Thursday, June 11, 2015

Italy: The nation and its borders: the question of Trieste

Tito's T 34-85s enter Trieste (Slovenia), 1 May 1945.

  New Zealand tanks arrive in Trieste, Italy. Shows a Sherman tank and New Zealand soldiers from 4th Armoured Brigade on a street crowded with Italian civilians, 2 May 1945.

One of the most consistent areas of dispute over borders and nationality was that of Trieste. A key city within the so-called ‘unredeemed’ lands after unification, Trieste became part of Italy after 1919, as part of the post-war settlement. A city of rich cultural exchange, it attracted writers and intellectuals in the early twentieth century – from Joyce to Svevo. Trieste was host to many different peoples, from Slovenes to Austrians to Slavs. The city was the site of national and ethnic conflict, and the Italian community erected a monument to Dante there, which was destroyed in 1915 with the outbreak of the war. The Italians took Trieste in 1918 and fascism was active in the city from 1919 onwards. In addition, the city had an important Jewish community, and was the only part of Italy to host a death-camp during World War II. The ‘question of Trieste’ was also strategic, symbolizing the shifting allegiances of an Italy torn between Austria, France and Germany.

The tragic events of 1943–5 saw Trieste occupied by the Nazis, and then by the victorious Yugoslav armies (on 1 May 1945), who beat the Allies to the city by a matter of days. Tito’s troops repressed dissent in the city in brutal fashion. Reprisals took place against fascists but also against many whose only crime was to be Italian, as well as some of those on the Left opposed to Tito. These massacres – known as the Foibe massacres thanks to the deep pits into which the bodies were thrown – remain the subject of bitter debate. The Foibe events were used as propaganda during the Cold War, and the number of those killed was exaggerated. On the other side of the divide, either the massacres were ignored, or the victims were dismissed as fascists or collaborators.

Trieste was a front-line state in the Cold War. The border region was divided into two zones in 1947 and the city remained high on the political agenda until the mid-1950s. Zone A, including Trieste, was governed by the USA and the UK; Zone B by Yugoslavia. The Right called for the city to be given entirely to Italy, and organized nationalist demonstrations within Trieste, some of which were suppressed by the Allies. The Left prevaricated (although the Italian communists pledged their support to Italy in the event of a Yugoslav invasion). Meanwhile, the Slovenes demanded their own nation and Tito claimed Trieste as Yugoslavian. Tensions in 1953 reached such levels that war between Italy and Yugoslavia seemed a possibility. It was only with the treaty of October 1954 that the ‘Trieste question’ was finally resolved, with the city being handed ‘back’ to Italy and other land going to Yugoslavia. After the Yugoslavian civil war in the early 1990s Slovenia finally gained independence, taking in the former Zone B of the 1940s and 1950s.

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