South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia a century after the March on Rome

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.

Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe

Our edited volume with Bloomsbury Academics has eventually gone into production

In September 2022, Bloomsbury Academics announced that the edited volume Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe, which Emmanuel, Davide and Mona have been putting together for the last two years, has eventually gone into production and should be released in May 2023.

It has been a long and twisted journey, marked by the pandemic and other dramatic events, first of all the sudden demise of Eric Weitz, who was supposed to write the conclusion of the volume and to whom this will be dedicated. The Myth of Homogeneity team started working on it in March 2020, right after having held the workshop Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the World Wars, the last event before the first wave of lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic began. The event was co-organised with the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy (more info on it in our podcast on the event here).

The volume bridges the East-West divide still existing in the historiography of minority questions in interwar Europe. It also puts together contributions examining majority-minority relations from different perspectives, notably comparative, bottom-up and transnational. It includes discussions of: the transition from empires to nation-states with an innovative comparison of traditional cases of imperial breakdown, such as the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, with the United Kingdom, usually considered in this context as a nation-state rather than a composite monarchy; the Paris system and how the new international order inaugurated in the French capital extended its influence over the entire continent causing quests for national homogeneity in different European regions; the concept of national indifference, its applicability to the interwar years and its alternatives; and the transnational organisations and networks of activists that defended minority rights, either directly, as in the case of the Congress of European Nationalities, or as part of a broader concern for peace and international collaboration, as in the case of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Through 14 chapters and thanks to an outstanding line-up of authors (see below for the full list), the volume fills an important gap in the historiography of the interwar years, touching upon a wide range of topics such as the history of nationalism, internationalism, minority questions, human rights, activism and gender.

The volume features contributions from: Omer Bartov, Mona Bieling, Alison Carrol, Jane K. Cowan, Emmanuel Dalle Mulle, Sabine Dullin, Marina Germane, Brian Hughes, Alvin Jackson, Pieter M. Judson, Olga Linkiewicz, Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, Volker Prott, Davide Rodogno, David J. Smith and Erol Ülker.

Transnational Minority Actors and Global Spain

The converging and diverging trajectories of Joan Estelrich and Josip Vilfan discussed at a Conference in Santiago de Compostela

On 9-10 June 2022, the research project La España global: identitades españolas en prospectiva transnacional organised a workshop at the University of Santiago de Compostela to discuss transnational historical research involving Spanish actors, identities and processes. The event allowed presenting results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the transnational activities of minority representatives in interwar Europe. More specifically, Emmanuel examined the converging and diverging trajectories of the Catalan-Spanish nationalist leader Joan Estelrich and the Slovenian-Italian minority representative Josip Vilfan, both prominent members of the interwar Congress of European Nationalities, as a prism to reflect upon the entanglements between the study of minorities and transnational history.

At the core of the concept of transnationalism there is an idea of border crossing. More often than not, the border that is being crossed is that of the nation-state. Emmanuel’s presentation did engage with cross-border activities that challenged state jurisdictions, but also tried to extend the notion of transnationalism to the trespassing of regional and identity boundaries. Coming from countries beyond the remit of the minority protection system of the League of Nations and acting, for a considerable part of their lives, within repressive authoritarian regimes, Estelrich and Vifan eagerly engaged in transnational minority networks as a way to promote an internationalisation and reinforcement of interwar minority protection. In many ways, their story is one of successful collaboration. Yet, from the mid-1930s, their trajectories diverged considerably. While Vilfan remained a staunch supporter of transnational cooperation and of the work of the CEN, Estelrich drifted towards domestic engagement within the institutions of the Spanish Republic first, and transnational activity on Franco’s side later. However, despite their apparent glaring differences, both Estelrich and Vilfan had to confront similar painful dilemmas of collaboration and betrayal generated by their minority advocacy that forced them not only to cross state borders, but also to redefine the boundaries of their reference communities and severe previous bonds of loyalty.

Beyond the relevance of Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s transnational trajectories for the history of minority-majority relations in interwar Europe, the paper proposed two broader reflections on the nature of transnational history and the state of the current historiography that centred on questioning both the trans and the national in transnational. To be begin with the national, most of the historiography focuses on the national as the nation-state. Yet any scholar familiar with the nationalism studies literature knows that the nation and the nation-state never coincide. This is all the more glaring when it comes to minority populations who do not identify with the state they live in. Hence, the presentation proposed considering the everyday life of people identifying as national minorities within their state of citizenship as a transnational experience in and for itself, even if this everyday experience does not involve crossing the border of any nation-state. Concerning the trans, the paper explored, although still in very tentative form, the possibility that the crossing activity implied in this term might actually occur in the mind of historical actors, rather than in their physical whereabouts. In other words, examining the many identification dilemmas, twists and turns in Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s lives, the paper proposed to explore the concept of transnational interior processes. Stay tuned for future updates.

Migration as a Tool of National Homogenisation

In interwar fascist Italy migration, both internal and external, turned into a tool of national homogenisation of borderland minority areas

On 7 June 2022, Emmanuel gave a lecture (whose video is available here) at the University of Neuchâtel within the framework of the Migration History Talks series co-organised by this university and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research—The Migration Mobility Nexus (NCCR on the Move). It was a great opportunity to present results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the Italian case, notably on the nexus between homogenisation and migration.

Italy has historically been known as a country of emigration. The state’s laissez-faire approach
towards outward migration, as well as its diaspora policies, have widely been studied. However,
it is less known that during the fascist dictatorship (1922–43) migration was used as a tool to
promote the homogenisation of the minority populations inhabiting the provinces of South Tyrol and
Venezia Giulia. In this presentation, Emmanuel showed how, being unsure about the legitimacy of their sovereignty over these borderlands, fascist authorities promoted land colonisation, surreptitiously encouraged emigration among members of the Slovenian/Croatian minority, and in 1939 signed an agreement with Germany that forced Tyroleans to choose whether they wanted to become German citizens and emigrate north of the Brenner or stay in Italy and become ‘true’ Italians.

This escalation of coercive uses of migration to homogenise the borderlands annexed at the end of the Great War failed. For the historian, they are an unmistakable reflection of the ‘consistent ambivalence’ that marked the fascist approach to the country’s national minorities throughout the interwar years. On the one hand, fascist authorities shared a rhetoric whereby assimilation was inevitable. The Italian ‘civilisation’ was deemed to be so powerful that no minority group would resist its assimilative spell. On the other hand, the fascists fundamentally distrusted the members of the two minorities that it wanted to incorporate within the body of the nation. The allogeni, the term used by the fascists to indicate Italian citizens of non-Italian origins, were thus kept in a limbo of forced assimilation and latent segregation that further reduced the effectiveness of the assimilative measures adopted by the regime.

The Wilsonian Moment in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol

Or how sub-state national mobilisation occurred, but it was more fleeting than minority nationalist leaders would have hoped for

On the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, in 2019, Emmanuel and Mona presented a paper at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) examining whether there was a ‘Wilsonian Moment in Western Europe’. A revised version of that paper has now been accepted for publication in European History Quarterly and it is due to appear online and in print in 2023. The paper entitled ‘Autonomy over Independence: Self-Determination in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol in the Aftermath of the Great War’ (and available in pre-print here) fills an important gap in the historiography of self-determination in the immediate post-WWI period.

While the impact of the post-war spread of self-determination on the re­­drawing of Eastern European borders and on the claims of colonial independence movements has been extensively researched, the international historiography has paid little attention to minority nationalist movements in Western Europe. Focusing on three regions (Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol) that experienced considerable substate national mobilisation between the world wars, Emmanuel and Mona inquire into whether the leaders of Western European minorities and stateless nations shared the same enthusiasm as their anti-colonial and Eastern European counterparts for the new international order that self-determination seemed to foreshadow in the months following the end of the Great War. Since President Woodrow Wilson stood out as the most prominent purveyor of the new international legitimacy of self-determination, the article further examines how Western European nationalist movements exploited Wilson’s image and advocacy to achieve their own goals.

Emmanuel and Mona conclude that nationalist forces in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol initially mobilised self-determination and referred to Wilson as a symbol of national liberation, but this instrumentalisation of self-determination was not sustained. Large-scale mobilisation occurred only in Catalonia and, even there, it disappeared almost overnight in spring 1919. Furthermore, substate nationalist movements in Western Europe tended to mobilise self-determination to gain regional autonomy, rather than full independence, thus pursuing internal, not external, self-determination. The willingness of these movements to privilege autonomy over full independence made them more receptive to compromise solutions and radical forces became stronger only in the 1930s, largely for reasons not directly connected to the post-war mobilisation around self-determination.

In other words, the wave of unprecedented international legitimacy for national self-determination claims inaugurated at the end of WWI did extend to Western Europe. It was not a uniform phenomenon, but a mix of different local attempts to mobilise the new language of self-determination that however did not last as long, and were not as powerful, as the leaders of Western European minority nationalist movements would have wished.

Studying Minorities in the Vatican Archives

The documents of the Holy See are an underexploited source on majority-minority relations

Transnational actor by definition, the Church could not afford ignoring minority questions in interwar Europe. There are at least two reasons why documents held at the Vatican Archives are a privileged source on majority-minority relations in interwar Europe: linguistic politics and the double nature of the Catholic Church as, at once, a transnational organisation devoted to the spiritual welfare of worshippers and a state keeping diplomatic relations with foreign governments.

In interwar Europe local priests and the Church hierarchy confronted nationalising states increasingly willing to assimilate populations that spoke a different language from that promoted by state institutions. In such minority regions, the lower clergy often identified with the minority population and defended Church practice (also reflected in the Church’s Code of Canon Law) whereby religious teaching had to be given in the mother tongue of the local population. Yet this position put the clergy in direct confrontation with state officials willing to homogenise minority areas. As a consequence, state nationalisers frequently associated the local clergy as a bastion of minority nationalism. The fact that some priests did participate in minority nationalist movements, sometimes even within radical fringes, did not contribute to dispelling suspicions of the clergy’s disloyalty to the state. Be it in democratic Belgium or authoritarian fascist Italy, many of these priests and, although more rarely, also some bishops were expelled from the state territory, accused of being dangerous agitators paid by foreign powers to bring about chaos in minority areas.

State pressure to have the lower clergy abide by laws of linguistic assimilation that imposed monolingualism throughout the state territory was felt not only in minority regions, but also in Rome. The Vatican Apostolic Archives brim with exchanges in which diplomats of states dealing with minority populations urged the Holy See to have priests stay out of politics and provide religious teaching in state, instead of minority, language. In more extreme but not unfrequent cases, the Vatican received requests of removal of bishops deemed to engage with minority nationalism.

In April, Emmanuel spent two weeks at the Vatican Archives gathering material on minority questions in interwar Belgium, Italy and Spain. The documents confirm that Church authorities had to walk a tight rope between the need not to disaffect local populations seeking protection against linguistic homogenisation and keeping favourable diplomatic relations with important European states. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, Church authorities tried to defend their autonomy and religious practice, but in the radicalising age of the 1930s, it became ever harder to protect the linguistic rights of minorities, especially in authoritarian state like fascist Italy or in the extremely polarised context of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing onset of Franco’s dictatorship.

The Vatican records constitute an invaluable source that would nourish the academic output of the Myth of Homogeneity project.

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.

Conferences are back! The Myth of Homogeneity at international gatherings

Thanks to the recent improvement of the sanitary situation in Europe, the team of the Myth of Homogeneity is again presenting research results at international conferences. The ‘awakening’, after more than a year of forced inaction, began already in May 2021, when the team organised a panel at the Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN). This year, the event, which usually takes place at Columbia University in New York, was held online. The panel, entitled Minorities after Versailles in Europe and the Middle East: A Comparative Perspective, explored interwar majority-minority relations in a broad comparative framework fostering dialogue between experts specialised in different geographical areas and political contexts.

The three contributors to this panel explored the contradictions and intricacies of the new international order ushered in at the Paris Peace Conference, an order based on population politics and a lingering tendency to seek national homogeneity. Sarah Shield (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) argued that, after the Great War, the Great Powers mobilised ‘self-government’ in the Middle East to legitimise foreign rule (through the mandate system), to excuse violence (for instance in the French Syria), and to alienate territory (as in Palestine). Building on the cases of Alsace-Lorraine and Asia Minor, Volker Prott (Aston University Birmingham) inquired into the factors that explain differences in patterns of conflict and violence between these two areas. Finally, Chris R. Davis (Lone Star College-Kingwood) shifted the focus from minorities to majorities and dissected how transnational networks of ethnologists in Romania and Hungary shaped notions of belonging relating to the respective majorities and minorities in either country. Overall, the three papers emphasised to the need to expand the comparative study of minorities in Europe and the Middle East, and, especially, to connect the largely self-contained literatures on minority protection, on the one hand, and the mandate system, on the other.

In August, the team will be presenting a paper at the Annual Pierre Du Bois Conference, which will take place at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The event, organised by the Pierre du Bois Foundation and Professor Michael Goebel, will feature distinguished speakers from universities across the globe. The team’s contribution will examine fascist policies of assimilation in interwar Italy. Taking as a starting point the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany on the ‘voluntary’ resettlement to the German Reich of the inhabitants of the German-speaking Italian area of South Tyrol, the paper argues that the ambiguities inherent in the agreement and in the fascist approach to the Option reflects the larger history of attempts at assimilating minorities in Italy (both in South Tyrol and Venetia Giulia, the other minority region annexed by the Italian Kingdom at the end of the Great War). More specifically, the paper shows that fascist policies of assimilation were characterised by three main features: a naïve belief that the assimilation of these minorities would be an easy task; the lack of means to carry out radical solutions; and a deep-seated distrust of the allogeni (as Italian citizens of non-Italian origin were called at the time), even of those who willingly assimilated to Italian culture and who enthusiastically joined the Fascist Party. As a result, the ambivalent policy pursued by fascist authorities during the period of the Option was consistent with previous attempts at assimilating the German-speaking populations of South Tyrol.

The Conference will be held both in person and online. You can find more information on how to register at this link: https://www.graduateinstitute.ch/communications/events/pierre-du-bois-annual-conference. Please find the Conference Programme below or access it in pdf format here. We look forward to seeing you in Geneva or on Webex!

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/

The Populism and Sub-State Nationalism Nexus in Flanders

Photo: Tijl Vercaemer

H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the ninth 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 Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham), examines the intermixing of populism and nationalism in today’s Flemish politics.

When Flemish nationalism emerged in the 19 th century, despite comprising approximately 60% of the Belgian population, the Flemish people and language were excluded from public administration, the military, politics, law, education and the media. Flanders was dominated by an agrarian way of life, while Wallonia grew through industrialisation. This period of history engendered a feeling of minoritisation, due to Flemish alienation from the centres of Belgian power at the time. This ‘minoritised majority’ mindset forms the foundation of Flemish nationalist ideology today.

However, in practical terms, Flemish fortunes shifted significantly after the Second World War. The Flemish economy now outperforms Wallonia’s following the decline of the Walloon coal and ‘heavy’ industries. The Flemish nationalist message shifted from ‘poor Flanders’ to a ‘nationalism of the rich’ in which Flanders is portrayed as Wallonia’s ‘milk cow’ (Dalle Mulle, 2017). The Belgian state has decentralized, with significant powers
devolved to the Flemish and Walloon governments.

Flemish sub-state nationalism is now also characterized by a populist turn, driven by the populist radical right and independence-seeking party the Vlaams Belang (VB, Flemish Interest). In Belgium’s 2019 elections, the VB’s proportion of the vote rose more than 8% at the federal level and 12% in Flemish Parliament elections. The VB’s sub-state nationalist competitor, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance), remains the largest party in Flanders. However, while it is predominantly a conservative sub-state nationalist party, the N-VA also incorporates populist messaging, particularly directed at Belgian government elites (Van Haute, Pauwels and Sinardet, 2018).

Flanders is not a prototypical case of a minority nationalist movement. It does not represent a minority (demographically or economically) and is increasingly identified by populist rather than autonomist viewpoints. In this blog, I further detail how the Flemish sub-state nationalist approach has incorporated populist narratives and delve into how this populist turn has also led to the adoption of an identitarian approach. In these ways, the Flemish nationalist movement is typical of other emerging patterns of European politics.

Adopting a Populist Sub-state Nationalist Narrative

Populism, academically and politically, has become an inescapable part of the political zeitgeist. For the sake of space and time, I adopt the dominant understanding of the term of populism from political scientist Cas Mudde: populism is a thin-centred ideology concerned with the division between the ‘pure people’ and ‘corrupt elite.’ Populist rhetoric, precisely because of its thin centred nature, fits smoothly in with nationalist ideologies.

Statements from both the N-VA and the VB show how advocating for territorial autonomy can be supported by populist rhetoric. For example, in response to the latest Belgian government formation, which kept both Flemish nationalists parties out, the N-VA placed themselves on the side of the ‘people’: “The N-VA will do everything we can from ourpolitical position during the coming legislature to protect the Flemish people as much as we can from the disastrous plans of this government.” While they raised issues around the legitimacy of the government, the party ultimately stuck to its conservative critique, particularly emphasizing opposition to new taxation.

The Vlaams Belang’s language has been more explicitly populist. The party called the new government an “undemocratic monster coalition” and critiqued the government for increasing the number of jobs, rather than being ‘among the people.’ They emphasized that the government lacked a Flemish majority and that this was seen as a betrayal from ‘traditional parties’ who ‘allowed themselves to be bribed for jobs.’ For both the N-VA and the VB, one elite enemy is the Belgian state. However, for the Vlaams Belang, the Belgian state is not the only enemy of the ‘pure people.’ The VB has also critiqued academics, teachers, journalists and other media professionals as antagonistic to the people (De Cleen, 2016).

Globalization and global elites are also a target. For example, in the party’s membership magazine, VB leader Tom van Grieken critiqued the UN’s Migration Pact. He argued that this was indicative of a wider problem:

“These disconnected globalist elite do not stand alone. Because ivory towers don’t only stand in New York. They also stand in Europe. They also stand in Brussels…The one group is the left side—who eagerly welcome all these new foreign voters—and the other group are the neo-liberals who see this new wave of immigrants as an army of new cheap workers. These two groups get along so well that a clear new political ault line has been created. Namely on one side, left multiculturalists and liberal globalists (united in a coalition against our people) and on the other side patriots, the nationalists that defend ordinary people” (VB Magazine, January 2019)”.

With the increasing electoral power of the Vlaams Belang, sub-state nationalism becomes one part of the movement. However, it is clear that Flemish autonomy from the Belgian state is interwoven with an anti-elite search for autonomy from broader local and international ‘elite’ who are portrayed as corrupt, anti-democratic, and in opposition to the Flemish volk (people).

An Identitarian Evolution for Flemish Cultural Nationalism

Just as the Flemish people are pitted against these elites, Flemish culture is pitted against a ‘liberal’ or ‘left wing’ culture which is seen as being diffused through the media and education. The Vlaams Belang and the N-VA have both, for example, advocated for cutting cultural subsidies, particularly for new or emerging projects. The parties were accused by left wing Flemish parties of targeting funding that would support artists not engaging in ‘traditional’ Flemish art or working with Flanders’ migrant communities. One VB Parliamentarian, Klaas Slootmans, was quoted in Politico as saying: “We back the [N-VA led] government if it wants to cut back on experimental art that is good at spitting in the face of the Flemish.”

The Flemish Movement emerged initially in defence of the Dutch language. Early Flemish nationalists were middle class intellectuals concerned with promoting the use of the Dutch language and using that language to defend the ‘spirit’ of the Flemish people (Dewulf, 2012). In 2020, this linguistic nationalism is only one part of a wider nativist ‘defence’ of Flemish culture.

The Vlaams Belang’s cultural nationalism has been supported by identitarian messages. The identitarian movement is concerned with the defence of a particular ‘European’ identity based on an imagined historical cultural landscape, which was homogenous. Identitarian groups describe migration as a ‘replacement’ of white Europeans with migrants and particularly criticise Muslim migrants. The movement is characterized by the use of social media and YouTube, and a purposeful ambiguity about its goals.

The identitarian approach to Flemish nationalism has been spearheaded by VB MP Dries van Langenhove, who founded the Flemish and right wing youth group Schild en Vrienden (Shield and Friends). Van Langenhove was quoted in the March 2019 Vlaams Belang members magazine promoting a nostalgic nationalism: “The feeling of guilt that has been fed to us since May 1968, and that every European has been carrying since World War Two may well push Europe into the abyss definitively…it ensures that citizens everywhere in Western Europe no longer put their country and people first.” Like the language of putting Flanders first, Vlaams Belang politicians use the language of ‘making Flanders great again’ and supported Donald Trump. Party leader Tom van Grieken tweeted: “The rise of Trump is not
an isolated phenomenon. In Europe too, more and more voters want real change.”

In his work on ‘master frames’, Rydgren (2005) showed that radical right messaging in the 1970s and 1980s did not emerge independently in each European country. Rather, it diffused transnationally, particularly from France’s Front National. The VB’s founding members had a close relationship with the Front National and adopted this master frame. The current identitarian messages and outreach to the Trump movement shows that transnational diffusion of radical right nationalist narratives continues today.

However, ultimately, it is the Vlaams Belang’s particular brand of nationalism which is now on the rise in Flanders. In an October 2020 poll, the VB gained 27.1% of the support compared to the N-VA’s 22.2%. The party’s populist narratives link Flemish autonomy with a wider search for autonomy from globalization. The expanded scope of Flemish nationalism can also be seen in the way that the Flemish Movement has begun to promote different forms of cultural nationalism, and nativism.

The Flemish Movement is not prototypical of sub-state nationalism. However, examining the evolution of the Flemish Movement provides an insight into complex intersections between nationalism, populism, and nativism which are increasingly relevant beyond Flanders as well.

Alternative transnational narratives about Flemish sub-state nationalism also emerge. The N- VA, for example, has continued to ally itself with sub-state nationalists in Catalonia, showing support during and after the Catalan independence referendum. Most recently, the N-VA’s Flemish Minister President Jan Jambon spoke out against sanctions made against Catalonia’s President Quim Torra. The Vlaams Belang also looks to other sub-state nationalist movements, with representatives expressing interest in the Scottish independence process, for example.

Sources

Dalle Mulle, E. (2017). The nationalism of the rich: discourses and strategies of separatist parties in Catalonia, Flanders, Northern Italy and Scotland. Routledge.

De Cleen, B. (2016). Representing the People: The Articulation of Nationalism and Populism in the Rhetoric of the Vlaams Belang. In J. Jamin (Ed.), L’Extrême Droite en Europe (pp. 223-242). Brussels: Éditions Bruylant.

Rydgren, J. (2005). Is extreme right‐wing populism contagious? Explaining the emergence of a new party family. European journal of political research, 44(3), 413-437.

Van Haute, E., Pauwels, T., & Sinardet, D. (2018). Sub-state nationalism and populism: the cases of Vlaams Belang, New Flemish Alliance and DéFI in Belgium. Comparative European Politics, 16(6), 954-975.

Judith Sijstermans is a Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLSIS) in the University of Birmingham. She is currently working on an ESRC funded project ‘The survival of the mass party: Evaluating activism and participation among populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Europe’ (aka “Populism In Action”) (ES/R011540/1).

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.


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