7/2008 – The Press and Memory: the Eastern Border in the Post-War Press

As early as the Fall of 1944 Allied Intelligence knew about the Foiba massacres

The Press and Memory: the Eastern Border in the Post-War Press

An anthology of articles from the most important newspapers and journals of Lombardy from 1945 to 1954, compiled by the University of Insubria with the support of the ANVGD

The Press and Memory is the title of a new, interesting volume edited by Antonio Maria Orecchia and published by the Insubria University Press with contributions of contents and ideas by the ANVGD of Varese.. It presents an ample selection of articles piublished in Lombardy region newspapers in the first post-war period on the drama of Venezia-Giulia, Tito’t struggle to dominate it, and crimes against Italians carried out by Tito’s forces.
 Ottavio Missoni, the famous stylist born in Ragusa (today’s Dubrovnik) but raised in Zara, contributes to the volume with his reflections on the Day of Remembrance, while the editor, Professor Orecchia, of the University of Insubria, writes the section that gives historical context, and brings alive the anxious period lived through by the Giulia-Dalmatia Italians, as well as the turmoil felt throughout Italy by Italians who saw the injustices rendered against Italy’s eastern border and its civilian population. Professor Orecchia underlines how, contrary to our modern-day understanding, in those days the subject of Italy’s eastern border was enormously present throughout the Italian press.
 Following is an extract of Professor Orecchia’s contribution. This is only a taste of the wealth of information and references to be found in the complete work.


“The 16th Century was the century of Mathematics, the 17th Century was the century of Physics, the 18th Century was the century of Biology, and our 20th Century was the century of fear.” It was only January of 1947 but Albert Camus was already summing up the 1900s.
 And yet, the concept of fear is completely lacking in our collective memory when we think back on the period of Liberation and the close of World War II. Even more […] this is the emotional image fixed in the memory of most Italians, the end of a disaster that, besides twenty years of dictatorship had given five years of war and twenty months of civil war. A very live image indeed. In the midst of the ruins left after the bombings and inevitable mourning, everyone shared the sense of liberation, the will to rebuild a new democratic, peaceful Italy.
 But there is something that never entered into our collective memory. It was the “wind of fear”, that in those same days was blowing through the streets of the eastern border lands, in Trieste, in Gorizia, in Monfalcone, in Istria. Here there was no celebrating. All lived in a state of anxiety, apprehension and turmoil. Homes were shuttered, with the curfew bringing “no circulation allowed in town for any citizen, from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m.” […]
 In Venezia Giulia the first to arrive were the Yugoslav partisans, which caused a totally different atmosphere. All public buildings, from city government offices to cinemas, were occupied; according to a proclamation, starting from May 4th, the official time would be pushed back an hour to bring it into line with the rest of Yugoslavia. There began to appear slogans painted on the walls, slogans written in Croatian and Slovenian that praised Tito and Stalin, wherever Tito had begun his civil and military conquest. It was then that the stopping of citizens, the holding and arrests began. And, more significantly, the disappearances. Citizens who left home never to return, citizens taken from their homes and were never heard from again, all in front of that rubber wall – it was Carlo Sgorlon who defined it as such – erected by the Yugoslavs who refused to give any explanations.
 Who was disappearing in that short but terrible era of history, in which repression hit in a truly indiscriminate manner? Collaborators of nazism and fascism, but also the antifascists of the Committee for National Liberation, some communists, some for their jobs as low-level party  workers, post office workers, schoolteachers, policemen who, in some way, represented the Italian state, and then the common people, who might pay for a local vendetta or personal grudge, a dramatic yet typical problem at the end of wars, especially civil wars. The destinies of these people was marked, as was narrated and is narrated, in the eyewitness accounts of the few survivors: death in the foibas, summary executions, forced transfers to Yugoslav prison camps. […]
 At this point, we must ask why these tragic events never made it to play a part in the collective memories of the Italian people. For decades it was excluded, and only recently, with the institution of the Day of Remembrance, has it been brought to the attention of the public, after nearly sixty years of silence. […]
 The history behind these tragic events is long and complicated, twisted and hard to unravel, having ancient roots and yet, it has been resuscitated in the public eye recently, both in the sense of publicity and historiography: there is now a renewed interest, as people rediscover the subject, in the interest of national identity in light of this “painful memory”. […]
 The Venezia-Giulia region was, therefore, so important to Tito that even before the complete liberation of its national territory, the liberating army of Yugoslavia pointed directly towards Trieste and entered the city on May 1st, leaving Zagreb and Ljubljana to be liberated the 8th and the 11th of May, respectively. In this way, with the arrival of New Zealand troops, a unique situation was created in the European chessboard, a tangible proof of the “iron curtain” referred to by Churchill in his March 5th, 1946, speech, in Fulton. In that occasion, not by chance, he had singled out Trieste precisely by name. The overlapping of the two armies, with very different agendas, along with the presence of the Committee for National Liberation, split among its members, (…) made any moves similar to what was going on in the rest of northern Italy, where local authorities were being nominated by the CLN and controlled by the Allied Command, impracticable. The arrival of the New Zealanders, in time to accept the surrender of the Germans, was not enough to stop the Yugoslavs from imposing their administration on the city and territory, which they considered rightfully theirs […].
 In this period there began the second wave of anti-Italian violence, after the first wave in the post-September 8th, 1943 period. In that first period, the vacuum of power that had been created after Italy stopped fighting the War had allowed Tito’s troops to branch out in Venezia Giulia and begin carrying out summary executions, quickly denounced by fascist propaganda, as fitting easily into the equation of “Italians equal to Fascists equal to Enemies of the People”.
 Tito wanted to appear at the peace conference with as much advantage as possible, and wouldn’t  have minded annexing Venezia Giulia all the way to the Isonzo River, but he needed the region to be in a state of peace: it wouldn’t be enough to have set up his administration ahead of the Angla-Americans. He instead would need to showcase a sense of revolution, of what the new communist Yugoslavia would truly be. Seen in this light, the change wrought would have to be rapid indeed, and would need to hit most forcefully those elements that may be able to oppose the plans for annexation of the region. […]
 In other words, it was vital for Tito not only to decapitate the Italian community of authorities of its Fascist past, who in a certain sense were its representatives, but most of all it was necessary to rid the area of any future leadership that might, later, be a rallying point for internal resistance. The movement for eradicating these Italians created the state of terror that was referred to earlier. (…) In the end, with foiba killings, deportations and prison camp killings, there were probably about ten thousand victims, an approximate figure, but one that offers a sense of the fearful excesses that were perpetrated.

And the Allies? The Anglo-Americans knew. They knew everything as early as the Fall of 1944, but they had decided not to intervene in order not to compromise the anti-nazi unity. On November 30th, 1944, a Special Intelligence report stated that “from the beginning the Yugoslav partisans arrested Fascists, but later they operated indiscriminately, carrying out mass arrests, of hundreds of Italians. The prisoners were tied up, placed in the prison of Pisino, in overcrowded cells with little  food and filthy conditions. Every night, some were brought away. Recently, in the foibas, the caves of the Carso, there was discovered a heap of bodies tied together, naked, some of which were identified by family members. It has been referred to us that, in total, the Yugoslav partisans have thrown many hundreds of people into the foibas. […]
 The second wave of violence, at war’s end, was also known to the Allies. The Office of Strategic Services, on June 1st 1945, defined as a “Communist inferno” the 40 days of Yugoslav occupation of Trieste and the surrounding rural areas of Venezia-Giulia, where “Communist partisans hunt down men who refuse to join them, as if they were bandits. In Trieste even members of the National Liberation Committee were imprisoned, as were antifascists. Even the Bishop of Gorizia was arrested, and later released.” And in the meantime, the Italian authorities were not being idle. Alberto Tarchiani, the Italian ambassador in Washington, wrote a note to the State Department on May 16th, in which he denounced that “Tito’s reign of terror is continuing. In Gorizia province 4,000 people have disappeared. It seems that 700 people have been killed in the zone of Trieste. Up to now, the Anglo-American forces have sat back and watched this drama idly.”

This was no longer a conflict merely between Italy and Yugoslavia. The matter was having an effect on the relationships between the superpowers. The United States could not allow the Soviet Union – by means of its satellite – to unilaterally decide on the territorial set-up of the area. Also because Venezia-Giulia was not Poland; it was not – as Stalin had underlined so many time – the historic port through which Russia had been invaded in the past.

Truman’s new political approach brought about the Belgrade accord of June 9th. Venezia-Giulila was to be split in two zones, denominated Zone A and Zone B, separated by the Morgan Line. Zone A, which included Pola, would be under Allied control, and Zone B, which included Istria, Fiume, and the Quarner islands, would fall under Yugoslav administration. But the partial return to normality, at least in the areas under American control, did nothing to limit the intense debate on the issues surrounding the peace treaty: it was truly a diktat imposed by the victors onto the defeated Italy: Italy had lost the war, and, specifically, the Venezia-Giulia region was going to shoulder the entire burden of this defeat. […]
 During the entire course of this decade, the precarious situation […] forced the members of the Italian community of Istria, Dalmatia and Fiume to abandon their homelands […] The Italian were not expelled, but the memory of the foibas and the feelings of insecurity and fear were too strong. On top of these problems there was now the exasperation for the intolerance shown by the Yugoslavs, the threats, the violence, and the knowledge that the Yugoslav communist administration had become well-established and was not likely to be reversed, and along with it had come basic social changes in the region. The Italians, strangers in their own land, and while many were able to start over and build a prosperous new life in America or Australia, many others found a life heaped with difficulties in Italy, starting with being sent to one of 109 refugee centers, often no more than makeshift camps.
 There is still a slice of popular opinion that refuses to acknowledge these events for what they were, and there is always a silence held b the political classes as well as the intellectuals – accused by Claudio Magris of being “ignorant of those chapters of history, and satisfied in its own ignorance” – but, contrary to how it may seem to us today, this subject, in the first decade after the War, was very well publicized, and not only in Venezia-Giulia. This volume discusses this very topic: it gathers together the most significant articles published in the Lombardy press from 1945 to 1954. More than 40 different newspapers were included, and together they represent the entire political and cultural panorama of the country, from pro-monarchy groups to Republicans, from Liberals to Communists, and on through the Italian political gamut. […]
The war and its mourning and suffering weren’t of great interest anymore, as shown by the indifference and poorly-hidden irritation and incomprehension towards the million and three hundred-thousand returned prisoners of war who came back to Italy during this time.
 As representatives of defeat, the Italians of Venezia-Giulia were also ignored, these Italians who came from the zones where, thirty years prior, after Caporetto and the Piave, Italy had finally become a nation.(…)
Antonio Maria Orecchia

The Press and Memory
The foibas, the exodus, and the eastern border
within the pages of the Lombardy press
in the first years of the Italian Republic

Edited by A. M. Orecchia
Insubria University Press, Varese 2008,
439 pgs, price: 22 euros