Slovenia and Croatia are two independent republics that came into existence with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Croatia is larger and got a lot of attention in the news at that time because of the violence that went on there during the four years until the circumstances of its independence were fully determined. Slovenia, whose secession was less of an ordeal, got fewer headlines and less video footage.

Most Americans are much more likely to know someone whose grandparents came from Croatia than Slovenia. That isn’t because Croats are more inclined to emigrate, but because Slovenia has a much smaller population, so Americans of Slovene descent are less numerous. (However, they are very well represented in Cleveland.)

Also, many Americans find the names of some Central European countries confusingly similar. “Is Slovenia the same as Slovakia?” is a question we heard more than once when we told people where we’d been.

So let’s begin with basic geography. Here’s an outline map of Europe on which I’ve colored Slovenia blue and Croatia red.



The other states into which Yugoslavia broke up are colored tan. (This map isn’t quite new enough to show Kosovo as a separate country, but it’s also inside the tan area.) I decided to make Slovakia green just in case you have a lingering suspicion that it’s really the same place as Slovenia.

If you’d like to see this part of the world in a little more detail, and simultaneously check your knowledge of the European map, visit our local Geography Lab.

Geeky note — ignore at will: The syllable that begins the names of Slovenia and Slovakia is based on the same root as Slav, a name that identifies a large family of languages and the peoples who speak them: Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and several others as well. This name was not foisted on them by outsiders; it’s what they call themselves when they’re referring to the whole family, and also in particular cases — like the Slovenes and Slovaks — to themselves. Yugoslavia, ‘Land of the South Slavs,’ refers to one branch of the Slavic family. The meaning of the word Slav boils down to ‘language’ — in other words, they identified themselves and their fellow Slavs as “those who speak The Language.” Or perhaps, to put a slightly more chauvinist twist on it, “people who can talk.” It’s a hallowed tradition among us humans to think of our own language as the only real one, and all others as meaningless jibber-jabber. Although I don’t really know any Slavic language, I have the impression that the similarities between them, even after centuries of separation, are still comparatively close. This may contribute to the family feeling that is still perceptible today, despite many ancient and modern conflicts among the members.