Thursday, September 12, 2019

Diplomatic Crisis Between Italy and Croatia: New Provocations, Revisionism and Hypocrisy

Gabriele D'Annunzio
(Written on September 12, 2019; updated on September 13, 2019.)

As we speak, a new diplomatic crisis is unfolding between Italy and Croatia.

The issue revolves around the inauguration of a new statue in Trieste dedicated to Gabriele D'Annunzio, an Italian poet and soldier of the First World War. In addition to issuing a diplomatic protest condemning the statue, provocative statements of a historical revisionist nature were also posted by the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović on Twitter.

Historical Context

Without going back to the world wars or to the conflicts of the 19th century, which have been – and perhaps always will be – enormous strains on Italian-Croatian relations, not only between the States but between the peoples themselves, the more immediate causes of this current crisis can be traced back to March 24th 2016, when it was announced that Fiume-Rijeka had been chosen to be the European Capital of Culture in 2020 by the European Union.

Following this announcement, in 2017 the Lista per Fiume, a regional political party in Croatia, proposed a bill to reintroduce bilingual Croatian-Italian signs in the city of Fiume. On November 4, 2017 a round table discussion dedicated to the subject was held in Fiume, attended by both Italian and Croatian representatives.

Certain Croatian politicians seized the opportunity to depict Fiume as a “multicultural city” with “a diverse history”, which, to say the least, was a gross historical inaccuracy, not to mention insulting to the local Italian community, which once formed a majority in this city until the period between 1945 and 1954, when 90% of Fiume's population was lost as a result of the forced exile of 54,000 Italians, after the city had been occupied and then annexed by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The tendency of Croatian politicians to depict Fiume as a multicultural city was seen by some as an attempt to downplay the city's Italian past. Various discussions, debates and polemics then followed among the politicians in Croatia, among members and representatives of Fiume's Italian community, as well as among social media and mass media outlets.

During that same month the silence was finally broken concerning the massacre of Italians at Castua by the Yugoslav Secret Police in May 1945 – part of the Foibe Massacres. In July 2018, after 73 years, the excavation of the foiba of Castua was finally completed, unearthing the remains of seven victims from the 3 meter deep pit. The remains were subsequently delivered to the Italian Consulate in Fiume, before being sent to Italy in October 2018, where a ceremony was held in Udine.

Meanwhile, in September 2018, the proposal in favor of restoring visual bilingualism had been finally approved. For the Italians, long-awaited vindication and reconciliation seemed to be in the air.

Then, in February 2019, Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, became the target of an international smear campaign when, in his ceremonial speech at Basovizza, near Trieste, in commemoration of the victims of the Foibe Massacres and the Julian-Dalmatian Exodus, he said:
Long live Trieste, long live Italian Istria, long live Italian Dalmatia, long live the Italian exiles, long live the heirs of the Italian exiles!
(“Viva Trieste, viva l'Istria italiana, viva la Dalmazia italiana, viva gli esuli italiani, viva gli eredi degli esuli italiani!”)
The Croatian and Slovenian press, together with several politicians, including the prime ministers, organized a media campaign – which was immediately picked up by the international press – depicting Tajani as a “Fascist”, misrepresenting his words as “declarations of territorial aspirations”, accusing him of “falsifying history” and demanding his resignation from the European Parliament.

The politicians of the two Balkan countries then proceeded to justify the violence and crimes committed by the Yugoslavs at the end of World War II, blaming it on Fascism and referring to the genocide of Italians merely as a “reaction” to Italian crimes – a false Communist narrative which has been frequently reiterated so as to justify the ethnic cleansing of Italians from their own homeland.

Current Crisis: The Statue of D'Annunzio

Entirely unrelated to those events – but which has now become part of the same matrix of polemics – is the statue of Gabriele D'Annunzio, unveiled today in Trieste.

Gabriele D'Annunzio was an Italian poet, journalist, playwright and soldier. Already famous and widely popular as a poet, he became even more popular for his exploits during World War I, particularly his Flight Over Vienna and the Buccari Mockery. Immediately after the war he gained greater notoriety on the international stage when he marched on Fiume.

In 1918 the city of Fiume had voted and declared itself for union with Italy, which however was firmly opposed by Great Britain and France. In 1919 D'Annunzio led a group of Italian legionaries into Fiume to oppose the Franco-British occupation and to prevent the city from potentially falling into the hands of the nascent Kingdom of Yugoslavia. There he established the Italian Regency of Carnaro, a small Italian city-state which survived until late 1920. In 1924 Fiume was formally united with Italy.

Statue dedicated to Gabriele D'Annunzio
Inaugurated Sept. 12th, 2019 in Trieste
D'Annunzio was considered a fairly non-controversial figure in Italy and was near universally revered – indeed there are schools and streets named after him all throughout Italy – until earlier this year, when it was decided to dedicate a statue to him in Trieste; then, over night, D'Annunzio suddenly became a villain according to the polemics of the political Left, who denounced D'Annunzio as a “Fascist” and opposed the erection of the statue.

Croatia too has now decided to join the fray. On September 12th, 2019 the Croatian Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs issued a diplomatic protest condemning the statue, inexplicably referring to D'Annunzio's defense of Fiume as an “occupation” and even going so far as to imply that the monument is “Fascist”. The diplomatic note delivered to the Italian embassy in Zagreb reads:
“The Republic of Croatia strongly condemns the unveiling of the monument in Trieste, on the exact date of the 100th anniversary of the occupation of Fiume. Although it is a decision of local and not state authorities, it not only undermines the excellent neighborly and friendly relations between the two countries, but, moreover, it pays tribute to an ideology which is completely at odds with European values.”
(“La Repubblica di Croazia condanna fermamente la scoperta del monumento a Trieste proprio nel centenario dell’occupazione di Fiume. Nonostante si tratti di una decisione delle autorità locali e non di quelli statali, essa va a minare gli ottimi rapporti di vicinato e d’amicizia tra i due Paesi e, inoltre, rende omaggio a un’ideologia completamente in contrasto con i valori europei.”)
Evidently, the leaders in Zagreb think that Fiume was a Croatian city. They speak of an “occupation”, as if it were a Croatian city whose sovereignty had been violated and trampled upon by foreign invaders, whereas, in reality, Fiume was predominantly inhabited by an Italian population, which, in the face of a crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire (formally dissolved on Oct. 31, 1918), had exercised its right to self-determination by voting in favor of union with Italy. The only occupiers at that time were the French, British and American troops who attempted to impede the wishes of the Italian city.

It should also be noted that under D'Annunzio's Regency there were no persecutions, no criminal acts to speak of; the Croatian minority was not harmed. On the other hand, do we really need to remind Croatia once again of what occurred under the Yugoslavs during and after their invasion of 1945? If ever there was a true and proper occupation in the history of Fiume, it was the Yugoslav occupation at the end of World War II, which saw massacres, persecutions, forced annexation and the near total ethnic cleansing of an entire city.

Furthermore, the note falsely characterizes the statue as a “tribute to Fascism”, which is not only false but preposterous and borders on the delirious. Gabriele D'Annunzio had achieved worldwide fame and respect as a poet and man of culture long before Fascism existed. At any rate, D'Annunzio's later political opinions do not negate his previous literary and intellectual merits, just as it does not negate the merits and contributions of other great men, such as Guglielmo Marconi, Enrico Fermi and Nobel Prize-winner Luigi Pirandello – all of whom held pro-Fascist sentiments.

The statue itself depicts a reflective Gabriele D'Annunzio, contently sitting on a bench and reading a book. More importantly, despite his sympathies for the movement, D'Annunzio in fact was never a member of the Fascist Party. Meanwhile, those responsible for the statue's inauguration are very far from being Fascists: Roberto Dipiazza, the mayor of Trieste, is centre-right and is politically closer to the centre-left than to the Far Right. In short, there is nothing Fascist nor ideological about the monument.

Moreover, if we are to speak about tributes to ideology, then what are we to say of the numerous statues in Croatia dedicated to Josip Broz Tito, who was responsible for massacres, genocides and other heinous crimes against German and Italian civilians, not to mention Slavic clergy? Why do we not speak of the dozens of streets and squares dedicated to him throughout Croatia? In August 2017 Google data showed that there were no less than 276 squares, streets and waterfronts named after the Communist dictator in the former Yugoslav states, 35 of which are located in Croatia.

The same Yugoslav Communist dictator who was responsible for the massacre of at least 652 Italians in Fiume, today has monuments, streets and squares named in his honor throughout Croatia. And yet the same Croatian government which permits this, has the audacity to protest against the dedication of statue to a soldier-poet whose only “crime” was entering that same Italian city which, in accordance with the principle of self-determination, had proclaimed itself united to Italy.

The Croatian government's supreme hypocrisy and total obliviousness of itself is revealed and put on display once again. This is a nation which still has yet to face the horrific crimes of its recent past – which, among other things, includes ethnic cleansing, genocide, mass theft of private property and lands, destruction of monuments and eradication of Italian symbols, in addition to a grotesque rewriting of history and usurpation of cultural heritage – previously met with decades of denial or silence, but today met with justification and refusal to offer compensation.

This small, former Communist country – which only became a country 28 years ago – has the arrogance to protest and accuse Italy of provocations, solely for dedicating a statue to its national poet. When and if the Republic of Croatia finally decides to eliminate all the monuments to its former Communist dictator, changes the names of all the streets and squares dedicated to him, and at last compensates the ignored victims of Istria, Dalmatia and the Quarnaro, perhaps then Croatia will earn the right to protest. Until then, they have no right to lecture others.

Revisionist Statements of the Croatian President

In addition to the diplomatic note, on September 12th, 2019 the President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović posted the following highly provocative message on Twitter:
“Rijeka [Fiume] was and remains a proud part of the Croatian Fatherland, and the erection of a monument in Trieste extolling irredentism and occupation is unacceptable.”
(“Rijeka je bila i ostaje ponosni dio hrvatske Domovine, a podizanje spomenika u Trstu kojim se veliča iredentizam i okupacija su neprihvatljivi.”)
In the first place, the statue is not a monument to irredentism, nor to any imagined occupation. As was already pointed out by the communal assessor Giorgio Rossi, the statue depicts that of a reflective if not melancholic D'Annunzio—not that of a heroic soldier or man of action. The statue has nothing to do with ideology nor with territorial aspirations; it is a harmless monument to one of Italy's most celebrated poets of the last two centuries.

In the second place, Fiume was never “a proud part of the Croatian Fatherland”. This is nothing more than shameful historical revisionism which seeks to justify the Yugoslav occupation and annexation following World War II, and the tearing away of this ancient Italian city from Italy. In her attempt to indite and accuse Italy, with all of her faux outrage, the Croatian president hypocritically sustains Croatia's own imperialist territorial ambitions and incites provocations against Italy.

It would be good for President Grabar-Kitarović if she would first consult historical records and census data before making any pronouncements. In 1918 Fiume and its environs counted 28,911 Italians (62.5%) and 9,092 Croats (19.6%); in the city itself there were 14,194 Italians (83.3%) and only 2,094 Croats (12.3%).

Fiume traces its origins back to the Romans, who founded the original city with the name Tarsatica. Throughout the Middle Ages, the citizens clung to their Roman roots, continuing to adhere to Roman law and institutions, and continuing to speak the Latin language. The city later became a free commune, following in the same footsteps as Trieste and the other medieval Italian communes.

Since the 15th century the official language of Fiume was Italian; the city's municipal statutes were drawn up 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 ever written in Croatian or any other language.

When in 1776 Maria Theresa of Austria attempted to incorporate Fiume into the Kingdom of Hungary, through Croatia, she was met with protests by the inhabitants of Fiume, so that only three years later, in 1779, Fiume was proclaimed a corpus separatum or separate body of the Crown of St. Stephen, entirely separate from Croatia. In 1848 Croatian soldiers under Josip Jelacic invaded Fiume; the ensuing 19-year military occupation was strongly opposed by the native inhabitants.

Jelacic himself promised to respect the Italian tongue of Fiume. However, when an attempt was made to introduce Croatian into schools, the city of Fiume protested, sending an address to Emperor Franz Joseph on January 31st, 1861:
“ would be superfluous to demonstrate what is universally known, that is, that the Italian language has always been spoken since Fiume existed, which is the country's own language, being the language of school, court, commerce, every public and private discourse, and one of the principal elements to which can be attributed the degree of her culture and progress, both commercial and industrial.”
(“...sarebbe superfluo dimostrare ciò che é universalmente noto, esser cioè l'idioma italiano da secoli in Fiume la lingua della scuola, del foro, del commercio, di ogni pubblico e privato convegno; insomma essere la lingua del paese, ed uno dei principali veicoli a cui attribuire devesi il grado di sua cultura e del suo progresso commerciale e industriale.”)
In 1867, following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, the city's autonomy was restored and the Croats evacuated. In 1918, with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Fiume voted in favor of union with Italy, and afterwards welcomed D'Annunzio's entry into the city with celebrations.

Residents of Fiume cheering D'Annunzio
and his Legionaries, September 1919
These are unassailable facts of history. A three-year incorporation into the Kingdom of Hungary and an unpopular 19-year military occupation of an Italian city: that was the grand sum of Croatia's connection to Fiume prior to its annexation to Communist Yugoslavia after World War II.

To suggest that Fiume was “a proud part of the Croatian Fatherland”, not only in light of its ancient history but especially in light of all that occurred there just a few decades ago – massacres, thefts, ethnic cleansing – is one of the most dishonest, appalling, insulting and provocative statements issued by a head of state in recent memory.

This sort of historical revisionism and blatant disregard for historical facts on the part of Croatian leaders is nothing new, however. One only needs to recall the incident of 2011, when former Croatian president Stjepan Mesić went to China to inaugurate a museum dedicated to the “Croatian explorer” Marco Polo, sparking protest and outrage in Italy. Just a few months later, Croatia then went to war against the United Kingdom after Croatian tourist bosses and local authorities laid claim to King Arthur, proclaiming him too a “Croat”.

Nonetheless, the statement made today by the current President of Croatia is one of the most shocking and offensive to come out of the modern Croatian state. Above all it is an insult to the Fiumani, that is the Italians of Fiume, who are the historical soul of the city, spanning some two millennia; theirs was the language of the city, theirs was the culture, theirs were the institutions, the traditions, the toponyms, the squares, the streets, the stones, the very foundations; indeed, Fiume was and rightfully remains their city.

Other Controversies

Governor's Palace, Fiume
September 12th, 2019
While all this was taking place, on the early morning of September 12th, 2019, in the city of Fiume-Rijeka, a group of unknown individuals hung a large flag of the old Kingdom of Italy over a gate outside the former Governor's Palace (today a museum). Croatian police immediately removed the flag. Four Italians were arrested and are being criminally charged with “disturbing the peace”, simply for posting a flag.

According to Cristiano Puglisi of “Il Giornale”, responsibility was assumed by a mysterious patriotic group called “Gli Idraulici”. Several Croatian media outlets falsely labeled the group a “Neo-Fascist” front, despite the group having no ties to Fascist ideology.

The same media outlets exaggerated the episode to absurd heights, depicting the raising of the old royal Italian banner as a great “scandal” and “Fascist provocation”, and stoking fear in the minds of its Croatian readers to such an extent that they began to entertain delirious conspiracy theories in the comments sections anticipating an Italian invasion and declaration of war against Croatia.

In reality, the act was done by a small group of patriots with no connection to the current Italian government nor to Fascism. “Il Talebano”, an Italian identitarian group close to “Gli Idraulici”, stated on its website:
“Today, on the 100th anniversary of the Fiume Enterprise [impresa di Fiume], we wanted to show that now just as then some Italians do not surrender. We wanted to show that there are still Italians who are not willing to accept being represented by a puppet government that does not defend national interests. By a government that instead of defending its borders and its citizens opens its doors to invaders. By a government of men and women who do not know beauty, courage, daring, dignity. Today a group of Italians raised the tricolor outside the Governor's Palace of Fiume.”
(“Oggi, nel centenario dell’impresa di Fiume, abbiamo voluto dimostrare che ora come allora alcuni Italiani non si arrendono. Abbiamo voluto dimostrare che esistono ancora italiani che non sono disposti ad accettare di essere rappresentati da un governo fantoccio che non difende gli interessi nazionali. Da un governo che anziché difendere i propri confini e i propri cittadini spalanca le porte agli invasori. Da un governo di uomini e donne che non conoscono bellezza, coraggio, audacia, dignità. Oggi un gruppo di Italiani ha issato il tricolore sulla facciata del Palazzo del Governatorato di Fiume.”)
In an unrelated controversy earlier this year, in June 2019, three Italian youths filmed themselves draping an Italian flag over Tersatto Castle (Castello di Tersatto), just outside the city of Fiume. They later clarified on their Facebook page:
“It was not a hostile act towards the Croats, but a curious, romantic, adventurous and fascinating enterprise. ... As an Italian I feel for Italian Fiume, it is as if a part of the family has been torn from us. We will no longer bow our heads before historical injustices!”
(“Non un atto ostile nei confronti dei croati, ma un impresa curiosa, romantica, avventurosa e affascinante. ... Da italiano sento Fiume italiana è come se una parte della famiglia ci fosse stata strappata. Non abbasseremo più la testa davanti alle ingiustizie storiche!”)
Italian flag over Tersatto Castle near Fiume, June 2019
The action was harshly condemned by the Croatian mayor Vojko Obersnel, who called it a “cowardly act” and declared: “Fiume is a Croatian city and will remain so forever.” The mayor is also less than enthusiastic about the recent decision to restore bilingual signs in the city, but was willing to compromise for the sake of improving Croatia's image before the international community.

With his long history of opposition to the Italians, it comes as no surprise that the same mayor Obersnel issued a statement today denouncing the statue of D'Annunzio in Trieste, accusing the poet of “imposing Italian power in Fiume” and of committing “a Holocaust of monstrosities”. Earlier today he also participated in the inauguration of a new museum in Fiume dedicated to highlighting the supposed “crimes” of D'Annunzio.

The lifelong socialist mayor – who last year spent 5.4 € million in public funds to refurbish the former yacht of Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito – has quite a fanciful imagination and inclination towards delusion, to say the least. Gabriele D'Annunzio has never been accused – let alone found guilty – of any crime during his regency.

To put it in blunt, non-diplomatic terms: these new accusations against D'Annunzio are outrageous lies and fabricated falsehoods unsupported by any scholars outside of recent Croatian polemical circles, who are desperate to rewrite the city's history and deflect attention away from the atrocities committed by their own people in these territories just a few short decades ago.

Obersnel himself, formerly president of the Croatian Socialist Youth (Savez socijalističke omladine Hrvatske) and a member of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia for nearly 20 years, was born in Fiume in 1957. It would be interesting to discover whether his parents were natives of the city, or whether they were one of the thousands of post-war colonists transplanted by Tito to replace the expelled Italian population. If the latter is the case, then this – together with his strong Communist background – would certainly go a long way in explaining his profound contempt for Italy and his obstinate denial of Fiume's Italian past.

Finally, late on September 12th, 2019 it was reported that three Italian aircraft belonging to the private company FlyStory, which were partaking in a commemorative flight to Fiume with the prior consent and approval of the Croatian Civil Aviation Agency, were suddenly intercepted: two of the aircraft were blocked upon landing and are still being detained in Fiume; the third aircraft, while still in flight, was ordered to return to Italy by the authorities in Zagreb and its pilot was threatened with being shot down by military fighters if he refused. This so far is the most serious escalation and hostile threat against Italy on the part of Croatia.

The President of FlyStory stated:
“We found ourselves facing an absurd situation. It was supposed to be a day of celebration, but the Croats reacted badly. ... Rijeka [Fiume] was selected as the European Capital of Culture for 2020, but with this sort of mentality it is truly difficult to understand why.”
(“Ci siamo trovati davanti ad una situazione assurda. Doveva essere una giornata di festa, i croati invece hanno reagito male. ... Rijeka si è candidata come capitale europea della cultura per il 2020, ma con questa mentalità la vedo veramente dura.”)
The sudden increase in controversies surrounding Fiume-Rijeka can be traced back to the EU's decision to declare it the European Capital of Culture 2020, and to dissatisfaction with the dishonest and provocative statements which several Croatian politicians have expressed since then towards the city's Italian heritage and history, specifically the tendency to downplay its significance in favor of a multicultural revisionist interpretation of the city's history.

The senseless press campaign against Antonio Tajani earlier this year undoubtedly also contributed to stoking the flames of hostility between the two countries.

Now, with the latest diplomatic protest and the military threat against Italian civilian aircraft, it remains to be seen how the Italian government will respond.

See also:

The Italian Language Returning to Fiume?
Response to Croatian Statements on Bilingualism in Fiume
Castua Massacre: Exhumations Completed After 73 Years
Quotes on the Italianity of Fiume
Statement of Alexander Oldrini on Fiume
Statement of Ernest Papich on Fiume
Statement of Fiorello La Guardia on Fiume
Statement of Lawrence Yates Sherman on Fiume
Statement of Leopold Vaccaro on Fiume
Statement of S. A. Cotillo on Fiume
Statements of Gino Speranza on Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia
Statements of Lawrence Yates Sherman on the Treaty of London