Irene Portis-Winner – The City: Whose City?

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Signs and the City. In honor of Jeff Bernard

The City: Whose City?

Irene Portis-Winner [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


Trieste is the city that I am discussing in the first part of this paper. It is situated in northern Italy on a strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and Italy, and it borders with Slovenia. It was an important port in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy period. After WWI, it became part of Italy. By 1911, the Slovene language was spoken by at least twenty percent of the population. The Slovene population was persecuted by the Italian fascists, in terms of language and their economic activities. They were treated as an inferior minority. The Nazis established a concentration camp which was built in a suburb of Trieste. There was considerable partisan resistance to the Nazis and the Italian fascists, both by Italians and the Slovenes, and by Yugoslavs in general. The Germans controlled Trieste until it was turned over to the Yugoslav forces. Trieste came under joint US-British military administration after the war, and in September 1945 the Paris Peace Pact established the free territory of Trieste. Trieste was declared an independent city-state and in 1954 most of the territory was ceded to Italy. Part of the territory was ceded to Yugoslavia and the final border was established in 1955 between Trieste and Slovenia. Trieste had become an important port since WWII, and the Slovenes considered themselves unfairly treated. The conflict was not really settled since the Slovenes demanded the city and revenge.

Now turning to the history of the peasant village, Žerovnica, and its relation to Trieste. In 1848, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy announced the end of serfdom. Then, the kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes ruled Slovenia until WWII. After that, the Germans and the Italians invaded Slovenia and in 1945, Slovenia came into the new Communist federation of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Never did the Slovenes have the chance to participate in a modern city market economy, living off trade and commerce rather than agriculture (Weber, 1958: 67). Slovene peasants did not have the right of free trade. Their first obligations were to the count, and then to the post-feudal rulers, and then again to the Communists. Thus, while they were very hard working and produced agricultural products and wood, they were never able to profit in any way at all. And actually, during the Communist period, they were bordered by a collective farm, which controlled all of the produce that the village could have. There was no way to sell things privately.

Trieste was very much in the minds of the people of the village of Žerovnica, the village that I was living in with my family carrying out a field work study. They remembered that some had been imprisoned in the concentration camps outside of Trieste established by the Nazis. There was strong partisan resistance. The village was very active in the partisan movement. Trieste was barely an hour’s drive from Žerovnica, open to the sea, while Slovenia was landlocked. During the first part of my stay in Slovenia, when it was under Tito, no villagers were allowed to go to Trieste. My family and I visited Trieste to get supplies for work and various food supplies, which were hard to find in Slovenia. While the village was very hard working and essentially self-sufficient, all trade was mandated to go through the neighboring collective farm and remuneration was limited. The following incident tells us much about the village and Trieste.

My husband and I were driving to Trieste taking with us an elderly woman who rented us a small house and even had installed a makeshift bathroom. She was hard working and extremely hospitable. She knew our friend who had grown up in the village and was now a professor in Ljubljana. Her husband had died, and her son and his wife lived with her and worked in the fields.

We drove together to the border. There we were stopped by the gendarmes, who refused to let our friend pass. We were forced to leave her standing at the border, waiting for a bus home. We had hoped that she would be allowed to go with us, but the chance failed.

To answer the question, whose city was Trieste once the Communist period was over and the border was open: Trieste was replete with Slovenes and Slovene shops, but the dominant population was Italian. While Trieste did not retain its former importance as a port, it was still a very pleasant city, even though somewhat rundown. Probably it is not today. But this is in the early postwar period. For the Slovenes, it remains the city they lost, but Slovenia has grown to prosperity and the capital Ljubljana is very prosperous. Still Trieste is full of signs of Slovenia and its history, and its historical memory of the city is strong.

Quotation from a report of a seminar on the peasant and the city, which I led (Portis-Winner, 1973):

“It was agreed that Eastern European cities in general share the common fate of frequent loss of independence, recurrent destruction and recreation by foreigners. While, in comparison most of Western Europe has enjoyed more stable boundaries and geographical markers.”

Of course Žerovnica is a border question, but in a sense it really maintained the remnants of the Asiatic mode of production. Although ever since serfdom was abolished the peasants divided up their land but still maintained somehow the feeling of a cooperative project, remembered communal pasturage and remnants of the Zadruga period.

I turn now to the second part of this discussion – Berlin during the period it was divided.

During the period before the wall came down, my family and I visited an old friend, a scientist who was originally a German refugee who had come to Harvard and had a research position there. However, from the point of view of the government of the United States, he was considered to be questionable. Eventually, because he felt harassed, he traveled to Denmark and married. But still in search of recognition finally moved to East Germany, where he was welcomed and given a large country house. There he practiced his science in a German institute. They had several children, and for East German conditions they lived very well. His wife who was Danish and his first child who was born in Denmark remained citizens of that country, but the son who was born in East Germany and the father did not have Danish citizenship. The line of nationalities split the family. His wife, seeing signs of second-class citizenship everywhere, and travelling back and forth to her homeland with her daughter who could go with her, also visited Western Germany. They, but not husband and son, spoke of the charms of Berlin and their visits there while her husband supported all restrictions as politically necessary. Access to West Berlin, once the city of her husband, but not accessible to her husband and one son, divided the family until the wall came down.

Thus I conclude that Trieste was a model of Western freedom and commercialism, but discriminated against the Slovene minority, while Berlin’s fate was to suffer the division of East and West. Of course, West Berlin was a product of Western industrialism, and so the two sides of Berlin became opposing symbols: one of the progress, and the other of the destruction of the global world.



  • Portis-Winner, Irene (1973). The Peasant and the City in Historical Perspective. Report of a seminar at Brown University.
  • Weber, Max (1958). The City. New York: Free Press.


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Irene Portis-Winner – The City: Whose City? –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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