Trieste: Italy’s Dark Piece of Iron Curtain History

By Abi King | Iron Route

Dec 27

Trieste at night personTrieste, Italy

Behind me, I know that sapphire lights stud their way across the stone. Right now, though, I’m watching darkness.

Behind me, flames from an occasional car streak across the empty velvet sky, backlit by the brilliance of a long forgotten empire.

Ahead I see nothing. Black, dark, empty, silent. Just the sound of water touching the stone that leads from the Piazza d’Unita d’Italia to the edge of the Adriatic.

I am standing in Trieste, in Italy, and I am thinking about the Iron Curtain, the driving force for my current #ironroute trip.

In 1946, Winston Churchill made this landmark speech:

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere…”

He was talking about the political divisions that had appeared in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. At the time, much of Europe lay in ruins, and the rest of the world hardly looked much better. Sixty million people had lost their lives, and two thirds of those lost had been civilians. The defeated “Axis” powers of Germany, Italy and Japan lost 3 million civilians; the “victorious” Allies lost over 35. Ninety percent of Cologne’s buildings were gone. Eighty percent of those in Manila. Widows and orphans grieved in Berlin. In London, Sydney, Namibia, Hiroshima, Nepal, Texas and Arkansas.

The world had changed. The powers of Western Europe, who had set the rules for more than 500 years, were hungry, homeless and looking for help.

And the two giants who held the cards were two late entries into the war: the United States and the Soviet Union.

Given the length and complexity of the Cold war that followed, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that during the struggle against the Nazis, the Russians and Americans had been on the same side. And that by the end, they both wanted the same thing: a peaceful, stable central Europe. One that wouldn’t bring the world to its knees every generation or so.

Trieste Station

Trieste Station

Another Piece of Iron Curtain History

It was winter when I arrived in Trieste. The wind carried with it the whisper of sleet and the soft scent of snow. The ground sparkled with the reflections of Christmas lights in the afternoon rain and the central square was surprisingly quiet.

A central square with a name like Piazza d’Unita d’Italia already invites questions. A mention in a landmark Churchill speech becomes an informal visit to help the police with their enquiries. By the time I was translating the Italian word for sauerkraut (crauti) while sitting in the century-old beloved Buffet da Pepi, historical questions had become a caffeine-fuelled double cross-examination in a hyped and highly-televised celebrity trial of the century.

Just who or what was Trieste? What was the former Iron Curtain? And why didn’t I already know about this fascinating, fantastic place?

Trieste at night

First things first. Trieste lives in the northeast corner of Italy, a short train ride away from the not-so-well-kept-secret city of Venice. One hundred years ago, it belonged to the Habsburg Empire. The Habsburgs (in case, like me, you never covered any of this in school) were essentially Kings and Queens based in Vienna who ran and oversaw an empire that at various points stretched from Holland to the subsequent USSR and lasted for more than 600 years.

Less than 100 years after their demise, hardly anyone knows who they are. For a modern day parallel, imagine your grandchildren drawing a total blank at the mention of a Britain or the notion of a Queen of England.

Yet in the eyes of the world as it entered the 20th century, Trieste formed the Habsburgs’ 4th largest city, right behind the glittering icons of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

The assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne and his wife (think the gunning down of Wills and Kate) lit the fuse to World War One and the well-catalogued destruction, misery and suffering that followed.

As World War One ended, so did the Habsburgs. A victorious Italy moved into Trieste, Slovene names were switched to Italian and the decades that followed involved ongoing border disputes, forced Italianization, Nazi occupation, the decimation of the Jewish population and the formation of the only concentration camp on Italian soil.

Landing on the losing side once again, at the end of the Second World War, Trieste “belonged” to the Allied Forces. Its territories were split once more and within a few years it settled into the borders it uses today, snug against what used to be western Yugoslavia, and what is now 21st century Slovenia.

And, according to Churchill’s speech in 1946, at the edge of the Iron Curtain.

My visit to Slovenia, the next stop after Trieste, painted a rather different picture. Talk about the iron curtain with Slovenians ranks right up there in chit-chat terms with discussing slavery with the Yanks or “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Folk, if you’re old enough to remember, picture Bruce Willis with an “I hate Niggers*” sign walking through New York’s Harlem, and proceed through conversation in Ljubljana with caution.

Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) adds in a striking piece to the Cold War jigsaw. Led by General Tito, Yugoslavia emerged from the Second World War as a communist country, although it quickly fell out with Stalin’s extremist stance in Moscow and established itself as an independent socialist state.

Unlike Stalin, Tito kept travel borders open; his trade routes were more relaxed, his ideas less radical. The land that he governed forms a crucial part of understanding the Cold war, but I’m not ready to go there. Not just yet. Not now.

Now I’m watching the waves of the Adriatic as they approach the shore of Trieste. I’m smelling fresh and salty air and thinking of dinner. I’m looking for Viennese-style coffee shops and lard-soaked pizza; historical sauerkraut and slices of pork; a Garden of Remembrance and the inspiration for James Joyce. I’m looking for Italian and Slovene, Habsburgs and happiness, Cold War and warm peace.

I am, I suppose, looking for Trieste.

Trieste Lights

Come back soon to read more about modern-day Trieste and more about the Iron Curtain, the Cold war and #IronRoute.

This article forms part of a series for #ironroute, a journey by train from Istanbul to Berlin. This took place thanks to the sponsorship, freedom and encouragement of InterRail.
*And just so there’s absolutely no confusion…This comes from a scene in the movie/film Die Hard With a Vengeance. Since inflammatory and defamatory language comes with a linguistic and cultural context, the line in this article is trying to relate a situation in one place and time with a comparable one in another, only so that people can understand the high tensions and emotions involved, not because I believe or support any kind of discrimination or prejudice. That’s actually the opposite of what this series is trying to achieve…

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