Saturday, December 28, 2019

A City Hostile to the Austrians: Irredentism in Trieste

(Written by Marco Vigna, taken from the newspaper “Il primato nazionale”, December 8, 2019.)

The massive presence of irredentism – that is to say, Italian patriotism – in Trieste can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century. Trieste is a very symbolic city, notable for its size, its geographical location and its history.

In 1848 a governor of this city, General Ferencz Gyulai (later Field Marshal, Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia and commander of the Austrian army in the war of 1859) had published an article in L'Osservatore Triestino – which at that time functioned as a government press organ – in which he contrasted the Slavic subjects, whom he considered loyal to the empire, with the Italians, whom he accused of being collectively hostile to imperial authority. In truth, the governor does not appear to have been wrong.

Trieste: The Hostile City

Within a few months following the publication of this article, there were three attempts at insurrection in Trieste, all three nipped in the bud by the imposing military and police apparatus: the riot of August 20, 1848, which resulted in deaths, injuries and arrests; another attempted insurrection on October 10-11; and then riots which lasted from October 23 to October 29, 1848.

On March 17, 1849 Trieste was placed under a state of siege: an entire regiment – the Fürstenwärther – was concentrated in Opicina. The castle of Trieste was put in a state of alert in anticipation of a siege, and a national guard was trained, most of whose recruits were foreigners. The concentration of large military forces in Trieste occurred when Hungary, Lombardy and Venetia were in full revolt, while Carlo Alberto's army was in pursuit of Radetzky's forces. Despite this dramatic situation for the empire, it was decided to place several thousand troops in the city of Trieste, demonstrating its importance and recognizing the danger of its potential insurrection.

On the other hand, Gyulai was one of the most renowned imperial generals and in 1850 he managed to prevent the insurrection of Trieste by becoming Minister of War, then military commander of Lombardy-Venetia, and finally viceroy. His career depended largely on the merits acquired in 1848.

Even the central government seemed convinced of the antipathy of Trieste towards the empire, so much so that on October 28, 1848 it had communicated to the imperial authorities in Trieste that, in order to effectively oppose the Triestine Society (Società dei Triestini), which was "absolutely Italian and anti-German", it was necessary to develop and enhance the German society, which already existed, as well as a Slavic society, which was then in the process of being formed. In accordance with this, already on December 1 of that year Gyulai gave the order to encourage Slavic immigration.

These judgments and evaluations were passed on to the governors and to the central government, which had at its disposal a widespread network of police and informants. The police chiefs knew the mood of the population very well, took note of what they said and did, and reported it regularly to their superiors.

For example, in 1848 the chief of police of Trieste, Altgraf von Salm, communicated to Vienna that the most widely-read newspapers in the city were the following seven: Il Costituzionale, La Guardia nazionale, La Frusta, La Gazzetta di Trieste, Il Giornale di Trieste, Il Telegrafo della sera, Il Diavoletto. Of these, Salm wrote, only one (Il Diavoletto) was in favor of the empire and it was also the least read.

In the following years, the Kaiser's visits to Trieste revealed the citizens' coldness towards him. Franz Herre, the well-known biographer of Franz Joseph, provided a detailed description of the isolation and hostility with which the emperor and empress found themselves surrounded in Italy, wherever they went: Milan, Brescia, Venice...

Two visits by the kaiser to Trieste, in 1851 and 1856, were both politically negative, since in both circumstances the city proved cold and contemptuous towards the imperial couple. During the visit of 1851 the carriage, upon its departure, was accompanied not by a procession of jubilant subjects, but rather by small groups of children, some of whom booed. During the visit of 1856 the police had been alerted months in advance about the upcoming visit of the sovereign, because it was feared that there would be public demonstrations hostile to the monarch. A police report warned the Interior Ministry that a "festive reception to His Majesty was doubtful".

After his departure, the chief of police of Trieste, Franz von Hell, made it known that Franz Joseph was unhappy with the reception he had received. A booklet published shortly after by Baron Pascottini, a senior government official, reports the conditions of the time. He described a Trieste in which irredentists were everywhere, brazen though hidden, and that they had been able to influence the populace "to apathy, to silence, to non-intervention in public shows", when the emperor had come.

The awareness that Trieste was, for the most part, opposed to imperial rule remained rooted in the minds of the imperial authorities and was regularly reaffirmed until 1914. In 1859 the city again came under siege, despite its distance from the front, therefore purely for reasons of internal public order. In 1862 Franz Joseph, speaking with Marshal Thun, expressed his disdain for the political conditions of Trieste, while the Minister of War called it a "rebel's nest" (Rebellennest). In 1866, Trieste was placed under siege yet again.

A few years later, on August 5, 1869, General Karl Moering, Lieutenant of the "Littoral" (that is, Venezia Giulia) sent a report to Minister Giskra. He wrote that political and social life in Trieste was entirely dominated by a bloc which brought together almost all Italians and that it was against the Austrian government.

The Exhibition for the 500th anniversary of the so-called Austrian dedication of 1382, held in 1882, was a disaster for Austria's image. It is superfluous to recall that it was on that occasion that Guglielmo Oberdan planned to kill Franz Joseph and ended up sentenced to death. The sentence was met with the disapproval of the international community, which opposed the use of capital punishment for an act which was not committed, but only planned, which legally is a very different thing. But the Exhibition itself was unsuccessful. The solemn inauguration, in the presence of an archduke and various government authorities, was practically deserted, because the Triestines boycotted it.

The Irredentist Spirit

Still a few years before the world war, Habsburg officials and soldiers wrote in their official reports that Trieste's citizenry was predominantly irredentist, so they ordered measures consistent with their firm belief. For example, the brutal repression of the 1902 Lloyd strike, which saw three different cases of the military opening fire upon crowds of demonstrators (leaving at least 14 dead and an unknown number wounded) was due to the belief that the demonstrators were mostly irredentists. The government of Vienna had explicitly given orders "to make an example" out of them. The city was once again under siege and remained so from February to April. Military units were even brought in from places such as Klagenfurt and Ljubljana and three battleships from Pola. Vienna sent the executioner Josef Lang, the same who later hanged Cesare Battisti. It was on that occasion that Conrad von Hötzendorf, then military governor and later chief of the imperial staff, was convinced that irredentism was socially and culturally invincible, and that force needed be used in order to crush it.

The Austrian governor of those years, Leopold von Goess, formally and in writing advised against granting an Italian-speaking university in Trieste because the Volksitaliener (a term used by the imperial administration to designate those who were of Italian ethnicity, although legally subjects of the empire: Volksitalianer means "ethnic Italians") were unfavorable to Austrian rule. That is more or less what was also said by the Statthalter who replaced him, Konrad zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, who contrasted the loyalty of the Slovenes to the empire (who, in his opinion, should be helped) with the hostility of the Italians.

The lieutenant of Trieste, Baron Alfred Fries-Skene, appointed in February 1915, sent a secret report to the government in 1916 in which he reported both on the situation of the city and of the region during the war and in the pre-war period. The Die politische Verwaltung des Küstenlander in eineinhalb Kriegsjahern described a Trieste which even before 1915 was already pervaded by a strong irredentist spirit, with the municipal administration and all its apparatus, the schools and the largest city newspaper (Il Piccolo) all opposed to imperial authority.

The idea that the population of Trieste was made up mostly of irredentists is found not only in the books and memoirs of Italian nationalists, but also in the documents and official decisions of the imperial administration. The short list of sources mentioned above is far from complete.

See also:
Trieste, the Most Italian City
Making Trieste Slavic: An Overview
Making Trieste Slavic: Ethnic Cleansing and the Attempted Slavicization of Trieste