Nestled in Italy’s scenic north-east, amongst the Dolomite mountain range, lies the autonomous province of Alto Adige. While such a description may encourage the intrusion of any number of stereotypically Italian images into one’s mind, thoughts of pizza, pasta and wine would be misplaced here. Südtirol is the more commonly used term, strudel and schnitzel the more commonly eaten food, and German the more commonly spoken language. For South Tyrol is an Austrian-enclave within Italy, populated predominantly by ethnic Germans and locked within a foreign land . This is the result of decades old geopolitical arrangements closely tied to the alliances made during the World Wars. As Austrian nationalism flares in the wake of the rise of the far-right Freedom Party, are tensions growing between Rome and Vienna?
Italian designs on this historically German-speaking region can be traced back to the Napoleonic Era. Napoleon, in a bid to supplant the power of the various German micro-states, divided the Tyrol region between Bavaria and the Kingdom of Italy. While the division did not last long due to Tyrol’s reunification under Austro-Hungarian administration at the Congress of Vienna, South-Tyrol’s association with the wider Italian region had been ingrained into the ideology of many Italian nationalists. The eventual unification of Italy, achieved in spite of Austro-Hungarian aggression, sparked calls for the incorporation of ‘unredeemed lands’ or Irredenta into the Kingdom of Italy. Irredenta refers to lands which Italian nationalists believed historically to be a part of a ‘greater Italy’, including lands with large Italian populations such as the Dalmatian coast and Malta, as well as ‘lost’ territories, such as South Tyrol. Italian claims over the region were exploited by the Entente powers during the First World War, when the land was promised to Rome as part of the Treaty of London, should the Italians switch allegiance in the conflict. Initially the transition was largely inconsequential, however this would change as fascism grew in Italy.
In April 1921, as part of the rising militancy in Italian nationalism, a German-cultural parade held in the regions capital, Bozen, was attacked by hundreds of armed fascists. A local teacher was shot dead during the attacks, and while the Italian Prime Minister ordered arrests, the increasingly powerful Benito Mussolini threatened to intervene on behalf of the fascists should such an order be carried out. This precipitated South Tyrol’s Italianisation, manifest in the banning of the use of German in public office, the mass closure of German schools and the encouragement of ethnic Italian immigration. Moreover, fascism began to grow as an ideology amongst native Tyrolians, who had their allegiances blurred by the increasing co-operation between Hitler’s National Socialist government (governors of Austria subsequent to the 1938 Anschluss) and Mussolini’s fascist regime. Hitler, despite justifying his invasion of Czechoslovakia as an effort to regain territories populated by ethnic German communities, displayed no particular desire for South Tyrol. Thus came the South-Tyrol Option Agreement, which encouraged Tyrolian emigration into Germany or an acceptance of the Italianisation of South Tyrol. While many Tyrolians left their homeland, the fall of Nazism precipitated the return of most.
While the end of the Second World War saw the solidification of many western European borders, the post-war settlement for Tyrol has harboured grievances which have flared up routinely ever since. The Gruber-De Gasperi Agreement saw South Tyrol remain part of Italy but with greater autonomy within the Trentino-Tyrol region. The combination of Tyrol with Trentino rendered the region an Italian majority and was seen by many as an attempt to dilute the influence of ethnic Germans within Italian politics. Moreover, government endorsed Italian migration into the area saw the ethnic German population fall from ninety percent to sixty percent between 1880 and 1960. This caused growing resentment, and throughout the 1960s a violent terrorist organisation known as the Committee for the Liberation of South Tyrol attacked Italian monuments, infrastructure and officials. Under both internal and external Austrian pressure, a second agreement was made. The agreement stipulated greater autonomy for South-Tyrol, as well as the referral of disputes in the region to The Hague. This, combined with the freedom of movement made possible by the European Union, as well as the declaration of a wider Tyrol ‘Euroregion’, saw a sharp decline in Tyrolian separatism.
The Südtirolfräge, or South Tyrol question, has been awoken in recent months by the rise of the far-right Freedom Party within Austria. The Freedom Party, who form part of the coalition government, strongly support the Tyrolian secessionist movement and unification with Austria. This has compelled Sebastian Kurz to offer some residents of the region Austrian citizenship. The decision has been praised and condemned along the same lines by opposing secessionists and Italian nationalists, who believe the door has been opened for an independence referendum. Italians see citizenship as an attempt to strengthen Austrian claims over South Tyrol and a delegitimising of their own rule. As nationalism rises within Austria, and secessionism gathers momentum in Tyrol, it seems likely that the century-old South Tyrol question will need to be answered once again in the coming years. Polls tend to indicate that a majority of ethnic Germans in South-Tyrol support secession. When the Italian and Ladin population are included, polls tend to fall short of fifty percent. The Austrian far-right are likely to stoke this simmering ethnic division, supported by the secessionist political movements, including the Freedom Party-aligned Die Freiheitlichen. After their much-maligned ambivalence towards Madrid’s brutal suppression of the push for Catalan independence, Tyrol may be the next opportunity for the European Union to prove their aptitude in dealing with the ever-increasing secessionism within the bloc.
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