The middle and late parts of the nineteenth century were the last ages of the multi-national empires which had dominated Europe previously. New states were being set up with borders determined by the geographical distribution of certain national groups, as per the doctrine of Self Determination; the old empires which had governed over whatever territories and peoples they could conquer were crumbling into antiquity. It was in this environment that the idea of a unified nation for the scattered and diverse people known as Slavs was born. Though there are several ways to define which people were Slavs and which were not, the groups in question were the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Czech, the Croatians, the Serbs, the Slovaks, the Bulgarians and the western Russians.
The case for a pan-Slavic nation was ill-defined and hard to argue, because the Slavs as a group had little in common, and because the Slavs were widely scattered across Eastern Europe. The argument for a pan-Slavic nation centered around the formation of a powerful nation-state, with a theme of the Slavic people throwing off the oppression of the old Empires, but the case against such a nation argued that the Slavs did not have enough in common to have a full nation, and that the formation of a Slavic state would be an invitation for other great powers to take advantage of the new nation.
The most obvious way to define the Slavs would to be though their language- several languages including Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian, among others. However, most of these languages are not mutually intelligible, which would make for incompatible relations between regions if they existed in the same state. Additionally, many people who were of Slavic ancestry may have spoken German, Russian, Italian, Greek or Arabic, depending on where they live. A Polish autor, Karol Sienkiewicz, clearly states the case against pan-Slavism by saying that there is no common Slavic language, literature, culture or even Homeland, and that putting the interests of all Slavic groups into one nationalistic basket would be detremental to the individual factions. The Bulgarian Christo Botev once said that ‘a Bulgarian is not a Serb and a Serb is not a Russian’, clearly indicating his belief that the cultures and interests of each Slavic group are far too diverse to be goverened together.
Consider also the geographical distribution of the Slavic groups; the Bulgarians and the Serbs inhabit the Balkan peninsula, the Croatians and Slovenians are farther up the west coast across from Italy, the Slovaks, Czechs and Poles live between Austria and Germany, and the Ukranians and ‘White’ Russians live on the eastern edge of the continent. This distribution does not lend itself to the easy re-drawing of borders. A pan-Slavic nation would have to have either very highly irregular borders, or discontinuous pieces of territory, or would require mass migrations of Slavs into a single, governable territory. An even stronger statement is given by yet another member of the Slavic ethnicity, this time a Czech journalist by the name of Karel Havlï¿½chek. He says the term Slav is purely geographical, and by no means are the Slavic people of one nationality.
While pan-Slavism may have been a serious goal for many Slavs themselves, others had a different concern in regards to a pan-Slavic nation. Consider Austria and Russia, whose respective populations were then at least half Slavic. If one such state were formed, it would be widely scattered and ununited, and for a time, very economically, politically and militarily unstable. Suspicions of Russia wanting to seize control of lands around the Medeterranean were well-known; an editor of the Contemporary Austrian Review speaks of forstalling a ‘Russian pan-Slavism’ and the ‘penetration of Russian influence among the western and southern Slavs’. For all of contemporary living memory, Russia had wanted to become a ‘warm-water trading power’, meaning having control of trade routes on the Mediterranean coast; creating such a weak Slavic state would be almost an invitation for Russia to invade and control the fledgling band of Slavs.
Consider also the speech given by Mikhail Bakunin in Prague, in which he clearly states that Russia has no interest in giving independence to the Slavs. This man’s point is particularly strong because he himself was a Russian actively involved in politics, and thus would know the popular sentiment among those in power. Seen from the viewpoints of Austria or Russia, pan-Slavism would have been a friendly faï¿½ade for extending the boundaries of an Empire. A statement made by the Austrian Imperial Chancellor Ferdinand von Beust suggest that Austrian officials were worried less about the Slavic people becoming independent than about the Slavic people developing ‘pro-Russian tendencies’. Conversely, in a Manifesto by Czar Nikolas II, there are hints of a desire to unite the Slavs within Russia, as he suggests that Russians and Slavs are united by ‘faith, blood and historical tradition’.
A final argument against pan-Slavism is made by those who realized that uniting such varied peoples into a single state would be no different and no better than having them be part of a trans-national empire such as German, Austria or Russia. The Czech news writer Frantishek Palackï¿½ once wrote that a pan-Slavic ideal would destroy his nationality, again highlighting the immense cultural differences that existed even between those who shared the label of Slav. The Russian journalist Gabriel de Wesselitsky suggested that pan-Slavism was only popular because it offered a better alternative to the more oppressed Slavs than imperial domination.
Thus we can see that popular opinion was suspicious of those who advocated a pan-Slavic nation, assuming expansionistic and imperialistic designs rather than the betterment of the Slavic people. An earlier Polish philosopher, Bronislaw Trentowski, gave a lecture in which he said that, if he were the Russian Czar, he would destroy the Ottoman and Austrian empires and thus liberate all the grateful Slavs. Being a Pole, probably the historically worst-treated Slavic nationality, he is eager to throw off the reins of imperial oppression, yet perhaps because of this he pointedly refuses to acknowledge the similarities between imperial domination of many ethnic groups by said governments and a pan-Slavic government.
The pan-Slavic ideal must be interpreted as nothing more than a fanciful hope for an independent state. In reality, the concept of a pan-Slavic state is virtually the same as the concept of multi-national empires; it combines loosely related or unrelated ethnicities under the same government, which inevitably leads to incompatibility. The popularity of this movement can be ascribed to imperial ambitions of national leaders, who recognized that their best hope for becoming major European powers was through alliance with other small nations. Not only was such a state almost geographically impossible, it was also potentially harmful the culture and the independence of the national groups it hoped to unite, and certainly dangerous in terms of ethnic tensions and relations.