The historical document of the Italian-Slovene committee: a starting point with negative aspects

by Robero Spazzali

New research must be based on sources and documents, provided that there is the political will to make everything fully available. Historical interpretations are no longer sufficient

The publication of the document did not cause a sensation, as many expected after the long hesitation of both ministries that actually commissioned this text.
The discussions faded away shortly after the publication and were mostly articles and comments in the local press. The national press had not been particularly involved in this matter after the publication of the full text in the Piccolo. This publication was a response to a Slovenian newspaper that had published an unfinished version of the text. This led to some criticism, without exaggeration, towards what had been achieved: the results did not meet the expectations. Some of the core ideas contained in the document had already been expressed by Pupo and Apih in their works: their historical approach and orientation did not differ much from their contribution to the committee’s work. After all they would not have changed their position to a great extent, since their studies contributed with no fanfare or critics, to give the Eastern border matters a central role in the Italian history.
The meeting between Fini and Violante in Trieste on 14 March 1988 had no historical, geo-political and even political meaning and didn’t even pretend to have it, yet the uproar and the criticism, from left and right-wing parties were exceptional. Someone feared a political agreement on the constitutional reform project that never came true. Almost paradoxically, the document is welcomed with more favour by the right-wing parties than the left ones, since the document itself exempts the right-wing parties from the responsibility of presenting it, without accusing the party of having rejected the document. This derives from the fact that in 1994, under Berlusconi’s government, the Committee did not impose pre-conditions to the Italian historians’ work or to its members in general.
At this point I would like to confirm once again something I’ve already said immediately after the publication of the text: this document is for me no compromise, but rather a convergence - not to be confused with appeasement- and a starting point for future researches, in particular for all those gaps requiring more thorough studies. If the Italian experts made the best they could, without any accusations to the committee itself, then this is a reflection of the limited perspective of the Italian historiography, which has always focused on the particular event and did not consider the period in its entirety or, in case of border history, did not adopt a comparative approach. We should also keep in mind that Italian historians had to deal with decade-long censorship and omitted contents. However, we must recognize the work - sometimes experimental and innovative – they carried out. I don’t want to focus on any member or their work concerning the Eastern border or the Julian history in particular but repeat once again that the studies require a new basis.
We need to come back to history based on facts, because pure historical interpretation is not enough.
This report gives me the impression that the Italian experts’ contribution resembles to a bullet list. It lacks proper researches while also ignoring existing ones, which leads to several diachronic mistakes. The Slovenian contribution shows more clearly its unitary vision in line with the Slovenian historians’ need to rewrite history under a new light, yet maintaining some traditional positions linked to Slovenian national pride.
The Italian side preferred an interpretative approach, whereas the Slovenes chose facts. However, the whole text does not include the names of the protagonists and players of the examined one hundred years. The only exception are the names of the archbishops of Gorizia, Sedej and Fogar persecuted by the fascists. There is no mention of the protagonists of the last 120 years of history of Venezia Giulia. Thirty pages are obviously not enough to examine more in detail the most complex aspects and the specific players, yet we don’t know how the adopted approach had been chosen.
I am not able to explain how the committee worked, but you would expect that the Italian researchers would have insisted on more teamwork and more careful data collection.
Joint efforts and actions were expected from the experts in order to collect new arguments and elements. I think of the example of the Anselmi Commission’s work on confiscated Jewish goods following the anti-Jewish racial laws. The Commission worked two years long, mostly in national archives and financial institutions. In the end they managed to trace back a detailed list of the confiscations. The same is not true for the confiscated goods of the Italian exiled people from Yugoslavia from an administrative point of view. It’s clear that any interpretation or judgment must be the conclusion of a careful and thorough consultation of the available resources.
I was informed in advance - already in 1993 - by a member of the Committee, that the work would have followed this principle. In my opinion this did not correspond to what was done in reality.
Did the Slovene experts work in the same manner or did they manage to coordinate in the best way their historians and researchers?
If we examine the single members of the Italian part of the Committee, we will have to admit that only a few of them had experience in using archives, given that their own researches were based on archive consultation. At the same time members as Fulvio Tomizza, Italian writer died in 1999, or Lucio Toth, former politician and counsellor at the Supreme Italian Court, were righteously part of the commission, since its task was to work on sources and not to seal documents.

Use of the document
The Joint Committee was the result of a motion proposed by Giuseppe Pangher, former member of the municipal council of Trieste for the Christian-Democrats. His motion was passed unanimously by the municipal council on 27 September 1990.
The renewed interest in this matter had been aroused by the discovery of a prison record in Ljubljana including information about one hundred prisoners deported from Trieste and Gorizia in the prisons of Ozna and Ljubljana between December 1945 and January 1946. This fact was actually not new; the press talked about it in 1947 as another group of deported prisoners came back to Italy and the list of prisoners was also available in Ennio Maserati’s “L’occupazione jugoslava di Trieste" - The Yugoslav occupation of Trieste - published in 1966.

This “discovery” did not occur by accident but was part of the Slovenian strategy of recovering their history by dissociating it from the Yugoslav yoke. It was a demonstration of light secession along with the inauguration of the Kobarid World War I Museum - which is actually more of a celebration of the Slovenian deeds in Isonzo - as well as the visit of the Archbishop of Ljubljana and Premier Kukan to the Kokevije forest to honour the Slovene fallen, killed by the Yugoslavs as Tito was in power. A few months later Slovenia would vote for its secession. Professor Tone Ferenc found the record by chance. He wrote mostly about the Yugoslav partisan movement and was the first author to publish a study on the Italian occupation in Slovenia. Furthermore, he testified in the trial for the criminal acts in the Risiera, on which occasion he gave a detailed explanation of the law enforcement and collaborationist system in the Adriatic Littoral. At the time of the discovery he was looking for Slovene victims of the Yugoslav regime, but ended up finding the Italian victims. The publication of the discovery had the precise goal of creating the right emotional atmosphere - easily reached, seen that the images of the Timisoara massacres were vivid in the Slovene citizens’ memories - and of creating support for the following referendum. For the public opinion of Trieste, Slovenia became a victim thanks to its abrupt openness and transparency about its communist past and the high number of deaths reported officially by the institutions - higher than those reported on the other side of the border. The responsible is identified: the Yugoslav communism, Tito’s communism, that Slovenia abandoned once and for all. On top of that, pictures of deported prisoners by the Yugoslav forces had been diffused by the publishing house Editrice Goriziana. Although there were no speculative purposes behind this action, the pictures caused a first emotional outbreak. Pangher’s work was part of the local request, two years before, of creating parliamentary commissions following the discovery of “secret” envelopes in the archives of the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. There was actually nothing secret about them; those envelopes had been made public long ago, but no one had showed any interest.
Slovenian history makes by far a better impression than the Italian one in this document. The country leaves behind Tito’s myth and the document implicitly states that responsibility must be taken, since it would be wrong to blame only the regime or the political system for what happened. There are differences in the historical interpretation of WWI, the liberation movement and of the causes, developments and consequences of the Italian exodus from Istria.

Shortcomings of the document
It emerges a clear division between Littoral Italy, described as a solid nation, and Slovenia, not yet a national state. The historical facts in the document are all seen in the context of relations between two countries and becomes the history of a region between two different populations. The risk is that such a vision could be exploited for political purposes.
In the last twenty years of the 19th century, the Slovenes are quite autonomous and well integrated in the Habsburg system. Protests in the educational field spread in Carniola, since it was a matter that aroused tension in the Slovene-German relations. Celje protests for the Slovenian high schools are an example of such tension.
An important moment for the Italian-Slovene relations in Trieste is represented by the violent acts of 1867, certainly started by the irredentist movement, but evolved into a small pogrom of the Jewish community. This episode led to the abolition of the National Guard, mostly made up of Slovene people.
The document fails to report the Slovenian point of view on the territorial issue concerning Trieste and Gorizia before and during WWI.
There is no mention of the effects on the Slovenian public awareness caused by the Defeat of Caporetto (Kobarid). On the Isonzo the Slovene fighters were motivated by the Austrian propaganda to defend their national territories. Conquering “back” Gorizia was described by the liberal press of Ljubljana like the fulfilment of national ambitions.
Another weak link is represented by the presentation of the events following the German occupation and the establishment of the Operational Zone of the Adriatic Littoral. The focus is on the psychological aspects at the expense of facts and of an in-depth analysis of the collaborationism forms. The conditions imposed respectively by the German occupation forces and the partisans in Gorizia are not examined, although Gorizia played a fundamental role in shaping the Italian-Slovene relations. Not a word spent on the double-dealing of the Peace Prefect with Slovenes and Germans; on the proposal for a truce with Germans brought forward by the Slovene partisans in the summer of 1944; on the shared German and Slovenian desire to neutralize the Italian military forces in the cities.
The post war period is also tackled without relating to specific studies. The document talks about violence against Slovene people in Gorizia and its surroundings and in the Natisone valleys perpetrated by Italian paramilitary organizations, but nothing is specified about the Slovenian counterpart, certainly ready for the clash. I will limit my remarks to this and advocate for further and better research.

Positive points of the document
The first remarkable aspect is the period of time covered by the document, from1880 to 1956. This corresponds to the long 20th century, in opposite trend to the modern interpretation models, according to which the beginning of the Italian-Slovene tension goes back to the end of the first world war. This interpretation led to the easy conclusion that after the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the transition to the Italian administration, a long period of disorders and deterioration of the relations between the main national groups started.
Another aspect is the clear definition of the Slovenian attitude towards fascism: political affiliation and denationalization carried out from inside the country as part of the social emancipation plan; the relations between the Slavic national terrorist groups and Yugoslav or English intelligence; the Slovenian collaborationism during the Italian occupation of Slovenia; the minor role played by communists in the Slovenian political scenario and their predominance inside the Liberation Front.
It is recognized that there was a clear plan for the Venezia Giulia area carried out by arrests and deportations, so called preventive cleansing, in which pro-Jugoslav Italians also have their share of responsibility. It is also recognized that the Yugoslav authorities were insisting on reducing the Italian presence in the B zone, first by aligning with the new Yugoslav state and then by unexpectedly carrying out the denationalization process of Istria by means of terror and political pressure.
The reader can notice the new look on the Slovenian history presented in this document, completely different from the myth of the “victim-nation” theorized only a few years before by Pirjevec and Kacin-Bohinc.

The unsaid.
We’ve already talked about the shortcomings and problems linked to the sources of this document’s contents. In this regard it must be said that access to all documents dealing with relations between the CPSU and Italian or Yugoslav communists has been further restricted by Russian authorities and it seems that such restrictions have also characterized data collection between Rome and Belgrade.
The document must be seen as a starting point for research that cannot be postponed or ignored. The archives in Belgrad will certainly provide important documents on less known episodes, like “Quaderni Giuliani di Storia -1/2000” (notebooks on Julian History) recently published by Sandor Mattuglia. The same is true for the archives of the Italian Communist Party located in Gramsci Institute in Rome, where completely unknown documents are kept.
An important theme to examine is the removal of the Italian component from the communist party executive of Trieste, which occurred at the same time as Slovenes became leaders of the Liberation Front, the “garibaldini” started supporting Yugoslavia and the German authorities annihilated the Italian resistance.There is something inexplicable about the attempt to reach an agreement between Germans and Slovenian partisans in the summer of 1944.
As for the Istrian territory under Slovenian jurisdiction, the plan for the political cleansing against fascism was carried out by Italian pro-Yugoslav citizens; Slovene representatives did not take part in the decision-making process. In fact, two different sections inside the People’s Court of Koper were established: one Italian and the other Slovenian. They had to judge separately defendants of both nationalities.
Although the Italian-Slovene “brotherhood” was in force until 1948, a gradual end of the collaboration started already in 1946. The new campaign for fascist cleansing organized by Uais of Trieste failed miserably, because the working class opposed the operation as it was already tired of the communist leaders’ orders and wanted just to work and live peacefully.
These elements deserved to be part of a document that claimed to cast new light upon the facts and their interpretation, in particular focusing on the post-war period until the mid-1950s.