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Where do Slavs come from?

Bratislava, Slovakia – The commonly held theory about the mass migration wave that brought the Slavs to the European continent was created in the 19th century.  The foundations were however laid by German philosophers a century earlier.

The 18th and 19th centuries brought about the enlightenment that gave birth to the idea of the nation state, which in turn was responsible for birthing the national awakening movements that arose across Europe. Nations needed to legitimate their claims on land, power and sovereignty.

In relation to the Slavs, German theories were critical as they first created the meaning behind the words ‘Germanic’ and ‘German’ that we take for granted today. John Gottfried von Herder divided the people of the continent into Germans and Slavs for the first time to support the Germanic right of access to vast chunks of Europe. According to these theories, Germans were here before the Slavs.

Successive philosophers and historians built on this further. The most important component of these theories assumes the arrival of Slavs during the course of the late 4th century, others say it was closer to the 5th and even 6th centuries.

But this timeline is questioned today.

Battle between the Slavs and the Scythians, by Viktor Vasnetsov (1881).

Genetics and linguistics

Some argue that it is unlikely that Slavs, who were taken to be rather primitive in civilizational terms compared to the Germans, managed to somehow peacefully take over half of Europe so quickly. Archeological evidence suggests that Slavs already inhabited much of modern-day Germany, parts of northern and southern Italy, the east of Austria and the Czech Republic, alongside all areas to the east in the 8th century.

Experts puzzle over how during the course of two centuries these people who lacked advanced equipment, machinery, weapons and military experience conquered all that land and wiped all the place names, including the native names of rivers and mountains and replaced them with Slavic equivalents.

There is very little historic and archaeological evidence to support this romantic theory of a mystical spell that the Slavs cast over Europe and the peaceful process of their settling in and taking over the largest landmass on the continent.

Either they were welcomed with open arms by the sophisticated Germans or something isn’t right with the widespread theory.

As there is very little to go on in terms of archeology, researchers turn to etymology to study the Slavic language and its impact on the continent. There is still much to explore and much to shed light on why we find communities with Slavic roots and Slavic names in places where they should not be.

Baška tablet found in Croatia and inscribed in Church Slavonic.

Although genetic research of European populations is in its infancy, it also offers a possible avenues for further research. In a nutshell, the haplogroup R1a that is taken to be Slavonic is by far not limited to only the Slavic areas of Europe. We find it in Scandinavia and also in faraway Iceland. The research is ongoing. Please see for more information and details.

Both genetics and linguistics reveal major blind spots in the accepted theory about the arrival of the Slavs, in the 4th/5th or even 6th century.

History is written by victors

History is subject to political powerplays, ambitions and hierarchies of each era and rulers. The hypothesis that concern the Slavs are no exception to the rule. But, there has not been sufficient will to openly discuss these matters without politically hijacking the history of the Slavs.

As to alternative explanations of the Slavic presence in Europe, Oskar Cvengrosh offers an abundance of theories. One explores the possibility of the Slavs and the Germans being the same people, just different tribes.

Other dive into the many confused names that the people living in Europe received over the course of the history making it difficult to identify who was who. The written mention of the term ‘Slav’ comes from the 6th century, but we cannot rule out that the same people who received the label ‘Slav’ were members of tribes that were called something different before that.

In fact, the Slavs themselves only started calling themselves Slavs in the 12th century (Curta, 2002). These people clearly did not identify with the label until relatively late. So it is problematic to take archival evidence as the given and the only truth.

It is challenging to research this history and culture as relatively little material is available in English and the evidence, its interpretations and theories are fragmented across many Slavic languages. If you can read Slovak, the already mentioned Oskar Cvengrosh provides a good overview of the linguistic research in his book “Tajne Dejiny Slovenska, Slovenov a Sloveniek”.

There are also experts who point to the difficulties that emerge from studying the Slavs as a linguistic group, which is usually the case, and imposing the ethnic label ‘Slavs’ based on this approach. To delve deeper into this topic, we suggest the publication “The Making of the Slavs” by Florin Curta.

Please bear in mind that this issue is as controversial today as ever with many interests and emotions at play.

By Gabriela Bereghazyova and Zuzana Palovic

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