In November 1918, the First World War ended. The vast empire of the Habsburg monarchy fell apart. Also, the South Slavs (Slovenians, Croats and Serbs) formed their own state. Together with the kingdom of Serbia, Yugoslavia was formed. Large parts of Carinthia were meant to join this state. In order to enforce their demands, South Slav soldiers occupied Carinthian towns and villages from November 1918.
The Carinthian parliament did not want to allow the forcible division of the province. On 11th November 1918, the parliament declared that the German-speaking parts of Carinthia would join the Republic of Austria. The population of the bilingual part of the province were given the choice of which country they wanted to belong to.
On 5th December 1918, parliamentary members decided to resist the occupation of Carinthia. The Carinthian resistance began. The people’s army (the federal armed forces at the time) and volunteers fought together. They rapidly freed large areas of the province.
These battles drew the world’s attention to Carinthia. American researchers toured the disputed territory. They reported to President Wilson that the majority – including many Slovenian-speaking Carinthians – wanted to remain a part of Austria. At the Paris Peace Conference the American president advocated that all of Carinthia should remain a part of Austria. Other statesmen at the Peace Conference disagreed with him. In May 1919, a compromise was reached: The Carinthians should decide, in a plebiscite, for themselves which state they wanted to belong to.
While negotiations took place in Paris, fighting continued in Carinthia. In June 1919, the Yugoslavian army declared victory. Klagenfurt was occupied. The provincial government fled to Spittal an der Drau. Thousands of people fled and had to live in emergency housing for a long time. In the battles for Carinthia, more than 420 people died, from both sides, including many women and children.
An armistice was negotiated. Carinthia was divided. The border (“demarcation line”) between the area occupied by Yugoslavia and the rest of Carinthia ran through the middle of Lake Wörthersee and the provincial capital of Klagenfurt.
In September 1919, the peace negotiations were finally completed. The Austrian treaty was signed in the Paris suburb of Saint-Germain. The vast Habsburg Empire became the small Republic of Austria.
Carinthia also lost some regions. The Valcanale and the town of Tarvisio became part of Italy, the Mežiška dolina with Dravograd and the municipality of Jezersko became part of Yugoslavia.
In the Klagenfurt basin, a plebiscite was called. The people were allowed to decide for themselves to which state they wanted to belong. The first vote took place in Zone I. Only if the people here voted for Yugoslavia would there be a plebiscite in Zone II.
Austria and Yugoslavia both campaigned extensively in the voting area. Numerous meetings were held, large quantities of flyers and newspapers were printed. Many volunteers distributed them. The majority of voters in Zone I spoke Slovenian. The Austrian campaign took this into account, and so there was a great deal of printed material in the Slovenian language.
On 10th October 1920, the people in Zone I were faced with a difficult decision. Participation in the vote was very high. 95 percent of the electorate cast their vote. Proceedings were peaceful.
It took three days to count all the votes. On the evening of 13th October, the wait was finally over. The international commission declared the result on Neuer Platz in Klagenfurt: 22,000 people voted for Austria, 15,000 for Yugoslavia. A clear majority of nearly 60 percent voted for Carinthia to remain in Austria. More than 10,000 Slovenian-speaking Carinthians voted for Austria, making a clear contribution to Austria’s triumph. On 10th October 1920, German and Slovenian speaking Carinthians together voted for an undivided homeland and confirmed their commitment to the Republic of Austria.
In 1920, Carinthians were able to freely choose for themselves which state they wanted to belong to. Nearly everywhere else in Europe new borders were determined without the people concerned having a say.