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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. Self-determination, democratization, and the homogenizing state

The Speech in the Italian Parliament

Josip Vilfan
Traduction de Olga Vukovič

Texte intégral

1Title: Govor poslanca Drja Wilfana v italjanski zbornici (The speech of the parliamentarian Vilfan in the Italian Parliament)

2Originally published: Edinost, 26 June, 1921

3Language: Slovene
The text used is from Egon Pelikan, Josip Vilfan v parlamentu; Discorsi parlamentari dell’on. Josip Vilfan (Trst/Trieste: Krožek za družbena vprasanja Virgil Šček/Circolo per gli studi sociali Virgil Šček, 1997), pp. 105–124.

About the author

4Josip Vilfan (Wilfan) [1878, Trieste (Cro., Slov. Trst) – 1955, Belgrade]: lawyer and politician. His political life began in 1906, when he became the secretary of the political society Edinost (Unity) in Trieste, becoming its president four years later. In 1908, he started a law firm in Trieste, and a year later became a member of the Trieste municipal council. In 1918, he was engaged in the public debate on the fate of Trieste, advocating its annexation to the new Yugoslav state. After the war, he advocated the annexation of the entire Primorska (It. Litorale) region to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and later also defended the political and cultural cohabitation of the Slovenes and the Italians in the Julijska krajina region (It. Venezia Giulia). In 1921 and 1924, he was elected to the Italian Parliament. He made several unsuccessful appeals to Benito Mussolini. In 1926 he was arrested twice, and on the second occasion released on Mussolini’s order. Vilfan also joined the activity of the Inter-parliamentary Union which addressed the issues of the minorities at the European level. At the congresses of this organization, he reported to a European audience on the situation of the Slovenian minority in Julijska krajina. In 1925 he was among the founding members of the Congress of European Nationalities. In 1928 he moved to Vienna, and in 1939 to Belgrade. Between 1945 and 1947 he was a member of the Institute for International Affairs attached to the Foreign Ministry in Belgrade. After the end of the Second World War he no longer made public appearances. Contemporary experts in Slovenia consider Vilfan one of the most important figures from the Primorska region in modern Slovenia, and a pioneer of European minority policy. Vilfan’s political activity coincided with the post-war period of extreme political tensions between Italy and Yugoslavia, when the Slovenes in Italy were deprived of national organizations and institutions. Consequently, it is not surprising that many historical studies treat Vilfan as a guardian of the Slovenian national survival and proof of the “Slovenian tenacity” in the Primorska region.

5Main works: Die Organisierung der Volksgemeinschaft [The organization of the people’s unity] (1932); The Congress of European Nationalities and the Peace Problem (1936).


6After the collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918, the region of Primorska (It. Litorale) was occupied by the Italian army. Italy, a member of the Entente Powers, obtained the right to occupy this territory by signing the secret Treaty of London in 1915. According to the 1910 census, the Slovenes and the Croats made up 50 percent of the Primorska population. In 1920, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (established in 1918) and the Italian Kingdom signed the Treaty of Rapallo, which was regarded as a success of Italian diplomacy. By this treaty, more than one fourth of the Slovenian ethnic territory was annexed to Italy, so approximately 500,000 Slovenes and Croats became a minority in Italy. For the Slovenes, and Vilfan personally, the Treaty of Rapallo was a great disappointment.

7From the period immediately preceding the First World War, the political life in the Primorska region was characterized by a marked contrast between the Italian community on the one hand, and the Slovenian and Croatian communities on the other. The Italians were the majority in Trieste and in the towns along the western coast of Istria, while the Slovenes mainly made up the agrarian population. Accordingly, the issue of the relationship between the Slovenians and Croatians on the one hand, and the Italian population on the other was also the issue of the relationship between rural and urban areas.

8The Treaty of Rapallo did not take into account the proposals by the US President Woodrow Wilson, who advocated separation along distinct ethnic lines. The Yugoslav side was in favor of the so-called ‘Wilsonian principles,’ but the Italians insisted on keeping the strategic border running across Mount Snežnik (It. Monte Nevoso or Monte Albio), a mountain that had been inscribed as a symbol of national victory in the collective memory of Italians. However, although the Treaty satisfied Italy’s political demands as regards its northern border, ever since the annexation of this territory, the representatives of the Italian government looked upon the Slovenes and the Croats with mistrust. The persecution of nationally conscious Slovenian priests became widespread, and moreover this practice was institutionalized as state policy after the victory of the Fascist party. Owing to the political, economic and military inferiority of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Kingdom of Yugoslavia after 1929), all Yugoslav governments backed down in the face of repressive Italian policies in Julijska krajina. Such circumstances prompted the Slovenian and Croatian political parties in Italy to unite within the Politično društvo Enotnost (Political association Unity) in August 1919, which was presided by Josip Vilfan. In 1921, Enotnost established the Jugoslovanska narodna stranka (Yugoslav people’s party), which nominated Vilfan as its representative to the Italian Parliament.

9At the parliamentary elections in 1924, the Fascist party won 60 % of votes in Julijska krajina (Venezia-Giulia), compared to the 11 % won by the Slovenian party. The Slovenian parliamentary candidates were Josip Vilfan and Engelbert Besednjak. From the autumn of 1925 to April 1926, the Fascist party implemented country-wide laws overruling the Parliament and introducing dictatorship. From 1925, Vilfan increasingly dedicated himself to the advocacy of the interests of the Slovenian and Croatian minority within the Congress of European Nationalities, a pan-European body representing the interests of the minorities that emerged after the First World War. More than thirty national minorities sent their representatives to the first session of the Congress held in October 1925 in Geneva. From that time on, the representative of the Slovenian minority in the Parliament in Rome was Besednjak, who soon also joined the Congress of European Nationalities.

10Vilfan’s interests included the definition of the nation, relations among the majority, the minority and the state, a uniform minority law in Europe, as well as a common Slovenian cultural space. He developed the idea of the uniqueness of the nation as a cultural, historical and linguistic phenomenon. He championed a dignified stance based on the principle of the defense of the citizen’s rights and the constitutional order, while cherishing the vision of a more humane united Europe. In other words, Vilfan’s ideas transcended the predominant political discourse, thus earning many admirers. But there were also many of those who did not comprehend his vision at this early stage. In 1934, at the session of the Congress of European Nationalities, he advocated the principle of cultural autonomy as clearly distinct from the notion of political sovereignty. He argued that three main criteria were central to achieving cultural autonomy: an agreement on the protection of minorities that would be backed by international guarantees, bilateral agreements between the states, and legislation in the individual states.

11Vilfan’s attitude towards the Slovenian national issue and the emergence of Yugoslavia integrated a number of viewpoints elaborated by the Slovenian liberals and the Christian Socialists of the Primorska region. He was convinced that the annexation of Julijska krajina to the Slovenian lands could be achieved only by a powerful Yugoslav state. Vilfan’s Yugoslavism, much like that of Anton Korošec, the leader of the largest political party in Slovenia between the two World Wars, was based on the realistic assessment of the political situation in Europe at that time. Although Vilfan had conflicts with the Ljubljana liberals who were in favor of a united Yugoslav nation, he was nevertheless diplomatic in expressing his opposition to the complete cultural amalgamation of the Yugoslav nations.

12In the autumn of 1928, Vilfan had his last meeting with Mussolini, who “listened to him without saying a word.” The period of his parliamentary struggle for the (minority) rights of the Slovenes in Italy had ended. Several days after the meeting he left the country for Vienna. His efforts in the Parliament during the 1920s prolonged the agony of the Slovenian political and cultural organizations in Fascist Italy, but also compelled the Italian government to articulate its assimilatory goals. During the early 1930s, the Slovenes in Italy began to form terrorist anti-Fascist organizations.

13Vilfan’s participation in public life came to an end in 1938 when the Congress of European Nationalities was dissolved. After the Second World War, he no longer appeared in public, so it is difficult to assess his influence on the shaping of the minority policy in socialist Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, as he acted as a member of the ‘Institute for International Affairs’ in Belgrade until 1947, we can justifiably assume that he contributed to the definition of the Italian-Yugoslavian border that was outlined in 1947, when Italy signed an agreement with the Allied forces, and western Slovenia was included in Yugoslavia.


The speech of the parliamentarian Vilfan in the Italian Parliament

15My honorable colleagues! I must first communicate a statement which is analogous to that of the representative of the German community; this is a formal statement by the group of Yugoslav delegates elected in the new provinces. Their statement is as follows: the Yugoslav delegates have […] the right to use their language when performing their functions and particularly when they speak in the Chamber. That right exists and there is no need for an explicit acknowledgement, because it is a precondition and a consequence of the most elementary freedom of members of Parliament and voters, and because the use of that language is the most direct and the most justified expression of their unsuppressed national awareness and honor. This right also exists because Article 62 of the Constitution explicitly recognizes it to the speakers of French, the members of Parliament and senators who belong to the provinces where that language is in use, so by inevitable analogy it must also be considered valid with regard to the Yugoslav language and representatives of lands where that language is in use and which were annexed to the Kingdom only after the passing of the Constitution. […]

16My honorable colleagues! I must admit that I feel a little shy as I speak in this chamber for the first time as a representative of the Yugoslav people who have been annexed to the Kingdom. Our situation is most delicate. We belong to a nation that eventually established its own nation-state only recently. We share with this nation our origins, language, emotions and traditions, and we cannot conceal this natural and inseparable unity. On the other hand, we know that we have become the citizens of the Italian Kingdom. There exists a conflict between the duties of a citizen in the political sense and the ethical feeling of national affiliation. We will endeavor to resolve this conflict, and it is our opinion that if we openly express our national sentiment here and our understanding of nationality and nationalism, it is precisely in the Italian Parliament where we will find people who will understand us.

17For us, the state is not the supreme reality; for us, the supreme reality is the nation, and let me repeat this, the nation in its ethnic and historical sense. We agree on that point. I wish to emphasize that we are nationalists only in this respect, but not the kind of nationalists who in this hall take pride in that name. The kind of nationalism I reject from the bottom of my heart is actually not nationalism, nor love for one’s own nation, but imperialism; it is hatred, not love. We have nothing in common with that kind of nationalism, and we emphasize this because we know that particularly our compatriots of Italian nationality living in the provinces now annexed will always accuse us of imperialist nationalism. I repudiate it and oppose it explicitly, on behalf of my colleagues and all of our people.

18Therefore, although we feel that we are at variance with the Italian state inasmuch as it annexed us against our will and our aspirations, we do not feel at variance with the Italian nation, which we do not hate. This I can state with clear conscience and I appeal to them to acknowledge it: the Slovenes and the Croats who have been annexed to Italy do not hate the Italian nation.

19I welcome this first opportunity when a representative of the Yugoslav people no longer needs to speak with commissaries, carabinieri, or even the ministers or heads of offices, but can finally communicate with the elected sons of the Italian people. I’m convinced that by speaking directly, openly and honestly we will be able to at least respect each other if we cannot love each other.

20We demand primarily the right to speak freely and openheartedly, to open to you our souls and voice our national feelings, maladies, regrets and the feeling of offense. If we want to meet and understand each other, there is no other way but to be candid; perhaps diplomats will take other paths, but we, the sons of modern times, democratic as the Yugoslav masses are, recognize just one possible road, the road of open communication […].


Olga Vukovič (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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