The Battle for the Italianisation of Space

The Italian assimilation of South Tyrol did not only mean the transformation (or for the fascist regime rather the ‘redemption’) of the local German-speaking population into ‘true’ Italians, but also the Italianisation of the space. It thus comes with little surprise that, as shown in the public announcement pictured below, one of the first measures undertaken by the fascists consisted in prohibiting the use of the German terms Süd-Tirol, Deutschsüdtirol, Tirol, Tiroler and equivalent. The Italian appellation Alto Adige (Upper Adige, from the name of the river crossing it) was imposed instead. The main issue was not so much the language used to name the region, since, albeit only as a ‘temporary’ measure and for reasons of ‘tolerance’, the German equivalent of Alto Adige, Oberetsch,was allowed. It was rather a matter of perspective.

The imposition of the term “Alto Adige”, the temporary tolerance of the terms “Oberetsch” and “Etschländer” as well as the prohibition of the use of the names “Süd-Tirol”, “Deutschsüdtirol”, “Tirol” and “Tiroler” are highlighted in red. The document is held in Archivio Storico Diplomatico, Affari generali 1919-31, Austria, Box 835.

Imposing the name of Alto Adige meant enforcing the Italian view of the province as inherently Italian, since it visually stressed the stretching of Italian territory from South to North along the river Adige and therefore emphasised the continuity of Italian ownership of the land. At the same time, forbidding the use of the name Süd-Tirol aimed at severing any link between North and South Tyrol, thus erasing by fiat several centuries of common history of the two areas on each sides of the Alps.

The measure was consistent with fascist thinking about the region. South Tyrol was considered as being historically Italian. The German-speaking population inhabiting it was the result of the ‘wicked’ Germanisation policies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hence, German-speakers had to be brought back to their Italianness, restored to their original ethnic state. As Mussolini asserted in a speech in Parliament in May 1927:

up there [in South Tyrol] there is a minority of Italians who speak a German dialect as their language of use, and they have been speaking it only for a century…we have established the province of Bolzano in order to more quickly Italianise that region. No other policy can be adopted. This does not mean that we have to oppress the inhabitants of Alto Adige, whom we consider as Italian citizens who must rediscover themselves’.

Mussolini, B. (1963). Opera omnia: 27 maggio 1927 – 11 febbraio 1929. 23: Dal discorso dell’Ascensione agli Accordi del Laterano (2a ristampa). Firenze: La Fenice.
Above in red are the total number of hectares (8,933) and farmsteads (325) acquired by the Ente per le Tre Venezie. These were later attributed to 245 families (also in red). The document is to be found in Archivio Centrale dello Stato (ACS), PCM, Gabinetto, 1940-43, Ente Tre Venezie, CMCI, Box 2940, folder 3-1-1.

The Italianisation of the space also meant the conquest of the land. Although they were reluctant to admit it in public, in the early 1930s, fascist authorities began doubting the effectiveness of their assimilative policies, until then mainly pursued through educational policies. The transfer of land from owners of different ethnic origin (called allogeni in Italian) to ethnic-Italians therefore became, at least on paper, a government priority. To this effect, in August 1931, the government founded the Ente di Rinascita Agraria delle Tre Venezie, a body in charge of purchasing land from non-Italian-speaking owners to resell it to ‘true’ Italians. Yet, land acquisition was not very successful. A note to the Duce of October 1938, pictured below, summarised the results of the Ente’s work up to that date in 8,933 hectares of land, transferred to 245 families. That accounted for only 0.6% of the productive agricultural surface of the new provinces. As a comparison, by the end of the 1930s, the redemption of the Agro Pontino in Lazio, the main land redemption project managed by the CMCI, created 2,953 farmhouses and 64,666 hectares of farm parcels.

As shown in the text highlighted in red, the ONC’s Director in charge of the Castel Di Nova-Merano firm asked the management in Rome whether they could ‘look for a local family of allogeni‘ or whether the family to which the farm would be allocated had to come from the old provinces. The document is located in ACS, ONC, Servizio Agrario, Alto Adige, coloni, Box 10, coloni, disdette coloniche 

The Italian authorities had a hard time competing with local landowners and buyers, who were often supported by foreign German capitals. Furthermore, South Tyrolean farms were more capital-intensive than those elsewhere in Italy. Therefore, not only were they more expensive than the Italian average, but they also required specific skills that were hard to find in the old provinces. In addition, some of them were high-mountain farms that provided low margins and required being accustomed to the very harsh environmental conditions. Hence, it was not always easy to find settlers willing to run those farms, so much so that (as shown in the document below), in July 1938, the Bolzano branch of the Opera Nazionale Combattenti (ONC, a fascist organisation of former combatants that was running some farms in the area) asked the leadership in Rome whether they could give one of their high-mountain holdings to a family of non-Italian ethnic origins, which ran totally counter to the goals of the ONC’s farming scheme. Predictably, the answer was negative. The request is one of the many examples showing how the fascist assumption whereby the minorities in the new provinces will be easily assimilated was simply mistaken.

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