- Losing Orientation: Enzo Bettiza’s Esilio and the Memory of World War II on the Adriatic Border
Trieste è una città con un numero altissimo di devianze psichiche [. . .]. Il malessere spirituale di una parte della popolazione di confine sarebbe riconducibile ad una angosciosa sensazione di indefinito, di provvisorio, legata alla propria identità nazionale e alle vicissitudini politiche che hanno interessato la Venezia Giulia [che] determinerebbe tormentati processi di adesione, o di repulsione. Sono situazioni riscontrabili anche nei vicini Balcani, dove molti piccoli popoli convivono, si sovrappongono, si incontrano e si scontrano.
This excerpt is taken from Istria contesa. Le guerre, le foibe, l’esodo, a book by journalist Fulvio Molinari on the exile of Italians from Istria and Dalmatia after World War II (7). The year of its publication – 1996 – is especially significant . In the early 1990s, the harrowing images and daily news of atrocities from the secessionist wars in the Balkans ignited a fierce debate in Europe and the U.S. The internecine conflicts that sanctioned the collapse of Yugoslavia were accompanied by unforeseen outbursts of violence and ethnic hatred. Intellectual responses varied greatly, from Milan Kundera to Peter Handke to Susan Sontag.1 They all questioned, however, a concept of history as unidimensional progress and starkly criticized myopic political assumptions such as “the end of history” that took place after the end of the Cold War, the downfall of Communism, and the demise of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe. Moreover, the atrocities of the Balkan wars triggered memories of World War II, and profoundly challenged the idea of “the return to [End Page 395] Europe” – the political slogan that appeared as the true alternative to communism for Eastern European countries in the 1980s (Judt 630).
In Italy, the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars forced intellectuals and politicians to address previously undisputed assumptions that provided legitimacy for the Italian state, which established its national and international credibility by keeping the skeletons of its recent history in the closet. Confronting such assumptions meant not only tearing apart the veil of national identity, but also painfully revisiting shared and personal memories, haunted by ghosts of Fascism and World War II, which suddenly surfaced when the barrier of oppositional ideologies fell apart. This essay examines Enzo Bettiza’s Esilio, a stunningly rich, sophisticated, yet highly controversial 1996 memoir, in the broader context of the reconsideration of World War II memory in Italy occasioned by the Balkan wars and the collapse of Communist regimes in the East.2 A prolific writer and longtime journalist at Il Corriere della Sera, Bettiza narrates in Esilio his childhood and adolescence in Dalmatia through his and his family’s exile to Italy at the end of World War II. From the very beginning of the book, the author links the belated retrieval of the memory of his early years in Dalmatia to the coterminous wars in Yugoslavia: “Probabilmente non mi sarei messo a scrivere le righe che seguiranno se non fosse scoppiata la guerra nella ex Jugoslavia” (5).
Bettiza was born in 1927 on the eastern side of the Adriatic in multilingual Dalmatia, which was then part of King Karadjordjević’s Yugoslavia, after more than a century of multi-ethnic cohabitation under the Habsburg Empire. He grew up during the Fascist ventennio, the second son of the most important industrial family of the cosmopolitan city of Split, and was educated in Zadar, then an Italian enclave in Yugoslavia. During World War II, he experienced the violent annexation of his region to Fascist Italy, its occupation by the Nazis after September 8, 1943, the liberation of Dalmatia by Tito’s army, and its definitive annexation to Yugoslavia.3 After the Communist takeover of Split, he and his family were forced to flee to Trieste. Beginning with the very title, Bettiza’s Esilio openly addresses the painful questions of violence, war memory, displacement, and finally the equivocal politics of self-representation that then characterized Trieste’s literature and [End Page 396] intellectual milieu – as assessed by an established critical tradition that described the city through its “identità di frontiera” (Ara and Magris).
As Molinari points out in the abovementioned passage, the city of Trieste is geographically...