There are many arbitrarily drawn borders in the world, none more so than the one on the Brenner Pass (4,500 ft) between Austria and Italy. As you drive south along the Brenner Autobahn, the Alpine landscape does not change. Only the bilingual signposts indicate that you have crossed from Austria into Italy. Most people speak German, and all local stations you scan on the car radio seem German. The architecture and village layouts are identical to the Austrian Tyrol and visibly distinct from the rest of Italy.
The border on the Brenner, only 24 miles south of Innsbruck, was fixed in 1919 by the Treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye, which awarded Italy its prize for entering the war on the side of the Entente in May 1915. The secret Treaty of London (April 1915) stipulated that Italy “shall obtain the Trentino, Cisalpine Tyrol with its geographical and natural frontier (the Brenner frontier).” For the preceding 550 years, thanks to a felicitous family inheritance, today’s South Tyrol had been an integral part of the Habsburg Empire until its disintegration in November 1918.
One month after he announced his Fourteen Points on Jan. 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson stated: “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self determination’ is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.” In clear violation of this principle, Italy was awarded South Tyrol (called Alto Adige in Italian), in which almost 90 percent of natives were German speakers, none of whom wanted to be ruled from Rome. Their share has dropped to just under two-thirds since then, yet to this day, of 116 South Tyrolean municipalities, 103 have a German-speaking, eight are majority Ladin speaking, and just five have an Italian-speaking majority.
The circumstances were different, but the substance of the imposition of the Brenner frontier was the same as the arbitrary decision of the Secretary-General of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, to transfer Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. This was done, of course, regardless of the will of its then-90 percent Russian majority. In both cases, the capricious redrawing of frontiers—based purely on political calculations—violated history and the most basic rights of the people thus affected.
There is a difference, of course, and it is twofold. Unlike today’s Ukraine, Italy is, on the whole, a well-ordered country with a civilized government. It has long come to terms with the existence of a large German-speaking community as a permanent fixture, granting it autonomous rights forty years ago, guaranteed by international treaties. In addition, unlike Austria after 1918, Russia is a big and powerful country that was able to act in a resolute manner to protect its co-nationals from the putschist regime in Kiev in 2014. But the road to South Tyrol’s current stability and prosperity has been long and turbulent.
For the people of South Tyrol, a long period of repression began soon after the signing of the peace treaty in 1919. The Kingdom of Italy started enforcing the Italianization of the Alpine region almost immediately. After Mussolini came to power in 1922, the fascist regime entrusted South Tyrol’s integration into Italy to Ettore Tolomei, a well-known ultranationalist amateur-historian and anthropologist. He changed the names of some 8,000 towns, villages and toponyms. Italian was made the only official language. His program in 32 points, publicly presented in July 1923, included a prohibition of the very name “Tyrol” or any derivation (e.g., “Tyrolean”) even when attached to traditional products such as salami. All violations, however trivial, were punished with a month in prison. All public signs in German were banned, and German family names were Italianized in official documents. In September 1925, Italian became the sole permissible language in law courts. The fascist-era regulations remained in effect after 1945, which caused tremendous resentment. They were rescinded only decades later.
In October 1923, just three months after Tolomei presented his program, German was banned as a language of school instruction. Elementary education in German was abolished, which affected some 30,000 children in 324 schools. Tyrolean teachers were fired, and Italian replacements were brought from the south. One result was the spontaneous emergence of the “catacomb schools.” A secret school network was developed where men and women taught children German in attics, cellars and barns. The teachers would be jailed or exiled to southern Italy if caught. At that time, the Catholic Church remained the only sponsor of German language and culture: following the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the Italian state and the Vatican, at least religious instruction—albeit only on church premises—could be carried out in German.
The mass immigration of Italians was another tool of social engineering. In 1910 there were 7,000 Italians in South Tyrol. As early as 1921, the number rose to 20,300; in 1939, there were 80,000—as opposed to 234,650 native South Tyroleans. In the city of Bolzano, the provincial capital, the number of Italians rose from 1,600 in 1910 to 75,000 today.
Austria was powerless after 1918, but many South Tyroleans hoped for help from Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933 under the slogan “one people, one state, one leader.” The clandestine, pro-Nazi Völkische Kampfring Südtirol (VKS) came into being, and when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, most South Tyrolers rejoiced, expecting that with the Wehrmacht on the Brenner, the day of deliverance was nigh.
Hitler was determined to cultivate the Berlin-Rome Axis, however, even if this entailed giving up on the German-speaking people of South Tyrol. On May 7, 1938, in Rome, Hitler reiterated that it was his “unshakable will and legacy to the German people . to consider the Alpine border set up by nature [i.e., the Brenner] as an inviolable one.” A year later, in June 1939, Germany and Italy essentially agreed on the mass relocation of most South Tyrolers. They could opt for German citizenship until Dec. 31, 1939, and relocate to the Reich, or they could maintain Italian citizenship and be willing to lose their identity, language and culture.
The dilemma inevitably caused deep fissures. The worst chapter in the history of South Tyrol was written by the South Tyrolers themselves. The overwhelming majority (86 percent) opted to move to Germany, but only 75,000 had done so by the time Germany’s “total war” effectively brought the program to an end in 1941. Most of those 75,000 returned to their old homes after the war. Those who opted to remain in Italy were treated with scorn and even hatred by their neighbors. As Friedl Volgger, one of the most influential South Tyrolean politicians, put it in his memories: “The status of the Jews in the Third Reich can be compared to the status of the remainer South Tyrolers [who opted for Italy] in the eyes of their fanatized compatriots.”
The fall of Mussolini and the occupation of South Tyrol and northern Italy by German troops in September 1943 was perceived by the vast majority of South Tyrolers as liberation, pure and simple. The hoped-for annexation by the Reich did not happen, however. Mussolini was reinstated as the leader of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana headquartered at Salò on Lake Garda. The Fascist republic was a sham, but even at this late stage, Hitler did not want to add insult to the Duce’s many injuries by formally taking Alto Adige from his nominal domain.
On May 3, 1945, the Italian Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN) took over the administration of South Tyrol. On the same day, Carabinieri hoisted the Italian flag on the Brenner. Italy was back. Austria was an occupied country whose people had sided, overwhelmingly, with the Reich until the bitter end. (The myth of “the first victim of Nazi aggression” would be invented decades later.)
On the other hand, Italy sided with the Allies—however ineffectively—for the last 20 months of the war. Nevertheless, it lost Istria, Fiume, Zara, the Dodecanese Islands and all its African possessions, which made postwar Italy all the more determined to hold on to its sole remaining major gain from the Great War in which 600,000 Italian men died. From the point of view of the veterans of the Isonzo and Caporetto, 1918 brought a mutilated victory—and 1945 made the sacrifices of the previous generation seem all the more tragically futile. This is why it had taken the Italian Republic one whole generation to give up on the legacy of oppression of South Tyrol’s German speakers and grant the province a wide measure of autonomy.
Today South Tyrol is one of the richest regions in Europe and the richest in Italy by far, with over $40,000 per capita GDP. There is no unemployment, and it has the lowest crime rate in the country. Despite 104 years of separation from Austria, the South Tyrolers speak their language, maintain their culture and pursue their habits. Bozen/Bolzano has been permanently Italianized, but the villages remain Tyrolean. The third largest city, the breathtakingly lovely Brixen, looks and feels like it could be found anywhere between Bregenz and Klagenfurt. There are no major social tensions; serious ethnically based incidents have been virtually unknown for years, which is remarkable for a mixed community with a long history of mutual grievances.
Accepting some aspects of the Italian culture and way of life is now acknowledged by many South Tyrolers not only as a necessity but also as something of an advantage over their consanguine cousins north of the Brenner. They have become more relaxed, more attuned to the Cisalpine sense of humor and irony, more savvy when it comes to gastronomy, and more aware of the need to cut una bella figura in public. This is no mean feat for what is still, in essence, a branch of the German national tree.