The Italian “National Memorial Day of the Exiles and Foibe” and the “the Eastern Border Affair”: Another Wall in European Memory?

By Dr. Carna Pistan 

Affiliated Scholar at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development and Marie Curie Global Fellow for the project “Illusions of Eternity: the Constitution as a lieu de mémoire and the Problem of Collective Remembrance in the Western Balkans”

Example of a foiba

February 10 is the Italian “National Memorial Day of the Exiles and Foibe” (or Giorno del ricordo in Italian language). It was established in 2004 to commemorate the victims of the Foibe massacres and the Istrian-Dalmatian Exodus. Yet the two events, Foibe and Exodus, are never easy to recount, as they are both strictly related to the very complex “Eastern border affair.” A “foiba” (plural “foibe”) is a natural sinkhole, up to 200 meters deep, formed by water erosion; it is a natural phenomenon typical of the Karst (Carso) region – an area today divided between Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Between the second half of 1943 and 1947, parts of Venezia Giulia and Dalmatia, which were then Italian territories, were occupied by the Yugoslav armed forces who committed mass killings against the local Italian population. These mass killings are known as Foibe massacres as they took place near these natural karstic cavities, in which the corpses of the victims were thrown. Today, however, the term Foibe is often used in a more symbolic way so as to encompass all the victims of Yugoslav repression (not only those thrown in the sinkholes which represent a minority of victims, but also those who died on the road to deportation, or in Yugoslav jails and concentration camps). The term Exiles refers to what then followed: the Exodus of almost all of the Italian population from Istria and Dalmatia as a result of the transfer of most parts of Venezia Giulia from Italy to Yugoslavia through the Paris Peace Treaty of 10 February 1947. 

For many years, the memory of Foibe and the Exiles was buried in oblivion. The Exodus occurred during the Cold War, when Italy had to solve the question of Trieste with Yugoslavia. Once the temporary solution to this was found through the 1954 London Memorandum, the political interest was to preserve good relations with Yugoslavia, which soon became an important commercial partner. In addition, from the 1950s Yugoslavia became a useful non-aligned state between the two blocs. Thus, a sort of tacit agreement was reached between the two countries: Italy did not evoke the memory of Foibe and the Exiles; in turn, Yugoslavia never asked for the delivery of Italian war criminals, as provided for in the Peace Treaty. 

It was only in the 1990s, following the fall of communism and the break-up of Yugoslavia, that the first attempts aimed at including the memory of Foibe and the Exiles in the official national memory took place; these attempts then culminated in the adoption of the Law 92 of 30 March 2004. The latter established the Giorno del ricordo with the aim of “preserving and renewing the memory of the tragedy of Italians and of all victims of foibe massacres and of the exodus of people from Istria, Fiume [Rijeka] and Dalmatia after the Second World War and of the more complex “Eastern border affair.” The date chosen for the remembrance day was 10 February – the anniversary of the signature of the 1947 Paris Treaty, with which Italy ceded Istria and Dalmatia to Yugoslavia. Furthermore, the 2004 memory law granted to all relatives of the victims (excluding those condemned by a court for collaboration with the Nazis) an award, consisting of a medal with the imprinting “La Repubblica italiana ricorda” (The Italian Republic remembers). The 2004 memory law also envisaged the establishment of a museum of Julian-Dalmatian civilization in Trieste and a Museum of Fiume in Rome. Thus, since 2005 the Memorial Day has been celebrated in Italy each year on 10th February with a number of initiatives, involving schools, public and private television, and local and national institutions (including the Presidency of the Republic).

Location of the foibe

Although the 2004 memory law was welcomed and acclaimed by many, and voted by almost all political forces present in the Italian Parliament, the establishment of the Memorial Day has also been criticized by several intellectuals. The major critics involve the officially accepted narrative about Foibe and the Exodus (promoted by the Italian right and accepted by the left), which is mainly structured around two main points: the communist Yugoslav partisans killed and expelled Italians, and for a very long period of Italian history, politicians and schools ignored what had happened. Both points correspond to the historical truth, but they have been criticized because they represent only one part of the truth. The other part of the truth is a longer history of violence, which began with Fascism and its policy of oppression of the minority Slovenes and Croats; it then continued during the Italian-German occupation of Yugoslavia, and the horrors of the Nazi-Fascist repression; for example, in the Italian occupied areas, civilians were killed as reprisals for the deaths of Italian soldiers and thousands were put in concentration camps. The Italian crimes, certainly, do not justify the Yugoslav reaction, the Foibe massacres and Exodus, but they certainly help to better understand the historical context under which they occurred. 

Yet it is true that memory-making is always selective (as its main goal is identity creation), but the concept of “ethics of memory” also exists asking us to recognize our own national guilts committed during an undemocratic past. By erasing its own faults from the past, the Italian official narrative about the Foibe and Exodus follows a typical nationalist construction of victimhood (the innocent Italian people) and blaming the other side (barbaric Slavs) for all evils. It further allowed Italy to consider the two events as an ethnic cleansing or (quasi-)genocide, which is contrary to what has been already established by historical research; the latter has shown that the primary targets of Yugoslav repression were supporters of the Fascist regime and opponents of the Yugoslav Partisan forces; atrocities have been thus committed also against Slavic collaborators, meaning that Slovenes and Croats too were killed and left dying in the sinkholes. Furthermore, it is claimed that “millions” were killed in the Foibe, while the usually accepted numbers for the Exiles is 350,000, and for those killed and thrown into the caves between 5,000 and 15,000. Thus, there is no need to exaggerate with the numbers; as has been observed “by any standards, this was a massacre and an exodus”. Finally, the date chosen for the remembrance day has also been the object of criticism; it is not only the anniversary of the 1947 Peace Treaty, but it comes just two weeks after the “Day of Memory” (Giorno della memoria) which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust. By calling the Foibe an “Italian Holocaust” some intellectuals have seen the Giorno del ricordo as a kind of counterbalance of the Giornata della memoria

Not surprisingly, since 2004 the Italian official narrative about Foibe and the Exiles has triggered memory wars with Slovenia and Croatia. While several people in Croatia consider the Italian Memorial Day a form of neo-fascist revisionism, others in Slovenia argued that Slovenes persecuted during fascism should also be commemorated. Thus while Italy commemorates on 10th February the Exodus and the Foibe, Slovenia celebrates on 15 September the “restitution of the coast to the motherland”, and commemorates the persecution of Slovenes during Italy’s monarchy. Today, with all three countries in the European Union, and with Italy pushing the EU institutions to institute a “European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Foibe Massacres,” without the inclusion of the Italian crimes in the Julian March, there is a risk that the divisive narrative about the Foibe and Exile will become another wall in European Memory. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the CCSDD

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