The long fall of the Slavic nation

  • Themes: Eastern Europe, History

The 19th century witnessed an attempt to create a shared sense of identity among Slavs, founded upon a common language. Despite the failure of the project, its legacy continues to resonate across European history.

A poster for an 1895 exhibition on Slavism in Prague.
A poster for an 1895 exhibition on Slavism in Prague. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

As Ján Kollár wandered around the idyllic Thuringian countryside that surrounds the University of Jena, his thoughts wandered with him. He had arrived there in 1817, one of many Protestant Slavs from the Kingdom of Hungary that had flocked to the universities of northern Germany. While amazed by the flourishing of student life there in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, by the opportunity to meet giants of German literature such as Goethe, and to learn from some of the country’s celebrated scholars, he could not escape a sense of melancholy.

Centuries ago, Thuringia had been inhabited by Slavic tribes. By 1818 few traces of this presence remained. The province of Lusatia, divided between Prussia and Saxony, still contained a significant population of Sorbs, or Wends, but their language was relegated to the status of peasant speech. Those known today as Slovenes were in a similar position, divided between several Austrian duchies. The same was true even in the Kingdom of Bohemia with its Slavic majority, but where the Czech vernacular had long been abandoned as a language of high culture. In Prague, whoever ‘wore a decent coat did not venture so readily to speak Czech in public places’, the Czech historian František Palacký later recalled.

Cities such as Leipzig, Berlin, and Dresden had once been small Slavic settlements, but their original character was preserved only behind their now-Germanised names. The same was true of countless settlements scattered across Saxony, Brandenburg, and other parts of north-east Germany – a distant reminder of the land’s old inhabitants, or, perhaps, a memorial. ‘Every town, every village, every river and mountain that had a Slavic name seemed to me like a grave or a monument in this huge cemetery,’ Kollár felt. It filled him with a deep sadness for ‘the death of the Slavic nation in these areas’.

To add to his troubles, he was forced to leave the love of his life behind when he left Jena in 1819. As he passed into Bohemia on the way back to his native Hungary, his yearning for Mina and his sorrow for the fate of his beloved Slavic nation poured from his heart into his pen, inspiring a series of sonnets that would form the backbone of the epic poem Slava’s Daughter, published in 1824. It told the semi-autobiographical tale of his experiences in and after Jena, in which Mina was transformed into Slava, the patron goddess of the Slavs. The poet’s love for her mirrors his love for the Slavic nation and the desire to see it reclaim its glorious past in the service of an equally glorious future.

Besides its important place in Czech and Slovak literary history, Slava’s Daughter is notable for another reason: its Pan-Slavism. There are currently 13 sovereign states inhabited by different Slavic nations which claim to have their own unique language. Kollár, though, whether talking about ancient Slavs, his native Slovaks, or any other Slavic people past and present, spoke of a single Slavic nation speaking a single Slavic language.

His reputation as an apostle of Pan-Slavism should not obscure the fact that Kollar’s view was not his invention, nor even an invention of his time. The assumption that the tens of millions (today hundreds of millions) of Slavs constituted a single people or nation, speaking one language divided into several dialects, was the consensus view in Central European scholarship from the 18th to the mid-19th century. So real – and terrifying – was the idea of a single Slavic nation to many Germans that one publicist warned in 1845 of the impending ‘subjugation and annihilation of the German world by the Slavic’. Yet Kollár would turn out to be one of the last proponents of this All-Slavic idea.

Where did the idea come from? Slavs are, simply defined, those who speak Slavic languages. Whether they are thought of as languages or dialects, they all descend from a common proto-Slavic language and constitute the most widely spoken language family in Europe. Unknown to the world of antiquity (at least by the Slavic name), they made their entrance onto the stage of European history in the early Middle Ages. Large-scale migrations spread the tongue across the whole eastern half of Europe. By the High Middle Ages various tribes coalesced into distinct polities, which converted to Christianity, some through Latin influence, others Greek, laying the foundation of later divides into Catholic and Orthodox. Crucial to both, however, was the use of the ‘Old Church Slavonic’ standardised by the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius. This was the first Slavic literary language, and it would survive in many places into the 19th century.

The fact of their languages being Slavic played no discernible role in the medieval development of kingdoms such as Croatia, Bohemia, or Poland. Only in the Renaissance did a clear ‘Slavic idea’ emerge, in which the commonality of Slavs was given contemporary relevance. One of the earliest signs of such awareness was a 1532 treatise published in Venice with the title De origine successibusque Slavorum (‘The Origin and Glory of Slavs’) written by the Dalmatian cleric Vincent Priboevius. He extolled the virtues of a great Slavic nation, which he clearly identified as stretching all the way to Russia. In the Venetian Republic more broadly – which ruled the Dalmatian coast and Istria, now part of Croatia – those who spoke Slavic were simply referred to as Schiavoni – Slavs. The term Illyrian was also often used to refer to these Slavic speakers and the lands they lived in, derived from the Roman province of Illyricum.

Priboevius – known to modern Croats as Vinko Pribojevic – was one of many such Catholic ‘Illyrians’ who saw in the Slavic idea a path to the liberation of the Balkans from Ottoman rule. The most famous was the Croat Juraj Krizanic. So smitten was he that he travelled all the way to Russia in the mid-17th century with the vain hope of reuniting the Orthodox and Catholic churches, as well as all Slavdom, through the creation of a single Slavic literary language. For unclear reasons (possibly because he was Catholic), he was instead exiled to Siberia, and seems to have made no impact on Slavic thought in Russia or abroad.

‘Illyrians’ were not alone in their awareness of the common nature of Slavic languages, but the fact that such awareness emerged in local contexts makes for curious reading. When the Russian Tsar Peter I visited Dresden in 1697, a local Slavic writer dedicated his writings to ‘the great tsar and grand duke’, whose ‘many thousands of millions of subjects speaks in our Wendish or Sarmatian language’ (Wendish being a German term for Slavic, this writer having his local Sorbs in mind). The term Sarmatian was yet another term used to refer to Slavs, analogous to Illyrian in its Latin provenance and picked up by the Polish nobility to stress their own antiquity, though they used it more to differentiate themselves from their ‘Slavic’ peasants, even if both spoke the same language.

What this Sorbian writer shows is that, although there was no Slavic standard, it was clear to many Slavs that their dialects or languages were very similar. The Russian Count Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy, for example, noted on a trip around the Venetian Republic in 1697 that local ‘Croats’ spoke ‘the Slavic language’. While in the Republic of Ragusa he reported speaking with its ‘prince’ in this ‘Slavic language’. The fact that he also recognised a Polish language makes clear that it was not any expression of Slav solidarity, but a simple recognition that the two were clearly speaking the same tongue.

Whatever they called ‘their’ language or ‘their’ people, by the 18th century some inconsistent sense of Slavic commonality clearly existed across Europe. Though Slavic vernaculars certainly differed and used wildly different orthographies and even scripts, they were to a large degree mutually comprehensible. More confusing was the fact that the Slavic peoples were by then scattered across more than a dozen different political units. Slavs could be Slavs, but they could also be Sarmatians, Wends, or Illyrians, Hungarians or Austrians, Poles or Russians. To add to the confusion, both nobles and burghers in Slavic-speaking lands increasingly preferred non-Slavic tongues. German and French were the learned languages on the ascendant, with Latin still playing an important role.

This was the backdrop against which the Göttingen historian August Ludwig Schlözer published his popular General Northern History in 1771. He defined Slavs not quite as a single nation but as a single language group with nine ‘main dialects’ and whose ‘history represents a whole’. Schlözer’s work was seminal for being the first critical academic study of the Slavs and their place in broader European history. He benefitted from years spent in Russia, where he had the chance to examine primary sources, but also from an extensive network of correspondence with German-speaking figures from across the east of Europe, Slavic or otherwise. He left a strong mark on all those who thought and wrote about Slavic matters in the decades after his history was published.

Twelve years on, one of his disciples, the Lusatian Karl Gottlob Anton, would publish another seminal text in the early study of the Slavs. Looking deeper than dynasties and noble ‘nations’, he investigated the ‘origin, traditions, customs, opinions and knowledge’ of the early Slavs, who according to him were of different ‘tribes’ but spoke ‘one language’. This theme was picked up by Anton Tomas Linhart, from Carniola in what is now Slovenia, in his 1791 Attempt at a history of Carniola and the other lands of the southern Slavs of Austria. ‘No nation deserves as much attention of historians, philosophers, and statesmen as the Slavs’, he declared with some exaggeration, ‘a fact on which the scholarly world has already agreed.’

A similar view made its way into the works of ever more important individuals, from the Bohemian philologist Josef Dobrovský to the Carniolan Jernej Kopitar, both of whom would be leading figures in the study and revival of their respective Slavic languages. They both spoke of a Slavic language and people stretching from the Adriatic to the other side of Eurasia, even if they were not entirely consistent in how they categorised the Slavic language and its constituent parts. Both cited Schlözer extensively, with whom they also corresponded, along with Anton, Linhart, and each other.

Their enlightened, scholarly study of the Slavs was given an injection of romanticism by the German philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried Herder. Though his first-hand interactions with Slavic peoples were minimal, Herder included a ‘Slav chapter’ in his Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind. It was little more than a synthesis of the work of Schlözer, Anton, Dobrovský and others, but contained an important prophecy. While Slavs were a naturally peaceful and democratic people, subjugated by their warlike neighbours, once they had awakened from their ‘long and heavy slumber’ and shaken ‘off the chains of slavery’, they would once again enjoy the fruits of the ‘finest country of Europe’.

Herder’s prophecy was understood by Kollár as a call to action – not political action, but literary. He was not content with just observing and studying the great Slavic nation, but wanted to awaken it, enrich it, and enlighten it. In 1826, two years after Kollár’s epic poem was published, the Hungarian Slav Ján Herkel published his Elementa universalis linguae Slavicae. As Alexander Maxwell has pointed out, it was something of an anomaly. By the early 19th century, German was far and away the preferred language of inter-Slavic communication in Central Europe, even though Latin would remain the official language of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1844. Perhaps this limited the spread of Herkel’s proposed universal Slavic orthography, which was the main thrust of the work, but his new term ‘Pan-slavismus’ did not meet the same fate. He described it simply as meaning ‘unity in literature’. In other words, Pan-Slavism denoted the pursuit of a common Slavic literary language through which Slavs could communicate without having to resort to foreign vernaculars or the Latin of antiquity.

Pavel Jozef Šafárik, another Protestant Slav from Hungary and a close friend and collaborator of Kollár’s, drew attention to precisely this problem in his seminal 1826 Geschichte der slawischen Sprache und Literatur nach allen Mundarten (‘History of the Slavic Language and literature according to all Dialects’). He pointed out that, while the ancient Greeks also spoke different dialects, they all used the same script. Slavs, meanwhile, wrote the many ‘dialects’ of their ‘language’ in at least eight different scripts and three totally different alphabets. It was the first attempt at a full study of the ‘Slavic language’ as whole, with a multilayer taxonomy of the language’s various dialects and sub-dialects.

The development of written vernacular standards in Central Europe lagged behind those of England, France, and Italy. Latin survived as a living and literary language in the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary (both presided over by the same Habsburg ruler) far longer than in western Europe. French then arrived with a force in the late 17th century, eventually becoming an aristocratic lingua franca all the way to Russia. A despondent German philosopher noted in 1687 that ‘if our ancestors, the old Germans, were to resurrect and return to Germany, they would not have any idea that they are back in their fatherland among their own countrymen’.

Only over the course of the 18th century did educated Germans develop a common literary standard and cultivate it to the extent that it became a language through which poetry, philosophy, and much more could be expressed. By the later part of the century, it was even in a golden age of sorts thanks to the work of Goethe and others in his circle. Its linguistic prominence in urban centres of Central Europe extended well beyond today’s Germany to include cities such as Zagreb, Ljubljana, Bratislava, and Prague that today serve as capitals for Slavic nation-states.

The question of standardising the Slavic language was an attempt to follow in the footsteps of European neighbours. In the first decades of the 19th century this process of elevation was already well underway in Hungary with the Magyar language, spoken by a plurality of the extremely diverse country but a vast majority of its powerful nobility. If educated Slavs, such as their contemporary Hungarian counterparts and Germans before them, wanted to spurn foreign vernaculars and languages of antiquity in favour of their own, they needed to first standardise the language. One solution was a universal orthography, but this was impossible to enforce on so many different Slavs with their own literary traditions.

Kollár’s solution was ‘literary reciprocity’. First laid out in a series of articles in Czech, it was later developed into a fully-fledged book in German titled On literary reciprocity between the various tribes and dialects of the Slavic nation. He proposed that all educated Slavs learn the four main literary standards of Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak, and Illyrian (South Slavic), and support each other’s literary endeavours through bookshops, magazines, and so on. His book was hugely influential and inspired the ‘Illyrian movement’ in Zagreb led by Ljudevit Gaj, which sought to realise the unity of the South Slavic ‘dialect’ in accordance with Kollár’s scheme.

The idea of a four-standard language was never wholly accepted. The Illyrian movement never succeeded in convincing Slovenes to abandon their ‘dialect’, for example. Ludovít Štúr, meanwhile, struck at the very heart of linguistic Pan-Slavism when he rejected the use of the Czech standard as a Czechoslovak one and instead advocated a separate Slovak standard based on the vernacular. Perhaps the most direct attack on the entire Pan-Slavic project came from the Czech journalist Karel Havlícek. In his youth he was an enthusiastic follower of Kollár and a devoted Pan-Slavist, but a prolonged stay in Russia disillusioned him. In a series of articles published in Prague in 1846 he argued that Pan-Slavism was unworkable because Slavs were not one nation but four. He denounced Pan-Slavism as a kind of blind cosmopolitanism, advocating instead that the four Slavic nations pursue their own interests.

Slavs from across Central Europe would be given their own opportunity for disillusionment in 1848. Amid the revolutionary tumult of that historic year, when it looked as if the Austrian Empire might be torn apart by rival national projects, representatives of its various Slavic tribes or nations gathered in Prague for the first ever Slav Congress. Gaj, Štúr, Havlícek, Palacký, Šafárik, and countless others were involved. Ostentatiously loyal to the Habsburg dynasty from the beginning, the organisers did not invite any foreign Slavs, even though some attended as guests.

The purpose of the congress was vague from the outset, more akin to a forum for discussion than for political action. Most of the talks involved three sub-committees – a Czecho-Slovak, a Polish-Ruthenian, and a South Slavic one – in which disagreements were rife. Pan-Slavism had never been a political project, nor had it ever succeeded in converting all educated Slavs to its cultural agenda. While among Czechs, Slovaks, and ‘Illyrians’ Pan-Slavism was strong, the same was not true for Poles, let alone distant Russians, who were not even involved.

What many Pan-Slavists had hoped would be an opportunity to present a common agenda fizzled out into nothing. The congress was cut short prematurely by unrelated unrest in Prague, and its attendees each went their separate ways, both literally and figuratively. In the years after 1848 Austria entered a period of ‘neo-absolutism’, where the whole Austrian Empire was ruled as a centralised state from Vienna, with German as its official language. Štúr was driven to despair. He abandoned both his Austro-Slavism and his Slovakism in favour of a kind of messianic Russophile Slavism in a German book entitled Slavdom and the World of the Future, which would be published originally in Russian translation in 1867, 11 years after his death. Šafárik lived a life of seclusion before having a mental breakdown and attempting suicide in 1860, dying the following year. Kollár, who had stayed completely out of the events of 1848, had died in 1852.

Neo-absolutism gave way to a period of intense national agitation towards the end of the 19th century as a new generation of Austrian Slavs turned away from Pan-Slavism towards local political concerns. The linguistic standardisations driven by Pan-Slavists and other believers in a single Slavic language or people had helped build growing public spheres in various Slavic languages, but nothing about this entailed any adherence to a wider Slavic program or idea. Pan-Slavism, insofar as it survived, was channelled into more realistic projects of Czecho-Slovak or Yugoslav cooperation, or, as it developed in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century, the notion of an All-Russian nation consisting of Great Russia, Little Russia, and White Russia. In other words, Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Without fanfare, the Slavic nation was slipping from the pages of history.

Perhaps, as Havlícek proposed, four would instead emerge. The First World War and the chaos it unleashed brought an independent Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia into existence. Bulgaria was also independent and had been for some decades. In the Soviet Union, the All-Russian idea was discarded and Ukrainian language and national identity was promoted. In Poland, Ukrainian nationalists struggled against the state throughout the interwar years. The notion of a Czechoslovak nation was largely a fiction promoted by the country’s authorities to give its diverse country a national majority, and many Slovaks resented what appeared to them like Czech rule. The situation was even worse in Yugoslavia, really an expanded Kingdom of Serbia, where the royal government struggled to ‘create Yugoslavs’. In the end they gave up altogether.

When Yugoslavia emerged as a communist federation in the wake of the Second World War this fiction was done away with altogether. The same was true with regards to the ‘Czechoslovak’ language in postwar Czechoslovakia. When communist regimes across Eastern Europe collapsed, so too did each and every Pan-Slavic federation. Czechoslovakia became the Czech and Slovak republics following a ‘Velvet’ revolution. Yugoslavia became Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and (non-Slavic) Kosovo. Out of the Soviet Union emerged 15 sovereign states, three of which had a Slavic titular nationality.

Pan-Slavism has lived longest in Russia and among Russian-speaking elites in post-Soviet republics, not as a true programme, but through a vague sense of commonality within its own East Slavic context. One such adherent is the Russian President Vladimir Putin. In an article published in 2021 entitled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, he drew attention to the fact that Soviet policies of nationality had spurned the idea of a single All-Russian nation in favour of three different Slavic nations. This separation he portrayed as historically driven by nefarious outsiders, such as Poles and Austrians. This served as a kind of historical casus belli for his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which, ironically, forged Ukraine into a stronger nation than ever before.

The idea that Slavs constitute a single nation with a single language is now all but non-existent. Many nationalists insist that Pan-Slavism was never anything but a remote fantasy, and that language dictated that Slavs were destined to drift apart. Perhaps a look at the Arab world is instructive. Arab ‘dialects’ are no less distant than Slavic languages, and yet by virtue of a common Arab identity and standard language they enjoy what Pan-Slavists always hoped for: unity in literature. Despite what Slavophobe publicists and politicians claimed throughout the 19th century, Pan-Slavism was not a Russian conspiracy.

It was a logical outgrowth of the inherent ambiguity and arbitrariness of how languages and nations are categorised to begin with. It also emerged in a specific local context that was, in the end, not generally Slavic, but Central European. As Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, or Slovenes began to discuss their own particular concerns about their own languages, they drifted apart.

Was Kollár’s dream not achieved in the end anyway? Hundreds of millions of Slavs can now do anything they want with their lives in their own language. It just happens to be that they do so as Croats and Serbs, Slovaks and Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians, not as Slavs.


Luka Ivan Jukic