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.

Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives

A series of blog posts in partnership with H-Nationalism

iStock image

The Catalan independence row, the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Burma, persistent problems for North-American indigenous communities to defend their lands, and violence against people of Baha’is religion in Yemen, all these and other similar situations bear witness to the still strained relationship between majorities and minorities in the contemporary world.

On the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty, H-Nationalism and the Myth of Homogeneity Project organise a series of blog posts entitled ‘Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives’ that aims to examine the issue of minorities from a varied disciplinary, geographical and chronological perspective.

The Versailles Treaty is widely deemed to have enshrined self-determination as one of the main principles of political legitimacy in international relations. As, according to this principle, the political and national community have to be congruent, two opposite dynamics have been unleashed: within the majority, a tendency to either exclude or assimilate those deemed not to belong to the ‘people’; within the minority, a tendency not to fully identify with the parent state. Both democratic and authoritarian states are confronted still today with the difficult task to manage these conflicting forces.

By means of a series of theoretical and empirical pieces, the series will explore, among others, the relationship between minorities, nationalism and democracy; the history of the concept of minorities; the nature of minority rights and their resurgence in the 1990s; the impact of globalisation on majority-minority relations; the evolution of minority policies in several geographic areas and throughout time. It will also take into account specific linguistic, religious and gender aspects of national/cultural minority issues.

The pieces will be posted monthly in order to leave ample room for discussion on the forum. All posts will also be publicly-viewable on the web and will appear simultaneously on the website of the Myth of Homogeneity Project and on H-Nationalism’s Twitter page. Blog posts will be open for civil, moderated comments from our academic subscribers.  

Scholars interested in contributing can contact:

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

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

The Myth of Homogeneity

Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919-1939

‘The response of West European political and administrative elites to the issue of national and linguistic heterogeneity has for long been simply to ignore it’ – John Coakley

“The Myth of Homogeneity: Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919–1939” is a Swiss National Science-funded research project hosted at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. The aim of this research is to acquire a clear and in-depth picture of the history of the relationships between national minorities and majorities in Western Europe during the interwar years through the analysis of patterns of minority protection and/or assimilation. The project entails a multi-layered and multi-archival inquiry focusing on three case-study countries: Belgium, Italy and Spain.

The project revolves around three levels of analysis: government legislation concerning minority protection and/or assimilation and its enforcement; sub-state national minority mobilisation, or lack thereof; transnational and international interactions between state and non-state actors dealing with the issue of national minorities. It is multi-archival because it relies on a wide range of government, international organisations, and diplomatic archives as well as regional, international and transnational repositories. Moreover, despite including an analysis of the minority regime built around the League of Nations in the interwar years, the research will not be limited to that international organisation. This would be a gross mistake as Western minorities did not fall under the jurisdiction of the League’s Minorities Section and, in any case, the League ultimately enjoyed very limited latitude without the support of the Great Powers. For these reasons, other actors and repositories will be taken into account at different levels: government and civil society, centre and periphery, domestic and international.

The objective is to contribute to the existing literature revising the widely held assumption of national homogeneity in Western Europe during the period under study, an assumption furthered by the then prevalent tendency of Western governments to ignore their own minority issues while, at the same time, imposing legislative constraints concerning the protection of national minorities on the new states emerging from the dissolution of the Central and Eastern European empires. The goal is not at all to suggest that minority issues in Western Europe were the same as those in the Eastern part of the continent. It is rather to inquire into the specificities of minority-majority relations in Western European countries in order to provide material for a better-informed and scientifically grounded comparison with the situation in Eastern Europe. The relevance of the project goes beyond the academic need to fill a lacuna in the existing literature. At a time when Western Europe is confronted with strong separatist demands and centrifugal forces, it is necessary to question national homogeneity and to acquire a better understanding of the historical evolution of majority-minority relations.