There is a town, it is in Italy, that has been split into two by a wall and this was not the first time that it was happening. A line marked on the pavement cuts into two on one of its squares, and a wire netting was placed on it making it uncrossable. (1)
What happened? Why that line? Why was this not the first time that it was happening?
To give an answer to all these questions at once, we have to mention the name of the city: Gorizia.
Yes, Gorizia has been divided in these months because of the Coronavirus, in order to prevent its inhabitants to move from one part of the town to the other. In fact, this city in the very North-East of the Italian peninsula has the particularity of having half of its territory laying in Italy and the other half laying in Slovenia. That line in the end is nothing but the border between the two countries. It runs in the middle of the square of the railway station connecting the city to Austria – for this reason the square is called Transalpina Square as it is named after the Transalpine railway getting there – leaving the Italian part of the city in one side, and its Slovenian part with the station in the other.
But yet something is still untold: why this weird border? Rarely or never a city in the border is split between the two countries on that border, less than ever they have a square cut in two.
Another wall, before the wall
To answer this dilemma, we have to consider that line and go back in time, to the days in which a wall made of concrete and wire netting with barbed wire on the top was running all along the line.
“Like the Berlin wall!” is the first thing coming to mind. But the truth is that the Gorizia’s case is not simply like the Berlin one, but also before the Berlin one.
We all have clear in mind the notorious Berlin wall, with its checkpoint Charlie and Conrad Schumann, the DDR soldier who took advantage of his comrades’ distraction and escaped to the west jumping over the barbed wire placed there during the wall construction in 1961.
While Schumann was jumping over the barbed wire, it was already many years since the wall in Gorizia was standing and, to say the truth, the relations between the two contends were already thawing. (2)
But let’s go with order: let’s take a further step back in time and space and go to the February of 1947 in Paris. Here, once the war ended the Allied nations winning the war – among them, was also the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – and Italy signed the peace treaty. Among the consequences of this treaty were the birth of the Free Territory of Trieste (3) – ruled by the military control of the British and the American troops – and the split of Gorizia, making the 3/5 of its territory (the suburbs) and the 15% of its population become Yugoslavian. Such plan was not considering private properties and no notice was given to the population as the treaty was applied out of the blue in September: on the 16th the Italian troops entered Gorizia, on the 17th American and British troops started marking the border. (4)
It was due to this that for instance, as told by Francesco Cancellato in its podcast “Il Muro” (the wall in Italian) (4), Pina Zoff – a lady from Gorizia – got awaken in the morning of the 17th of September by the noise caused by the American soldiers entering her property to track a limestone line. The line was about to separate her house – laying in the Italian side – to the stable with the cows – in the Slovenian one. The garden, instead, was cut in two by the line. Many stories like the one of this lady born that day: many were asked what part did they want to stay because, according to the map, the line should have passed through their house, many families got separated, some got trapped in a side they were not really belonging to. An example of this is Gregorio, a teacher from central Italy who had been sent to the top north-east by the fascist government with the scope of “Italianizing” those territories, who was impeded to get back to Italy now (5)- Besides, all of a sudden since that morning on, those Gorizians living in the now-Slovenian part of the city – that indeed was nothing but a bunch of houses and fields – were left without a city, with no chance to go working or to sell the products of those fields because they could not reach the marketplace- (4)
Since that day, it was forbidden to cross the wall. Soldiers with guns in their arms were ready to shoot at anyone trying to move from one side to the other. On the one side there was Italy, that was about to live its economic boom, on the other were the non-aligned socialism of Tito, a big red star placed on the façade of the station of Transalpine Square, and together with it the script in Slovenian “Mi gradimo socializem“: “we build socialism”.
The geopolitical arena of the post-war before the Berlin wall
In the very next years, the new-born Free Territory of Trieste never achieved becoming a real sovereign state. It first become a territory under the military control of the British and the Americans and then, de facto, under the control of Italy, as it will get officialized only in 1974 (3) (3)
During those years, especially the first ones, there have been phases with peaks of tension in the area and other moments of detente. The mixture of electoral motivations, internal political logistics and international relations of all the countries involved, led to continuous changes of the geopolitical arena in the relationships between Yugoslavia, USA, USSR, France and Italy. These changes had their phenomenon in a constant stall in the surface that was finally solved only with the Memorandum of Understanding of London signed in October 1954. In the meantime, the two contending countries were making claims on the two zones of the Free Territory of Trieste – named zone “A” (the italian side) and zone “B” (the Slovenian one). Both were moved by waves of internal nationalistic impulses and chances given by the Yougoslavian estrangement from the USSR influence after the Cominform in 1948. Since then on, despite being a socialist dictatorship, Yugoslavia became not only the most important of the so-called “non-aligned” countries of the Cold War (3) (7) but also a privileged partner of the United States as opposer of the Soviet block.
It has been possible to get to the Memorandum of Understandings of London only after the tension had reached the flashpoint in 1953. That year, the two countries moved their respective troops and prepared for the outbreak of a military engagement in case any other of the two had invaded one of the zones (either Italy invading zone A or Yugoslavia invading zone B). Such invasion is exactly what happened: Italy moved first entering the troops in zone A. This also provoked riots in Trieste by those who wanted the city to get annexed to Italy (the city was not part of any zone and considered as a territory apart, in this way it could not pass to Italy together with the zone A). Yugoslavia considered such move as a violation of the Peace Treaty of 1947 due to the fact that in zone A were also living some Yugoslavian ethnic groups, hence Tito moved his troops and occupied the zone B until the border (3).
in ’54 in London the withdrawal from the area of American and British troops was established, letting the two countries taking civil administrative control of the two respective zones of the Free Territory of Trieste. The Memorandumn of Understandings included also clauses aimed to protect the ethnical minorities (6). Many were the examples making these clauses necessary: the foibe massacres – natural sinkholes of that area in which many Italians, both militaries and civilians, were thrown in by Tito’s partisans during WWII – the disappearance of more than 650 people during the Yugoslavian occupation of Trieste in 1945, the drama of the exodus of a number between 250 and 350 thousands Italians living in Istria and Dalmatia moving towards Italy. Such solution was made possible only in that moment because both countries were tired of the tension and they both preferred to use their resources elsewhere. More than else, that solution was temporary and was allowing to consider the zone not under own control as an objective to get in the future. This gave the chance to cool down the internal political debate as, after all, both succeeded on getting something: Italy – even though had lost Istria and the cities in Dalmatia – obtained Trieste and the territories until the border, Yugoslavia – even though had lost Trieste and Zone A territory – could say had obtained Istria and an outlet to the sea for Slovenia. (3)
Since that moment on, the other involved countries – USA, France and UK – withdrawed from the dispute letting Italy and Yugoslavia regulating the border through bilateral agreements, without the need of involving for the UN (3). And so it actually happened since the beginning and for the years to come: Italy and Yugoslavia started discussing peacefully about commercial and movement of goods and people. (2) (6)
A wall dividing a city
All along these movements of pawns on the diplomacy chessboard, there was always that wall standing in Gorizia, dividing people. In one of those moments of detente, on Sunday August 13 1950, families were finally given the chance of meeting, although only for few hours. It happened at the “red house”, a former restaurant that became a border crossing point as it was laying just on the line of the border. That day, the barbed wire placed there had been removed and police was regulating these meetings leaving family just a few minutes as a big crowd occurred for the event to meet their dear ones living on the other side of the border. All of sudden, as told by Diodato “Darko” Bratina (a former Italian senator from Gorizia with Slovenian origins, just a child at that time) the crowd on the Slovenian side forced the border winning the few policemen resistance. For a day, the inhabitants of Nova Gorica – the city that Tito was starting building on the Slovenian side of the city to give an administrative centre to that bunch of houses – could go back to Gorizia looking for shops. The people from the Italian side could go to the places they were used to go to on their Sunday trips. A sort of fall of Berlin wall ante litteram: 39 years before the fall of the Berilin wall, 11 years before the construction of the Berlin wall. (5) (8)
That situation did not last long. In the evening people started going back to their houses on their respective side with order, and the border got closed again. Everything got back to the previous state: the barbed wire replaced, the families divided. (8)
Nonetheless, in the years after the Italian-Yugoslavian border, resulted being very much “softer” than the one between East and West Germany. Italy and Yugoslavia signed commercial treaties with the real intent of developing the whole area. Such detent became concrete with the Agreements of Udine on 31st October 1962: the inhabitants of the two zones were allowed to have four trips a month on the other side of the border, within 10km from the border, after having obtained from authorities a permit. (9)
Such detenting situation culminated on the Treaty of Osimo in 1975. In the treaty the officiality of the annexion of zone A and zone B of the Free Territory of Trieste was finally established. Agreements for the promotion of the economic co-operation between Italian and Yugoslavian republics were also included in the treaty (10),
However, this did not take as consequence the freedom of movement for the inhabitants of the area: the wall was still there observed by militaries to make sure no one crossed the border. The difference between the economic situation of the two sides was getting more and more marked, and the people on the east side of the border could only see from the distance the development growing in Italy, without having the chance of enjoying that wellbeing – at least officially. (8)
To give an idea of the actual circumstances, I can tell a personal family anecdote. In the ’70s my mother was a teenager aged between 14-15, working in a clothes shop and every fortnight she was going to the market in Gorizia to sell clothes. Back then, she was not having real consciousness of what was going on in that area and she could only take as a fact that there were women speaking only in Slovenian going around the marketplace with the fear of being discovered by the police. These women in fact were approaching to the market stalls just to sell cuts of meat they were smuggling from the east: taking orders in the morning and delivering the meat at the market in the afternoon.
The situation kept unchanged for many years and got together with the changes happened in the wider History involving the rest of the Cold War, passing through the death of Tito in 1980, the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 – that, still left untouched the one in Gorizia – and the consequent fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 (9)
video from Croatian television HRT, we can see this funeral gathered many important characters of the international political scenario of those years. To mention a few of those that can be seen here: Margaret Thatcher, Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Leonìd Brèžnev and – at 1:20 – Italian President Sandro Pertini
It is exactly in 1991 that the border reached a new tension. Shots and troops moving on the Slovenian border evoked the situation of early ’50s. Still, this time it was not due to a conflict between Italian and Yugoslavian troops, but to the one between Slovenian and Yugoslavian ones. Those were the days of the civil war in Slovenia – also known as the Ten-Day War – leading to the independence of Slovenia from Yugoslavia. That was one of the first outbursts of the terrible Balkan War that would have devastated the Balkans for the next 10 years and led to the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia-
To know more about these times, on YouTube there are many videos documenting the situation (11). Here below is one showing the shots at the border and the movement of troops seen from the Italian side in Gorizia. (be aware: the title Gorizia nella guerra fredda, “Gorizia in the Cold War” is misleading because that is not the Cold War but the civil war in Slovenia occurred between the 27th June and 6th July 1991)
be aware: the title Gorizia nella guerra fredda, “Gorizia in the Cold War” is misleading because that is not the Cold War but the civil war in Slovenia occurred between the 27th June and 6th July 1991
Still, the Gorizia wall survived also to that event. After Slovenian independence, the treaties previously signed with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were kept in place and signed by the new-born Republic of Slovenia (13). The red star on the façade of the railway station of Transalpina Square, the one with the script Mi gradimo socializem, “we build socialism” was initially transformed into a comet for Christmas and then removed (8).
Tear down that wall! A city finally reunified
The wall still endured for some years, until the 11th February 2004 – after Slovenia entered the EU – it was broke down in a ceremony to which the mayors if Gorizia and Nova Gorica took part. During the ceremony, the two mayors gave start to the dismantling of the portion of wall dividing Transalpina Square. For the definitive removal of controls at the border – hence, for the re-unification of the city (although still with two administrations and two different countries) – the city will have to wait until the 20th December 2007, with the entrance of Slovenia in the Schengen area (2) (8). In the meantime, Nova Gorica has grown both in size and economically, bridging the gap that was having with Gorizia (and maybe overcoming it).
Today the wall is no longer there on the square, but still some parts of it along the border can be visited. As of today, the wire netting has been installed and divides the square during the peak of the pandemic. Let’s hope it gets soon removed, so that Gorizians and Neo-Gorizians can cross that line on the pavement of the square again in both directions, living, finally, in the same city.
Notes and References
(1) In this article of Il Piccolo (the local newspaper of Trieste) of 12/3/2020 the news of the wire netting placed along the border in Transalpina Squared is given, in the article it is also quickly told about the steps that took to the removal of the previous wall https://ilpiccolo.gelocal.it/trieste/cronaca/2020/03/12/news/il-coronavirus-fa-tornare-il-muro-a-gorizia-posizionata-una-rete-nella-piazza-transalpina-per-impedire-l-accesso-in-slovenia-1.38583947
(2) here is the commercial Treaty between Italy and Yugoslavia signed in Rome in 1955 “Trade Agreement, signed at Rome on 31 March 1955” https://www.istra-istria.hr/fileadmin/dokumenti/upravna_tijela/UO_za_tal_nac_zaj/Instrumenti_zastite_ljudskih_prava/II.Medunarodni_ugovori_i_bilateralni_sporazumi/1.Medunarodni_ugovori_i_bilateralni_sporazumi/II-1.9.Trade_%20Agreement_between_the_Federal_Peoples%27s_Republic_of_Yugoslavia_and_the_Italian_Republic.pdf
(3) “IL PROBLEMA DI TRIESTE 1945-1954” (The problem of Trieste 1945-1954), Diego Gon, CEntro MIlitare di Studi Strategici (CEMISS) (Military Center of Strategical Studies), Palazza Salviati, Rome, July 2004. Here are explained the details of the fast changes in the geopolitical arena occurred in those years https://www.difesa.it/SMD_/CASD/IM/CeMiSS/Pubblicazioni/OsservatorioStrategico/Documents/81773_suppl_lugl04.pdf
(4) Podcast in Italian: “That time that man crossed a wall in Gorizia, part I: barbed wire and concrete”episode contained in the serie “Il Muro” (“the Wall) by Francesco Cancellato, Egea https://open.spotify.com/episode/5sL4Hbemc2T85l6WaefrPQ?si=fxQUwq9PQ-OxTZHC6BT3kw
(5) La Domenica delle scope, “The Sunday of the brooms” by Roberto Covaz, LEG editions, 2018 Here a piece in which the story of the Italian teacher stucked in the slovenian side of the border is told http://www.neldeliriononeromaisola.it/2019/07/279697/
(7) “La Jugoslavia di Tito, Passato e Presente, RaiPlay” – “the Yugoslavia of Tito, Passato e presente, Raiplay” episode of an Italian TV program https://www.raiplay.it/video/2020/06/Passato-e-Presente—La-Jugoslavia-di-Tito-4ce9a4bc-8fb1-4ca7-a8c8-cc5796e1536c.html
(8) Podcast in Italian: “That time that man crossed a wall in Gorizia, part II: a matter of humanity” episode contained in the serie “Il Muro” (the Wall) by Francesco Cancellato, Egea https://open.spotify.com/episode/1jYAkOBIMInkOWEUTXV91t?si=6BnD1xu1SjWEGVAmb4jxwA
(9) The text of the agreements of Udine of 1962 regulating the access to the other side of the border for the population living in the area https://www.gazzettaufficiale.it/atto/serie_generale/caricaDettaglioAtto/originario;jsessionid=UYoYB3n8kSAZvxR2s3DYGg__.ntc-as3-guri2b?atto.dataPubblicazioneGazzetta=1965-08-02&atto.codiceRedazionale=065U0920&elenco30giorni=false
(10) The Treaty of Osimo between Italian Republic and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia “Agreement on the development of economic co-operation, signed at Osimo, Ancona, on 10 november 1975”
(11) Here is a video of the italian TV news of the time. The events happening in the days of the Slovenian civil war between 27th June and 6th July 1991 are told https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1niGyJC-jk&t=243s+