Italian irredentism in Istria

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Like those of Istria, most of the inhabitants of Fiume cheered the union to Italy after WWI

The Italian irredentism in Istria was the political movement supporting the unification to Italy, during the 19th and 20th centuries, of the peninsula of Istria. It is considered closely related to the Italian irredentism in Trieste and Fiume, two cities bordering the peninsula.


Istria, since Roman times, has been an eastern region of Italy, populated by romanized people who were initially related to the Roman Empire and -after the Middle Ages- to the Republic of Venice. In the northeastern section of Istria after Charlemagne started to settle some Slav people, who increased in number inside all Istria mainly after the Turkish invasions of the Balkans (mostly as refugees).

When Napoleon defeated Venice in 1797, he found that Istria was populated by Italians on the coast and in the main cities, but the interior was populated mainly by Croats and Slovenians: this dual ethnicity in the same peninsula created a situation of antagonism between Slavs and Italians for the supremacy of Istria, when started the first nationalisms after Napoleon's fall.

Since 1815 Istria was a part of the Austrian monarchy, and Croats/Slovenians and Italians engaged in a nationalistic feud with each other.[1]

As a consequence Istria has been the theater of an ethnic struggle between them, with bloody nationalistic wars, during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Italian irredentism was actively followed by many Italians in Istria, like the Italian hero Nazario Sauro of Capodistria.[2]

Indeed, between 1918 and 1947 Istria was part of the Kingdom of Italy, but after World War II was part of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, after the war was created the Free Territory of Trieste in north-western Istria: in the years following the division of the territory between Italy and Yugoslavia, up to 40,000 Istrian Italians[3] chose to leave the Yugoslav "B zone" and move to the "A zone" or Italy for various reasons - some were intimidated into leaving and some simply preferred not to live in Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia.

Since the end of World War II the irredentism has totally disappeared in Istria, even because of the Istrian exodus.

Actually Istria is populated mainly by Slavs, but nearly 50,000 Italians still live there (divided between the areas of Istria belonging to Croatia, Slovenia and Italy).

Italian irredentism[edit]

After Napoleon the idea of "unification" of all the Italian people in a "united Italy" started to be developed by intellectuals like the Istrian Carlo Combi. As a consequence, the Italian irredentism promoted the unification of those areas not included in the creation of the Kingdom of Italy after 1861: Istria was one of those.[4]

The irredentist ideas of the Italian nationalists became stronger after the unification of Italy (1861). The main representatives of these ideas in historical writings are Pacifico Valussi and the Istrians Carlo Combi, Tommaso Luciani and Sigismondo Bonfiglio. Opinion about the Slavs had entirely changed: they were seen as peasant folk unable to build a nation of their own and therefore condemned to be assimilated within an Italian identity. And they already envisaged the frontiers of Italy extending to the Oriental Alps and to Arsa, some even to Fiume/Rijeka.[5]

The Italians in Istria (like Tomaso Luciani of Albona and many other "patriots") fully supported the Italian Risorgimento and, because of this, the Austrians saw the Italians as enemies and favored the Slav communities of Istria [6] This fact created a huge emigration of Italians from Istria before World War I, reducing their percentage inside the peninsula inhabitants (they were more than 50% of the total population during Napoleon I's times (when General Marmont did a French census), but at the end of the 19th century they were reduced to only two fifth according to some estimates).

The Italian community in Istria (38%) was concentrated on its western coast. Croats formed the majority in the rest of the peninsula, with Slovenes in the north
  ethnically Croat-majority territory
  ethnically Croat-majority territory

Indeed, in 1910, the ethnic and linguistic composition was completely mixed and the Italians were reduced to a minority in the Austrian province of Istria (even if huge). According to the Austrian census results, out of 404,309 inhabitants in the "Margravate of Istria", 168,116 (41.6%) spoke Croatian, 147,416 (36.5%) spoke Italian, 55,365 (13.7%) spoke Slovene, 13,279 (3.3%) spoke German, 882 (0.2%) spoke Romanian, 2,116 (0.5%) spoke other languages and 17,135 (4.2%) were non-citizens, which had not been asked for their language of communication.

But scholars like Matteo Bartoli complained that these census percentages included areas outside Istria (like the island of Veglia/Krk and the city of Castua/Kastav, a mostly Croatian town situated north of Fiume and outside the real Istrian peninsula): in his opinion the peninsula of Istria was still with a majority of Italians during World War I.[7] Generally speaking, Italians lived on coast, while Croats and Slovenes lived inland.

In the second half of the 19th century a clash of new ideological movements, Italian irredentism (which claimed Trieste and Istria) and Slovene and Croatian nationalism (developing individual identities in some quarters whilst seeking to unite in a South Slav bid in others), resulted in growing ethnic conflict between Italians one side and Slovenes and Croats in opposition. This was intertwined with the class and religious conflict, as inhabitants of Istrian towns were mostly Italian, whilst Croats or Slovenes largely lived out in the countryside even if in western and southern Istria there were many Italians in the agricultural areas.

Slav priests had an important role (in the ethnic conflict)... they, controlling the official church registration of the names, did many abuses (changing to slav many Italian family names).... In 1877 the Italian deputy to the Vienna Parliament Francesco Sbisà denounced the transformation of Italian names and surnames to slavic ones.... In 1897 Matteo Bartoli, a linguist from Rovigno, pinpointed that 20,000 names were changed with this forgery, mainly in eastern Istria and even in some Dalmatian islands.[8]

Capodistria was the center of the irredentism in Istria. In this city there was the main Comitato istriano (Istrian Committee for Union to Italy), the meeting place of the most famous Istrian irredentists like Carlo Combi e Antonio Madonizza. From there sailed in 1848 many Istrian Italians to fight for Venice against the Austrians with the Legione Istriano-dalmata.

Map of Istria as part to the Kingdom of Italy (1918-1947)

After 1866 -when Venice and the Veneto region were united to Italy- in all Istria there was full support for the irredentism: Tino Gavardo, Pio Riego Gambini and Nazario Sauro where the most renowned between those who promoted the Istrian unification to Italy. Many of them enrolled voluntarily in the Italian Army during World War I against the Austrian Empire. Someone was captured and hanged by the Austrians, like the Italian national hero Nazario Sauro in August 1916.[9]

In 1913 Pio Riego Gambini, Luigi Bilucaglia e Piero Almerigogna created the Fascio Giovanile Istriano, while in 1915 the Austrians interned in concentration camps nearly 100,000 Istrian Italians.[10]

After Istria was united to Italy, following the Italian victory during World War I,[11] some Istrian irredentists reached high levels of importance inside the Italian government, like general Vittorio Italico Zupelli, who was appointed minister. Istria in the 1920s an 1930s enjoyed a huge economic improvement.

After WW2 there has been a huge exodus of Italian speaking people from Istria: some estimates calculate that more than 200000 Italians went away between 1945 and 1953 (including the northern Istria "B" areas of the Territorio Libero di Trieste).

Actually there it is a growing movement in Italy (and Europe) toward asking for the official recognition of "genocide" or even democide[1] of the Italians in Istria (like has been done with the Armenian massacre done by the Turks).[12]

Indeed, there it is a long history of ethnic cleansing in Croatia [13] and former Yugoslavia, as reported by many academics like R.J. Rummel[14]


  1. ^ Benussi, Bernardo. L' Istria nei suoi due millenni di storia. p. 63
  2. ^ Biography of Nazario Sauro
  3. ^ Arrigo Petacco, The exodus. The story of the Italian population of Istria, Dalmatia, and Venezia Giulia, Mondadori, Milan, 1999. English translation.
  4. ^ Unredeemed Italy: Istria (Google Book)
  5. ^ Istria and irredentism
  6. ^ Paolo Radivo: Italian Irredentism in Istria (in Italian)
  7. ^ Bartoli, Matteo. Le parlate italiane della Venezia Giulia e della Dalmazia. p. 44
  8. ^ Irredentism in Istria (in Italian)
  9. ^ Pignatti Morano, Carlo. La vita di Nazario Sauro ed il martirio dell'eroe. p.39
  10. ^ Vivante Angelo. Irredentismo Adriatico third chapter
  11. ^ NYTimes on Italian irredentism in Istria in 1917
  12. ^ Italy-Croatia: World War II killings were ethnic cleansing, Napolitano says
  13. ^ The policy of ethnic cleansing (1994)/Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts established pursuant to Security Council resolution 780 (1992), about massacres done by Croats (and others) in former Iugoslavia in the early nineties
  14. ^ Democide in Tito's Yugoslavia


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  • Bartoli, Matteo. Le parlate italiane della Venezia Giulia e della Dalmazia. Tipografia italo-orientale. Grottaferrata 1919.
  • Benussi, Bernardo. L' Istria nei suoi due millenni di storia. Treves-Zanichelli. Trieste 1924.
  • D'Alessio, Vanni. Il cuore conteso. Il nazionalismo in una comunità multietnica nell'Istria asburgica. Filema Edizioni, Napoli 2003
  • Petacco, Arrigo. A tragedy revealed: the story of the Italian population of Istria, Dalmatia, and Venezia Giulia, 1943-1956. University of Toronto Press. Toronto, 2005 ISBN 0802039219
  • Pignatti Morano, Carlo. La vita di Nazario Sauro ed il martirio dell'eroe. Fratelli Treves Editori, Milano, 1922
  • Večerina, Duško. Talijanski Iredentizam ( Italian Irredentism ) ISBN 953-98456-0-2, Zagreb, 2001
  • Vignoli, Giulio. I territori italofoni non appartenenti alla Repubblica Italiana. Giuffrè Editoriale. Milano, 1995.
  • Vivante, Angelo. Irredentismo adriatico Venezia, 1984