(Written by Amy. A. Bernardy, taken from the Italy Number of “The Journal of American History”, First Quarter, Number 1, January-February-March 1919.)
There lies to the east of the Venetian plain a region which since Roman times was considered the tenth region or district of Italy proper, and as such known by the name of Venetia Julia. It is nothing but an actual and organic part of the former Italian borderland of Friuli, and how in mischief anybody but an Austro-German coalition could draw a line through that region (and call it a boundary and the western part of it Italy and the eastern part of it Austria) beats the unfairness of the Alsatian boundary by the mile. To meet anything like a natural boundary line you must travel eastward, cross the Isonzo and, coming down from Tarvis, follow the watershed of the Julian Alps and reach the Monte Albio or Nevoso, known in German as Schneeberg, and considered from time immemorial as a basic point in the determination of the Italian boundary. Thence a fairly straight and clear line does bring you down to the sea and the city of Fiume, a junction point between the province of Istria, a peninsular appendage of the Italian mainland on the west, and the mainland of Croatia on the east. It will be noted that the line thus formed, and clearly indicated by all geologic tests and by the geographic structure of the land, is practically the same that was set for immediate Austrian evacuation by the terms of the armistice of November last. Coming down the Adriatic coast, the coastline very clearly splits itself in two, the Croatian mainland, and the ridge of islands which curve outward along the Morlacca channel and are generally known in bulk as the islands of the Quarnero.
Then comes the actual Dalmatian region, which by a common misapprehension is sometimes taken to embrace the whole of the eastern Adriatic coast. Let it be very clearly understood, therefore, that Dalmatia proper extends from north of Zara to the Bay of Cattaro, but the typically and fundamentally Italian Dalmatia reaches from north of Zara to south of Spalato. After this, the coast up to Ragusa, though teeming with Italian memories and showing Italian influence, loses some of what can be called the intensity of the Italian spirit; Ragusa on the other hand shows much of it, but Ragusa has always been a rather curious autonomous entity, and was an independent republic while Dalmatia was a Venetian province. We may add, that all geographic and geologic tests from the structure of the subsoil to the flora and fauna of the surface, show the close connection of the Dalmatian borderland with the Italian coast, while its stony differentiation from the mainland behind it is proved by the fact that the Adriatic watershed is as abrupt and precipitous as a mountain lake watershed, whereas the other side of the thick mountain chain offers a broad and easy declivity toward a depression that finally leads to the Aegean.
So much for geography. History in the Adriatic is written all over the sea and the land, the city and the village, the church and the tower. And it is written in Italian. Whoever has traveled from Trieste to Ragusa can remember the lettering, in marble, in bronze, in stone; I am not speaking of Roman history. And though the arena of Pola and the palace of Diocletian at Spalato and the ruins of Salona and the aqueduct of Fiume and the Lapidarium of Trieste and the museum of Aquileia present to the archaeologist and the aesthete, in a shorter space of land, a nobler array of Roman glory than is to be seen anywhere in Italy with the exception of Rome; and though they concentrate within those few miles, one may say, beauty and majesty enough to outrival the Roman theatres of Orange or Seville, the arches of Rimini, Ancona and Salonika, and a few of the Roman traces in Asia Minor, Germany and Great Britain besides—yet the glory and the antiquity being remote it may be held none too significant. But the point is this, that whereas in other countries the native element came up and began building things and history of its own, in Istria and Dalmatia the same Latin element kept on, and the following monuments are Italian,—Italian and Venetian they remain throughout the Renaissance, that gives some of its best artists' efforts to the cathedrals, the “logge,” the “municipii” of the coast. Giorgio Orsini, the architect of Sebenico and Luciano Laurana, the architect of the ducal palace of Urbino in Italy, were natives of this coast. Humanists as Fortunio da Sebenico, historians as Giovani Lucio, scientists as Marcantonio de Dominis, admirals as Coriolano Cippico, were given to Venice and to Europe by these coasts. Once the Venetian Senate was called upon to decide whether it wouldn't be expedient to set the capital of the Venetian republic in Zara, and as late as 1797, when a Venetian patriot deplored the slackening of the old spirit in Venice, he was advised thus: “Tole su ei corno e ande a Zara” [take up the ducal cap and go to Zara], where the old spirit remained. And that it was there all right Zara proved by burying under the altar of her cathedral the banners of St. Mark, to await there the day of redemption, after the fall of the Republic of Venice was announced. At the same time the citizens of a small Istrian town, Isola, killed their “podesta,” believing him to be a traitor when he announced their coming subjection to Austria. If you happen to be in any of the small cities of Istria you will see an Italian church and an Italian campanile; Zara has such good examples of Romanic architecture that Pisa, Lucca and Pistoia can hardly compete with her; the steeples of the cathedrals of Arbe, Spalato and Trau are purest Italian style. The city halls of Capodistria, Curzola, Pola (you see I am quoting at random) could grace any Italian city. Trieste, although so largely modern and commercial, is unmistakably Italian in her modernity: Milan is her prototype, and there is no admixture of Austrian or German to her stately rows of green-blinded, square-lined, square-built Italian houses.
When Napoleon in 1797 traded off to Austria the Venetian republic, the Adriatic coastland followed her fate and passed into Austrian subjection. It was somehow tacitly understood, as it was historically logical, that if a rearrangement of the map ever happened the fate of those lands would be determined again by the fate of Venice. Instead, when in 1866 Austria was forced to return Venice to Italy, she retained the Adriatic provinces for herself, which Italy was not in a position to reclaim at the time, but which considered themselves Venetian and Italian throughout.
Where, then, did the Jugo-Slavs come in? They came in in the course of centuries, peeping over that very tall ridge of mountains that divides Dalmatia from the Balkanic world, quite close to the coast, much as the enclosing hills come steeply down to the shore of a mountain lake. They came quite early in history, in more or less large groups, sometimes pushed by natural expansion, sometimes prodded by Turkish pressure on the rear. Venice made them welcome as immigrants, and it is recorded that most of them were as loyal to Venice as the best Americanized immigrant or American of foreign descent can be to America. They had no special monuments or civilization of their own, but rather absorbed that of Venice and often settled down as Venetians. Toward the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they showed some literary ambition, and there was some interchange of literary courtesy between Italians who composed Slavic verse and Slavs who attempted Italian strains. When Venice fell, they became with the Italians fellow-subjects of Austria. Italy as a national entity was not yet, and it was only toward the second half of the nineteenth century that Austria became keenly alive to the things that began happening in her Italian possessions. Up to that time, Austria had been rather exploiting than oppressing her Adriatic subjects, and rather favored than otherwise the traditions of the Italian civilization and the use of the Italian language along the Adriatic, because she realized how great the influence of Venice had been all over it and way out into the east, and she hoped to reap for her benefit all the. advantages that could be reaped from the substitution of the twinheaded eagle for the lion of St. Mark as its rightful heir all along the millennial trade-routes from Venice to the Aegean Sea and thence to Constantinople. It was the “drang nach osten” in its pre-natal stage.
But when in 1866 Austria lost Venice to Italy she became keenly aware of the fact that the severance of Venice from the Adriatic provinces would naturally leave in the heart of these provinces a desire for reunion with Venice and consequently union with Italy, which as a body politic was daily achieving completion of its unity and proportionately growing as a menace to Austria.
Now, Austria always was noted in history for having the logic of the devil. She instantly knew what to do: destroy Italian nationality in her Adriatic dominions so that all desires of the said nationality should incidentally, along with the nationality, disappear from the world. To do this, she needed a tool; the Slavs were there. By the way, in using the Slavs she achieved another good turn for herself; she gave them something to do and trusted that their natural gratitude toward one who gave them of the fill of Italian land and flattered their demographic powers of expansion would keep them from eventually turning to thoughts of liberty for themselves. She guessed right. The denationalization of the Italian Adriatic was as good as achieved.
It would be hard to even attempt a review of the means, systems and procedure with which the Italian denationalization and the dehistoriation of the Italian-Adriatic provinces was planned and ultimately all but achieved. Wholesale importation and deportation of human beings, dumping of literally hundreds of inland alien families, with their thousands of children, to transform the character of some typically Italian district and show up both in the election and in the school returns; a policy of boycott and resistance, of obstructionism and partiality; a constant vexation of all that was Italian and encouragement of all that was alien; municipal and electoral corruption erected to a standard of government; internal espionage ennobled to the standing of government service; the hounding and the crushing not only of words but of feelings; wholesale persecution, beginning with fines and ending with gaol and death; every means that can be imagined, and some of them too brutal for words, were in order against the Italians of Dalmatia. Government agitators actually mingled among the Slavic peasantry, encouraging them to cut down or burn the vines and the crops of their Italian employers.
Many Italians, weary of the long struggle, left their ancestral homes and went to earn a modest living in Italy, thus falling in by necessity with Austria's desire for their absence. Many of them served and died for Italy in this war.
In this way, while on one hand the depletion of the Italian element was being secured, on the other the land was being rapidly filled with alien element. Some of it was there, as I said, as an immigration element in the course of history. Some was dumped, and a large part of it was attracted by the extra favorable conditions made to Slavs by Austria in the Italian provinces, so that it is no wonder that they soon became a numerical majority in a number of districts.
That is largely how and why Italy is confronted to-day by the fact, chiefly “made in Austria,” that the Jugo-Slavic conglomeration of peoples, which has found itself suddenly blessed with freedom of motion, expression and ambition, through the action of Italy that brought about the disgregation of Austria, regards itself not only as naturally entitled to the solid mass of southern Slav mainland thus liberated from Austrian control, but to the Italian part of the Adriatic shores as well; and even includes, in an extreme sweep of desire, cities and districts where the Italian majority is indisputable, on the ground that there is heavy Slavic admixture in their surroundings. And, moreover, on the ground that Italy claims for herself in the final peace settlement, and as an integral part of “Italia Irredenta,” certain districts and territories of the eastern Adriatic coast where there is an actual numerical majority of Slavic inhabitants, it brings against Italy an accusation of “imperialism” and blames Italy's “ambitions” on the Pact of London.
Before we proceed further in our attempt to make plain the situation, it is well to state, therefore, that even the much-abused “pact of London” (as every fair-minded reader of published news must know by this time, and as others always forget to remember), does not by any means claim for Italy the whole of the Adriatic or insist upon making it a closed sea. (...) Thus the three racial branches of the Slavic people, Croats and Slovenes in the northern Adriatic, Serbians in the southern, are fairly dealt with and fully protected and provided for in the terms of the pact of London, which represents actually a minimum of Italian rights and necessities in the Adriatic. This will readily be seen by anyone remembering that by such an agreement the stronghold of Cattaro, the strongest naval base not only of the Adriatic but of the Mediterranean, would remain out of Italian hands. If Italy wanted to be imperialistic, she would ask for Cattaro first. Instead, she asks for Zara, which, if anything, is sentimental. Also, with what seems almost too much of a renunciation even for the sake of peace and good will to neighbors, the city of Fiume had not been considered, it appears, in the London agreements. And yet the city of Fiume has just recently and very explicitly made known her desire to join Italy on grounds of population (26,000 Italians and 6,000 citizens of Italy against 12,000 Slavonians and 6,400 Magyars), and asked for allied ratification of her act of self-determination at proper time.
All of these cities had Italian mayors and councils (as the intellectual and civic leadership is Italian everywhere) which had been suspended from office at the outbreak of the war, and who have been reinstated by the people as soon as the breakdown of Austria allowed.
More could be said, and in fact ought to be said, but we will content ourselves with recalling here the clear language of Roman law: ''Quod subreptum erit, eins rei aeterna auctoritas esto” [The right of the owner over the thing that has been stolen is enduring]. Similarly, all the former Austrian territories now reclaimed were once Italian, “once” including the very recent past, we might say, the “present” of yesterday. What they are “now” is the result of Austrian malpractice with them. A considerable portion of non-Italian elements included in them to-day represents, in other words, the colonization of Austria, a colonization designed and achieved with non-Austrian elements for definitely Austrian purposes, namely, the eviction of Italians from their racial and ancestral homes and the accomplishment of the final destruction of Italian nationality within Austrian borders as a political consequence of the Austrian system of domination: a system against which, we may incidentally remember, this war has been fought and won; a system against which Italian martyrs in the Trentino as well as in Istria and Dalmatia have been protesting for years with the sacrifice of life and of all that life holds dearest in moral and material values.
That the Slavic elements of yesterday, the Slovenes, Croatians, etc., of the Austrian period, the Jugo-Slavs of to-day, were only too often the chosen retainers and the willing instruments of Austria in her enterprise, is a fact which Italy may agree to consider foreclosed to-day in view of present events, but which cannot, unfortunately, be blotted out of history, even though we place it to the discredit of the last years of Austria rather than to that of the pre-history of Jugoslavia.
Italy, whose human sympathies have been broadened by suffering, and who least of all could wish the perpetuation of iniquity, is willing to let bygones be bygones and meet the Jugo-Slavs in a friendly spirit. But to her the tragedy of Dalmatia is a tragedy of her national life, and the redemption of the Irredenta and the freedom of the Adriatic are essentials of her very existence. She cannot, therefore, admit or consent to wholesale ratification of Austria's misdeeds, such as the Jugo-Slav extremists and their supporters would impose upon her with the outcry they raise against the legitimate assertion of her rights on the Adriatic Sea.
“Something is rotten” somewhere in the would-be-accusing formula of “Italian imperialism,” and in the intentionally confusing statements that are being scattered around by more or less irresponsible agencies. As, unless she be expected to betray the highest ideals of her national life and the most essential responsibilities of history and civilization, Italy cannot be expected to submit to and ratify the results arrived at by procedure of this kind; she cannot accept a test by statistics that have been made to order by such means; she cannot, after having been compelled for thirty years by the unfortunate situation of the triple alliance to watch in silence the sufferings of her children who were being dispossessed and decimated, refuse to help them now and restore for them the ancestral homes which they defended with such heroism and from which they were all but ousted by foul means when the war began. No other nation has a longer list of actual martyrs for the idea of liberty, not men whose words, to use a brilliant recent phrase, did cut like swords, but men who were actually cut by swords because of the words of freedom they said. If other men cannot sleep in Flanders fields unless the sacred pledge be kept by those who survive, what of the men — and the women, and the children, for Austria did not balk at that — what of the martyrs from Gorizia, from Trieste, from Fiume, from Spalato, from Zara, among whom Sauro, Battisti, Rismondo, Chiesa, Filzi and their comrades are but a few?