PERIOD 1918-1941






1. Italy, the winner of World War I, had thus concluded the process of national unification and, in addition to Slovenes in towns and smaller centres with an Italian majority, simultaneously also encompassed within its borders entirely Slovene areas, even those situated outside the borders of the former Austrian littoral and which had not been covered by the concept of the Italian Venezia Giulia formulated over the last decades. Among different nations living in the occupied and subsequently annexed territory, this fact gave rise to controversial reactions: Italians accepted the new situation with enthusiasm; Slovenes, however, who were striving to achieve national unification and who opted for the newly emerging Yugoslav state at the end of the war, suffered a severe trauma upon inclusion into the Italian state. The new frontier in the northern Adriatic, fixed by the London Pact of 1915 and largely confirmed by the Treaty of Rapallo (1920), running along the watershed between the Black and the Adriatic Sea, tore away from their country of origin one fourth of the national body (327,230 people according to the Austrian census of 1910, 271,305 people according to the Italian census of 1921, 290,000 people according to the estimates of Carlo Schiffrer), but the larger number of Slovenes in Italy did not affect the status of the Venetian Slovenes (about 34,000 according to the 1921 census), who had already been living under Italy, and who were treated by the authorities as a completely Italianised group, and were therefore recognised no rights as a nation whatsoever.

2. The Italian administration, first military and then civil, did not cope with sensitive national and political issues of the occupied territory in which the Slavic population was firmly anchored; in vast areas it even formed the majority population and it strove for unification with "the country of origin" (for Slovenes and Croatians of Venezia Giulia this was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), and, in addition this community was formed culturally and politically in the Habsburg multinational state. The lack of preparation of the Italian authorities and the recent war experience, according to which Italians regarded Slavs as a hateful vanguard of the Austrian oppression, provoked extremely contradictory conduct on the part of the authorities. On the one hand, the occupation authorities wreaked their anger upon Slovenes who opted for annexation to Yugoslavia even prior to the determination of the Yugoslav-Italian frontier in the years 1918-1920, partly also because they were incited by local nationalists. The authorities adopted numerous restrictive measures - dissolved municipal administration and national councils, limited freedom of association, sent people to court-martials, imprisoned prisoners of war, sent intellectuals to internment camps and expelled them, thus undermining the recovery of cultural and political life of the Slovene community. At the same time the occupation authorities also supported manifestations of Italianism in order to prove to the negotiators who were to define the new frontier that the country was Italian.

On the other hand, Italian liberal governments - although within the general plan of the Italianisation of the annexed territory - were generous in making promises to the Slovene minority and allowed for the restoration of its national representative organisations, revival of education in Slovene and the activities of organisations which were urgently needed by the Slovene national community for its development. The plan of the preservation of partial autonomy, following the example of that enjoyed by the annexed territory during the Austrian rule - which was supported by political representatives of Venezia Giulia and Trento and respected by pre-fascist governments - could contribute to better relations between the minority population and the state. In addition, the Italian Parliament voted in favour of the protection policy towards the Slovene minority.

3. The insistence of the Italian and Yugoslav delegations on the original positions concerning the defining of the new border at the Paris Conference postponed political stabilisation in the territory under the Italian occupation regime and aggravated national conflicts. Although the myth about the "mutilated victory" and D'Annunzio's march to Rijeka did not directly concern the territory populated with Slovenes, the feelings were nevertheless running high and soon enabled "frontier Fascism" to break through to power; it proclaimed itself as an ensign of the Italian interests along the eastern border and, assuming an anti-Slavic attitude combined with antibolshevism, united a large part of local Italian forces. Many Slovenes joined the socialist movement because of their faith in its principles of social justice and national equality, turning it, by their presence, in a revolutionary direction: for this reason the fascists forged the notion of "Slavo-communists" and further stirred up the feelings of extreme nationalism. The burning down of the Narodni Dom (National Centre), the seat of Slovene organisations in Trieste in July 1920 - under the pretext of a retaliatory measure on account of the riots in Split, claiming victims among the Italian and Slavic population - was just the first harbinger of long-lasting violence: the crisis of a liberal state - instigated fascist persecution in Venezia Giulia and elsewhere in Italy, in which the state apparatus was even more deeply and openly involved than anywhere else in Italy due to deeply-rooted anti-Slavic hatred. The so-called "new provinces" came into existence in a period of fierce controversies involving the national principle, state interest and the policy of power which in their foundations undermined the possibility of co-existence between the different national communities.

4. The Treaty signed by the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in November 1920 in Rapallo completely satisfied the Italian requirements and tore off more than a quarter of the territory which Slovenes considered to be their ethnic territory. Italy achieved this because it had a more favourable position in the negotiations since it emerged from the war as a victor with the confirmed status of a "great power". The Treaty did not bind Italy to respect the Slovene and Croatian minority, but ensured full protection to the Italian minority in Dalmatia; despite that, several thousands of Italians moved to the Kingdom of Italy from that area.

The subsequent Yugoslav-Italian agreements of 1924 and 1937, by which Yugoslavia wished to improve the relations with its powerful neighbour, did not contain any provisions on the protection of minorities. The Treaty of Rapallo should, according to the plan of the Italian and Yugoslav negotiators, have paved the way for mutual friendship and cooperation between the two states. This however was not the case since the fascist foreign policy soon followed the way of Adriatic hegemony and revision of the post-war order, taking increasingly an anti-Yugoslav course. This direction received support not only from the Trieste and capitalist circles striving for a breakthrough to the Balkans and the Danube Basin. It was also approved by a great part of the Italian population of Venezia Giulia. Plans were made to destroy the Yugoslav state; these were only temporarily suspended by the agreement between Ciano and Stojadinović; in 1937, which for a short time announced Yugoslavia's entry in the area under Italian influence. The outbreak of the world war unveiled these plans as an accurate aggressor's project.

5. Despite the difficult situation in Venezia Giulia, Slovene and Croatian representatives, particularly deputies in Parliament, also opted for the policy of loyalty to the Italian state after the appearance of Fascism; inter alia, they did not join the legal Aventine opposition which in 1924, out of protest against the murder of Matteotti, withdrew from Parliament. Despite that, they were not successful in the struggle in Parliament for the protection of national rights of Slovenes and Croatians, undertaken together with deputies of the German minority in Alto Adige; on the contrary, Fascism undertook the policy of assimilation of all national minorities also by adopting legislative measures. All Slovene and Croatian national institutions which had been revived following World War I, were banned one after the other. All schools were italianised, teachers were mainly retired, transferred to the central part of the state, or were dismissed and forced to emigrate. Slovenes had limited access to employment in public service, several hundreds of cultural, sports, youth, social, and professional associations as well as dozens of business co-operatives and financial institutions, national centres, libraries, etc. were closed down. Political parties and periodicals were prohibited, any representation of national minorities was abolished and the use of the language in public was prohibited. The Slovene and Croatian minorities ceased to exist as political entities. Their representatives continued their endeavours in exile within the Congress of European Nations under the presidency of Josip Wilfan, thus assisting in the formulation of a general European political platform in the settlement of minority issues.

6. Assimilation pressure exerted by the fascists in the efforts to achieve an "ethnic improvement" of Venezia Giulia was not limited to political suppression. In addition to the italianisation of place names or mandatory use of the already existing Italian names, the italianisation of surnames and first names, the authorities encouraged the emigration of Slovenes, their assignment to the central part of the country and to colonies, and planned an internal agrarian colonisation of the Littoral by settling Italians there. Through economic measures they endeavoured to transform the structure of the Slovene community in its foundations in order to bring it into line with the stereotype of an uncultured and provincial Slav who, following the removal of higher classes, would fall an easy prey to assimilation into the "superior" Italian culture. These comprehensive plans were accompanied by the utmost brutal political persecution. It is true that the majority of European countries at that time paid almost no regard to the rights of ethnic minorities in their own territory, if they did not actually try to oppress them in one way or the other; despite that, the fascist policy of "ethnic improvement" was also unscrupulous because national intolerance, sometimes combined with real racism, was accompanied by totalitarian measures taken by the regime.

7. Fascist assimilation did not spare the Catholic Church either, since following the dispersion and expulsion of leaders and intellectuals, the clergy took the leading role in preserving national identity among Slovenes in accordance with its own tradition from the Habsburg era. Persecution directly affected the lower clergy since it was a constant target of attacks and police measures; the church hierarchy in Trieste and Gorizia was under severe pressure, since in the eyes of Italian nationalists higher clergy had in the past decades gained the reputation of being loyal to Austria and of having a favourable attitude towards the Slavic population. The principal turning-point on the path of subordination of the Church along the borders - which, thanks to Fascism, followed new relations between the state and the Church - were the removal of Archbishop Francišek Borgia Sedej of Gorizia and of Trieste Archbishop Luigi Fogar. Their successors applied the instructions of the Vatican on "romanisation", similarly as in other Italian provinces with communities speaking other languages, and elsewhere in Europe where similar phenomena existed. These instructions were aimed at preventing totalitarian and other national governments from being involved in church matters and at uniting the religious believers around Rome for a joint protection of catholic principles since, in the opinion of the Holy See, they were threatened by modern society.

Romanisation measures in Venezia Giulia in principle contained a ban on the use of the Slovene language in religious ceremonies and in religious instruction, but particularly in the country, clergy belonging to the Christian-social movement insisted on the use of Slovene although this was illegal. Such a situation caused great tensions among Slovene religious people and clergy on the one hand, and new archbishops on the other; the difficult situation was further aggravated because of the differences in understanding the role of the clergy, since Slovenes attributed to them the prime role in preserving national awareness and national identity, while episcopal dignitaries considered it to be a nationalistic aberration. Slovenes and Croatians developed a belief that the Italian ecclesiastical hierarchy actually collaborated with the regime in assimilation activities, comprising all areas of life.

8. For the annexed territory, the twenties and the thirties were the time of economic crisis. The latter did not subside until the policy of autarchy was introduced. The overall problems of European economy were made worse by the negative effects of restructuring and fragmentation of the Danubian and Balkan Regions which was of vital importance for the Trieste economy. The substitute intervention of the Italian state could not control the unfavourable economic tendency resulting from the broken ties with the hinterland. Neither Italy nor the border economy were in a position to check this tendency. This proved the absurdity of the imperialistic theories of Italian nationalism about Trieste and Venezia Giulia being Italian bases for a breakthrough into Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Furthermore, the prospects for development were limited, and often the standard of living - in particular that of lower social classes to which Slovenes mostly belonged - was affected.

During the period between the world wars, the economic crisis and oppressive political atmosphere created a strong migration flow from Venezia Giulia. The sources do not allow an assessment of the Slovene role in this phenomenon which also included the Italian population; however, it was certainly considerable and, according to reliable estimates, included tens of thousands of people. According to the Yugoslav estimates, 105,000 Slovenes and Croatians had emigrated. While in the overseas emigration it is difficult to distinguish between economic and political reasons, it is quite evident that there was a direct connection with fascist political and national persecution, especially in the emigration of younger people and intellectuals to Yugoslavia.

9. In Venezia Giulia, Fascism attempted to realise a programme of total destruction of the Slovene and Croatian national identity. The success of these endeavours was only moderate, not due to a lack of will, but to the fact that neither in this field nor in any other were there enough resources available; consequently, the totalitarianism of the fascist regime often lagged far behind its intentions. The assimilation policy had decimated the Slovene population in Trieste and Gorizia, the intellectuals and the middle-class representatives were scattered and the rural population turned into a working class. Nevertheless, the latter were united and stubbornly persisted on their own land.

The most lasting effect of the fascist policy was that it had instilled the idea into the minds of Slovenes that Italy stands for Fascism and, with rare exceptions (some Slovenes accepted Fascism), made them reject almost everything that seemed to be Italian. Slovenes in Yugoslavia, too, showed a hostile attitude towards Italy, although in the thirties, the idea of fascist corporatism seemed attractive to some Catholic political circles. Slovenes showed their interest in Italian literature in particular by translating and spreading works by Italian authors, whereas the interest of Italians in Slovene literature was very moderate, although there occurred some initiatives, in particular for translation. In personal and neighbourly relations and also in the fields of culture and the arts, in many a milieu, coexistence and cooperation between Slovenes and Italians continued. Thus, a solid foundation for the development of anti-fascist and democratic endeavours was formed. Nevertheless, in general, the disagreements between the two nationalities were aggravated, and in Venezia Giulia various forms of resistance against fascist oppression were formed. In particular the Slovene youth, adherents of the nationalist movement, were gathered in the organisation TIGR (abbreviation for Trieste, Istria, Gorizia, Rijeka) and - connected with Yugoslav, and, before the beginning of World War II, with English services - decided to respond to violence with violence. They resorted to demonstrative and terrorist methods, which provoked severe repression. In view of the merciless fascist repression, the Slovene illegal organisations, in cooperation with the organisations of the Littoral emigrants in Yugoslavia in the thirties, gave up the claim for cultural autonomy within the borders of the Italian state and endeavoured to achieve the secession from Italy of the territory which they considered to be Slovene or Croatian ethnic territory. For these rebellious activities, a Special Tribunal for the Protection of the State passed many prison sentences and fourteen death sentences, ten of which were executed.

10. Only gradually did the Communist Party of Italy realise that the Slovene irredentist movement was their ally; whereas before, it was for a long time considered to be part of the bourgeois camp. The shift in the positions of the Communist Party occurred in the thirties under the influence of the Comintern, which realised that the support of national revolutionary forces also had to be gained for the struggle against Nazism and Fascism to form movements of the people's front. Since 1926, the Communist Party of Italy had acknowledged to the Slovenes and the Croatians living within the borders of Italy the right to self-determination and secession from the Italian state. Nevertheless, it insisted on the principle that the right to self-determination had to apply to Italians as well. In 1934, in a special declaration on the settlement of the Slovene national issue, the Communist Party of Italy - together with the Communist Parties of Yugoslavia and Austria - committed itself to fight for uniting the Slovene nation within a state of its own.

Obviously, this decision was interpreted controversially, in particular during World War II, when the Slovene national liberation movement found itself in the position to be able to realise the programme of national unification. The Action Pact, signed in 1936 by the Communist Party of Italy and the National Revolutionary Movement of Slovenes and Croatians (TIGR), led to the formation of a wide-spread anti-fascist front. While the liberal and resurgence wing of the Italian anti-Fascism in Venezia Giulia had always been weak, one should not overlook the cooperation developed towards the end of the twenties between the illegal Slovene national movement and the Italian democratic and anti-fascist forces in exile (in particular the movement Giustizia e Libertà). Within the scope of this cooperation, the Slovene side committed itself to spreading anti-fascist activities further into the hinterland of Italy, and the Italian side acknowledged to Slovenes and Croatians the right to autonomy, and in some cases to revision of the border. This cooperation was interrupted, when the tendency towards secession from the Italian state prevailed on the Slovene side.


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