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.

Only one more turn of events was now required to create what, for the South Tyrolese, would be the worst possible state of affairs after the war. On September 8, 1943, the Italians signed an armistice with the Allies. At once the forces of the Third Reich poured over the Brenner Pass to disarm the Italians and halt the American advance. Instead of being obliged to leave, the jubilant South Tyrolese, in effect, suddenly and briefly found themselves in a position of power over the Italians.

Südtirol im Dritten Reich is a recent collection of essays, showing how the Nazi occupation between 1943 and 1945 gave the various parties in the South Tyrol just enough time to get involved in the kind of violence that would make reconciliation all the more difficult when the Italians once again took control. The few Jews in the area were rounded up and dispatched to Germany. South Tyrolese police were involved. Captured Allied airmen were lynched. Many young men in the region were drafted into the SS, even those who had no Nazi inclinations. This was held against them after the war. When thirty-three soldiers from a Tyrolese police regiment were killed by a partisan bomb in Nazi-occupied Rome, the Germans retaliated by executing 335 Italian civilians. After the war, the Italians would claim that this atrocity had been carried out by the South Tyrolese, whereas in fact the Tyrolese commander had refused to be involved.

By no means were all the South Tyrolese happy with National Socialism. In particular there was the extraordinary case of a regiment of 1,200 South Tyrolese recruits who twice refused, en masse, to swear allegiance to Hitler and were then punished by being sent, unarmed, to the Russian front. However, the possibility of cooperation between the very small South Tyrolese resistance movement and the Italian partisans was compromised by the fact that the Italian partisans were determined to hold on to the South Tyrol when the Germans had gone. Toward the end of the war, there were a number of partisan attacks which the German South Tyrolese interpreted as attacks on themselves rather than on the Nazi army. In any event, the partisans were already holding the Brenner Pass as the last German troops departed.

Again there were international conferences. Again there were those present who knew very well that to leave the South Tyrol with Italy was to prolong an injustice. But again there were larger issues at stake. Italy, the Allies believed, must not be so humiliated that it would fall into the hands of the Communists. The Russians wanted Austria as small and weak as possible. In the event, the best the Austrians could do was to get the Italians to sign the so-called Paris Agreement, apparently guaranteeing to the South Tyrol sufficient autonomy to protect its minority culture. The agreement, however, was characterized by a willful vagueness on the Italian side. Written in English, it promised, for example, “parification” of languages. The word “parification” is not to be found in English dictionaries; the promise meant nothing; German was given no official status. Having very astutely declined to clarify the borders of the region to receive autonomy, the Italians lumped the South Tyrol together with Trentino to the south, granting autonomy to a population in which Italians outnumbered Germans 5–2. Albeit without the aggressive rhetoric, the status quo of 1939 was upheld, and the South Tyrolese were given no authority at all to run their own affairs. When the Italians finally agreed to let those who had opted for Germany return, only 20,000 of the 75,000 turned up.


To read in detail of the interminable and immensely complicated wrangling of the next two decades, the many futile attempts by the South Tyrolese to gain some control over housing, employment, immigration, and education, the sterile legalese with which the Italians stifled these efforts, and the bungled attempts of the Austrians to raise the South Tyrol question in the United Nations in 1960 is to be confronted with the pathos and drama of two peoples absolutely locked up in the past and prisoner to the overwhelming desire that they not be obliged to live together. On the German side, in particular, every cultural, social, and political issue was subordinated to the imperative of ethnic survival. German parents and administrators and teachers fought to make German language and culture part of the school curriculums. In this mood of ongoing confrontation, neither side purged their ranks of those who had held positions of responsibility during Fascism and the Nazi occupation.

Steininger’s book, which is meant to offer a short introduction to the region’s history, passes over this period of paralysis fairly rapidly. However, in his much longer study, The History of the South Tyrol Question, the English academic Antony Evelyn Alcock is both exhaustive and exhausting in his documentation of the vicious circle that characterized the conflict: since the South Tyrolese had never renounced their right to self-determination, or Austria its claim to the territory, the Italians were convinced that every concession of autonomy would be used as a stepping stone toward a plebiscite and a break with Italy. Hence they would give nothing without an explicit renunciation of independence on the part of the South Tyrolese.

For their part, having received nothing from the Italians, the South Tyrolese clung ever more dearly to their “inalienable right” to self-determination, a position that laid them open to the advances of nostalgic neo-Nazis in Austria and Germany. So detailed and impartial is Alcock in his account of how the Italians repeatedly and remorselessly overruled even the most modest legislation passed at the local level by the Tyrolese that the reader will perfectly understand, without ever being invited to condone, the frustration that eventually led to terrorism by the Tyrolese. A first wave of violence began in 1956 and reached its climax on the night of June 11, 1961, when thirty-seven electricity pylons were blown up. Sixty-seven South Tyrolese were later convicted for these events, though it was clear that funding and logistical support came from Austria.

The second wave of terrorism that continued throughout the 1960s was altogether more brutal. Post offices, railways, police stations, and customs posts were targeted and fourteen people killed. However, when those responsible were identified, it turned out this time that they were almost all from Austria and Germany—not the Tyrol itself. Scandalously, Austrian courts failed to convict even self-confessed terrorists. At last able to assume the moral high ground, and with firm evidence that, despite all the extremist rhetoric, the South Tyrolese were not interested in a fight for self-determination, Italy finally began the serious negotiations that would lead to real autonomy.

Steininger insists that the Italian change of heart was the result of the installation of a more left-wing government in Italy and had nothing to do with the terrorism. Alcock, on the other hand, writes:

The only positive result to come from the terrorist onslaught, and, therefore, the most important, was the resumption of direct and meaningful contacts between the SVP [the Südtirol Volkspartei, representative of the South Tyrolese] and the Italian government.

Whatever the case may be, it seems undeniable that violence has a way of concentrating minds and that the best way to combat it is to remove any injustices that may be feeding it. Alcock’s meticulous account of the decade of negotiation that followed is remarkable for conveying the real heroism that is possible, sometimes essential, in diplomacy of this kind. Silvius Magnago, representative of the German-speaking cause throughout the negotiations, displayed the most remarkable patience and vision as he resisted the pressures of pro-German extremism on one side while dismantling the interminable obstacles set up by the Italians on the other.

In 1972 the so-called “Package” was thus signed, granting the province of Bolzano, as the South Tyrol was now called, very significant autonomy. In particular, government jobs and public housing, both still almost entirely in Italian hands, would be allocated on a quota basis. Above all, anyone taking white-collar jobs in the public sector would have to demonstrate that he was bilingual in Italian and German. This measure certainly diminished the individual rights of monolingual Italians and is still the cause of much grumbling, but it did at last give the German-speaking community a chance to come off the defensive and compete with the dominant group.


The economic revival of the South Tyrol, based largely on tourism, was now making very rapid progress. Yet the psychology of the embattled minority left its mark. In his novel Die Walsche (1982), Joseph Zoderer, the only published South Tyrolese writer of note, tells the story of a young woman, Olga, a German-speaking Tyrolese who has always insultingly been called die Walsche (the Wop) because she was the only one in her village school to do her Italian homework. Now living with an Italian partner in the town of Meran, she returns to her home valley for her father’s funeral. She is considered a traitor; people are reluctant to shake her hand. Her father is described as one who, despite a desire to travel, to escape, eventually “buried his hopes in a Tyrolese costume,” and “clung to a single concept, a word, Heimat….”

“Our land is in danger, in great danger is our land,” he would rant just like those who were asking for votes at election time…. He, as a schoolteacher, must have known that in the head of the old Ploser with his new guesthouse, expressions like “Our land is in danger” went round like Ave Maria’s learned by heart only when you had to choose between a German and an Italian politician, and the same was true of the forty or so other peasants turned hoteliers and guesthouse owners overnight, though the truth is they were demoted to doormen, reduced to sleeping with their families in boiler rooms, or cellars, or linen cupboards. “This is our land, keep the faith, steadfast in hand and heart!”

He [her father] knew that at most that Heimat was only useful for making money, that it had been sliced up with dividers into tasty chunks to sample and gobble up, into ski slopes that looked like highways, cross-country tracks and multitudes of hotels, big and small, but all designed with façades like barns. If it were up to them, they would have covered their hotel roofs with thatch to be absolutely sure to remain as they had been in the past, but so as to rake in cash in the present.

Jaundiced as Zoderer often seems, he puts his finger on the crowning irony of the South Tyrol’s recent history. Isolated culturally for almost a century, subordinating every other consideration to maintaining its language and traditions, South Tyrol eventually became even more attractive as a destination for national and international tourism when its people were finally free to invest in the necessary facilities and advertising. What does the globalized world of free travelers feel nostalgic for, if not the closed, traditional community? The more the tourists come, particularly Italian tourists, the more the locals cling to their traditions. And the more they cling to their traditions the more the tourists come. Meantime, the tragedy of Zoderer’s Olga is that, despite the official end to the conflict, she can find no satisfactory space for herself between the demands of the German-speaking community she grew up with and the incomprehension of the Italian community of her partner, Silvano:

“We are ourselves,” that was what they all wanted, even the others [the Italians] wanted to be able to say it of themselves, all of them, even Silvano’s friends asked for nothing better than this sense of belonging, and they flexed their biceps each in their own language.

Steininger ends his book with the remark that “a minority—no matter how good its economic situation is at the moment—should never forget that it is a minority….” In so doing he seems to miss the point that the tragedy of the ethnic minority is precisely the way it becomes obsessed with its collective identity at the expense of all else. What does Adelheid Rabensteiner wish for her grandchildren? That “they remain true to the South Tyrol.” To be allowed to forget, at least from time to time, that they are a minority would be the best gift autonomy could bring to the South Tyrolese.

In a more pondered conclusion, Alcock reflects on the “retreat to reality” that was involved in the settlement of the South Tyrol question and above all on the terrible stumbling block that the supposed right of “the self-determination of peoples” proved to be in the dispute. “The Charter of the United nations,” he points out,

does not define the object of that right [American Indians, Kurds, Basques?], nor does it contain a single word about the procedure through which that right could be attained, and, if necessary, enforced against a recalcitrant defendant.

It was only when the South Tyrolese accepted that they really did live and must go on living in the Italian state, and when the Italians for their part finally accepted that truly and permanently possessing the South Tyrol meant addressing the special needs of its population, that the “Package” could be worked out. This does not mean that the two communities have become any more eager to spend time together.

This Issue

May 27, 2004