The last wall dividing East and West comes down

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The Independent Online

The last wall dividing Eastern and Western Europe is coming down. On the stroke of 10.30 yesterday morning, the mayors of Gorizia in Italy and Nova Gorica in Slovenia, divided since 1947, met at the border and in a brief ceremony inaugurated the wall's demolition.

The last wall dividing Eastern and Western Europe is coming down. On the stroke of 10.30 yesterday morning, the mayors of Gorizia in Italy and Nova Gorica in Slovenia, divided since 1947, met at the border and in a brief ceremony inaugurated the wall's demolition.

This is the far north-eastern corner of Italy, fought over for centuries by Italians, Austrians and Slovenes, invaded by Romans, Huns, Goths, Lombards, Nazis and even (in a little-known alliance with the Nazis) Cossacks. As long as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union remained intact, Italy feared that Gorizia could become the entry point of a Soviet invasion.

But now Slovenia is entering the EU, and on the eve of that event, at midnight on 30 April, the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, will strike a symbolic blow to the wall with a pickaxe, to mark the beginning of a new era.

It has never been a wall to compare with Berlin's: 50cm (20in) of cement, surmounted by a metre and a half of iron mesh, punctuated by seven checkpoints, admitting every day some 1,000 Slovenian women from Nova Gorica who cross the wall to work in Italian homes and factories, and hundreds of Italian students who cross into Slovenian territory where rents and restaurant bills are a fraction of Italian ones.

Yesterday citizens on both sides toasted the end of the wall and clambered through the places where the wire had already been cut. An opinion poll found recently that 78 per cent of the Gorizia population want the wall to come down. But before the two ethnically and linguistically distinct populations can truly come together there remains a grim historical legacy to be overcome.

Slovenes remember the forced Italianisation of their community after the end of the First World War, when Italy received the region on the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The oppression intensified after the Fascist take-over of Italy in 1923. The Slovene language was banned in public and in the press, Slovenes were forced to adopt Italian names, even the Slovene names on headstones in the cemeteries were changed to Italian ones.

For their part, Italians remember the 700 Italian dead in mass graves near the town during the Second World War, the thousands forced from their homes by bitter fighting.

Misgivings remain on the Italian side: fears that the Slovene city will sap Gorizia's resources, fears that a flood of migrants may shatter the region's fragile Italian identity. The mayor of Gorizia, Vittorio Brancati, recognised the problem when he said: "The wounds of the 19th century are healing, but the walls inside people's heads must also come down."

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