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…

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