Italy's South Tyrol: where an identity crisis lingers

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Angela Giuffrida - [email protected]
Italy's South Tyrol: where an identity crisis lingers
Renon, South Tyrol. Photo: The Local Italy

The stunning mountainous region of South Tyrol, or Alto Adige, has been part of Italy for almost 100 years. But many of those among the population of 511,000 still don’t feel Italian. In fact, identity is a delicate talking point, as The Local discovers.


“I feel neither German, Italian or Austrian, I am from South Tyrol,” Mrs Verdorfer, who runs a hotel that has been in her family since 1920 in Renon, a hiking paradise that sits on a high plateau overlooking the regional capital of Bolzano, tells The Local.

It’s easy to feel disorientated when arriving in the country’s richest region, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was annexed by Italy after the First World War, as part of Rome's reward for entering the conflict on the winning side.

Although the area is officially bilingual, 75 percent of the population speak German, and people seem uncomfortable conversing in Italian.

Switch on the TV or radio, and German-language channels dominate, while the newspapers provided in hotels cater mostly for German-speaking guests.

Speck, a type of ham, and schnitzel, are more prevalent on menus than pizza, and the so-called Hugo, a cocktail made up of sparkling wine, elderflower syrup and mint leaves, is the favoured drink at aperitivo time over Aperol Spritz.

There is also a palpable sense of pride among the people here, something often lacking in Italians elsewhere.

And rightly so, they have a lot to be proud of: aside from the clean air, pristine surroundings, well-functioning public services and low crime rate, most are in jobs, and with an average yearly salary of €34,700 per head of population, they earn almost double that of their counterparts in the rest of Italy.

With an economy founded on the pillars of tourism, services, industry and agriculture, the region’s mostly small-to-medium-sized businesses help to generate the highest GDP per capita in Italy.

All of this combined helped the region stave off the ravages of the global financial crisis, which swept the rest of Italy into its longest recession since the Second World War.

But this is what fuels some of today’s resentment: since the economic meltdown, South Tyrol has had to share more of its tax income with Rome in order to help prop up Italy’s lacklustre economy.

As part of an agreement in 1972 that gave the area wide-ranging autonomy, South Tyrol was only meant to give 10 percent of its tax returns to Rome, keeping the rest to invest in its own public services, infrastructure, schools and hospitals.

“We have to pay a lot more to Rome now,” adds Verdorfer. “Even Italians elsewhere tell us we’re crazy for doing so.”

South Tyrol didn’t have an easy ride towards becoming the thriving place it is today.

In the few years following the annexation, there was no interference from the Italian authorities in the region's traditions and culture.

But all that changed when Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922 and set about Italianizing the area by moving Italian people in, banning the German language in schools and the civil service, and forcing people to change their names.

Meanwhile, a pact between Mussolini and Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler in 1939 was to have far-reaching consequences. The pair gave German-speakers a stark choice – either stay in South Tyrol and be forcibly Italianized, or move into the German Reich and renounce their homeland.

Although most opted to leave, the outbreak of the Second World War prevented a mass exodus. However, the plan left in its trail painful wounds, having divided society and split families, with those who chose to stay being branded traitors.

By the early 1960s German-speakers' unhappiness erupted in a bombing campaign, and it took UN intervention to settle the dispute, resulting in the 1972 agreement that gave the region power to write its own laws.

But even that failed to stop the wave of terrorism by separatists, with campaigns persisting until the late 1980s.

Calls for a referendum

Since then, South Tyrol has prospered and Italian and German-speakers, for the most part, live peacefully alongside eachother.

But resentment lingers and calls for total independence, or to be part of Austria, persist.

A survey by the separatist party, South Tyrolean Freedom, last year found that 90 percent of 61,000 voters were in favour of a referendum on independence from Italy or to become part of Austria.

On its website, the party says its “country” has been “occupied since 1918 by the Italian central government”, describing it as an “injustice”.

The party adds that the 350,000 German-speaking Tyroleans “struggle to keep alive their traditions and customs”, while lambasting the central government for its “economic inability”.

Cristian Kollmann, the party’s spokesman, accuses Italy – decades on from the Fascist era – of still trying to Italianize the German-speaking population.

“Obviously it’s not done with weapons or force, but in more subtle ways,” he tells The Local.

“We see signs of it every day, whether by manipulating the press – it’s almost impossible for an objective article about the situation to be written – or inventing Italian place names. The idea is to give the impression that the area is Italian-only.”

Kollman also says the ruling South Tyrolean People's Party doesn’t represent South Tyroleans and is too beholden to Rome.

The separatist movement’s aim for a referendum was bolstered in January by a survey carried out by Spectra, a market research institute based in the Austrian city of Linz, which showed that 89 percent of Austrians were also in favour of South Tyrol becoming part of their country.

Read more: Austrians in favour of unification with South Tyrol

“We’ve never been given the chance to have an referendum – we just want to have the right to vote on self-determination,” Kollman says.

The movement also wants to see reminders of the Fascist era removed from the area, adds Kollman.

"There are plenty of Fascist symbols in South Tyrol...the main one being the Victory Monument [erected under Mussolini's orders] in Bolzano, reminding us of the so-called victory after the First World War."

But despite not feeling connected to Italy, Verdorfer, who wears a traditional Tyrolean dress when serving diners in the hotel’s restaurant, says she would most likely lean towards voting to stay with the country if a referendum was held.  

“It’s a beautiful country and our region has benefitted from visitors to Italy, and people have the chance to be bilingual.”

That said, there is no doubt over which team she supports during the football World Cup. "Germany over Italy, definitely," she says, without hesitation.



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