Post-conference excursion

Kočevje: abandoned cultural landscape due to German emigration during WWII

Germans from around the town of Kočevje ( Kočevars) were the descendants of German colonists from Tyrol and Charintia, which settled there during the times of the Ortenburgs lords in the fourteenth century in order to cultivate the region. Their colonisation lasted until the end of the fourteenth century; however, afterwards also Slovenes were settled there until the twentieth century. Kočevars were clearing the forests in order to gain new land for agricultural production which would enable the survival of an increasing amount of population. The main economic activities were cattle breeding and forestry. Agriculture was less developed due to the less favourable natural conditions (hilly and dry karst area). In the second half of the sixteenth century, there were already 9,000 inhabitants living in 137 German hamlets around the Kočevje region. Because of harsh social and economic conditions there, the Austrian Emperor Friderik III (1492) granted the Kočevars the right for free trade with wooden ware, cattle and canvas. Peddlers made a positive contribution for economic development of the Kočevje region. On the other hand this was also the reason for increasing emigration and diminishing agriculture. Because of the agrarian crisis with its peak at the end of the nineteenth century, more and more Kočevars were employed as seasonal workers outside of the area which is nowadays Slovenia. Moreover, between 1857 and 1941, more than half of all the 23,000 Kočevars emigrated to USA. During the era of Habsburg monarchy, Kočevars enjoyed a high degree of linguistic, cultural and political autonomy in predominantly Slovene population inhabited Carniola. After the dissolution of the monarchy in 1918, the Kočevje region became part of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, where Germans were not any more the favoured nation. Great changes such as the abolition of German schools, the use of Slovene language in public and Slovenisation of local geographical as also personal names caused a great deal of dissatisfaction among them. This was the fruitful ground for Nazi ideas in the 1930s. At the beginning of WW II in Yugoslavia in 1941, the Germans in the Kočevje region organised themselves politically and militarily. Their expectations for the incorporation in the German occupation zone or even annexation to the German Reich like in the case of eastern part of Slovenia (The lower Styria region), were not realized. Instead, the situation there was similar to that of Germans in South Tyrol administered by Italy. The leadership of Kočevars made a contract with Germany and Italy in 1942, which enabled them to relocate to the new lands in the Reich under the condition of signing the option announcement. According to the contract, 12,147 (95 %) of Kočevars signed the option announcement). Kočevars from 176 hamlets were moved to eastern Slovenia in the area near rivers Sava and Sotla from where approximately 35,000 Slovenes were expelled to Germany and Serbia by the Nazi authorities. During WW II the majority of the abandoned Kočevar hamlets were destroyed by the Italian army in military operations. After the war, Kočevars stayed without their former homes and homeland. Most of them either fled to Austria, others were expelled there by Yugoslav authorities; some died in Yugoslav prison camps. Most of Kočevars and their descendents today live in Austria where they publish a magazine called Neue Gottscheer Zeitung.

After the war, the destroyed and burned villages of Kočevars were not renewed.In fact the new political regime deliberately destroyed most of the German cultural heritage in the Kočevje region. Out of 123 churches, just 28 remain today. After 1945 the Kočevje region was mystified and people were discouraged from going there due to various reasons. In the second half of 1945 many karstic chasms in Kočevje region were used as unmarked graves for numerous war prisoners which had been killed by the communist authorities. Due to its remoteness, the region was used for punishment camps. In 1951, there were 20 camps on 5,000 ha where the convicts/prisoners sentenced to forced labour were either working as forest workers or providing help by haymaking and building of the forest roads. As in the case of Czech borderland, also some areas south of Kočevje were restricted for public due to newly built secret underground installations of military importance during the era of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia. They were planned to provide a safe place for the leaders of the regime in case of a possible armed conflict. The security was so strict, that not even the Yugoslav federal security authorities had access to those areas. Due to this, these areas were a key factor in preparation for the Slovenian 10 day war of independence of Yugoslavia in 1991. Some smaller areas of former Kočevars hamlets south of Kočevje as Gotenica (Gottenitz) and Škrilj (Skrill) have even today restricted access as they are used as a training ground for the Slovene army and police force.

Bela krajina: cultural landscape in peripheral karst area

In a landscape with people, the human role and the role of nature may be alternatively emphasized but cannot be disentangled.” Forman, Godron (1986, p. 269)

Karst landscapes in Slovenia cover approximately 8,800 km2 or over 44% of the country's surface. The Dinaric karst is the largest karst area in Slovenia, representing around two thirds of the whole karst area in the country; with Bela krajina being part of it. Bela krajina is located in the south-eastern part of Slovenia, along the Slovenian-Croatian border, covering 595 km2. As a result of the karst landscape features, cultivation in Bela krajina is connected to great investments in land improvement, commonly by clearing the loose stones. The natural conditions do not enable the development of intensive agriculture in the region and the most favourable natural conditions for agriculture are limited to a narrow belt along the Kolpa River. Besides this belt, and as a result of the karst terrain, cultivated fields are commonly located in the bottom of dolines. Traditional farming activities have created a rich biodiversity and a diverse cultural landscape, which is recognized through protected areas with importance at a national level as well as a European level, such as the Natura 2000 sites.

-Steljniki (Marindol): Litter-raking forests (Pteridio-Betuletum pedulae) associations are unique and traditionally important features in the landscapes of Bela krajina. This association is characteristically composed of bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and birch (Betula pendula). Tree thinning, raking of leaves and mowing of ferns have created litter-raking stands. In the past the wood was used mainly for fuel and for building purposes, and the litter was collected from these forests as bedding material for livestock. Litter gathering, mowing and grazing has been maintained by the people of Bela krajina through history until the present day. However due to the abandonment of traditional practices, the stands of this association are becoming less common in the region. Due to the specific values of this cultural landscape feature and owing to the testimony and tradition of agricultural land use, certain litter-raking stands hold the status of valuable natural features or are even protected as natural and cultural monuments.

-Cultural dolines (Bojanci/Adlešiči): Underlying carbonate rocks are a base for the development of shallow karst and rocky terrain with dolines is a common landscape feature. To provide enough space and fertile soil for land cultivation many of these dolines were manually or mechanically cleared of stones. Dolines are an oasis of fertility, where the soil is accumulated and favorable conditions enable the successful cultivation.

-Presentation of work being done in the Kolpa Landscape Park, in order to preserve natural values, biodiversity and landscape diversity, and implement measures to ensure the conservation of Natura 2000 sites and ecologically important areas (Boris Gabrijan, director of the Public Institution Kolpa Landscape Park).

- Spring of the Krupa River: The Krupa River flows through the central part of the Črnomelj Plain and has formed a characteristic canyon. The spring of the Krupa River is located close to the town Semič, is one of the most beautiful and biologically most important karst springs in Bela Krajina. Is habitat of proteus and the live specimens of the cave shell Congeria kusceri.