THOUGHTS ON THE PLEBISCITE IN VENETIAN SLOVENIA (IN 1866)
Carlo Podrecca from Shempeter Slovenov (San Pietro al Natisone) once described relations between the Venetian Slovenians and the Italian authorities in Cividale as follows: “Alla Pretura di Cividale, cui più affluisce lo Slavo, egli non trova un interprete fisso e se lo vuole, bisogna che lo paghi del suo, ed in passato, non temo di essere smentito, veniva minacciato di prigione per non sapersi spiegare in italiano!” (Slavia italiana, Cividale, 1884, pg. 126).1
In connection with the questions we are dealing with here we like to refer to C. Podrecca for he cannot be accused of anti-Italian sentiment. So let us stick to him. Regarding the Venetian Slovenians he also said the following: “Solo fra 36.646 abitanti dei 15 comuni sparsi fra i monti delle Giulie è ancora dominante la lingua slava, che, come ognuno sa, nulla ha che fare colla lingu italiana, ma che, e per effetto delle scuole e del movimento commerciale, ACCENNA A SCOMPARIRE LENTAMENTE ...” (ibid, pg. 133).2
What C. Podrecca write holds true also in more recent times. No regime ever secured the national rights of Venetian Slovenians. But why? Were there some special ideas regarding the question of a state language? Perhaps there were military reasons? Probably both were the case. The leading classes considered their language to be a state element already in Roman times. Any foreign languages present on their territory were deemed harmful. How else can we explain the interesting phenomenon that many Roman writers did not find it worth their while teaching their offspring even a single word from the treasure trove of Celtic or Illyrian languages? They only ever mentioned the leaders of neighbouring peoples who had been conquered by the Roman army. Until recently, the Italian bourgeoisie also harboured similar ideas. However, the situation in Venetian Slovenia was most likely influenced also by the military element. The safety of the borders was supposed to be guaranteed also by the assimilation of the Slovenians. It is particularly revealing that Italian artists and intellectuals living in nationally mixed areas (Italians and Slavs) were convinced up until the second half of the last century – and many examples could be given especially for Istria – that the Slavs would become Italians. However, any more or less detailed analysis would show that such a conviction was prevalent in those parts where the landowners were Italian and their subjects were Slavs.
These things are now very clear.
How did Italy gain the region of Friuli and Venetian Slovenia in 1866?
It obtained them through diplomacy and not by military means. If it had acquired the above territory by means of a revolution, Venetian Slovenia would most likely have developed very differently. Cavour’s time was inclined to the acquisition of territories by means of diplomatic games and machinations, so having these means at his disposal why should a rich man call upon his people to take up arms and thereby risk destroying his own authority?
Cavour, the main figure in the court of the Sardinian king, was in favour of unifying Italy by action from top to bottom. He prepared his terrain first of all with an intervention in the Crimean War (1855). Relations between the Kingdom of Sardinia and France then changed in such a way that in the spa town of Plombières (1858) Cavour was able to propose to Napoleon III that in their common war against Austria, the French would help conquer Lombardy and Venetian Slovenia. In return, he offered him the territories of Nice and Savoy. The French emperor accepted this offer. This is how preparations for war began. But it was necessary to get Austria to declare war first. If Austria was attacked, the German Federation would be constitutionally obliged to provide military help. It is interesting how Cavour then went about achieving this. “Cavour began very artfully spreading and blowing up stories about the complete lack of organisation and weaknesses in the Sardinian army, about confusion in the court of Victor Emanuel II, about how in the coming days War Minister Cavour would come before court charged with high treason because in Plombières he had sold the Savoy and Nice to Napoleon III.” (Zgodovina diplomacije, I., Ljubljana 1947, pg. 480).
Cavour was afraid of Austria and was perhaps not even convinced that Napoleon III, who in fact opposed the unification of all of Italy, would really help him. Austria fell for it, attacked first and was conquered in battle by the united French and Sardinian-Italian army. Then Napoleon III decided on his own to sign a truce with Austria in Villafranca and forgot even to invite his ally Victor Emanuel II (Zgod. dipl., pg. 481) to the negotiations. The followers of Garibaldi and Mazzini were particularly incensed by this because they wanted to achieve Italian unification through a popular revolution. In the end, the Sardinian king was given Lombardy. It was clear that Napoleon III had stopped the war in order to slow down the process of Italian unification as much as possible.
And this leads us to a new war. Garibaldi had previously liberated all of southern Italy (1860) and had handed over power to King Victor Emanuel III. The new war broke out in 1866 when only Rome and Venetian Slovenia were not yet part of unified Italy. This time Bismarck interfered in Italian affairs because he wanted to consolidate and expand Prussian rule above all by bringing Austria to its knees. Getting it embroiled in wars on two fronts would make work easier for him. But King Victor Emanuel II did not want this war. He was afraid of revolutionary turmoil. Only when Bismarck threatened to turn to the Garibaldians for support (Zgod. dipl., pg. 506) did the king agree to cooperate in the war against Austria. However, on the battlefield the result of this war was a catastrophe for Italy and two names speak very eloquently on this subject: Custozza and Vis.
But because Prussia defeated Austria, it could dictate the peace terms. So Italy got Venetian Slovenia and Friuli. In this region, Italy was happy to agree to a plebiscite.
The plebiscite, which could not produce a result different from the one it produced
Vienna undoubtedly very much wanted its state border with Italy to offer it as many military and strategic advantages as possible. Only this made them think of the Venetian Slovenians. In Udine, Vienna even ordered a special administrative body to be founded for the Venetian Slovenians. C. Podrecca writes about Austria’s efforts at that time: “It is otherwise understandable that Archduke Albert made active efforts so that our brothers the Venetian Slovenians would not be separated from Austria. But it was in vain because Italy, which was supported in this matter by France and Germany, demanded the old Venetian borders” (Slavia italiana, Le Vicinie, Cividale 1887, pp. 150-151). Vienna proposed to the Italian government that in exchange for Venetian Slovenia it would even give up some of its territory in Tirol but Italy turned down the offer.
It seems that Italy then carried out the plebiscite mainly out of some demonstrative reasons. Elements of the plebiscite were supposed to be the object of a future study. In the plebiscite of 21 and 22 October 1866, the region of Friuli including Venetian Slovenia gave 144,988 votes for Italy and 36 votes for Austria. This was therefore the result of the plebiscite! (see Marinelli Olinto, Guida delle Prealpi Giulie, Udine, 1912, pg. 308). In Venetian Slovenia, the only person to vote for union with the mother country was the well-known national awakener Peter Podreka (1822-1889). The fate of the Venetian Slovenians was sealed.
Why did the Venetian Slovenians vote for Italy? We believe there must have been a number of reasons. These Slovenians had lived for centuries without close connections with their remaining compatriots. What was, however, fateful for them was that they were left without connections at a time when most Slovenians were beginning the process of national awakening. Their geographical location further forced the Venetian Slovenians to have economic ties with towns (Udine, Cividale), which were predominantly Italian. They had no other choice. Gorizia was simply too far away.
When in 1440, Venice took possession of the territory of the Venetian Slovenians, the latter simply waited to see what would happen. Resistance against the Venetian lion would have been futile. The Slovenians knew this from experience. They may also have thought their new master would give them better conditions for economic development. Later on, the Venetians knew very well how to keep the Slovenians faithful to them. They won them over with various privileges so that they guarded the mountain passes against enemy attacks. The Venetian Slovenians were satisfied. And this is how it was for at least two hundred years. However, the history of Venice shows us that the situation in this state had deteriorated badly already in the 17th century. Pressure on the peasants/serfs increased greatly everywhere. The Istrian historian, Tommasini, wrote at the time that the Slovenian serfs around Koper would undoubtedly have revolted had they not been completely exhausted by exploitation.
We may therefore imagine that the situation in Venetian Slovenia at the time of the demise of the Venetian Republic was not rosy and the Venetian Slovenians probably began searching for role models elsewhere. Some found them in the form of Mazzini and Garibaldi. Where else could they look for them?
At that time, Austria was one of Europe’s policemen. In Italy, the Austrian occupying force only served to suppress the revolutionary movement and did not allow a country, which wanted to be united as one democratic state, to breathe. It is quite possible that the eyes of the Venetian Slovenians turned even more decisively towards Italy because of disappointment over the Venetian Republic and also over Austria, which offered them nothing at all with its occupation (over 50 years).
C. Podrecca claims that in 1848, Venetian Slovenia was engulfed by a revolutionary wave and that one could hear the words “Dearest Italy” being sung in the hills and valleys there. In the same year, Venetian Slovenians are said to have been ready to free themselves by setting up their own army behind Austria’s back and were even preparing to go and help in Udine where the Austrian army was beginning to stifle the revolution (Slavia italiana, 1884, pg. 2325). C. Podrecca even says that a number of Venetian Slovenians fought on the side of the Sardinian king against Austria (ibid pg. 25). All such arguments explaining the result of the plebiscite still do not seem convincing enough. It seems there must also have been something stronger - fear of the masters, those who ruled the hills and valleys from the towns. This could easily be deduced from the bitter words uttered by C. Podrecca which are quoted in the introduction to this article.
Jadranski koledar 1966 (Trieste)
Translated from Slovenian by Marko Petrovich
SRECHKO VILHAR (1907, Kromberk pri N. Gorici – 1976, Ljubljana), publicist, political activist and teacher. In 1928 he fled from Italy to Ljubljana where he completed the high-school for teachers (1931); he was a member of KPI from 1927 onwards, later a member of KPJ, and was sentenced in 1933 in Belgrade to six years in prison in Sremska Mitrovica for political activism; in 1938 he was handed over to the Italian police and sentenced in Trieste to two years confinement. In autumn 1943 he joined the partisans-overseas brigades, and came to Slovenia via Dalmatia and Bosnia and became director of the communist party school in Kochevski Rog. After the war he was a teacher at the Italian grammar school in Koper and in the years 1958-1974 he was director of Koper Central Library (now named after him). His many published works can be divided into two themes: on the one hand historical research on the history of the Slovenians living by the Adriatic (zbornik Slovenci ob Jadranu, 1952; Istrski zgod. zbornik, 1960-1969; Slovenski pomorski zbornik, 1962) and about the people of Primorska during the Second World War; on the other hand there are a number of works from the field of librarianship (especially the first libraries in Primorska). For his work as librarian he was awarded the Chop Diploma (1967). (editor’s note)
(1) “In the legal district of Cividale, which is above all home to Slavs, the latter have no permanent interpreter, and if they need one they must pay for one out of their own pocket, and in the past, if they were not afraid of being rejected, they could also be imprisoned for not knowing Italian!”
(2) “The Slav language is still prevalent amongst 36,646 inhabitants of 15 communities, dispersed amongst the mountains of the Julian region, and as we all know it has no connection with the Italian language, but under the influence of schools and trade IT IS SLOWLY DISAPPEARING…”