General Rudolf Maister and the Missed Opportunities for Slovenians after the Great War
This month’s archivalia takes us back to a dramatic revolutionary time a century ago. Presented here is a contract, signed on November 27, 1918 in Maribor by Rudolf Maister, commander of the Styrian Border Command of the SHS, and Colonel Rudolf Passy, the representative of the German-Austrian Committee for Public Welfare and the colonel of the Graz Military Command. The contract was to be a starting-point for determining a demarcation line between the two conflicting sides in Styria and Carinthia and was to ensure a much needed peace. However, official political spheres of the opposing states did not approve of the actions of their military commanders.
With the formation of the State of Slovenians, Croats and Serbs on October 29, 1918, Slovenians finally lived to see their decades-long dream of breaking free from the Habsburg rule come true. Rather than seeking for their future within the framework of the transformed former monarchy, they boldly opted to open a new chapter in their national history – a decision that came at a high price. Namely, the new Yugoslav state encountered problems right from the start, especially as regards its state territory which, due to its geostrategic position, caught the interest of both Italy in the West and Austria on the Slovenia’s northern border. The latter was comprised of distinctly ethnically mixed lands of Styria and Carinthia, where, even prior to the declaration of the new Yugoslav state, relations between Germans and Slovenians were very tense as a result of forced Germanization and disregard of the Slovenian national demands. The fact that both nations declared their authority over Lower Styria and parts of the southern Carinthia, did nothing to soothe the intense national feelings of the two rivalry nations. In their territorial claims, both sides claimed the right of their people to self-determination, promised by the American president Woodrow Wilson in January 1918 to the nations of the defeated Habsburg Empire. It is this particular right that was to become the basis for establishing the new post-WWI borders at the Paris Peace Conference.
This month’s archivalia takes us back a century to witness these dramatic revolutionary events. Presented here is a contract, signed on November 27, 1918 in Maribor by Rudolf Maister, commander of the Styrian Border Command of the SHS in Maribor, and Colonel Rudolf Passy, the representative of the German-Austrian Committee for Public Welfare (Germ. Wohlfahrtsausschuss) and the colonel of the Graz Military Command. The contract was to be a starting-point for determining a demarcation line between the two conflicting sides in Styria and Carinthia and was to ensure a much needed peace. However, as is evident from the telegrams sent by the State Office of Foreign Affairs (Germ. Staatsamt für Äusseres) in Vienna and by the National Government in Ljubljana, official politicians of neither of the opposing states approved of the actions of their two military commanders.
Although in November 1918 the Paris Peace Conference was nothing but a notion vaguely taking shape in a not so distant future, members of the German and Slovenian communities did not sit idle but were out to protect their individual interests. On October 20, 1918, the Graz hotel Erzherzog Johann became a venue for the founding of the Public Welfare Committee, which consisted of representatives from the world of politics, economy, agriculture and workers. Founded as a response to the formation of the Slovenian Styrian National Council, the Committee was to provide security and integrity of the Crown land Styria until German-Austrian authorities take charge over the territory; it was to ensure public peace and order, and especially to protect the borders in ethnically mixed areas.
The end of the Great War further complicated the situation in Lower Styria. Ceasing his opportunity on November 1, 1918, Rudolf Maister renounced obedience to the commander of the Austrian troops, Colonel Anton Holik, and declared the city of Maribor a Yugoslav territory. Failing in any firm military intervention against the still unorganized Slovenian military troops, German-Austrian authorities came under much criticism from the Lower Styrian Germans, who felt let down by their authorities.
Similar criticism about inactivity or missed opportunities was directed also at Slovenian authorities, with people from various places across Styria and Carinthia wondering whether the official Ljubljana had in fact abandoned them.
Meanwhile, General Maister was mobilizing men and trying to occupy territories along the ethnic border areas. German-Austrian political sphere protested against his actions, and even the National Government in Ljubljana did not come to Maister’s defence, but instead warned the president of the Styrian National Council to make the Slovenian general see senses and to stop him. On November 23, 1918, when Maister managed to disarm the German Green Guard in Maribor, the National Government in Ljubljana missed a historic opportunity to occupy the ethnic border in Lower Styria and come all the way to Klagenfurt in Carinthia. Namely, Maister’s victory in Maribor broke the morale of the German-Austrian troops that began to massively leave Lower Styria and withdraw north of Lipnica.
On November 27, 1918, General Maister in Maribor convinced Colonel Passy, the representative of the German-Austrian Wohlfahrtsausschuss, to sign a contract that was very favorable for the Slovenian side, allowing the Yugoslav troops to occupy the ethnically mixed border area in Styria and Carinthia along the demarcation line: Radgona – Pridova – Gornja Purkla – Št. Vid na Vogavi – Ernož – Zagaj – Ivnik – Št. Pavel ob Labodnici – Grebinj – Veženberk – Slovenji Šmihelj – Krnski grad – Trg – Beljak – Šmohor – south on the provincial border. Both signatories put down in writing that the contract, which was to enter into force at noon on November 30, 1918, did not aim to settle future national border between the two nations, but to provide care and security for the civilians.
By signing the contract, Colonel Passy acknowledged Maister’s superiority and allowed the latter to occupy territories along the ethnic border. Telegrams exchanged between the opposing authorities in Vienna and Ljubljana make it evident that neither of the official politics were thrilled by the concluded agreement. A day after the signing of the contract, on November 28, the Vienna State Office of Foreign Affairs protested vehemently to the National Government in Ljubljana, claiming that neither of the signatories had been authorized to enter into any sort of agreement. On November 29, the National Gover nment in Ljubljana led by Lovro Pogačnik replied to Vienna that although they had no intention to ratify the said contract, they nevertheless suggest the reached agreement be used as a basis for planned negotiations. Pogačnik was obviously displeased with Maister’s imposing of his self-will once again. Minutes of the 26th session of the National Government taking place on November 30, 1918 reveal Pogačnik’s strong reaction to Maister’s actions and his demand to let the general know that his range of activities was strictly military and that he had no authority to negotiate any sorts of political contracts with German Austria on his own.
The National Government in Ljubljana was distancing itself from Maister's actions. They began to perceive him as an autocrat, who had absolutely no regard for the authority and always worked on his own account. In the minutes to the said session, Pogačnik scolded Maister, warning him that he had to answer for his action to the National Government and not to the National Council. It also became apparent that the National Government in Ljubljana would not support Maister’s plans to help Fran Malgaj’s troops and intervene in Carinthia, since such actions were not considered to be within Maister’s territorial range of activities and he was not supposed to have any jurisdiction over such matters. Slovenian internal political differences worked to the advantage of German-Austrian troops which made rapid progress in Carinthia.