South Tyrol: Minority Identities beyond Linguistic Divisions

Photo by Patrick Utz

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the tenth post of its “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Patrick Utz (University of Edinburgh), examines the fluid identities of German-speakers in South Tyrol in the 20th and 21st century.

South Tyrol or Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost province. Mainly populated by German-speakers, the province became part of Italy after the breakup of Austria-Hungary in 1919. Today, far-reaching autonomous competencies and a mandatory power-sharing system includes both German and Italian-speakers. This has assured the peaceful cohabitation of the province’s diverse population. But while contemporary institutions are modelled around linguistic identities, South Tyrol has always been shaped by a multitude of overlapping and frequently ambiguous allegiances. Unpacking this complexity allows for important insights beyond South Tyrol: it sheds new light on how national minorities relate to culturally akin, neighbouring countries without raising fears of historical revanchism and irredentism.

Traditionalist regionalism

When South Tyrol became part of Italy, regional identities tended to be stronger than the linguistic-nationalist divisions that surfaced later in the twentieth century. Allegiances lay with the former Habsburg Crownland of Tyrol that included German-speakers and Italian-speakers between the river Inn in the North and the Lake Garda in the South. This identity built on Catholic conservativism and the collective memory of the resistance against Napoleonic troops in this mainly agrarian region. Clearly, these tenets were at odds with the liberal ideas that inspired the Risorgimento and shaped the Italian state into which South Tyrol was incorporated.

This alienation was not exclusive to the German-speaking minority that found itself in a new nation-state. It was shared by many Italian-speaking Tyroleans in what is now the Province of Trento. Indeed, Trento’s Catholic tradition would become influential within Italy’s powerful Christian democratic movement after 1945. Additionally, in the Austrian part of Tyrol, notions of the wider multilingual region never entirely faded. North Tyrol’s main university, for instance, has continued to offer Italian-language courses and hosts a faculty of Italian law.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, increasingly aggressive forms of nationalism on both sides of the linguistic divide superseded patterns of pre-modern, regional identification.

Nationalist excesses and their remnants

National identities based on linguistic differences had taken shape over the course of the nineteenth century but were exacerbated with the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy. While the Italian Fascists aimed to forcefully assimilate German-speaking South Tyroleans, many among the latter hoped for South Tyrol to be incorporated into Hitler’s Reich. As part of their political rapprochement in the 1930s, the Italian and German regimes sought to resolve the issue of South Tyrol through population resettlement. German-speakers should decide whether they wanted to stay in South Tyrol, with the prospect of being forcefully assimilated; or whether they wanted to be resettled to the Reich. The plebiscite on resettlement deeply dived Italy’s German-speaking minority. The two sides accused each other of betraying their German national heritage or their Tyrolean homeland, respectively.

Large-scale resettlement never materialized amidst the devastation of the Second World War. Yet, the plans to do so revealed the deep-seated tension between those South Tyroleans who subscribed to German nationalism; and those, who maintained a regional identity where local allegiances trumped linguistic divisions.

After the Second World War, South Tyrol’s political elites aimed to reconcile these two camps within a common political structure for the whole German-speaking minority. This led to the creation of the South Tyrolean People’s Party (Südtiroler Volkspartei, SVP) in 1945. The SVP was highly successful in bringing together the different segments of the German-speaking minority and obtained over 90 percent of German-speakers’ votes. Yet, the defining characteristics of the minority remained contested. One wing considered the German-speaking South Tyroleans to be a linguistic-cultural group within the wider region of Tyrol that was now split between Austria and Italy. The other wing emphasized South Tyroleans’ membership within a larger German nation.

None of the resulting political aspirations put forth by either wing could feasibly be pursued in South Tyrol’s post-war environment. The aggressive nationalisms had irreversibly politicized the linguistic differences in South Tyrol. Thus, multilingual regionalism was no longer an option. At the same time, Western Europe’s emerging security structure solidified state borders and discredited all forms of pan-Germanism, which precluded the option of secession.

Re-interpreting regionalism

The SVP’s compromise was to demand autonomy for German-speakers within the Italian state, and a neat separation of South Tyrol’s language groups in public institutions. The reinstated Republic of Austria and the Austrian Tyrol were crucial in supporting this cause, despite Austria’s eagerness to differentiate itself from its own infamous German nationalist heritage.

The SVP and Austria’s negotiations with the Italian government succeeded in 1969. Since then, robust mechanisms for territorial autonomy and minority self-government have gradually been put in place.  The autonomous institutions have substantially contributed to South Tyrol’s political stability and economic success. This has turned the institutions themselves into a reference point for collective identification. In 2014, more than 80 percent of German-speakers in the province identified as “South Tyroleans”. Allegiances with pan-Germanic and wider Tyrolean identities have markedly weakened.

At the same time, new forms of regionalism are allowing for a patchwork of identities that straddle linguistic and political borders. Oftentimes the resulting identities combine reinterpretations of historic elements with newly emerging allegiances. The SVP, for example, has become more vocal in portraying Austria as South Tyrol’s “motherland”. This stands in sharp contrast to the party’s previous commitments to the broader German cultural heritage. Simultaneously, the party promotes a “European Region of Tyrol” as part of the European Union’s cross-border initiatives. This embryonic entity resembles the historic Crownland of Tyrol and includes Italian and Germanic-dominated regions. Voters, too, have shown appetite for more political diversity. Votes still tend to be overwhelmingly cast to candidates from one’s own linguistic group. Yet, the once hegemonic conservative SVP now is in fierce competition with liberals, Greens and the populist right; with each challenger presenting their own vision of a South Tyrolean identity.

Conclusion

South Tyrol’s autonomous institutions may correctly be commended as “one of the most successful cases of consociational conflict regulation in the world”. The reasons for their success lie as much in their institutional design as they do in the complex and multi-layered identities of the province’s population. The nationalist excesses of the twentieth century have essentialized individual traits of these identities (in this case, language). However, the recognition of multiple, simultaneously held allegiances can dilute national antagonisms. The future success of South Tyrol’s institutions and of those with the aim to replicate its model depends on giving voice to this diversity.

Sources

Alber, Elisabeth, and Carolin Zwilling. “Continuity and Change in South Tyrol’s Ethnic Governance.” In Autonomy Arrangements around the World: A Collection of Well and Lesser Known Cases, edited by Levente Salat, Sergiu Constantin, Alexander Osipov and István Gergő Székely, 33-66. Cluj-Napoca: Editura Institutului pentru Studierea Problemelor Minorităţilor Naţionale, 2014.

Carlà, Andrea. “Peace in South Tyrol and the Limits of Consociationalism.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 24, no. 3 (2018): 251-75.

Grote, Georg. The South Tyrol Question, 1866–2010: From National Rage to Regional State. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012.

Pallaver, Günther. “The Südtiroler Volkspartei: Success through Conflict, Failure through Consensus.” In Regionalist Parties in Western Europe: Dimensions of Success, edited by Oscar Mazzoleni and Sean Mueller, 107-34. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Steurer, Leopold. “Südtirol 1918-1945.” In Handbuch Zu Neueren Geschichte Tirols. Band 2: Zeitgeschichte. 1. Teil: Politische Geschichte, 179-312. Innsbruck: Universitätsverlag Wagner, 1993.

Patrick Utz is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on minority nationalism, irredentism and kin-state politics. It has been published in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics.

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information, please visit:

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information, please visit:

https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

https://www.centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk/

Some Thoughts on the Origins of the Post-WWI Minorities Regime

We are proud to publish here the first post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Laura Robson (Portland State University), provides some considerations on the origin, nature and purpose of the Minorities Regime established by the Great Powers at the end of the First World War. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

The treaties of Versailles, Sèvres, San Remo, and Lausanne are sometimes conceived as the beginnings of a new kind of international rights regime, prefiguring the legal edifice of “human rights” that began to emerge after 1945 and eventually became a central aspect of Cold War internationalism. And indeed, the treaty arrangements of the postwar period did collectively produce a new language of international diplomacy that replaced a nineteenth century imperial discourse of “civilization” and “race” with a twentieth century discourse of rights: in particular, the rights of minorities, which came to stand as a representation of a new and theoretically more politically equitable global order. But this rhetoric did not actually signal the birth of a new political system. It served instead as a kind of code, intended to veil the old-fashioned militarism of this new form of extractive empire and to put in place procedures for reinforcing, without acknowledging, the racial hierarchies that underlay the system’s careful differentiation of sovereign rights across the globe. In other words, the peace agreements of 1919-1923 represented an attempt to appropriate an emerging language of national rights, and especially minority rights, for the purpose of maintaining an older imperial order. 

In 1919, the architects of the peace agreements who came together at Versailles faced a fundamental problem. They had spent the last four years fighting a war that was essentially in defense of more or less permanent imperial expansion, but whose trajectory had inadvertently led to a considerable strengthening of anti-imperialism across the globe – particularly in the Bolshevik sphere, where Lenin was making declarations of withdrawal from Russia’s imperial commitments as a way of winning adherents to his cause. So the question for the peacemakers – particularly representatives of Britain and France, who were absolutely determined to make their brutal four years pay dividends – was how to reconcile the anti-colonial feeling of the day with their undiminished imperial ambitions. Facing this difficulty, the political and diplomatic leaders of the old “Great Powers” began envisioning a new global order comprised of self-consciously modern, theoretically sovereign states under the continued economic and political authority of the old imperial powers.

The first “rights” frameworks to emerge were the multiple minorities treaties signed with the new states emerging out of the shatterzones of the Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires. All modeled after the first treaty signed with Poland at Versailles in 1919, they called for equal rights for all citizens, the free exercise of religion and cultural practice, and some mechanisms for protecting cultural distinctiveness. Though they agreed on little else, representatives of the United States, France, and Britain all concurred that the League must not guarantee universal protections for minorities that would apply in their own metropoles; and so the treaties were limited to the “new or immature states of Eastern Europe or Western Asia” – thereby deliberately enshrining the idea that minority communities represented a legitimate site of external intervention into the affairs of theoretically sovereign but less “civilized” nations.[1] In other words, they deployed the emerging concept of minority as a new legitimization of an old practice: Great Power political, economic, and military intervention in the Balkans and beyond.[2]

Simultaneously and relatedly, the Allied architects of the peace treaties declared that the post-war project of drawing new maps would reflect national interests – thus hopefully appeasing nationalist sentiment while reserving the right to construct new states in ways that would support ongoing imperial ambitions. Arguments over the shape and demographic makeup of Poland, Hungary, and Romania – among many others – were cloaked in a rights-based language about self-determination and nationhood, but actually represented Allied efforts to isolate Germany and construct a cordon sanitaire between themselves and the Bolsheviks.[3] In the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, this imperially sponsored construction of nationality was taken to a new level. Lausanne formalized what was euphemistically called a “population exchange” between the new revolutionary Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal and Eleftherios Venizelos’ Greek administration, forcibly denationalizing approximately 1.2 million Anatolian “Greeks” and 350,000 Muslim “Turks” under the aegis of the League of Nations. This 1923 exchange confirmed the post-war Allied commitment to deploying a language of “national rights” and minority protection to support the political and, especially, economic interests of their own empires. Fridtjof Nansen expressed the combination of these criteria precisely in a statement to the Commission in 1922, saying that the “Great Powers” supported the exchange because “to unmix the populations of the Near East … is the quickest and most efficacious way of dealing with the grave economic results [of the war].”[4]

In other words, the appearance of a new discourse of minority rights – and its corollary, minority “exchange” – in the post-WWI treaties was almost entirely instrumentalist. Its primary rationale was not to protect minorities in Eastern Europe or the Ottoman sphere but to smooth the path for imperial powers to create new forms of informal authority and friendly client states for a new postcolonial era. As Mark Sykes – co-author of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – wrote during the 1919 peace conference, “Imperialism, annexation, military triumph, prestige, White man’s burdens, have been expunged from the popular political vocabulary, consequently Protectorates, spheres of interest or influence, annexations, bases etc., have to be consigned to the Diplomatic lumber-room.”[5] Luckily, it seemed, the rhetoric of national – and especially minority – rights that was gaining such currency around the globe would substitute nicely.

Laura Robson is Professor of history at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent books are States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East(University of California Press, 2017) and the edited volume Partitions: A Transnational History of 20th Century Territorial Separatism (with Arie Dubnov; Stanford University Press, 2019).

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

[2] And fitting into a much longer practice of international diplomacy that sought to formalize relations among the “three elements of the international legal order” identified by legal historian Nathaniel Berman: “(1) a substantively grounded international community … ; (2) sovereigns, whose ‘potency’ and ‘serenity’ are periodically reimagined; (3) those viewed as not full participants in the community of sovereigns, those ‘Vassals, Subjects, People.’ ” See Nathaniel Berman, Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law (Leiden: Nijhoff Publishers, 2012), 58.

[3] Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, The Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 119.

[4] Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers, Turkey No. 1 (1923) Lausanne Conference on Near Eastern Affairs, 1922-1923 (Cmd. 1814) (London: HMSO, 1923), 117.

[5] Sykes, “Our Position in Mesopotamia in Relation to the Spirit of the Age,” FO 800/22. The full document is also reprinted in Helmut Mejcher, The Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928 (London: Middle East Centre, St. Antony’s College, 1976), appendix 2.