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.

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.