Victims of Their Own Rhetoric

Or how fascist authorities thought about and treated minorities in Italy.

A picture of the participants in the 2021 Pierre du Bois Conference.
A picture of the participants in the conference.

As conferences are back, Emmanuel took part in the Pierre du Bois Annual Conference, organised by Professor Michael Goebel at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, on 26-27 August 2021. Under the title Political Proteus: Nationalism’s Entangled Histories, the conference explored the global history of nationalism at a time of renewed interest in the topic and salience in current affairs.

Emmanuel presented a paper co-authored with Alessandro entitled Victims of their own Rhetoric: The 1939 Option Agreement and the Consistent Ambivalence of Fascist Homogenisation Policy in the Italian New Provinces. The paper provides a re-reading of the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany in light of about two decades of fascist attempts at homogenising the border regions of South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia. It argues that although the behaviour of fascist authorities in the crucial months when 1939 drew to a close were ambivalent indeed, as many authors have already pointed out, that ambivalence was very much in line with the pattern followed by the regime throughout the interwar period. It thus concludes that such ‘consistent ambivalence’ was a key feature of fascist policy in the new provinces (as South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were called at the time) and explains the bizarre behaviour of Italian officers in the second half of 1939.

As fascist Italy and Nazi Germany drew closer in the late 1930s, the Anschluss realised the Italian nightmare of a Greater Germany at its doors and Italian attempts to assimilate the population of South Tyrol continued to be disappointing (from the fascist perspective), finding a diplomatic solution to the question of South Tyrol grew ever more important. By mid-1939, the two countries came to an agreement whereby the population of the region would have to decide whether it wanted to remain in Italy or adopt German nationality and move north of the Brenner border. The Option Agreement, as it was called, was a strange hybrid between an option procedure, a plebiscite and a population transfer. It also created serious dilemmas for the two countries. Should they push for the transfer of all South Tyroleans or for as few as possible? The Nazi government needed men for the war effort. It was thus clearly in favour of a clean sweep solution. The Italian position was much more nuanced: while some were in favour of a total resettlement, many within the regime, especially at the local level were not. Furthermore, the Italian behaviour does not suggest a support for radical options. Nazi officers immediately began to spread propaganda in favour of resettlement (or to scare those South Tyroleans who wanted to stay, which actually were a majority). Italian authorities, in contrast, first remained silent. Then, when they realised that most people were inclined to vote for Germany, they tried to convince locals to stay. However, their propaganda was hampered by the strictures that their previous rhetoric and their fundamental distrust of the South Tyroleans imposed to their discourses.

The paper argues that this ambivalent approach was surprisingly consistent with fascist thinking about and treatment of Italy’s minorities. The ambivalence at the core of fascist policy in the new provinces stemmed from the combination of a naive belief that assimilation was inevitable – that the German-speakers of South Tyrol and the Slovenian and Croatian speakers of Venezia Giulia could not but assimilate to the great Italian civilisation – and a profound mistrust of the allogeni (as members of these two minorities were called at the time). Hence, the allogeni were simultaneously included by force in the Italian nation and marginalised in a liminal state of latent segregation.

The paper received positive comments and led to an interesting discussion about the differences between South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, the precedent of the option procedure and the difficulties of co-writing an article.

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