A pro-Yugoslav demonstration in Monfalcone circa 1946

A pro-Yugoslav demonstration in Monfalcone circa 1946 (Courtesy of the Digital gallery of Museo Cantieristica di Monfalcone )

After the Second World War, thousands left Italy to move to socialist Yugoslavia. Over the years, a lot has been written on this story, now revisited by two new studies on the basis of unpublished documentation

20/07/2020 -  Luke GramithMarco Abram

Between 1946 and 1948, in the peak years of what was called the Istrian Dalmatian exodus, thousands of Italians migrated east to the new socialist Yugoslavia. They voluntarily decided to move to a socialist country, weaving their lives with some of the most significant historical moments for Italy and Yugoslavia, between the Second World War and the Cold War. Although the story of the so-called "counter-exodus" has been repeatedly told, new archival and non-archival sources help better understand the motivations, the extent, and the events experienced in the host country by the protagonists of this unprecedented migration.

Why leave?

Though the term controesodo refers broadly to postwar Italian migration to Yugoslavia, the phenomenon was a confluence of several distinct migration flows. The most significant emerged in the Italo-Yugoslav borderlands amid the postwar border crisis. The border conflict, sometimes dubbed the “first battle of the Cold War,” pitted Venezia Giulia’s residents against each other based on overlapping ethnic and political loyalties. Residents lined up in complex ways, and many working-class Italians chose Yugoslavia.

Nowhere was this alignment more common than the industrial town of Monfalcone, where over 2200 residents joined the Communist Party (PCRG) and over 16,000 the pro-Yugoslav mass organizations by 1946, struggling to bring Yugoslavia home. Local militants took leading roles in the region’s climactic pro-Yugoslav general strike of July 1946 and became targets of violent reprisals at the hands of pro-Italian paramilitaries once it became clear that Monfalcone would return to Italy. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that at least 1400 Monfalconese workers, many former pro-Yugoslav militants, quit jobs at the local shipyard and chemical plant in early 1947 when Communist offices announced that Yugoslavia needed laborers to help the country triumph over its Five Year Plan. Beginning in late January, local administrators reported that “almost every day [workers] leave Monfalcone in small groups of 25/30,” departing with plans for permanent settlement in Rijeka and Pula and prepared to bring families along. These veteran pro-Yugoslavs are commonly said to have left to “construct socialism,” their story cast as one of Cold War migration.

Yet a close examination of this migration reveals a more complex picture. Certainly, a core of perhaps a few hundred ideologically orthodox Communist Party members existed. They were eager to participate in the construction of socialism after many had endured Fascist persecution and confinement and all had witnessed the westward thrust of the Soviet sphere stop just short of their town at war’s end. But documents suggest that this Cold-War framework was not always the prism through which ordinary migrants viewed their pro-Yugoslav politics and subsequent migration. Internal Communist Party surveying in late 1946 revealed that most new Party members knew little or no Marxism-Leninism, to say nothing of those enrolled only in the pro-Yugoslav mass organizations. Instead of viewing their actions as part of a forward-looking, global Cold War struggle, these more “ordinary” participants joined the Communist Party and fought for Yugoslavia as part of a backward-looking struggle to complete what they viewed as the unfinished task of local defascistization. The fall of Fascism had brought hopes for a substantial transformation of workplace organization and local commerce, which were foiled time and again. At liberation, the new factory council in Monfalcone’s shipyard abolished a harsh Taylorist labor system based on piecework that the firm’s Fascistized management had imposed during the dictatorship to drive work paces to miserable levels. In the months that followed, however, management rallied and reversed this victory in the local struggle against “Fascism,” re-imposing the system with Anglo-American aid. Disillusioned, many monfalconesi migrated as a final act of liberation from Fascism rather than a first act of constructing socialism.

For still other borderlanders, migration could aid in another form of escape: escape from the daily postwar realities of hunger and hardship. For them, the border was not a partition between Cold-War worlds, but rather a tool used for family survival. When Monfalcone’s shipyard laid off hundreds of its youngest workers in April 1946 due to a lack of contracts, many immediately sought food and work in Yugoslavia to alleviate economic strains on their families. Boys as young as sixteen departed to construct Bosnian railways in the Yugoslav Youth Brigades or to work unskilled positions in Sarajevo, strategically leaving behind ration cards so family members could double up on meager 800-calorie daily rations. It was these unemployed youth, not the workers who quit voluntarily in 1947, who constituted the first wave of migrants from Monfalcone. Though most intended to return home once conditions improved – and many did – others altered plans and put down roots, exerting “pull” forces on fathers, mothers, and siblings who joined in subsequent years. Even into 1947 this instrumentalization of the border persisted: in April, pervasive “ration doubling” prompted local officials to make their first (failed) attempt to survey all migrants to Yugoslavia and purge them from local ration rolls.


“E questi perché se ne vanno?,” Il Lavoratore, 17 gennaio 1947

“E questi perché se ne vanno?,” Il Lavoratore, 17 gennaio 1947. This article reports on the beginning of mass departures from Monfalcone.

Ultimately, then, migration from Monfalcone was the result of interwoven local, regional, and familial concerns not reducible to the single rubric of “constructing socialism,” and Monfalcone was just one source of migrants. Though emigratory enthusiasm in Trieste was dampened by that city’s autonomy from Italy after September 1947, it too contributed hundreds of working-class migrants to the controesodo, as did nearby Gorizia and Friuli. Meanwhile, isolated migrants came from Italian provinces as far-flung as Turin, Milan, Rome, and Naples. Most notable among them were a cadre of journalists, teachers, and dramatists whom Yugoslav authorities recruited with Italian Communist Party assistance beginning in mid-1947. Belying claims of Yugoslav ethnic cleansing, these recruits, vetted for political reliability, were to reinforce a native Italian-speaking intelligentsia shrinking under the strains of the esodo and to sustain Italian-language educational and cultural activities that would prepare the population for socialism. To reach Yugoslavia from Italy proper, they often had to pass the border clandestinely, smuggled across by a network of Communist Party militants in Udine, Monfalcone, and Trieste. Upon arrival, they settled primarily in coastal cities of Rovinj and Rijeka, where many assumed positions in cultural organizations like Rijeka’s Italian Drama and the Italian-language newspaper La Voce del Popolo.

By 1948, there were likely 10,000 or more Italian migrants who had arrived in Yugoslavia since the war. During close research on Monfalcone, we have composed a list of migrants individually identified in archival documents. Though blind spots in the documents make a precise count impossible – most documents were produced in spring 1947 before migration ceased – the list currently stands at 1923. Of these, 348 are heads-of-family known to have brought families of unknown composition with them, and a further 1200 have entirely unspecified family situations. Considered in tandem with other archival blind spots, this list suggests at least 5000 migrants arrived from Monfalcone alone, and it now seems imprudent to dismiss as impossible PCI claims that “in 1947 over 3000 workers emigrated from the district of Monfalcone to Rijeka alone.” Whatever the precise numbers, large communities consisting of hundreds of Monfalconese families and hundreds of other Italians popped up in Rijeka and Pula, while the Italian consulate and American intelligence services estimated 1000 migrants in the capitals of Croatia and Slovenia respectively, most from interior Italy. Smaller communities of mostly single migrants sprang up in Sarajevo, Zenica, Belgrade, Jesenice, Maribor, and other far-flung settlements, where these Italians would soon have their first experience of real existing socialism. 

The moment of choices

At the end of the Second World War, Yugoslavia was a devastated country engaged in a difficult reconstruction. The situation did not always match the imaginary of actually existing socialism that accompanied many immigrants from Italy. The available testimonies speak of great enthusiasm in the momentum for the construction of the new society, but also of difficulties and disappointments, not infrequently due to the working conditions. Some returns to Italy were already registered a few months after arrival. However, the Yugoslav authorities were struggling to manage a larger than expected inflow: if the importance of incoming skilled workers for the country's new economy was undisputed, there were greater uncertainties about the political significance of this migration. The context was that of a territory with national and ideological tensions, but the variability of political circumstances and social and economic factors also played a role. The KPJ was consolidating its power and any kind of external interference was viewed with caution at least. In party meetings, there was no lack of recognition of the value and role of "comrades" from Italy, also useful for supporting the nascent institutions of the Italian minority. Authorities also sought to extend "cultural work", opening "Italian circles" even where only a couple of hundred immigrant workers lived, such as in Belgrade and Sarajevo. However, they struggled to offer them forms of effective participation in the more strictly political mechanisms. For example, the openings towards an effective entry into the ranks of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia were decidedly gradual – something the most militant fringes of Italian immigrants often complained about.

On June 28th, 1948 came the resolution that expelled Yugoslavia from Cominform (the international organisation of communist parties controlled by Moscow), opening a tough confrontation between Tito and Stalin. In Yugoslavia, for a couple of weeks, the accusations made by the Resolution were discussed in party organs and cells at all levels. Disorientation was widespread everywhere, but the political vanguard of workers and intellectuals from Italy immediately took a position of explicit acceptance of Cominform's theses. Rijeka, in particular, was quickly recognised as one of the main centres of "Cominformism" in the whole country.

The consequences of the break with Cominform on the life of these migrants have led to strengthening the representation of Italian immigrants as a group of naive idealists at the mercy of History. However, this prevents us from recognising the role they played in this crucial phase, the awareness of their choices, and the complexity of the factors that influenced them. The available documentation shows how much the firmness and decisiveness of the more organised Monfalconese leadership, for example, put the Party in great difficulty at the local level. Also because of their importance for key sectors of industry, the Yugoslav authorities spent the first months of the Cominform crisis seeking mediation with immigrants from Italy. "The workers who arrived from Monfalcone who disagree with us can continue to work here, but they cannot act against us, otherwise we will take other measures", explained the leaders of the Party. However, the tension continued to rise, reaching a peak on August 20th, 1948. At the Fenice/Partizan theatre in Rijeka, a rally aimed at explaining the reasons of the Yugoslav Party to Italian workers ended in the protest against the leaders. A group of workers – about 200-250 according to documents of the Yugoslav secret police – left the building to demonstrate in the surrounding streets.

The numbers of this surprising demonstration act also testify to another aspect, often overlooked in the accounts of this story: it was not a compact and homogeneous group at all. Also for this reason, the Party tried for several months to find a modus vivendi with those who seemed more willing to compromise. A small number of Italian immigrants in Yugoslavia actively engaged in the Cominformist resistance in Rijeka and, in part, in Pula: organising meetings, distributing leaflets, promoting the boycott of work in mass organisations, and reporting pro-Tito Italian immigrants to management in Trieste and in Italy (including, according to an internal KPJ report, even Giacomo Scotti, a writer who was among the first to tell the story of the "monfalconesi" in the nineties).

The Yugoslav authorities initially expelled or arrested only those that they considered most influential, but the rise in anticominformist psychosis also affected individuals who had not actively exposed themselves. The tragic vicissitudes of those who suffered the violence of internment are certainly the best known, also thanks to the many testimonies published over the years, in particular regarding the well-known prison camp located on the island of Goli Otok. It is more difficult to establish the overall number of Italian immigrants who underwent these sentences, although the official documentation seems to confirm the order of magnitude of about forty, as circulated over the past few years.

La voce del Popolo, gennaio 1949

A page of the daily newspaper La voce del Popolo, January 1949

Unlike what is generally believed, the Italian workers in Yugoslavia did not immediately pack their bags. In fact, they kept coming: the Rijeka Theatre still hired musicians from Italy in September 1948. The departures were actually gradual and developed over the months and years following the Cominform Resolution. In mid-1949, there were still about 1,000 Italian workers in Rijeka, while in 1950 the city hosted a conference of immigrant workers throughout Yugoslavia. The choices of the Italians who arrived in Yugoslavia were influenced by multiple factors: from the second half of 1949, the increase in tension with Moscow radically strengthened the pressure on every suspect subject, reducing negotiation spaces to a minimum. However, new practical difficulties also influenced departures: the total block of remittances to Italy (partly possible before 1948 thanks to cross-border collaboration between party organisations) became, for example, a big issue for those who supported family in the places of origin. National tensions played a more significant role in 1953, when the clash between Italy and Yugoslavia over Trieste reached its peak leading to further returns, especially from the border area.

However, many never went back, choosing to stay permanently in Tito's socialism, in Rijeka as in other Yugoslav cities. Their parable is the most complex to trace, as these workers stopped representing a specific social group. Gradually they acquired Yugoslav citizenship, becoming increasingly integrated into the Italian minority and Yugoslav society more generally. The documentation suggests that it was not just a few isolated cases, but several hundreds, witnesses of a part of history still to be studied.

The presence of the "Monfalconesi" in the Cominform crisis also influenced for some time the relationship between the Party and the Italian minority in Rijeka and Istria. The documentation of the local sections reports the concern that the crisis could strengthen Croatian nationalism and that the repression of Italian Cominformism itself could jeopardise the loyalty of the Italian population that remained. There was also the risk of legitimising one of the main accusations made by Moscow, that of nationalism, which had to be absolutely rejected. These elements opened up more room for maneuver for the leadership of the Italian minority loyal to Tito, that for some time was able to further develop their cultural programmes. For example, it was an order of the Croatian government – published following the opening of the Cominform crisis in 1948 – that allowed the application of Croatian and Italian visual bilingualism to be strengthened in Rijeka and Istria.

However, the escalation of the confrontation for Trieste between the two neighbouring countries in the early 1950s would quickly arrive to open a phase of great pressure and profound difficulty for the Italian minority in Yugoslavia.

The story of Italian emigrants to Yugoslavia is a fascinating one, but much broader and more complex than it might seem at first glance. In many cases it was the strong ideological convictions or the sense of belonging that marked the destinies of the protagonists of this experience, in others the political circumstances, the economic reasons, the daily choices aimed at making tomorrow a little better than today. With these two studies, we try to convey this multiplicity of paths in a fundamental passage of the twentieth century.


The authors

Luke Gramith teaches at the Department of History of West Virginia University. He is the author of the Ph.D. dissertation "Liberation by Emigration: Italian Communists, the Cold War, and West-East Migration from Venezia Giulia, 1945-1949", which won the Ezio Cappadocia Prize of the Society for Italian Historical Studies. He wrote the first part of the article.

Marco Abram, OBCT researcher, post-doc fellow at the University of Rijeka and the University of British Columbia Okanagan. The results are being published in the article "Internationalism and Cominformist Dissidence in Socialist Yugoslavia: The Case of the Italian Immigrant Workers in Rijeka" for the Journal of Cold War Studies. He wrote the second part of the article.


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