STA, 4 June 2020 - One hundred years since National Hall in Trieste was burnt down by Fascists, Italy is expected to give this former state-of-the-art commercial and cultural centre of Slovenians in Italy back to the Slovenian ethnic minority. The symbolic gesture could bring about the much needed reconciliation between the minority and majority populations.
Narodni Dom, as is called in Slovenian, epitomised the economic and political power of Slovenians in Italy, which accounted for around 25% of Trieste population before WWI.
Its torching on 13 July 1920 symbolises the onset of Fascist violence against Slovenians. A pivotal report on Slovenian-Italian relations in 1880-1956, which was released in 2000 but has not been published in Italy to date, says the arson "publicly heralded the long-lasting violence against Slovenians".
The multi-purpose centre was launched in 1904 featuring a bank, a hotel, a library, a 400-seat theatre, a sports hall, a music school, a print shop and the newspaper Edinost, several associations, restaurants and bars as well as flats.
Prosperous Slovenian politicians and businessmen from Trieste, who were behind the idea to build such a unique centre unknown of in Europe or the US at the time, selected Maks Fabiani, one the finest architects in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to design it.
After it was burnt down, the centre was repaired and turned into Regina Hotel, which was closed soon after WWII and bought by the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region to be later given to the University of Trieste.
Although the Slovenian minority had wanted to have National Hall returned ever since the end of WWII, it was not until 2001 that Italy committed to returning it in an umbrella law to safeguard the minority.
The centre, now valued at over nine million euro, should have become available to Slovenian and Italian cultural and scientific organisations within five years since the passage of the law, so the delay prompted the Slovenian and Italian foreign ministers, Karl Erjavec and Angelino Alfano, to sign a deal in 2017 to speed up its renovation and return.
What sparked the attack on National Hall was an incident involving a Yugoslav flag in Split, a port in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, where two Italian seamen died a day earlier in a clash with locals.
Thousands of protesters that gathered in Trieste on 13 July demanded revenge for the two victims, urging the authorities to hunt down the "dangerous" Yugoslavs, writes historian Milica Kacin-Wohinz in her book Slovenians in Primorska Region under Italian Occupation in 1918-1921, which is also available in Italian.
An innocent man died at the rally, with the Fascists claiming he had been killed by Slovenians, which fuelled the irate crowd to march towards National Hall.
The centre was closed and guarded by over 400 men, including soldiers, by the time the crowed arrived, as the Italian authorities had anticipated it could become a target of attacks.
When several shots were fired from Balkan Hotel within the centre and two grenades were lobbed from it, the soldiers there to protect National Hall turned the fire towards the hotel, which prompted the protesters to break in, douse the centre with petrol and set it on fire. They also prevented firefighters from putting the fire out, so it was in ruins by the next day.
The arson was followed by the protesters raging around the city attacking several other Slavic institutions, including the office and flat of the representative of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which later became known as the Trieste Kristallnacht.
The turmoil worsened the political situation in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, fuelling ethnic hatred, which the Fascists harnessed as they were rising to power. When the Fascist regime came to power in October 1922, ethnic minorities became a target of heavy assimilation pressure.
Slovenians were first deprived of the right to their mother tongue, which was followed by the closure of Slovenians schools and other institutions, by political persecution, confiscation of property and deportations.
This led to young Slovenian patriots getting organised within the TIGR organisation in 1927, around a decade after Trieste as well as a large chunk of lands populated by Slovenians became part of Italy following the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the end of WWI.
When Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes signed the Treaty of Rapallo in November 1920 setting the border after WWI, around 500,000 Slovenians and Croats came under Italy.
And although Trieste and a large area populated by Slovenians was also assigned to Italy after WWII, Trieste has remained a political, economic and cultural centre of the Slovenian minority to this day, although relations between the minority and Italy have never been fully tension-free.
It is estimated that some 80,000 ethnic Slovenians live in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, an area where Slovenians have been present from the 13th century according to historical records.
Writer Boris Pahor, at the age of 106 still a vocal advocate of Slovenian minority rights from Trieste, witnessed how National Hall was burnt down.
He told the STA that for him as a seven-year old and for Slovenians in Trieste the arson "meant the end of the world". He described the incident in two of his works, including the 1972 novel Trg Oberdan (Oberdan Square).
Pahor has taken this opportunity to once again urge Italy to publish the 2000 report on Slovenian-Italian relations, which was compiled by historians from both countries. "The report is still locked in Rome, it has never come to schools," said Pahor, who believes there is still a great risk of Fascism reappearing.
STA, 4 June 2020 - The Slovenian minority in Italy see the planned returning of Narodni Dom (National Hall) to the minority on the 100th anniversary of its arson as a symbolic act of reconciliation and a correction of history. Narodni Dom represents the lungs of the Slovenian community, Council of Slovenian Organisations (SSO) head Walter Bandelj has told the STA.
"The restitution of National Hall would be a huge gesture for the minority, a rectification of history," said Bandelj.
He sees the building designed as a Slovenian cultural centre as the "lungs of Slovenian identity", which is why it is important that it is returned to Slovenians. The building is in the centre of Trieste, which highlights the role Slovenians have had in the city, he said.
According to Italian Senator Tatjana Rojc, a member of the Slovenian minority, National Hall was a symbol of the economic and cultural rise of the Slovenian middle class in Trieste.
It was to show that Slovenians are not only the proletariat in Trieste as some still think today, that they are not just port workers, maids and laundresses, but also people who are successful in business and culture, she said.
Igor Gabrovec, an ethic Slovenian who is member of the regional legislative assembly of Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy, believes that by building it, Slovenians had proven to Trieste and especially themselves that they were economically and politically successful, "which is why the attack on National Hall was a shot through the heart of the Slovenian community and the idea of pan-Slavic unity".
The restitution of National Hall would be a "symbolic act of reconciliation which we all justifiably expect a hundred years after the arson of this building on 13 July 1920," said Ksenija Dobrila, the head of the Slovenian Cultural and Economic Union (SKGZ). "It would be a confirmation that we are full-fledged members of this space."
Italian Ambassador to Slovenia Carlo Campanile agrees that Italy would thus send a future-oriented message. "It will be an invitation to cooperation, a message that we wish to grow and develop together in the spirit of friendship and cooperation while dealing with our common problems and challenges".
Yet whether or not Italy will indeed transfer the ownership of the building to the minority organisations on 13 July, when the presidents of the two countries, Borut Pahor and Sergio Mattarella, are expected to meet to mark the anniversary of the arson, is not certain yet.
The ambassador did not exclude this possibility although noting that the Covid-19 epidemic had affected all proceedings in Italy lately. "Of course this must not be an excuse. It's a path we've started and I hope it will be concluded as soon as possible. There's a will for this to happen on both sides," he said.
Italy committed to returning the building to Slovenians in the 2001 act protecting the Slovenian minority. The law said the building, which was rebuilt between 1988 and 1990, and now houses the headquarters of the college of modern languages for interpreters and translators, part of the University of Trieste, as well as a Slovenian information centre, should be returned within five years.
Since nothing would happen over the next 16 years, the then foreign ministers, Karl Erjavec and Italy's Angelino Alfano, reached an agreement in 2017, reaffirming Italy's commitment and set the end of 2020 as the final deadline for the return.
The process got an additional boost with talks between Pahor and Mattarella, who expressed the wish to meet in Trieste on 13 July and reach an agreement on the restitution.
"A few more steps are needed before minority organisations move to National Hall, but the outlook is very good," assessed Slovenian Consul General in Trieste Vojko Volk.
He sees this as "the biggest event for the Slovenian minority in Italy since independence if not of this century".
Bandelj said the minority was hoping that at least an agreement on ownership would be activated before 13 July, which would say that "we will become owners in two to three years".
He said it was understandable that the University of Trieste needed some time to move its college out the building. A reasonable deadline would be set, he noted.
Bandelj said the minority was financially capable of owning the building. "We have organised to have all institutions that would operate in the building after it is returned to Slovenians pay rent so no extra costs would emerge."
Dobrila stressed an agreement on ownership was important for the organisations to have the freedom to develop the concept of the building, and to restore the "original idea of our ancestors and create heritage for the generations to come".
She envisions the building as a centre of all communities in Trieste, dedicated to art, culture and research.
Both Dobrila and Bandelj deem the planned visit of the two countries' presidents on 13 July a far-sighted sign of peace, harmony and coexistence. A ceremony with 150-200 participants at the opera house, which was planned for the anniversary, was postponed for a year because of coronavirus.
STA, 4 June 2020 - A hundred years ago, the Italian state authorities allowed the torching of Narodni Dom (National Hall) in Trieste by not punishing anybody for the crime and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was too weak to react, historian Borut Klabjan has told the STA. Italian historian Raoul Pupo said investigating the matter did not suit the Fascists.
Before the First World War, Trieste was a global, multicultural, multi-ethnic city that attracted people from all over the world who wanted to benefit from its prosperity and rapid growth, said Klabjan of the Institute for History Studies at the Koper Science and Research Centre.
"Trieste before the First World War was definitely the city with the highest share of Slovenians. Back then, Trieste had 220,000 to 230,000 people, and a quarter, perhaps even a third of them, were Slovenians. Ljubljana had 50,000 people at the time, more than half of them Slovenians. Trieste was in fact the largest Slovenian city."
The war cut into this flourishing city, and when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart, Italy occupied the area. Its plan was homogenisation of the territory and it did not recognise others on it - neither Germans in the north nor Slovenians and Croats in the east.
Tensions built up soon, which led to the arson of the National Hall, a Slovenian commercial and cultural centre, on 13 July 1920.
According to Pupo, the multicultural and cosmopolitan character of Trieste was a heritage of the pre-national period of the city's history in which collective identities were not formed based on people's origin or their mother tongue but based on their faith, loyalty to institutions etc.
But in the second half of the 19th century, a process of parallel competitive nationalisation of language groups, which was typical of the Hapsburg monarchy, started in Trieste as well, undermining the spirit of tolerance.
"National movements have very different sources of inspiration, as the Italian national movement copied the French model of voluntary nation, while the Slovenian national movement followed the example of the German ethicist concept.
"Both shared the desire to have exclusive power over a territory, which should be achieved using any means available," said Pupo, a lecturer at the University in Trieste.
"The arson was not an act by an Italian state institution but the attitude of the state institutions was what had allowed it to happen," said Klabjan, who is working on a monograph about the events that happened on 13 July 1920 together with his colleague Gorazd Bajc.
The attack on National Hall was the first by Fascists, the largest and not nearly the only one. "Given that the reaction of the authorities was such that they blamed Slovenians for provoking Italians, and not reconciling themselves to the fact that the area became Italian, this attitude of the authorities that did not punish anyone for the arson, gave wings to the movement."
In a matter of months, the movement brought together the majority of the extremists who were involved in the arson and the Fascist movement began. After National Hall, they targeted other property of Slovenians and political opponents, especially socialists, communists and republicans, who wanted to stand up to Fascist violence.
The leader of the Fascists was Francesco Giunta, who came to Trieste in the spring of 1920, when the situation was perfect for developing Fascist ideas, a mix of nationalist claims in relation to the then ongoing Paris Peace conference, and political pressure, Klabjan said.
Neither he nor others who took part in the National Hall arson were punished because the authorities found them useful and wanted to use them to crush socialists, communists, Slovenians and Croats.
The young Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians (SHS) also failed to respond, presumably "to keep a low profile in relation to Italy", Klabjan said, noting that he was still investigating this aspect.
The SHS was afraid to anger Italy, with which it needed to reach an agreement on the borders as soon as possible, so "in relation to Italy it was the weaker partner". It did not have a lot of room to manoeuvre either bilaterally or multilaterally.
Evidence suggests the SHS did not respond to the National Hall arson but only to the subsequent attack on an office of a delegation of the SHS.
The latter was also what triggered a reaction from foreign consuls in Trieste. The British, French, Czechoslovak and American consuls thought about taking steps but failed to do so in the end, partly because the SHS did not react.
But documents show that representatives of other countries blamed the Italian authorities for not preventing the havoc in the city, Klabjan said.
Pupo, a member of the Slovenian-Italian historic and cultural commission which drew up a report on the relations between the two nations from the late 19th century until after the Second World War a few years ago, believes nobody was ever punished for National Hall arson because this did not suit the Fascists or state institutions, "which already covered for them".
"It was not good to investigate details which could potentially undermine the official reconstruction of events drawn up by civil commissioner Mosconi.
"There are still so many opaque aspects to the whole incident that many things remain unclear to this day: who stabbed two persons in Piazza Grande, of whom one later died? Who dropped a bomb or bombs? Who shot? Who knows ..."