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July 22 – the Shot Fired in Tacen

Eighty years ago, more precisely on July 22, 1941, a few minutes before 8 am, a single shot was fired on the Tacen-Šmartno road. The shot, whose echo continued to be heard even a decade later, when it became to be regarded by the Slovenian people as the shot that started its armed uprising. The Archives of the Republic of Slovenia keeps the criminal charge issued by the Commander of the Security Police and Security Service in the Occupied Territory of Carinthia and Upper Carniola against two suspects, two young men, who were believed to have fired the shot from a bush and wound a bike-riding Franc Žnidaršič, an interpreter at the German gendarmerie station.

Announcement of a crime written in German.

Folder containing a criminal charge against Mirko Knapič and Cvetko Novak. | Author Arhiv Republike Slovenije

Criminal Charges against Mirko Knapič and Cvetko Novak for their Attempt on the Life of Franc Žnidaršič

Among the important elements that serve to strengthen any political and ideological system are also calendars and national holidays included in them. By remembering and commemorating various past events – like myths about the origin of a certain community or the ones that uphold decisive moments and prominent figures of a nation – such national holidays are used to build a nation, a state or a religious community. One of such events that helped to build up Yugoslav (Slovenian) state religion was the confrontation between the battle group from Šmarna gora and the interpreter Žnidaršič. The event and its participants might have gone by unnoticed had it not been for the fact that the shot was fired on precisely July 22.

German interpretation of the events that took place on July 22, 1941 is kept at the Archives of the RS among the records of the gendarmerie station in Šmartno pod Šmarno goro. The documentation in question is a criminal charge against Mirko Knapič and Cvetko Novak for their attempted assassination of Franc Žnidaršič. The file consists of the following records: medical diagnosis, statements obtained from six witnesses (railway worker Franc Bizjak, house painter’s assistant Stanislav Bizilj, Cvetko’s brother Milan Novak, Mirko’s brother Ciril Knapič, Cvetko’s mother Cecilija Novak, and Mirko’s mother Marija Knapič), a sketch of the crime scene, three photos taken at the scene of the crime, and the final police report. Also enclosed is a warrant for the arrest of Knapič and Novak and a letter on the sent transcript of the investigation.

The report written by the Commander of the Security Police and Security Service in the Occupied Territory of Carinthia and Upper Carniola states that on July 22 at 7.55 am, Franc Žnidaršič was shot from an ambush and seriously wounded while on his way to work at the gendarmerie station in Šmartno ob Savi. Even during his early post as a commander of the gendarmerie station in Šentvid nad Ljubljano, Žnidaršič had been an ardent anti-communist. At the start of a military conflict between the German Reich and the Soviet Union, the German police noticed a considerable rise in communist activities in Tacen and began a series of house searches, during which they confiscated several pieces of weaponry. Žnidaršič was a valuable asset during these anti-communist actions, since he personally knew all the communists and was able to inform the German police on them. Those communists that were still at large, swore revenge on Žnidaršič.

Even before the war, Žnidaršič’s work included dealing with “communist nest in the infamous Tacen work area”. One of the biggest supporter of the communist front in that area was a shoemaker named Janez Novak. He held communist meetings in his workshop and at his house, and his 19- year old son Cvetko soon became “a true reflection of his father’s attitude to communism”. Present at these meetings was also a 24-year old Mirko Knapič, who was described by his mother as a hard-working man who came under the influence of the communist Novak. When Germans arrived, Janez Novak fled to avoid being arrested by the German police, and Mirko Knapič and Cvetko Novak ran away from home at the start of military conflict with the Soviet Union and were hiding in the forests around Tacen.

In collaboration with Žnidaršič, German police officers again searched the homes of Novak and Knapič in Tacen, trying to arrest the escaped communists, but the boys were not there. The officers did, however, find a rifle and a bag of ammunition hidden in a haystack at Knapič’s home. They found out that the fugitive Mirko Knapič occasionally spent the night in that haystack and chose to hide his rifle there. The statements of the witnesses show that not long after police officers had left, Knapič and Novak came from the forest and said goodbye to their respective relatives.

The next morning, July 22, Žnidaršič was riding his bike from Šentvid on the road through Tacen in the direction of Šmartno, where he was to start his work at 8 am. In Tacen he caught up with a railway worker Franc Bizjak, who was returning home from his night shift, and together they continued their way to Šmartno. Ridding past them in the opposite direction was Stanislav Bizilj. When Bizjak and Žnidaršič came to the area where the forest reached all the way down to the road, a bullet was shot, allegedly from the direction of the forest. Franc Žnidaršič was hit and he fell on the floor, bleeding heavily from his wound on the right side of his chest. He told Bizjak: “Novak did this.” Franc Bizjak immediately called for help and reported the incident to the police. The local doctor Dr. Jožef Arko examined the wounded Žnidaršič and drove him to a hospital in Ljubljana with his own car.

As soon as they heard of the incident, police officers searched the forest, but the fugitives had enough time to escape. Grass behind the bush above the road, from where the shot was believed to have been fired, was trampled on, but the cartridge case was probably still stuck in the barrel of the rifle, since only one shot had been fired. The report by the German security police ends with a physical description of Mirko Knapič and Cvetko Novak, which became the basis for the warrant for their arrest. As transitional measure for the attempted assassination, the gendarmerie station in Šmartno transported twenty of the previously captured communists from Tacen to the internment camp in Šentvid nad Ljubljano. The relatives of the two suspects were interrogated there as well.

Franc Žnidaršič eventually recovered from his wounds and through the records preserved at the Archives we can actually follow his life after WW2 – on July 22, 1951, he was arrested for his “cooperation with the occupier”, but a month later, on August 25, 1951, he was released to “freedom”.

Ten years later, the day of “the first partisan shot” fired by the Šmarna gora partisan group was for a while even entered into the state calendar as a republic holiday. In 1951, the People’s Assembly of the People’s Republic of Slovenia declared July 22 a national holiday and work-free day, even though April 27 – the Day of uprising against the occupation - had been entered into the national holiday calendar already in 1948. This was mostly due to the intention of the Yugoslav authorities to make national holidays - those that celebrated organized military uprising - more uniform (and in hierarchical order) throughout all of the Yugoslav republics. Thus, for seventeen years, “Slovenian” April 27 had to give up its status as a national holiday for a “Yugoslav” July 22, and after 1968 they were both entered into the calendar. Despite the fact that military actions against occupying forces had taken place even prior to that day, the authorities at the time explained that organized resistance actually began when on July 22 the Head Command of the Slovenian Partisan Troops issued an order for the start of organized attacks.

Even today, seventy years later, national holidays remain an excellent basis for various interpretations of past events, creating different history and new rituals. However, any interpretation of an event, even if it is “just” a question of a missed shot, can nevertheless leave a mark or even change the memory of a nation.

Tanja Žohar