Educational transition in a small Istrian community, 1918–1921.
Ivan Jeličić, Februar 16th 2021
In this winter months with cold and short days, let’s warm ourselves with a summertime transition story. The summer break is generally when the previous school year is reviewed and evaluated by administrators and instructors. 101 years ago, the same happened in Istria’s schools. Particularly new was the fact that these schools found themselves subordinated to a newly arrived state authority in the area: the Kingdom of Italy. The new state was rather different from the now dissolved multinational Habsburg Empire; it was a state keen to make its population Italian. Nonetheless, a simple transposition of Italian institutions in the area did not occur. Instead a process of transition, with many challenges, was undertaken, one that lasted for many years. Istrian Schools were not immediately homogenized with the rest of Italy and the locals were not suddenly made into Italians. In fact, even when changes of school language and census data display an ongoing Italianization, there is a lot to untangle behind this nationalizing façade.
In November 1918, after the internal collapse of the Habsburg Empire, the Italian army occupied the Austrian Littoral. The military administered the occupied territories until July-August 1919, when it handed operations over to the Italian civil administration. Only with the Treaty of Rapallo, signed in November 1920, were these territories officially annexed by Italy. In the years preceding annexation, Italian authorities in these territories adopted policies to strengthen their control over the area and its multilinguistic population. These policies made it clear that the presence of the Italian state was not provisional and not to be contested.
Among the policies pursued, elementary education was one of the first sites of socialization into the state; training the young was considered a significant component to consolidating Italian rule. And yet, the process of achieving Italian nationalization through education was neither straightforward nor simple. School reports provide amusing accounts of what was happening on the ground. One in particular deserves attention, written in July 1920 in a tiny municipality fifteen kilometers south of the renowned resort town Opatija/Abbazia.
Source: Državni arhiv u Rijeci (DARI)-279, Zbirka razglednica
(State Archive of Rijeka, Postcards collection)
Today, if one travels through or spends their holidays in the small and picturesque locality of Mošćenička Draga—formerly a fisherman’s village in northeastern Istria, and today a small tourist resort—it is unlikely that they will associate this area with the regional transitions of Istria’s early interwar period. If a keen visitor with a sense for history does come along, they are more likely to be captured by the medieval city of Mošćenice, which sits on a hill above the village in the valley (in Croatian, draga means valley and cove, therefore Mošćenička Draga is Valley of Mošćenice). There, they can appreciate a magnificent panorama of Kvarner/Quarnero Bay.
Nevertheless, there are some historical traces present that point to the twentieth-century story. Right beside a tall, modest, pillar-like monument to the National Liberation Struggle situated on Mošćenička Draga’s coastline promenade—which commemorates Yugoslav liberation at the end of the Second World War and thus the end of many interwar developments we are discussing here—there are other, less-visible historical elements of the city that relate to the interwar period. The first is a memorial plaque that reproduces verses written in 1940 by a local Croatian poet, Rikard Katalinić Jeretov. The plaque recalls the poet’s hopelessness while being unable to revisit his beloved (and implicitly Italian-occupied) shore.
Alongside Jeretov’s story of national intellectual but also real exile (during World War Two Jeretov was interned in Lipari), which frames a national landscape paved over by Italian state fascist violence against Croatians, there are less obvious and violent elements present in the urban fabric. Take the water supply system. As one walks along the coastal path in Mošćenička Draga, one may notice manhole covers with “Acquedotto Municipale Moschiena 1935 XIII” in relief on their covers. These indicate less violent aspects of the fascist regime, a regime that also left a lasting administrative mark on this municipality during the interwar period. During this period, the Italian administration changed the name of the municipality from Mošćenice—which now refers only to the medieval town on the hill—to Mošćenička Draga—which sits in the valley. From the prewar perspective, the renaming was not unexpected. Locally, the territory was already in a process of economic and social reconfiguration that favored the coast. From the perspective of Italian nationalism and empire-building, there was a preference for symbolic orientation toward the sea.
Obviously, the official name of the municipality was not in Croatian. The tension between former Habsburg and Italian names depicts a very blurry situation. At the beginning of the Italian occupation, the new authorities encountered a very unlikely Italian form for Mošćenice: Moschienizze, matched by Draga di Moschienizze, a vivid refraction of local Croatian-Italian linguistic combinations. One may even call it a linguistic hybridism. In 1923, however, Moschienizze officially became Moschiena. The fishermen’s village, for a time known correspondingly as Draga di Moschiena, would be renamed as Val Santamarina or Valsantamarina, substituting the Italian word for “valley” (valle) and adopting the name of the settlement’s small church dedicated to St. Marina. But this is not a story about the radical and violent nationalization of a local populace by a fascist state, the usage of fascist symbols, or fascist modernization. Rather, as with linguistic hybridism and the manhole covers, this is a story about an obscured part of the first years of the Italian state’s presence on the territory, and its action in the sphere of education.
Source: Državni arhiv u Rijeci (DARI)-279, Zbirka razglednica
(State Archive of Rijeka, Postcards collection)
101 years ago, on July 8, 1920, a teacher at the Italian folk school in Draga di Moschienizze wrote a report on the school’s activity during the 1919/20 school year. The teacher, however, started to work in this school only in the middle of March 1920, assuming the office from the previous teacher who had been seconded by the Italian military. The methods of the previous teacher were, to say the least, unorthodox:
He [the teacher] aimed, so to say, to entertain and delight the pupils, without really teaching or educating them: this is confirmed partially by the schoolwork written by the pupils in their notebooks.
As the new teacher noted elsewhere, discipline among the pupils was:
… slightly relaxed, in particular among the older ones, among whom some had acquired bad and ugly habits, thus providing a terrible example to the others.
The new teacher claimed to have instituted some sort of discipline among the pupils, but this is not the main point of this vignette.
Before the Italian occupation, the school operated under Habsburg administration as a two-classes compulsory elementary school (Volksschule). In the first years of the occupation, the Italian authorities did not radically change the previous educational system, that is, they did not replace non-Italian-language schools with Italian-language schools. Yet, as in the case of Draga di Moschienizze—or “Valle di S. Marina di Moschiena” as written in an official document from the Julian March Governorate in July 1919—a new Italian school was opened during the first school year 1918/1919. Or, to be more precise, an existing two-classes Croatian-language school was split, with one class becoming an Italian-language section. The Italian authorities were not simply implementing a process of imposed nationalization at the expense of locals: alongside the Italian- a Croatian-language school still continued to function. Italian authorities were achieving nationalization through alleged consent of some locals. Allegedly, it was the locals who had initially requested the change, and the Italian authorities did their best to fulfill that request. Surely, this kind of consent was generated by some locals’ adaptation to the new state and to meet its expectations. It was a shift in sovereignty that the local population had not chosen for themselves, and yet some locals were not so eager to resist this change.
Another amusing detail to understand this story is in the local census data. According to the last Habsburg census of 1910, almost all of the roughly 660 inhabitants of Draga used Serbo-Croatian as their language of everyday use (Umgangssprache). In the Italian census of 1921, the population of Draga now almost exclusively declared Italian as their language of use (Italian: lingua d’uso). One could easily imagine the pressures to declare this in 1921, including the activity of the fascist movement in the area. But, to return and to relate the census to the summer the year before, what seems to be a point of interest is population’s national indifference. Nationality was certainly not the only or exclusive identification among the local population; or, to put it differently, language and education in a certain language was not perceived by all the locals as their most prominent concern. In fact, in a community where a lot of inhabitants were sailors maybe learning another language was not a tremendous issue. Additionally, one could claim that the locals deployed an instrumental use of nationalism—nationalism understood here as a linguistic-educational issue—evaluating that perhaps having an Italian-language school was not the worst thing that could happen. One could also wonder, was it not difficult for pupils to switch from one language of instruction to another? From the perspective of the late twentieth century, the phenomenon of Istrian linguistic hybridity, that is, fluency in local Croatian-Italian vernaculars, would not come as a surprise. To answer the question, in this case Italian was not a completely unknown language; Italian was already taught in the pre-war Volksschule from the second grade.
Returning to the school report: discipline, education, and language knowledge seem to be very loose categories. As the local teacher wrote:
Generally, the undersigned has abided by the normal provisional program, somewhat reducing it, to conform it with the specific local conditions and the level of intellectual and cultural development of the pupils.
Discipline, as noted previously, was not strictly enforced, and the teacher was not keen on radical punishments, so as not to alienate the character of these pupils “who, if treated too harshly, could probably return to the Croatian school next year.” The undisciplined character of the twenty-two questionably prepared pupils, spread across four classes, was the result of the previous teacher’s (lack of) pedagogical methods and the abnormal postwar conditions of social, economic, and political transition in the region.
Source: DARI-618, Kotarsko školsko vijeće u Voloskom, Box 56
(State Archive of Rijeka, Volosko district school council)
We should recall once more that a return to peace and ordinary life did not suddenly triumph in November 1918 across Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. Soldiers were everywhere; many local soldiers had still not returned home from the POW camps where they were held; paramilitary formations in the area were forming; and economic blockades had not been completely eased. And nationalism was part of the game. So, the establishment of an Italian-language school in Draga di Moschienizze—replacing a Croatian-language one—is a symptom of nationalization, but also of local parents’ adaptation to the administration of their district by a new state. Their adaptation, however, was not driven by unconditional loyalty towards a new state power or dominant nationality, but rather a way to make thoughtful, locally-sensitive, but still reversable decisions. The deliberately bland treatment of the pupils by the first two teachers at the Italian-language school demonstrates that teachers were very aware of the fluctuating nature of language in educational choices. Before the ascendancy of Fascism in Italy, locals in Italy’s newly acquired territories were not merely viewed as objects to be conquered or dominated; they were still individuals who had to be attracted to the national cause rather than be subjugated by it.
In Mošćenička Draga, during a summer of 101 years ago, children and their parents were not won to any particular national cause. Rather, these were people adapting to new circumstances, trying to ensure the best for themselves, and displaying an identification that was most convenient in a given moment, as they had probably done well before the war and the collapse of the Empire. While this legacy appears at first to be as unnoticeable as the manhole covers we walk over on our way to the beach, stories like this one indicate how, beyond the (in)famous points of national conflict, there are multiple, different people who participated in the transition of the region from Habsburg imperial authority to that of the Italian Kingdom in their own ways, not all of which were disciplined or easily categorized.
 A special thanks to Cody J. Inglis and Dominique K. Reill for useful remarks on previous versions of this text.
 “Questi mirava, per così dire, a ricreare e a dilettare gli alunni, senza veramente istruirli o educarli: ciò che attestano in parte i compiti scritti dagli alunni nei loro quaderni.” Direzione della Scuola Popolare Italiana di Draga di Moschienizze al Commissariato Civile del Distretto Politico di Volosca, Oggetto: Funzionamento della scuola durante l’anno scolastico 1919/1920, 8.7.1920, DARI-618, Kotarsko školsko vijeće u Voloskom (later KšvV), Box 56.
 “Il sottoscritto aveva perciò riscontrato in loro, nell’assumere la direzione, disciplina un po’ rilassata, specialmente presso gli alunni più anziani, alcuni dei quali avevano contratto dei brutti e cattivi abiti, dando così pessimo esempio a tutti gli altri.” Ibid.
 DARI-618, KšvV, Box 53, Governatorato della Venezia Giulia. Ufficio Affari civili al Commissariato civile del distretto politico di Volosca, Oggetto: Scuola popolare di Valle S. Marina di Moschiena. Lingua d’istruzione.
 “Per l’enorme aumento degli iscritti, si dovettero ampliare le due scuole italiane di Volosca e Laurana, ed istituirne, avendone fatto richiesta i capifamiglia, due altre, una ad Icici e l’altra a Moschiena.” In NR. 200/20/Sit., Commissario del distretto politico di Volosca alla Presidenza del Consigli dei Ministri e all’Ufficio Centrale per le nuove Provincie Roma, 26.09.1919, Ibid.
 Spezialortsrepertorium der Österreichischen Länder, Volume VIII: Österreichisch-Illyrisches Küstenland (Wien: Verlag der k. k. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1918), 64.
 Censimento della popolazione del Regno d’Italia al 1 dicembre 1921, III. Venezia Giulia, Provveditorato generale dello stato libreria, Roma, 1926, p. 208.
 See Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis” in Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 93–119.
 Brendan Karch, Nation and Loyalty in a German-Polish Borderland. Upper Silesia, 1848-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 16–22.
 Pamela Ballinger, “‘Authentic Hybrids’ in the Balkan Borderlands,” Current Anthropology 45, no. 1 (February 2004): 31–60.
 “In generale, il sottoscritto s’è attenuto al programma provvisorio normale, riducendolo di alquanto, per conformalo alle particolari condizioni locali e al grado di sviluppo intellettuale e culturale degli alunni.” In DARI-618, KšvV, Box 56.
 “Mai à voluto ricorrere a punizioni estreme; e ciò anche per non alienarsi l’animo di questi alluni, i quali, potrebbero se trattati troppo duramente, ritornare probabilmente nel prossimo anno scolastico, in seno alla scuola croata.” Ibid.