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Jasenovac

In August we had a few days’ holiday in Istria, and after returning I became interested in its history and the dispute between Italians, Slavs and Austrians.

In 1849 there was the Austrian Empire, and the region was called Austrian Littoral (Kustenland) with Trieste as its capital. The inhabitants, however, were mainly Italians on the west coast and Croats on the rest of the peninsula.

In 1863 the Gorizia glottologist Isaia Ascoli renamed the peninsula Venezia Giulia, on the basis of historical, linguistic and above all patriotic reasons: an Italian name was in fact functional to the claim of the area brought forward by the irredentists. Garibaldi and Mazzini were pushing in this direction, while Cavour felt that the dispute should be left to his successors.

When Italy decided to enter the First World War on the side of France and England, it did so on the basis of the London Pact, according to which Rome, after the victory, would obtain not only the achievement of national borders with all the territories of Italian ethnicity, but also an expansion up to the hinterland of Zara.

However, these agreements conflicted with the principle of self-determination of peoples, and already in 1917 on the island of Corfu, a group of exiles representing Slovenes, Serbs and Croats laid the foundations for the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The new state was officially recognised in the aftermath of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

In the meantime, by the end of the war, Italian troops had occupied Rovinj, Zadar and Rijeka, pushing on to Postojna where they were stopped by the Serbs. This was the beginning of a period of exhausting negotiations to find an acceptable compromise, but the opposing nationalisms that dominated the two kingdoms were too strong. Trieste, Gorizia and Pola were not enough for Italy, it stubbornly wanted Fiume as well and it was on this town that diplomatic hostilities were concentrated.

The Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed by Prime Minister Nitti on 10 September 1919, resolved the question of the Italian-Austrian borders (the Brenner Pass) but not the eastern ones. It was then that Gabriele D’Annunzio organised his feat of Fiume, leading some army units to rebel as well as followers of all kinds: on 12 September 1919 the feat was accomplished with the occupation of the city, without either the official Italian army or the controlling ones present in the area (France, England and the USA) finding the courage to fire a shot at the rebellious poet and his 2600 strange “legionaries”.

Thus began the Italian Regency of Carnaro, the name of the precarious state entity led by D’Annunzio and not internationally recognised.

It was only on 12 November 1920 that the Italian state and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) found a compromise with the Treaty of Rapallo, Rijeka was declared a ‘free state’ and force was used to dislodge the poet. But Italy was given several concessions: the city of Zadar and the islands of Cres, Lošinj, Lastovo and Pelagosa. As a result of the treaty, 356,000 Italians who had been subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were brought within the borders of the Kingdom of Italy, but at the same time 490,000 Croats and Slovenes were annexed.

As is well known, the audacity and media success of this initiative, coupled with the confused impotence of the Italian state in curbing nationalist extremism, soon afterwards provided Mussolini with the model to replicate on a grand scale with the March on Rome, which was the beginning of his dictatorship. But the proto-fascist nature of the Fiume enterprise is still debated: if on the one hand analogies cannot escape, on the other hand one can identify in it characteristics of the opposite type, closer to the extreme left than to the right, and in particular libertinism. This is why some consider the Fiume enterprise as a foreshadowing of the youth movements of the 1960s, well in advance.

D’Annunzio was certainly a great populist leader, and the inventor of that Italian-style scenic balconism also made famous by Mussolini at Palazzo Venezia. This is what we read in his notes during the Fiuman expedition: ‘The people tumultuated calling me under my windows. The inhuman mass boiled like molten matter. Certain cadences and clauses flashed through me like those whales that appear in the flames of lard metal. A force that could no longer be contained rose to the top of my chest, it yearned for me in my throat: I think it blew some kind of fluorescence between my teeth and lips, I let out a cry, I went to the railing, I went ad bestias? Ad animas? Yes, to the people.

As for the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, it did not have an easy life, becoming the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929.

Between 1941 and 1945, the Kingdom of Croatia was formed under the leadership of the Ustasha fascists, allies of the Third Reich. Their cruelty, little known compared to that of Germany and Italy, was particularly evident in extermination camps such as Jasenovac – later called the “Yugoslav Auschwitz” – where tens of thousands of Serbs, gypsies, Jews and Muslims were eliminated. Since 1966, the area where the camp stood has been the site of a memorial.

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