Tuesday, May 1, 2018

40 Days of Terror: The Yugoslav Occupation of Trieste

Trieste was under Yugoslav occupation from May 1 to June 12, 1945
and Western Allied occupation from June 1945 to October 26, 1954
(Image: Return of Trieste to Italy, 1954)

It is April 1945. The war is in its final stages. On April 28th Benito Mussolini and several members of the Italian government are assassinated by Italian Communist Partisans. On the following day, April 29th, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, Supreme Commander of the German Forces in Italy, through his representative General Karl Wolff, accepts the unconditional surrender of Caserta imposed by British Field Marshal Harold Alexander, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Mediterranean. Later that evening, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Italian Social Republic, surrenders himself to the Anglo-Americans in Milan.

The bulk of the Wehrmacht is already in retreat. The troops of the Italian Social Republic have been ordered to disarm, but continue fighting in some parts of Piedmont and Julian Venetia. On April 30th most of Trieste is in the hands of Italian Partisans belonging to the National Liberation Committee (CNL). But with Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslav Partisans already penetrating the suburban villages and nearing the gates, the city of Trieste is full of anxious waiting, uncertain of its fate.

The Yugoslavs are in a hurry to arrive first in Trieste, ahead of the Anglo-Americans, so that they can claim credit for the “liberation” of Trieste and Julian Venetia, which – they hope – will force the Western Allies to recognize Yugoslavia's claims over Italy's northeastern territories – namely Julian Venetia, with Istria and Trieste – at the peace conference.

The Italian Partisans in control of Trieste since April 30th are comprised of Socialists, Liberals and Anti-Fascists, but not Communists. The Italian Communists of Julian Venetia instead follow the directive of Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), who joined his Communist Partisans to the Italian-Slovenian Anti-Fascist Executive Committee (CEAIS), which is disassociated from the CLN and operates in favor of the Yugoslav Communists.

On May 1st, the Yugoslav Partisan 9th Corps – composed of Slovene Communists – enters Trieste and begin their infamous forty-two day occupation. The CLN is cast aside and the Yugoslav Partisans falsely claim responsibility for “liberating” Trieste. The Italian flags are lowered and in their place they raise red flags with the hammer and sickle and tricolor flags defaced with red stars, a Communist symbol used by Yugoslavia and other Communist countries.

The Western Allies arrive in Trieste the following day, on March 2nd, with the 2nd New Zealand Division commanded by Gen. Bernard Freyberg. The Yugoslavs, however, assume full powers in Trieste and the reign of terror begins. They entrust the command to Gen. Josip Cemi, who is replaced a few days later by Gen. Dusan Kveder. Franc Stoka, a Slovene Communist, is appointed as Political Commissar.

The city is ruled according to marshal law. They impose draconian ordinances restricting all freedom. Despite the war already being over, the Yugoslavs declare a “state of war” and impose a brutally long curfew from 3:00 PM to 10 AM. Citizens are only permitted to leave their homes for 5 hours per day. Trieste's clocks are also moved back one hour to match those of Belgrade, so that the city can be artificially placed in the same time zone as Yugoslavia.

The only legal newspaper is “Il Nostro Avvenire”, a Communist newspaper which serves an anti-Italian and pro-Yugoslav political agenda. All other newspapers are banned. Manifestations of national sentiment are strictly prohibited. Public gatherings are forbidden. All economic and industrial entities are seized. Movement of vehicles is restricted.

The Yugoslav Partisans use the slogan “Smrt Fazismu - Svoboda Narodu!” (“Death to Fascism - Freedom to the People!”) to justify their killing of non-Communists and those who are opposed to Yugoslav imperialist designs in Italy. The Yugoslav secret police, the OZNA, whose barbaric methods surpass those of the Gestapo, is given carte blanche to round up and imprison any Italians who are deemed a threat to Yugoslav occupation.

The “Guardia del Popolo” (also called “Difesa Popolare”) – a Yugoslav civilian police force composed of Slovene Communists – is also used as a political tool to influence the social fabric of the city. They go about the city seeking to eliminate non-Marxists and sow terror through violent repressions and ethnic cleansing.

Thousands of citizens are taken from their homes, on an average of one hundred per day, under the pretext of being “Fascists” or “Nazi collaborators”. Very few, however, are actually Fascists or collaborators; in fact most are ordinary Italian civilians; some are officers, and still others are even Socialists and combatants who fought among the Italian Partisans, who are also targeted by the Yugoslavs despite sharing the same anti-Fascist ideology.

On May 4th thousands of Yugoslav peasants arrive in Trieste, shouting their provocative slogan “Trst je nas!” (“Trieste is ours!”). On May 5th approximately 50,000 Italians organize a peaceful march in Trieste to protest against Yugoslav annexation plans. They wave Italian flags and sing Italian songs in a parade, to demonstrate that Trieste is an Italian city. A column of protesters turns onto Via Imbriani – a street in Trieste – whereupon the Yugoslav soldiers open fire on the unarmed civilians, killing five and wounding ten. Three of the victims are women.

This event will be remembered as the Massacre of Via Imbriani.

The names of the dead are:
  1. Graziano Novelli, 20 years old;
  2. Carlo Murra, 19 years old;
  3. Mirano Sanzin, 26 years old;
  4. Claudio Burla, 21 years old;
  5. Giovanna Drassich, 69 years old.
And the wounded:
  1. Albino Canaletti;
  2. Manlio De Mattia;
  3. Tancredi Kolarski, who is disabled as a result;
  4. Camillo Carmeli;
  5. Angelo Cavezza;
  6. Antonio Kreiser
  7. Augusto Mascia;
  8. Pina Solimossi;
  9. Renato Artico;
  10. Marialuisa Fonda.
Meanwhile, the Western Allies simply observe and report to their commanders, without intervening. On May 8, 1945 the U.S. State Department publishes a memorandum, stating:
“The Yugoslavs are even trying to establish civil control in the eastern part of Udine, the Italian province beyond Venezia Giulia. In Trieste the Yugoslavs are using all the familiar tactics of terror. Every Italian of any importance is being arrested. Yugoslavs have taken over complete control and are conscripting Italians for forced labor, seizing the banks and other valuable property, and requisitioning grain and other supplies on a large scale. The Archbishop of Gorizia and other priests have been arrested, and many others are threatened.”
In the city of Trieste and its environs, terror becomes the norm: Tito's goal is to “make Trieste Yugoslav” and annex the city to Yugoslavia. This is to be achieved through ethnic cleansing, by “cleansing” Trieste of Italians and replacing the population with Slavs.

Just as the Yugoslavs had already been devoting themselves to committing a true genocide in Dalmatia, Istria, Fiume and the rest of Julian Venetia, so too in Trieste the Italian population is subject to a serious attempt at ethnic cleansing. Several thousand Italians from Trieste disappear, simply vanishing without a trace and never return.

Many Italian citizens are killed in the Foibe Massacres; others are deported to concentration camps, such as the ones in Goli Otok or Borovnica, known as the antechamber of death. Trieste itself is transformed into one large concentration camp. They target not only Fascists, but also left-wing Italians, indiscriminately making slaughter of both Fascist and anti-Fascist, military and civilian, male and female, adult and child. Indiscriminate arrests, confiscations, requisitions, robberies and violence of all kinds exasperate the people of Trieste, who in vain plea for help from the Western Allies.

The Yugoslavs also begin to eliminate traces of Trieste's Italian character and openly Slavicize the toponyms. On May 19th the main street in Trieste, “Corso Italia”, is changed to “Corso Tito”.

Monsignor Antonio Santin, Bishop of Trieste and Capodistria, describes the atmosphere in the city:
“Everyone was filled with alarm and fear... Violence dominated the city; they attacked everything that was Italian. Every day Slovenes demonstrated throughout the city, with Yugoslav and Communist flags hanging from the windows. Hundreds upon hundreds of unarmed civilians, policemen and civil servants were taken away simply because they were Italians; they were thrown into the sinkholes at Basovizza and Opicina. Tied with barbed wire, they were placed on the edge of the pit and then killed with machine gun fire and plunged to the bottom.”
(Mons. Santin, “Al tramonto”, 1978)
The writer Silvio Benco likewise speaks of Trieste in those days:
“Pain and terror reigned in Trieste. We listened to the jubilation of so many people on the radio, people living in the happily liberated cities... but over us loomed the degradation of being cheated by fate.
All that the city had loved was attacked, denied, suppressed, covered by myriads of foreign labels like a funeral blanket; the Flag of the Italian Nation was shot with bullets, monuments were besmirched, soldiers were camped at the base of the statue of Giuseppe Verdi... Never before had Trieste suffered such cruel deformation of her face and inversion of her sentiments.
Nor could Italians be certain of their lives: every night the Yugoslavs searched homes and took away people on trucks, some of whom never came back. Every day thousands of citizens from the other provinces of Italy [occupied by the Yugoslavs] fled towards the Isonzo, even on foot; and when, in response to all this anguish, a huge crowd gathered in the streets shouting "Italy! Italy!", machine guns unloaded on them.
It seemed that the very name of Italy was to be dead and buried.”
(Silvio Benco, “Contemplazione del disordine”, 1946)
The Anglo-Americans, in need of the port of Trieste for their own lines of communication to Central Europe, and finding that Tito proved himself each day more and more unreliable and no better than a tyrant, finally force the Yugoslav troops to withdraw from Trieste and retire beyond the Morgan Line. On June 9th, in Belgrade, the Yugoslav dictator and his Chief of Staff Gen. Arso Jovanovich sign an agreement with the Anglo-Americans.

Before leaving Trieste, the Yugoslavs take everything they can load onto their vehicles. They clean out the Bank of Italy, stealing 183 million lire – equivalent to $1.83 million according to the exchange rates in Allied-occupied Italy (or approx. $9.6 million according to pre-war exchange rates).

On June 12, 1945 the Yugoslav occupation officially ends. But some of their ardent supporters stay behind, and these elements will clandestinely continue the Yugoslav struggle against Italians, resorting to terrorist activities, such as kidnapping and killing of Italian civilians.

The citizens of Trieste joyfully celebrate when the Yugoslavs leave. However, the agreement signed between the Yugoslavs and the Anglo-Americans, known as the Belgrade Agreement, also constitutes the devastating loss of Italian Istria, which is to remain under Yugoslav occupation.

The Western Allies militarily occupy Trieste for the next nine years, until it is finally reunited with Italy on October 26, 1954.

See also:
40 Days of Trieste: Slavs Celebrate a Communist Dictator
April 25: The Feast of San Marco – Not Liberation
Trieste, the Most Italian City