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Tyrol: Retreat to Reality

Ohne meinen Segen: Die Lebenserinnerungen der Unterfurner Bäuerin

by Adelheid Vorhauser Rabensteiner
Brixen: Suedmedia, 214 pp., $12.90

Südtirol im Dritten Reich/L’Alto Adige nel Terzo Reich, 1943–1945

edited by Gerald Steinacher
Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 388 pp., v33.00

The History of the South Tyrol Question

by Antony Evelyn Alcock
London: Michael Joseph, 535 pp. (1970; out of print)

Die Walsche

by Joseph Zoderer
Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 120 pp., $7.90 (paper)


Immediately south of the Brenner Pass on the Italo-Austrian border, there is a mountainous area of some 7,400 square kilometers that is part of Italy but not, as it were, “Italian.” Over 300,000 people there speak German (or rather a German dialect); the architecture is German; the food, the clothes, and the traditions are German.

Last summer, one of the children on the farm where we take our vacations in this beautiful countryside showed me her new Italian identity card. I asked her what she thought about her nationality, but she was evidently having trouble expressing her thoughts in Italian. I said: “Do you feel Italian or German?” “Deutsch,” she declared.

Rolf Steininger’s South Tyrol: A Minority Conflict of the Twentieth Century sets out to explain how this paradoxical situation came about and how a mutual ethnic hostility that dragged on for many decades has finally been overcome. Although the South Tyrol does not rate as a center of the great and tragic conflicts of the twentieth century, the debate over its position within Italy poses, in miniature, a question that is urgent in international politics today: In a global culture that is increasingly individualistic in outlook, what value do we attribute to the culture of the ethnic minority group, and how can the group’s special rights, if it has any, be defined and protected? Can this be done without damaging the rights of individuals outside the group?

In April 1915, to improve their position in the war in northern France, the Entente powers persuaded Italy to attack Austria, at that time its ally, from the south. Annexation of the German-speaking South Tyrol would be part of Italy’s eventual reward. Steininger, who hopes that his book “will encourage a better understanding of the history of South Tyrol,” gets off to a bad start when he stresses only the cynical and scandalous aspect of this arrangement, without giving the reader the necessary historical background. The long process of the Italian Risorgimento had involved repeated wars with Austria, which for more than a century governed the Veneto and large areas of Lombardy. As the Great War began, Austria still occupied Italian Trentino to the south of the Tyrol. Rightly or wrongly, it had become a widely held belief in Italy that the young nation would only have proper protection from its powerful northern neighbor if it held the high Alpine passes. This did not make the annexation of the South Tyrol right, but it offers an explanation of the Italian claim that goes beyond greed and bloody-mindedness.

The most powerful of the victorious allies at Versailles, the US, was not bound by the agreement between Italy, France, and Great Britain. Nevertheless, and despite the stated American commitment to the principle of self-determination, President Wilson caved in to pressure from the Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando and agreed that Italy should have its reward. Later, at the peace conference, Wilson is said to have remarked to one of his advisers: “We lack the necessary facts. It was on the basis of insufficient study that I promised Orlando the Brenner frontier.”

The confession is emblematic of the recent history of the South Tyrol. Again and again, the fate of the region would be decided in national and international forums by politicians who had no direct knowledge of the place. Even today one need spend only a few weeks in the South Tyrol to appreciate that not only are its people ethnically and linguistically German, but that, having for centuries farmed high mountain valleys, living in settlements that tend to be isolated, they have developed, for their survival, a highly specific and intensely Catholic culture characterized by a tendency to place group solidarity above individual expression. It is a people whose numerous wooden artifacts—carvings of peasant houses and religious symbols among them—express the same collective genius and who display the same colored geraniums on identical balconies, who scythe their steeply sloped meadows with an obsessive thoroughness that goes back many generations. Even had it remained within Austria, such a culture would have faced severe problems in dealing with the industrialized world of the twentieth century, and above all with the onset of agricultural mechanization that would oblige so many people to leave the land and create new kinds of employment. To face such changes inside a suspicious host nation with an alien tongue was both an injustice and a catastrophe.

To encourage the Allies to give them the South Tyrol, the Italians had promised to respect the culture of its inhabitants. Three years later, when Mussolini came to power, this policy was dropped. The South Tyrol, or Upper Adige as it was now called (the Adige being the river that descends from the Alpine watershed to Verona and the Po valley), was to be Italianized. “The method that one must employ with Germans,” wrote Mussolini, “is the method of violence…. The war brought our political borders to the Brenner; now, Fascism brings you Italy!”

The German language was denied any official status, thus excluding the Tyrolese from state employment and rendering them helpless before the Italian bureaucracy. All place-names were Italianized and likewise many surnames. All communication with Austria was interrupted. The local German press was shut down. School lessons had to be taught in Italian. Above all there was to be a policy of industrialization and immigration.

In 1910 the population of the South Tyrol was around 250,000, of whom a little less than 90 percent were German-speaking and some 4 percent Ladin-speaking. Ladin is an ancient language that dates back to the first Roman occupation of the high Alpine valleys. The small percentage of Italians in the region had a mercantile tradition and were concentrated in the area’s few towns, Meran, Brixen, and above all Bözen. In 1934 the Italians opened an industrial zone in Bözen, or Bolzano as it had now become, offering incentives to major manufacturers to move there. Ostensibly, the idea was to exploit the region’s considerable hydro-electric resources, but there was an obvious colonialist aspect to the project. The indigenous Tyrolese had neither the education nor the inclination to work in heavy industry. A huge influx of Italians took almost all the jobs and the subsidized housing that went with them. By 1939 Bolzano was 63 percent Italian and the South Tyrol as a whole 25 percent Italian.

But despite the Fascists’ success in Italianizing the towns, there was something so grotesque in their claim that they would Italianize the Tyrolese peasantry that it seems unlikely that a man as astute as Mussolini really believed he could do this. Fascism thrived on ethnic tension to heighten national consciousness. An aggrieved Tyrolese minority longing to return to Austria and with intensely hostile feelings toward Italy was not the sort of “problem” that Mussolini was really seeking a solution to.

Then in 1933, to the north, another dictator appeared, who likewise thrived on ethnic tension. The South Tyrol could not have been better prepared to embrace German National Socialism. Hitler’s declared determination to defend German communities abroad, his invasion of Czechoslovakia, and above all the Anschluss raised Tyrolese hopes that very soon they too would be united with a greater Germany.

It was at this point that history delivered the next of the unhappy twists that were to condition the future and the special psychology of the Tyrolese people. Inexplicably (to the Tyrolese), the two enemy dictators became allies. When Mussolini demanded a German renunciation of claims to the South Tyrol as the price of his support, the two countries decided that the only proper solution was to resettle the South Tyrolese in a new homeland that Hitler would win and provide for them, in Burgundy perhaps, or then again perhaps in Albania.

In her simple but always attractive Ohne meinen Segen: Die Lebenserinnerungen der Unterfurner Bäuerin (Without My Blessing: Memoirs of a Farmer’s Wife), Adelheid Rabensteiner describes the situation:

In the 1930s [the fall of ‘39, to be precise] every householder in the South Tyrol had to choose whether he would take his family to Germany or whether he wanted to live in the South Tyrol under the Italians. My father chose three times: first to stay, then to go and finally again to stay. Your father is a Walscher [derogatory term for an Italian] people said, and life got difficult…. My elder brother, Hans, was constantly ashamed of being a Walscher. He just couldn’t understand how our father had come to make this choice.

The children of those who chose to stay were now obliged to join the Fascist paramilitary associations and swear allegiance to the Duce. Rabensteiner is charmingly honest in admitting how much, as a little girl, she loved marching up and down in uniform; but her brother Hans was disgusted:

Back home he wrapped the [Fascist] uniform in a bundle and threw it out the window. Underneath was the manure heap. Days later, a woman came knocking at the door with the bundle stinking of cow dung in her hand. With a sharp look she warned our mother to keep a closer eye on us in future. If anyone else had found the bundle, our father would probably have been locked up.

The “Options Policy,” as it became known, put a largely uneducated population under a terrible double bind: to accept German nationality and Hitler’s promises meant abandoning their mountain home; to stay was to betray their German roots in favor of the traditional Italian enemy. Or thus it was portrayed in aggressive Nazi propaganda. The Tyrolese leader Friedl Volgger, who chose to stay and was later imprisoned in Dachau by the Germans, remarked, “What the Jews were in the Third Reich is what some of the South Tyrolese became in the eyes of their fanatical countrymen.”

The Italians, meanwhile, were surprised by the German determination to move the whole population. They had presumed that only a certain percentage of the South Tyrolese would choose to go: the city dwellers, those displaced by the Italians and hence potential troublemakers. This would leave the peasants to look after the land having once and for all renounced the principle of self-determination. But Mussolini reckoned without the powerful sense of group loyalty that seventeen years of Fascism had reinforced. In a delirium of collective cultural suicide, whole villages voted together “in a joyful mood” to abandon their homeland, “filled only,” as one leader put it, “with belief and trust in Germany and the Führer.” In the end, over 200,000 Tyrolese, around 80 percent of the German-speaking population, chose to go.

Since the Italian government had agreed to compensate the Tyrolese for the property they were leaving, the size of the exodus promised to be an economic disaster. The Italians began to stall. During the first three years of the war, some 75,000 people actually left, just under 30 percent of the German-speaking population. Far from being taken to a promised land, most would spend the war years in refugee camps in and around Innsbruck. Ironically, the Italians got what they wanted. It was the city dwellers who went first, while those on the land were left behind. The Italian and German communities in the area were thus further divided both spatially and culturally, a situation that would have repercussions for years to come.

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