Südtirol or Alto Adige: Is It Italy Or Not?
[Regions of Italy]

When the American tourist industry speaks of "northern Italy," it is basically referring to Tuscany. But when Italians mention "the north," they are thinking of the region that occupies the "cuff" of the boot: Lombardy, Piedmont, the Veneto, Val D'Aosta, Friuli Venezia-Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige. Many foreigners traveling in the latter three regions may be stunned to find themselves in an area which doesn't seem to be Italy at all. In Trentino-Slto Adige, signs are written in two or even three languages, wurstel is more common than lasagna, while folk costumes and music are more reminiscent of a Munich beer hall than of any self-respecting piazza. As obvious as these indications are, they are but the tip of the iceberg in Alto Adige and, to a lesser degree, in Trentino, two halves of an autonomous region that lies just south of Austria, reached via one of the most picturesque mountain passes in the universe, Il Brennero.


It has often been said that one cannot understand the first thing about these provinces without a firm grasp of their history. Experts have filled many a book with the fascinating vicissitudes of local politics from as long ago as 3000 BC, when man first developed metals and began hauling copious amounts of copper, then bronze and then iron out of these wonderful mountains. Much has been written about their crucial strategic importance to the Romans, who in the 1st to 3rd centuries AD invested a considerable amount of time, money and lives to establish a safe route across the Alps here. But for our purposes of understanding the modern make-up of Trentino-Alto Adige, perhaps the most important date to remember is 798, when Charlemagne united the region under one ruler and integrated it into the Bavarian religious province, whose seat was then in Salzburg. Almost uninterruptedly since that date, this part of the Alps has been considered German, alternately a bishopric, province, state, fiefdom, duchy or territory called Tyrol and later, Südtirol. For most of the ensuing 1100 years, the capital city was Innsbruck. For many centuries the region stretched eastward all the way to what is now Slovenia. Almost never during all those years was this considered a part of any realm that later came to be included in the present state of Italy.

Südtirol entered our own century as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which attacked Serbia after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated there in 1914. As subjects of the realm, all able-bodied Tyrolean men were conscripted and sent off to the front, where they were decimated. When the Allied Forces defeated Austria and Germany in 1918, the Tyrol was split in half and Italy's borders were extended all the way to the Brenner Pass - an intolerable humiliation for the proud German inhabitants of Trentino-Alto Adige.
The situation deteriorated badly a few years later, when the Fascists took over in Rome and Mussolini began to systematically purge his country of all foreign "impurities." If he had time to make sure, for instance, that The St. Louis Blues was always referred to as L'Azzurro di San Luigi, you can imagine how he felt about being ruler of an entire province whose towns, rivers, valleys and oh-so-important mountain passes bore names like Bozen, Franzensfeste, Vinschgau, Brixen, Puster, and VahmerSee. All these centuries-old appellations were swiftly changed to Italian equivalents, German lessons were forbidden in the schools, every Christian name was converted, even the very word Südtirol was outlawed and transformed into "Alto Adige," referring to the northern reaches of an Italian river.

Il Duce soon found out that you can force Johann to call himself Giovanni, but you can't make him be Giovanni. It seemed the only way to fill the province with Italians was to move them there, lock, stock and, if need be, with gun barrel. This was accomplished by building more local branches of large industries than the work force could operate. Thousands of "thoroughbred" Italian employees flocked to the area, thus changing its ethnic makeup for the first time in over a millennium. When Nazi Germany opened its borders to all Südtirolers who wished to emigrate, at least 75,000 of them made it before the war lowered the gates across the frontiers.

At the conclusion of World War Two, the Treaty of Paris granted Südtirol a unique form of autonomy, protected by both Italy and Austria. This status continues today, but it was subtly modified in 1948, when the assembly that drafted Italy's first constitution included Trentino within the autonomous region's borders. Given the number of people who had emigrated to Germany, the Italians who had immigrated to Südtirol and the predominantly Italian population of Trentino, the German-speaking people of Trentino-Alto Adige suddenly found themselves a decided minority. To make matters demographically worse, most of those who had remained were isolated rural farmers. The cities and large towns were populated by Mussolini's factory workers and their offspring. Fearing that they would be eradicated altogether, the ethnic Germans asked first Rome, then Vienna, to safeguard their heritage. Austria pleaded their case before the United Nations, which ordered the two countries to come to some sort of negotiated agreement.

Over the next decade, what may seem today to be a bucolic mountain outpost was tormented by constant ethnic unrest. Bombing attacks took 19 lives and injured countless others until 1969, when legislation was passed to protect the German minority. Perhaps the most controversial measure was the quota system which states that public employees must be hired in proportion to the province's ethnic makeup, which is about 65% German, 30% Italian and 5% Ladino. The ironic outcome is that over the last two decades it is the Italians who have come increasingly to feel like a mistreated minority within their own borders. Today there is a strong separatist movement in Trentino-Alto Adige, which has led the Germans to stand their ground even more firmly, so that, for instance, they will often pretend not to speak Italian when addressed by the many, many foreign visitors who flock here each year to enjoy some of the finest - and best organized - skiing, hiking, fishing, winetasting, castle-gazing and village-appraising in the world.
by Kristin Jarratt



[Regions of Italy]