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Vol. 31 No. 10 · 28 May 2009

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What about Slovenia?

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.

Anthony Byrne
Domžale, Slovenia

The Power of Pardon

Stephen Sedley asks whether ‘the practice of granting royal pardons to prisoners who testify against other prisoners continues’ (Letters, 1 April 1999). In Canada, this was known as ‘jailhouse snitch’ evidence, and its use was something of a national scandal. A number of convictions for murder that had depended in whole or in part on jailhouse snitch evidence were set aside, and commissions of inquiry, led by a judge, were set up to find out what had gone wrong.

In every case, the inquiring judge condemned the use of such evidence. One judge said it should never be admitted, another warned fellow judges to be sure to warn juries of the unreliability of such evidence, and another said that judges should remind juries of previous wrongful convictions, citing names that would be familiar to all literate Canadians. While nothing was done legislatively, and certainly not by the current law-and-order national government, I very much doubt that jailhouse snitch evidence will ever again be heard in a Canadian courtroom.

In its stead, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have organised the even more dubious practice of using Mounties to pose as major criminals recruiting for big operations, with the aim of inducing naive suspects to confess to previous crimes. The question is: do they confess, or do they exaggerate? In another case, a female Mountie took trips with a suspect, hinting that sexual favours were available. The Canadian courts have, amazingly, allowed this kind of evidence to be admitted as statements made to a police officer. The RCMP are far from embarrassed: they have organised a squad to teach Australians how to do it.

Ron Haggart

The Money that Prays

Jeremy Harding discusses the requirement for risk to be shared between lender and borrower in Islamic banking, but does not make clear that contracts should take the form of profit and loss sharing (PLS), (LRB, 30 April). Thus in principle someone who deposits in an Islamic bank receives not a fixed interest payment but a share in the return which the bank makes on his funds; and someone who borrows from an Islamic bank pays not a fixed interest payment but a share of the profit he makes from the project concerned.

Such PLS arrangements are in principle perfectly viable: borrower and lender agree in advance the split between them, and when the profits are revealed they are divided between them in the ratio previously agreed. The problem with this is that borrowers have an incentive to under-report their profits in order to pay less to the lenders. That means lenders have to expend more resources in ‘monitoring’ the borrowers. In other words, PLS arrangements involve much higher monitoring costs than fixed interest arrangements, where the lender needs to exert himself only if the borrower defaults. These arguments are, in fact, the basis for the formal proof that optimal financial contracts typically involve fixed interest payments, which can be found in the literature on the theory of financial intermediation that was developed in the 1980s.

In practice, Islamic banks appear to have been unwilling to spend significantly more resources on monitoring their borrowers. Instead, as Harding points out, they have sought to replicate conventional banking contracts in ways that their sharia committees have pronounced legal. What data we have on the balance sheets of Islamic banks indicate that for banks which coexist with conventional banks, for example in Egypt, the proportion of PLS lending is typically 5 per cent or less; and even in the Islamicised banking systems of Iran, Pakistan and Sudan it is well below 50 per cent. Instead, Islamic banks focus on short-term lending of the murabaha (working capital loans) or ijara (leasing or hire purchase) type, which Western economists and many Muslims immediately recognise as covert forms of fixed interest transaction. And Islamic banks in the Gulf, in particular, have come more and more to act as conduits for the placing of savings in Western stock markets rather than channels for the financing of investment in their own economies.

It is therefore hard to believe that Islamic banks, as they generally operate at present, are making a significant contribution to the development of economies in Muslim countries, although they do allow a small number of Muslims to get rich at the expense of many others.

David Cobham
Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

Our guys were like sponges

Adam Shatz, in his account of the various ways in which Israeli policy played midwife to Hamas, leaves out a crucial episode reported by Paul McGeough (LRB, 14 May). In 1992, Israel seized about 400 Palestinian Islamists between the ages of 16 and 67, handcuffed and blindfolded them, and deported them to the Lebanese side of the border. There they were welcomed by the much more seasoned guerrilla fighters in Hizbullah, which was waging a highly organised insurgency against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. It was an odd place to send a group of alleged terrorists. ‘If Israel believes that Hamas is a terrorist group and that Lebanon is a haven for terrorism,’ an Arab official asked Bush, ‘why have they sent the Hamas men to Lebanon?’ Seldom has punishment looked more like a reward. From Hizbullah, the Hamas deportees learned to extract explosives from old armaments, and to make explosives with cheap chemicals. ‘Our guys were like sponges,’ a senior Hamas leader remembered. The deportees spent nearly a year camped out in the hills of Lebanon, demanding to be allowed to return home, and their protests attracted widespread sympathy – even from the US. When they returned home, they were ready to apply their new skills.

Joe Palmer

Adam Shatz refers to Baruch Goldstein’s massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. The Cave of the Patriarchs is in Hebron, not in Jerusalem; more specifically, Goldstein’s attack took place in the Ibrahimi Mosque at the site.

Thom Townsend
Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Eli and Håkan and Co

Discussing Let the Right One In, Michael Wood refers to the character Håkan as Eli’s father (LRB, 14 May). Yet despite her adolescent body, Eli is Håkan’s elder by many generations (‘Are you really 12?’ Oskar asks at one stage. ‘Yes,’ Eli replies. ‘It’s just I’ve been 12 for a very long time’). Håkan’s devotion to Eli – and hapless quest to secure her blood – is not mere familial piety, as Wood suggests; jealousy, not paternal concern, lies behind his plea that Eli not see Oskar. The film’s conclusion, then, has a darker significance, for in Håkan, we may have glimpsed Oskar’s own future.

Tor Krever
Cambridge, Massachusetts

McEwan’s Manipulations

James Wood claims that, at the end of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Briony Tallis is suffering from Alzheimer’s, when in fact her condition is known as vascular dementia (LRB, 30 April). The disease makes numerous appearances in McEwan’s novels: Henry Perowne’s mother suffers from it in Saturday, and it appears to be the cause of Molly’s death in Amsterdam.

Fidel Geraldino
Santo Domingo

James Wood should get a grip. They are only books, for God’s sake. He should do what I do, read the last few pages first, get a grip on the dénouement and then start at page one with perfect ease of mind.

Kenneth Griffiths


Henry II’s ‘mass castle sackings’ did not take place in 1166, as Alexander Murray writes, but in 1154-55 (LRB, 30 April). Also, he mentions that ‘more than five hundred’ charters ‘survive from the long 12th century’. This would be an underestimate even if he were referring only to royal charters. Finally, it may be reasonable to talk of the ‘rise of monarchies’ in this period in much of Europe, but in England and Byzantium, the old monarchies had never gone away.

John Moore
University of Bristol

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