Istrian exodus

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The term Istrian exodus refers to the departure of ethnic Italians from Istria, Zadar and Rijeka after World War II. At the time of the exodus, these territories were part of the SR Croatia and SR Slovenia (then parts of SFR Yugoslavia), today they are parts of the Republics of Croatia and Slovenia. The exodus was incited by the Yugoslav government to exclude future land claims by Italy.1 The Italian government offered some assistance to the population coming into Italy.

These territories were ethnically mixed, with Italian, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and other communities. Istria including Rijeka and parts of Dalmatia including Zadar, had been annexed to Italy after World War I. At the end of World War II the former Italian territories in Istria and Dalmatia became part of Yugoslavia by the Paris Peace Treaty (1947), with the only exception being the communes of Muggia and San Dorligo della Valle.

Italian sources consider that up to 250,000/350,000 ethnic Italians and (some thousand of) anti-communist Slovenes and Croats, left the areas in the aftermath of the conflict.234 In various municipalities in Croatia and Slovenia, census data shows that despite the efforts made by the Yugoslavian Government just after World War II to force the Italians to leave,5 there are still some Italians living in some cities of Istria, such as 51% of the population of Grožnjan, 37% at Brtonigla and 39.6% in Buje.6

Overview of the exodus

Italians have settled in Slovenia and Croatia since the Middle Ages, and in 1910 they accounted for more than a third of the local inhabitants.7 The indigenous Venetian-speaking Istrians arrived between 1918–1943, when Primorska and Istria, Rijeka, part of Dalmatia, and the islands of Cres, Krk, Lastovo, and Palagruža were part of Italy. The Kingdom of Italy's 1936 census8 indicated approximately 230,000 people who listed Italian as their language of communication in what is now the territory of Slovenia and Croatia, then part of the Italian state (ca. 194,000 in today’s Croatia and ca. 36,000 in today’s Slovenia). From the end of World War II until 1953, according to various data, between 250,000 and 350,000 people emigrated from these regions. One-third were Slovenes and Croats who opposed the Communist government in Yugoslavia,9 while two-thirds were ethnic Italians, the so-called optanti emigrants who were living permanently in this region on 10 June 1940 and who expressed their wish to obtain Italian citizenship and emigrate to Italy. The emigration of Italians reduced the total population of the region and altered its historical ethnic structure.

In 1953, officially, only 36,000 Italians lived in Yugoslavia, 16% of the Italian population before World War II.9 In 2002, according to official Slovenian and Croatian censi only 23,398 people had declared to be of Italian nationality albeit the number of people speaking Italian is certainly larger, because in Istria the knowledge of Italian has not to be restricted to the population of Italian nationality and ethnicity. Indeed, since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, a significant portion of the population of Istria opted for a regional declaration in the census instead of a national one. Those people, albeit ethnically Slavs, have a near-native competence of Italian. Interestingly, the number of people resident in Croatia and declaring themselves to be Italian nearly doubled between 1981 and 1991 censi (i.e. before and after the dissolution of Yugoslavia).10

During the war for Croatia there were no military battles in Istria. Therefore the Croat Government settled in Istria ethnic Croatian refugees from the regions that were under control of the Republic of Srpska Krajina, Herzegovina and central Bosnia. Many of those refugees settled permanently in Istria. These settlements were politically motivated, to “strengthen the Croatian stock” in Istria, because during the decade 1981-1991 the number of Italians in Istria statistically increased more than 80% as a result of new political conditions in Croatia.9


Ancient times

Evidence of Italic people living alongside those from other ethnic groups on the eastern side of the Adriatic as far north as the Alps goes back at least to the Bronze Age,11 and the populations have been mixed ever since. A 2001 population census counted 23 languages spoken by the people of Istria.12

From the Middle Ages onwards numbers of Slavic people near and on the Adriatic coast were ever increasing, due to their expanding population and due to pressure from the Turks pushing them from the south and east.13 This led to Italic people becoming ever more confined to urban areas, while the countryside was populated by Slavs, with certain isolated exceptions 14

The majority Slavic population suffered economic and political disadvantagescitation needed, which gradually declined with the democratization of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 19th century.

World War I and post-War period

In 1915, the Italians declared war to the Austro-Hungarian Empire 15 leading to bloody conflict mainly on the Isonzo and Piave fronts. Britain, France and Russia had been "keen to bring neutral Italy into World War One on their side. Italy however drove a hard bargain, demanding extensive territorial concessions once the war had been won".16 In a deal to draw Italy into the war, under the London Pact, Italy was granted Trentino, Trieste, (the German-speaking) South Tyrol, Istria including large non-Italian communities, and the northern part of Dalmatia including the territories of Zadar (Zara) and Šibenik (Sebenico). Fiume (present-day Rijeka) was excluded.16

After World War I, under the Treaty of Rapallo between the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and the Kingdom of Italy (12 November 1920), Italy obtained Zadar in Dalmatia and some minor islands, almost all of Istria with Trieste, the exception being the island of Krk and part of Kastav commune, which went to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. By the Treaty of Rome (27 January 1924) the Free State of Fiume (Rijeka) was split between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Between December 31, 1910, and December 1, 1921, Istria lost 15.1% of its population – the last survey under the Austrian empire recorded 404,309 inhabitants, which were reduced to 343,401 by the first Italian census after the war.17 While such a decrease is certainly related to World War I and the changeover in political administration, emigration was also a major factor. In the immediate post World War I period, Istria was the stage of an intense migration outflow. Pula, for example, was badly affected by the drastic dismantling of its massive military and bureaucratic apparatus of over 20,000 soldiers and security forces, and the dismissal of the employees from its shipyard. The serious economic crisis in the rest of Italy forced thousands of peasants to move into Yugoslavia, which then became the main destination of the Istrian exodus.17 The "political factor"clarification needed also played its part, especially regarding the local intellectual elite.17

Due to the lack of reliable statistics, however, the true magnitude of Istrian emigration during that period cannot be assessed accurately. Estimates provided by varying sources and with different research methods show that 30,000 Istrians migrated between 1918 and 1921.17

Slavs under Italian Fascist rule

After World War I, under the Treaty of Rapallo between the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and the Kingdom of Italy (12 November 1920), Italy obtained almost all of Istria with Trieste, the exception being the island of Krk and part of Kastav commune, which went to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. By the Treaty of Rome (27 January 1924) Italy took Rijeka as well, which had been planned to become an independent state.

In these areas, there was a forced policy of Italianization of the population in the 1920s and 1930s.18 Even during the brief preliminary period of occupation (1918–1920) Italy had begun a policy of assimilation of Croats and Slovenes. This resulted in the closure of the classical lyceum in Pazin, of the high school in Voloska (1918), the closure of the Slovenian and Croatian primary schools and the exile of some distinguished Croats and Slovenians to Sardinia and to other places in Italy. In addition, there were acts of fascist violence not hampered by the authorities, such as the torching of the Narodni dom (National House) in Pula and Trieste carried out at night by Fascists with the connivance of the police (July 13, 1920). The situation deteriorated further after the annexation of the Julian March, especially after Benito Mussolini came to power (1922). The official policy of cleansing other nationalities was under no international restraint, as Italy had not given any undertaking about the rights of minorities in either the peace treaties or the Rapallo treaty.

In Istria the use of Croatian and Slovene languages in the administration and in the courts had already been restricted during the occupation (1918–1920). In March 1923 the prefect of the Julian March prohibited the use of Croatian and Slovene in the administration, whilst their use in law courts was forbidden by Royal decree on 15 October 1925. The deathblow to the Slovenian and Croatian school system in Istria was delivered on 1 October 1923 with the scholastic reform of minister Giovanni Gentile. The activities of Croatian and Slovenian societies and associations (Sokol, reading rooms, etc.) had already been forbidden during the occupation, but specifically so later with the Law on Associations (1925), the Law on Public Demonstrations (1926) and the Law on Public Order (1926). All Slovenian and Croatian societies and sporting and cultural associations had to cease every activity in line with a decision of provincial fascist secretaries dated 12 June 1927. On a specific order from the prefect of Trieste on 19 November 1928 the Edinost political society was also dissolved. Croatian and Slovenian co-operatives in Istria, which at first were absorbed by the Pula or Trieste Savings Banks, were gradually liquidated.19 After this complete dissolution of all Slav political, cultural and economic organizations, armed resistance was organized against Italian rule (see TIGR), followed by new repression, which further embittered relations between the two communities.

World War II

After the Wehrmacht invasion of Yugoslavia (6 April 1941), the Italian zone of occupation was further expanded.20 Italy annexed large areas of Croatia (including most of coastal Dalmatia) and Slovenia (including its capital Ljubljana).

Helped by the Ustaše, a Croatian fascist movement animated by a blend of Fascism, Nazism and Croatian nationalism, the Italian occupation continued with its repression of Partisan activities and the killing and imprisonment of thousands of Yugoslav civilians in concentration camps (such as the Rab concentration camp) in the newly annexed provinces. This fed the anti-Italian sentiments of the Slovenian and Croatian subjects of Fascist Italy. During the Italian occupation until their capitulation in September 1943, the population was subjected to atrocities, described by Italian historian Claudio Pavone as “aggressive and violent. Not so much an eye for an eye as a head for an eye” 21 as orders by Italian generals explicitly called. These atrocities were often carried out with the help of the Ustaše.22

After World War II, there were large-scale movements of people choosing to move to Italy rather than live in Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia, the people who left were called optanti, which translates as 'choosers', while they call themselves esuli or exiles. Their motives for leaving may have been fear of reprisals, economic motives, or ethnically based.23

Events of 1943

When the Fascist regime collapsed in 1943 reprisals against Italian fascists took place. Up to 200 Italians were killed by Josip Broz Tito's resistance movement in September 1943; most had been connected to the fascist regime, while others were victims of personal hatred or the attempt of the Partisan resistance to get rid of its real or supposed enemies.

Civilian bodies recovered by firefighters and local civilians in 1943.

The foibe massacres

The second wave of anti-Fascist violence took place after the liberation of Istria from Axis occupation in May 1945. This was known as the Foibe massacres.

Some Italian sources claim that these killings amounted to ethnic cleansing, and that Italian people subsequently had no option but to emigrate.24

The mixed Italian-Slovenian Historical Commission, established in 1995 by the two governments to investigate these matters, described the circumstances of the 1945 killings:

14. These events were triggered by the atmosphere of settling accounts with the fascists; but, as it seems, they mostly proceeded from a preliminary plan which included several tendencies: endeavors to remove persons and structures who were in one way or another (regardless of their personal responsibility) linked with Fascism, with the Nazi supremacy, with collaboration and with the Italian state, and endeavors to carry out preventive cleansing of real, potential or only alleged opponents of the communist regime, and the annexation of Julian March to the new SFR Yugoslavia. The initial impulse was instigated by the revolutionary movement, which was changed into a political regime and transformed the charge of national and ideological intolerance between the partisans into violence at the national level.

The number of victims is not certain. The Italian historian Raoul Pupo suggests 4,500 were killed (including the events of 1943), mostly Italians, but many bodies wearing Partisan uniforms were found as well, so the number is subject to many interpretations. Other sources suggest numbers reaching up to 20,000 killed or missing, with the most likely number approaching 10,000.

The exodus

Economic insecurity, ethnic hatred and the international political context that eventually led to the Iron Curtain resulted in up to 350,000 people, mostly Italians, choosing to leave the region and go away from Istria (and even Dalmatia and northern "Venezia Giulia").2526 Furthermore, the nearly complete disappearance of the Dalmatian Italians (there were 45,000 or nearly 20% of the total Dalmatian population in 1848,27 while now there are only 300) has been related to democide and ethnic cleansing by scholars like R. J. Rummel. The London Memorandum (1954) gave the ethnic Italians the choice of either opting to leave (the so-called optants) or staying. These exiles were to be given compensation for their loss of property and other indemnity by the Italian state under the terms of the peace treaties. Following the exodus, the areas were settled with Yugoslav people.

Periods of the exodus

The exodus took place between 1943 and 1960, with the main movements of population having place in the following years:

  • 1943
  • 1945
  • 1947
  • 1954

The first period took place after the surrender of the Italian army and the beginning of the first wave of anti-fascist violence.

The second period was soon after the end of the war and around the time of the second wave of anti-fascist violence. The Wehrmacht was engaged in a front-wide retreat from the Yugoslav Partisans, along with the local collaborationist forces (the Ustaše, the Domobranci, the Chetniks, and units of Mussolini's puppet Italian Social Republic).

The third period took place after the Paris peace treaty, when Istria was assigned to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, except for a small area in the northwest part that formed the independent Free Territory of Trieste. The coastal city of Pula was the site of the large-scale exodus of its Italian population. Between December 1946 and September 1947, Pula almost completely emptied as its residents exercised their "option" for Italian citizenship. 28,000 of the city's population of 32,000 decided to leave.2829

The fourth period took place after the Memorandum of Understanding in London. It gave provisional civil administration of Zone A (with Trieste), to Italy, and Zone B to Yugoslavia. Finally in 1975 the Treaty of Osimo finally divided the former Free Territory of Trieste.

Estimates of the exodus

Several estimates of the exodus by historians:

The mixed Italian-Slovenian Historical Commission verified 27,000 Italian and 3,000 Slovene migrants from Slovenian territory.

Famous exiles

Those whose families left Istria or Dalmatia in the post-World War II period include:

Property reparation

On February 18, 1983 Yugoslavia and Italy signed a treaty in Rome where Yugoslavia agreed to pay US$110 million for the compensation of the exiles' property which was confiscated after the war in the Zone B of Free Territory of Trieste.3132 Up to its breakup in 1991, Yugoslavia had paid US$18 million. Slovenia and Croatia, two Yugoslav successors, agreed to share the remainder of this debt. Slovenia assumed 62% and Croatia the remaining 38%. Italy did not want to reveal the bank account number so in 1994 Slovenia opened a fiduciary account at Dresdner Bank in Luxembourg, informed Italy about it and started paying its US$55,976,930 share. The last payment was due in January 2002. Until today, the solution of the matter between Croatia and Italy has been delayed.

Minority rights in the former Yugoslavia

In connection with exodus and during the period of communist Yugoslavia (1945–1991),33 the equality of ethno-nations and national minorities and how to handle inter-ethnic relations was one of the key questions of Yugoslav internal politics. In November 1943, the federation of Yugoslavia was proclaimed by the second assembly of the Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ). The fourth paragraph of the proclamation stated that "Ethnic minorities in Yugoslavia shall be granted all national rights". These principles were codified in the 1946 and 1963 constitutions and reaffirmed again, in great detail, by the last federal constitution of 1974.34 It declared that the nations and nationalities should have equal rights (Article 245). It further stated that “… each nationality has the sovereign right freely to use its own language and script, to foster its own culture, to set up organizations for this purpose, and to enjoy other constitutionally guaranteed rights…” (Article 274) 35

Historical debate

The connection between the World War II killings and the exodus is, however, a matter of much controversy. Yugoslavia never meant to exterminate its Italian population (there was even an Italian "Giuseppe Garibaldi" Division among the Yugoslav Partisan forces) but also clearly wanted to avoid any subsequent irredentism from defeated Italy over its new acquisitions. The impact of the killings and lynching of Italian Italian Social Republic (RSI) fascists and supposed nationalists in 1945 (especially in the context of the huge casualties of the World War II Yugoslav front), has been questioned.

Slovenian historian Darko Darovec36 writes:

It is clear, however, that at the peace conferences the new State borders were not being drawn using ideological criteria, but on the basis of national considerations. The ideological criteria were then used to convince the national minorities to line up with one or the other side. To this end socio-political organisations with high-sounding names were created, The most important of them being SIAU, the Slavic-Italian Anti-Fascist Union, which by the necessities of the political struggle mobilised the masses in the name of 'democracy'. Anyone who thought differently, or was nationally 'inconsistent', would be subjected to the so-called 'commissions of purification'. The first great success of such a policy in the national field was the massive exodus from Pula, following the coming into effect of the peace treaty with Italy (15 September 1947). Great ideological pressure was exerted also at the time of the clash with the Kominform which caused the emigration of numerous sympathisers of the CP, Italians and others, from Istra and from Zone B of the FTT (Free Territory of Trieste)

For the mixed Italian-Slovenian Historical Commission:37

Since the first post-war days, some local activists, who wreaked their anger over the acts of the Istrian Fascists upon the Italian population, had made their intention clear to rid themselves of the Italians who revolted against the new authorities. However, expert findings to-date do not confirm the testimonies of some - although influential - Yugoslav personalities about the intentional expulsion of Italians. Such a plan can be deduced - on the basis of the conduct of the Yugoslav leadership - only after the break with the Informbiro in 1948, when the great majority of the Italian Communists in Zone B - despite the initial cooperation with the Yugoslav authorities, against which more and more reservations were expressed - declared themselves against Tito's Party. Therefore, the people's government abandoned the political orientation towards the "brotherhood of the Slavs and Italians", which within the framework of the Yugoslav socialist state allowed for the existence of the politically and socially purified Italian population that would respect the ideological orientation and the national policy of the regime. The Yugoslav side perceived the departure of Italians from their native land with growing satisfaction, and in its relation to the Italian national community the wavering in the negotiations on the fate of the FTT was more and more clearly reflected. Violence, which flared up again after the 1950 elections and the 1953 Trieste crisis, and the forceful expulsion of unwanted persons were accompanied by measures to close the borders between the two zones. The national composition of Zone B was also altered by the immigration of Yugoslavs to the previously more or less exclusively Italian cities.


Further reading

See also


  1. ^ Untitled Document
  2. ^ Summary of Ermanno Mattioli's book and Summary of historian Enrico Miletto's book
  3. ^ Election Opens Old Wounds In Trieste
  4. ^ History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans
  5. ^ Citation from Milovan Đilas. 
  6. ^ See census data from Croatia at --> released data --> census 2001 --> tables --> population by mother tongue by towns/municipalities --> (scroll down) County of Istria
  7. ^ From book in Italian and Slovene languages, read page number 24
  8. ^ VIII. Censimento della popolazione 21. aprile 1936. Vol II, Fasc. 24: Provincia del Friuli; Fasc. 31: Provincia del Carnero; Fasc. 32: Provincia di Gorizia, Fasc. 22: Provincia dell’Istria, Fasc. 34: Provincia di Trieste; Fasc. 35: Provincia di Zara, Rome 1936. Cited at
  9. ^ a b c Matjaž Klemenčič, The Effects of the Dissolution of Yugoslavia on Minority Rights: the Italian Minority in Post-Yugoslav Slovenia and Croatia. See
  10. ^ The political, ethnic and linguistic borders of the upper Adriatic after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, J.E. Jahn, Heidelberg Germany 1999
  11. ^ Little Humankind's History
  12. ^ Istria on the Internet - Demography - 2001 Census
  13. ^
    See also
  14. ^ "While most of the population in the towns, especially those on or near the coast, was Italian, Istria’s interior was overwhelmingly Slavic – mostly Croatian, but with a sizeable Slovenian area as well". See
  15. ^ First World - Primary Documents - Italian Entry into the War, 23 May 1915
  16. ^ a b First World - Primary Documents - Treaty of London, 26 April 1915
  17. ^ a b c d Summary: Islam in Europe, European Islam
  18. ^
  19. ^ A Historical Outline Of Istria
  20. ^
  21. ^ Mojca Drcar Murko
  22. ^ [1]
  23. ^ Italian historian Raoul Pupo's article pertinent exodus or forced migration
  24. ^ Article regarding Foibe that asserts ethnic cleansing then forced migration
  25. ^ Election Opens Old Wounds In Trieste
  26. ^ History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans
  27. ^ Austro-Hungarian 1848 census
  28. ^ History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans - Page 89, Pamela Ballinger. 
  29. ^ The refugees in the world: displacement and integration - Page 68, Joseph B. Schechtman, 1964. 
  30. ^ Article in Italian (scroll down for Benvenuti): Mi hanno cacciato dal mio paese quando avevo tredici anni. Si chiamava Isola d'Istria, Oggi è una cittadina della Slovenia (I was expelled from my country when I was thirteen. It was called Isola d'Istria, today is a town in Slovenia)
  31. ^ [2] The Teaty of Osimo (1975)
  32. ^ La situazione giuridica dei beni abbandonati in Croazia e in Slovenia
  33. ^ Carl Savich. "Yugoslavia and the Cold War". 
  34. ^ The Constitution of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade 1946; The Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade 1963. Cited at
  35. ^ The Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade 1989. Cited at
  36. ^ Darko Darovec. "THE PERIOD OF TOTALITARIAN RÉGIMES-The Reasons for the Exodus". 
  37. ^ Slovene-Italian Relations 1880-1956. Report of the Slovene-Italian historical and cultural commission


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