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History has allotted Slovenia a very measly portion of coastline: 29 miles if you follow all the ins and outs, though a crow (or more likely a seagull) flying in a straight line from one end to the other would travel only about 11 miles. The corridor that connects Trieste with the rest of Italy covers a stretch of coast that on ethnic grounds probably should have been given to Slovenia, although Trieste itself has always had a large Italian majority. Just south of that city is the broad, triangular peninsula named Istria, after an Illyrian tribe that lived there in Roman times. Most of Istria’s cities and towns were established by Italians during the centuries when Venice was a major Mediterranean power.

Istria was not unique in this. All the way down the east coast of the Adriatic, on the mainland and the many islands, are cities and towns whose oldest families spoke Italian and once owed allegiance to Venice. In more recent times, however, the Slavic population of this coastline (although not always of its cities and towns) increased to the point where it equalled or exceeded the Italian population. That didn’t prevent Italy, once it became a modern state, from asserting claims to the entire coastline from Venice all the way down to and including Albania (whose major ports were also once Venetian).

History, in the end, rewarded very few of these claims. But in the aftermath of World War I, when Yugoslavia was created, the victors negotiated peace treaties that gave Italy several good-sized chunks of the new country’s coastline. The Italians, who had emerged from the war on the winning side, got some coastal islands, the important seaport of Zadar (Zara in Italian), and all of Istria. This district had both Italian and Slavic natives, most of the latter Croats. (According to the Austrian census of 1910, the Istrian population was about 41% Croat, 36% Italian, and 13% Slovene, with the remainder comprising German and Romanian speakers as well as non-citizens of the Monarchy, whose native languages were not recorded. These figures may be tilted a little, as the census included a few inland Karst districts that might have slightly increased the overall proportion of Slavs. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Yugoslav state had a reasonable case for possession, or at least division.)

The Italian public, however, was outraged by the settlement, feeling that their efforts in the Allied cause had earned them only a few crumbs from the victory table. Unquestionably, the Allies, trying to entice Italy into the war on their side, had promised her a much larger helping of the Dual Monarchy than she eventually got. Many of Italy’s sons had indeed lost lives or limbs in the Soča-Isonzo campaign — although the primary responsibility for the hugeness of their sacrifice belongs to incompetent leadership on their own side rather than to Austrian wickedness. In any event, punishing the Austrians and Hungarians by handing over lands whose population was overwhelmingly Slavic was contrary to the policies of ethnic self-determination championed by Woodrow Wilson, and the Allies’ extravagant promises could not be kept.

Click here for more information about the Soča-Isonzo campaign and Italy’s part in the Great War.

Italy had also felt entitled to Rijeka, an important seaport whose citizens were mostly Italian and supported Italian rule. (It was called Fiume in Italian; both names mean ‘river,’ a truncation of the medieval name, “St. Vitus on the River.”) The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes resisted the claim, and won some international support. Wilson tried to negotiate a compromise that would make Rijeka an independent “free city.” While the city’s status was still unresolved, lawlessness reigned and fighting broke out between Italians and Croats. The Allies sent in a small British and French force to restore and keep order.

In 1919 the poet and adventurer Gabriele D’Annunzio, leading an “army” of some 200 veterans, took it upon himself to uphold Italy’s honor by expelling the occupiers and seizing Rijeka on behalf of its rightful owner. His attempt succeeded, partly because some Italian military commanders covertly lent men to D’Annunzio’s force. It eventually numbered about 2,000 (probably including other nationalist volunteers in addition to the borrowed military). But the Italian government, committed to the treaty process, refused to annex the city, and instead set up a naval blockade. D’Annunzio then declared Fiume independent and ruled it for more than a year, until in December, 1920, his forces were driven out by an Italian naval bombardment.

The poet returned to his villa in Italy, never penalized for bearing arms against the government, which was very unpopular and soon ousted by Mussolini’s Fascist uprising. Although D’Annunzio himself never joined the Fascist movement, his government of Fiume had foreshadowed it in significant ways, and originated much of the symbolism that Mussolini later adopted: balcony speeches, black shirts, the Roman salute, mass rallies in public squares, and so on. D’Annunzio had put himself at the head of Fiume’s government, and nurtured hopes — later coopted by Mussolini — of establishing a dictatorship in Italy. Working with an ideologically inclined collaborator, the poet produced a constitution for Fiume in which there was no popular vote, and the various economic sectors of the community were represented by “corporations,” as they were later in Mussolini’s Fascist state. One difference is that, to his collaborator’s nine economic corporations, D’Annunzio (according to Wikipedia) added a tenth, “to represent the ‘superior’ human beings (heroes, poets, prophets, supermen).”

Shortly before D’Annunzio’s expulsion from Rijeka in 1920, the governments of Italy and Yugoslavia signed the Treaty of Rapallo, agreeing that it should become a free city. A government (the “Free State of Fiume”) was duly elected. But it couldn’t rule without Italian help — ironically, the chief enemies of order seem to have been the city’s Italian nationalists — and was soon driven into exile by a Fascist uprising, although it continued to exist on paper for another four years. In 1924, the Yugoslav kingdom yielded to the inevitable and signed Rijeka over to Italy, receiving in return the suburb of Sušak, where most of the city’s Slavic population lived.

Skip two decades ahead to the end of World War II. Italy had lost nearly all the territory east of the Adriatic into which it had tried to expand, with the sole exception of Trieste and its narrow corridor. Rijeka was now called solely by its Slavic name. For some time the city prospered in its established business of shipbuilding, but it fell on hard times when that industry collapsed early in the 1990s. It still has the air of a place whose best days are behind it.