Narodni dom

On 13 July, 1920 Italian fascists burned down Narodni dom in Trieste. Narodni dom is Slovenian for ‘National House’; it was a large building, situated at the central Piazza Oberdan and containing besides the seats of many triestine Slovenian organisations, a theatre and the Hotel Balkan. After the end of the first World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the massive migration of Slavic people gave Trieste and its suburbs a large number of Slovenian inhabitants, more even than in the Slovene capital Ljubljana itself. Another war later, the city was integrated into Yugoslavia in 1945, before returning back to Italy in 1954. Just to say Trieste has always been a melting pot of Italian-Austro-Hungarian-Slavic urban, maritime and agrarian influences.

Barely a year after the foundation by Mussolini of the Fasci italiani di combattimento, in 1920 the Partito Nazionale Fascista of Trieste had acquired hegemony in local political life. At that time, any incident involving not-Italian citizens could lead to calls for vendetta, hate and revenge, establishing the law of retaliation, taking up the arms and the ‘liberation of Italy’. That night of 13 July 1920, after some probably pre-arranged incidents, a mob incited and led by the local leader of the fascist party ran amok through town, looted shops, banks, schools, osterie run by Slovenes, attacked the offices of Slavic and socialist organisations and of professionals of Slovenian descent, and finally set fire to Narodni dom. Some Triestini refer to the events as their own local Kristallnacht. Anyway, the fire would become one of the major myths in the fascist reconstruction of the Nuova Italia, and a year later the fascist leader who had led the mob inaugurated his electoral campaign with the words: “For me the electoral programme starts with the blaze of the Balkan.”

From that moment things got totally out of hand when it comes to anti-Slovenian violence. The story of some of the victims has never been forgotten. There are for instance the four boys from Basovizza (see below), or the fate of Lojze Bratuž (Luigi Bertossi). The man was killed the day before his 35th birthday, forced to drink not castor oil, but machine oil and benzol – and just because he had directed choirs in Slovenian during Christmas mass 1937.  (The forced drinking of castor oil was a well-known torture inflicted by the fascist squads. Political opponents were forced to drink large quantities of castor oil, which caused a vehement diarrhoea; la purga del sovversivo, the fascists called it. The victim was shackled and his trouser legs tied close. Then, when his pants and clothes were filled with faeces, he was sent out again in public space.)

Today, a hundred years later, 13 July 2020, Narodni dom is rebuilt, and would be given back officially to the Slovene community of Trieste in a ceremony of which the presence of the Italian and the Slovenian presidents would emphasize the importance. But matters concerning national pride and honour, historical fascism and neofascism or national-populism are not simple these days. Slovenia, as well as the region Friuli-Venezia Giulia (in which Trieste is located) are governed nowadays by national-populists, who consider ‘national honour’ sacrosanct, and for whom anti-fascism equals terrorism.

Originally the two presidents, Matarella and Pahor, would simply sign an official declaration on the restitution of Narodni dom to the Slovene community of Trieste. Alas – quid pro quo, some Italians thought, and so the two presidents were obliged to include into the ceremony an official visit to the foiba of Basovizza, a village near Trieste. This foiba is in reality an old abandoned mineshaft. In May 1945 Yugoslavian partisans, who were then  occupying Trieste, dropped into the shaft bodies of Italian fascists and German nazi’s, killed or executed during the turmoil at the end of the war. How many corpses there were in the mineshaft, and who they were, has never really been investigated. A combination of all available knowledge leads to believe that a still  unknown number of corpses of Italian fascists, of SS, Gestapo and Gebirgsjäger, and the cadavers of some forty horses were thrown in the deep. At the end the partisans also threw in a large amount of ammunition and explosives, which finally filled the more than 200 meter deep shaft with detritus.

So, in this game of balances the Slovene president would on the one hand receive from the Italians his symbolic house on Italian soil, but on the other hand acknowledge the death of Italian ‘martyrs’ killed by Slavic communists. However, now that they are there anyway, the presidents would also visit another monument in Basovizza, barely a kilometre away from the foiba. There they find a memorial for four boys, three Slovenes from Trieste and a Croatian, who were executed in 1930 after a conviction for terrorism by the Tribunale speciale fascista. But then again, also this extra ceremony is not unequivocal. On the one hand there is this commemoration of very early victims of fascist violence, on the other hand their conviction for ‘terrorism’ has never been cancelled. It all supports the propaganda in some (social) media that ‘fascists and anti-fascists are all the same’.

And no, fascists and anti-fascists are not all the same, but indeed, it may be not so much about national honour and the conflicts between Slovenian and Italian history. What the napo’s really focus on is internationalism. Italian and Slovenian fascists are no political adversaries; what they want to fight in the first place is the commemoration of historical  collaborations, such as those of the partisans of the IX Korpus and the garibaldini of Friuli, or of the Tito battalion of Slovenes who escaped from Spoleto prison and the Italian resistance in Umbria.