Monday, May 25, 2020

The Myth of Anti-Slavic Ethnic Cleansing in the Balkans

(Written by Marco Vigna, taken from the magazine “Indygesto”, March 31, 2020)

Julian-Dalmatian Refugees During the Exodus from Pola (1947)

The idea that the Foibe Massacres were a reaction to Italian abuses is a polemical tool used by Foibe deniers. The historical data shows otherwise: the Italians did not carry out any mass repression, but instead suffered two of them...

One of the arguments used by those who try to deny the genocidal nature of the Foibe Massacres, or who try to justify it as an alleged reaction to supposed Italian abuses, is the accusation that Fascists carried out a de-nationalization of Slavs in Julian Venetia.

However, an examination of the quantitative data recorded in the censuses of the Julian population in the periods from 1880-1910 (under Austrian administration) and from 1921-1936 (under Italian administration) attest that no “ethnic cleansing” took place under the Fascists.

It is well known that the Habsburg government pursued a policy of germanizing and slavicizing Julian Venetia, Dalmatia and South Tyrol, in accordance with the directives of Emperor Franz Joseph at the meeting of the Council of Ministers in 1866. This is confirmed by the demographic data of the period from 1866-1918, which on the one hand documents massive expulsions of Italians, and on the other a Slavic immigration favored in every way by the government, all accompanied by a persecutory policy against Italians, which included endemic violence, the forced alteration of a large number of surnames, the closure of Italian schools, etc. Even a great historian like Ernesto Sestan made mention of this imperial policy:
“About 35 thousand Italian citizens were expelled in the decade from 1903 to 1913.” (1)
The support of the imperial authorities for Slavic immigration from the Balkans, together with their simultaneous hostility towards the Italian population, caused a rapid increase in the Slavic-speaking population in Julian Venetia.

For example, the Slovenian population had a demographic expansion of 3.4% in the period 1880-1890, a 2.7% increase in 1890-1900, and as much as 20.8% in 1900-1910.

In some cities, the increase in the number of Slovenes was even more pronounced. In the period between 1900-1910, the Slovenian presence in Gorizia grew by 36.3%, in Trieste by 116.7%, and in Pola by 178.9%. (2)

Obviously, the increased percentage of Slavs meant also a relative decrease of Italians.

The impact of these combined series of measures against the Italians was devastating especially in Dalmatia, resulting in a very rapid decline of the Italian ethnic group. Professor Monzali writes:
“In the first unofficial Austrian statistical studies carried out in the 1860's and 1870's, the number of Italian Dalmatians varied between 40,000 and 50,000; in the official census of 1880, their number dropped to 27,305, and then dropped dramatically in the following decades; 16,000 in 1890, 15,279 in 1900, 18,028 in 1910 (out of a total Dalmatian population of 593,784 people in 1900, and 645,646 in 1910).” (3)
An abrupt de-nationalization operation to the detriment of the Italians during the last fifty years of the Austrian Empire is therefore proven by the sharp changes in the demographic percentages of the various ethnic groups. The Italian population was almost wiped out in Dalmatia and was reduced in Julian Venetia by the collaborative grip of Slavic nationalists and the imperial authorities.

On the other hand, there was no ethnic cleansing operation against the Slavs under the Kingdom of Italy. It is true that population movements occurred in the period of 1918-1921 in Julian Venetia, however they were voluntary migrations and were due to economic reasons.

In the preceding decades, the Austrian government had introduced into the region a number of officials, administrators, soldiers, employees of post offices, telegraphs, railways, etc., of Austrian, Hungarian and Slovenian ethnic background, so as to “Germanize or Slavicize [the region] ... unsparingly and without the slightest compunction”. (4) When the Austrian state surrendered the region to Italy, all these people naturally lost their jobs: no state in the world would have kept foreign officials, soldiers and civil servants – who were not even born in Julian Venetia – both for reasons of loyalty and because admission to certain jobs was subject to specific requirements and educational standards which differ from country to country.

As usually happens when a territory passes from one state to another, these people lost their jobs, so they voluntarily decided to return to their homelands. What happened was the voluntary emigration of some groups of Austrians, Hungarians and Slavs who had lost their state positions due to a simple and ordinary administrative measure, common to all states (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, for example, enacted the same policy on its soil). It certainly was not an “ethnic cleansing”, also because those who wished to stay were free to remain in Julian Venetia. (5)

Trivially: just as Austria had used its own officials, administrators, civil servants and military personnel in Julian Venetia, so too did Italy. The only real emigration for political reasons – and not economic ones – from Julian Venetia to Yugoslavia was instead that of a few thousand (less than 3,000) Slavic nationalists who, also of their own free will, moved immediately after the war to the newly-formed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where they became foreign agitators, propagandists and sometimes terrorists in the name of Yugoslav nationalism. Again, here one can not speak of “ethnic cleansing”, because this migratory shift was voluntary and involved only a few thousand people. (6)

Furthermore, it should be noted that even during the Fascist period there was an immigration of Slovenes from Slovenia to Italy: J. L. Gardelles, a French scholar, calculates that at least 20,000 to 25,000 Slovenes immigrated to Julian Venetia and permanently took up residence there during the 1920's and 1930's. (7) Such a phenomenon, accepted by the Fascist regime, is incompatible with the idea of ​​an “ethnic cleansing” project.

Simplifying things as much as possible for the sake of brevity, the Fascists proposed the Italianization of the region, but they never conceived of any expulsion of the Slavs nor of forcing them to assimilate. They limited themselves to adopting measures similar to those adopted by other contemporary states, including liberal or democratic ones, making use of educational institutions and mandating the use of the official language.

The non-existence of any forced upheaval of the ethnic and demographic composition of Julian Venetia on the part of the Fascist authorities emerges from a comparison between the 1921 census (which took place a year before the March on Rome and the beginning of the Fascist regime) and the 1936 census.

The census data of 1921 showed that Slovenes and Croats were equal to 37.3% of the population (8), while their percentage in 1936 grew to 37.9%. To be precise, in 1936 the region had a total population of 1,022,593 inhabitants, of which 402,091 inhabitants were of non-Italian origin (Slavs, Germans and other very small communities, equal to 39.5%). More specifically, there were 252,916 Slovenes (24.7%) and 134,945 Croats (13.2%). (9)

Therefore, the Slavs had increased in number from 1921 to 1936, in both absolute terms (not surprising, given the general population growth) and relative terms, since the total percentage of Slovenian and Croatian inhabitants had grown, albeit to a modest extent.

By contrast, one should note the extent of the brutal ethnic cleansing carried out by the Yugoslavs against the Italian population in Julian Venetia between 1943-1948, which led to the expulsion of about 300,000 Italians, to which one must add many thousands more who were murdered.

In conclusion, the “Fascist ethnic cleansing” against Slavs in Julian Venetia is a myth. Meanwhile, two other ethnic cleansings did take place: one against the Italians in Julian Venetia and Dalmatia under the Habsburg Empire, followed by a second one against Italians perpetrated by Tito's partisans.


1. E. Sestan, Venezia Giulia. Lineamenti di una storia etnica e culturale, Udine 1997, p. 93.

2. Data based on the figures reported in O. Mileta Mattiuz, Popolazioni dell’Istria, Fiume, Zara e Dalmazia (1850-2002). Ipotesi di quantificazione demografica, Trieste 2005; G. Perselli, I censimenti della popolazione dell’Istria, con Fiume e Trieste e di alcune città della Dalmazia tra il 1850 e il 1936, Rovigno 1993.

3. L. Monzali, Italiani di Dalmazia. Dal Risorgimento alla Grande Guerra, Firenze 2011, pp. 170-171.

4. The decision of Franz Joseph to carry out an ethnic cleansing against the Italians in Trentino-Alto Adige, Julian Venetia and Dalmatia, can be found in Die Protokolle des Österreichischen Ministerrates 1848-1867. VI Abteilung: Das Ministerium Belcredi. Band 2: 8. April 1866-6. Februar 1867, Österreichischer Bundesverlag für Unterricht, Wissenschaft und Kunst (Wien 1973); the quote appears in Section VI, vol. 2, meeting of November 12, 1866, p. 297. The quotation appears in a section titled “Maßregeln gegen das italienische Element in einigen Kronländern” (“Measures against the Italian element in some territories of the Crown”).

5. The considerations of H. Angermeier in Königtum und Staat im deutschen Reich, München 1954, are very useful in this regard.

6. J. A. Brundage, The Genesis of the Wars: Mussolini and Pavelic, London 1987.

7. J. L. Gardelles, Histria et Dalmatia. Peuplements: essai de synthèse, in «Journal of Modern History», VI (1980), pp. 143-214

8. J. B. Duroselle, Le conflit de Trieste 1943-1954, Bruxelles, 1966.

9. T. Sala, 1939. Un censimento riservato del governo fascista sugli «alloglotti». Proposte per l’assimilazione degli “allogeni” nella Provincia dell’Istria in «Bollettino dell’Istituto Regionale per la storia del movimento di liberazione nel Friuli-Venezia Giulia», a. I, n. 1, 1973, pp. 17-19.