On the anniversary of Mussolini’s seizure of power, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss a century of inter-ethnic relations in the Italian borderlands
Vito Timmel, “L’incendio del Balkan” (1941, Rivoltella Museum, Trieste)
At the end of October 1922, King Vittorio Emanuele III offered Benito Mussolini the task to form a new executive. In the previous days, the fascists camicie nere had seized control of several towns in northern and central Italy and threatened the government led by the liberal Luigi Facta to move the assault to Rome if this did not cede power to the National Fascist Party. The details of these events are well-known and have been studied extensively. What is less known however is that at the beginning of October 1922, the fascists had used the same tactics to take over the northern Italian city of Bolzano in what some fascists later defined as a kind of general rehearsal for the planned occupation of the capital.
At first sight Bolzano was an outlier in the series of urban attacks carried out by the fascists in the early 1920s. Indeed the black shirts usually targeted municipalities led by Socialist administrations. By contrast, a coalition of Liberal and Catholics ruled Bolzano. Yet Bolzano was not a random choice. Most of the city’s inhabitants were German speakers and the city was the main urban centre of South Tyrol, a territory that Italy annexed at the end of the First World War along with the mostly Italian-speaking Trentino. South Tyrol was also overwhelmingly German-speaking and several local parties and organisations had repeatedly opposed annexation asking that the local population be given the opportunity to have a say about its future. Post-war Italian liberal governments had rejected these calls, but had guaranteed the preservation of Austro-Hungarian legislation in the area, promised to respect minority rights and begun negotiations for regional autonomy. To the Fascist Party this sounded like a betrayal of the sacrifice of the Italian soldiers who had died in order to conquer an area that – the fascists believed – was ‘inherently’ Italian and had been Germanised by the Habsburg Empire. The March on Bolzano was an attempt to force the Italianisation of the city, as well as a test of the liberal elite’s commitment to respecting minority rights.
Taking advantage of the 100th anniversary of both the March on Rome and Bolzano, in a recent paper published by the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Current History, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss fascist policies in the new provinces annexed at the end of the Great War – South Tyrol as well as Venezia Giulia – and the impact of the fascist attempts to Italianise the populations living in these borderlands on the rest of the 20th century, most notably on relations with the neighbouring countries of Austria and Yugoslavia (today Slovenia), as well as with Germany. The paper also examines the contradictions of the fascist approach to minorities. It argues that fascist thinking about the allogeni – the fascist term to identify Italians of non-Italian origins – and policy in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were informed by a form of ‘consistent ambivalence’ whereby fascists authorities were torn between the naif belief that the assimilation of the allogeni was inevitable and a deep-seated distrust of them, since they were deemed to be inherently disloyal citizens.
Yet 2022 marks another important anniversary: the 50 years since the signing of the second statute of autonomy of Trentino-South Tyrol which ushered in a period of stabilisation in majority-minority relations in the area. This statute of autonomy turned South Tyrol from a hotspot of nationalist conflict to an oft-cited success story of minority recognition and cross-border cooperation in Europe. To account for that, the paper goes beyond the interwar period and details the considerable, although hard-won, advances in minority rights and conflict management achieved in the second half of the 20th century.
The full paper is available here.