The last ones: Serbian and Russian prisoners on the Alpine front

Wikipedia workshop and guided tour, 24 March 2019, Castellano, Italy

By Luisa Chiodi and Niccolò Caranti (Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa, Italy)

OBCT contribution to »Never again« focused on the First World War taking advantage of the fact that it constitutes the deepest trauma of the region where the Centre is located, and that the local intellectual community of historians stands out in the country for the contributions on the social history of war carried out in the last four decades. We chose a peculiar angle to explore the topic so as to take into account the OBCT focus on South East Europe and we contributed to the full emergence of a topic that is still under-researched in the country: the experience of war prisoners, that emerged in Italy only two decades ago in the scholarly works (in particular: G. Procacci, Soldati e prigionieri italiani nella Grande Guerra: con una raccolta di lettere inedite, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2000).

Trentino became a part of Italy after the Great War, as a consequence of the defeat of Austria-Hungary: for a long time the irredentist narrative of Trentino being unified with the national motherland was hegemonic in the country, including at local level. Most of those from Trentino who fought in the war did it on the side of Austria-Hungary, but for a long time their experience was neglected. The same happened for the experience of the civil population, that was massively deported in refugee camps in the Habsburg and in Italian territories as the region was on the front line. In this project we chose to deal with a category that was even more neglected (thus “The last ones”): that of war prisoners, brought in the thousands in Trentino, mostly from Serbia and Russia.

After a careful consideration on what kind of experiential activity we could develop, we devised a twofold initiative addressing school students and the local community. First we organized a Wikipedia workshop and second a guided tour to a place of memory in the making followed by a conference closeby.

The Wikipedia workshop involved 22 students from the 4th and 5th year of high school at the Lorenzo Guetti institute in Tione di Trento. The students, coming from different classes, volunteered to participate. On February 26th we had our first 2-hours meeting. Historian Tommaso Baldo (from the local Trentino History Museum Foundation, on the local institutions we involved in the initiatives) introduced the topic. Then OBCT’s Niccolò Caranti gave a short theoretical introduction to Wikipedia and conducted a practical workshop to teach the students how to edit it. At the end materials were given to the students to be used as sources for the Wikipedia articles they were assigned. We asked them to write new articles for the enciclopedia about the “Sentiero dei Serbi” (a mountain trail which was built by Serbian POWs), “Frana di Venzan” (a landslide that killed 55 Russian POWs) and “Prigionieri di guerra nella prima guerra mondiale” (Prisoners of war in the First World War); new sections about POWs in the already existing articles about “Guerra Bianca” (White War, the war on the Alpine front) and “Storia del Trentino” (History of Trentino), and to expand the article “Prigioniero di guerra” (Prisoner of War). These were all issues at the core of the history of war prisoners in Trentino. The students had a month to work in groups to prepare the drafts articles. Then on our second (and last) meeting, on March 21st, we helped them fix their texts and publish them on Wikipedia.

During the interviews for the video we realized for the project, thanks to the filmmaker Paolo Martino, the students expressed their appreciation of the work done, highlighting the importance of the direct experience, and of feeling protagonist of a dissemination activity. They stressed how the seminar gave them the possibility to experiment with an instrument they use every day but which they don’t know how it works. The course is an experience with media literacy: by letting students work with Wikipedia it shows them its pros and its cons, and make them appreciate the importance of reliable sources in the building of knowledge. By giving school students the opportunity to feel protagonist of cultural dissemination the project encourage them to an approach to learning which is participative, self-aware and creative.

Our second event (guided tour and conference), on the afternoon of March 24th, started at the Castle of Castellano, that was used to imprison around 300 Serbian prisoner during the First World War. The castle is now a private house that is opened for special occasions. It was never visited with the aim to pinpoint to the past history of violence and trauma in the region but only as vestige of the medieval past. However, local historians had come across the private diary by Luigia Miorandi, that was working as guardian of the castle, describing the terrible conditions of war prisoners there. Therefore, we choose the castle as location, as potential place of the memory and there we decided to read some excerpts of this and other testimonies to make people retrieve the past by listening to the experiences of their ancestors and thus favouring the identification with the past sufferings that the latter showed.

First, Gianluca Pederzini, a member of the local “Sezione Culturale Don Zanolli” (an association dedicated to local history of the village of Castellano), introduced the participants to the history of the castle. Then, Quinto Antonelli, responsible for the Archive of popular writing of the Trentino History Museum Foundation, introduced the topic of the prisoners of war, and made the public reading. Then after a coffee break offered by the “Pro Loco Castellano-Cei” (a local association), we moved to the Municipal Theater closeby. After an introduction by OBCT director Luisa Chiodi, Quinto Antonelli gave a lecture titled “The First World War between yesterday and today: memories and oblivion”; Diego Leoni, another renown local historian and coordinator of the “Laboratorio di storia di Rovereto”, gave a presentation about “The experience of Serbian and Russian prisoners of war on the Alpine front”.

The guided tour and the conference went quite well, as nearly 50 people took part to the initiative. Overall the experience was emotionally strong and intellectually challenging for the participants, for the great part, dwellers of close by towns. The idea that it is time to remember as well the tragic experience of the Great War not only identifying one’s one community as victim but also as persecutor was introduced for the first time in a public debate. What emerged is the power of empathy in the testimonies presented.

One of the credit and reasons of success of the project was the fact that we created a network of local stakeholders that were interested in the topic from different angles: we as OBCT were interested in Serbian and Russian prisoners because of our focus on Balkans and Caucasus, “Fondazione Museo storico del Trentino” (Trentino History Museum Foundation) and “Laboratorio di storia di Rovereto” (History Workshop of Rovereto) with a strong record on the social history of the province. This cooperation between institutions at the forefront in the territory made it possible to publicly give evidence to the issue addressed by the project among other things in the local media and have a wide participation of public. Moreover the municipality of Villa Lagarina, the “Pro Loco Castellano-Cei” and “Sezione Culturale Don Zanolli” were interested in the history of the place we chose to focus on, and Lorenzo Guetti institute was interested in offering a workshop to its student. The synergy is a guarantee of success.

Photos by Paolo Martino.