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

27 May 2012: Basovizza (Italy)

Martina Draščić

Basovizza is a village in the province of Trieste, in the north-east of the karst region. Regarding the culture of remembrance, this place is significant for two monuments which can be found there. The first one, the Foiba di Basovizza, is an Italian monument with a museum and a couple of memorials to the victims of the Yugoslavian partisans. The other one is the Slovenian anti-fascist monument for the socalled "heroes of Bazovica", the Slovene victims of fascism during the interwar period.

Interestingly, two separate commemoration events take place here even though the two monuments of Bazovica/Basovizza are very close to each other; there are no links whatsoever between these two places and, in a certain way, a Slovenian-Italian mental border has been created and kept alive because of the ways in which these commemorations are held.

Official web page of Foiba of Basovizza:

Official web page of the town:

Photo Impressions

Photos of the previous destination Photos of the next destination

Travel Diary

Katharina, Manuela, Manuela, Nela, Sabine

We leave Lipa and make our way to Basovizza, crossing first the Croatian-Slovenian border and then the Slovenian-Italian border. The sign which leads to the monument already hints at one of the conflicts regarding the monument we are about to visit. The sign reads Monument of European Interest. As we later learn from Gaetano Dato, a PhD researcher in history doing research on monuments in this area, and Katia Pizzi, Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of London, Italians have no interest in the monument since they perpetrated the acts being memorialized. The monument is dedicated to four young men who belonged to the so-called TIGR movement and were killed in 1938 by the Italian fascists. TIGR is an acronym for Trst-Istra-Gorica-Rijeka, i.e. those areas that fell under Italian rule after 1918, and which the Slav population wanted to annex to the new Yugoslav state. At that time a great push to denationalize and actually italianize the Slovenian community took place in the karst region, against which one of the first antifascist movements in Europe developed; the four men memorialized at Basovizza were a part of it. During World War II the so called heroes of Basovizza became a communist symbol for fighting fascism. What we notice is a multidirectionality of memory – symbols serving different interests at different times. Currently, the four heroes alone are being commemorated. What is quite peculiar is the fact that the plaque on the monument leaves room for the addition of future victims.

Afterwards we head towards the Foiba di Basovizza. Here, several smaller monuments and a museum were erected for the estimated several thousand victims, mostly Italians, killed by partisans at the end of the Second World War between 1 May, 1945 and 12 Juni, 1945, the so-called “quaranta giorni”, the fourty days of the Yugoslavian administration of Trieste. Although Slovenes and Croats were also among the victims it is mostly the Italians who create a narrative at this place. Basovizza has become emblematic for recent attempts at both ethnicizing the events at the end of the war and levelling the crimes of fascism against those of communism. The document centre was only recently opened, as money became available.

It is most impressive to walk just several hundred meters, literally, and find two sites of remembrance that have such opposite and exclusive functions. Yet, for those who care to listen, the sites talk to one another. The two memory sites at Basovizza are among the most vivid of those we visit in terms of illustrating selectivity of memory and how it is constructed, nurtured, and changed over time.

Our final stop is a monument in Dolina. There, we are accompanied by Borut Klabjan who grew up in this village. Every family in the region lost at least one of its members in the anti-fascist movement, and many villagers in the area have been killed. Therefore, almost every village has its own monument for its victims. The monument we visit is also a monument for partisans, mostly local Slovenes. However, it is also important to mention that many Italians collaborated with the partisan-movement. The victims being remembered are split into three categories: hostages, people who died in camps and partisans. What seems unique at this place is another monument to the left of the Partisan one: A monument erected in 1878 dedicated to the social emancipation movement and nationalization of the Slovenes, thus enforcing an interesting long durée narrative of resistance.

The last stop on that long day is the drive downhill along many serpentines towards the city of Trieste, which we already had the chance to admire from high above the Karst Region, with the blue sea in its back. Trieste is huge. It takes up almost our entire view, surrounded by hilly coastline on one side and by steep carstic hills - from which our bus descends - on the other. One who looks closely can notice the church Sv. Klement of Piran, on Slovene Istria's spit of land that reaches farthest into the sea. We drive down and suddenly are along the Rive, at sea level. Beautiful. Trieste does not seem to be an Italian city; it seems more like a small Vienna on the seaside, with representative hotels and banks along the coastal road. We stop at what is claimed to be Italy's largest place that opens towards the sea, the Piazza Unità d'Italia (Square of Italy's Unity), and immediately we are reminded of how difficult it is to escape history here. In Austro-Hungarian times, before the First World War, this place was called simply Piazza Grande (Big Square), and that is precisely what it is. We take a stroll over the square towards the Municipal Building, watch a bride and bridegroom enjoy their festivities with their guests, listen to Vanni and Katia explain Trieste's multi-national and multi-cultural history and literature, meet a stony James Joyce - his statue on one of the bridges over Trieste's Canal Grande (yes, there is one!) - and end up in front of the beautiful columned facade of Trieste's biggest Catholic Church, Sant' Antonio Taumaturgo. Only a couple of hundred metres away we are astonished to find a huge neo-byzantine church with beautiful blue cupolas, the Serbian-Orthodox Church. Even though we really have time to gather only a glimpse of the city, its multi-layeredness is immediately obvious. We have a scarce hour of free time, and it seems worlds and ages away since we started our trip from Rijeka to Lipa to the two Basovizzas in the morning. So many impressions; so many stories.



We arrived at Basovizza around noon. Professors Katia Pizzi and Gaetano Dato were there waiting for us. I remember Professor Pizzi from a guest lecture she held at our university the year before, but I would have never recognized her because her appearance resembles that of a student more than a professor. The two professors held a lecture in front of the memorial complex. I sat in the grass watching and listening, thinking why can’t all of our college lectures look like this?!

Another German student, Vera, held a presentation in the complex. Afterwards we visited the Basovizza foiba, where we heard the second part of Prof. Dato’s lecture. After a snack it was time to head for Trieste with an additional stop in Dolina, where we found ourselves just an hour later! Up and ready, Professor Borut Klabjan was there waiting for us. We sat in a wide shadow of an old chestnut tree and heard the lecture Prof. Borut had prepared. Everybody took a lot of photographs but one of the German students seemed reckless: he climbed up some walls and stood on whatever he could find, regardless of the danger. We met him later – Martin was the German’s crew photographer, but he might as well be Spiderman considering where he was climbing during our trip!

We shared a much needed coffee in Dolina with our colleagues from Germany and have not spoken much Croatian since. Satisfied and utterly tired, we arrived in Trieste just in time for dinner, a beer with newly made friends and some needed sleep!

Diary of the previous destination Diary of the next destination



Nino Mavrinac

The insurgent organization Revolucionarna organizacija Julijske krajine (1) of Trieste, Istria, Gorica and Rijeka (known as T.I.G.R.) was established in September 1927 by a group of Slovene liberal nationalist activists. A few months after its birth, at a meeting in Trieste, another group connected to the T.I.G.R. established another organization, Borba (2) which also included Croat activists from Istria. From the very beginning, the two groups worked in close alliance. Their main objective was resistance to brutal fascist italianization of the area that Italy gained in the Rapallo (1920) and Rome treaties (1924). TIGR consisted of Slovenes and Croats who lived in these areas and who felt that these areas did not belong to Italy, but should instead enter into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. TIGR is considered one of the first anti-fascist resistance movements in Europe (Kačin Wohinz, 1990).

bild2Narodni dom, the home of the Slovene Community in Trieste and the center of other Slavic groups in town, was burned down by the Fascist squads in June 1920. The situation was further worsened by the rise of the Fascist movement which inaugurated widespread violence against Slovenes and Croats in the Julian March. In the spring of 1921, several episodes of anti-Slavic and anti-socialist violence took place in Istria, culminating in various rebellions in response. These included the Istrian rebellions of Slovenian and Croatian peasants in Marezige, near Koper, and in the Proštinska buna in Southern Istria, as well as those of Croatian and Italian socialist miners in Labin (the so called Labin Republic/Repubblica di Albona) against Fascist incursions. Eventually, these revolts were suffocated with the intervention of the Italian army.

When Mussolini came to power in 1922, anti-Slavic policies were enforced as part of Fascist Italianization. In 1923, the use of Slovene and Croatian languages was forbidden in public offices, post offices and public transportation, and a school reform was approved which eventually caused in 1928 the suppression of all Slovene and Croat schools in the Julian region (as well as German schools in South Tyrol). Further Italianization was carried out against Slavic names, surnames, the names of settlements. The use of Slovene and Croat language was prohibited in churches in 1928. Slovenes and Croats who didn't agree with this policy were taken to prison camps while many other Croats and Slovenians emigrated.


Between 1927 and 1930 TIGR launched numerous attacks on individual members or supporters of the National Fascist Party (both Italian and Slovene) and also killed several border guards, military personnel, and members of the Italian police forces. Several kindergartens, established in Slovene villages in order to Italianize them, were burned down. In the Gorizia region TIGR focused mostly on propaganda and on illegal education. They cooperated with Catholic organizations gathered around the lawyer Janko Kralj and the priest Virgil Šček. 

In Istria, the main activist was Vladimir Gortan, who acted against the fascists by attacking police convoys. In March 1929 he organized an action against the Fascist plebiscite and tried to disperse those forcibly brought to vote in Pazin. He accidently killed the peasant Ivan Tuhtan in the process. He was soon caught by the Italian police and was executed in Pula on March 30th 1929 after a speedy trial. He received 25 bullets in his back, while his companions were sentenced to 30 years of prison (3). This execution was supposed to serve as an example to Istrian peasants, but it had an opposite effect and encouraged the fight against the fascist government. The name 'Vladimir Gortan' was later used by the partisans (Istrian First Brigade Vladimir Gortan) and by a number of primary schools and businesses-- many of which bear his name even today. Vladimir Gortan was not a Communist; nonetheless, both Croatian political activists and communists took him as a symbol of the anti-fascist struggle before 1941.

On 10 February 1930, in the headquarters of the newspaper Il Popolo di Trieste, the editor Guido Neri was killed by a bomb and three journalists were injured. Il Popolo di Trieste was well known as Fascist newspaper.

bild4In 1930 the Italian fascist police discovered some TIGR cells. Numerous members of the organization were sentenced at the First Trieste trial - four of them (Ferdo Bidovec, Fran Marušič, Zvonimir Miloš and Alojzij, Valenčič), charged with murder, were sentenced to death and executed at Basovica/Basovizza near Trieste. Today that site serves as a place of remembrance to the oppressed Slovenes and as an example of the fight against fascism. The monument includes Slovenian and ex-Yugoslavian emblems and flags even though it is in Italy. Basovizza is situated near the border with Slovenia in an area densely inhabited by the Slovenian minority. With the participation of local antifascist organization, this minority is still very active in preserving the memory of TIGR and of the resistance against fascism. Nearby is the foiba of Basovizza, which represents an Italian place of memory and hosts many commemorations every year that feature the display of Italian emblems and flags.

After the trial of 1930, the organization quickly re-organized itself under the leadership of Albert Rejec and Danilo Zelen. It expanded its membership and shifted its tactics. Instead of demonstrative attacks on symbolic figures and institutions of Fascist repression, they opted for targeted attacks on infrastructure and high-ranking military, militia and police personnel. They also built a wide intelligence network and established contacts with British and Yugoslav intelligence services. In 1935 TIGR connected with several Italian anti-fascist organizations and signed an agreement of cooperation with the Italian Communist Party. TIGR tried to remain above all ideological divisions, maintaining a close relationship with the local Slovene and Croat Catholic clericals, the Yugoslavian national movement (ORJUNA), the British intelligence service and all others who held political views that were against Fascism. 

In 1938 TIGR plotted to assassinate Mussolini during his visit to Kobarid. However, the attempt was not carried out for several reasons. According to a local story, the assassination was supposed to be a suicide attack where a member of TIGR would jump in the car with the bomb, but it did not happen because there were too many local people, including many women and children, and the plan was aborted because of the high number of potential victims. More convincing is the possibility that the British intelligence service had been notified of the assassination and felt that it might jeopardize the terms of the Munich agreement, which they believed to be the only chance for lasting peace in Europe.

After the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, the TIGR expanded its activity to neighboring Nazi Germany, focusing primarily on bomb actions against crucial infrastructure: particularly railways and high-voltage power lines. The actions led to a thorough investigation by the Fascist regime, which disclosed most of the TIGR cells in 1940 and 1941.

In 1941 several members of TIGR were charged with espionage and terrorism at the Second Trieste trial. Four of them (Viktor Bobek, Ivan Ivančič, Simon Kos and Ivan Vadnal) were executed in Villa Opicina near Trieste the same year, along with the Communist activist Pinko Tomažič. By the time of the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, most of the organization was already dismantled by Italian and Nazi German secret police forces, and most of its prominent members were sent to concentration camps, killed or exiled.
During World War II, many of its members joined the partisan resistance, although the organization itself was not invited to join the Liberation Front of the Slovenian People.

After World War II

After the establishment of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia in 1945, most of the former TIGR members were removed from public life. In 1945 TIGR has ceased to exist. The Yugoslav secret police continued to closely monitor some of TIGR's members up to the 1970s. Their activity was removed from the official historical accounts.

In the late 1970s, the first historical accounts on the activity of the TIGR started to appear. Only in the 1980s, however, did their resistance activity started to be appreciated again, with several historical books written on the matter. The historian Milica Kačin Wohinz was one of the first to produce a thorough study of the movement in a monograph entitled The First Anti-Fascism in Europe, published in 1990.

TIGR has recently received official credit for their role in the resistance, but only from the Slovenian authorities. In 1997, Slovenian President Milan Kučan symbolically awarded TIGR with the Gold venerable symbol of freedom of the Republic of Slovenia.



(1) (Eng.) The Revolutionary Organization of the Julian Region.
(2) (Eng.) Fight.
(3) source:, 9.9.2012.


T.I.G.R. and the heroes of Basovizza - Between event-history and Slovenian mythologizing

Pavle Sachenbacher

About two kilometres east of Trieste is located the small town of Basovizza.  After about ten minutes driving time, romantic streets lead to an isolated plateau with the sea on its left and Mediterranean forests on its right. Mountain bikers, hikers and nature lovers arrive here to enjoy the beauty of the city`s hinterland.

But this place is relevant to those interested in Italian-Slovenian cultural memories as well. About a five minute walk from the car park you can find a monument enclosed by and sheltered by trees. You can take a closer look by passing through the waist-high, cast-iron gates, thus diving into the story of four young men who lost their lives in the struggle against fascism.

This story begins with the end of the First World War. At the turn of the century, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires had enormous difficulty maintaining their multi-ethnic states. The idea of ​​the nation-state had become popular, bringing with it a demand for independence; the catharsis of this development was the outbreak of war. After the defeat of the Central Powers in south-eastern Europe the borders of Austria and Italy were redrawn. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, broken up after the defeat, had to bow to the victors, cede territories and to recognize the independence of new states. (1) "Probably the most drastic territorial change" (2), was the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Even during the war, Italy received in exchange for its entry into the war the "custody" of parts of Slovenia. Later, in September 1919, Italy was finally awarded the southern territory of Istria by the Treaty of St. Germain. (3)

From then on the Slavic population had to come to terms with the "new occupiers", although their compatriots further east were about to establish their own state. All remained quiet until Mussolini appeared on the political scene and exacerbated the situation by his actions. The March on Rome ushered in a dark chapter in the history of the Slavic population of Venezia Giulia. The takeover of Mussolini and his Fascist supporters marked the beginning of massive repression by the fascists against the Slavs of Istria. From 1922, therefore, the situation worsened for the Slovenes and Croats, year after year, and the population began to rebel. However, it took a while for the resistance to organize. One can speak of a highly motivated and organized struggle against the Italian occupation only in 1925. (4)

Therefore, from 1925, they began to form a serious underground. One of the most famous organizations was named after the territories they hoped to liberate: Trieste, Istria, Rijeka and Gorica. Young patriots of Istria and the surrounding areas, as well as previous Orjuna members, joined the organization known as T.I.G.R. (5) According to Silvo Fatur the grouping was “officially“ launched on 6 September 1927 in the hills of the Nanos mountain range in Slovenia. (6) The T.I.G.R. group remained the only anti-fascist movement in the Balkans until the start of World War II. With the influence of Tito's rise during the Second World War and the restructuring of the intelligence services during and after the war, its influence would decrease again, which was probably because the T.I.G.R. was not sufficiently nationally oriented for Tito's later purpose. (7) The political orientation of T.I.G.R. was certainly not the main focus of Italian occupiers. Rather, what concerned the Italians was the fact that T.I.G.R. members upset the delicate balance of the mixed population of Venezia Giulia. Bombings of various Italian institutions, such as newspapers or schools, steadily encouraged the Italians’ desire for vengeance. Targeted attacks on symbols of italianità were part of the T.I.G.R. repertoire. In addition, the spread of anti-Fascist propaganda material was another core task of the organization. A dense network of multi-national collaborators was a great help for them. A side benefit of this network was that the current mood of the population was always known. Supporters of the anti-fascist struggle in France, the Kingdom of Serbs, in addition to Croats and Slovenes and from Italy, were canalled through the dense and misty heights of the Carso by TIGR members. Such actions probably contributed significantly to the naming of the organization. Ultimately, the organization remained controversial. This was partly due to their composition and the non-ubiquitous acceptance within the population. Thus, some TIGR actions can be confidently dismissed as "jingoism". For example, the destruction of the monument of the Italian martyr Guglielmo Oberdan can be interpreted as mere provocation. (8) In Stephan Stracke's essay “Slovenian men and women guerillas” one finds a somewhat terse explanation of the reasons for the struggle against fascism: "The goal was just to drive the fascism out of our homeland." (9) Based on this formulation we see that it was a kind of fad to fight fascism. Regarding the lack of acceptance within the population, the Catholic Church was noteworthy. Catholic representatives regularly criticized the high level of violence of the TIGR and called for a peaceful solution to the conflict. (10)

Nonetheless, the T.I.G.R. grouping contributed its part to hinder and sabotage the Italian and, German occupiers with their war efforts.

As already mentioned, the T.I.G.R. organization also targeted symbols of “italianità”. The newspaper "Il Popolo di Trieste" was considered a fascistic symbol by the anti-fascists because it was known for its pro-fascist stance. Pejorative ideas related to the Slavic population were expressed in the articles of newspaper time and time again. This might have been one reason that Ferdo Bidovec, Fran Marusic, Zvonimir Milos and Aloizji Valencic blew up the building of the editorial office. On 10th February 1930 these four T.I.G.R. members put their plan into action and blew up the building. During this assault one of the journalists was killed. After a large-scaled search operation, the four were caught and brought to justice (along with other anti-fascists). It was usual at that time to make short work of troublemakers, and the process which later would be known as the "First Trieste process" can confidently be described as a show trial. On the fifth day of the trial against Ferdo Bidovec, Fran Marusic, Zvonimir Milos and Aloizji Valencic, they were finally sentenced to the death penalty. The following day ended the cruel and inhuman conditions of their imprisonment, but also their lives. In the early hours of 6 September 1930, they were brought to Basovizza and were executed in cold blood by the Italian secret police. (11) Three of the four murdered freedom fighters were not even 30 years old. (12) Through this execution, the myth of the heroes of Basovizza was born. More precisely, the mythologizing of Ferdo Bidovec, Fran Marusic, Zvonimir Milos and Aloizji Valencic started directly after their assassination. Various facilities in Istria began to commemorate their heroes in different ways. Images of the four were distributed, exhibitions were held and even in later Yugoslavia the anniversary of the executions became a day of mourning. (13)

For neutral observers, this is ultimately just a story. But for most of the Slovenian and Croatian population, it is much more. For them, it is a part of their identity. If you are looking for a "measurement reading" for the current presence of an incident in the collective memory of a population, it is useful to have a look at regularly practiced actions related to the incident. Today several festivals and remembrance ceremonies are held in the name of the heroes. There's even a volleyball tournament which is called "Pokal Basoviskih Zrtev or Trofea Martiri di Basovizza". (14) In the era of audiovisual media, memory is made especially on television or the Internet. If you google the word "Basoviske zrtve", a short and dramatic film immediately shows up recounting the story of the four heroes. The quality of the film is debatable, but what it imparts is not. It clearly shows what role the Slovenian and Croatian population assumes of itself—namely, the role of the victim. Christoph Cornelißen accredits the role of the victim a special role, because the identification as a victim for a collective has a stronger effect than the role of the hero. (15) Therefore, in this case the heroes are commemorated, but the role of the victim is felt. There are also differences in the collective memory of the affected states. In Italy, the memory of the T.I.G.R. or the heroes of Basovizza plays a much smaller role than in Slovenia or Croatia, if it plays a role at all. This is certainly because Italians in this story take on the role of the villain and no one likes to be reminded of his own missteps.


(1) Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918; Romania one year later
(2) See: Clewing Konrad, Schmitt Oliver Jens: Geschichte Südosteuropas, P.555
(3) Cf. Carwarth Philipp: Der Untergang einer mittelmäßigen Macht, die Großmacht sein wollte, P.685 f.
(4) Cf. Wörsdörfer Rolf: Krisenherd Adria 1915- 1955, P. 264
(5)Cf. ibid, P. 267
(6) Cf. Fatur Silvo: Zgodba o Tigru, P. 8
(7) The Orjuna and Narodna Odbrana were established for basically nationalistic reasons, so the T.I.G.R. can be regarded as the first anti-  fascist organization in Europe
(8) Cf. Wörsdörfer Rolf: Krisenherd Adria 1915- 1955, P. 267-270
(9) See: Stracke Stephan: Umkämpfte Erinnerungen, P. 101
(10) Cf. Wörsdörfer Rolf: Krisenherd Adria 1915- 1955, P. 271 f.
(11) Cf. ibid, P. 131 f.
(13) Cf. Wörsdörfer Rolf: Krisenherd Adria 1915- 1955, P. 132
(15) Cf. Cornelißen Christoph: Erinnerungskulturen, P.6 f.

Culture of remembrance and Italian politics of memory concerning the Istrian foibe

Vera Spanner

“History repeats itself.”(Song by the band AOS)
“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."(Mark Twain)
“The present explains the past, not vice versa.”(Guido Franzinetti)

Basovizza: The Foiba of BasovizzaThere is an essential thing about history, that many people are not aware of, but which should always be included in historical research. A historical truth does not exist. What exists are approximations of what happened, which can be, more or less accurate and are often constructed by communities of memory. These communities can be any possible group of human beings including families, social groups, and even whole nations. Communities of memory create places of memory, or as the French would say, “les lieux de mémoire” a concept of the French historian Pierre Nora (* 1931). It is crucial that the places of memory are not bounded to geographical locations. Places of memory can actually be anything, for example historical events, mythically charged persons, monuments, artworks and even words. The instrumentalization of the collective memory in favor of political discourses is not unusual. In fact, commemoration is a very powerful instrument to unite people who are committed to a certain perspective regarding the way, in which bygone incidents happened. But it is also possible to convince people of certain versions of history that fail to reflect the trut even approximately. The intention of the construction of monuments is rarely only to commemorate. That is the reason why it is indispensible to know who initiated and, more importantly, who funded particular memory places. An example for this thesis is the culture of remembrance concerning the Istrian foibe especially with respect to the Italian politics of commemoration. My research concerning this topic was extremely surprising and confusing because, as a naïve young history student one does not expect to be faced with so much dishonesty concerning the politics of memory of a member of the European Union. Maybe one should always be careful, no matter who is presenting historical “facts” to you.

The term foibe is an expression, which is used in Istria and Italy to describe the common karstic pits of this region. So foibe is actually a geographical term which became extremely emotionally and politically charged as a result of the incidents that happened in these karstic pits in Istria in the period of 1943-45. In 1943, when Italy under Mussoloni collapsed and was on the verge of the invasion of the Wehrmacht, partisans murdered inhabitants of the Venezia Giulia. Furthermore, Yugoslav partisans murdered suspected Italian collaborators and fascists often by being thrown alive or already dead into the foibe. The incidents of 1945 are more important in this analysis, however, as the number of the murder victims was much higher at the end of the war. At that time, partisans liberated (or occupied) Venezia Giulia and killed probably thousands of Italians. The stated numbers of victims in this period vary extremely from estimates of 5000 to 20 000 victims. The murders were probably political cleansings motivated by intentions of revenge and national anger (cf. Mattioli 2010, p. 108.). But in this case, the essential point is not what really happened, but how these terrible incidents are remembered today. What role do they assume in the collective memory of the present-day nations, who were involved in the events at that time? Does the “foibe-massacre” have a different meaning in the culture of remembrance of the different national groups?

Even if the answers to these questions seem obvious, they are not! You rarely find so many contradictory statements in literature, as well as in politics. The following is an attempt to disentangle the netting of lies, half-truthes and the tactical obfuscation of facts, especially concerning the Italian politics of history.

The issue of the foibe has been concealed a long time, and only reappeared at the beginning of the 1990s and with the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In the Cold War, neither the state supporting Christian Democratic Party DC (Democrazia Cristiana), nor the oppositional Communist Party PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano) in Italy were interested in broaching the issue of the foibe. Bringing the foibe-massacre to trial would have surely provoked the counter claim to adjudicate upon the occupation crimes and war crimes of the Italians in Yugoslavia during the Second World War as well. The PCI would have also been in a difficult position, as the party would have had to clarify their relation to the Tito partisans who were, amongst others, responsible for the crimes (cf. Mattioli 2010, p. 109.). So, for a long time the issue of the foibe was covered up in silence. In the 1990s, with the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Italian policy changed totally, as did the general conditions concerning the remembrance (cf. ibid. p. 109.). The reasons for the change are linked to the history of the Italian Radical Right Party MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano), which had defined itself by its loyalty to the Fascist Regime and particularly to Mussolini´s party RSI (Repubblica Sociale Italiana). This radical right-wing party was comparatively strong in Italy; the party always had about 5 to 10 % of the Italian votes, which was “one of the highest levels in Western Europe” (Franzinetti 2006, p. 87.). In 1994, when the MSI became the AN (Alleanza Nazionale), it appeared to be a normal right-wing party and was even part of the government led by Silvio Berlusconi. The AN, along with their leader Gianfranco Fini, “progressively distanced itself from the RSI heritage, but never entirely” (Ibid. p. 88.). The next important step for the AN was to find a topic with which it could get maximum attention and at the same time gain political advantage. And so the foibe-topic returned or actually appeared the first time on the political stage. Designating the proximate developments concerning the politics of commemoration of the AN as “Holocaustisation” (ibid. p. 89.) is not an exaggeration.

It is important to note that the whole process of “Holocaustisation” was not only initiated by the Italian Radical Right, but also by politicians of the Left and others.In general, it is therefore ascertainable that the myth of the foibe was supported and initiated by broad levels of the Italian population.

A crucial aspect of the establishment of the narrative of the foibe was the meeting of Gianfranco Fini and Luciano Violante, one of the most popular characters of the post-communist PDS (Partito Democratico di Sinistra)/DS (Democratici di Sinistra) in the University of Trieste in 1998 (cf. Franzinetti 2006, p. 89.). The topic of the meeting was, among other things, the commemoration of the Istrian foibe. The speakers reconciled their parties and the underlying ideoligies in “recognizing a common Italian heritage” (cf. ibid. p. 89.). Another important step on the way to this “common Italian heritage” was the establishment of a commemoration day, to remember the victims of the foibe and the esuli, those who emigrated (or had to escape) from Venezia Giulia. The whole esodo lasted from the middle of the 1940s to about 1955, when big parts of Venezia Giulia finally belonged to Yugoslavia. The Giorno del Ricordo was celebrated the first time on 10th February, 2005. The analogy between the Italian Giorno del Ricordo and the Giorno della Memoria, commemorating the Shoa, was quite obvious. The “Holocaustisation” of the foibe was completed (cf. Franzinetti, p. 90.). One consequence is that the number of the books that deal with the topic of the foibe increased suddenly. The compliance with scientific methods, which determines the quality of those works, was maintained only in the rarest cases (cf. ibid. p. 90.). But enough said in matters of the political backgrounds. So what is actually contained in the narrative of the foibe? And what explains the polemics surrounding it?

The problem is not the fact, that the suffering of the Italians during and after the Second World War is commemorated today. Instead, the problem lies in, how and why it is remembered. In the narrative of the foibe the Italians are presented as “good folks” (ibid. p. 93.), who “cannot have ever been responsible for any really evil acts” (ibid. p. 93.). The consequence is a belittelment of Italian fascism and the presentation of Italians as victims of the Germans and, of course above all, of the Yugoslav army. “[…] Fascism was never really that bad, […] [i]t only got really nasty after 1938, when Mussolini really became an ally of Hitler. […] And in any case, Italians were good to Jews” (Franzinetti 2006, p. 93.). Furthermore, the foibe murders were declared as ethnic cleansings, which is actually false. For, the intention of the partisans was not to exterminate all “ethnic” Italians, but to revenge Italian atrocities committed during the Second World War. Moreover, there were not only Italians who were killed, but Slovenes and Croatians who do not appear in the Italian historiography of the foibe. The commemorated victims of the foibe, however,were considered more and more as martyrs for their country (Mattioli 2010, p. 112.). In line with the reconciliation of the post-Communists and the post-Fascists (pacificazione nazionale), the right party proposed and also claimed the same commemoration for all fighters and victims, arguing that both sides finally fought for their fatherland (cf. ibid. p. 143.). However, the question arises why the Italian society found so much favor with the narrative of the foibe. First of all, it distractsItalian crimes committed during the war and occupation and denies any connection to fascism. Therefore, the blame for all misdoings was laid on foreign countries, like Germany or Yugoslavia. There was absolutely no self-critical Italian historiography. What remains is a “reassuring fairy tale” (Franzinetti 2006, p. 93.). The consequences of this simplified and one-dimensional politics of commemoration are grave. The valorization of fascism and the partial rehabilitation of the Mussolini regime is attended by a fatal banalisation and trivialization of history (cf. Mattioli 2010, p. 143.).

But the revisionism of history and the manipulation of the collective memory is observable in many more practices of commemoration. One of the most succesful is probably the Italian feature film “Il cuore nel pozzo” (The heart in the pit). The AN, one of the coalition parties of Silvio Berlusconi, was again the most important initiator. Maurizio Gasparri, member of the AN and minister of communication from 2002 to 2006, sought to treat the issue of the foibe in a film. Asked by the Italian daily newspaper “La Stampa” which films he wanted to see on state television in the future, he expressed the wish to make a film about the “tragedy of the foibe” (Mattioli 2010, p. 110.). As a documentary about the foibe would be too repulsive for the audience, he argued for a feature film, which tells the story of “one of those poor families”. In addition, he said that the issue of the foibe is one of these big tragedies, like those of the Holocaust and those of Anne Frank (cf. ibid. p. 110.). At this point, the comparison of the foibe and the extermination of the Jews is again obvious. The broadcast of “Il cuore nel pozzo” in the state television transmitter RAI – owned by the way by Silvio Berlusconi – was finally planned for the 9th February, 2005. Already weeks and months before the first broadcast of the film about the “denied tragedy”, the media reported on the story line of the film and the “historical backgrounds” (cf. Verginella 2007, p. 42/43). The weekly newspaper “Panorama” recapitutaled the historical context of “Il cuore nel pozzo” and informed their readers, that the issue of the foibe is a forgotten tragedy with 20 000 to 30 000 victims, all killed by the cruel oppression of the Tito regime. The film suggests that the aim of the massacres and persecutions was ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, the holes in the karst (foibe) were compared with the blind spots in the Italian collective memory that arose because the suffering of the Italians was concealed for such a long time (cf. ibid. p. 42/43.). The broadly shared consenus concerning the film production was that the Italian audience should find out about the historical incidents on the Italian Eastern border. The documentary value of the production, however, is extremely doubtable (cf. ibid. p. 43/44.). Despite this, ten million Italians watched the two-piece “Il cuore nel pozzo”, directed by Alberto Negrin, on the 6th and 7th of February, 2005. In Slovenia, on the contrary, the film provoked protest, which is unsurprising in regard to the plot of the film (cf. ibid. p. 47/48.).
The story-line, which is told by children, begins just after the end of the Second World War, in April, 1945, when the Tito Partisans arrive in Venezia Giulia. Novak, the “Slavic” leader of the partisans wants to find his son Carlo, whom he has beget several years ago with an Italian woman named Giulia. To save her child from his father and her rapist, Giulia hides Carlo in the local orphanage, led by the priest Don Bruno, who then trusts an Italian couple with the child without clarifying his identity. Francesco, who is telling the whole story, is the child of this couple. Counseled by their friend Walter – a member of an Italian resistance movement (the National Liberation Commission CLN, or Comitato de Liberazione Nazionale), that did not cooperate with the Yugoslav liberation movement – the couple decides to escape from the city. But the escape plan fails, and Francesco´s parents are killed and thrown into a Foiba. However, the two kids are rescued by a former Italian soldier – namend Ettore, who brings them to the orphanage – where his fiancée Anja works. But the orphanage is also attacked by the evil Novak and his partisan gang. There, begins a brutal chase in which many people die, including Walter, Don Bruno and also Carlo´s mother Giulia, who throws herself into a Foiba in order to protect the identity of her child. In the end of the film, only Ettore and Anja survive, who bring the children into safety. Because of their help, Francesco and Carlo manage to escape with other refugees to Italy (cf. Verginella 2007, p. 48/49.).

Il cuore nel pozzo” oversimpiflies the historical events of that time. According to the film, all partisans are Slavs and “bad”, whereas all Italians and civilians are “good”. The only exception is Anja, the “Slavic” aide of Don Bruno, who decides to switch to the “good” side. The film reduces mass murder and persecution to the private revenge of a Yugoslav commandant (cf. Mattioli 2010, p. 111.). It seems that many Italians joined the CLN and that all partisans were Slavs, which actually is not true, as there existed partisan groups with mixed national belongings (cf. Verginella 2007, p. 51.). But this fact, obviously, does not fit in the concept of the film. The only Italian soldier of the film is a pacifist who throws away his gun with tears in his eyes and who only fights to help defenseless persons, like Carlo and Francesco (cf. ibid. p. 50.). All things considered, the film has a extremely symbolic significance. It is no coincidence, for example, that the beautiful mother of Carlo, who was raped by Novak, is named Giulia. She represents the region, which was symbolically “raped” by the Slavic partisans: Venezia Giulia (cf. Verginella 2007, p. 53.). One fact, however, is completely ignored in the film: the Italian fascist collaboration. Is this poetic licence?

To put it in a nutshell, the intention of the film was not to clear up the historical situation, but to affirm the fairy tale of the innocent Italians.

Also in literature the ideal of the innocent and “good” Italians appears, for example in the book “Foibe - Dal silenzio politico alla verità storica” (From political silence to historical truth), which also confirms the thesis that the massacres were ethnic cleansings (cf. Cristin 2007, p. 7.).

Basovizza: The Foiba of BasovizzaAt this time, around 2007, not only were books written and films, like “Il cuore nell pozzo” made, but monuments and memorial places that treat the tragedy of the foibe were raised. It was literally a “Memory Boom”. The most popular memorial place is probably the Foiba of Basovizza, which was inaugurated on the Giorno del Ricordo in 2007 (cf. Cecotti 2010, p. 243.). Basovizza is located about ten kilometres to the east of Trieste and is close to the Slovenian border. The place and the museum are actually quite small, but on commemoration days the memorial is filled with thousands of people who remember the victims of the foibe.

Basovizza: The Foiba of BasovizzaAn interesting fact is that the Foiba of Basovizza is not a karstic pit, but a former shaft of a pit, which was used in the 20th century as a garbage dump (cf. Cecotti 2010, p. 244.). However, it could never be proved that victims are buried down there. Katia Pizzi, Senior Lecturer in Italian at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies of the University of London, describes this kind of remembrance a “dispersonalized memory”, because there are no corpses (discussion with Katia Pizzi on the 27th of May, 2012). Therefore, the Foiba di Basovizza is merely a symbolic memorial site (cf. Cecotti 2010, p. 244.) that represents every foibe in which Italians died.

In this context, the remembrance of the Foiba di Vines, which is located in Eastern Istria, is quite interesting. Namely, there is no commemoration of the victims. It is even hard to find the Foiba because there are absolutely no information signs that would indicate the existance of a mass grave. The Foiba is merely surrounded by fields and grasslands. The reason for this is that there is no institution who has initiated and financed the construction of a memorial site. Commemoration is definitely a political and of course also a commercial issue.

Norma CossettoAnother deeply symbolic figure concerning the establishment of the foibe-myth is Norma Cossetto. The 24 year old history student was arrested with 26 other persons by partisans on the 26th September, 1943. Apparently, she was known in the villages in central Istria, where she searched for literature for her dissertation on her bicycle. Before she was thrown into a Foiba near Antignana, she was raped by seventeen men in one night. A widely-shared rumour says, that the corpse of Norma Cossetto was found with a piece of wood in her vagina (cf. Wörsdörfer 2004, p. 489.). However, it was also said that the corpse of Norma Cossetto was not decayed and did not show any indication of physical violence, which is obviously in complete contrast to the statement above-mentioned. These could be the first indications of a mythification and sacralization of victims of the foibe. Norma Cossetto somehow became a holy figure of the foibe (cf. ibid. p. 489.). What is not mentioned at all, concerning the case of Norma Cossetto is that she was probably active in the fascist movement and came from a fascist family. Nevertheless, these concealed facts about Norma Cossetto and her family do not legitimate her cruel murder.

All these places of memory were conducive to establishing the foibe as a symbol. The foibe does not only represent the Italians, who were thrown into the karstic pits, but all the Italians that suffered in any way from the actions of  the Yugoslav partisans. That also explains why the issue of the foibe is so strongly connected with the esodo of the Italians from Venezia Giulia, which did happen until the middle of the 1950s. The foibe is thus a metaphor and a symbol for the Italians as victims and for the “loss” of territory on the Italian Eastern border (Istria, Dalmatia); fascist crimes are not part of this story.

The consequences of these developments concerning Italian politics of memory are serious. Italy became a democracy without a real democracy, by virtue of a strongly simplified and one-dimensional politics of remembrance, controlled by Silvio Berlusconi. Italy became a country without a historical memory. Most seriously, young people in particular often do not have a clue what happened at that time (cf. Mattioli 2010, p. 10/150.).

Therefore, the Italian culture of remembrance is a special case in Western Europe. As the majority of the West European countries distanced themselves from the victimization of their people and began to consider the Second World War in a more differentiated way, Italy maintained the myth of the Italians as victims. The political context in Italy enabled the development of these politics of memory. Furthermore, there has never been a criminal court for Italian war criminals, comparable with the German Tribunal of Nuremberg. Furthermore, although it is not surprising the Vatican did not and does not interfere. This also contributes to the current situation (cf. ibid. p. 149.). It is time to have a closer look at political processes whose aim it is to bring historical “truths” to light. It is time to be more critical and to begin to understand that our civilized way of living together is not as safe and as peaceful as it might seem.


The history of events of the „Infoibamenti“

Eva Meidinger

Before World War 2,  the term „Foibe“ was just a geological term, describing the dipping karst-gulfs in Istria, which run in their multitude from the back-country of the Bay of Trieste to the Dinaric Alps. These karst-gulfs are characteristic for the landscape of the Istrian peninsula. In the years from 1943 to 1945 the once harmless term gained a bitter aftertaste. After that time, the word „Foibe“ not only described the geologiocal characteristics of Istria, but also the cruel actions perpetrated against mostly innocent people, for which the karst-gulfs. With the joint signature of the „Pact of Steel“ on April 22 1939, Germany and Italy guaranteed a close military cooperation and a bond of mutual aid in the case of war. Italy thereby became the most distinguished ally in Hitler´s plan to „reshape“ Europe´s racial and terrsetorial order.

Benito Mussolini dreamed of a Mediterranean empire, which would include the Balkan Peninsula, Nord Africa, Malta and parts of southern France. He called Yugoslavia, refering to Aram Matiollis work „Viva Mussolini“, a „hole of terrorists and bandits“ and a „pig barn“, which should swept out with an iron broom (1).

In order to realize this dream of „Great-Italy“, the Italiens, along with the German Wehrmacht, attacked  Yugoslavia on April 6 1941 with three armies composed of 28 divisions. After the capitulation of Belgrade, Yugoslavia was broken apart and subdivided into parts by the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary. The Italian occupying power had already tried to enforce its claim to power with barbaric instruments in Libya and Ethiopia. Their strategy of extremely violent occupation was not a consequence of the immense size of the Italian occupying army nor their increasing self-dependance instead, it was a deliberate strategy desired by those at the highest ranks. This is documented by praise, Mussolini gave to a general based in Albania, presented his soldiers with the following advice:
I´ve heard you are all good family men. That´s fine if you are at home, but not here. Here you can´t be raiders, murderers and rapists enough!“ (2)

The treatment of rebels should not follow the principle of „a tooth for a tooth“, but instead reflect the maxim „a tooth for a head“. This meant, among other things, that captured men belonging to a partisan groups, should be liquidated immediately. Then in the eyes of the fascists everything were allowed to clean up with „inferior“ and „communusticaly polluted“ people. Whole communities were executed or taken under arrest in retaliation against rebel assaults, their villages pillaged and burned to the ground.

More than 50 concentration camps were established based on German Models. Arama Matiolli writes that the camps had extremely high death rates, due to their degrading conditions. The German and Italian occupation faced resistance, led by the partisan Jozip Brod, called Tito. The brutal methods used by the occupiers, led their communist enemies to despise them; this hatred was uncontrollably unleashed after Mussolini´s fall and the following end of fascism. Because the Croatian and Slovenian population of Istria had  been repressed by the Italian fascists,  since the 1920´s , the end of Mussolini´s dictatorship in May of 1943 caused the first wave of the so called „Foibe-massacres“.

The Italian fascists tried to change the demography of Istria in their favor, for Italy by forbidding all languages except Italian and by systematicly settling Italians in Istria. With the decline of fascism, the Italian population of Istria lost Mussolini´s protection, whereas the Croatian and Slovenian population had their first chance in twenty years to exert payback . The term „Infoibamenti“ refers to the cruel retaliation of Tito´s partisans upon  the Iitalian population of Istria. Often the partisans´ hate was aimed at the common Italian people, not only fascist representatives.

As Wörsdorfer writes it was common to partisans to bond the captives in pairs on the edge of a Foibe, to shoot one of them and then to push  him in the deep so that the other - still living - was pulled into the karst-gulf. There were a lot of women amongst the victims, many of whom were raped multiple times before being killed.
But the uncontrolled attempts at retaliation in form of the „Infoibamenti“ were not supported  by the partisan command. Joakim Radovac, the leader of the Croatian-Istrian partisans, even instructed his followers „to punish the criminal fascists and cruel torturers of the nation“, but only in the context of a „regular lawsuit in front of a military court“  so as  to prevent arbitrary actions and  acts of revenge. Tribunals were set up in Pisino and other Istrian places, but this failed to curb up the violence.

On October 6, 1943 the German Wehrmacht defeated the partisans, so Germany took control of the former Italian-occupied areas. The foundation of a secret police, which would fight against the occupying powers and for the formation of a socialist state of Yugoslavia, was provoked by the cruelty of the German occupying power. The secret police (OZNA) was founded on May 13 in 1944.

This first so-called „Pan-Yugoslavian espionage and disruption organization under communistic command“, was led by Tito. The OZNA was based upon the ideal of the Soviet secret police, indicating the close relationship between the two. After fighting the German occupying power and destroying the remains fascists, which was the major priority, the next goal was to create a communist state that merged Stalinism and Titoism. This had been one of OZNA's goals from the start. The Titoists not only created a state, but also a common population.  After the collapse of the German administration and Hitler´s      "Operationszone adriatisches Küstenland," the partisans installed a "public power" in the Julian March, the region around Trieste. It has to be said that during the German retreat from the Mediterranean area, the former occupiers violently sought revenge against the Istrian civilians and partisans. Hitler gave the order to comb through forests and caves during the retreat.

The second height of violence between the partisans and the Italian population ended with the Peace of Paris on February 10 in 1947. This treaty regulated the new distribution of land and intervention by the Allies. However, the former Italian provinces of Pola, Fiume and Zara, in addition to the areas around Trieste and Görz, were assigned to Yugoslavia; this meant that conditions grew worse for the Italians living there. Until 1954, about 300.000 Italians left their homes and settle in Italy, where they were initially gathered in 109 camps. An accurate number of Foibe victims cannot be determined because not all corpses can be recovered. There are estimations from 5.000 to 20.000 victims. As Aram Mattioli writes, when considering the number of victims it should be kept in mind that right-wing nationalistic historians or politicians consciously publish high numbers in order to lead the fight for compensation in their desired direction.

The Foibe massacres were principally political cleanups with the intention of vengeance, but "not only Italians were thrown into the gulfs"; the bodies of Germans, Slovenians and Croatians were also recovered from the caves. Often personal motives or family tragedies were uncovered behind the deeds (3).



(1) Aram Mattioli, Viva Mussolini. Die Aufwertung des Faschismus im Italiens Berlusconis, S.105
(2) Aram Mattioli, Viva Mussolini. Die Aufwertung des Faschismus im Italiens Berlusconis, S.106
(3) Rolf Wörsdörfer, Krisenherd Adria 1915-1955, S.500


The Forty Days of Trieste

Ana Begovac

Abiding Memory
“History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic-responsive to each avenue of conveyance or phenomenal screen, to every censorship or projection. History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds-which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs has said, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority. Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects; history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things. Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative. At the heart of history is a critical discourse that is antithetical to spontaneous memory. History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it. […] A generalized critical history would no doubt preserve some museums, some medallions and monuments-that is to say, the materials necessary for its work-but it would empty them of what, to us, would make them lieux de memoire.“(1)
Trieste used to be a major harbor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today it is the capital of the eastern Italian region Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. Trieste belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a long time. This is visible in architecture and in its historical buildings. After the First World War Trieste belonged to Italy and became a center of ship construction. In 1945, Tito’s partisans took control of Trieste. Trieste became the problematic issue between Italy and Yugoslavia.  Two years after the Second World War, in 1947, Trieste became a Free Territory – yet still administered by the Anglo-Americans - and by 1954 Trieste de facto belonged to Italy again.

 “Tito doesn’t want Istrien, but Istrien wants Tito!” (2)

Unknown to the British Allied soldiers, Tito ordered the Yugoslav 4th Army to advance north from Dalmatia in March of 1945. (3) On the first of May, it reached Trieste. The 4th Army arrived in a timely manner and 2500 pro-Yugoslav partisans rose against the German military and their collaborationist forces in Trieste. On the second of May, the Trieste City Commands of Liberation Front, the Yugoslav 4th Army, and Slovene 9th Corps had together taken credit for the liberation of the city and assumed authority on behalf of the “Yugoslav Executive-Supreme Slovenian-Command City of Trieste-Command”. (4) The Allies arrived in Trieste only to find out that Tito’s partisans had arrived before them. (5)
After the war, the debate over “who liberated Trieste?” – played a part in discussion of the border region’s political future being held between the British and American Allies, the Venezia Giulia CLN, and the Liberation Front. – Relevant issues included whether or not Tito purposely stalled the New Zealand division so that his partisan forces could get to Trieste first, whether the Venezia Giulia CLN had liberated Trieste before the Liberation Front’s arrival, and to what extent each of these groups had the support of the locals.
The question ‘Who liberated Trieste?’ usually invited consideration of the short period of pro-Yugoslav communist rule in Trieste that followed the liberation of May 1st, 1945. (6) In Italian historiography this period is commonly referred to with deliberate biblical resonance as ‘the forty days. ‘At the end of the twentieth century, in the post-Cold War era, ‘the forty days’ has even provided a convenient emblem for invalidating communist anti-Fascist resistance throughout Italy. Although there has been no detailed historical study of the Liberation Front’s views of nationalism, historians have tended to focus on the forty days as an indication of the irredentist and anti-Italian machinations of “foreign Slav communists”. (7) This interpretation has been complemented by the themes of political competition and cultural differences between the British-American and Liberation Front forces. (8)

The Forty Days  

By assuming military authority in Trieste on May 1st, 1945, the Liberation Front endeavored to ensure international acceptance of the region’s future as the seventh republic of the communist Yugoslav federation. (9) In order to make their point, pro-Yugoslav partisans immediately advanced the town’s public clocks one hour to match the time in Belgrade. The new Liberation Front government made the town hall its headquarters, ignoring the protests of the Venezia Giula CLN, who had tried to house their own alternative administration there. All armed groups not affiliated with the Liberation Front or Yugoslav Army, including the recalcitrant members of the Venezia Giulia CLN, were ordered to give up their arms to the new territory.
Although the Liberation Front partisans guaranteed the autonomy of Trieste, the Regional National Liberation Committee had close links with the new Slovene Communist government, and the Slovene government conferred with Belgrade. (10) The Yugoslav 4th Army, a military force taking its orders from the Belgrade-based Yugoslav central government, remained to patrol the town. The threat to their command of Trieste was made obvious by the equally obtrusive presence of the New Zealand soldiers in control of Trieste’s foreshore, the troops of the British Eighth Army and the United States 2nd Army Corps who had arrived as reinforcements.
When the Liberation Front forces first assumed authority in Trieste, local support for its objectives was not lacking. It could be found among the Front’s worker strongholds (such as the ship-building town of Monfalcone), ‘independentist’ groups that preferred ‘brotherhood’ to a nationalist solution  to the problem of Trieste, and the peasants and small landholders who expected release from a feudal tenant system and the ability to own their own land. Reports from the Antifascist Women’s branches written out in both Italian and Slovene suggested that their members responded enthusiastically to the liberation celebration. Many women assertively abandoned their housework for a number of days in order to participate. Sources reported that the city seemed to have been ‘invaded’ by men, women and children coming ‘down from the hills’. Costumed in their Sunday best and joined by workers’ groups, peasants carried flags and banners proclaiming Tito, Churchill and Stalin. This was a ritual meant to join the city center with its hinterland, and with its working-class suburbs. The accompanying Slovene cry, ‘Trst je naš’ became a symbolic claim of belonging for those groups long ostracized from Trieste’s cultural and political identity by the prerogative of italianità.
Jože Pirjevec, Triestine historian, has evoked the gender, class, and ethnic dimensions of the forms of liberation resonant in these reclamations of Trieste. According to Jože Pirjevec, - the OZNA played an important role during the forty days in May 1945 when the Partisans held Trieste, Pola and Gorizia under their control. (11) The Department of National Security or OZNAwas the security agency of Yugoslavia that existed between 1944 and 1946.The OZNA - “a fully autonomous organism” - was involved in the freeing of Trieste. (12) Galliano Fogar held a different perception of the repression in OZNA, “the former political Partisan police, which was now <institutionalized> and dependent on the Slovenian Defense Department by the Slovenian Ministry of Defense. The information lacks precision because its authors were unable to come to a consensus in relating their respective hypotheses on the chronology of events. The OZNA apparently not only led in the questioning of suspects, but also determined and enforced death sentences. (13) The documents were published because known antifascist Carlo Schiffrer, the Triester CLN, was among the captives. There are indications that the OZNA also robbed and requisitioned in the occupied territories in Venezia Giulia. (14) All this does not mean that the secret police would not continue to prevent known fascist attacks at the same time.
It’s important to emphasize that not all the arrests in the Venezia Giulia were made by OZNA. (15) The cooperation between the Yugoslav secret police and some Italian GAP was crucial, as was the role of the narodna zaščita (people’s defence). The actual function held of the police was to maintain discipline and order in the Slovenian partisan units and in the liberated areas between the Triglav Region and the littoral. The Slovenian partisan group Narodna Zaščita, unlike the later ONA, had many skills in the field of public safety. The prevailing gloom in Trieste at that time was a consequence of arbitrary arrests. (16) There was total confusion about the capabilities of the individual armed forces, especially in the first days. The arrests were often made ​​on the basis of specially prepared lists, supplemented inter alia under the current volume of notices, advertisements, denunciations etc. Arbitrary measures were widespread in the OZNA, the Narodna Zaščita and in other military units. The secret police became a state within a state, which at the end of a long war of liberation began to swallow up just established republics and, to an extent partisan society itself. Tito vehemently tried to eliminate his enemies, which led to a wave of arrests and killings in the first days of the Yugoslav occupation. (17) Between Trieste, Gorizia and Pola approximately 3,400 people were deported, of which more than a thousand lost their lives in the foibe, the concentration camps or in Yugoslav prisons. In contrast to what had happened in the fall of 1943 in Istria, where the killing of several hundred Italians and the Foiben stirred up spontaneous acts of social and national revenge, the Trieste and Gorizia "Foibe" were a better planned and organized phenomenon. Both of these fall under the totalitarian logic of „cleansing", but not ethnic cleansing, as can be seen from a telegram Kardelj’s on April 30. This stirred the ideological and political views of 26,000 Yugoslav collaborators pulled into its vortex in the following weeks.
As the Liberation Council established its authority in the city, a Slovene woman whose Italian artisan husband had for years forbade her to speak a single world of her language in his presence, took a white, red, and green flag and burned it in the kitchen stove. (18) The liberation, one observer commented, had ‘transformed a servant people into a heroic people’. (19) The Liberation Front partisan Ljubo remembers feeling that after years of hardship, sleeping in forests, illness, and doing without food he felt that he had come home. (20) In the early days of May 1945, like everyone else, he took to the streets. (21) He shared with other partisans, communists and noncommunist alike, a sense of personal suffering at the hand of ‘Italians’. (22) In his recollections, those Triestines who hid in their houses peeking through shutters waiting for the partisans to leave were ‘Fascist Italians’. (23)
As these accounts suggest, not all Triestines were invited to share in the liberation. The posters that the Liberation Front administration plastered on the walls and pillars of the newly liberated Trieste stressed Italo-Slovene fraternity between the citizens of Trieste and the force of Marshal Tito, but they also identified fascism and the pro-Italian CLN as the enemy. (24) On May 5th, 1945, the same day that the Yugoslav military banned outward manifestations of nationalist sentiment; Triestine witnesses recorded that ‘Yugoslav soldiers’ opened fire on demonstrators carrying Italian flags, killing three. (25) Even if such events were outside the control of the new government, the ambiguity that surrounded the Liberation Council’s emphasis on fascist expurgation reinforced the atmosphere of uncertainty. Early in its administration, the Liberation Council established a Propaganda Commission in Trieste to deal with ‘fascist indoctrination’. (26) These expurgation processes were to target Slovene as well as Italian Fascists (including ex-Fascists or alleged Fascists).
An inquiry conducted by the British and American forces in July 1945 alleged that in the first days of liberation there were mass killings of non-Fascists, as well as persons who had been employed by the Fascist security organizations – the Questura, Pubblica Sicurezza, Guardia di Finanza, Carabinieri, and Guardia Civica. Most of the recriminatory killings and deportations in Trieste and Venezia Giula seem to have taken place between the 2nd and 15th of May, a period long enough to arouse suspicions about the pro-Yugoslav force even amongst those individuals who were relatively protected from reprisals.


In addition to the massive deportations – the officially organized aspect of the Yugoslav-coordinated ‘caccia ai fascisti’ (hunt for fascists) - Communist partisans were allegedly burying their opponents in mass graves in the foibe around Trieste, natural abysses in the fractured limestone of the Carso countryside. (27) On the basis of interviews, British and American investigators were able to discover that in Basovizza, a village high above Trieste, executions had indeed taken place. According to Jože Pirjevec there was a difference between the foibe-killing, that happened in Istria in 1943 and the foibe-massacres in May 1945 in Trieste. (28) In Trieste and Gorizia the foibe massacres were a well-organized phenomenon and the crimes were not an act of ethnic cleaning, but had political and ideological motivations. Don Malalan (described problematically in the Allied reports detailing his evidence as a ‘fanatic pro-Slav’ and ‘bitterly anti-Italian’) was a priest from a locality neighboring Basovizza. (29) Malalan happened to be in Basovizza on 2nd May to officiate at a burial of partisans because the local priest was absent. While there, he noticed that in a nearby field there were about 150 civilians ‘who’, he claimed, ‘were recognizable by their faces as members of the Questura’, facing the wrath of a populace determined to have their revenge. Officers of the Yugoslav 4th Army questioned and tried the prisoners in the presence of locals. As soon as one of the alleged fascists was interrogated, four or five women would rush up and accuse him of having murdered or tortured one of their relatives, or of having burned down their houses. The accused were butted and struck by the soldiers and eventually admitted the crimes ascribed to them. On 3rd May 1945 Malalan was again at Basovizza and witnessed 250 to 300 civilians and about forty German soldiers being executed in the same place.
Malalan himself approved of the killings on the grounds of their ‘legality’, claiming that at the time there was a great deal of confusion and that many people were suspected of being traitors or spies for the Germans. (30) All the prisoners, he added defensively, had been tried and were dead before being thrown into the Basovizza foiba.
The Italian Foreign Minister Carlo Sforza associated the name Foibe with "excesses, injustices and terrible atrocities" in his memoirs. Carlo Sforza said, that”the injustices and terrible atrocities are the practice of the disrooted and confused partisans of Tito and not of the on the Italy border living Slovenes.”
One can agree with Rodolfo Ursini-Uršič, Secretary of Trieste Antifascist Liberation Committee during the "40 days" of partisan rule, on one point: Even for those working on or studying the archives of Ljubljana and it’s edited source materials it is very difficult to find a document in Slovenian that could prove the Foibe-massacres as a Slovene propaganda practice of execution. According to Rolf Wörsdörfer the Foibe are controversial, but nonetheless serve as a source of real Italian remembrance and commemoration. (31) Not to be overlooked is that in May 1945 remnants of twenty years of fascism and two years of collaboration caused an inevitable "cleansing". (32) The Partisans and insurgents didn’t want to wait until they had give up the field to the Allies, particularly since they feared that the Allies might turn against them as they had in Greece. Accroding to Wörsdörfer, the OZNA, Narodna zaščita and other organizations responsible for the arrests let notorious fascists or supporters of fascism go completely free or after a short detention times, but imprisoned opponents of Mussolini's regime or made them disappear forever. About the events in 1945, there very few eyewitness accounts considering the amount of people affected. It’s important to note the fact that, especially in Istria, Foibe could be used as a threat to make arrestees more obedient. (33) When the Allies began to investigate individual carst holes in Zone A Venezia Giulia in 1946, they found only a small number of remains of those executed. In the case of the Foiba Gropada, which was a few kilometers from the border already managed in the Yugoslav territory (Zone B), the authorities found a thick layer of mud, making it difficult to investigate. Some of the victims identified were also known suspects who were involved in the infoibamenti. Some were identified as members of the Narodna zaščita who were later adopted by the Allies in their security forces. A June 1946 source mentions stories of love and passion, revenge and personal enrichment that gave this infoibamenti a predominantly private note. This shows weak control of Tito‘s repression entities over the individual armed formations and repressive Titoist forces who were pretending to protect the name Yugoslavia and it’s laws.

In the months and years that followed the forty days, some sources claimed that the pro-Yugoslav forces had arrested some six thousands persons in Trieste and neighboring Gorizia, whom 4,150 were later released; 1,850 persons had been deported, and 1,150 never returned. (34) More recent historical studies have shown that names on the compiled lists of missing were often repeated, invented, or corresponded to names of individuals who had in fact returned, and it is estimated that deportations conducted by Yugoslav authorities in the Trieste region in May 1945 totaled a few hundred rather than thousands – many of the deportees eventually dying in appalling conditions in Yugoslav camps. Later excavations of the most infamous of the foibe in Basovizza revealed only eight bodies and dismembered corpses, their nationality and cause of death indeterminable.
What actually happened in the first weeks of May 1945 is difficult to document with any precision, primarily because controversy surrounding the extent of unjustified expurgation, its perpetrators (whether they were local partisans or the representatives of the Yugoslav secret police), the numbers of the deportees and foibe victims, and their ethnic and political identities was fuelled by rumor, not to mention the strategic efforts of the CLN and the British-American forces to undermine the credibility  of the Liberation Council.
Major Smith, political adviser to the U.S Main 13 Corps, reported that the Trieste administration was an alien force in Italian eyes. (35) Although a report on May 13th by an adjunct for Brigadier Eve (Trieste’s ‘Allied Commandant’) stated that the local population were for the most part lying low and that there was little enthusiasm or sense that the city had been liberated, Brigadier Eve himself thought that ‘the Yugoslavs had done well in getting the city going”. (36)
A British Psychological Warfare Branch Area Report for the first two weeks of  May 1945 observed that the ‘behavior and discipline of Yugoslav soldiers’ was judged to have been consistently ‘good’, with respect shown to Allied officers ‘in the majority of occasions’.
Altogether 17 000 people were arrested in May 1945. (37) But the majority of these people returned home from captivity in the following months and years. There are about 4000 to 5000 missing Italians from Trieste/Gorizia, who were probably killed. A lot of dead people weren’t killed in the region itself. They died in captivity or of hunger in prisons. In addition, a lot of innocent people were arrested, because of personal revenge. The Yugoslav partisans generally arrested Italian collaborators and all people who said that Trieste belonged to Italy. Because of that about 30 Italian members from Trieste and Gorizia of the ‘Committee for National Liberation’ (CLN) of the Venezia Giula were arrested. Unlike the ‘CLN’ were the members of exclusively civil partisan groups who had been against both the German occupation and the communists because they believed Trieste belonged to Italy. In the months and years after ‘the 40 days’ under the rule of Tito, 865 corpses were found. 464 of the 865 were found in 48 foibe-holes. (38) In most cases the victims were Italian collaborators. Altogether 70 foibe-holes were examined, but a corpse was not found in every hole. There were 401 corpses discovered outside the foibe. (39) These victims died because of shootings, street fights or other reasons.

Italy Today and the foibe remembrance

The numbers of foibe-victims are used in Italian political discussions for propaganda purposes: the left-wing claim that 464 foibe-victims is a low number, while the right-wing includes the numbers of victims, who died in the whole war for several reasons. These numbers of victims were doubled or tripled. In this case they speak of 5 000, 10 000 or 15 000 victims. In 2005, a day of foibe remembrance was introduced by an application from Gianfranco Fini – a chairman of the extreme right-wing Alleanza Nazionale. The legislative text says that the aim is to remember the tragedy of all victims from the foibe and to remember the exodus of all people who lost their homes in Istria, Fiume or Dalmatia in the Second World War.
The day of foibe remembrance is the 10th of February because of the anniversary of the Paris treaty in 1951.
The right-wing party focuses strongly on the foibe massacres, because it doesn’t want to speak about the Italian crimes of the Second World War. The left-wing party ignored the issue for decades.
The history of the forty days of May 1945 is important not only because of the existence of all these differing and contrary narratives, but because it reveals the ideological work that underlies constructions of ‘the problem with Trieste’ as simply a problem of nationalism and natural antipathies.
In the last following decades the Italians established a lot of monuments around Trieste for the fallen partisans, who fought between 1941 and 1945 within the framework of Slovene liberation front against Italians and after the capitulation of Italy in 1943 against the Germans. (40) The monuments have no significance from the fine arts point of view. The monuments are adorned with the red partisan star and keep a record of names of the fallen locals who fought for their liberation. Trieste itself has no significant monuments, although there had been resistance against occupiers. The city administration in Trieste established a plaque near the rail station, which records 350,000 Italian refugees, who had to leave their home after the second world war, because they didn’t want to live under the „slavic-communist burden“. (41) The plaque, which Italy enforcedly had to deliver to Yugoslavia, is adorned with heraldic symbols of three regions Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia. The mentioned numbers of refugees are exaggerated because it had been at least 250,000 refugees. Another important point is that, the refugees are not only Italians but also Slovenes and Croatians. Nevertheless the number of refugees, as well as the Foibe count, found its way into the official books of history.

Tito sought to improve life

“Tito was a wise man: he had no problems with enemies: he eliminated all his enemies”, said Stalin in 1946. (42) On the other hand there had been good things about Tito’s occupation because since the summer of 1944 the Italian Communists saw the Yugoslav Communists “as their greatest brothers, who liberated them from the Nazi occupation”. (43) Sylvia Sprigge, a correspondent employed by the Manchester Guardian to report on the war in northern Italy, arrived in Trieste with the New Zealand 2nd Division in May 1945 and stayed for nine days of what she called ‘the occupation’. (44) Later that year, the in-house journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, The World Today, featured Sprigge’s article based on a diary she had kept during her time in the newly  liberated Trieste; in its published form it was divided into two sections, ‘From the West’ and ‘From the East’. (45) At the outset of this article Sprigge sympathized with the aspirations of the subaltern classes unleashed by the liberation:
‘[T]he workers of Trieste and the peasants in the region for the first time in many years felt they were the most important people in the city, whose hopes and ideals would at last be realised and… in the movement and under Yugoslav occupation, fraternization between Italians and Yugoslav really existed.’ (46)
She also explained that her account would include details of the hardship under which much of the worker and peasant population in Trieste were living, and the constructive efforts made by the pro-Yugoslav partisan government to alleviate their conditions through the rationing of housing, meat, and provision of soup kitchen.
Lastly it needs to be mentioned that the Foibe was not motivated by purely "ethnic" or "national" concerns. (47) In the forties, you could, depending on your point of view, reach different conclusion from the same set of facts. Everyone could confirm the events played out without their factuality being called into question. The cooperation between the partisans and criminals, however, seems to have been a temporary and localized phenomenon. Scenes of this collaboration were the Istrian peninsula in September 1943 and the port city of Trieste - with her bewildering outside partisan infrastructure - in May 1945. Members trying to find arrested Italians in May 1945 had to search through all the prisons and prison camps in the region, only to end up determining that the individual in question remained missing. (48) It was well known that people had died in the Foibe. The truth, however, remains with the buried dead bodies. The term was a constant threat in Foiba that lasted at least as long as the new state power. Any final assessment of the historical Foibe-issue strikes a dilemma. (49) Of course you will be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate shootings; on one side were killings of widely known  hateful fascist officials and police constables, while there were brutal attacks on more or less arbitrarily arrested persons on the other side.
A disadvantage of this differentiation becomes apparent when, in the sense of partisan ethics the "regular" use or possible "abuse" of the Foibe practice was only loosely considered; the boundaries between "legitimate" punishment and the execution of revenge were thus blurred. This makes it difficult to establish a clear line between the two.
In 1992 the Lista per Trieste, formed in reaction to the Treaty of Osimo, finally succeeded in its decade-long campaign to have the foibe declared a national monument. (50) This belated acknowledgment has merely highlighted the foibe’s importance as a site of ritual return. One of the more elaborate of such rituals marked the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy of the foibe. Held in June 1995, the ceremony also recalled the city’s „Liberation“ after the withdrawal of Tito’s troops on June 12, 1945.
As the Istrian case reveals, attempts to determine which ‚genocidal‘ policy has priority and which is more or ‚truly’ genocidal – that of the fascists against the Slavs, of the Germans against antifascists, or of Titoists against Italians – perpetuate a potentially dangerous logic of recrimination. (51) At the same time the persistence of claims about the foibe and exodus – nurtured and voiced for the past half century in Trieste – reveals that whether labeled genocide (or ‚ethnocide‘ or ‚linguicide‘) or not, the victims of such violence neither forget nor renounce claims to territory and properties. Such claims receive powerful support when embedded in a narrative framework that casts events in fundamentally moral terms.



(1) Pierre, Nora: Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. In: University of California Press, Representations, No. 26, 1989, pp. 8-9.
(2) Wörsdörfer, Rolf: Kriesenherd Adria 1915-1955. Konstruktion und Artikulation des Nationalen im
iatlienisch-jugoslawischen Grenzraum. Paderborn 2004. p.537.
(3) Sluga, Glenda: The problem of Trieste and the Italo-Yugoslav border. difference, identity, and sovereignty in twentieth century Europe. Albany 2001. pp. 83-84.
(4) Ibid,  pp. 83-84.
(5) Ibid., p. 84.
(7) Ibid., pp. 84-85.
(8) Ibid., p. 85.
(9) Ibid., p. 85.
(10) Ibid., p. 86.
(11) Pirjevec, Jože: Die jugoslawische Politik zu den politischen und ideologischen Gegnern. Zeitgeschichte 1. Jahrgang 27. 2000. p. 43.
(12) Wörsdörfer, Rolf: Krisenherd Adria.  p. 468.
(13) Ibid. , p. 472.
(14) Ibid., p. 473.
(15) Ibid., p. 474.
(16) Ibid., p. 475.
(17) Pirjevec: Die jugoslawische Politik zu den politischen und ideologischen Gegnern. p. 43.
(18) Glenda: The problem of Trieste and the Italo-Yugoslav border. p. 86.
(19) Ibid., pp. 86-87.
(20) Ibid., p. 87.
(22) Ibid., pp.87-88.
(23) Ibid., p. 88.
(24) Ibid., pp. 88-89.
(25) Ibid., pp. 89.
(27) Ibid., p. 90.
(28) Pirjevec: Die jugoslawische Politik zu den politischen und ideologischen Gegnern. p. 43.
(29) Glenda: The problem of Trieste and the Italo-Yugoslav border. p. 90.
(30) Ibid., p. 91.
(31) Ibid., p. 480.
(32) Ibid., p. 492.
(33) Ibid., p. 493.
(34) Ibid., p. 91.
(35) Ibid., pp. 92-93.
(36) Ibid., p. 93.
(37) Cecotti, Franco: Die Foibe–Morde. In: Fransecky, Tanja (Ed.): Kärnten ; Slowenien ; Triest. Umkämpfte Erinnerungen. Berlin [] 2010. p. 242.
(39) Ibid., p. 243.
(40) Pirjevec, Jože: Die Triest-Frage. In:  Ostermann, Patrick/ Müller, Claudia, Reberg, Karl-Siegbert (Ed.): Der Grenzraum als Erinnerungort. Über den Wandel zu einer postnationalen Erinnerungskultur in Europa. p.149.
(41) Ibid., p. 151.
(42) Pirjevec: Die jugoslawische Politik zu den politischen und ideologischen Gegnern. p. 44.
(43) Wörsdörfer, Rolf: Krisenherd Adria. p. 349.
(44) Glenda: The problem of Trieste and the Italo-Yugoslav border. P. 103.
(45) Ibid., p. 103.
(47) Wörsdörfer, Rolf: Krisenherd Adria. p. 494.
(48) Ibid., p. 498.
(49) Ibid., p. 499.
(50) Ballinger, Pamela: History in exile. Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans. Princeton [] 2003. p. 143.
(51) Ibid., p. 167.


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