Trieste at the Edge of Empires

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 103-106:

Trieste signals a fault zone. It is a city that has hosted Romans from the West, Byzantines from the East, Goths, Venetians, Napoleon’s empire, the sprawling and multiethnic Habsburg Empire, Italy, Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, and Italy again since 1954. That last handover took years of diplomatic wrangling, as if to confirm that Trieste’s very location—on a spit of territory that could have been placed in either Italy or Yugoslavia—constitutes proof of Trieste’s unstable position on the map. The mid-twentieth-century American journalist John Gunther noted that between 1913 and 1948, Trieste lived under no fewer than five different occupations. The race between Allied and Communist Yugoslav forces for control of Trieste in May 1945 was arguably the first major confrontation of the Cold War, perhaps providing a “reference point” for President Truman in the later crises of the Berlin blockade and the Korean War.

Trieste marks the borderline not only between the Latin world and the Slavic one, but also between the Latin world and the German one. Indeed, this city of Italians, Germans, Austrians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and so on registers Mitteleuropa, with its own unparalleled cosmopolitanism, broadening out into an international civilization. Though, if this neoclassical, utilitarian, and commercial city has one cultural identity or spirit above others, it might be that of the Austrian Habsburgs, who ruled here between 1392 and 1918, except for a short Napoleonic interlude.

Trieste does indeed put empire on your mind. I visit the castle of Miramare, just north of the city, built with round porthole-like windows by Maximilian, the younger brother of Franz Joseph, who believed that the Habsburgs had no choice but to control the Adriatic. It is a monument to imperial delusion…. Maximilian, who believed deeply in liberal reform as a means of preserving and sustaining empire, was fated (of all things!) to go to far-off Mexico in 1864 as its new emperor—encouraged by his wife—only to be executed by indigenous revolutionaries three years later, completing his dark and tragic imperial fantasy.

Trieste reminded historian and travel writer Jan Morris “poignantly of the passing of all empires, those seductive illusions of permanence, those monuments of hubris which have sometimes been all evil, but have sometimes had much good to them.” Because empires, by definition, are often multinational and multiethnic, it is when empires collapse that “racial zealotry,” in Morris’s words, can rear its head. When the Italians seized Trieste from the Habsburgs in 1919, they closed Slovene schools in the city and tolerated violence against the Slavs. When the Yugoslavs arrived in the city in 1945, they reopened the Slovene schools and forced many Italians to change their names. In 1946, when Morris first saw Trieste, the writer “pined” for a cohesive and “distilled” Europe, and imagined this city as “the ghost of that ideal.” But the “false passion of the nation-state,” Morris continues, “made my conceptual Europe no more than a chimera.” History isn’t over, though. And as Morris says in old age, “One day the very idea of nationality will seem as impossibly primitive as dynastic warfare or the divine right of kings…a hobby for antiquarians or re-enactment societies.”

In the present day, the port of Trieste will soon sign an agreement with Duisburg, the world’s largest inland port, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Ruhr Rivers in western Germany, with the aim of increasing traffic on the new Silk Road that China is organizing. Trieste will acquire through Duisburg access to the northern—land—part of the Silk Road that terminates at the Pacific; while Duisburg will acquire by way of Trieste access to the southern, maritime Silk Road that runs through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. A postmodern, multinational imperial system may re-emerge, this time supervised by the Chinese, and encompassing Trieste. A few months hence, I will get a message from a friend about “Chinese, Russian, American, and Mitteleuropean investors competing for bases in the port here—the second great opportunity after Maria Theresa,” during whose reign the city became a vibrant, multiethnic hub. Yes, Trieste always did prosper under a big project—this time maybe with the Chinese, who will make Trieste another imperial reference point.

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Filed under China, economics, Europe, Italy, language, Mediterranean, migration, nationalism, religion, travel, Yugoslavia

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