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A history of disorder at the border


Trieste and Istria: A tale of Italian territory divided by war

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

Italy is a country whose borders changed frequently through the centuries as various European rulers claimed or lost regions through war or shifting allegiances. Trieste and the Istrian peninsula are the most recent area whose borders Italy has disputed with the transfer of Istria through the Treaty of Osimo in November 1975.
Since 1382, Trieste had been part of the Habsburg Monarchy, while the Habsburg Monarchy and the Republic of Venice had for centuries ruled Istria. Trieste thrived under the Austrian rule which not only protected the port city from the powerful Venetian navy (which often raided and sacked the city) but also enjoyed wealth and status under the Hapsburg Empire. The population of the territory was diverse and mixed, with a majority of Italian speakers in the urban and coastal areas. Minority populations which consisted of Slovenian, Serbians, and Croatians were more prevalent in the surrounding territory and they represented about a third of the population by the end of World War I.

The territory of Trieste became a part of Italy after World War I with the Italian speaking town surrounded by a Slovenian speaking countryside. After 1918, as the fascists began to rise to power, there was a marked rise of discrimination against the Slovenia population; language schools and organizations were closed, and numerous Slovenian names were Italianized.

After the Sept. 8 armistice of World War II, when Italy began to fight along with the allied powers, the Germans seized northern Italy and created a puppet state known as La Repubblica Sociale Italiana and placed Benito Mussolini in control. This did not include Trieste which became part of the Reich.

In 1945 allied forces and Yugoslavian partisans fought to take back Trieste (which included the Istrian peninsula) with both Italy and Yugoslavia staking claim to the territory. An international protectorate was set up and Trieste became a free territory (Territorio Libero di Trieste) from 1945 to 1954 when the two countries finally reached an agreement. In 1947, Trieste was declared an independent city state under the protection of the United Nations as the Free Territory of Trieste. The treaty split the four territories into two zones, A and B, along the Morgan Line established in 1945. It was later formalized as the Treaty of Osimo and signed into law on November 10, 1975. Trieste became part of Italy while Istria (which had a similar ethnic composition) was given to former Yugoslavia which is now Slovenia and Croatia.

The Italian government was criticized for signing the treaty in secretive maneuvers that bypassed diplomatic channels. Italian nationalists rejected the idea of ceding Istria since the area had been an ancient “Italian” region together with the region of Venice. Furthermore, Istria had belonged to Italy for the 25 years between the two world wars, and the west coast of Istria had long had a sizeable Italian minority population. The treaty did not guarantee protections of this Italian minority in the Yugoslav zone nor for the Slovenian minority in the Italian zone. Protection of minorities was later addressed by government officials in separate protocols.

The disruption to the lives of those now living in different countries was extensive. According to estimates published by the Allied Military Government, as of 1949 in the A zone (Trieste) there were about 310,000 inhabitants, including 239,200 Italians and 63,000 Slovenians. Italian sources noted there were 36,000-55,000 Italians and 12,000-17,000 Slovenes and Croats in Zone B (Istria). In a Yugoslav census of 1945, (considered falsified by a UN commission), there were a reported 67,461 inhabitants, including 30,789 Slovenians, Serbians, and Croatians, 29,672 Italians, and 7,000 people of unidentified nationality in Zone B.

During the late 1940s and in the years after the division of the territory, up to 40,000 people (mostly Italians) chose to leave the Yugoslav Zone B and move to the Italian Zone A. Some were intimidated into leaving, and others chose not to live in Yugoslavia. There were additional waves of migration from Istria to Italy or other countries in later years.
In that period about 14,000 Italians remained in the “new” territory. According to a 2011 Croatian census, Italians of Croatia number 17,807, or 0.42% of the total Croatian population.

When Yugoslavia broke apart and became today’s Slovenia and Croatia (in 1991) both countries agreed to recognize the treaty. Today the vast majority of Istria is in Croatia but the northwestern part lies in Slovenia. North of Slovenian Istria, there is a tiny portion of the peninsula that lies in Italy with just two “communi.”

Istria today is home to a much smaller population of Italian speakers. As of 2009, the Italian language is officially used in 20 cities and municipalities and 10 other settlements in Croatia, according to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The heart-shaped peninsula extends deep into the clear blue waters of the Adriatic Sea and is home to the Brijuni National Park, a large group of islands located on the western coast of Istria. The area is also a favored destination for travelers looking to avoid the higher costs and crowds of major European cities.

Many of those who moved to Italy, the U.S., and other countries after the division of the Trieste territory still identify as Istrian Italians and they maintain their heritage through food, song, dance, and other traditions.

Trieste today is a thriving cosmopolitan city. Its deep-water port is a maritime gate-way for Northern Italy, Germany, Austria, and Central Europe. Since the 1960s, Trieste has become a major research center with the highest percentage of researchers in Europe per population. The city, which lies at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic, and Germanic cultures, is noted as one of the literary capitals of the world.

Trieste has one of the highest standards of living among Italian cities and has become a favorite vacation destination for Italians and other world travelers. It is a beautiful cosmopolitan city rated in 2020 as one of the 25 best small towns in the world for quality of life and one of the 10 safest cities in the world.

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