A New Iron Curtain Across Europe

A panoramic view of the Port of Trieste in 2012
The Port of Trieste, Italy – photo by Tiesse; CC0: all rights waived; Universal Public Domain dedication

“Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre!”

François Mitterrand

Trieste

I was born in Trieste in the early 50s. Both place and time require some qualification. 

Place

Trieste. A port city, now in the north-east corner of Italy. But the borders around Trieste changed many times in the last century. Until 1918, it had been the port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As such, it served half of continental Europe, and was one of the largest European cities. A melting-pot of languages, religions and nationalities: Italian, Slovene, Croatian, Austrian, German, Jews, Greeks, Armenians. Then, after Italy won the war against Austria in 1918, it became part of Italy, just one of its many ports; and its decline began. 

Il Duce Toppled

In 1943, after Mussolini’s government fell, Italy signed an armistice with the Allied Forces. Immediately, the Nazi army invaded Italy, and created the puppet state of the Italian Social Republic, headed once again by Mussolini.

But Trieste did not follow the same destiny: it became instead an integral part of the Third Reich, the capital of the Adriatisches Küstenland. As such, it had the dubious honour of hosting the only concentration camp on Italian soil.

Third Reich Defeated

At the fall of Germany, in May 1945, Trieste was invaded by the troops of Marshal Tito (who wanted Trieste to become the capital of the seventh republic of the Yugoslav Federation), who occupied the city for 40 days. Then the city was taken by the Allied troops, and, being the south end of the Iron Curtain, was ruled by an Anglo-American Military Government until 1954. 

The Brandenburg Gate. In the foreground a photographic reproduction of the gate in ruins at the end of the 2nd World \War in 1945.

Then by International Agreement it returned to Italy, but was surrounded by the Yugoslavian border which ran a few miles around the city. I still remember crossing that border (we were allowed to cross the border with a special pass, for our Sunday walks in the countryside).

First the Italian Border Police checkpoint, then the Italian Customs checkpoint, then 300 yards of ‘no man’s land’ with turrets and soldiers with machine guns, then the Yugoslavian Border Police checkpoint, then the Yugoslavian Customs checkpoint. All, rightly so, checking everything. In other words, I know what hostile borders look like. I would see them again later in my life. 

Time

The American Big Tech would define me as a “Baby Boomer”. I hate that definition, like the other ones they created (Generation X, Millennials, etc). They are marketing instruments, so that they can target you with the right products. I consider myself, instead, a child of the Cold War.

I still remember the poverty and the squalor of the 50s (wonderfully described in Die bleierne Zeit, the leaden years, the beautiful film by Margarethe von Trotta of some decades later) and the borders that separated us, without respect for language, sense of belonging, identity, religion, political creed, freedom of movement, or sense of fraternity.

Seeking Unity

Then came the years of coming together. First the CECA [English ECSC: the European Coal and Steel Community], then the EEC, then the EU, then the Schengen agreement… those horrible borders were, one after the other, falling down. I had made my small contribution to all that and had played my part.

In the 70s, I had rallied at the symbols of the human folly of the 20th century in Europe: the Military Cemetery of Redipuglia in north-east Italy, where 100 000 Italian soldiers are buried, innocent victims of the cynical and aggressive politics of the Italian government in 1915; at Verdun, where 600,000 French soldiers are buried, again innocent victims of European governments in 1914; in Berlin, were we were chanting “Gegen-NATO-und Warschauer Pakt” at Checkpoint Charlie, along the Berlin Wall.

We were beaten up by the GDR Border Police with truncheons, arrested, spent a night in jail, and then released without charge. And many other places. Perhaps it helped a bit.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on a state visit to France, being welcomed by President François Mitterrand
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on a state visit to France, being welcomed by President François Mitterrand, 20/10/1987 – photo by Lothar Schaack, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany

Moving On

In the 90s we were all living in a better place. A stable, peaceful, prosperous Europe without borders. In 1993 I moved with my family to the United Kingdom, and was welcomed as a brother. I was proud of living in the country that had invented modern Parliamentary Democracy 300  years before. Even prouder was I when, ten years later, I gained British Citizenship. That second passport in my pocket filled my soul with pride and happiness. 

Independent Slovenia Joins EU and Schengen

When Slovenia joined the EU and the Schengen Agreement, even that border suddenly melted away. (Yugoslavia had in the meantime broken up, and Slovenia was the northern republic of the former Federation, bordering with Italy.) I remember flying to Italy, borrowing my brother’s car, and driving six times up and down that unmanned border, those empty and abandoned buildings, like a child, happy and laughing – and perhaps crying. 

Nothing Lasts for Ever

Then something changed. A lot of things happened in the world, of course, in this new century, starting from a very serious financial crisis. Horrendous wars, added to the inherent extreme poverty of many nations in Africa and the Middle East, had created an army of displaced and desperate human beings, trying to survive by reaching a civilised and prosperous North. Nationalism and populism spread again across many countries in Europe and in America. 

President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Boris Johnson – RandomUserGuy1738, US Department of State; Public Domain

A landmark moment was 2016: Trump, Brexit. Then, three years later, Covid-19. Borders were going up again, sometimes for justified reasons (to slow down the spread of a killer virus), sometimes for disputable political reasons.

The Silver Sea That Serves It In the Office of a Wall … Against the Envy of Less Happier Lands

Because I live in the UK, the most horrendous of these new borders is for me the metaphoric Wall built very recently by the British government along the Channel. What was only a few years ago a trivial transfer from one place to the other of the same country (for example a flight London-Milan), has now become a burdensome, uncertain activity, met by suspicion and hostility. 

Priti Patel and Boris Johnson may think they have put migration under control. Indeed they have, because the “migrants” that once collected the vegetables for our farmers are no longer here, and the vegetables rot in their fields. The fish that our fishermen caught and were sold in Calais and Rotterdam for the European market, now rot in their vessels. The lorry drivers (again, in vast part European “migrants”) who delivered food and mineral water to our supermarkets, and fuel to our petrol stations, have gone, and we are where we are. 

A new Iron Curtain has been erected, this time between France and England. A new Cold War is already showing signs of an early appearance.