TIGR – Slovenian Anti-fascist Resistance Movement

Bitter consequences of World War I for SlovenesAt the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the national states based on their ethnic identity and language emerged. There had been a long struggle for self-determination, equal rights in the public sphere and in education, which had been suppressed during the 19th century. The oppression only made the nations of Austria, particularly the Slavic nations, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs only more determined in their wish for freedoms that they felt entitled to.

In 1918, Czechoslovakia and Hungary formed their own state, Slovenes, Croats and Serbs followed suit by forming the State of Southern Slavs, agreeing finally to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the Serbian Karač‘orč‘evič‡ dynasty. In 1929 following a constitutional change the state became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Occupation

In 1918 Slovenian people celebrated the defeat of the dictatorial system and hailed the dawn of a new era, free from oppression and looking forward to self-determination. People in Slovenian territories celebrated joyfully, in the villages Slovenian flags flew.

Slovenians of the Littoral / Primorska region expected to be part of the emerging State of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later named Yugoslavia, the Land of Southern Slavs. However in late autumn 1918 Italian military forces occupied the whole of Littoral Slovenia / Primorska, to remain there for the next 25 long years. One quarter of the total Slovenian nation, around 300,000 people, and one third of Slovenian territory, was allocated to Italy by common agreement with the Allies.

Beginnings of cultural genocide

The occupation forces tried in the beginning to approach people with deceptive promises: on great posters they promised full rights to all the citizens, in Italian and Slovenian languages, they promised above all more Slovenian schools, than they had in the Austrian state. In actual fact all these rights were being curtailed from the beginning. Benito Mussolini, the leader of the emerging Italian Fascism announced in Pula/Pulj on one of his public visits:

“Adriatic Sea, which is our bay, must change, if we are to realize our Mediterranean dreams, from the hands of the low barbarian Slavic race into our hands.” Within a few months began the systematic and over the years, increasingly brutal cultural genocide.

Burning of Slovenian House in Trieste/Trst

Appalling and ill-intentioned was the burning of the Slovenian National House/Narodni dom in central Trst/Trieste. It was built as a multi-purpose establishment. It contained a kavarna/cafe, a lively meeting place for Slovenian business and cultural society, and a separate hotel section. Under its roof it housed numerous Slovenian organizations, among them Sokol (Falcon) and Edinost (Unity). It was becoming a symbol of Slovenian presence in the central district, and so increasingly a thorn in the side of the Italian nationalists and fascists. So they simply burnt it down.

Rapallo border

With the agreement between the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and the Kingdom of Italy, which was signed in the town of Rapallo on 12 November 1920, a border was determined, so-called Rapallo border, which ran in the north along the watershed between the Adriatic and the Black Sea over the peak of Mount Triglav. In the Postojna region it was pushed eastwards, appropriating the forests around mountains  Javornik and Snežnik. With the Rapallo agreement the fate of Primorska was sealed. It remained a province of Italy, named by Italians Venezia Giulia, till the middle of World War II.

Abolishing of Slovenian place names

On 23 March 1923 a decree was issued whereby all the Slovenian and Croatian place names were removed and replaced by the Italian ones. It could not be otherwise, the spontaneous resistance grew in strength: here and there a Slovenian flag was flown in the night, girls wore dresses in Slovenian colors….


Italianization of schools, changing personal names

With the decree of Gentile, Minister for Education, a pernicious and cruel school reform was introduced in the school year 1923/1924; Italian was introduced as language of instruction in the first grade. It was the first step towards gradual removal of Slovenian from the school curriculum. Slovenian teachers were replaced by Italian teachers. They had to accept employment in Italy far away from home, or remained without a job. Some were arrested, some disappeared without trace. Many took refuge across the border in Yugoslavia. The new authorities built schools in every village, and everywhere they placed their own people, who were integrated into the Fascist party. Schools became places were children were alienated systematically from their own people and cultural heritage, including their mother tongue.

Italian teachers arbitrarily gave their pupils Italian names: Ivan became Giovanni, Jože became Giuseppe, Srečko Feliks ali Felice,  Bojan Alfonso, Božidar Natale…..Fascists thus began to implement systematically their plan for cultural genocide of Slovenian people of Primorska. The first step was to rob Slovenians of their mother tongue. However in homes and churches, or isolated barns the Slovenian word and Slovenian song was nurtured and maintained in secret. Attics became the secret Reading Rooms of Slovenian books.

Slovenian language in the underground

A singular sign of Slovenian resistance was Abecednik, the primer, with the title Prvi koraki (first steps), which was published in Trst/Trieste in 1926. It was intended for home use. With this primer the children of Primorska maintained and developed in their own homes Slovenian literary language. Patriotic youth saw to it, that the primer found its way everywhere, where there were school-age children.

Primorska youth, which had their Slovenian associations closed, responded in their own way: with excursions to the mountains, where they could sing in freedom their Slovenian songs. Out there in nature they even organized summer courses for Slovenian language. One of these, where about 50 boys and girls participated, took place on Mount Krn which the Fascists in their strange logic renamed Monte Nero (black mountain), similarly as Mount Nanos became Monte Re (king mountain).

Increasingly brutal suppression of national identity

With the legalized italianiziation of place names, surnames and personal names the people of Primorska had lost the right to their own identity. Their own language was prohibited from being spoken in public. In the shops, pubs and offices hung posters: Qui si parla soltanto Italiano! (only Italian is spoken here) Slovenian literary language with its focus on national identity was now systematically maintained only in church. However, harsher pressure was also placed on Slovenian priests. In response they formed a secret association Assembly of the priests of St. Paul. The struggle for religious rights was in their case identical with the fight for national rights. They were the only class of Slovenian intelligentsia, that remained to support their people.

The Secretary of the Fascist Party in Trst /Trieste demanded in 1927: “We have to do away with the last remaining classes in schools, disperse all Slovenian organizations, both sporting and cultural, destroy all Slovenian newspapers and books, introduce compulsory enrolment of all Slovenian children in Balila in Avantgarda, (Fascist youth organizations), prohibit Slovenian language in church and confiscate the property of all Slovenian businesses, unions, and banks….”

Establishment of the anti-fascist movement TIGR

Slovenian response was decisive: in the beginning of autumn 1927 a group of brave young men from various parts of the occupied Primorska region, re-named Venezia Giulia by Italians, met on Mount Nanos, with the aim of gathering the forces of resistance against Fascism; they were Zorko Jelinčič from Log beneath Mount Mangrt, Albert Rejec from Tolmin, Jože Dekleva from Bač near Materija, Dorče Sardoč from Slivno near Nabrežina, Jože Vadnjal from Zagorje on Pivka and Andrej Šavli from Uršnik near Tolmin. They named their organization TIGR. The name came from the beginning letters of the Slovenian lands occupied by Italy, and were the movement would be active: Trst-Istra-Gorica-Reka. But the name was to have at the same time have the symbolic power of the mighty and ferocious animal. The organization had a broad, more or less covert support of people in villages and towns, from Ilirska Bistrica to Postojna, to Gorica and Trst.

The organization, as they referred to it amongst themselves, published and distributed cyclostyled illegal newspapers: Borba (struggle), Svoboda (freedom), Ljudska fronta (people’s front), Straža ob Soči (watch on Soča). The young men did more. They organized themselves into secret groups of three, undertook daring exploits, for example the burning of kindergartens and schools. This was not exactly a civilized act, at first sight. Police investigation found in Primorska 18 such cases of arson. It just happened: “strangers” would come during the night, wreck the kindergarten and destroy everything in it that served to alienate and poison Slovenian children’s minds.” Tigrovci” were acting covertly in the sight of enemy, but quite overtly for their people, thereby raising their spirits and by these means encouraging national resistance.

The concept of the threesome was simple but effective: three young men from the same place who knew and trusted each other. Each of them had to find someone in a neighboring village and he in his turn organized a threesome….In this way a network gradually emerged, which spread over the whole of Primorska. Its unusual design was to safeguard the members from treachery, and protect them from the police.

Youth retreating over the border

The Pivka Valley TIGR groups had from the beginning, given the strategic location on Yugoslav border with extensive Javornik and Snežnik forests, undertaken other special tasks. The local people, who were traditionally experienced smugglers were given the task of acting as guides for Slovenian or Italian anti-fascists, when it became urgent that they cross over to Yugoslavia. From there they returned with thousands of newspapers and all kinds of propaganda material. This kind of activity was even more challenging in the Tolmin area in the west, where difficult mountains passes had to be negotiated. Helping the refugees across the mountains, was dangerous particularly in winter months, and young men, some of them experienced huntsmen and mountaineers, often risked their lives.

In the meantime the Fascist ideologues persuaded themselves, that there was no national minority on the eastern border, that there were only dispersed foreign groups with no history, no civilization, no national culture, no national identity, no educated class. The “tigrovci” were to change all that. In strict secrecy they planned their great coup: the blasting of the Fascist newspaper Il popolo di Trieste. The intention was, to punish Il popolo die Trieste for its malicious attacks against Slovenes and Croats; and to draw attention of the outside world to the true nature of Fascism.

TIGR time bomb goes off in Trst

A time bomb, intended for the printing shop of the Fascist newspaper, was made from a grenade, a remnant of World War I, in the workshop of sawmill owner Urbančič in Upper Pivka.

Alojz Valenčič transported it to Trst from Bač, where he was employed. According to his colleagues he reported to the police that he would, as an employee of the factory, carry to the bank in Trst a sizable sum of money. He got the official approval and a guard of two carabinieri for protection. Everything went smoothly and according to plan.

The bomb went off on the 10th February 1930 and wrecked the fascist printing shop. The explosion had been planned to go off when the place was empty, but the editor who by chance worked late, was killed in the explosion. The Fascists were enraged and took their revenge.

Arrests, the first trial in Trst

In April and March a series of arrests were made: first in Gorica, then in Trst and on Pivka. The first trial took place in Trst, at an Extraordinary Court Proceedings for the Protection of the State. It lasted from 1st to 7th September 1930, and sensational. The presiding judge was a general of the Fascist militia, present was also the personal emissary of Benito Mussolini.

Preparations for the trial had begun immediately. From November 1929 to June 1930, dozens and dozens of suspects were arrested, altogether 87 people were charged. A number managed to escape across the border.

The decision was made to put on trial 18 accused as the first group being charged. They were to be put on trial in Trst, “the place where the crime was committed” rather than in Rome, where the Supreme Court was usually held. The accused were charged with planning and working towards the secession of Venezia Giulia, organizing an armed uprising, destruction and killing, running a secret organization of military character, which would act against the Italian state in time of war. For the period from 1926 to 1930 the court accused them of 99 terrorist acts.

Shots on Bazovica common

On 6th September 1930 at 5.40 in the morning, they were shot on the Bazovica common: 22 year old Ferdo Bidovec, son of Slovenian merchant and Italian mother, in daring acts of rebellious movement, close associate of 24 year old Franjo Marušič, bank clerk and enthusiastic participant  in cultural youth associations, reciter of literary texts, several times arrested and held in the prison of Koper and the infamous Coroneo prison in Trst; 27 year old Zvonimir Miloš, Croat from Sušak above Reka; earlier mentioned 34 year old Alojz Valenčič from Trst, employed at the time in Upper Pivka.

The whole of Primorska mourned. The youth however, was even more determined to struggle against the oppressor. One of the Mount Nanos resolutions of 1927 was the settlement of scores with fascist extremists and traitors. Such a score was settled in Vipava. The whole valley was horrified over the inhuman acts of the tubercular teacher Sattosanti in Vrhpolje, who spat in a child’s mouth if he or she spoke in Slovenian. He died under the shots of TIGR one month after the shooting in Bazovica.

The struggle would go on till the outbreak of World War II, when Italian Fascists for a period of time also occupied Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia with all the territories to the south.

translated by Aleksandra L Ceferin

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Aleksandra Ceferin
Aleksandra Ceferin

Aleksandra Ceferin (M.A., B.A., Dip.Ed.) has introduced Slovenian language as a school subject in Australian school system and founded the Slovenian Teachers’ Association of Victoria in 1976. She has extensive experience in language education: as teacher, lecturer, curriculum coordinator, course writer, language consultant and manager, VCE State Reviewer and Chief Examiner. Since 1998 she has been the President of ISSV and the manager and chief editor of its projects. Aleksandra visits Slovenian annually, establishing and maintaining contacts with Slovenia, and initiating exchanges and cooperation between organizations. In 2004 she was the recipient of the National Education Award of RS Slovenia.