Bloodthirsty Slavs vs. Racist, Revisionist Italians

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.

18 thoughts on “Bloodthirsty Slavs vs. Racist, Revisionist Italians

  1. Seems that the lessons here is that war is messy and that history is even messier!

    At least they are talking to each other….abit very loudly, and at least no one is going to go to war over it! The whole European experiment forces countires to deal with the past, and that can be a pain experince.

  2. I guess people have to blame each other now, because blaming the Habsburgs isn’t nearly as satisfying as it used to be.

  3. I dunno, the Sudeten Germans got the Marshall Plan, Adenauer and the economic miracle. The newly moved-in Czechs got Comecon, Husak and yet another five-year plan. Granted, the first three are not an ancient homeland, but I wouldn’t exactly call it SOL.

  4. The Croatian government really didn’t have a choice but to concede this one; however, in defense of Mesic he really could not have said nothing given the words Napolitano used.

    Interestingly, Sanader didn’t exactly come running to Mesic defense as he understands that the longer this issue gets talked about the more likely Italy will get issues regarding Italian property rights/compensation attached to Croatia’s accession process.

    Rather than diplomats being given all the credit on smoothing this one over, Croatia’s EU accession process is what really prevented the rhetorical fireworks from going on..

  5. @Doug: “I wouldn’t exactly call it SOL.”

    Well, I was focussing on the specific issue of getting compensation, or even an apology. Which is just not going to happen.

    The Italians, on the other hand, are putting a certain amount of pressure on the former Yugoslavs. They already got some concessions from Slovenia… modest ones (basically giving Italians the right to buy land), but still much more than the Sudetendeutsch will ever have.

    @Neretva: “The Croatian government really didn’t have a choice but to concede this one; however, in defense of Mesic he really could not have said nothing given the words Napolitano used.’

    I agree on both these points! I think Mesic over-reacted, but I agree that he had to say *something* — Napolitano’s comments were really offensive.

    Doug M.

  6. I don’t get why a leftist italian president would want to give a medal to a fascist war criminal. This italian refugee comittee sounds a bit like Miami Cubans.

  7. Doug, I agree that the Sudeten Germans and their descendents are out of luck in terms of compensation and such (and I think their organizations’ effects on German politics now are almost entirely pernicious), but I seem to recall Havel and other leaders acknowledging that Czechs also committed injustices against Germans (just think of the life of a social democratically inclined family from the Sudetenland) without in any way slighting the actual history involved.

    Right to buy land I can see. How long does the EU permit derogations on land purchase to continue? Indefinitely? That doesn’t fit well with the single market; on the other hand, I think I’ve heard of long-term-ish restrictions in Denmark, so maybe there’s an exception. Anyone know more?

  8. The Italians are conveniently forgetting that in their brutal attempt to “Italianize” the Slovenes, Croats, and Montenegrins during WWII, that they killed 80,000 people. The Italians furthermore are also conveniently forgetting that they trained and supported the Ustasha and that these Italian-trained fascist terrorists were put into power by Italy and Germany to serve their own purposes. Italy was the aggressor in all respects, Italy was even responsible for the horrors of the fascist terrorists they harboured, trained, and placed into power with the help of their German allies.

    It is the Italians who owe the Slovenes, Croats, and Montenegrins an apology. They got off very, very lightly for their role in WWII.

  9. The whole issue does seem to flare up every once in a while. Part of the problem, I think, is that students in the former Yugoslavia learned pretty much zilch about any of the post-war killings. (It’s also worth mentioning that Germans in the east faced a similar fate.)

    Most Slovenes I’ve spoken to know vaguely about the Foibe massacres; there certainly isn’t much guilt about it. To wit: The otherwise very left leaning magazine Mladina once made an online “Foibe Game”: It’s like Tetris, except you drop dead Italians (or Partisans) into a pit. (It’s here: http://www.mladina.si/projekti/igre/sprava/ Click on the TOREJ arrow to play.)

    However, what people do know is that 1) Yugoslavia was cheated out of Trieste and 2) The Italians turned Ljubljana into one gigantic concentration camp during the war. I think this plays a big part in a lot of these problems.

    For the record, though, the Italian president’s comments were way out of line.

  10. Stelios,

    Good point. For some reason much of the international media didn’t pick up on the fact that Napolitano awarded a medal to Vincenzo Serrentino, the WWII-era police chief of Zadar who was responsible for numerous extra-judicial killings. That medal had nothing to do with the Foibe killings as Serrentino was executed by Yugoslav authorities in 1947.

  11. As a nihilist, I’m wondering whether there’s any chance of getting the Austrians involved. Most of that territory is really theirs, you know. And when they ruled Triests you had Joyce, Svevo, and Saba, and now — nothing.

  12. Dear All, as a Venetian living in Singapore, I would like to say that the word “Italians” does not really portray a homogeneous identity. As you can see from the frequent changes of government in the Peninsula, Italy has long been split between two major factions: a more conservative and fascistic one, and a more enlightened and democratic one. During WW2 not everybody agreed with the rule of the Duce. And those who did not were often forced to drink rycin oil, they were beaten up and often killed. Some managed to escape. Finally a number of Italians chose to go abroad to be able to live a more meaningful life where they would not be forced to suffer all the crap that a medieval mentality would impose onto them at “home”. This said, I would imagine that those Italian (or Venetian) speaking on the Dalmatian coast were most probably also not homogeneously the same. Nowadays money is what matters, above all.

  13. The author seems to forget that Istria Fiume and Dalmazia have been inhabited by Italic people, civilization and culture for over 2,000 years. The Slavs are the newcommers and aggressors to the Adriatic, arriving only after the sixth century AD. Italia’s attempts to regain her stolen property (Istria Fiume Dalmazia) cannot be seen as “occupation” but rather liberation from artificial and cultureless nations that had no right to occupy our lands in the first place. It seems by ignoring facts, the author is the one revising history. The Italian people, especially in Venezia-Giulia, will never forgive Italian government for the Osimo betrayal in 1975. The author should defend the Latin Civilization which he is indebted to rather than the primitive bloodthirsty peoples of the Balkans.

  14. Croatians, Muslims, Italians, Albanians and the German SS killed eight and a half million Slavs (Romanians, Macedonians, but mainly Serbs and Greeks) in the Balkans and fifteen million Slavs in other places (Russians, Polish, Ukranian etc) almost all of them civilians who resisted and fought against being gassed and burned like the Jews.
    Compare this with 6 million Jews killed in the ‘holocaust’, but the Slavic holocaust gets very little attention because when the Slavs died they did so quietly.

    When the war ended the Croatians betrayed their former friends and killed thousands of Italians in hopes that the Serbs will overlook their past crimes and that they will be allowed in the new state of Yugoslavia.

    Croatians are not Slavs, do not call them Slavs. They have sold out their heritage, religion and culture for favors from foreign powers.

    Let me put it this way. The gypsies are better liked by the Slavs then the Croatians.
    The Roma are more Slav then Croats.

  15. Dear Maria,
    you seem to be a faithfull follower of Musolini, hah?
    We Slavs or “brutti Slavi-in italian” can’t forget concentration camps, mass killings, forced italianisation…(need more?) by fascist. Italian fascist, dear, dear Maria. It was hard to expect from a such “cultivated, noble, civilised” nation but we experienced it. And, yes, we live in Croatia ONLY 1400 years.
    Dear Maria, Israel, Tunis, France, Albania, England, Belgium or Austria were once a part of Roman Empire. Would you get them back too?

  16. Well Italy was originally Etruscan territory and does not belong to Italians (Latinos) at all!

  17. Many Croats and Slovenes are so hostile to Italians – with a ferocity that rivals the Jewish hatred of Germans – based entirely on a fake history invented by pan-slavist nationalist propaganda in the 19th century and Yugoslav Communist propaganda in the 20th century. Those Slavs who hold such contempt for Italians are absolutely convinced (in fact brainwashed) that Slavs inhabited these lands first, that the culture was created by Slavs, that most of the historical figures were Slavs, that the last several centuries has been a Slavic struggle for liberation, that all this time Italians have been trying to usurp their Slavic lands away from them (despite the reality being the exact opposite) and believe that at the end of the Second World War the Slavs finally “won the struggle” and “kicked out all the Fascists”.

    While the rest of the world is following one version of history, the countries in the Balkans are each following their own versions of history, not recognized by anyone else except themselves, pitting themselves not only against each other, but against the whole world.

    The cities of the Istrian and Dalmatian coast, which had been inhabited for centuries by a population of Roman origin, who spoke Latin, followed by the local vernacular (Dalmatian, Istriot, Istro-Venetian) and finally Venetian and Italian, are more and more openly being considered historically “Croatian”, while all the artistic manifestations which belong to Latin-Venetian-Italian cultural heritage are being attributed to “Croatian civilization”. This process of Slavicization has accelerated in recent years, perhaps because the Croats were encouraged by the silence and the lack of reaction from the Italian world which has completely abandoned the study and dissemination of the history of Istria and Dalmatia.

    Just to give a few examples, the Euphrasian Basilica of Parenzo was proclaimed a world heritage site protected by UNESCO, this same Byzantine-Ravennate style basilica was defined as a “high expression of Croatian art”, when in the period of its construction (6th century) the Croats did not even arrive yet in Parenzo!

    A peculiarity of the Southern Slavic peoples unfortunately consists of a type of ethnic nationalism that aims not only at the expulsion (if not annihilation) of the population regarded as being outside its own territory, but also to the destruction of the historical and cultural evidence of its existence. Emblematic, in this sense, in the recent war that bloodied the Balkans, was the burning of the library of Sarajevo, the destruction of the Stari Most bridge, and the destructive rage against churches and mosques, which were considered symbols and testimonies of the enemy’s civilization and faith.

    Istria is called “Croatian land”, but in fact it can not be defined as such in the Carolingian period (it will only become so in the twentieth century) neither for political affiliation, since it belonged to the Kingdom of Italy under the Holy Roman Empire, nor for ethnic composition, since it was inhabited by a neo-Latin population (descendants of the romanized Histri of Region X of Roman Italy “Venetia et Histria”) that even under Byzantine rule had maintained the laws and customs of its fathers (the Roman municipal system) and for this very reason intolerably opposed the new feudal system introduced by the Franks (as evidenced by the Placitum of Risano in the year 804). Just like Istria, the cities of Zara and Spalato had nothing to do with the Croats, because they belonged to Byzantine Dalmatia and were inhabited by a people who spoke a neo-Latin Romance language.