the Slovenian
glasilo magazine
radio glas
info centre
who we are

The Causes for Emigration of Slovenes in the Last Two Centuries
by Marjan Drnovsek

During the time of modern migrations in the 19th and 20th centuries the Slovene emigrants have been a component in the European and world migration waves, with their culmination in the last decades before World War I (The U.S.A.), between the two World Wars (South America and Europe), and in the sixties and seventies of the 20th century (Europe). Emigration to different parts of the terrestrial globe was in course before the beginning of modern emigration and is still in process today (brain drain).

Emigration presents only the first phase in the process, which is followed by immigration to a new environment, integration and eventually assimilation. When we speak about the causes, we divide them into local and other, linked to the immigration environment. Understanding of the both gives us a more clear sight upon the decision of an individual for going abroad. Emigration is otherwise a phenomena that grasps a mass of people, and the mass is composed of individuals, each with their own reason for leaving home. As a universal phenomena it offers the possibility of generalising the causation backgrounds for leaving (for example because of economic, social or political reasons), and at the same time we can find in individual cases many causes and impulses interlacing, general or linked to a concrete individual or one’s local environment. In short: from the theoretical and practical point of view the studying of causes for emigration is much more exacting an occupation than it seems at first sight. It is thus not surprising that the causes are the subject of researches of different sciences such as historiography, geography, sociology, ethnology, historical demography, economics, theology and other.

The Slovenes have been in the last two centuries emigrating from different states (Austria, Italy, Hungary, Yugoslavia, today from Slovenia) and from different social and political systems. The relativity of estimating the significance of the economic degree of development in emigration is proved to us by the fact that during the Habsburg Danubian Monarchy people emigrated from the less developed Austrian south, while in the time of pre- and after war Yugoslavia from the most developed part of the state. In both cases the economic conditions were poorer than those of the immigrant states. Also heterogeneous is the causation image by individual regions of the Slovene territory, as some were in a certain period captured by a proper “emigration fever” while others were only touched slightly, sometimes contrary to our expectations in view of the general causation grounds and conditions for emigration. Strongly present in emigration of Slovenes in the 20th century were political reasons, for example the emigration of the population from the Littoral that was under Italy between the two wars, refugees after the year 1945 etc. There were many forcible migrations during the World Wars One and Two. More concealed were the involuntary displacements for example of teachers, non-conformist intellectuals, military officers and other outside Slovene territory, into different ethnic environments and in civilisation sense less developed regions of otherwise the common state Yugoslavia.

Let us examine the causes for the emigration of Slovenes in the previous two centuries.

The culminations of economic emigration were:

in the last decades before the First World War when the emigration wave was oriented particularly to the United States of America, partly to the German regions of Austria, to Germany and Egypt, and only in a smaller extent to South America (Brazil, Argentina). It is estimated that the process involved over 250.000 persons,

between the two World Wars particularly to Western European countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany), and to South America (Argentina); emigration to Egypt also continued; it is estimated the process involved up to 100.000 persons,

in the sixties and seventies of the 20th century to the developed Western European countries, partly elsewhere, for example to Australia, Canada, the USA and other countries; the process involved up to 100.000 persons.

I must point out the emigration of intellectuals (the brain drain) in the two previous centuries where plain economic reasons as for example better salaries, interlaced with other, e.g. better working conditions, the possibility of professional or scientific promotion, acknowledgement of a higher reputation for the performed work, and similar.


Beside economic there has been in the previous two centuries forcible emigration of Slovenes, namely:

refugees from the hinterland of the Isonzo front during World War I to Italy and other parts of Austria, who returned to their homes during or after the war; many withdrew voluntarily, others were evacuated,

emigrants from World War II to Germany, Italy, Croatia, Serbia and elsewhere, speaking in all cases of forced migrations. I must mention the forced deportations of people to labour and concentration camps in Italy and Germany. At this point I should mention the fate of the Germans in Kocevje who were forced to leave their homes in the Kocevje region,

refugees in 1945 who have as displaced persons scattered all across the world, particularly to Argentina, Australia, Canada, the USA; many stayed in European countries. Illegal emigration continued until the beginning of the sixties when the Yugoslav regime acknowledged that the socialist system too was familiar with the phenomena of emigration (until that time all who left Yugoslavia illegally or legally, that is with passports, were considered as refugees or political emigrants).

Many a time economic reasons intertwined with political, for example the case of emigration of Slovenes from the region Julijska krajina in Italy between the two wars being a consequence of the fascist pressure as well with consequences on national, political and economic life of Slovenes in Italy.

In continuation I focused on causes for economic emigration which in number involved the greatest part of Slovenes. Much simplified I can say that there were in all three waves of economic emigration in the previous two centuries two decisive reasons, the first, internal, that was a lower degree of economic development in Slovenia with all its consequences, and the other, external, a higher evaluation of work in – as a rule – economically more developed immigrant countries, which actually reflected in higher salaries.

The time of mass emigration
If I first consider the reasons for emigrating to the United States of America before the year 1924, I must point out the fact that nor in the past and neither later (until nowadays) the emigration process involved as many Slovenes as it did with that wave, although the mentioned estimation of the number of Slovene emigrants probably is somewhat exaggerated. The ascertainment of the precise number of emigrants is not possible because of insufficient and incomplete emigrant and immigrant statistical and other sources, and particularly because of registration of immigrants by their citizenship (as Austrians, Hungarians and similar). First of all a question raises: why have the Slovenes incorporated themselves into the European emigration stream to the USA rather late, in a greater extent only from the end of the eighties of the 19th century on? (They were part of the Central and Eastern European and Mediterranean wave.) The answer to this question is not simple. There were many decisive factors, from better and cheaper means of connections (railway, steamships) to higher educational degree of the population (literacy). That was a time of aggressive propaganda activities of the ship companies with the help of emigration offices and agents, and – with the help of newspapers, and least but not last emigrant letters - a time of a better knowledge about the economic and social circumstances in the USA.

In the nineteenth century the Slovene provinces were economically underdeveloped. They were predominantly agrarian, but their agriculture was inefficient because farms were small and technologically backward, and capital investment was scarce. When serfdom was abolished (1848), farmers became owners of the land and were heavily taxed. Until World War I, the position of the peasant class remained unchanged. High taxes, usury, noncompetitiveness of produce, and natural disasters confronted the farmers. As a consequence there was migration away from the land to towns, to the few industrial centres, but mainly to foreign countries. The majority of the Slovene emigrants were rural workers who could not find employment in their own country, or were paid less for their work. A significant number of emigrants consisted of skilled people with a good knowledge of specific crafts (tailors, joiners, carpenters, cooks etc.). However, apart from hardworking hands and the desire for a better life, those people had no money or property. Most of them expected to save some money abroad in order to improve their standard of living in their homeland, to repair their houses, buy cultivable land, open their own craft workshops, repay their debts, etc. Those were the reasons why the Slovenes continued to emigrate to America. Apart from these economic reasons, there were also other factors such as evasion of military service, the escape from prosecution for criminal offences, the evasion of family commitments (for example, obligation to get married because of an unwanted pregnancy), and the urge for adventure. The psychological causes for emigration are yet to be studied.

There were already many contemporary public discussions about what it was that drove the Slovene people to emigrate. Was it just poverty or was there something else? This theme is much too broad for today’s way of thinking. However, we should bear in mind that even in those times a belief existed that there were many people who did not necessarily have to leave their homeland, but the drive for a better life and higher incomes was too strong. Right at the turn of the 20th century the living standard improved, but this could not halt the mass emigration. It increased from year to year and was only stopped by World War I and by the American restrictive immigration measures.

Better wages attracted many youngsters and men to Austrian and German mines. They came mainly from mining and rural surroundings of central Slovenia, and the idea about savings lead many women from the Karst region, from the river Vipava valley and from Brda to Egypt. That wave is known because in it were many young mothers who employed in Alexandria as wet nurses, nurses, servants and cooks. Particularly within the latter the thought about quick and good earnings was strongly present, but working in Egypt kept many for a longer period.

In short: there was a great variety of reasons for Slovenes leaving their homeland in the time before World War I. We must by no means simplify and generalise the casual bases nor should we look upon them negatively. Many settled their lives abroad solidly, sent home their savings, enabled their children education and with it a good preparation for a life in the new environment.

Between the Two World Wars
After World War I, the “golden gate” of the United States of America closed and the stream of migration from the Yugoslav Slovenia turned towards France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. Restrictions in emigration to the U.S.A. was one reason why Slovenes directed to Western Europe; the other was a shortage of male workers (owing to the number of war casualties), post-war reconstruction and the accelerated pace of industrialisation in those countries. Thus, France and the Netherlands in the mid-1920s opened their borders to workers from Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The scarcity of jobs in domestic mines and factories compelled many Slovenes to accept more or less attractive jobs abroad.

Germany was the first European country towards which a larger stream of Slovene emigration was directed from the last quarter of the 19th century on. Because of the post-war economic crisis in Germany, a number of Westphalians “emigrated” to the mentioned West-European countries, while others remained in Germany. During the decade preceding the outbreak of World War II, Germany was particularly keen to obtain seasonal farm workers. Women and men mainly from the eastern Slovene region of Prekmurje responded to the invitation. Particularly distressing was the emigration of the Slovenes from Italy. Assimilation pressures on the Slovenes in fascist Italy, coupled with worsening living conditions, brought about increased emigration to Argentina. As refugees, Slovenes from Italy also found a new place to live in Yugoslavia. As a part of Italian economic emigration, the Slovenes from Italy also sought jobs in the mines, factories and rural regions of the Western European countries, especially in France and Belgium.

The great economic crisis of the 1930s halted the permanent settling of immigrants in Western European countries, and the emigration from Slovenia started to decline, Slovene immigrants were faced with unemployment, thus forced to return to their homelands, savings were devalued and many were reduced to poverty. It is an interesting point that some Slovenian families living in the Netherlands during the recession were influenced by communist propaganda and decided, in 1932, to go to the Soviet Union as economic emigrants. Their anguish was great. Apart from economic emigrants, there were some political emigrants during that period, that is, Slovenian communists who found asylum outside Yugoslavia.

And what were the internal causes for emigration between the two wars? Between the two wars Slovenia was converting into an industrial country. The degree of agrarian population reduced from 66% (1921) to 50% in the year 1940. Despite that the industry was not capable of accepting all the redundant labour force from the rural areas, of which part directed as well abroad. As for rural economy – all that period it was on the verge of survival. The coal mining industry too was experiencing difficult times because of the competitiveness of coal from other parts of Yugoslavia, and the great economic crisis worsened the whole situation. It is thus not surprising that the share of miners – who were because of their expert skills highly esteemed in European mines - was at that time great among the emigrants.

Why did in that time relatively few Slovenes emigrate and why the majority of them were seasonal workers? Was their economic and social position better from the one before the year 1914? No, but the European immigrant countries led a restrictive and organised immigration policy, particularly after the outburst of the great economic crisis. Undoubtedly more Slovenes would have decided for going abroad had the immigrant countries accepted them. The worst blow was the closing of the American “golden gate” after the First World War, as quota with restrictions were introduced – for example immigration of relatives only and similar. The plans to direct the redundant workers from some parts of Yugoslavia to another were not successful. An exception were seasonal workers from the region Prekmurje who worked on the fields in Slavonia, Backa, Baranja and in other parts in the south of Yugoslavia, particularly in Serbia.

The last wave of economic emigrants in the sixties and seventies of the 20th century
It has already been said that the new Yugoslav authority did not acknowledge economic emigration a good decade after the end of the war as emigration was supposedly a phenomena in capitalist societies. In the course of time the authorities became aware that the majority of refugees who left Yugoslavia illegally up to the sixties, left the country above all because of economic reasons, with a desire to create abroad a better living. Only from 1955 to 1963 approximately 11.000 persons emigrated from Slovenia. At the beginning of the sixties the sealed Yugoslav borders gradually began to open and a new wave of young people fled to Western Europe in search for a better life, primarily to Germany, but as well to other countries (such as Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries). The emigration was most massive in the second half of the sixties. This wave temporarily died down after 1973 because of the oil crisis and the ensuing recession but emigration never ceased completely. In 1991 there were 40.427 of Slovene workers on temporary work abroad.

In short: The external condition (cause) for emigration was the rapid economic growth in the developed European countries, which we can follow from the fifties of the previous century. Openness of state borders, which gradually began to open from the beginning of the first half of the sixties on, was necessary for a greater emigration wave. Many went abroad by arrangement, that is with the help of Slovene companies. And what were the internal reasons for emigration in that time? We can get a good conception from what the regions of most massive emigration reveal. Most went abroad from Prekmurje, Posavje and Bela krajina (White Carniola), the traditional emigration regions, inhabited with mainly peasant population and consequently living in conditions of a lower living standard. Employment and better earnings were the primary reasons for going abroad. Their educational level was low. But among those going abroad were professionally skilled individuals as well, despite having the opportunity to find work at home. They too were driven abroad by a wish for better earnings. Symbolically that wish expressed in their plans to acquire as soon as possible a car, a radio, a television and similar. Many came back (returnees), and many stayed in the new environments where the second and third generations of emigrants live now.

I would like to point out a few thoughts. It remains a fact that the Slovene territory has been expressively emigrant up to the sixties of the 20th century, when the immigration from less developed parts of Yugoslavia has increased as well. From the year 1975 to 1982 a third of all in the thirties immigrated people stayed in Slovenia, which is 93.897 persons. At the same time it should be pointed out that it was always the policy of the immigrant countries that stopped the Slovene emigration streams, and not an awareness on perniciousness of the phenomena for the Slovenes as a nation. And if we have a look into the future: what will happen to emigration from Slovenia after joining the European Union? Is the living standard in Slovenia truly high enough that in the case of open borders and a free flow of labour resources it will not result in seeking better earnings and a better life in the more developed regions of Europe? However this is more the subject for the announcers of the future development than of a historian.