Slovenia & Italy: Moving On?
by Andrej Brstovsek
2 March 2005
An Italian movie revisiting the fate of Italians killed or expelled by partisans courts controversy in Slovenia.
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia--A massively publicized Italian movie about the killings of Italian civilians at the end of World War II in what was then Yugoslavia has angered many in Slovenia and strained relations between the two countries. Il Cuore nel Pozzo (The Heart in the Pit) has been widely condemned in Slovenia for portraying Yugoslav partisans as evildoers while neglecting the circumstances in which the crimes occurred.
The debate sparked by the movie shows that the two countries have never achieved true reconciliation and cannot even agree on what exactly happened before, during, and after World War II.
“I wanted to make a simple story. The aim was not to make it political,” says Italian Alberto Negrin, the director. The movie shows pictures of families put before firing squads of Italian and Yugoslav partisans, Italian children screaming after being taken away from their mothers, and murdered civilians being thrown into the Karst pits of Slovenia and Croatia, the fojbe or foibe.
The movie is silent about the crimes of the Fascists in those areas.
A NEW ROMAN HOLIDAY
If Negrin wanted to make a non-political movie, its effect has been anything but. In Italy, the movie received the outspoken support of the National Alliance, a party in the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that traces its roots to Mussolini’s Fascists. “We must pull from the abyss of lies a truth hidden by the imposition of a cultural bias,” Italian Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri, a member of the National Alliance, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
The two-part movie premiered on Italian state television just before 10 February, a new national holiday to commemorate the victims of the fojbe. Millions of Italians watched--and a good number of Slovenes tuned in as well.
The political backlash from Italy’s eastern neighbors was fast and furious.
Among the first to respond were World War II veterans from Slovenia and Croatia, who accused director Negrin of being biased and trying to portray Italy as the victim when in fact it was the aggressor.
“The occupying Italian forces killed and raped, which caused reprisals. Revenge has always been blind,” said Janez Stanovnik, president of the Slovenian World War II veterans’ association. He said it was “a huge lie” to claim that Italians were killed just because they were Italians.
Even without the movie, the new Italian holiday would have raised some eyebrows in Slovenia. There is a good chance that the Slovenian parliament will respond by proclaiming a new Slovenian holiday, celebrating the incorporation of the coastal Primorje region, which was once Italian, into Slovenia.
It is an uncontroversial historical fact that many Italians were killed in Slovenia and Croatia after the war--estimates of their number range from 1,700 to 10,000. Many Italians also fled the territory fearing reprisals or because they didn’t want to live in a communist state.
But both veterans and historians said that while it was important to acknowledge the killings and expulsions, one also had to consider the circumstances in which they took place. Even before World War II, Italy pursued an aggressive policy in Istria (now shared by Croatia and Slovenia) and Dalmatia (part of today’s Croatia) and then occupied most of the territory during the war.
Several postwar agreements between Italy and Yugoslavia tackled the problem of Italian citizens who fled at the end of the war. The agreements obliged the Italian government to pay compensation for the property they left behind in Yugoslavia; those payments were in turn considered as Italian compensation for war damage in Yugoslavia.
But despite the legal settlement, the issue never came to rest politically.
In the face of an Italian threat to veto the beginning of Slovenian negotiations on EU membership in the mid-1990s, Slovenia had to sign a special agreement with the EU in which it opened up its real-estate market to Italians who had fled.
At the same time, both Yugoslavia and Slovenia (which became independent in 1991) tried to take care of the Italian minority that remained on its soil. One of the 90 seats in the Slovenian parliament is reserved for a representative of the Italian minority (another one is reserved for a representative of the Hungarian minority), and Italian is an official language in the areas where the Italian minority lives.
JANSA IN AN AWKWARD POSITION
But the matter goes beyond minority rights or compensation for past injustice and the loss of real estate, though all of these have been raised by the families of those who were killed or fled. This is also an issue of setting the historical record straight--and of being able to move on.
While the current center-right Italian government, which supported the making of the movie, is likely to reap benefits from revisiting the past, the new center-right government coalition in Slovenia finds itself in an uncomfortable situation. This is no longer just a bilateral question but also one of domestic politics. Critics accuse the Slovenian government of having been slow to react because its anti-communist stance made it awkward to defend the communist partisans.
A number of public figures put pressure on Prime Minister Janez Jansa and Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel to respond to the movie. The leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Borut Pahor, suggested sending a diplomatic note to Rome. The government at first said a movie shouldn’t be a basis for discussing bilateral relations but reversed course after Slovenian television decided to air the movie--and then reported record ratings.
The government issued a statement voicing the expectation that Italy would deal with its past in a critical manner, and reaffirming that the government rejected all biased and politically motivated interpretations of recent history. This could also be seen as criticism of Yugoslavia’s communist regime and its version of events.
The conciliatory tone seems to have had some impact. An undersecretary in the Italian Foreign Ministry mentioned the possibility that representatives of the three countries could mark a “symbolic reconciliation,” presumably during a planned summit between Berlusconi, Slovenian President Drnovsek, and Croatian President Stipe Mesic.
On the other hand, as Stanovnik of the Slovenian veterans’ association said, reconciliation is a matter of personal conscience. And if that conscience hasn’t been examined in the last sixty years, it is doubtful it will be now.
Andrej Brstovsek is a journalist with the Ljubljana daily "Dnevnik."
Copyright © 2005 Transitions Online.