Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Response to Croatian Statements on Bilingualism in Fiume

Croatian politicians and representatives recently made statements regarding the initiative to restore visible bilingualism in the city of Fiume, a former Italian city which today belongs to Croatia (and has been officially known as Rijeka since 1947), but which still has a small and proud Italian community.

The Alliance of Primorje-Gorski Kotar (PGS)
“The Fiumani [Italians of Fiume] are the soul of this city, whose history and Italian culture is just as important as the Croatian one. Comparing Italians to other minorities makes no sense, because Fiume is their home; they are natives of this city and therefore should not be treated as minorities, even if today they are only a small part of the local population.”
This was the statement of the Alliance of Primorje-Gorski Kotar (PGS) on the question of restoring visual bilingualism in Fiume. It is certainly one of the most favourable and positive statement made by Croatian politicians on the Italian heritage of Fiume in recent memory.

However, for the sake of historical accuracy, it should be admitted that not only is the Italian history and culture of Fiume just as important as the Croatian one, it is in fact more important than the Croatian one. The Italian history and heritage of Fiume spans some 2,000 years, whereas the Croatian one dates only to the end of World War II.

Deputy Mayor Nikola Ivaniš

Nikola Ivaniš, Honorary Chairman of the PGS, as well as Deputy Mayor of Fiume, said:
“We are absolutely in favor of visual bilingualism in the historic centre of Fiume and I believe that substantially the other political parties more or less agree, because it makes sense in a city like ours, which has always been multicultural. Those who deny this fact don't know the history of their own city. The only negative thing is the politicization of the issue. We would have preferred this initiative to come from the Italian Community and not from a political party, because in this way the issue is likely to be exploited and create major misunderstandings.”
Mr. Ivaniš' support for the bilingual initiative is absolutely appreciated. The initiative, if approved by the government, will be a great step forward for both Fiume and its historical heritage, and for the Italian community. However, Mr. Ivaniš' statement still contains some inaccuracies that must be addressed.

Firstly, vocal members of the Italian Community of Fiume have been advocating for the visible restoration of the Italian language, in addition to the recognition of other Italian rights in the city, for many years now.

Secondly, in order to effectuate social and political change, it requires the use and support of politicians and political parties. This is not politicization; it is simply the only or at least the most effective way of changing the status quo. For decades the Italians of Fiume have asked for change, and their cries have until now fallen upon deaf ears. Without the support of political leaders and parties, the current initiative likely would have been ignored like the previous ones.

Finally, while Mr. Ivaniš' support for the initiative is greatly appreciated, it must be pointed out that his statement that Fiume “has always been multicultural” is entirely false and insulting. His statement was certainly politically correct, but as too frequently is the case when using the mask of political correctness, the statement does not correspond to the historical reality.

Fiume, historically, was ethnically, culturally and linguistically an Italian city, not a multicultural one. It is true that every major city has a number of minorities, and Fiume was no different in this regard: since at least the 19th century there existed small communities of Germans, Hungarians and Croats in Fiume. However, up until World War II these groups remained small minorities compared to the Italians, and to pretend that each ethnic group had an equal influence on the city's local culture and history is simply to rewrite and reinterpret history in light of modern multiculturalist ideology.

Brief History of Fiume

Fiume originated as the Roman city of Tarsatica. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the citizens clung to their Roman roots, continuing to adhere to Roman law and institutions, while likewise continuing to speak the Latin language. During the Middle Ages the city became a free commune, following in the same footsteps as Trieste and the other medieval Italian communes.

The official language of Fiume was Italian since the 15th century; the city's municipal statutes were written in Latin and Italian; and in order to partake in the social, commercial and cultural life of the city, one had to speak Italian. All the archives and historical documents of Fiume are written in Latin and Italian; not a single document was written in Croatian or any other language. This is an unassailable fact of history.

The ethnic composition of Fiume was overwhelmingly Italian until relatively recent times. Despite a significant influx of immigrants, especially Croats, to Fiume's environs in the 19th century, the census of 1918 showed that Italians still formed 83.3% of the city's population (14,194 Italians compared to 2,094 Croats). It was not until after the end of World War II, with the expulsion of 90% of Fiume's Italian population (54,000 Italians out of 60,000), that the Croats became a truly significant presence in the city. Croatian migrants subsequently colonized Fiume under the direction of Josip Broz Tito's Communist regime, leaving the Italians as a small minority in their own city.

To suggest that the smaller minority groups – especially those living in the suburban districts outside of the city proper and therefore outside of the city's cultural life – had an equal impact on Fiume's culture and history, or even a significant enough influence so as to merit the label of being a “multicultural city”, is to grossly distort Fiume's history, and does a great disservice to Fiume's historical character and heritage, which up until the end of the war was indisputably Italian.

More than this, to say that Fiume “has always been multicultural” is to do an enormous disservice to those many thousands of Fiuman Italians who lost their homes and lives in the ethnic cleansing by the Yugoslav Communists, and minimizes the true impact that this ethnic cleansing had on the city of Fiume, on its population, on its demographics and on its cultural heritage since the end the war.

The Independent Marinko Koljanin

Marinko Koljanin, an Independent, said:
“For me visible bilingualism in Fiume would be the most natural thing in the world. It's a matter of historical identity. In Italy, the Italian language has always been spoken, both as an official language and by the whole people, and for many years the districts, streets and squares of our city had Italian names. In my opinion, signs bearing the historical [Italian] names of these places would be interesting also for the Croats, because it would make them interested in the history of the city they live in.”
This is one of the most honest and clear statements made by a Croatian politician on the subject.

The Absurdity of Hrvoje Burić

Slightly different, however, is the opinion of Hrvoje Burić, also an Independent candidate, who does not believe that bilingualism should be exclusive to the Italian national minority. Burić said:
“Fiume must be open to multiculturalism, because this is the road that leads to Europe, but if it were decided to introduce additional signs for street names, it would be appropriate to do it in German and Hungarian as well as in Italian.”
Mr. Burić makes a very false comparison by equating the Germans and Hungarians to the Italians. These three groups are not equal when it concerns the history and heritage of Fiume, and therefore do not merit equal representation. Having signs in German and Hungarian alongside Italian would be just as historically inaccurate as having signs only in Croatian without Italian.

When Fiume was under Habsburg and Hungarian administration, the official language of the city was Italian. On all maps and administrative documents, the Hungarians officially used the Italian name of Fiume when referring to this city. Moreover, Germans and Hungarians never formed anything more than a small minority in Fiume, whereas Italians formed the absolute majority. The Italians founded the city, populated the city and for many centuries Fiume's population was almost exclusively Italian.

All signs and toponyms, therefore, were always Italian, even during the Habsburg and Hungarian periods; never German and never Hungarian. Neither the German nor the Hungarian language ever held a significant place – nor had any official status at all – in the history of Fiume. Therefore Mr. Burić's suggestion that German and Hungarian be given a place next to Italian is both historically unjustified and culturally absurd.

The Multicultural Vision of Juraj Bukša

Juraj Bukša, member of the Croatian People's Party – Liberal Democrats (HNS) and former mayoral candidate of Fiume, also endorsed bilingualism but for very different reasons:
“Fiume is the European Capital of Culture in 2020 and its slogan will be 'Port of Diversity'. In this context, restoring the historical names of the squares and streets in the city centre will be a great tourist opportunity and an added value for the multiculturality of our city. But we must be careful to equally represent all the historical periods. And we must exercise patience if a street has ten different names, which would be an additional curiosity for both citizens and tourists alike.”
Mr. Bukša supports the bilingual initiative, but only insofar as it serves his multicultural political agenda and brings added attention, accolades and tourism to the city of Fiume.

It is clear from his statements that Mr. Bukša has no intention of accommodating the heartfelt wishes of the autochthonous Italian community, nor any yearning to correct a grave historical and present-day injustice. Rather, he merely wants Fiume to flow with new visitors and become a shining example of multiculturalism in order to impress the other political leaders of Europe.

His personal motivations aside, the end result – if the initiative is approved by the government – will be the same: the visible restoration of the Italian language in Fiume for the first time since 1953.