The Venezia-Giulia Paradigm
The Yugoslav occupation and the Exodus of the Italian population after 1945
Following are several key excerpts from Professor Roberto Spazzani’s excellent speech given as part of the commemorations of the Day of Remembrance of the Exodus and the Foibe, which took place in Florence in the historic “Palazzo Vecchio”, in the presence of the highest civil and military authorities as well as the ANVGD president, Lucio Toth.
In his speech, Professor Spazzali evokes the dramatic situation of violence and intimidation which the Italians of Venezia-Giulia and Zara had to suffer through, alone, from the moment of Tito’s occupation and the Partisans’ decision to annex territories that had long been Italian, and to use whatever force and means necessary to induce the native population into exile.
A Historic Paradigm
The Venezia Giulia region has, in a sense, lived through a small-scale, concentrated version of the history of Europe, to such an extent that it doesn’t seem to be merely part of Italian history. However, the history of Venezia-Giulia is, above all, a part of Italian history, one that fits perfectly into the historical context of the entire Continent: it is a link that has been recognized by our nation’s historiographers only recently. For nearly half a century it was not discussed, or, rather, it wasn’t considered important enough to be given attention, and it was only the emotional stimulus produced by the recent Balkan war, and the carnage it perpetrated, that led public opinion to discover, literally, a piece of Italian history. The press, and certain politicians, took the lead in opening awareness, while the historiographers, still anchored in past ideological biases, hesitated, and only too late tried to fill in the gap, with embarrassing results. There is a preeminience, not only moral, to be found in the historiography of the Julian region, in having confronted these difficult topics in unpopular moments and even in scientific solitude, but it never found an adequate correspondence outside the region, because such topics were considered politically inconvenient and diplomatically inopportune.
The missing national examination of conscience
We mustn’t labor under the illusion that humans have great memory capacity. In 1948, one short year after the Peace Treaty was signed, Biagio Marin, a poet from Grado, wrote in a speech (given to the Istrian exiles living in pitiable conditions in a warehouse in the port of Trieste) that Italy had already forgotten the tragedy of Venezia-Giulia. It was right that it should forget, he sustained, since, on its eastern border, Italy had paid the price for its loss of a mistaken war, and was atoning for the hypocrisy of the parties of a newly-reborn democracy that wanted to keep their distance from the most fundamental responsibility of Italy’s loss, considering this loss a proof of moral fiber. Certainly neither Catholics nor Liberals, nor the entire gamut of the Left, was willing to recognize their own part in the guilt: there lacked an examination of conscience in a Nation that had decided to mutilate its perception of the catastrophe, assigning the total responsibility and guilt to Fascism and the Monarchy, and thus absolving the State, which instead was rewarded with a disquieting continuity — so many skeletons in closets with doors barred shut.
And the examination of conscience was late in coming, even in the following decades: the sense of having lost the war had melted into the past, and there remained instead a sense of Italy’s having been part, through the Resistance, of a victory against the Nazi-Fascists, and that victory, now, was the base of the democratic State. And the bill of democracy was soon extended to all those who had had anything to do with that victory, including the Communist party, which instead, in those years, had assumed rather ambiguous stances regarding the defense of the nation’s sovranity, and which certainly hadn’t given up its openness to the option of revolution. (…)
The massacres in Istria in the autumn of 1943
It is necessary to distunguish the massacres in Istria in the autumn of 1943 from that which took place in Dalmatia in 1944 and in the spring of 1945 in all of Venezia-Giulia, until the exodus from all the territories, a number estimated from 260,000 to 350,000 (the precise figures have not been ascertained) which went on well past the mid-1950s, in different conditions and with different motives.
Besides the reasons for conflict that arose in the last century, exacerbated at the end of the First World War, owing to Rapallo’s definition of the Italian-Yugoslav border, which the Yugoslavs maintained to be penalizing and unjust, the Fascist regime contributed its share by launching a process of denationalization of the Slavic populations: this process accentuated the reasons for recrimination and revenge.
As noted by Lina Galli, an Istrian writer who collected unpublished eyewitness reports – recently recovered – in those nights, faraway bonfires illuminated the distant hills, the herds had been abandoned in the fields, the farmers had disappeared from their houses because the agitators were grouping them together in the woods, armed with farm implements and ready to move towards towns and cities, inhabited by Italians, and therefore by “the upper class” or, even better, “Fascists”. Because then it was easy to label everything Italian as “fascist”.
And there were arrests, especially in those areas where the Carabinieri and Army were no longer present: landowners, tradesmen, public employees, teachers, foremen, but also patriots and Irredentists from the last War who had had no part whatsoever in the current regime. There were cases of vendettas, and immediate, brutal executions, but most of the people arrested were concentrated in the castle of Pisino, with the clear intent of paralyzing the Italian collectivity, of decapitating its leadership classes, all the way to the lowest levels of representation of the Italian state. (…)
Other first-hand accounts collected by Lina Galli tell of loss and bewilderment, out of which rose a great force of will in many Istrian women who searched through fields and forests for their husbands, and who were able to secure their release in some cases, but who also found themselves the objects of derision and a sense of vendetta, although they had no idea why they should be. Some young people, children of the missing, found the first, unmistakeable traces of the terrible crimes that had been committed.
In October or 1943 the Germans launched an offensive in order to establish control of Istria. As the Germans advanced, the Insurrectional Committee (the Yugoslavs) decided to eliminate the Pisino Castle detainees, in order to eliminate inconvenient witnesses. Many were massacred in the nearby bauxite quarries, while others were thrown into the mine pits and vertical Carso cavities. Faced with over five hundred reports of missing persons, the Fire Department of Pola turned up, in a period of sixteen months and not without difficulty, a little over two hundred bodies.
Lina Galli also had this dramatic incident to report, concerning the Foiba of Vines:
“At 11:45 am, the first man descended into the chasm, The tension of the surrounding crowd was terrible. At around 1:35 pm the steal cable began to move once more, and brought up its load of extinguished lives. They had brought up four bodies, bodies that didn’t even seem human anymore. The acrid stench of death was everywhere. The spouses could hardly contain their pain. Sobs and cries of grief filled the air.
The steal cable descended again, and half an hour later came up, bringing four more bodies. Fifteen corpses were brought up that first day, fourteen the second day, and so on for several days, until finally all eighty-four were taken from their horrible sepulchres to be buried properly and, thus, find peace. In the meantime, every day more and more relatives flocked to the foiba’s edge, and the encounter of the living with the dead who were lined up on the ground was a scene of inexpressible anguish. Cries of pain and horror rose upon seeing the dead”.
The exasperation of violence
During the twenty months of German occupation, the conflict worsened, based as it was on ideological and national contrasts, and the civilian population, caught in a growing spiral of violence, paid the price. Nazi Fascism and its methods left a lasting scar, with the extermination of nearly the entire Jewish population, the forced internments, the Risiera of Trieste (a rice-processing plant, converted into an interment camp) with its crematorium, the deportation of thousands of individuals (…).
In the autumn of 1944, the Dalmatians of Zara were forced to abandon their city under the Allied bombings, which had been urged by Tito himself. The Germans denied the survivors of the bombings the right to take refuge in Trieste, fearing that the their presence in Trieste might accentuate the Italian character of the city. In March of 1945 the first evacuation of the population from Pola began, with the evacuees finding refuge in the Friuli countryside.
In April of 1945 the Yugoslav Fourth Army and the Ninth Slovenian Army Corps pointed decisively towards the Adriatic coast. The Germans had decided to maintain Trieste as a base for its own troops in their retreat from Istria and the Fiume area. The Italian Committe for National Liberation (“CLN”) of Trieste, realizing the intentions of the Yugoslavs, decided to organize an insurrection and thus anticipate the entrance of Tito’s troops into Trieste; the CLN was, however, supposed to be considered an ally of the Anglo-Americans on the other side of the Adriatic. This was the only way to prove that an Italian Resistance existed: by refusing any pro-Yugoslav proposals, and those of the residual Italian authorities, which had been nominated by the Germans, so as not to compromise the clarity of the action.
Trieste revolted on April 30th, 1945, spurred by the general insurrection in Northern Italy, under the orders of a priest, and of writer Italo Svevo’s son-in-law, and by evening the CLN had most of the city under its control, while the Germans who remained respected an imposed truce. On May 1st a first detatchment of Yugoslav troops entered the city, provoking the complete mobilization of the city’s communist and pro-Yugoslav formations that resumed combat against the Germans. The fighting continued through May 2nd, when the Second New Zealand Division arrived and accepted the Germans’ definitive surrender.
At the same time, the formations of the CLN were being threatened by the pro-Yugoslavs and forced to cease fighting, and thus the Committee decided to withdraw its own men, and it was forced, under threat, to abandon the prefecture.
The Yugoslav Occupation of Venezia-Giulia
As soon as the Yugoslav troops occupied the main cities, People’s Liberation Councils were set up, and wasted no time in declaring annexation to Yugoslavia. A new administrative structure was organized, a seizing of power in all effects, accompanied by measures that included arrests of military personnel and civilians. Tens of thousands of people were arrested, for apparently no reason, as they weren’t just prisoners of war or fascists, but also individuals who were known anti-fascists. Whoever opposed the designs for annexation was labeled an enemy of the people, and thus a “fascist”.
Lists of individuals who were considered “enemies to be banished” were published, and arrests were carried out under orders of the OZNA, the Yugoslav political police, by elements of special detatchments, often assisted by local collaborators. The arrested individuals were detained under armed surveillance by the Yugoslav army, and in Trieste a People’s Court was established, with a Public Prosecutor who sent out summons of arrest that extended to several CLN leaders.
The complex phenomenon of exile was generated by different reasons, from the terror inspired by the massacres of 1943 and continuing on into the post-war period with arrests and disappearances in the Yugoslav-cotrolled zones, to the economic and social conditions put into place by the People’s Authority. In the first stages, the general public was content to wait for the decision of the Conference of Paris, maintaining its total lack of any responsibility in past violence and breaches of trust. Then, when it became known that a referendum regarding Venezia-Giulia might become a possibility, given the situation in Trieste, the pro-Yugoslav authorities rallied to simplify the definition of political loyalty, with the purging of those who were against, or indifferent to, the regime, and myriad other obstacles to freedom: the Italians who were willing to remain needed to be “honest and democratic”, meaning that they must accept the new system without questions. A great impact was felt at the change of the currency to the “jugo-lira”, and at the demonizing of the “enemies of the People”.
The situation in Fiume was much more serious, since the city was completely isolated and not included anymore in any of the international treaties: from 1945 to 1948, nearly the entirety of the Italian population left. The situation was similar to that of Pola, which was guaranteed until 1947 to be under the protection of the Anglo-Americans, but seemed already to know its destiny, especially after the tragedy of Vergarolla (the explosion of an arms deposit on an open public beach) and the information from diplomatic proceedings that it would never be allowed to return to Italy. With the Peace Treaty, two-thirds of Venezia-Giulia was given to Yugoslavia (the city of Gorizia lost a third of its municipal territory) and the rest was divided into two zones: Zone A, the Anglo-American zone, and Zone B, the Yugoslav one, with the added proposal of establishing a Free Territory of Trieste. A precarious situation that was to last until 1954, with an exodus from the ceded territories towards Italy, or towards Trieste.
At the beginning of the 1950s the Zone B local authorities stepped up their persecution of those Italians who were still tepid towards the regime: Italian schools were closed, permission to pass the border was limited, and new taxes were imposed: all of these factors brought about a second exodus – which some stubbornly call economically-motivated – that came about as a result of these hostilities. Even the Istrian communists, after Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, were persecuted: those who were not allied with Tito’s regime had to take refuge in Italy or face deportation to Tito’s gulags, such as the infamous Goli Otok (in Italian “Isola Calva” or “Bald Island”). Some Italian tried to organize opposition to Tito’s regime, like the “autonomists” of Fiume, or the politically legitimate socialists of Rovigno, or the Republicans and Catholics of Isola, but they were destroyed with arrests and mock trials.
With the border adjustments of 1954 and Zone A’s passage to the Italian administration, yet another flux of exiles was added to the refugees of the post-was period.
Approximately 80,000 people stopped in Trieste. New neighborhoods were built to house them, even in areas which were compactly Slovenian, but no hostilities arose from this. Refugee camps and new Istrian neighborhoods did not become coves of terrorism, thanks to the good work carried out by the Istrian clergy exiled along with their people, to schools and to organizations set up to cultivate and maintain traditions. Moreover, an Istrian leadership class arose which has played an important role in Trieste politics and business ever since the 1950s.
The Istrian exiles were accepted in Italy with opposing feelings. The difficulties of life in the post-war period, and widespread poverty, created friction, but also solidarity based on patriotic sentiment and identity. Some communist circles launched slanderous accusations, while hundreds of workers from Monfalcone volunteered to go to Yugoslavia and help build socialism: whoever fled a popular regime could only be a fascist. (…)
Today we discuss whether or not we can describe all this as ethnic cleansing. It wasn’t the foibe per se that caused the ethnic cleansing, but many other impositions, including the terror of being arrested or seeing your house destroyed, your possessions taken away, your job compromised, your children being expelled from school. In the end, the Italian presence in Istria and Dalmatia was reduced to a bare minimum, maintained today only by the Italian state’s strong financial involvement. (…)