Fascism, Minorities and Ambivalence

An article of the MoH Team in The Historical Journal

Source: Christoph von Hartungen, Fabrizio Miori, and Tiziano Rosani, eds., Le lettere aperte 1939–1943: L’Alto Adige delle opzioni (2 vols., Bolzano, 2006).

You have probably never heard of the 1939 Option Agreement between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Yet the agreement was the first population transfer agreement in western Europe. Emmanuel and Alessandro have decided to take a new look at this neglected event of interwar European history from the perspective of how the fascist regime conceived minorities and their assimilation in Italy.

Studying the 1939 Option Agreement offers a unique opportunity to shift the focus of the historiography on interwar minority questions from eastern to western Europe, thus challenging the lingering view of eastern Europe as a land of endemic ethnic heterogeneity and conflict. Furthermore, the 1939 Option illuminates a form of ‘consistent ambivalence’ that problematises dominant analytical frameworks concerning the management of ethnic differences. Indeed, Italian fascists consistently affirmed the inevitable assimilation, and therefore inclusion, of minorities within the Italian nation. At the same time, they also deeply distrusted the allogeni (the fascist term to refer to people considered as Italian citizens of non-Italian ethnic origin). This ambivalent attitude reached a climax in the 1939 Option. Hence in order to understand fascist behaviour during the implementation of the agreement, Emmanuel and Alessandro argues that we need to consider the longer history of fascist attempts to homogenise the new provinces since the onset of the dictatorship.

Three features structured these attempts: a belief that the assimilation of these minorities would be inevitable; the absence of means to carry out radical solutions; and a deep-seated distrust of the minorities. Fascist policy during the Option was simultaneously more ambivalent than the current historiography suggests and more consistent with the regime’s interwar homogenisation policies. The fascists, in wanting to include the populations living in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, believed that the minorities’ assimilation to the Italian nation was inevitable. However, the regime could not fully overcome its deeply rooted mistrust of the allogeni. Whereas assimilation was the declared and desired goal of Italian authorities, their distrust of the minorities living in the new provinces placed the latter in a liminal state of simultaneous forceful inclusion and latent segregation. Despite being coerced to adopt the cultural script of the majority, the allogeni were marginalised in a way that finds little echo in existing analytical frameworks on the management of ethnic differences.

Although the regime was not monolithic and there were disagreements between fascist officers about the approach to follow in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, the consistent ambivalence examined in this article reveals a patterned behaviour that was prevalent throughout the interwar period. In broader terms, the article challenges the traditional eastern European focus of the literature on the League of Nations, self-determination, and the rise of minority questions after the First World War. It shows that state authorities in the supposedly homogeneous and ‘civilised’ West did face minority questions and adopted harsh homogenising policies that, however, did not produce the expected results.

The article is available in open access at https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X23000158.

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