Istria’s Violent Past Still Haunts Croatia and Italy

President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/YANNIS KOLESIDIS

Istria’s Violent Past Still Haunts Croatia and Italy

Facing up to the truth of what happened in Istria – both before World War II as well as after – is a challenge for all sides.

What happened there – not just at the end of World War II, but before the war – is far from a clear-cut story.

Tajani was speaking at a ceremony held to honour the victims of the Yugoslav Partisans’ 40-day rule over the city of Trieste.

For the Partisans, Trieste was a legitimate territorial target and unfinished business. They saw the territorial settlement at the end of World War I, which saw Trieste and all of Istria incorporated into Italy, as completely unjust.

But the Yugoslavs’ brief reign over Trieste, which the Allies rapidly terminated, was not a true act of liberation, either.

It saw summary executions in the city and its surroundings, including in the village of Basovizza, which is where Tajani and Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini were speaking.

How many so-called collaborators and Fascists were dumped in sinkholes in the karst and mineshafts in these so-called “Foibe massacres” is disputed.

Neither post-war Italian nor Yugoslav governments pursued the matter for years. The lowest estimates put the figure at several hundred, the highest at thousands.

But that was just the beginning of the disaster for the Italians of Istria.

After the Allies forced the Yugoslavs from Trieste, the Partisans got busy expelling almost the entire Italian community from the rest of Istria.

Piazza Unita, Trieste. Photo: Wikipedia

Some 300,000 people left in waves, according to most estimates – about one-third of the population.

The 1910 census conducted under Austria-Hungary showed 36 per cent of the population of Istria spoke Italian as their first language. The 1953 census, under Yugoslavia, showed only 36,000 remained.

This act of ethnic cleansing went almost unnoticed in the chaotic years after 1945, when 3 million Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia and 7 million from Poland.

Some towns, like Pula, formerly Pola, were virtually emptied of their entire population.

Italian nationalists like Salvini and Tajani are now keen to revive memories of this half-forgotten episode.

They are less keen on recalling what life was like for Croats and Slovenes in Italian-ruled Istria between World Wars I and II.

Elderly Croats [interviewed by this author in the 1990s] who grew up in what was then Fiume, now Rijeka, in the 1930s, described a brutal and efficiently oppressive regime.

It was underpinned, they said, by a large network of informants in the city.

They would eavesdrop and report on their neighbours for such petty crimes as listening to Yugoslav radio stations – for which the penalty, they said, was a police beating at the least.

One showed me his Mussolini-era passport. It showed his Croat name translated into Italian. “Even our names were taken away,” he remarked.

A fierce policy of Italianisation involved the total suppression of Croat and Slovene schooling, media, sporting and cultural organisations. The Church was Italianised as well.

Of course, there was a total ban on the use of any other language than Italian in local government and the courts.

The Fascists planned new all-Italian towns for Istria. They built one, Arsia, now Rasa, in record time in 547 days in Modernist style in 1937.

Opened by the Duke of Spoleto, it came complete with triumphal gateway dedicated to King Victor Emmanuel and “Duce Benito Mussolini”.

The harsh nature of the Italian regime in Istria – replicated in other regions, such as South Tyrol – explains, even if it does not entirely excuse, the violence of the Partisans in the 1940s.

No wonder reviving slogans about “Istria Italiana” just infuriates so many of those who actually remember it.

If Italians do want to remember “Istria Italiana”, it should be as a colonial experiment that ended badly.

But Croats and Slovenes might also remember that their own liberation involved a lot of people losing their homes – and some losing their lives as well.

Marcus Tanner is an editor of Balkan Insight and the author of “Albania’s Mountain Queen, Edith Durham and the Balkans” [Tauris].

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Marcus Tanner