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The expression Istrian exodus or Istrian-Dalmatian exodus is used to indicate the departure of ethnic Italians from Istriamarker, Rijekamarker, and Dalmatia (present-day Croatiamarker), after World War II. At the time of the exodus, these territories were part of the SR Croatia and SR Slovenia (then parts of SFR Yugoslaviamarker), today they are parts of the Republics of Croatiamarker and Sloveniamarker. According to some sources, the exodus was allegedly incited by the Yugoslav government, while the Italian government offered incentives for immigration.

These territories were ethnically mixed, with Italian, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and other communities.Istria including Rijekamarker and parts of Dalmatia including Zadarmarker, had been annexed to Italy after World War I. At the end of World War II the former Italian territories in Istria and Dalmatia became part of Yugoslaviamarker by the Paris Peace Treaty (1947), with the only exception being the commune of Muggiamarker and San Dorligo della Vallemarker.

Italian sources claim that up to 350,000 ethnic Italians had to leave the areas in the aftermath of the conflict. In various municipalities in Croatia and Slovenia, census data shows that there are still significant numbers of Italians living in Istria, such as 51% of the population of Grožnjanmarker, 37% at Brtoniglamarker and nearly 30% in Bujemarker .

Overview of the exodus

The Italians in Slovenia and Croatia were mostly an indigenous population (in 1910 they accounted for more than a third of the local inhabitants), bolstered by new arrivals or the so called regnicoli, never well liked by the indigenous Venetian-speaking Istrians, who arrived between 1918-1943, when Primorska and Istria, Rijeka, part of Dalmatia, and the islands of Cresmarker, Krkmarker, Lastovomarker, and Palagružamarker were part of Italy. The Italian 1936 census indicated approximately 230,000 people who listed Italian as their language of communication in what is now the territory of Slovenia and Croatia, then part of the Italian state (ca. 194,000 in today’s Croatia and ca. 36,000 in today’s Slovenia). From the end of World War II until 1953, according to various data, between 250,000 and 350,000 people emigrated from these regions. One-third were Slovenes and Croats who opposed the Communist government in Yugoslavia , while two-thirds were ethnic Italians, the so-called optanti emigrants who were living permanently in this region on 10 June 1940 and who expressed their wish to obtain Italian citizenship and emigrate to Italy. The emigration of Italians reduced the total population of the region and altered its ethnic structure.

In 1953, officially, only 36,000 Italians lived in Yugoslavia, 16% of the Italian population before World War II . In its 1996 report on 'Local self-government, territorial integrity and protection of minorities' the Council of Europe's European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) put it that "a great majority of the local Italians, Italianites (of Slavic and other origin), many thousands of Slovenes and of nationally undefined bilingual 'Istrians' used their legal right from the peace treaty to 'opt out' of the Yugoslav controlled part of Istria. In several waves they moved to Italy and elsewhere (also overseas) and claimed Italian or other citizenship. The mass exodus of the optanti (or esuli as they were called in Italy) from 'godless communist Yugoslavia' was actively encouraged by the Italian authorities, Italian radio and the Roman Catholic bishop of Trieste. After this huge drain, the numerical strength of the remaining Italian minority became stable".


Ancient times

Ethnic distribution in Istria in 1910:

Evidence of Italic people living alongside those from other ethnic groups on the eastern side of the Adriatic as far north as the Alps goes back at least to the Bronze Age , and the populations have been mixed ever since. A 2001 population census counted 23 languages spoken by the people of Istria .

From the Middle Ages onwards numbers of Slavic people near and on the Adriatic coast were ever increasing, due to their expanding population and due to pressure from the Turks pushing them from the south and east

See also This led to Italic people becoming ever more confined to urban areas, while the countryside was populated by Slavs, with certain isolated exceptions

The majority Slavic population suffered economic and political disadvantages, which gradually declined with the democratization of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 19th century.

World War I and post-War period

In 1915, the Italians attacked the Austro-Hungarian Empire leading to bloody conflict mainly on the Isonzo and Piavemarker fronts. Britain, France and Russia had been "keen to bring neutral Italy into World War One on their side. Italy however drove a hard bargain, demanding extensive territorial concessions once the war had been won" .In a deal to draw Italy into the war, under the London Pact, Italy was granted Trentino, Trieste, (the German-speaking) South Tyrol, and Istria including large non-Italian communities. But Dalmatia was excluded, as was Rijeka . In Dalmatia, not granted to Italy by the London pact, Italy gained the city of Zadarmarker and some islands.

After World War I, under the Treaty of Rapallo between the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenesmarker (later Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and the Kingdom of Italy (12 November 1920), Italy obtained almost all of Istria with Trieste, the exception being the island of Krkmarker and part of Kastavmarker commune, which went to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. By the Treaty of Rome (27 January 1924) the Free state of Rijeka/Fiumemarker was split between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Between December 31, 1910, and Dececember 1, 1921, Istria lost 15.1% of its population – the last survey under the Austrian empire recorded 404,309 inhabitants, which were reduced to 343,401 by the first Italian census after the war. While such a decrease is certainly related to the First World War and the changeover in political administration, emigration was also a major factor. In the immediate post World War I period, Istria was the stage of an intense migration outflow. Pulamarker, for example, was badly affected by the drastic dismantling of its massive military and bureaucratic apparatus of over 20,000 soldiers and security forces, and the dismissal of the employees from its shipyard. The serious economic crisis in the rest of Italy forced thousands of peasants to move into Yugoslavia, which then became the main destination of the Istrian exodus . The 'fascist factor' also played its part, especially regarding the local intellectual elite .

Due to the lack of reliable statistics, however, the true magnitude of Istrian emigration during that period cannot be assessed accurately. Estimates provided by varying sources and with different research methods show that 30,000 Istrians migrated between 1918 and 1921.

Slavs under Italian Fascist rule

After World War I, under the Treaty of Rapallo between the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenesmarker (later Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and the Kingdom of Italy (12 November 1920), Italy obtained almost all of Istria with Trieste, the exception being the island of Krkmarker and part of Kastavmarker commune, which went to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. By the Treaty of Rome (27 January 1924) Italy took Rijeka as well, which had been planned to become an independent state.

In these areas, there was a forced policy of italianization of the population in the 1920s and 1930s . Even during the brief preliminary period of occupation (1918-1920) Italy had begun a policy of assimilation of Croats and Slovenes. This resulted in the closure of the classical lyceum in Pazin, of the high school in Voloska (1918), the closure of the Slovenian and Croatian primary schools and the exile of some distinguished Croats and Slovenians to Sardinia and to other places in Italy. In addition, there were acts of fascist violence not hampered by the authorities, such as the torching of the Narodni dom (National House) in Pula and Trieste carried out at night by Fascists with the connivance of the police (July 13, 1920). The situation deteriorated further after the annexation of the Julian March, especially after Mussolini came to power (1922). The official policy of cleansing other nationalities was under no international restraint, as Italy had not given any undertaking about the rights of minorities in either the peace treaties or the Rapallo treaty.

In Istria the use of Croatian and Slovene languages in the administration and in the courts had already been restricted during the occupation (1918-1920). In March 1923 the prefect of the Julian March prohibited the use of Croatian and Slovene in the administration, whilst their use in law courts was forbidden by Royal decree on 15 October 1925. The deathblow to the Slovenian and Croatian school system in Istria was delivered on 1 October 1923 with the scholastic reform of minister Giovanni Gentile. The activities of Croatian and Slovenian societies and associations (Sokol, reading rooms, etc) had already been forbidden during the occupation, but specifically so later with the Law on Associations (1925), the Law on Public Demonstrations (1926) and the Law on Public Order (1926). All Slovenian and Croatian societies and sporting and cultural associations had to cease every activity in line with a decision of provincial fascist secretaries dated 12 June 1927. On a specific order from the prefect of Trieste on 19 November 1928 the Edinost political society was also dissolved. Croatian and Slovenian co-operatives in Istria, which at first were absorbed by the Pula or Trieste Savings Banks, were gradually liquidated .After this complete dissolution of all Slav political, cultural and economic organizations, armed resistance was organized against Italian rule (see TIGR), followed by new repression, which further embittered relations between the two communities.

World War II

After the Wehrmacht invasion of Yugoslavia (6 April 1941), the Italian zone of occupation was further expanded. Italy annexed large areas of Croatia (including most of coastal Dalmatia) and Slovenia (including its capital Ljubljanamarker). Its brutal repression of Partisan activities and the killing and imprisonment of thousands of Yugoslav civilians in concentration camps (such as the Rab concentration camp) in the newly annexed provinces, and in Italy proper, fed the anti-Italian sentiments of the Slovenian and Croatian subjects of Fascist Italy. During the Italian occupation until their capitulation in September 1943, the population was subjected to atrocities, described by Italian historian Claudio Pavone as “aggressive and violent. Not so much an eye for an eye as a head for an eye” as orders by Italian generals explicitely called.

After the Second World War, there were large-scale movements of people choosing to move to Italy rather than live in Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia, the people who left were called optanti, which translates as 'choosers', while they call themselves esuli or exiles. Their motives for leaving may have been fear of reprisals, economic motives, or ethnically based.

Events of 1943

When the Fascist regime collapsed in 1943 reprisals against Italian fascists took place. Up to 200 Italians were killed by Tito's resistance movement in September 1943; most had been connected to the fascist regime, while others were victims of personal hatred or the attempt of the Partisan resistance to get rid of its real or supposed enemies. These events took place in central and eastern Istria, as well as in Slovenian Primorska. A significant part of the Italian population had a very negative attitude towards Yugoslavs, stereotyped as rural barbarians, while the Slavs considered the Italians fascist oppressors (this belief was firmly rooted by the harsh conditions imposed upon them by Mussolini's Italy, so ethnic tensions could have played some role as far as individual motivations are concerned.

Civilian bodies recovered by firefighters and local civilians in 1943.

The foibe massacres

The second wave of anti-Fascist violence took place after the liberation of Istria from Axis occupation in May 1945. This was known as the foibe massacresmarker.

Some Italian sources claim that these killings amounted to ethnic cleansing, and that Italian people subsequently had no option but to emigrate .

The mixed Italian-Slovenian Historical Commission, established in 1995 by the two governments to investigate these matters, described the circumstances of the 1945 killings:

The number of victims is not certain. The Italian historian Raoul Pupo suggests 4,500 were killed (including the events of 1943), mostly Italians, but many bodies wearing Partisan uniforms were found as well, so the number is subject to many interpretations. Other sources suggest numbers reaching up to 20,000 killed or missing, with the most likely number approaching 10,000. Many soldiers were still in the area at that time, and were often summarily dispatched.

The exodus

Economic insecurity, ethnic hatred and the international political context that eventually led to the Iron Curtain resulted in up to 350,000 people, mostly Italians, choosing to leave the region. The London Memorandum (1954) gave the ethnic Italians the choice of either opting to leave (the so-called optants) or staying. These exiles were to be given compensation for their loss of property and other indemnity by the Italian state under the terms of the peace treaties. Following the exodus, the areas were settled with Yugoslav people.

Periods of the exodus

The exodus took place between 1943 and 1960; Italians allege that most of their numbers left in

  • 1943
  • 1945
  • 1947
  • 1954

The first period took place after the surrender of the Italian army and the beginning of the first wave of anti-fascist violence.

The second period was soon after the end of the war and approximately around the time of the second wave of anti-fascist violence. The Wehrmacht was engaged in a front-wide retreat from the Yugoslav Partisans, along with the local collaborationist forces (the Ustaše, the Domobranci, the Chetniks, and units of Mussolini's puppet Italian Social Republic).

The third period took place after the Paris peace treaty, when Istria was assigned to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslaviamarker, except for a small area in the northwest part that formed the independent Free Territory of Trieste.The fourth period took place after the Memorandum of Understanding in Londonmarker. It gave provisional civil administration of Zone A (with Trieste), to Italy, and Zone B to Yugoslavia: in 1975 the Treaty of Osimo finally divided the former Free Territory of Trieste.

Estimates of the exodus

Several estimates of the exodus by historians:

The mixed Italian-Slovenian Historical Commission verified 27,000 Italian and 3,000 Slovene migrants from Slovenian territory.

Famous exiles

Those whose families left Istria or Dalmatia in the post-Second World War period include:

Property reparation

On February 18, 1983 Yugoslavia and Italy signed a treaty in Romemarker where Yugoslavia agreed to pay US$110 million for the compensation of the exiles' property which was confiscated after the war in the Zone B of Free Territory of Trieste. Up to its breakup in 1991, Yugoslavia had paid US$18 million. Slovenia and Croatiamarker, two Yugoslav successors, agreed to share the remainder of this debt. Slovenia assumed 62% and Croatia the remaining 38%. Italy did not want to reveal the bank account number so in 1994 Slovenia opened a fiduciary account at Dresdner Bank in Luxembourgmarker, informed Italy about it and started paying its US$55,976,930 share. The last payment was due in January 2002. Until today, the solution of the matter between Croatia and Italy has been delayed. None of the refugees from the Free Territory of Trieste saw a single penny so far.

Minority rights in the former Yugoslavia

In connection with exodus and during the period of communist Yugoslavia (1945-1991), the equality of ethno-nations and national minorities and how to handle inter-ethnic relations was one of the key questions of Yugoslav internal politics. In November 1943, the federation of Yugoslavia was proclaimed by the second assembly of the Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ). The fourth paragraph of the proclamation stated that "Ethnic minorities in Yugoslavia shall be granted all national rights". These principles were codified in the 1946 and 1963 constitutions and reaffirmed again, in great detail, by the last federal constitution of 1974 . It declared that the nations and nationalities should have equal rights (Article 245). It further stated that “… each nationality has the sovereign right freely to use its own language and script, to foster its own culture, to set up organizations for this purpose, and to enjoy other constitutionally guaranteed rights…” (Article 274)

Historical debate

The connection between the World War II killings and the exodus is, however, a matter of much controversy. Yugoslavia never meant to totally exterminate its Italian population (there was even an Italian "Giuseppe Garibaldi" Division among the Yugoslav Partisan forces), but also clearly wanted to avoid any subsequent irredentism from defeated Italy over its new acquisitions. The impact of the killings and lynching of Italian Italian Social Republic (RSI) fascists and supposed nationalists in 1945 (especially in the context of the huge casualties of the World War II Yugoslav front), is somewhat questionable. Nevertheless, the theory of interconnection is very much present among modern-day historians, especially among Italian experts.

Slovenian historian Darko Darovec writes:

For the mixed Italian-Slovenian Historical Commission:


  • A Brief History of Istria by Darko Darovec
  • Raoul Pupo, Il lungo esodo. Istria: le persecuzioni, le foibe, l'esilio, Rizzoli, 2005, ISBN 88-17-00562-2.
  • Raoul Pupo and Roberto Spazzali, Foibe, Mondadori, 2003, ISBN 8842490156 .
  • Guido Rumici, Infoibati, Mursia, Milano, 2002, ISBN 88-425-2999-0.
  • Arrigo Petacco, L'esodo. La tragedia negata degli italiani d'Istria, Dalmazia e Venezia Giulia, Mondadori, Milano, 1999. English translation

Further reading

See also


  1. Untitled Document
  2. Summary of Ermanno Mattioli's book and Summary of historian Enrico Miletto's book
  3. Election Opens Old Wounds In Trieste
  4. History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans
  5. See census data from Croatia at --> released data --> census 2001 --> tables --> population by mother tongue by towns/municipalities --> (scroll down) County of Istria
  6. From book in Italian and Slovene languages, read page number 24
  7. VIII. Censimento della popolazione 21. aprile 1936. Vol II, Fasc. 24: Provincia del Friuli; Fasc. 31: Provincia del Carnero; Fasc. 32: Provincia di Gorizia, Fasc. 22: Provincia dell’Istria, Fasc. 34: Provincia di Trieste; Fasc. 35: Provincia di Zara, Rome 1936. Cited at
  8. Matjaž Klemenčič, The Effects of the Dissolution of Yugoslavia on Minority Rights: the Italian Minority in Post-Yugoslav Slovenia and Croatia. See
  9. CDL-STD(1996)016 - English
  10. Little Humankind's History
  11. Istria on the Internet - Demography - 2001 Census
  12. "While most of the population in the towns, especially those on or near the coast, was Italian, Istria’s interior was overwhelmingly Slavic – mostly Croatian, but with a sizeable Slovenian area as well". See
  13. First World - Primary Documents - Italian Entry into the War, 23 May 1915
  14. First World - Primary Documents - Treaty of London, 26 April 1915
  15. Summary: Islam in Europe, European Islam
  17. A Historical Outline Of Istria
  19. Mojca Drcar Murko
  20. Italian historian Raoul Pupo's article pertinent exodus or forced migration
  21. Article regarding foibe that asserts ethnic cleansing then forced migration
  22. Article in Italian (scroll down for Benvenuti): Mi hanno cacciato dal mio paese quando avevo tredici anni. Si chiamava Isola d'Istria, Oggi è una cittadina della Slovenia (I was expelled from my country when I was thirteen. It was called Isola d'Istria, today is a town in Slovenia)
  23. [1] The Teaty of Osimo (1975)
  24. La situazione giuridica dei beni abbandonati in Croazia e in Slovenia
  25. The Constitution of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade 1946; The Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade 1963. Cited at
  26. The Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade 1989. Cited at
  27. Slovene-Italian Relations 1880-1956. Report of the Slovene-Italian historical and cultural commission


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