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Multiperspectivity in divided societies

Presentation by Angelica Vascotto, Young researcher and analyst, Trieste, Italy
From “Post-Conflict Memories and Peacebuilding: Exploring the Question of Trieste”, Final Dissertation, by Angelica Vascotto, Master of Arts in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies, Faculty of Public Policy and Political Science, King’s College London

Usually conflict resolution is intended as a tool to heal immediate wounds, however, what should be necessary to understand is that conflictual areas need to be treated within a long-term strategy. The most important aspect, that too many times has been avoided by governments, is specifically caring about people’s memories. As a matter of fact, memory results being the strongest aspect shaping directly human feelings, therefore influencing coexistence and leading communities to develop mutual counter narratives and segregation. In order to understand the consequences of the Yugoslav Wars on local populations and to help the communities out of the current divisional context, it can be very useful to consider another case study: a persistent polarised landscape not so far from the Balkans’ realities. Trieste, and its surrounding area, saw the presence of multiple ethnicities, a nationalist past, a wide-spread sense of revenge, a territorial and boundary dispute and, most importantly, the feelings of the people, all contributed to the creation an exceptional case study. Yet from the Middle Age, Trieste started to be under Austrian influence and, due to its proximity to central Europe and the Adriatic Sea, it represented an ambitious conjunction of very diverse local communities: Italians, Slovenians, Austrians, Serbs, Croats, Greeks, Armenians, Hugarians and Jewish. However, it was the First World War and the rise of nationalistic sentiments in all Europe that deteriorated local inter-ethnic relations. The Austro-Hungarian Empire saw itself fighting a trencher conflict on its frontier with the new-born Reign of Italy and, as a result, it lost the territories of Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia. In the twenties, the delicate balance already damaged, increasingly started to break down: with the advent of Fascism and its extreme nationalistic propaganda, people started to be labelled for their ethnic origin. The later authoritarian regime imposed a strict program of Italianisation and antisocialism in the whole Julian Region with the clear intention of eliminating the “Slavic problem”, the only impeding obstacle for the formation of a solid nationalist state. The assimilation processes of ethnic minorities was brought about with the formalisation of the following policies: the majority of the public posts were assigned to people belonging to the Italian community; the introduction of the law n. 2185 (Gentile Schooling Reform) prescribed that Slovenian and Croatian language schools were banned ; the decree law no. 800 Italian ordered that toponymy were to be automatically changed into an Italian version in substitution to the original ones; the decree law no. 494 banned Slav names and surnames and obliged their total modification into others who could appear as Italians, Croatian and Slovenian languages were prohibited and registry offices and churches were prohibited to accept foreign names for the new borns. Whoever disregarded the new laws, was imprisoned or deported, as well as all the well-known personalities and leaders belonging both to the Croatian and Slovenian communities. The intention was to forcedly assimilate all minority ethnic groups into one Italian nation. These new racial approaches, joint with anti-Slav actions that brought wounded and murdered people, created deep repercussions on the delicate inter-ethnic equilibrium. Clandestine independentist organisations such as TIGR and Borba reacted to the attempt of eliminating Slavs by organising acts of resistance: violent attacks were perpetrated against Fascist exponents and outposts. The beginning of the Second World War entailed even deeper consequences in the stability of the area. Firstly, the aggression to Yugoslavia led to the creation of concentration camps in which all those Slavs who survived from killings and tortures, were deported. Among the Slav populations, an ideal of reawaken from Italian oppression started to spread from and consequently, local populations organised their fight for resistance. In response of the past Italian oppression against Slavic communities, partisan liberation forces generated autonomously in order to organise violent attacks. On the 1st of May 1945, Yugoslavian partisans entered in Trieste before the British-US Allies. After forty-two days of Yugoslav rule, both parties signed the Belgrade agreement about the acceptance of the border with its consequent demarcation between the Yugoslav and the Allied areas of military occupation as proposed by General William D. Morgan. On 9 June 1945 both parties reached a compromise: the Julian Region would be separated into two zones on either side of a new border line until a new Italo-Yugoslav border was formally decided in the near future. Trieste, the villages around it and Pula corresponded to Zone A and soon started to be administered by the Allies. Instead, Zone B was characterised by Istrian Coast and was to be ruled by Yugoslavia. From that moment on, a forced Italian emigration from Istria, Dalmatia and Fiume/Rijeka worsened the delicate balance of inter-ethnic relations. The hostility of the new Titoist regime increased towards Italians and all those who opposed the new Communist rule, really or supposed. Slav communities and in particular partisan liberation forces, who had experienced a terrible racial oppression by the Italian government, fostered violent actions toward Italian-speaking populations. At first, the main intention was hit high-rank Fascist officials, mayors and administrators linked to the Fascist party, however, violence gradually switched also toward all the other people clearly belonging to Italian communities. Italians realised that their communities were increasingly smaller: some were deported to Yugoslavian concentration camps, others were executed and thrown into the foibe , the natural deep sinkholes typical of Karts topography of the Julian Region. The mass emigration started in 1943, when Yugoslav forces started to arbitrary kill and kidnap Italian policemen, officials and people working in administrations. Systematic terror provoked by foibe massacres, reprisals, seizures of real estates owned by Italians and restrictive policies against Italian communities because considered enemies in Slav homeland. The question of territorial dispute was kept in check until 1975, the moment in which Italian and Yugoslavian foreign ministers established a formal accord about the sovereignty of the territories. The Treaty of Osimo was the ultimate agreement reached and it prescribed various strategical points that for many years nobody took into consideration:
1. It formally defined the territorial arrangements that had gradually been consolidated on the basis of the Peace Treaty and the London Memorandum.
2. It established the status civitatis of locals
3. Economic cooperation agreement regarding the porto franco
4. It delimited the territorial waters in the Gulf of Trieste
5. The members of both Italian and Yugoslavian ethnic minorities were given the right to move to Italy or Yugoslavia, respectively
6. The two countries agreed also in reaching a future agreement about a possible compensation for the abandoned properties by Italians in Yugoslav.

In spite of the fact that an agreement was reached on a political level, historical events deeply shaped each community’s collective memories. Peacebuilding activities were not properly organised and ideological polarisation about the historical events remained untouched. The hostile attitude between the two main communities, Italian and Slovenian, saw repercussions in many aspects of the daily life: language, toponymy, as well as monuments and schooling.

In the first one, concerning communication between locals, it is very relevant to highlight the coexistence of three main language structures: standard Italian, Triestino and Slovenian. Triestino is a variety of language belonging to the Venetian linguistic group and it represents the heritage of Venetian as lingua franca in the Adriatic Sea for trading. Apart from the linguistic interaction caused by the need of a shared intelligible code, there are some ways of expressing that recall opposite collective memories. The first expression is the term “s’ciavo” (/stʃavo/, in its singular form) which is only used among the members of the Italian community. The word is said by those who want to address Slav people with a strongly negative sense. Most of the times, it is used as a proper insult against those who belong to the opposite ethnicity. Even in Italian language, the term “Slavi” (“Slavs”) is a generic term for Slovenes, Croats and Serbs which displays the voluntary ignorance of the diversities between them. In particular, during the conflict, it supported the interpretation of it as only ethnic through the extinction of the “Italianess” of the region. However, for the Slovenian community, the most significant slogan is “Trst je naš”. It recalls directly the Yugoslav motto repeatedly expressed and written in the streets as graffiti at the beginning of the proper “Question of Trieste”, that is the territorial dispute between Yugoslavia and the AngloAmerican administration. Still nowadays, from the Italian community, the slogan is perceived extremely provocative and hostile and it is not rare to find it on the walls of the Trieste. However, the administration promptly erases them by tinting the walls again.

For what concerns toponymy, it is soon clear that still it is a very crucial point in the history of Trieste and the villages around it. The first modifications came after the First World War, the moment in which, through the Rapallo Treaty, the reign of Italy gained the territories of Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia. In this way, Trieste became part of the Italy and the new eastern borderland played a key role in Italy’s post-war national symbolism. The important ideological and national purpose of these kind of commemorative practices helped to shape the nation and integrate individuals into the national body. At that time, names of places started to change according to the new events that involved Triestine society. The first example is “Piazza Guglielmo Oberdan”. This it is one of the most fundamental squares of the city since it is the main central conjunction for local transportation. Originally called “Piazza della Caserma” (“Police Station Square”), the square was dedicated to Guglielmo Oberdan in the 1918, when the First World War ended and the Reign of Italy acquired Trieste. Oberdan was considered the first Italian irredentist martyr which had to be awarded by the collective memory of the city. The second case is one of the most iconic places of Trieste, the main square in front of the sea. Traditionally, the square was called “Piazza Grande” (“The Big Square”) and after the First World War, again, the name was changed by the government into “Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia”, translated into “Square of the Unification of Italy”. The sense of unity they referred to is the direct consequence of the frustrating wartime experience which strengthened the nationalistic post-war claims. However, it was at the beginning of the Fascist era that the deepest modifications were brought about. In the 1928, all Slav names of the villages and towns in the whole area of Italian domination were changed. Sometimes, the modification meant the exact translation of the previous name. In other cases, the new name kept the similarity with the original one but with the use of both Italian alphabet in accommodation with the typical sound of Italian words. Finally, in most of the cases, original names were completely erased by a total new name, with no kind of potential reference to its real origin. The current situation is the following: since the annexation of Trieste in Italy, the new names given by the government still remain the official ones. Nevertheless, it is not the “formal officiality” of names that erased the previous history yet, in both cases of squares and villages. In fact, it is not rare for a Triestine to address, for example, “Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia” as “Piazza Grande”, certainly favouring somehow the perceived old good times of the Hapbsburg.

For what concerns bilinguism, the local administration reached a compromise. According to the article no. 33 of the Special Statute of the Autonomous Friuli – Venezia Giulia Region, all linguistic groups are to be protected. For this reason, from the 1973 the Regional administration adopted bilingual road signage in most of the area of Trieste province. In particular, this process involves villages of the karst plateau, road signages are exposed both in Italian and Slovenian. However, in the city centre itself, bilinguism is not as present as outside of it. In fact, there is a very emblematic example about the presentation of the name of the city: when entering the proper Triestine municipality, the road signs state just the Italian version of the word and not the Slovenian one anymore. The only exception that can be found is in the public offices cartels and Slovenian schools.

Monuments still represents a crucial aspect in the of painful lack of multiperspectivity in history. Many times, they have demonstrated how different narratives stress certain events while forgetting other stories of violence. In fact, there are so many examples that demonstrate how ethnocentric narratives try to determine borders between communities in Trieste area. Even in this cases, there is a strict reciprocity between historical sites and the formation of national identities through selecting and maintaining memories to create and confirm a community. First of all, one of the most significative monument for the Italian community is the Foiba di Basovizza. The foiba is one of the many natural karstal sinkholes in which Italians were thrown in by Yugoslav partisans during the massacres between the 1943 and the 1945. Some scholars (Raoul Pupo, Roberto Spazzali and Guido Rumici) argue that it is impossible to define the exact number of victims for two main reasons: the difficulty to distinguish the corps after the tortures and the lack of official documentations regarding the disappearances of people. However, it is has always remained in local people’s memories and in the 1992 it was declared national monument by the Italian Government. The site is placed in Basovizza/Basovica, a village on the karst plateau in the surroundings of Trieste. It consists in a large open ground filled by significative monuments. The exposition follows a path that leads you to see all the monuments in a specific order. One of the most significative is a rock, cut in an irregular shape, that through a few words and a stylised image, it describes the internal composition of the foiba. Originally the sinkhole was 256 meters deep but after the First World War in the 1918, remains of Austrian weapons and cannons lessened the depth of the sinkhole reaching 228 meters. In the 1945, the interior reached 198 meters: 30 meters high and 500 m³ of volume were now full of corps and ruins.

The last, and probably the most significative one is an inscription, right at the end of the site. The translation of the poetry is the following:


“O thou, that unaware you passed
through this strong but good karst
Halt! Take a break on this big grave!
It is a Calvary with its vertex
sank in the ground.
Here during spring 1945,
an horrendous holocaust was consumed.
At war ended!
Hundreds of us were thrown into the abyss
raked with bullets and lacerated by rocks.
No one will be able to count us!
Greed of conquest, hatred and revenge
conspired and acted cruelly against us,
being Italians was our fault.
Hordes of invaders tossed us in the chasm
who arrived in our land following
an evil scarlet star.
Humans did not render us justice due to cowardice.
It was given to us by God who welcomed our souls,
purified by so much torture.
O thou, that now you are not unaware anymore will go down this karst
remember and recount our tragedy.”


From the 2004, the 10th of February has been declared the Giornata del Ricordo (the Day of Remembering) by the government and every year citizens, politicians and militaries, gather in the site for a solemn celebration.

Instead, for what concerns Slovenian historical sites, one of the most important one is the memorial in honour of the four Slovenian men shot in Basovizza/Basovica in the 1930. They were condemned for being against Fascist regime and at the same time members of the TIGR (Trst-Istra-Gorica-Reka). The acronym refers to the Organizzazione Rivoluzionaria della Venezia Giulia T.I.G.R/Revolucionarna Organizacija Julijske Krajine T.I.G.R and was an irredentist and clandestine organisation focused on fighting against the denationalisation of Slovenians an Croats brought about by Fascism. At first, the main activities were about propaganda and preservation of local languages through meetings and the distribution of illegal publications in Slovenian and Croat languages. Later, between the 1927 and the 1932, the organisation was addressed as terroristic for being also perpetrators of violent attacks. Such episodes resulted in bombing attacks to Italian military warehouses, setting fire to schools and kindergartens considered as “instruments for the Italianisation process” , armed threats to voters during the elections and killings. However, it was after the bombing attack to the newsrooms of the “Il Popolo di Trieste” Fascist journal that the organisation was discovered. Accused people were processed by the Special Tribunal for the Security of the State in Trieste and during the first trial in the 1930, Ferdo Bidovec, Franc Marušić, Zvonimir Miloš and Alojzij Valenčić were sentenced to death and became the strongest symbol of the Slovenian resistance against Fascism. The historical site is set in a remote part of the karst plateau, barely advertised by road signs. In fact, there is no a proper manner in which people can be informed about it. The only way to discover its location is through talking with anybody of the Slovenian community. For what concerns instead the composition of the memorial, it consists mainly into two parts. The first one corresponds to a thin column in surrounded by a few trees. On it, there are a few plaques with some inscriptions. In the first one, there are the surnames of the four victims. In the second, there is a tribute to another Slovenian victim through these words “He who fought with the heroes of Basovica, victim of Fascist violence and of the trial in the Rome prison”. The third inscription is not clearly observable from the front part and there is the need to turn around the site. It firmly states “1930-19445. SMRT FAŽIZMU, SVOBODA NARODU” which means “Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People”. Right behind the little site, there are four cubes made of rock positioned on the grass, recalling the position of the four men waiting to be shot. The cubes have no inscriptions neither decorations and result being extremely plain.

The last issue that needs to be mentioned is schooling. Due to the sense of preservation of one’s ethnic group, the need of shaping children education in relation to their own identity became crucial. After the suspension of Slovenian schools during Fascism, soon after the Second World War, all schools reopened again. Still nowadays, all those areas which maintain a divided society, present diverse educational systems. From kindergarten to high-school, families can decide where to educate their children. Even if it might seem the choice is completely far from past resentment, usually each ethnic group sends their children to the correspondent educational institution.


The Question of Trieste is very inspiring for all those willing to understand how to manage a post-conflict divided society, in particular, from a long-term perspective. Through this study on memory, it has been possible to investigate how people’s feelings are shaped both through their family background and the society itself. There are many aspects that became evident and need to be analysed thoroughly. For sure, the eradication of local ethnicities and the imposition of Italian culture started to provoke chain reactions of hatred. However, it is the acceptance of each community’s mistakes the most important ingredient for making feel the population part of the same history. In fact, memories turn around victimisation of the ingroup and the developing of hostility toward the other group, contributing to a polarisation of one’s own community. Therefore, the most important rule should be assuming one’s own faults, not concentrating only on misbehaviours of the others and developing cultural and historical awareness of both communities. The Question of Trieste shows how long and tortuous this process might be. As a matter of fact, there are many aspects that came out during the research. First of all, the attitudes of governments. In particular, the problematic issues lived in Trieste and the whole area around it, as the continuing of the war, violence and the territorial dispute, remained obscured, in particular in Italy. Still nowadays, there is no national awareness about the North-Eastern boundary neither the ethnic contraposition, considering that even in school books (which follows the law prescriptions of the Ministry of Education) there is no mention of it nor any other reference to Istrian exiles or violence against Slavs during Fascism in the territories of the Julian Region. Even if a truthful communication did not reach a full national level, the lack of information involved also Triestine society. The political intention was aimed to sedate any kind of rivalry by not talking about it. Its consequences are clear: on one side, the impossibility for Italians, to interact with Slovenians and find any information regarding their culture, their inner political divisions; on the other side, the total closure of the Slovenian community, and sometimes hostility, for fear of their identity to be attacked and at the same time for their sufferance of being so apart in the society. from the Istrian refugee attacking “s’ciavi” for having been so violent with Italians to a Slovenian young man claiming the status of Trieste and not giving great credit to foibe massacres; from a Slovenian woman lamenting the extremely hostile behaviours of her own community to another Italian man helping his society to create connections with Slovenians. However, in my opinion, the most shocking situation during the fieldwork process was discovering how difficult it was to find information on Slovenian narratives, in particular, in Italian language. As a matter of fact, I had first to find Slovenians available to create a dialogue - which is not easy - and then learning their history through their recounts. Its culmination was when I discovered the existence of extremely important Slovenian monuments which are completely unknown by the Italian community. They are not just unknown but also not signalled by any road sign or any book, whether historical or touristic. Literally, in order to reach the monument in memory of the “Heroes of Basovizza”, only Slovenian interviewees could show me on the map the route and then the path in the karst plateau to reach it. How can the same society reach such a strong distance between each other historical awareness? Collective memory has played a fundamental role in shaping this peculiar society, contributing to two different – and opposite - historical perspectives. These have been transferred from generation to generation and still nowadays maintain vivid resonance even among young people. Surprisingly, younger generations seem having extremer convictions rather than older people or who experienced directly conflictual situations. On one hand, first generations in fact had the possibility to heal their wounds; on the other hand, descendants have felt more connected to their relatives’ memories due to their relationships and the emotional value they represent. However, there are good points to take into consideration while approaching this kind of situation. For sure, what helped both communities to face each other has been the cooperation in schools even though the two communities keep maintaining their different environments. Connections between children can help enormously in creating good relationships, even between adults. However, these should be more welcoming in order not to teach children to be intolerant between each other, as evident from the mentioned anecdotes. In addition, the most powerful tool that permitted the communities to perceive “the other” as a neighbourhood and not an enemy has been the entrance of Slovenia (as well as Croatia) in the European Union. Even if the idea of destroying ideological and ethnic walls might seem risky, it has been crucial for mutual acceptance. For what concerns monuments and historical sites instead, they should be all equally visible to the society and economically supported: the two narratives can be distinguished also by the way in which monuments are treated, so it is not admissible that Italian monuments flourish and the Slovenian ones are in bad conditions. Finally, for what concerns the political power, the already existing institutional office for the “problems of the Slovenian minority” – which is a profound political expression – should be substituted by a power-sharing presence in the administration, permitting in this way also minorities to actively participate in the decision-making processes.