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Arrigo Petacco. A Tragedy Revealed: The Story of the Italian Population of Istria, Dalmatia, and Venezia Giulia, 1943-1956.

Arrigo Petacco. A Tragedy Revealed: The Story of the Italian Population of Istria, Dalmatia, and Venezia Giulia, 1943-1956. Trans. Konrad Eisenbichler. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005. Pp. xiv + 155.

Arrigo Petacco's A Tragedy Revealed provides a "popular history" of the fate of Italian populations in the Adriatic territories contested by Italy and Yugoslavia after World War II. In an accessible manner, Petacco covers the major events in a complicated history of competing political ideologies, territorial revisions, and violence during the period from the end of the First World War to the decade following the conclusion of World War II. Under the guise of "investigative journalism" (x), however, the book forwards a particular perspective on extremely controversial historical questions. The Anglophone reader unfamiliar with the region's history will likely lack the proper context in which to place this book, whose translation into English originated through the initiative of the associations formed by Italian refugees to Canada from these territories.

Contrary to translator Konrad Eisenbichler's assertions in his preface, Petacco's book (originally published in Italian in 1999) was not the first to tell the "truth" about Italy's eastern territories. Rather, Petacco's book represented a controversial but best-selling account by a nationally known journalist on a subject that has received considerable attention in Italy in both scholarly and popular press since the mid-1990s. Petacco's interpretations tend to agree with the dominant discourses of the associations of the Italian "exiles" from those territories lost to Yugoslavia after World War II. Acknowledging this fact does not dismiss Petacco's argument but rather contextualizes some of his contentions, which are presented as straightforward but, in fact, remain the source of considerable debate. Though the book includes a limited bibliography, the text does not offer notes or references to the "original archival documents" (xii) that Petacco consulted.

Much of the Italian debate over the actions of the socialist Yugoslav regime in Istria, specifically, and Venezia Giulia, more broadly, from 1945 on has hinged on whether violence towards Italians resident in those territories may be understood as a result of the preceding history of fascist brutality towards Slavic populations. More recently, the focus has shifted to whether this violence can be viewed as a form of "ethnic cleansing." In discussing the interwar period of Italian rule over Venezia Giulia as well as the Dalmatian city of Zara/Zadar, Petacco rightfully recognizes the Italian state's acts of repression towards its Slavic minorities. At the same time, he downplays what Slovene and Croatian historians have deemed a "first exodus" from Italy to royal Yugoslavia by Slavs, some of whom were fleeing political persecution. Contends Petacco, "[...] it should be pointed out that this exodus was a result not of political pressure, but rather of economic crisis" (13). Furthermore, Petacco treats the violence of what historians have deemed "frontier fascism" as a (mere) response to Slavic aggression, "because they [the fascists] were often provoked by Croatian and Slovenian nationalists, who were animated by similar nationalist sentiments" (14). Such assertions problematically present the actions of Yugoslav nationalists as on a par with those of the Italian fascists.

In making such an equation, Petacco relies upon historically untenable stereotypes about the Yugoslav propensity for ethno-nationalist violence. He asserts, for example, "Serbians and Croatians have always been divided by an ancestral hatred that has literally shed rivers of blood" (17). Likewise, in describing the massacres carried out by Croatian Ustasha during World War II, "Then the slaughter commenced, just as it had throughout the centuries every time one of the two largest Slavic ethnic groups was able to gain the upper hand against the other. 'Ethnic cleansing' is not a tragic new development of modern times; it has long been a constant in the relations among the various groups in the Yugoslavian mosaic" (26). Petacco makes such contentions in an effort to demonstrate that the treatment of Italians followed this "ancient" pattern of ethnic cleansing, a pattern that Petacco then links--as if in unbroken continuity--to the horrors of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. "That said," he argues, "events in Bosnia and in Kosovo in the 1990s confirm that ethnic cleansing is a tragically regular event in the racial struggles that periodically bathe the Balkans in blood" (103).

In describing the karstic pits known as the foibe in which Yugoslav partisans and soldiers carried out executions in Istria and in Trieste, Petacco makes the fate of Norma Cossetto--who was repeatedly raped before being killed--exemplary of all female foibe victims. Proffering no evidence for his statement, Petacco projects the experience of the rape camps of 1990s' Bosnia backwards onto 1940s' Istria when he maintains, "Atrocities of the sort to which Norma Cossetto fell victim were not, unfortunately, the exception, but the rule. All women were raped before being thrown into the foibe, and all men suffered unspeakable abuse" (46). From this statement Petacco concludes, "The disproportion of such a revenge was clear to everyone. This had to be something more: it had to be a project of 'ethnic cleansing' carried out deliberately to eradicate Italians from Istria by killing them or forcing them to flee" (48). Though the ethnic cleansing thesis remains a controversial one among scholars, Petacco takes it as a starting assumption, rather than something to be demonstrated. Likewise, Petacco takes the number of 350,000 Italian refugees as unproblematic, even though the numbers prove disputed, and more recent scholarly estimates place the figure closer to 200,000; Petacco himself is inconsistent, elsewhere citing the number of 300,000 Italian exiles.

Petacco focuses much more on the dramatic events and political maneuverings that resulted in the mass migration of Italians than on the experience of the refugees themselves. He does feature some individual stories to illustrate the plight of the Italians in Istria. Yet the exodus itself--perhaps the least known of the events recounted in this book--receives only 32 pages (out of 141 total); of these, only six pages deal with the period between 1948 and 1955, despite the fact that the "Big Exodus" from Yugoslav-controlled Zone B occurred between 1954 and 1956. Had Petacco focused more on the experiences of Italians leaving during this period, his book (flaws and all) would have offered a more valuable contribution to the growing literature on the events in the Julian lands after World War II.

Pamela Ballinger, Bowdoin College
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Author:Ballinger, Pamela
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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