How should they remember it?
- BuyThe White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-19 by Mark Thompson
Faber, 455 pp, £9.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 22334 3
Pinzolo is a sleepy Alpine resort in northern Italy, about an hour’s drive from Trento. Today, it is a prosperous place, living off winter and summer tourism, but for most of the last century this was an area of extreme poverty, and many of those who lived in the valley were forced to emigrate. There is a statue of a knife-grinder in the town, a monument to the job most of these emigrants did, in places as far apart as Sarajevo, Jersey City and Plymouth. The residents speak a mixture of Italian and a local dialect, although the Trentino region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.
Vol. 31 No. 10 · 28 May 2009
John Foot shows a pro-Italian bias in his review of Mark Thompson’s White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front which may reflect that of the book, but means that we learn almost nothing of the other side of the story (LRB, 9 April). No mention, for example, of the national composition of the Austro-Hungarian army, its losses and privations, or even the name of its commander on the Isonzo Front (Marshall Borojevic, an Orthodox Serb). One gets the impression that the war was fought exclusively on Italian territory by Italians and that Italian civilians were its unwitting victims. In fact, most of the fighting on the Isonzo Front took place in Slovenia or on ethnic Slovenian territory. The Slovenians, especially around Gorizia/Gorica, suffered heavily, both as civilians and as recruits for the Austro-Hungarian army.
Italy’s entry into the war was largely a matter of calculated, opportunistic territorial expansion, and had little to do with self-defence, morality or the honouring of a treaty. In his account of the 1915 Treaty of London, Foot fails to mention that the Italians first approached Austro-Hungary, offering to enter the war on its side in return for territorial concessions and then, dissatisfied with the response, approached the Allies. The British, while they were generous in granting other people’s land, were disgusted with the Italians’ bargaining. The cabinet, Asquith wrote, discussed ‘how to buy at the lowest price the immediate intervention of that greedy, slippery, perfidious power called Italy’.
In January 1918, after their catastrophic humiliation at Caporetto and retreat to the Piave, the Italians, in order to detach or weaken the fighting resolve of the Yugoslav nationals in the Austro-Hungarian army, signed a pact with the Yugoslav Committee agreeing that the postwar frontier should be along largely ethnic lines. This would have meant repudiating the Treaty of London. However, with the collapse of Austro-Hungary at the end of the war and the advance of the Italian army into Slovenia, they reneged on this undertaking and, shamefully, the Allies acquiesced. Indeed the Italian armies took territory in Slovenia east of the Treaty of London line (for example, Postojna).
Even now the Italians have by no means given up their pretensions to those parts of Slovenia and Croatia to the west of the Italo-Yugoslav frontier settled by the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920. For example, very recently in a speech to a right-wing rally in Trieste, Gianfranco Fini, the president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, said: ‘Istria was Roman and then Venetian, which means it is Italian’ (applause). This kind of barefaced revanchism would cause a scandal in Brussels or Strasbourg, but here it passes almost without notice, so routine is Italian right-wing demagoguery. In Trieste, long-standing prejudice against Slovenians is expressed in the frequent defacing of the few bilingual traffic signs, attacks on war memorials, the daubing of swastikas, vandalisation of Slovene kindergartens and attacks on Slovenes and their property. In spite of the Prodi government’s bill finally giving Slovenes bilingual rights in Friuli (decades after bilingual rights were given to the French and German minorities in Aosta and the Tyrol), it has never been implemented properly by the right-wing local authorities, and moves are afoot to repeal it. In contrast, the tiny Italian minority in Slovenia (0.1 per cent of the population) are the best protected in Europe: they have their own member in the 90-seat Slovenian Parliament, schools, a national TV channel, and have the right even to fly the Italian tricolour.