A mysterious red star raises questions in Brussels
On the morning of September 20th, residents of the Croatian coastal city of Rijeka awoke to a startling sight. Overshadowing the resplendent baroque architecture of this seaside retreat was an enormous five-pointed red star, placed conspicuously on top of a skyscraper.
Peering out of their bustling tenement blocks, local citizens were taken aback at the spectacle of this extravagant installation, the potency of its crimson shards of glass contrasting violently with the merciful blue of the late summer skies.
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For some of those unfortunate enough to have lived under the menace of the Independent State of Croatia, a World War II-era puppet-state of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the star represented freedom. This was due to the fact that the symbol had been used by the State Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia, which had freed swathes of the country, including Rijeka, from Nazi control.
However, on the other side of the debate, a vicious backlash ensued against Rijeka’s star, and on the afternoon that the installation appeared, a group of demonstrators took to the streets, yielding flags emblazoned with symbols used by the Independent State of Croatia and their Nazi bedfellows.
Joining the calls of the protestors was a contingent of MEPs in Brussels – all members of the far-right Italian nationalist outfit Fratelli d’Italia. The group issued a written question to the European Commission on whether Rijeka’s red star had been installed using EU funds, taking into account the city’s status as European Capital of Culture.
The objection from the Italian nationalists emerges from a long-embittered burden of memory concerning the ‘foibe massacres’ which took place during and subsequent to World War II, in which Yugoslav liberation forces enacted mass killings of ethnic Italians in the region.
For our MEPs in Brussels, the acrimony against Yugoslavs reaches its apogee in Rijeka’s name itself, with Fratelli d’Italia choosing to refer to the city as ‘Fiume.’ And while on the one hand, this is simply a direct translation of the Croatian word for ‘river’ – Rijeka – there is also a deeply vitriolic political undercurrent at play.
Sovereignty of the area had been hotly contested in the aftermath of the First World War, with Italy and the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes attempting to stake a claim for ‘Fiume.’ The dispute became so acrimonious that US President Woodrow Wilson was required to intervene before British and French occupying forces took control of the city.
Then, in an unexpected move, the Italian fascist poet and all-around boulevardier, Gabriele d’Annunzio, seized administrative control of the city in September 1919 and declared himself il Duce. This was until November 1920, when the Treaty of Rapallo was signed and the Free State of Fiume was established. For his part, D’Annunzio stood against the agreement and was eventually exiled.
His sentiments would nevertheless later be appeased when in 1924 Fiume was handed back to the Italians after several years of jockeying over control for the city.
However, Italy’s surrender in World War II effectively settled the dispute once-and-for-all. Yugoslavian partisans, with red stars emblazoned across their Socialist Federal Republic flags, marched into the city as the Nazis fled in May 1945, and the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty officially recognized Fiume, now Rijeka, as a part of Yugoslavia.
Membership of the republic lasted until the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, and Rijeka was then part of the newly independent state of Croatia.
Against this very bloody backdrop, a group of Italian nationalist MEPs attempting to seize upon Rijeka’s denomination is disturbing. The historical resentment after the ‘foibe’ episodes is understanding, but at the same time, with peace now bestowed to the region, such divisive attempts to reopen the wounds of yesteryear are unwelcome.
But were the concerns over the red star in Rijeka entirely illegitimate? The symbolism is so explicit so as to not discount the fact that the installation was, above all, a political statement.
And yet, it is a statement that really should be embraced by all pragmatic democrats. The artist responsible for Rijeka’s red star, Nemanja Cvijanović, said that the monument is primarily a homage to the 2,800 anti-fascist fallen fighters in the Battle of Rijeka, when the city was liberated from the Nazis.
For others across Croatia and members of the Italian nationalist community, the symbolic proximity the star has to Tito’s Communist regime, however, was too much to bear.
To the surprise of many locals in Rijeka, on October 4th, without any public announcement, the star disappeared from the city’s skyline. Media reports soon emerged, suggesting that the removal had taken place in secret, to avoid further disputes.
The history behind Rijeka’s red star is politically delicate and wrought with diplomatic pitfalls. The installation, having celebrated the city’s designation as European Capital of Culture for 2020, will now come under more intense scrutiny, as the briefing papers of this city’s brutal and fiercely contested sovereignty fall onto the desks of European Commission bureaucrats. And for the time being, Italian nationalists in Brussels have been left foaming from their mouths at the spectre of EU funds having been spent on this symbol of Croatian freedom.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.