Actually, it’s racist, revisionist, and revanchist Italians. But we’ll get to that.
Short version: Italy and Croatia have just had a brief but bitter diplomatic dispute over statements made by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Croatian President Stipe Mesic. There’s not really a good or bad side here, either; both nations seem to have had a short but violent attack of what my grandmother used to call “the stupids”.
On the plus side, it seems to be over now, and cooler heads have prevailed.
Much more below, if you’re interested.
Okay. Return with me now to the closing years of WWII. You may recall that Mussolini, in the pursuit of the New Roman Empire, had annexed most of the Yugoslav coast of the Adriatic. There were ethnic Italians living up and down this coast — had been since forever — a majority in a few places, a minority in most.
When the war ended, the Communist partisans ethnically cleansed many of these Italians. Some were driven out at gunpoint; some were massacred. Some of the bodies were thrown into local cave formations, called foibe. These gave their name to the whole period: the Foibe Massacres. Estimates of the number of victims vary, but “several thousand” is probably about right.
The foibe massacres became something of a taboo subject in both countries for the next forty years. The Yugoslav Communist government said that nothing had happened and anyway, the only ones killed were fascist officials. Various Italian governments showed little interest in opening a complicated and difficult topic that would only annoy their eastern neighbor.
Then in the 1990s, the foibe massacres came back out into the light again, with a sudden surge of books, articles, and TV documentaries. It would be nice to say that this was because enough time had passed to allow a dispassionate review of the subject. Well… perhaps. Unfortunately, there was also an element of “Berlusconi’s in charge now, and he likes nationalism!” And also, “We don’t have to worry about keeping Yugoslavia happy any more, since the Yugoslavs are busy tearing themselves to pieces.” And then a bit of “You know, it looks like they were murderous barbarians all along.”
The community of Adriatic refugees in Italy had always been large — about 300,000 people had been expelled from Slovenia and Croatia. By the 1990s they had become a lot louder and more politically active. Interestingly, while support for them was strongest on the right, there was a fair amount from Italy’s left as well. I have the impression that this was driven in part by a guilty conscience, for the long years of the left’s silence on these issues, but if anyone knows better I welcome correction.
One of the last acts of the Berlusconi government was to create a “National Memorial Day of the Exiles and Foibe”. This was first celebrated (if that’s the word) in 2005.
Meanwhile, across the Adriatic, the newly independent Croats were carrying on the long Yugoslav tradition of denying that anything had happened while insisting that it was the victims’ own fault. The emphasis did shift a little. The Yugoslav line had been that the victims were murderous fascists. This didn’t work so well for the Croats, since they had their own murderous fascist regime in WWII, under the abominable Ante Pavelic. So the new Croat nationalist line was that the victims were alien occupiers. Now their crime was not fascist aggression against the people, but expansionist Italian aggression and the annexation of Croatia’s coastline. — But anyway, nothing much happened, and let’s all continue that policy of not discussing it.
Okay, so. Last week was Foibe Day again, and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano travelled to Trieste.
I always had a good impression of Napolitano. He’s like a million years old — okay, he’s 81 — and he’s been in Italian politics since dirt was new, and he’s a great big flaming red Commie. But within those limits, he seemed like a decent enough old stick.
But something about the Adriatic air seems to have gone to his head.
First, he awarded commemorative medals of honor to a number of Italians killed in the massacres and afterwards. By itself, that would be no big deal. But one of the awards was given to a fellow named Vincenzo Serrentino. That name will probably mean nothing to most readers, but if you’re a Croat or an Italian it just might.
Serrentino was the Italian prefect of Zadar, a coastal town in occupied Croatia, during the war years. The Yugoslavs considered him a war criminal who had Partisan prisoners killed without trial. After the war, they gave him a swift trial and then had him shot and thrown into an unmarked grave. The Croats, while holding no brief for the Communist Partisans, are firmly in agreement that Serrentino was a bloody-handed murderer.
The Italian refugee community, meanwhile, considers Serrentino an innocent man, a patriot and a martyr. So while it may have been questionable to give him a medal — it was bound to annoy the Croats — I can understand why President Napolitano did it. All politics is local, after all.
But the next bit baffles me. In his speech, Napolitano said that the ethnic cleansing had been “an exercise in hatred, bloody rage and a Slavic annexation plan”.
He then said that this plan had “prevailed… in the Peace treaty of 1947 [between Italy and Yugoslavia], which assumed the contours of an ethnic cleansing.”
“Today in Italy we have put an end to this unjustifiable silence and we are committed at European level to recognising Slovenia as a friendly partner and Croatia as a candidate country for EU membership,” he added. “But it should be repeated that truth is part of reconciliation – both in people’s hearts and in international relations.”
Now, this is just weird. “Slavic annexation plan”? That doesn’t even make sense. It was Italy, not Yugoslavia, that was the aggressor. True, the Yugoslavs grabbed the opportunity to snarfle up more of the coastline at the end of WWII, but, you know, Italy was a freaking Axis power. The Italians of Dalmatia and Istria were like the Sudeten Germans in Czecheslovakia.
Imagine a German President using the words “Slavic annexation plan” about WWII. Now imagine how the Poles and Czechs would take that. You’ll get an idea of how this was recieved in Zagreb.
So it’s not surprising that Croat President Stipe Mesic pretty much lost his cool. The next day, Mesic blasted Napolitano’s remarks: “it was impossible to not see overt elements of racism, historical revisionism and a desire for political revenge”.
Mesic also noted that “modern Europe was constructed on foundations… of which anti-fascism was one of the most important.”
Over to the Italians, who promptly closed ranks. The President is popular, and, come on… Croatia is going to shake a finger at us? Croatia? Non penso cosi, amico. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi contacted the Croatian prime minister “to express his contempt for the unjustifiable words”.
I was ready to bring on the popcorn, but then somehow the grownups got back in charge. We had just three days of spittle-flecked shrieking in public, while several high-level meetings were held in private. And then yesterday the office of the Croatian president issued a statement:
“Croatia has taken note of the explanations given at the talks at the Italian Foreign Ministry…”
“The Croatian representative was told that President Napolitano’s speech on the occasion of the remembrance day for Italian WWII victims was in no way intended to cause a controversy regarding Croatia, nor to question the 1947 peace treaties or the Osimo and Rome Accords, nor was it inspired by revenge-seeking or historical revisionism.
“The explanations were accepted with understanding and they have contributed to overcoming misunderstandings caused by the speech.”
Well, talk about your mixed feelings. My own inner grown-up says, great, they managed to settle this before it became completely stupid. My inner Balkan observer, meanwhile, says “Awwww… “.
So where are we now? Well, this squabble has blown over. But there are lingering issues between Italy and Croatia. The biggest is the open question of whether the ethnically cleansed Italians will ever get anything, and if so, what. You wouldn’t think this would be a serious issue — after all, the Sudeten Germans are SOL — but Italy does have the power to stall or stop Croatia’s EU candidacy. I doubt that will happen, but it is the shadow at the feast.
Meanwhile, we got an interesting case-study of the system working the way it’s supposed to. Two Presidents behaved badly, but within a few days the diplomats were able to smooth it over. That may not be as interesting as a full-blast diplomatic flame war, but hey — some of us like our international relations, like our plumbing, to be boring, predictable and quiet.