Pits of death give up their grisly secret

Andrew Gumbel in Trieste explains why the story of a massacre went untold for 50 years
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The Independent Online
History teaches that the perpetrators of war crimes all too often elude capture and get forgotten. But at least the war crimes themselves, especially when they involve the massacre of innocent civilians, are remembered and committed to collective memory. Or are they?

In the past few days, Italy has been making a painful discovery: for the past 50 years it has turned a blind eye to a horrific slaughter of its own citizens at the end of the Second World War.

The victims were Italians living in an area near Trieste, on either side of the much-contested border between Italy and Slovenia. Between 1943 and 1948, several thousand were rounded up - first by Tito's partisans and then, after the war, by the Yugoslav secret police. They were tortured and mutilated in prisons and concentration camps, then thrown into deep limestone pits while they were still alive to suffer a horrifically slow death.

It seems extraordinary that the massacre of the Foibe (the local dialect word for the pits) should simply disappear from the national consciousness. The main reason was the titanic struggle between Fascists and Communists at the end of the war, and the deep polarisations in Italian society this caused.

The Foibe were forgotten because the Italians living in the Trieste area and the Istra peninsula were associated with Mussolini's expansionist ambitions, and thus deemed to be Fascists unworthy of any compassion. Moreover, the Italian partisan movement was dominated by the Communist Party, which at the end of the war was so keen to build bridges with Yugoslavia that it preferred not to ask awkward questions about Tito's own territorial ambitions around Trieste - the driving force behind the massacres in the first place.

Soon, a deliberate policy of collective blindness was in place. In 1946 the Italian Communist leader, Palmiro Togliatti, visited a notorious prison- house in the Slovene capital, Ljubljana, that was stuffed with Italian civilians. Togliatti saw none of them, because they had been herded into a cellar, allowing him to return to Italy saying, "there are no Italian prisoners in Yugoslavia".

Later, a repatriation scheme allowed left-wing Italians to go home from Yugoslavia through the good offices of the Communist Party, on the tacit understanding that they would keep their mouths shut. Soon the only Italians making a fuss about the Foibe were the neo-Fascists, whose credibility was so tattered nobody took them seriously.

Postwar Italy became so divided that its memories of the war split along ideological lines. There were "left-wing" massacres perpetrated by the Nazis and the Fascists - which became part of the mythology of the new Italian democratic state - and there were "right-wing" massacres such as the Foibe, which sank into popular obloquy.

So things might have remained had it not been for the recent, farcical trial of Erich Priebke, a former SS captain responsible for the most notorious of the "left-wing" massacres, the killing of 335 Jews, resistance fighters and their families in 1944 in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome.

Soon the usual left-right game began. The left wanted to focus on the Ardeatine Caves, while the neo-Fascist right wanted to include the Foibe as well. Then there was a breakthrough. In Trieste, the local secretary of the PDS, successor to the Italian Communist Party, came out with a statement describing the Foibe as one of the great tragedies of the century and urging the left to look critically at its record on the issue.

The PDS has now promised to open its archives on the subject, and a Roman magistrate has begun looking for war criminals who can still be prosecuted.

What is striking is how little is known about the Foibe - even a reliable death toll. Roberto Spazzali, an academic specialist on the subject, says only 600 corpses have been exhumed. Considering the number of people who went missing, the true figure is likely to be in the thousands.

The truth now emerging is that most of the victims of the Foibe were not Fascists at all - they included a number of pro-left resistance leaders opposed to Tito's expansionism. The bitter irony after all these years is that the Foibe was a tragedy for the Italian left, too.

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