PERIOD 1941-1945

1. Following Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, the war, particularly in Eastern Europe, became total, aimed at complete destruction of the enemy. In those years, the opposing sides with remarkable frequency violated international law and the fundamental ethical standards. Even the north Adriatic region was not spared the wave of violence.

World War II was sparked off by the Axis and introduced a new dimension to Slovene-Italian relations, by which these were marked decisively ever since. On the one hand, both the attack on Yugoslavia in April 1941 and the occupation strained the relations between the two nations to the extreme, on the other hand, the war period brought about drastic changes in the relations between Slovenes and Italians. In 1941, with the occupation of Yugoslavia, Italy had reached the peak of its political power; the occupation and fragmentation plunged Slovenes into the abyss. At the end of the war, the Slovene nation celebrated victory, and in 1945 most Italians in Venezia Giulia feared ruin of the nation.

2. The destruction of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was accompanied not only by the fragmentation of the state, but also of Slovenia: a nation of one and a half million people, which was divided among Germany, Italy and Hungary, and which was under threat of becoming extinct, therefore Slovenes decided to fight against the occupying forces.

Italy's attack on Yugoslavia was the peak of the long-term fascist and imperialist policy directed at the Balkans and the Danube Basin. Contrary to the provision of military law, which does not allow for annexation of a territory occupied by military force before a peace treaty has been signed, Italy annexed the Ljubljana Province to the Monarchy. About 350,000 inhabitants of the Ljubljana Province were granted national and cultural autonomy by a statute; however the occupying forces were determined to achieve fast integration of the country into the Italian fascist system and to subordinate its institutions and organisations to their Italian counterparts. Influenced by the political, cultural and economic attraction of Italy, the local population were to be gradually made fascist and italianised. At first, the fascist occupier was confident that Slovenes would be subjugated by the supposed superiority of Italian culture, therefore the Italian occupation policy was milder at the beginning.

At first, Slovenes saw a lesser evil in the Italian occupation regime compared to Nazism, therefore some political forces collaborated with Italians, although they did not welcome Fascism. After initial uncertainty, the majority of Slovenes trusted in the victory of the Allied Forces and saw the future of the Slovene nation in the anti-fascist coalition camp. Furthermore, two basic strategic views had been formed among the Slovene political factors. The first was a demand for immediate resistance against the occupier, advocated by the Liberation Front. The latter formed the first partisan units and started with military operations against the occupying forces. The response of the liberation movement to the Italian plans for cultural cooperation was "cultural silence". Members of all social classes regardless of their political and ideological beliefs joined the Liberation Front. Another option was entertained by the representatives of liberal and conservative parties, who directed Slovenes towards gradual illegal preparations for liberation and the settlement of accounts with the occupier at the end of the war. It is certain that the Liberation Front and the opposing camp headed by the London-based royal emigrant government had the common goal of establishing a United Slovenia, which was to include, within the scope of the Yugoslav federation, all regions which were considered to be Slovene.

3. As a response to the increasing success of partisan fighting and strong opposition of the population against the occupier, Mussolini transferred competence from civilian authorities to military commands, so that the latter could introduce brutal repression. The occupation regime was based on violence expressed by various prohibitions, deportations to, confinement and internment in many camps all over Italy (Rab, Gonars and Renicci), in proceedings before military courts, confiscation and destruction of property, burning down of homes and villages. There were thousands of dead: fallen in battle, sentenced to death, shot as hostages, killed as civilians. About 30,000 people, mostly civilians, women and children, were deported to concentration camps. Many of them died of suffering. Plans were made for a mass deportation of Slovenes from the Ljubljana Province. The violence reached its peak during the four-month Italian military offensive launched by the Italian occupying forces in the summer of 1942 in order to regain control over the entire province.

In the spirit of the "divide and rule" policy, the Italian authorities supported the Slovene anti-Communist forces, in particular Catholic political forces, which at that time, out of fear from a communist revolution, considered the partisan movement to be a greater threat and thus agreed to collaborate. As a result, MVAC ("village guards") were formed, which were organised by Italian commands into voluntary anti-Communist militia and engaged successfully in the fight against the partisans, although they were not trusted completely by Italians.

4. The struggle for liberation soon spread from the Ljubljana Province among the Slovene population on the Littoral, who had lived under Italian rule for a quarter of a century. Thus, the issue of national affiliation of the greater part of this territory was reopened, revealing not only the total inefficiency of the fascist regime policy towards Slovenes, but also the general defeat of Italian policy on the eastern border. Already at the beginning of the war, the authorities had adopted a series of precautionary measures against the Slovene population on the Littoral: internment and confinement of leading personalities, mobilisation of national conscripts in special battalions, removal of population along the borders, death sentences, pronounced by a special tribunal for the protection of the state at the Second Trieste Trials.

The liberation struggle headed by the Communist Party was welcomed in particular by the Slovenes from the Littoral, since it accepted their insistent national claims for uniting with Yugoslavia the entire territory populated by Slovenes, including the towns populated mostly by Italians. Thus, the Communist Party of Slovenia secured the leading role in the mass movement and, due to armed struggle, also the chance to carry out both national liberation and social revolution.

In suppressing the liberation movement, the Italian authorities used similar repressive methods as in the Ljubljana Province, including burning down villages and shooting civilians. For this purpose, a Special Inspectorate for Public Safety and two new army corps of the Italian army were established. Thus, military operations also spread to the territory of the Italian state.

5. In the days following 8 September 1943, members of the Italian armed forces and of the Italian civil administration were able to leave the Slovene territory unhindered, even with the help of the local population. The capitulation of Italy certainly meant a decisive turning point in Slovene-Italian relations. The concept of Italians as the conquering or ruling nation and Slovenes as the subjected or repressed nation, which had predominated till then, underwent a fundamental change. Psychologically, but also in reality, the scales were tipped in favour of Slovenes. The adherence of the Slovenes from the Littoral to the partisan movement and the operation of military units and people's government bodies showed the wish of the local population that this territory be annexed to a United Slovenia. This decision was adopted by the leadership of the Slovene liberation movement in autumn 1943, and it was also confirmed at the Yugoslav level. Thus, Slovenes became a political factor on the Littoral as well; this fact was partly taken into consideration by the German authorities, which by recognising the actual national situation endeavoured to insinuate themselves into the role of mediators between Italians and Slovenes.

6. When assuming control over the occupied territory, Germans used extreme violence and also engaged the subordinated Italian and Slovene collaborating military and police units. In bigger towns in the country, the German occupier made use of the existing Italian administrative apparatus and established additional bodies for this purpose. These bodies continued to act in the spirit of the "divide and rule" principle, and deliberately accepted some Slovene educational and linguistic claims, and even ceded certain administrative functions to Slovenes. However, the common anti-Communist and anti-partisan goals of different collaboration forces could not outweigh reciprocal national distrust, therefore armed conflicts broke out between them. Due to the spread of resistance against the German occupation, the Nazis established in the abandoned Risiera (rice factory) near San Sabba in Trieste a mass destruction camp, in particular for Slovene and Croatian antifascists, but also Italians, and they used it as a collective centre for Jews during deportation to extermination camps.

The liberation movement spread particularly among the Slovene population; the Italian population was held back by the fear of Slovenes assuming the leading role in the partisan movement, since their national claims were unacceptable to the majority of the Italian population. They were also deterred by the news of the killings of Italians in the autumn of 1943 in Istria where the Croatian liberation movement was active (the so-called "Istrian foibe"). The killings were motivated not only by national and social factors, but also by a wish to strike at the local ruling class; therefore the majority of the Italians living in this area were concerned whether they would survive as a nation and whether their personal safety was in danger.

7. During World War II, the Slovene-Italian conflict reached its peak, and at the same time, cooperation against Fascism existed between the nations, based on the decades of unity of the workers' movement. It culminated in the cooperation of both Communist Parties; of Slovene and Italian partisan units which were also joined by Italian soldiers; in committees of workers' unity and partly also in the contacts between the National Front and the CLN (National Liberation Committee). On the whole, the cooperation between the Slovene and Italian liberation movements was close and developed successfully.

Despite the new forms of cooperation between the two nations, there were considerable differences between their origins, structure, power and influence and their aims and political traditions were not concerted. There were disagreements between the leaderships of the Communist Parties and between the CLN of Venezia Giulia and the National Front leadership, although both sides concluded many important agreements. In Venezia Giulia, resistance proved to be a plurinational rather than an international phenomenon, since, despite the fact that both liberation movements were motivated by the values of internationalism, they were subjected to the need to defend their own national interest. The Slovene liberation movement placed great importance on the annexation to Yugoslavia of the entire territory settled by Slovenes in the past. In view of the nature of the movement, this was justified not only by national motives, but also by revolutionary goals. The control of Trieste was very important, not only for its strategic economic position for Slovenia, but also for the numerical strength of the working class and its role as a stronghold of the communist camp against western influence and the starting-point for the expansion of communism to the West, especially to northern Italy.

8. By the end of summer 1944, the Communist Party of Italy at both local and national levels opposed the annexation of nationally mixed or predominantly Italian areas to Yugoslavia and advocated postponement of the settlement of the border issue to the post-war period. Subsequently however, in changed strategic circumstances when the Communist Party of Slovenia gained control over the Garibaldi partisan units and the Trieste federation of the Communist Party of Italy, the Italian communists in Venezia Giulia accepted the National Front positions, while the orientation of the leadership at the state level was vacillating: Yugoslavia's claims were neither officially accepted nor rejected. Togliatti proposed a tactical differentiation between the annexation of Trieste to Yugoslavia - it had to be kept in confidence - and the Yugoslav occupation of Venezia Giulia, which should have been supported by the Italian communists. In addition to the Soviet support for Yugoslavia's claims and an internal discussion on direct objectives of the liberation struggle in Italy, the line of the Communist Party of Italy was further influenced by the position of a considerable part of the Italian workers in Trieste and Monfalcone/Tržic, who, in accordance with the internationalistic key, accepted the Yugoslav solution as integration into a socialist state backed by the Soviet Union. This decision had grave consequences in the ranks of the Italian resistance and, inter alia, resulted in the massacre of the Osoppo partisans by a unit of communist partisans on the Porzûs mountain.

9. Different were the positions of the CLN of Venezia Giulia (after it was abandoned by the communists at the end of summer 1944, except for Gorizia); it represented that part of the Italian anti-fascist population who wished to maintain Italian sovereignty over the country. In addition, the CLN strove to be recognised by the Anglo-Americans as a representative of the majority of the Italian population to gain their support when defining the borders. Thus, the CLN and the National Front represented opposing and incompatible border claims; when the border issue came to the fore, strategic cooperation became impossible. In terms of tactics, the last chance of cooperation disappeared during the preparations for the uprising, since it was impossible to reach an agreement on who was to assume political control of Trieste after the expulsion of the Germans. At the end of the war, both sides in Venezia Giulia welcomed their own liberator, the 4th Yugoslav Army with the 9th Corps operating in Slovenia, and the 8th British Army, regarding the army of the other as the conqueror.

10. At the end of April 1945 both Workers' Unity and CLN of Trieste organized two parallel and competing uprisings; anyway the expulsion of Germans from Venezia Giulia was mostly to the credit of the large Yugoslav military units, and partly also of the Allies. Their areas of operation therefore overlapped without being adjusted. The issue of transition from war to peace went beyond the relations between the Italians and Slovenes in this area, and also beyond those between Italy and Yugoslavia, to become one of the issues of the then European policy, although not the most important one.

Most Slovenes and Italians in favour of the Yugoslav solution welcomed enthusiastically the expansion of Yugoslav military control from the already liberated partisan territories to the entire Venezia Giulia. Slovenes experienced double liberation: from the German occupation and from the Italian state. At the same time, the population of Venezia Giulia in favour of Italy experienced Yugoslav occupation as the darkest moment in their history due to the fact that in the areas of Trieste, Gorizia and Koper, it was accompanied by a wave of violence, manifested in the arrests of several thousands, mostly Italians, and also the Slovenes who opposed the Yugoslav communist political plan. Some of the arrested were released at intervals; the violence was further manifested in hundreds of summary executions - victims were mostly thrown into the Karst chasms (foibe) - and in the deportation of a great number of soldiers and civilians, who either wasted away or were killed during the deportation; in prisons and in the prisoner-of-war camps in various parts of Yugoslavia (Borovnica should also be mentioned).

11. These events were triggered by the atmosphere of settling accounts with the fascist violence; but, as it seems, they mostly proceeded from a preliminary plan which included several tendencies: endeavours to remove persons and structures who were in one way or another (regardless of their personal responsibility) linked with Fascism, with the Nazi supremacy, with collaboration and with the Italian state, and endeavours to carry out preventive cleansing of real, potential or only alleged opponents of the communist regime, and the annexation of Venezia Giulia to the new Yugoslavia. The initial impulse was instigated by the revolutionary movement which was changed into a political regime, and transformed the charge of national and ideological intolerance between the partisans into violence at the national level.

Back to index

Printed edition available:
Nova Revija d.o.o
Dalmatinova ulica 1
1000 Ljubljana - Slovenija
tel. +386 1 4334074 / 4334250

Next page
© 2004Web Design Studio djn
© 2001 Nova Revija d.o.o.