Foibe massacres


Foibe massacres were mass killings attributed to Yugoslav Partisans during and shortly after World War II against Italians. The name derives from the local geological feature, foiba (a type of deep karst sinkhole). This term indicates, by extension, the killings involving also other formations, such as the Basovizza foiba, which is actually a mining pit.

Some claim such bloodshed and the consequent Istrian exodus were a holocaust and an ethnic cleansing of innocent civilians; massacres and exodus were declared a democide and an ethnic-political cleansing by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. Others assert that the number of victims was too small for this to be true, and that the killings were mostly restricted to fascists, both military and civilians, who might have had committed war crimes during World War II in Yugoslavia.


Foibe are often referred to in the context of mass killings in which the majority of victims were ethnic Italians, though many bodies found in the pits undoubtedly belonged to Yugoslav Partisans. Such killings were committed after the capitulation of Italy on September 8, 1943 and in 1945, when Yugoslav partisans under Josip Broz Tito's command entered the Julian March (Julijska Krajina/Venezia Giulia), the Italian occupied western Slovenia as well as parts of Italian territory along the gulf of Trieste. Also, many dead Partisans were thrown into these pits during an Axis offensive in the area. The Yugoslav army (IX. Korpus) met with the British forces on the river Soča/Isonzo on May 3, 1945. In the aftermath, the city of Trieste and the surroundings came under Yugoslav administration.

Enlarge picture
Bodies of murdered Italian citizens recovered by firefighters and local civilians in 1943.

The number of victims is still unknown, difficult to establish and a matter of much controversy. Estimates range from between 2,000 and 15,000. According to data gathered by a mixed Slovene-Italian historical commission established in 1993, the number of people missing in the present-day Slovenian Istria and Trieste (believed to have been thrown into the foibe) range from 1,300 to 1,600. This estimate does not include those killed in current Croatian territory. Some historians like Raoul Pupo or Roberto Spazzali estimated the total number of victims at about 5,000, but this is again contested by many.

The killings of 1943 were spontaneous and are considered a reaction to the Italian pre-war and war crimes, such as concentration camps (among them the Rab and Gonars camps), political repression, forceful italianization and nationalistic repression of Slavs exercised by the Italian regime in the previous decades.[1] For some Italian historians these killings were the beginning of organized ethnic cleansing, these are very controversial allegations, though.[2]

The episodes of 1945 occurred partly under conditions of guerrilla fighting of Croatian and Slovenian partisans against the Germans, the Italians and their Slavic collaborating allies (the Chetniks, the Ustaše and Domobranci) and partly after the securing of the territory by the army formations of Yugoslavia. Killings may have included war crimes as well as civilian crimes of private or political retaliation. For a point of view the main motive for the mass killings seems to have been a plan of political cleansing that is to say, elimination of potential enemies of the communist Yugoslav rule, including members of German and Italian fascist units, Italian officers and civil servants, parts of the Italian elite who opposed both communism and fascism, Slovenian and Croatian anti-communists collaborators and radical nationalists. For other point of view the main motive for the killings seems to have been retribution for the years of Italain repression, that is to say, forced Italianization, suppression of Slavic sentiments and, indeed, mass killings performed by Italian authorities during the war, not just in the concentration camps, but also in the punitary expeditions often undertaken by the fascists.

Some Italian sources claim that ethnic cleansing was another motive, but many historians disagree with that statement because of low casualty numbers. However, others point out Tito's political aim of adding to the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia the Istrian territories as far as Trieste and including the city itself. The reason for this is the fact that these territories, according to both Italian and Yugoslav censi, had a Yugoslav majority. Since the Allied countries had different opinions on the redefinition of the eastern Italian border, it was preferred to reach Trieste before any other Allied forces and to prove that the Slavic presence was a majority. Tito planned to use the city as a bargaining chip to add Istria to the SFRY. The ethnic map of the area could potentially be a decisive factor in the post-War conferences and for this reason, according to some Italian historians, the reduction of the ethnic Italian population was held desirable. However, the exodus, which reduced the Italian population of Istria and Dalmatia, started in before the killings were widely known and was motivated, for the most part, by the desire of the Italian people to live in their own country, far away from communism.[3]

It should be noted, moreover, that a large part of the Italian population had a very negative opinion of the Slavs, whom they stereotyped as rural barbarians, while a big part of the Slavic population had a negative attitude towards the Italians, stereotyped as murderous fascists and nationalists, so purely ethnic tensions could have played some role as far as individual motivations are concerned.

Quote from the report of the mixed Italian-Slovenian commission (referenced below) which succinctly describes the circumstances of the 1945 killings:
"14. These events were triggered by the atmosphere of settling accounts with the fascist violence; but, as it seems, they mostly proceeded from a preliminary plan which included several tendencies: endeavours to remove persons and structures who were in one way or another (regardless of their personal responsibility) linked with Fascism, with Nazi supremacy, with collaboration and with the Italian state, and endeavours to carry out preventive cleansing of real, potential or only alleged opponents of the communist regime, and the annexation of the Julian March to the new Yugoslavia. The initial impulse was instigated by the revolutionary movement which was changed into a political regime, and transformed the charge of national and ideological intolerance between the partisans into violence at national level."

Investigations of the Foibe

The first claims of people being thrown into foibe date back to 1943, when the Wehrmacht took back the area from the partisans. Thus, the first victims of the foibe appear to have been Partisans. The number of deaths herein has since come under certain suspicion, since they could have been exaggerated by Nazi Germany.

No investigation of the crimes had been initiated either by Italy, Yugoslavia or any international bodies in the post-war period, until after Slovenia became an independent country in 1991.

Italian-Slovenian relations in the relevant period (1880s to 1950s) have been under intensive study by historians since 1990. A joint report by a commission of historians from both countries was published under the auspices of the two governments in the year 2000 (referenced below). The report puts the Italian-Slovenian relations in a wider context, and touches the question of mass killings associated with the foibe. As no exact count was ascertained, the report includes a wording of "hundreds of victims," referring to the territory relevant for Italo-Slovenian relations, and thus excluding the Croatian territories.

In March 2006, the border municipality of Nova Gorica in Slovenia finally released documents regarding 150 citizens of Gorizia (the twin town on the Italian part of the border) disappeared in 1945 after being deported by Tito's partizan of the IX corpus. The relatives had been requesting information from the Yugoslavian and then Slovenian authorities for years. The 150 individuals are supposed to be a fraction of those who were deported from the region and were killed later on inside Yugoslavia.[4]

Post War silence

The foibe have been a neglected subject in mainstream political debate, only recently garnering attention with the recent publication of several books and historical studies. It is thought that after World War II, politicians wanted to direct the country's attention toward the future and away from fascist crimes, subsuming the issue of the foibe within this mass "forgetting".

Another reason for the neglect of the foibe can be found in the high degree of ideology historically present in the public debate in Italy. The presence of the biggest Communist party in Western Europe made it difficult to look at recent history objectively. Many Istrians concealed their origins for fear of being identified by other Italians, who tended to believe that Italian Istrians who left after the war likely cooperated with the Fascists. Moreover, because of the Cold War and the desire to maintain good relations with Tito, the Yugoslav massacres were a dangerous topic to broach. Furthermore, Italy never extradited or prosecuted some two thousand Italian Army officers, government officials or former Fascist Party members, accused of war crimes by Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Greece and other occupied countries and remitted to the United Nations War Crimes Commission.[5] According to some, the Italian government tacitly "exchanged" the impunity of the Italians accused by Yugoslavia for the renunciation to investigate the Foibe killings.[6]

Reemergence of the foibe issue

Since the end of the Cold War, and more recently under the Presidency of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, the historical debate has begun to take on a less ideological tone. The coalition of Silvio Berlusconi brought the issue back into open discussion: the Italian Parliament (with the support of the vast majority of the represented parties) made February 10 National Memorial Day of the Exiles and Foibe, first celebrated in 2005 with exhibitions and observances throughout Italy (especially in Trieste). The occasion is held in memory of innocents killed and forced to leave their homes, with little support from their home country. In Ciampi's words: Time has come for thoughtful remembrance to take the place of bitter resentment. Moreover, for the first time, leaders from the Left, such as Walter Veltroni (himself son of a Slovenian mother), visited the Basovizza foiba and admitted the culpability of the Italian Left in covering up the subject for decades. However, the conciliatory moves of Ciampi and Veltroni were not endorsed by all Italian political groups. Members of the National Alliance party (post-fascist right led by Gianfranco Fini) especially took advantage of the circumstance to promote a nationalist agenda, some even demanding the revision of treaties with former Yugoslav countries.

Nowadays, even a large part of the Italian Left acknowledges the violent political and nationalist nature of the foibe killings, as attested by some declarations of Luigi Malabarba, Senator for the Communist Refoundation Party, during the parliamentary debate on the institution of the National Memorial Day: "In 1945 there was a ruthless policy of exterminating opponents. Here, one must again recall Stalinism to understand what Tito's well-organized troops did. (...) Yugoslavian Communism had deeply assimilated a return to nationalism that was inherent to the idea of 'Socialism in One Country'. (...) The war, which had begun as anti-fascist, became anti-German and anti-Italian."[7] However, Malabarba and his party maintained that the discussion on the killings was being manipulated by the right-wing parties and that the new Memorial day was part of a general attempt to criminalize anti-fascism and Resistance.

Slovenian and Croatian view

Slovenia has officially adopted the report of a joint commission describing Slovene-Italian relations from 1880 to 1956 (referenced below). Italian authorities have so far not reciprocated, stating that adopting it would give an official status to a historical research, and that this is not compatible with the principle of free research.

The Slovene and Croatian public and politics have come to acknowledge the atrocities of the foibe and other massacres committed at the end of World War II. They recognize these events as the result of Italian Fascism. After World War I areas later affected by the Foibe massacres (see map) were annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. After the rise of the Fascist regime, the Slavic part of the population was subjected to a policy of forced assimilation (ethnocide). Some incidents occurred even before the rising of the regime, such as the burning of the Slovene National House in Trieste by fascist supporters (1920), and many others. The Slovene population responded with one of the earliest militant anti-fascist organisations in Europe TIGR (active 1927-1941). The long-term and savage aggression of Italian politics evoked a strong resistance movement during World War II in the area. Finally, the animosity culminated in revenge and further political divisions at the end of the war.

Partially in response to the new Italian memorial day, Slovenia has enacted September 15 as a national holiday, memorial day of Reunification of the Slovene Littoral to the Homeland.


Many books have been written about the foibe, and results, interpretations and estimates of victims can in some cases vary largely according to the point of view of the author. Since most of the alleged foibe currently lie outside Italian territory, no formal and complete investigation could be carried out during the years of the Cold war, and books could be of a speculative or anecdotal nature. Since the topic seemed especially appealing to the far right, there is an overrepresentation of authors that can be traced to neo-fascism. Many authors from the left wing of politics have maintained that the foibe were either an exaggeration (or an invention) of the extreme right for propaganda purposes,[8] since the fascist crimes in the same areas dwarf even the most lavish of the foibe allegations.[6] Since a definitive investigation on all foibe has not yet been carried out, and is unlikely to be carried out anytime in the near future due to technical and political difficulties, the subject is still controversial, and one should approach any book in this bibliography with a critical spirit.
  • Gianni Bartoli, Il martirologio delle genti adriatiche
:Gianni Bartoli was the former mayor of Trieste, with the centrist Christian Democracy.
  • Claudia Cernigoi, Operazione Foibe—Tra storia e mito, Kappa Vu, Udine, 2005, ISBN X001486360. (The first edition of the book, published in 1997 as Operazione foibe a Trieste and limited in scope to the Trieste territory, is available online)
:Claudia Cernigoi is apparently a former member of the Communist Refoundation Party.
:Kappa Vu is a small left-wing publishing house.
  • Vincenzo Maria De Luca, Foibe. Una tragedia annunciata. Il lungo addio italiano alla Venezia Giulia, Settimo sigillo, Roma, 2000.
:Settimo Sigillo is a small publishing house, specialised in revisionist books.
  • Gianni Oliva, Foibe, Oscar Mondadori, 2003, ISBN 88-04-51584-8.
  • Luigi Papo, L'Istria e le sue foibe, Settimo sigillo, Roma, 1999.
  • Luigi Papo, L'ultima bandiera.
:Luigi Papo has been accused by the left of being a war criminal in Istria during World War II.
  • Marco Pirina, Dalle foibe all'esodo 1943-1956.
:Pirina has been associated to the youth wing of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, the FUAN, and Fronte Delta, an extreme-right university movement.
  • 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
:Raoul Pupo is an associate professor in contemporary history at the University of Trieste.
  • Franco Razzi, Lager e foibe in Slovenia.
  • Guido Rumici, Infoibati, Mursia, Milano, 2002, ISBN 88-425-2999-0.
  • Giorgio Rustia, Contro operazione foibe a Trieste, 2000.
:Rustia is apparently close to Forza Nuova, a neofascist movement.
  • Carlo Sgorlon, La foiba grande, Mondadori, 2005, ISBN 88-04-38002-0.
  • Pol Vice, Scampati o no - i racconti di chi uscì "vivo" dalla foiba, Kappa Vu, Udine, 2005.


1. ^ Gian Luigi Falabrino. Il punto sulle foibe e sulle deportazioni nelle regioni orientali (1943-45) (Italian). Retrieved on 2006-06-07.
2. ^ Silvia Ferreto Clementi. La pulizia etnica e il manuale Cubrilovic (Italian). Retrieved on 2006-06-03.
3. ^ Paolo Sardos Albertini (2002-05-08). "Terrore" comunista e le foibe (Italian). Il Piccolo. Retrieved on 2006-06-08.
4. ^ Paolo Rumiz (2006-03-10). Gorizia: La storia. Quei 1048 nomi riemersi dalle foibe. (PDF) (Italian). La Repubblica. Retrieved on 2006-06-07.
5. ^ Crimini di Guerra. La mancata estradizione e l'impunità dei presunti criminali di guerra italiani accusati per stragi in Africa e in Europa (Italian). Retrieved on 2006-06-03.
6. ^ Marco Ottanelli. La verità sulle foibe (Italian). Retrieved on 2006-06-03.
7. ^ Luigi Malabarba (2004-03-11). Declaration of Vote (PDF) (Italian). Transcript of the 561th Session of the Italian Senate 15. Retrieved on 2006-06-05.
8. ^ Claudia Cernigoi. Capitolo III: Le foibe triestine (Italian). Operazione foibe a Trieste. Retrieved on 2006-06-07.

Further reading

Report of the Italian-Slovene commission of historians (in three languages)

See also


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Foiba (Italian plural foibe) is the name adopted to define deep natural sinkholes common in the Kras (Carso) region, a karstic plateau region shared by Italy, Slovenia and Croatia.
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Country Italy
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