From 1993 to 2000 Italian and Slovene scholars have worked on a volume about the relations between their two countries. Eight years have passed but the Commission's work has not yet been properly distributed

22/04/2008 -  Chiara Sighele

Translation for Osservatorio Balcani: Risto Karajkov

On 27 June 2000 in Udine, the 14 members of the joint Commission unanimously adopted the final report on Italian-Slovene relations in the period 1880-1956. In his last book, The Vanished Frontier, historian Raoul Pupo speaks of the importance of creation and the outcomes of the Italian-Slovene Commission on history and culture.

After years of silence, toward the end of the 80s nationwide interest in Italy's border with the East re-emerged, in particular concerning events from the period of World War II and its immediate aftermath. The fall of communism and the new approach of ex-communist countries towards their recent history during the previous regime have produced the need in Italian historiography, public opinion, and political establishment to respond to the request to the deal with the past, in particular with events concerning the period of the "holes" (foibe) and the Istrian-Dalmatian exodus. Until that point in time these historic events were only an isolated legacy in the memory of some communities in the region of Giulia.

Having rejected the proposal of the extreme right, to form a parliamentary investigative commission to identify, 50 years later, those responsible of the foibe, the idea was accepted to charge historians with resolving a problem of history. Hence, it was opted for cross-exploration of historic sources and collaboration among researchers.

"On 24 September 1990 the city council of a consensus the proposal to create a bilateral Italian-Yugoslav Commission of historians, which would be put in charge of clarifying the issue of the foibe. The Italian Government put forward the idea and subsequently it started talks with Belgrade", recalls Pupo. Due to Yugoslavia's dissolution, the talks continued separately with Ljubljana and Zagreb. This led to exchange of diplomatic notes between respective foreign ministries, which agreed on the forming of two joint commissions on history and culture, in October of 1993.

The Italian-Croatian Commission never convened, although it was never disbanded either. The Italian-Slovene Commission however, after seven years of joint work, completed its task and in July of 2000 submitted the Slovene and Italian version of the text to the respective foreign ministries of the two countries.

The final report, nevertheless, had a very poor distribution, and almost none of the publication activities suggested by the two Commission co-chairs, professor Milica Kacin - Wohin, and professor Giorgio Conetti, had been implemented: no official public presentation had been organized in universities or elsewhere, the background studies had not been published, the report had not had any distribution in secondary schools. In the spring and summer of 2001 the report was published in its integral version by the major dailies in Ljubljana and Trieste, and by some history journals in Friuli and Slovenia. The only publishing house which showed interest in the text was the publishing house of the Institute of Contemporary History in Ljubljana, which combined the Italian and the Slovene text, and a translation in English in a single volume, with a preface by then Slovene Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel.

Nevertheless, these seven years of intense cooperation have produced very positive results, to the surprise of the contracting institutions - which perhaps hoped the issue would wither away - as well as the historians who took part in the project - who on the other hand feared pressure either in favor of "patriotic compromise", or to the contrary, in favor of "official history of reconciliation".

Above all at a level of method, the merit of the bilateral Commission is beyond doubt. Dialogue and reciprocal access to the archives were eased and this benefited the relations between Italian and Slovene historiography. According to Pupo, this afforded them with the opportunity for a "relationship and collaboration absolutely unthinkable just a few years earlier", which in his view "could constitute the basis ...for even more innovative research".

The local history which was central to the 7-year effort of the Commission - the history of the regions of Venezia Giulia and the upper Adriatic - given its clear aspect of history of the frontier, assumes a national and international dimension. In the words of Franco Cecotti of IRSML (Regional Institute on the History of the Movement for Liberation of Friuli - Venezia Giulia) from Trieste, it has come to be "a didactic laboratory of complexity". The work of the Commission made possible the evidence of this complexity, and the practice of dialogue between national historiographies. In such a way, this experience - if only bilateral - which still operates through the lens of national historiography, has opened way for a post-national historiography, in accord with the direction taken by other European "historiographies of the frontier", and with the long-standing practice of the Council of Europe aimed at creation of European historiography.

Over the past years the idea took hold in Europe to base the teaching of history on textbooks produced by historians of diverse nationality. The most famous example to date is the handbook of French-German history, Histoire - Geschichte , for high schools, launched by Schroeder and Chirac in 2006. Yet, it seems this will not remain an isolated example. In Greece the History Joint Program has produced a handbook for high schools in Southeast Europe, translated in all the languages of the region. There is consideration in Hungary of the possibility to emulate the French-German initiative in relations with Slovakia and Romania, and even in Italy there are proponents of an Italian - Slovene textbook of history.

Overall, although the historic reflection over dark moments in the past - one's own past in particular - is a voyage which can not be avoided, the core of the issue lies elsewhere. In his preface Slovene minister Rupel notes that "...the Slovene-Italian report on the past is a document destined to the future. Its message contains the awareness that differences from history should not become discords of the present and burden relations in the future..."

As Pupo underscores, although it is important to proceed on both lanes, both the past and the future, the order of priority is inverted. The exploration of history is delegated to researchers. Society and institutions should concern themselves with the other side: the future and the creation of shared tomorrow.