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A Bad Start’?

To the Editors:

It’s usually good to have one’s book reviewed in The New York Review. While I am pleased to see my work South Tyrol: A Minority Conflict of the Twentieth Century featured [NYR, May 27], I disagree with and take exception to portions of Tim Parks’s review and am compelled to respond.

Parks, a native British citizen, reviews my book. He understands the English, but clearly does not understand certain facts and obviously disagrees with my views. Disagreeing with my views is one thing, getting the facts straight is quite another.

Parks states that I “get off to a bad start” in stressing “only the cynical and scandalous aspect” of the “arrangement”—the annexation to Italy of the portion of Austria’s province of Tyrol south of the Brenner—“without giving the reader the necessary historical background.” Parks may be a longtime resident of Italy, but he is a novelist, not a historian. I would be more inclined to accept his analysis and criticism of my writing and readability, diction and so forth, than of my presentation of historical facts. The Italian Fascist policy toward the ethnic Germans in South Tyrol is one case in point. The policy had nothing to do with the Italian Risorgimento, as Parks would have us believe.

Parks is correct when he states that my book is “meant to offer a short introduction to the region’s history.” That was precisely the point of this brief (171 pp.) work: to provide a short and readable text in English, since there was so little available in this format. He is also correct when he states that I “pass over [the] period of paralysis fairly rapidly,” meaning the tumultuous period of the 1950s and 1960s, and refers the reader for more information to another work long out of print. To be sure, this outdated and out-of-print work is in English and thus conceivably of greater interest to the English-speaking reader than my other works on this topic published in German and Italian.

However had Parks done his homework—and were he fairer in his commentary—he would have mentioned that I give much more detailed and comprehensive treatments to this period in other works I have published, to which I refer the interested reader in the introduction. Most notable among these is the highly praised three-volume set Südtirol zwischen Diplomatie und Terror: 1947–1969/South Tyrol between Diplomacy and Terror: 1947–1969 (altogether more than 2,500 pages) published in 1999 in German in the series of the South Tyrolean Archive in Bozen.

Rolf Steininger

Innsbruck, Austria

Tim Parks replies:

I trust it was clear from my article that I welcome the publication of Steininger’s book, since no one believes more firmly than I do that Italian possession of the South Tyrol is an anomaly and an injustice. Books on the matter in the English language are all too rare. Steininger, however, in his enthusiasm for the Tyrol cause and his determination to express his sense of scandal, risks giving the reader who is new to the story the suspicion that he is only getting one side of the tale. In this sense content and style, as I’m sure the author is aware, cannot easily be separated. If, as Steininger tells us, his book aims to bring understanding of this complex dispute, it would have been useful to consider why so many Italians believed, however wrongly, that seizure of the South Tyrol was legitimate and necessary. In this sense Austria’s long possession of areas of northeastern Italy and the wars fought in the nineteenth century to push back the Hapsburg empire are matters that a reader needs to be aware of as he considers the events that led to Italy being given the South Tyrol at Versailles. Not to have discussed all this was a bad start indeed, though a bad start does not mean that the book as a whole is not extremely useful. That said, there is absolutely nothing in my article to suggest that the later, scandalous treatment of the South Tyrol under Fascism was part of the Risorgimento process and it really is rather mischievous of Mr. Steininger to try to excite the Review‘s readers by claiming as much. If he wishes to draw comfort from the thought that his reviewer is not a professional historian, then that is fine by me, though he should be warned that my first full-length work of history will appear next spring.

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