree with, the consequence is not a condemnation of Haider's behavior mocking the constitutional state, but a debate initiated by him about appointments to the constitutional court.

It is astonishing how much can remain unrefuted, even in serious media. The Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF), for example, transported false assertions from Federal Chancellor Schüssel (and other members of the governing conservative party ÖVP) about the placement of twenty additional bilingual signposts in 2005 on several occasions without comment. (New bilingual signs were put up in 2005 in only five places; the seemingly absurd aim of the federal government, which was thus not achieved, was to execute a law from 1976/77 in the anniversary year of the State Treaty, although crucial points of that law have long since been suspended by the constitutional court – the federal government has been violating the decision regarding signposts for five years now.)

Due to the lack of support from a critical public, the minority is additionally under pressure. The way that its representatives increasingly conform to dominant policies, which has also been criticized by many members of the minority, is therefore not surprising. They obviously have no other choice if they wish to remain in discussion with power at all. However, this further exacerbates the informal and obscure character of minority policies, which thus increasingly degenerate into policies of personal relationships, policies of deals, of unreliable promises and attempted extortion.[9]

With our film, which was a relatively small production in terms of (financial) costs and impact (so far), we frequently experienced that there is a need for information, education and discussion on this issue, also outside the circle of politically interested people, in Carinthia and elsewhere. "Artikel 7 – Unser Recht!" attempts to recount aspects of the complex history and some of the background of the current situation from the perspective of members of the minority – the protagonists of this story who have received too little attention. The film is intended to be a work on history and its images and thus also on the self-understanding of the people of this region.

A film like ours would fill the gap in critical discussions of political issues that the ORF has allowed to become larger and larger in recent years – as a representative from ORF recently confirmed to us, publicly stating that it was 'embarrassing' that ORF has not long since produced a film like this itself. At the same time, "Artikel 7 – Unser Recht!" was explicitly conceived and produced for television broadcast in cooperation with ORF employees, but it was canceled by ORF shortly before the confirmed scheduled broadcast date. The purported reason for this at the last minute was the criterion that it allegedly lacks "objectivity". Subsequently there was a requirement to "diffuse" it, neutralize it with counter-opinions – specifically recommending Haider and the Kärnter Heimatdienst[10]. This would lead to an apparent resolution of conflicts, the conventional zero-sum game of a staged equilibrium. In ORF's view, commentaries containing confirmed and generally known facts – for instance that the KHD operates in a way hostile to the minority (which is documented in the film with archive material from ORF, among other things) – cannot be broadcast. Neither obsolete images of history nor the status quo are to be called into question.

Over the course of two periods of the black-blue government[11], the Carinthian view has come to predominate in ORF. When our film became a problem in this atmosphere, our contacts there, who had given us active and advisory support during production, suddenly capitulated without resistance. The belated attempt to shift the issue to a legal level was not credible, as the responsible persons from ORF had no qualms about naming the source of their fears – Haider could, no he certainly would file a lawsuit. In that case ...

Despite all the impenetrable complexity, in the end everything seems quite simple again. It is evident at all the different levels – historical and contemporary, in the minority issue and in our experiences with ORF – that phenomena of conformity are at work everywhere: conforming to power, adapting to given, presumably dominant conditions, which actually first become dominant through this confirmation. All as it should be. As it always has been. As it should always remain.

One motivation for making "Artikel 7 – Unser Recht!" was the resistance of young Carinthian Slovenes in the 1970s, who took action, in protest against their own elites, with "scrawl actions" (sign post additions), thus initiating a movement of solidarity throughout Austria. Commemorating this, especially since these movements cannot be counted among the "victors" in history, was something that we considered necessary.

[1] "Artikel 7 – Unser Recht!" / "Člen 7 – naša pravica" , documentary film by Thomas Korschil & Eva Simmler, 2005, 83 Min. (

[2]NSKS, The Slovenian Ethnic Group in Austria 50 years after the State Treaty of Vienna 1955, brief information for the press conference on 18 January 2006 in Vienna, p. 1.

[3]Cf. Arnold Suppan, "Zur Geschichte Südkärntens. Aus der Perspektive einer zweisprachigen Region", in: Martin Pandl et al (Ed.), Ortstafelkonflikt in Kärnten – Krise oder Chance? (Vienna 2004), p. 128-199, here p. 196.

[4]Anton Pelinka, "Kärnten – Ein europäischer Sonderfall?", in: Pandl, op.cit., p. 101-113, here p. 110.

[5]Albert F. Reiterer, "Minderheiten wegzählen? Methodische und inhaltliche Probleme amtlicher Sprachenzählungen", in: Pandl, op.cit., p. 25-38, here p. 29

[6]Pelinka, op.cit., p. 106f.

[7]Since 1958 Wehrmacht and (Waffen-) SS veterans and their families and ideological "descendents" gather every year at Ulrichsberg in Carinthia to commemorate their fallen comrades and their so-called fulfillment of duty as soldiers in WWII.

[8]Pelinka, op.cit., p. 110.

[9]Cf. Vladimir Wakounig, "Das Volksgruppengesetz – Eine heimliche politische Entmündigung", in: Stimme von und für Minderheiten (No. 59/Summer 2006), p. 4-6

[10]The Kärntner Heimatdienst (KHD) is a right-wing association of Carinthian organizations. The KHD has a long tradition of aggressive anti-Slovenian (anti-Slavic, anti-semitic, anti-Communist) policies and also served as a platform for the (illegal) NSDAP in the First Austrian Republic. It was able to exert influence on the province's political parties during various "campaigns" such as those against bilingual traffic signposts (1972), minority census (1976), or abolition of bilingual primary education (1988). The KHD claims a membership of 25,000, including some influential members of political parties. The KHD is also a founding member of the Ulrichsberg Memorial association (Verein für die Heimkehrergedenkstätte Ulrichsberg) which organises an annual memorial festival of Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS veterans, held at the Ulrichsberg in Carinthia, that has become notorious for right-wing activism and propaganda. (from Wikipedia:ärntner_Heimatdienst)

[11]Translators's note: In February 2000 the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) under Wolfgang Schüssel, represented by the color black, formed a coalition government with the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) under Jörg Haider, represented by the color blue. This coalition government under Chancellor Schüssel, which remained in power for two election periods, is called the "black-blue" government.

Thomas Korschil


Aileen Derieg (translation)


other languages

Will Carinthia Remain German? Bleibt Kärnten deutsch?