Borderlands of Memory. Croatia (Istria-Kvarner) – Slovenia (Primorska) – Italy (Friuli-Venezia Giulia)

The Memory of War and Violence in the 20th-century northeastern Adriatic

Route and destinations of the study trip:
Lipa (Croatia) Gonars (Italy)
Basovizza (Italy) Risiera di San Sabba (Italy)
Kobarid (Slovenia) Pula (Croatia)
Log pod Mangartom (Slovenia) Rijeka (Croatia)
Redipuglia (Italy)  
Map Study Trip Route and Destinations

Project Description

Vanessa Hadžić, Heike Karge, Sabine Rutar

In May 2012, a group of Croatian and German students together with their professors embarked for a study trip to the northeastern Adriatic region. The idea for this excursion was developed as part of a broader bilateral research project which was generously funded by the DAAD from 2010-2012.

For a description (in German) of the project “Kriegsveteranen- und -opfer im 20. Jahrhundert im Vergleich: Identitäten und Gedächtnisse“ see the website:

The excursion was developed and organized by Vanni D’Alessio, Vjeran Pavlaković (both Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Rijeka), Sabine Rutar (Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg) and Heike Karge (University of Regensburg) and supported by a student assistant team consisting of Katharina Schalk, Manuela Brenner (both University of Regensburg) and Tea Marković (University of Rijeka). We thank the University of Regensburg for a substantial financial contribution to the excursion.

Concepts of collective memory and cultures of remembrance

Already in 1882, Ernest Renan claimed that nations are based on what is remembered and what is forgotten. (1) This idea forms the basis of what we know today as the “culture of remembrance”. It is a universal phenomenon, although every culture has its own way to remember. (2) A culture of remembrance gathers people to form a community of memory and also serves for a dissociation from others. (3) One of the main questions to answer for every community can be summarized in the question: “What do we have to remember, what must not we forget?”

Why are collective memories and the culture of remembrance important for a community? Firstly, the past is never remembered for its own sake - there is always an objective in the present for remembering a certain part of the past. (4) Only what is important for the present is remembered – and thus collective memories tell us more about current needs than about what happened in the past. What is remembered is always culturally defined and therefore always an interpretation of the past created in the present. (5) Secondly, groups need collective memories to create a collective identity. It is important that people have a feeling of interconnection to others. This feeling develops when they get the impression that they are bound in a special way to the members of their community, and this happens by emphasizing the continuity of shared history. Without continuity there is no identity. (6) In this way the present is connected to the past.

Three main theories about cultures of remembrance and collective memory serve as important key references:

The first was developed by Maurice Halbwachs who described memory as a social phenomenon. (7) His main thesis is that the changing of social frameworks –“cadres sociaux” - leads to a change in collective memory. These “cadres sociaux” have been described by other authors as thought patterns which guide perceptions and remembrance. (8) This means that every community only remembers what fits into current social frameworks; the rest is forgotten. Because what is remembered depends on the present, memory is always constructed. (9)

Does memory really always change with the “cadres sociaux”?

The second major concept when it comes to the culture of remembrance was developed by Pierre Nora, who coined the term “lieux de mémoire” – sites of memory. These sites of memory have a material, a functional and a symbolic dimension, and mostly in the national sense. The collective memory of a nation is crystallized in these sites. (10) The community identifies itself through such sites of memory; they even become a part of their identity. (11) Usually a place only becomes a site of memory if it represents an important moment of the nation’s past-- in other words, if a common consciousness emerges that assumes something so special happened there that it is worth remembering. (12)

Can there be a place of memory where there is no site? Does such a thing as a “non-lieu” exist?

The third theory was elaborated by Jan Assmann. Jan Assmann divides collective memory up into a cultural memory and a communicative one. The latter, for which the historian Christoph Cornelißen coined the term “short-term memory” (13), is passed on by oral tradition, lasts about 80-100 years and disappears with the death of contemporary witnesses. Cultural memory, on the other hand, is based on myths and a history that took place a long time ago. It can encompass centuries. Assmann scrutinizes the connection between cultural memory, the collective construction of identity and political legitimacy.  Cultural memory is seen as an indicator for values and norms of a community. As an official version of the past it points in the direction things should take in the future. Assmann also explores the connection between identity and collective memory and why it is so important to have a common image of the past to base identity upon.

How can we really understand the connection between cultural and communicative memory? What if they do not overlap, but contradict each other?

Borderlands of Memory in the northeastern Adriatic
The northeastern Adriatic region is especially interesting when we look at cultures of remembrance and their change over time. Many important events of the 20th century had a significant impact in this area, the borderland of today’s Italy, Croatia and Slovenia. The Soča/Isonzo river was an important frontline during the First World War. Fascism spread here in the 1920s and caused the first resistance against Italian fascism by a Slovenian underground group. The end of World War Two again brought up a "Trieste question", with state borders remaining unstable until well into the war's aftermath. The Iron Curtain ran through this borderland, with Yugoslavia and Italy featuring, from the 1960s onwards, one of the most open borders of that curtain. Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s with the first wars in Europe since 1945. The newly independent republics of Slovenia and of Croatia again changed the border regimes in the region and the European Union, after shifting its borders from the Austrian-Slovene and Italian-Slovene border to the Slovene-Croatian one, is about to shift its borders yet again to those between Croatia and -Bosnia / Serbia. (14)

During our study trip we visited manifold sites of remembrance. Some of them seemed to fit quite clearly into the above-mentioned concepts about collective and cultural memory, about remembering and forgetting. Some, however, did not. This is the case in Lipa, a tiny Croatian village with a small, yet impressive museum. The museum in Lipa challenges Halbwachs’ theory because the past is narrated here in very much the same way as it has been done since the 1960s. Yugoslavia passed away 20 years ago, but this did not lead to a change in the way collective memories are narrated inside the museums building. Why? Why did this site of memory stay the same, even though the social, political and other frameworks, the “cadres sociaux”  changed?

The answer is probably that a change of the political regime does not always change the patterns of thought a site should evoke. A key element of Yugoslav political legitimacy was a conjuring-up of victims that had been sacrificed for the victory. The dead were to be  proof for the right to live, and to live in a certain way. The aim of the communist politics of history and remembrance was to keep heroic deeds alive, and to highlight the enemies’ cruelty and the casualty toll of World War II. (15) A master narrative was developed, into which the victimization of Lipa’s inhabitants easily fit. However, apart from this instrumentalization by state politics, this event was and most probably still is a main marker of collective identity for the inhabitants of Lipa. For them, the change of social and political frameworks did not necessarily imply the need to change their mode of presenting and narrating their memories. On the other hand, again, the cultural memory in Croatia has changed substantially since the 1990s. While this did not affect the master narrative of the victimization of the Lipa village itself, it did affect the place of the master narrative within the broader narrative of war and peace, of victimization and heroism in World War Two and, not the least, the “Homeland War” of 1991-1995. This can be proved today by, for example, the absence of state financial support for the museum and by the absence of school children visiting the site (which they did before 1990). So, in the case of Lipa, Halbwachs proves to be only applicable to some extent, but not entirely. 

Developed after 1945, the Yugoslavs established the “partisan-myth”, while in Italy a  “resistenza-myth” was fostered. Myths sustain history, irrespective of whether or not they are true. They represent something binding that should not be forgotten. (16) Within these myths, there is normally not much room for criticism and balancing, especially with regard to the “heroes” and “victims”. For this reason, the foibe massacres in Trieste and its surrounding areas in the war's immediate aftermath had not been subject to public and academic debate in Yugoslavia. Basically, they continue to be of little importance in today’s Slovenian and  Croatian collective memory, where the Slovene and Croat victims of communism are given much more attention.


Italy's culture of remembrance has changed with the modification of the larger European “cadres sociaux” occurring since 1989/90 with the end of the bipolar world system. In the 2000s, the topic of the foibe became a huge issue – however, in a very unilateral manner. The memorial at the foiba of Basovizza, near Trieste, was enlarged, and a TV movie on the subject of the foibe was produced and aired on national TV. A day of remembrance of the foibe and the Italian exodus from Istria after 1945 was established in 2004, referring to two events that saw Italians as victims. The aim of these official measures is to identify with these victims and to continue to distract from Fascist crimes committed during the war, mostly in the Balkans.  

The remembrance of World War Two, in all its diversity, has faded nowhere in today’s Europe; in the northeastern Adriatic, it still holds a strong dividing force. (17) The war and its victims play a key role in the cultures of remembrance of the respective states; their (collective) identities are still largely built on the legacy of war.

While the First World War does not seem to be a highly contested memory space any more, the years and events following the wars do seem to remain controversial and/or divided. This is true, for example, for the partition of Rijeka in 1924, when the city itself came under Italian authority and neighboring Sušak fell under the sovereignty of the newly-established Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The “Heroes of Basovizza”, related to an event in the interwar period, is a lieu de memoire in Slovenia and for the Slovenian community in Italy, but a “non-place of memory” in the Italian cultural memory. As far as the Great War itself is concerned, the small museum in Kobarid, in today's Slovenia, is a good example of how to come to terms with war history in a balanced manner. Here, the victims of the First World War are remembered, and the museum is visited by people of all nations involved. The museum shows a history of warfare that goes beyond mere military events; it shows everyday life under war conditions and the suffering of all sides.

Concluding, it seems that the northeastern Adriatic region is a place where 20th-century history was so burdened with conflict that the collective memory was criss-crossed by dividing lines. Only when cultural memory takes over - as is the case with the First World War - is it possible to start to foster multi-perspective narratives acceptable to all sides involved. What is very obvious, however, is that nationalism - and its radical variants, i. e. fascism and national socialism - has brought an incredibly immense amount of suffering to people. The gigantic war memorial at Redipuglia, erected by the Italian Fascists in 1938, may stand as an emblem for this: half a million dead Italian soldiers in the First World War, only to "redeem" about the same amount of people formerly living under Austrian sovereignty in 1918. When the monument was erected, the Slav population of the region had been denied its own culture and language for more than a decade. The future was to bring another war, more death, internment, deportation, and ethnic cleansing. Croatia, and to a very small extent also Slovenia, fought another war in the 1990s. Even though Istria was not a battlefield in the Yugoslav wars of dissolution, it was deeply affected by them, not least because it was divided by a new state border. Our excursion clearly took us to one of the most complicated and most fascinating regions of Europe, marked by a contemporary history of wars, conflict, border changes, and identity crises. At the same time, we got to know a very beautiful stretch of land, from the Istrian hills to the Adriatic sea to the Slovene Alps - featuring many more layers of history than the ones that we singled out during our trip.  

(1) Presented in the Sorbonne on March 11th, 1882 by Ernest Renan. Translated from French by Henning Ritter, published in: Jeismann, Michael / Ritter, Henning: Grenzfälle - Über neuen und alten Nationalismus, Leipzig 1993
(2) Assmann, Jan (20076): Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München, p.30
(3) Uhl, Heidemarie (2011): Trans/national, trans/lokal, europäisch: Gedächtnis im postnationalen Zeitalter. In: Gruber, Bettina/ Rippitsch, Daniela (eds.): Modell Friedensregion Alpen-Adria? Lernerfahrung in einer europäischen Grenzregion, Schwalbach/Ts., p.182
(4) Assmann: Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, p.75
(5) Kuljić, Todor (2010): Umkämpfte Vergangenheiten. Die Kultur der Erinnerung im postjugoslawischen Raum, Berlin, p.72
(6) Kuljić: Umkämpfte Vergangenheiten, p.82
(7) Halbwachs, Maurice (1950): La memoire collective. Paris
(8) Erll, Astrid (2005): Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen. Eine Einführung. Stuttgart,p. 15
(9) Karge, Heike (2010): Steinerne Erinnerung – versteinerte Erinnerung? Kriegsgedenken im sozialistischen Jugoslawien (1947-1970), Wiesbaden, p. 33f.
(10) Pierre Nora, Zwischen Geschichte und Gedächtnis, Berlin 1990; see also Karge: Steinerne Erinnerung, p.15
(11) Kuljić: Umkämpfte Vergangenheiten, p.32
(12) Ibid., p.31
(13) Cornelißen, Christoph (2010): Erinnerungskulturen. In: Docupedia Zeitgeschichte, 11.2.2010, p.2
(14) Wintersteiner, Werner (2011): „Zypressen. Krieg. Frieden. Kinder“. Krieg und Frieden am Beispiel der Alpen-Adria-Region. In: Gruber and Rippitsch: Modell Friedensregionp.58 f.
(15) Sundhaussen, Holm (2004): Jugoslawien und seine Nachfolgestaaten. Konstruktion, Dekonstruktion und Neukonstruktion von „Erinnerungen“ und Mythen. In: Flacke, Monika (ed.): Mythen der Nationen. 1945 – Arena der Erinnerungen, Band 1, Mainz, p. 387f.
(16) Assmann: Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, p.52 f.
(17) François, Etienne (2004): Meistererzählungen und Dammbrüche, die Erinnerung an den Zweiten Weltkrieg zwischen Nationalisierung und Universalisierung. In: Flacke: Mythen der Nationen, p.13

Guest Lecturers

Route & Destinations


Lipa Basovizza Kobarid Log pod Mangartom Redipuglia Gonars Risiera di San Sabba Pula Rijeka