Memory and forgetting on the Italian-Yugoslav border

Dalmatia was one of the areas affected by the Italian-Yugoslav tensions. Photo: Istria Travel

ROME - 10 Feb was the “Day of Remembrance” (Giorno del ricordo) in which Italy remembers the Italians either killed or forced to leave Yugoslavia at the end of World War II.

The ceremony was started in 2004 with a law supported by most of the Parliament and today has become part of the calendar with an accepted narrative based on two points: the communist Yugoslav partisans killed and expelled Italians and secondly, for decades the Italian mainstream of history, politics and education ignored what had happened.

Both are true, but they are only part of the truth and for the wellbeing of Italy and Europe too, the rest of the story (and history) should become part of the narrative too.

Today’s commemoration is itself a sleight of hand. It comes two weeks after the “Day of Memory” (Giorno della memoria) which commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz and the victims of the Shoah. The name and date of the commemoration implicitly evoke some sort of comparison. Some on the far right make it explicit calling the foibean Italian Holocaust”, an obscene piggybacking of horror which was also used to justify the very institution of the “Day of Remembrance”.

The then minister for Communications, Maurizio Gasparri spoke of “millions” being killed in the foibe, an insult not only to history but to the victims of the foibe themselves and the other victims of World War II.

For the numbers, the usually accepted figure for those who left is 350,000 and for those killed and thrown into the carsic caves, the foibe, the number is usually reckoned to be between 5,000 and 15,000. By any standards, this was a massacre and an exodus.

But… and this is where the “Day of Remembrance” is specious apart from any comparison with the Nazi exterminations,… there had been other massacres, internments and attempts to remove “alien” cultures over the previous 25 years in what the Roman empire called the “Julian March”, the north-eastern borders of Italy.

Even before Mussolini came to power, liberal Italy started to “Italianise” the areas conquered in the World War I from Trieste to Istria and then to Dalmatia all of which had been culturally, linguistically and religiously very mixed. The bureaucracy, schools, even names and road signs became Italian. When World War II began, so did the round-ups, reprisals and concentration camps. In the whole of Yugoslavia, the war was particularly brutal. In the Italian occupied areas, civilians were killed as reprisals for the deaths of Italian soldiers and thousands were put in concentration camps. The two most notorious were on the island of Rab (Arbe) and at Gonars in Friuli. The internees were not just able-bodied men who were potential partisans but old men, women and children. The monthly death rate, based on Italian figures, was around three percent. One Slovenian historian and survivor reckoned that some 7,000 died in Rab and Gonars.

Oblivion is not healthy for society but selective memory is worse. In 1987 when I was working on a documentary on Kurt Waldheim’s war record, I got in touch with Vladko Velebit, a former Yugoslav partisan, a comrade and friend of Tito’s hoping to get evidence of Italian and German reprisals and war crimes. He admitted that there had indeed been reprisal killings but did not want to talk about them and certainly not in a controversial way. Within two years of the war ending, as a diplomat, he had negotiated treaties with Italy regulating everyday matters like coastal access and fishing. He and his Italian opposite numbers wanted to rebuild their countries and the relations between them. Forty years later, he did not want to open any can of worms. The Italians too, Communists and Christian Democrats for different reasons did not want to rake over the past though the Istrian exiles and the extreme right kept the story alive.

Today, with one Yugoslav successor state in the EU, another joining this year and the others in the queue, we are all Europeans. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission would not actually help “reconciliation” but a recognition by the Italian authorities and inclusion of the Italian crimes in the Julian March in school syllabi alongside the story of the foibe and Istrian exiles, is not only overdue but would be another small step towards European integration.

As a good European, President Napolitano will have to do better than making a feeble mention of “the more complex business of the north eastern border” in his speech today remembering the Italian victims (“and all the foibe victims” - he does admit that there were others but the Yugoslavs, Russians and others are not mentioned as categories).