Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 -- South Tyrol

South Tyrol: Mitigated but not Resolved

By Thomas Kager


Many scholars see South Tyrol as a model for conflict resolution.(1) It is true that after decades of political struggle a legal framework (Autonomy Statute) has been established which manages the conflict: no more bombs, no more discrimination, everything seems to be perfect. But appearances are deceptive.

In South Tyrol live three different ethnic groups: 65.3 percent German speakers, 26.5 percent Italian speakers and 4.2 percent Ladin speakers (their language is also called Rhaeto-Romance), plus 4 percent others. After almost 80 years of struggle, the society is still divided into ethnic blocks. The dominant cleavage within the society is ethnicity. Other cleavages, such as class, are subordinated to the ethnic polarization. The main ethnic division is between the German/Ladin and the Italian groups. Both built up their own organizational structures and societal subsystems: kindergartens, schools, political parties, trade unions, youth clubs, sport clubs, and churches which are mono-ethnical. Public employment and the allocation of social welfare and services (i.e. housing) are based on a system of ethnic proportions (quotas according to the census proportions). The whole organization of the South Tyrolean society, therefore, depends on a declaration as to ethnic identity.

But already during the 1970s, the following problems became evident: mixed marriages increased, their offspring were unable or unwilling to declare themselves as members of only one ethnic group, tourism boomed, and German/Ladin speakers no longer wanted to work in the public service. Italian speakers began to feel as if they were a minority; they had to bid farewell to certain privileges, which led to an increase in the number of votes for the neofascist and antiautonomist party MSI.

There is no doubt that the settlement of the conflict by the Autonomy Statute was a first and necessary step. However, now it seems to be time for a second step to resolve the ethnic division of the society in order to reach a higher level of peace. The time seems convenient; in 1992 the conflict came to a formal conclusion and in the following years the tensions between the ethnic groups decreased. Full equality of the German language has been reached. Free cultural development of the German and Ladin population is guaranteed. The secure and strong position of the German/Ladin minority, which forms a majority in South Tyrol, could allow for the introduction of reforms of the Autonomy Statute in order to meet the claims of the mixed population and of the younger generations.

The search for a policy for the final resolution of the conflict forms the second part of this paper. I suggest a policy to strengthen interethnic social movements by concentrating on the youth. A grassroots strategy seems to be the best and only way to achieve the goal of a lasting peace. A coordinated grassroots movement should include youth clubs, sport clubs, trade unions, and religious associations. Already existing interethnic organizations should lead the movement: the Green Party, the trade union AGB/CGIL, and the bilingual media. A reward system to encourage such a movement can only be based on these organizations and not on the South Tyrolean government, which is dominated by German and Italian conservative forces. The ultimate goal should be to reformulate the Autonomy Statute.

The History of the South Tyrol Question

On the eve of the First World War, Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and consisted of the present-day Austrian province North Tyrol and the Italian provinces South Tyrol and Trentino. The first two were overwhelmingly populated by German speakers; Trentino by Italian speakers. But, as a borderland between the German and the Italian cultures, Tyrol has always been a junction. The Brenner Pass linked more than divided Tyrol and made the whole region a country of transit (Alcock 1996, p. 68). In 1900, in the area of today's South Tyrol, there lived 88.8 percent German speakers, 4.0 percent Ladin speakers and 4.0 percent Italian speakers (Landesinstitut für Statistik 1998). Under the influence of European nationalism, Italy wanted Trentino to be part of a unified Italy. From 1860 onwards, the area was in dispute and geographers and historians were "fighting" in academic journals over whether the land south of the mid-alpine line was or was not geographically or historically Italian (Minghi 1963, p. 4).

In the secret Treaty of London of 26 April 1915, Great Britain and France promised Italy territories, to be ceded by the Habsburg monarchy, for its intervention in the war on the Allied side. In contradiction to the Fourteen Points by which American president Woodrow Wilson introduced the idea of self-determination, the whole of South Tyrol was ceded to Italy in the Peace Treaty of Saint Germain 1919 (Pfanzelter 1997, p. 75). The South Tyrolese had to contemplate their future in the Kingdom of Italy. Shortly after, in 1922, the fascists came to power and the fascist government under Mussolini repressed the German presence and influence in all spheres of cultural, economic, and political life: Italian was to be the only official language in South Tyrol and officials not knowing it sufficiently were dismissed. Schooling was to be entirely in Italian. All public inscriptions and place names were to be Italian. Even surnames and given names had to be "translated" into Italian (Alcock 1996, p. 71). Mussolini's policy of assimilation failed. His attempt to merge the minority into the population's majority achieved the opposite. As Feiler writes, "the pressure to which the South Tyroleans were suddenly subjected had an identity-creating effect, leading to dissociation rather than integration" (1997, p. 11).

Another attempt to "Italianize" (2) South Tyrol was the setting up of Italian industries in order to take advantage of the hydroelectric facilities of the area and to encourage Italian immigration from the south. The heavy influx of Italian workers and their families changed the ratio between German/Ladin and Italian speakers. The Italian population increased from about 8,000 to a figure of 81,000 in 1939, in other words, from 4 to 24 percent. Despite this development, Mussolini had to accept that 220,000 German and 10,000 Ladin speakers could not be turned into Italians. Following the alliance with Germany, he and Hitler considered the application of a radical solution: an ethnic cleansing based on a choice. South Tyroleans had to choose between opting for Germany (which meant emigration) or for Italy (which meant assimilation). 86 percent of the South Tyroleans opted for emigration, but few really emigrated because the Second World War prevented the practical implementation(3) (Feiler 1997, p. 12). In 1943, South Tyrol was occupied by German troops, with the general support of the South Tyroleans, who were glad about the "liberation" from the Italians. The following two years of South Tyrolean collaboration with the Nazis became an obstacle to a favorable consideration of a return of South Tyrol to Austria during the peace negotiations in 1945-1946 (Pfanzelter 1997, p. 78).

The Allies rejected Austria's and South Tyrolese corresponding claims for South Tyrol at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946, but they obliged Austria and Italy to come to a political settlement which involved granting South Tyrol autonomy. The two foreign ministers De Gasperi (Italy) and Gruber (Austria) came to an agreement, known as the "Paris Agreement," which assured equal rights for the South Tyroleans and the Italian population.(4) Unfortunately, the wording of the agreement was not only very vague, but seemed to raise more problems than it solved. The official English text contained an obsolete English word like "parification". Clause 1 (b) granted "parification of the German and Italian language" for official use (Pickvance 1988, p. 133). This caused serious struggles over the interpretation of the text. In the following year, Italy passed an appropriate law to fulfill the agreement. But because of repeated statements by North and South Tyrolese politicians that the autonomy can only be temporary and the future goal will still be self-determination, the result was a very restricted autonomy which Italy also tried to apply restrictively (Alcock 1994, p. 47). The Autonomy Statute drafted by Rome was deliberately designed to ensure that the cultural, economic, and social development of the South Tyrolese lay in Italian hands. Italy achieved this by putting South Tyrol and the Province of Trentino together in one region, named Trentino-Alto Adige, with an Italian majority. With this, Italy violated, as Hannum states, "at least the spirit of the agreement" (1996, p. 433). But Italy's view during the post-war years was that the Paris Agreement had indeed been fulfilled. As many of the legislative powers that the Tyrolese considered vital to their interests were vested in the region, they made the transfer of these to the provincial government one of their main objectives. Already in 1945, soon after the war's end, the South Tyrolean elite joined forces and formed the South Tyrol's People Party (Südtiroler Volkspartei - SVP). Within only three months of its founding, the SVP had a membership of 50,000 (Jacob 1981, p. 263). The early goal of the party was to win as many members as possible in order to increase its power in negotiations with the Italian government. Thus, the SVP obtained a de facto negotiation monopoly. In addition, the first Italian parliamentary elections in 1948 acknowledged the legitimacy of the SVP as the voice of the German and Ladin speakers in South Tyrol. The party obtained 60 percent of the votes cast in the province, which means about 80 percent of the ethnic vote (Holzer 1991, p. 75).

From 1955 onward, after the signing of the Austrian State Treaty and full restoration of Austria's sovereignty, Austria played an increasingly larger role in South Tyrolean efforts to gain greater autonomy. Bilateral "talks" (Italy refused to have official negotiations with Austria) turned out to be fruitless. Italy considered South Tyrol an entirely internal affair (Alcock 1996, p. 76). The refusal of negotiations with the SVP and Austria and the setting up of a housing program in 1959, which, it was feared, would lead to an increased Italian immigration, introducing further tension. The first demonstrative bomb attacks on symbols of Italian rule were carried out in 1956. Italy's reaction was extended repression. The situation threatened to escalate. In view of this development, the Austrian council of ministers decided in June 1960 to present the South Tyrol question to the UN General Assembly. This marked the beginning of the internationalization of the conflict. On 31 October 1960, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on behalf of the South Tyrol question which confirmed that the Paris Treaty committed Italy to establish an autonomy for the protection of the ethnic South Tyrolean population and that Austria had the right to a say in the matter. However, all subsequent Italian-Austrian negotiations failed because of Rome's intransigent stance (Feiler 1997, p. 13). As a reaction, South Tyrolean activists launched a series of spectacular bomb attacks. The attacks targetted electricity pylons around Bozen. Eighty percent of the electricity supply to the province was cut off and, as more than 10 percent of Italy's electricity was generated in the Tyrolese Alps, the Italian government at last realized that it had a serious problem in this border province (Pickvance 1988, p. 134). Italy's response was to send 15,000 soldiers and police officials to the province to carry out house-to-house searches and mass arrests. Following reports of systematic torture by the Italian police which led to the death of two prisoners, the external pressure on the Italian government increased. South Tyrol became a focus of international media interest.(5) In revenge for Tyrolean terrorism, Italian right-wing radicals carried out attacks in South Tyrol and Austria, and the situation threatened to get out of control once again.(6)

Only six weeks after the first series of bomb attacks the Italian interior minister introduced, as a first de-escalation measure, a parliamentary commission to examine the problems and to provide the government with proposals on their resolution. The commission consisted of 11 Italians, 7 South Tyroleans and 1 Ladin and was subsequently known as the "Commission of Nineteen". This was the first time Italy negotiated directly with the leaders of the South Tyrolean minority. At the same time, international pressure grew. The Council of Europe's political committee decided, in September 1961, to form a subcommittee on South Tyrol. Italy was now under international observation. But Rome still refused improvements for the minority and opposed the demands to set up a new Autonomy Statute. Once again, Austria took the South Tyrol question to the UN General Assembly. On 18 November 1961, the representatives of 32 states reaffirmed the resolution adopted the previous year. Italy relented and, consequently, the work of the Commission of Nineteen increasingly became internal preparation for Italian-Austrian negotiations on the basis of the UN resolution (Feiler 1997, p. 13). In 1964, the commission finally presented its report recommending a set of measurements, the so-called "package" (Paket). The basic intention was to change the Autonomy Statute in favor of the South Tyroleans, while retaining the bipartite region Trentino-Alto Adige. In the period which followed, the SVP became increasingly involved in Italian-Austrian negotiations about how to implement the Paket. A compromise was finally reached in 1969. The Paket was approved by a narrow majority of the SVP at its congress on 23 November 1969 and, thereafter, by the Italian and Austrian governments. The package consisted of 137 measures which were to be implemented systematically according to an "operational calendar," a list of the measures mentioned above. The new Autonomy Statute came into force on 20 January 1972 (Autonomous Province of Bozen 1998).

The new package can be seen as a far-reaching revision of the autonomy in which a large number of South Tyrolese demands were met. Initially, it was planned to issue these measures within two years. This proved too short a period given the number and complexity of the matters to be dealt with. The South Tyroleans agreed to extend the period (Woodcock 1992, p. 129). Nevertheless, the post-package era again witnessed a renewed deterioration of the political climate and this led to further delays. The Italians living in South Tyrol had to realize that former privileges no longer applied to them. Their feelings of being a minority found expression in an increased number of votes for the neofascist and antiautonomist party MSI. "Italian slowness" (Alcock 1981) on the South Tyrolean side created concerns about a possible retreat by the Rome government from full implementation of the autonomy measures. This gave cause to some German hard-liners, which still seek union with Austria (known as the "Ein Tirol" group), and to a new wave of bombings(7) in the end of the 1980s (Fox 1995). The last implementing regulations were issued in 1988, including important ones which had been controversial for so long, on the equal status of the languages in the courts and police force. The beginning of the 1990s was marked by a noticeable Italian interest in an end to the dispute as soon as possible. Open questions were tackled speedily and usually resolved flexibly through compromise. In 1992, the last point was fulfilled. On 30 May 1992, at the SVP convention, SVP members voted 82.8 percent in favor of accepting Italy's fulfillment of the Paket. As stated in the operational calendar, the Austrian government had to transmit a declaration concerning the settlement of the dispute to the Secretary General of the United Nations. On 11 June 1992, this formal conclusion took place. Austria pointed out that its function as a protecting power for South Tyrol continued and that it would seek recourse to the International Court of Justice in the event of serious violations (Feiler 1997, p. 35).

The Autonomy Statute

Executive powers

The province is governed by three organs: the Provincial Council, the Provincial Government, and its President. The Provincial Government is elected by the Council and its composition must be proportional to the ethnic groups in the Council (power-sharing model). The Italian Government is represented in the province by a commissioner who is responsible for maintaining order and supervising provincial administration of duties delegated to it by the state (Hannum 1996, p. 435).

Legislative powers

Although the region "Trentino-Alto Adige" was not abolished, its name was changed to "Trentino-South Tyrol" and most of its important powers were taken away and transferred to the two provinces South Tyrol and Trentino. The powers are quite diverse, but are primarily concerned with economic, social, and cultural matters (Alcock 1996, p. 77). For example, the Provincial Council has primary competence over place names, local costumes and usages, town and country planning powers, the environment, mining, agriculture, tourism, communications, and transport and secondary competence over elementary and secondary education, commerce, and public health (Hannum 1996, p. 436).


"In the region the German language is parified with the Italian language which is the official language of the State." (Art. 99, Autonomy Statute - Autonomous Province of Trento) Either language may be used before all courts and authorities in the region. All regional and provincial laws are published in Italian and German and public officials must use the mother tongue of any person with whom they are dealing (Hannum 1996, p. 437). Therefore, all employees in the public service in the province, of whatever sort and whatever rank, have to pass a compulsory examination to prove competence in both German and Italian (Alcock 1996, p. 77).

Representation in the public service

The Autonomy Statute provides for proportional ethnic representation in public office and this principle has been consistently upheld by the Italian Constitutional Court. Every person must make a formal declaration at the time of the census as to his or her language group, and failure to make the declaration will lead to loss of rights to stand for public office, be employed in the public administration or as a teacher, or be given housing. Positions which are vacant because of a lack of qualified applicants from one ethnic group can only be filled by members of the other ethnic group for a non-renewable twelve-month period. The principle of ethnic proportions has to be applied to all state and semi-state bodies operating in the province and has to be achieved by the year 2002 (Hannum 1996, p. 438).


A fundamental principle of the 1946 Paris Agreement was that elementary and secondary education be provided in the mother tongue of the child and that instruction in South Tyrol be given in separate German and Italian schools. Language instruction in the other language of the province is obligatory and all teachers must be native speakers of the primary language of the school in which they teach or of the language they teach (Hannum 1996, p. 437).

Nationalism and ethnicity in South Tyrol

What makes it difficult do deal with the South Tyrol conflict is the combination of two different levels of the conflict: one level deals with the relation between the German/Ladin speaking minority and the Italian nation state and the second deals with the relation between the German/Ladin speakers and the Italian speakers in South Tyrol. Within the Italian State, the German/Ladin minority amounts to not more than 0.51 percent of the population (Fox 1995). Within South Tyrol German and Ladin speakers are the majority: together they constitute nearly 70 percent of the population, while Italian speakers constitute 26 percent (Landesinstitut für Statistik 1998).

With the full implementation of the Autonomy Statute and the formal conclusion of the conflict in 1992 relations with the Italian State improved. The legal status of South Tyrol is internationally guaranteed. Concerns of the German and Ladin population regarding assimilation and large-scale immigration of Italians turned out to be wrong. On the contrary, the proportion of Italian speakers is decreasing since the introduction of the Autonomy Statute (Landesinstitut für Statistik 1998).(8) Without the threat of a hostile Italian nation state trying to undermine the autonomy, the relations between the ethnic groups within South Tyrol could improve. Until the present, German and Ladin speakers did not distinguish between Italians in South Tyrol and Italians in general. Most of the people did not even distinguish between the Italian people and the Italian government. There is no awareness of the two distinct levels of the conflict. But Italians in South Tyrol can no longer be seen only as the invaders and as tools of the Italianization politics. After living in the province since the 1930s, or at least since the 1950s, they consider South Tyrol to be their homeland too. Their offspring were born there, went to school there and work there. Italians became, over the years, Italian-speaking South Tyroleans.

The question now is, why does ethnicity still play such an important role in South Tyrolean society? To find an answer to this question it is necessary to define the terms "nationalism" and "ethnicity."

Theories of nationalism and ethnicity

Definitions and theories regarding this field are beyond enumeration. One has no choice but to make a choice. My guideline for the following patchwork of theories and definitions was to focus on the individual. What does nationalism and ethnicity for the single individual mean? Most of the theories of nationalism and ethnicity focus on groups. For instance, Wiebe defines nationalism as "a political expression of the desire among people who believe they have a common ancestry and a common destiny to govern themselves in a place peculiarly identified with their history and its fulfillment" (1997, p. 81). His distinction of ethnicity from nationalism is that the former is a large-scale kin connectedness without the political agenda of the latter (1997, p. 86).

With these definitions, it becomes clear that groups consist of members with common ideas. But does every member of a group have to share these ideas? Some markers of ethnic sameness are obvious and make people believe in a common ancestry. For example, a "common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture" (Stalin 1994, p. 20). Culture is the essential part of a group identity. But how are individuals influenced by culture? "The behavior of individuals is guided, channeled, and constrained by cultural principles and rules about the game of life and how it is to be played. But it is individuals, making choices, pursuing strategies, maximizing values, forming coalitions, that generate the patterns of social life. The rules of the game are themselves generated and changed by the patterns of play they guide, in a continuing dialectic." (Keesing1995, p. 21) In this sense, the individual is at the same time creator of culture and subject of culture.

The interplay of the individual and the group works in the same way. The member of a group takes the group identity as an orientation for his own behavior, but this does not mean that the individual cannot develop an identity different from the group identity - especially because groups are not totally homogeneous. By developing a different individual identity, a person also has an influence on the construction of the collective identity. The main feature of this view is that ethnicity is primordial (tied to ascriptive characteristics), circumstantial (determined by economic and political structure) and instrumental (manipulatable by the political elites). All of these factors are significant (Chai 1996, p. 281) and it is important to notice that all they (even primordial bonds) "differ from person to person, from society to society and from time to time" (Geertz 1994, p. 31). Nationalism and ethnicity are therefore not stable social phenomena. They are "essentially psychological" (Connor 1994, p. 36) and are competing with other loyalties such as ties to class, party, business, union, profession, etc. (Geertz 1994, p. 32). In the end, the impact of nationalism and ethnicity on a society depends on the individual.

The sources of nationalism and ethnicity

There is not only one single source of nationalism and identity. Over the years the sources of nationalism and ethnicity changed, overlapped and accumulated. In addition, nationalism and ethnicity have different sources although most of the time they are interwoven so that it is difficult to make a clear distinction.

My hypothesis is that the character of nationalism and ethnicity and their relative importance have changed over time. For an examination, I divide the general history of South Tyrol into four parts in order to identify a development: the era of European nationalism, the era of fascism, the era of struggle for more autonomy, and the era of relative peace.

The era of European nationalism

The 19th century can be considered as the era of European nationalism. Nation building was based on the idea of a congruence of territorial propagation of a culture and national boundaries. Cultural and ethnic differences became politicized. Nationalism as a "doctrine emphasized language as the test of nationality, because language was an outward sign of a group's peculiar identity." (Kedourie 1994, p. 49). Language was no longer only a marker of ethnic difference, but it became a source of political cleavage. In South Tyrol, existing stereotypes between the ethnic groups changed their character by getting a political impact. Ethnicity changed into nationalism (see Wiebe above). The former language boundary between Tyrol and Trentino became a boundary between two nations: the German and the Italian world.

The historical facts: In 1803, the Austrian crownland of Tyrol was enlarged by the addition of the previously independent Italian-speaking Prince-Bishopric of Trento (Steininger 1995, p. 189). The Italian Risorgimento led to the formation of an autonomy movement in Trentino. The Italian population wanted to be part of a unified Italian Kingdom (actual unification occured in 1861). On the German side, the conservative political forces of Tyrol united to an aggressive counter movement (called the "Tiroler Volksbund"). This time of Italian and Tyrolean nationalism is the origin of the structure of the Tyrolean party system: the general cleavage was and still is ethnicity (Holzer 1991, pp. 36).

On the group level, the boundaries between the ethnic groups became sharper. The distinction between the Italian and German ethnic groups became part of the group identity (Isaacs 1975, pp. 29). On the individual level, this had an influence too. Nevertheless, nationalism must be considered as an ideology. Not every individual believed in this ideology. Because of the territorial distribution of the ethnic groups at that time, there was not much contact between the groups. Therefore, the social-psychological process of we-they distinction did not play an extraordinary role. However, the origin of ethnicity and its politicized version of nationalism can be found in the 19th century. Cultural nationalism is still effective.

The era of fascism

Already before the rise of fascism, the character of the relations between the two main cultural groups changed. Because of the ceding of the southern part of Tyrol to Italy, the German/Ladin community was confronted with a new problem: being a minority in a hostile Italian state. This had an enormous identity-creating effect. The individual awareness of ethnicity increased. The feeling of being part of an ethnic group, of "sharing sameness" (Isaacs 1975, p. 32), was, for many people in South Tyrol, a new experience. Especially peasants in largely inaccessible valleys were now forced to think about their identity.

The following two decades were filled with identity-strengthening moments. For example the refusal to grant self-determination to the South Tyrolese people was perceived as a "grave moral injustice" (Alcock 1989, p. 1). Disappointment became one force in deepening the feeling of being a minority. Minorities are always dependent on the majority.

As fascism took power in Italy, the South Tyrolese were exposed to the most rabid form of political and Italian cultural nationalism (Alcock 1989, p. 4). The suppression of every cultural, political, or economic activity led to resistance. Open resistance was not possible because of regime terror, but there were wide ranges of possibilities for passive resistance. Although Italian was the only official language, South Tyroleans continued to speak their native language privately. Despite the fact that German and Ladin schools were abolished, resistance groups organized underground schools taught in German or Ladin. For the generation of today's grandparents, suppression by Italy was part of their collective identity and especially of their own personal identity (Schmidtke 1996, p. 275). They suffered personally and the trauma of the attempted "cultural genocide" (Alcock 1989, p. 4) is something they will never forget.

In 1939, the "Option" started: South Tyroleans were given the choice of opting for Germany (which meant emigration) or for Italy (which meant assimilation). The actual choice also meant a choice between giving up ethnic identity or foregoing the land which had been home for over one thousand years (Alcock 1989, p. 6). The awareness of a strongly felt connectedness to the homeland was the result. The homeland is perceived as a group's economic as well as cultural heritage (Alcock 1989, p. 2).

Although the era of fascism refers more to the suppression of the German/Ladin minority by Mussolini, it also addresses the impacts of the Nazi-German troops which occupied South Tyrol from 1943 to 1945, denationalized the Italian population.(9) Italian workers which recently found work in the new industrial zone in Bozen feared having to leave their new home. This created on the Italian side an awareness of living in a borderland of dispute.

The overall result of the fascist experience in South Tyrol was that the ethnic communities became sharply divided economically and socially. The Italian population, by its nature administrative and industrial (because of Mussolini's Italianization politics) became centered almost exclusively in the big towns, especially Bozen where special housing programs were provided for the workers coming from outside the province. Italian per capita income was significantly higher than that of the South Tyrolese who mostly huddled on the land in the generally poor alpine valleys (Alcock 1989, p. 5). During the era of fascism, the beginning of the future, uneven development in the economic and social potential of the ethnic groups was set.

No wonder that the fascist experience led to hatred of the South Tyrolese towards Italy, the nation that had sought to retard their development, change their names, their land, in sum, their dignity. This was a personal, as well as collective, feeling. The aim was, unfortunately, not only the fascist regime but "the Italians." Alcock writes, the fascist experience "did not, however, destroy, but merely strengthened the overwhelming conviction in the heart of every South Tyrolese that whatever the political future, Italians must never again have a say in the economic, social and cultural development of the South Tyrolese people." (1989, p. 6)

Ethnicity became even more a category of demarcation than it was already before. To feel being part of the German/Ladin community was part of the political socialization. The economic marginalization because of Italy's industrialization of South Tyrol led to the protection of the German resources as a strategy for the protection of the survival of the group. For instance, many Germans felt the obligation not to sell land to Italians in order to secure that the territory would remain South Tyrolean (Schmidtke 1996, p. 275).

Italian fascism really fits perfectly into Hobsbawm's model of the nation as invented tradition. One of the innovations is the mass production of public monuments (1994, p. 78). A still present reminder of the era of fascism in South Tyrol, apart from many others, is the Victory Monument in the capital Bozen. It has been erected as a sign of victory over South Tyrol, with a Latin inscription saying: We brought the Germans culture and civilization. Many German speakers still see the monument as a humiliation. The political struggle regarding whether to change it into a peace monument or to treat it as a reminder of fascism still goes on.

The era of struggle for more autonomy

The era of political struggle began immediately after the end of WWII with a feeling of injustice and of shattered hopes. 158,628 South Tyroleans - virtually the entire adult German- and Ladin-speaking population - expressed their will through a collection of signatures in which they supported annexation to Austria. Mainly due to considerations of power politics, the victorious powers decided to leave the pre-war borders between Italy and Austria unchanged (Feiler 1997, p. 12). South Tyrolese claims for self-determination were refused. Everyone who signed the petition was disappointed.

The political struggle itself had a group identity strengthening effect. Years of political dispute between South Tyroleans and the Italian government, years of public discussion over the future of the homeland, years of fear that Italy would undermine the new autonomy again and years of terrorism had their effects on the individual and collective identity. The era of struggle for more autonomy was the time of socialization of the generation of today's parents (Schmidtke 1996, p 280).

Although the situation was definitely worse for the German- and Ladin-speaking minority than for the Italians, the latter lived in fear too. Despite the acceptance of the 1946 Paris agreement, the South Tyrolese never renounced the right of self-determination. Italy and especially the Italians in South Tyrol were alarmed that despite the promise of autonomy the territorial destiny of the province still seemed in doubt (Alcock 1989, p. 8). This means that the question of whether the Italians could stay or not was in doubt. The reaction of the Italian community was, not surprisingly, an increased solidarity.

Fascism's heritage of an uneven economic and social development of the ethnic groups weighed heavily on the post-war years. The Europe-wide dissolution of rural society, caused by the mechanism of capitalist development, caused a large-scale expulsion of workers from agricultural occupations. Still in the 1950s, more than 60 percent of the active German-speaking population was employed in agriculture. People leaving the land couldn't find jobs. Although industry was no longer reserved only for Italian workers as under fascism, South Tyrolean workers did not want to work in Italian factories. Public administration was under Italian domination as housing in the cities was too (Alcock 1989, pp. 13). The result was a deepening of the cultural division between German/Ladin and Italian. A division of habits because of the rural-urban antagonism was one result, the ethnic division of labor the other (Pristinger 1980, pp. 166). Both phenomena can still be perceived in contemporary South Tyrolean society. The constellation of Italians in the urban areas and South Tyroleans in the rural areas led to an extensive isolation of both ethnic groups, which, in return, compounded mutual rejection (Feiler 1997, p. 12).

The era of relative peace

This era overlaps with the later years of the era of political struggle. Shortly after the implementation of the new Autonomy Statute in 1972, the conflict became civilized and institutionalized. It became a conflict between politicians over the interpretation of the Autonomy Statute.

Ethnic tensions subsequently decreased. Unlike the generation of their grandparents and parents today's youth does not have the experience of discrimination. A 1994 study of the attitudes of the youth toward the other ethnic groups showed German and Ladin-speaking teenager no longer perceive the Italians as a threat (Landesinstitut für Statistik 1995, p. 48). Their attitude is less anti-Italian than that of their parents. Nevertheless, there is no full integration and because of the influence of parents, school and segregation their collective identity still has its roots in ethnicity and tradition. (Schmidtke 1996, p. 296). But the experience of a pluri-ethnic society (despite segregation) and the influence of the Italian media added to the collective identity an awareness and also an acceptance of multiculturalism.

Besides, an increasing group is living multiculturally already every day. During the era of political struggle, the relations among the ethnic blocks were bitter and mixed marriages were not only rare, but also frowned upon. Currently, intermarriages are increasing. Unfortunately, there are no up-to-date figures available, but by the end of the 1970s it was estimated that some 4,000 mixed marriages existed in South Tyrol, involving some 12,000 children. By taking into account the improvement in the interethnic relations, it can be estimated that the figures have increased significantly over the last 20 years (Alcock 1991, p. 82). It can also be expected that most of the offspring of intermarriages are more or less bilingual and used to a bicultural environment. These people were unable and/or unwilling to declare themselves as members of only one ethnic group. Their individual identities are based on a bicultural experience (unfortunately, there is no scientific analysis about the collective identity of these people). In 1981, bicultural people were still forced to choose between the three official language groups. However, for the 1991 census the category "others or bilingual" was introduced. This legal change was certainly an improvement but official politics still ignore the bicultural group.

South Tyrol has to deal with a "double minority problem" (Pickvance 1988, p. 141). The loss of privileges, uneven economic development (after the worldwide crisis of the industries the Italians faced serious economic problems while tourism was flourishing and the German- and Ladin-speakers were facing a boom), and domination of the German/Ladin group in political as well as social life led to an increased awareness among Italians of being a minority in South Tyrol. Like within the German and Ladin community after 1919, this had an identity-strengthening effect. Italians feel as if they are discriminated as a group. The latest survey showed that Italian speakers feel uneasy in South Tyrol. Italians feel discrimination regarding employment (39.8 percent), housing (23.5 percent), career opportunities (21.1 percent) and services (14.7 percent) (Dolomiten 02/28/1998). Besides, as already mentioned above, the Italian-speaking proportion of the province is slowly, but steadily, declining.

A policy for the final resolution of the conflict

What is the problem? "South Tyrol can indeed be seen as an exemplary type of an internally divided national society" (Schmidtke 1996, p. 275). The crucial problem is ethnicity. "One of the most important issues in any divided society is that of group and individual identification" (Alcock 1981). During the history of the South Tyrol question, both ethnic blocks developed a strong ethnic solidarity. Both groups, and especially the German/Ladin community, were well aware that their chances of survival depended on the unity of the group. German and Ladin speakers were opposed to anything which might expose the group to Italian cultural assimilation tendencies. The result was a segregation policy: One goes to a school of one's group; public employment and public housing is allocated on the principle of ethnic proportions; youth clubs, sport clubs, political parties, most of the trade unions and most of the media are mono-ethnic. There is not much contact between the ethnic groups. Several reasons can be found:

A policy therefore has to deal with the lack of contact, language skills, and trust between the groups. The ultimate goal would be to reformulate the legal framework, which institutionalizes segregation, and to change the political system which instrumentalizes the ethnic polarization. However, the central question is about ethnic identity: What about a collective identity based on the acceptance of the already existing pluri-cultural society, that is a South Tyrolean identity regardless of ethnic affiliation?

It seems to me that the only plausible strategy in order to reach a higher level of peace is an interethnic grassroots movement. By increasing the social ties between the ethnic groups and especially among the youth a basis can be established on which later generations can build further policies to reach higher levels of peace. A first step in this direction must be done now. It took 73 years to fulfill South Tyrol's claims for autonomy. It certainly needs time to achieve ultimate peace. The three living generations in South Tyrol made different experiences with the other ethnic groups. It seems to be impossible to change the anti-Italian attitudes of the German grandparents' and parents' generation. The same applies to the Italian generations. The only generation with far fewer resentments against the other ethnic groups is the youth. The other social groups, which can be assumed to be in favor of a multicultural society, are the intermarried couples and their offspring.

Horowitz's five mechanisms of conflict reduction can provide a guideline for the present problems in South Tyrol (1985, pp. 598):

The first mechanism, to promulgate the points of power so as to take the heat off of a single focal point, is already implemented because of the existing institutionalized power-sharing model.

The second mechanism, an emphasis on intraethnic instead of on interethnic conflict, could be helpful. The South Tyrol's People party still mobilizes most of the German/Ladin community by stressing the need to stay unified as a group. This rhetoric suppresses intraethnic conflict because political dissent is interpreted as betrayal (Holzer 1991, p. 75). This power game must be broken, but it can only be broken from below. What is necessary is information and education.

The third mechanism consists of the introduction of policies that create incentives for interethnic cooperation. Unfortunately, one cannot expect the political elites of both ethnic blocks to introduce such a reward system. The two major parties (see table below) on the political scene, the German/Ladin SVP and the Italian Alleanza Nazionale, built their power on the ethnic polarization.(10) Without the Italian enemy, the SVP would lose its justification for existence. The same applies to the postfascist Alleanza Nazionale. Therefore, both parties have an interest in the maintenance of the status quo.

Major parties and their results at the last provincial elections (11/21/1993)

Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) 160,186

Alleanza Nazionale (former MSI) 35,833

Grüne - Verdi - Vërc (Green party) 21,293

Die Freiheitlichen (German right-wing party) 18,669

Union für Südtirol (German party which seeks unification with Austria) 14,777

Democrazia Cristiana (Italian christian democrats) 13,622

Lega Nord (Italian separatist movement) 9,115

Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Italian socialdemocrats) 9,046

Ladins (Political voice of the Ladin speakers) 6,058

Unione di Centro per l'Alto Adige (Italian center party) 5,343

Source: Autonome Provinz Bozen 1997

Thus, a reward system can only be based on existing interethnic forces. Who are they?

These interethnic forces should lead the grassroots movement and mobilize people. The Greens together with the interethnic trade unions and the bilingual media, possess enough resources. Incentives could be organizational (making available organizational resources, staff, offices, facilities), medial (providing space for interethnic and peace related stories as well as providing a forum for the discussion of a possible multiethnic future of South Tyrol), and informational (providing information, help, advice). The main incentive would be idealism, a new sense of community and mutual inspiration. "Being part of a community mobilization for a political cause can be immensely fulfilling for people" (Woliver 1996, p. 144). Grassroots groups may already exist or have to be founded. An example could be an association of parents of bilingual children. Their focus would be on the desegregation of the educational system. Another example could be the establishment of interethnic youth or sport clubs. Today just two umbrella organizations for sport clubs exist: A German/Ladin and an Italian (Autonomous Province of Bozen 1997b). An interethnic umbrella organization would render the ethnic separation ridiculous.

The fourth mechanism is the encouragement of alignments based on interests other than ethnicity. The concern over ethnic cleavages should be displaced by concern over nonethnic lines of cleavage such as class. South Tyrol is an exemplary case of the dominance of ethnicity over every other cleavage. This applies especially to the German/Ladin community. There is no left-wing German party. Although the SVP consists of a right and a left wing, the left wing has much less power and influence (Holzer 1991, p. 126). It would be the duty of the interethnic trade unions to create more awareness for the class cleavage.

In South Tyrol, the fifth mechanism, the reduction of disparities between groups, is already fulfilled. The Autonomy Statute eliminated any discrimination. The feeling of discrimination of some Italians has no real basis. However, as Connor states it: "What ultimately matters is not what is but what people believe is" (1994, p. 37). Also in this case more information and education is necessary.

Possible initiatives for grassroots groups, as well as for the established interethnic forces, could be:


Within the scope of this paper, it is not possible to deal with all problems. There are certainly others (i.e. the urban-rural antagonism), and some difficult (i.e. the dilemma individual versus group rights - see Kymlicka 1996 pp. 22). Further research is necessary. The policy presented in this paper can only deal with an appropriate initiation of a final resolution of the ethnic conflict. Once the interethnic movement starts, it will develop its own goals and strategies according to the will of the multicultural strata of South Tyrol's society. I hope the policy presented here can be an impulse. Especially the focus on the individual: "The existence of a nation … is an everyday plebiscite" (Renan 1882, p. 17). This implies that individuals have the ability to change.


Literature on South Tyrol

ALCOCK, Antony. Trentino and Tyrol. From Austrian crownland to European Region. In: DUNN, Seamus / FRASER, T. G. (eds.). Europe and Ethnicity. The First World War and contemporary ethnic conflicts. London: Routledge 1996, p. 67-88.

ALCOCK, Antony Evelyn. South Tyrol. In: MIALL, Hugh. (ed.). Minority Rights in Europe. Prospects for a Transnational Regime. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press 1994, p. 46-55

ALCOCK, Antony Evelyn. Proportional Representation in Public Employment as a Technique for Diminishing Conflict in Culturally Divided Communities: The Case of South Tyrol. In: Regional Politics and Policy, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1991, S. 74-86.

ALCOCK, Antony Evelyn. The Social Causes of Nationalism: The Case of South Tyrol. Paper presented at the European Consortium for Political Research Joint Sessions, Paris, 10-15 April 1989.(12)

ALCOCK, Antony Evelyn. Ethnic Proportions in Employment on Provincial and National Level Government in South Tyrol. <> (article written in 1981)

AUTONOME PROVINZ BOZEN. Stimmverteilung bei den Landtagswahlen am 21.11.1993. <> (last modified: 03 September 1997)

AUTONOMOUS PROVINCE OF BOZEN. Media. <> (last modified 20 October 1997)

AUTONOMOUS PROVINCE OF BOZEN. Trade Unions. < southt16.htm> (last modified 20 October 1997a)

AUTONOMOUS PROVINCE OF BOZEN.Sport. <> (last modified 20 October 1997b)

AUTONOMOUS PROVINCE OF BOZEN. Autonomy Statute. < southty1.htm> (last modified 26 February 1998)

AUTONOMOUS PROVINCE OF TRENTO. Trentino-Alto Adige Special Constitution. <> (1996)

FEILER, Michael. South Tyrol. Model for the Resolution of Minority Conflicts? In: Review of International Affairs, Vol XLVIII, No. 1053/1054, 1997, p. 10-36.

FOX, Jonathan. Tyroleans in Italy. <> (24 April 1995)

HANNUM, Hurst. Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination. The Accomodation of Conflicting Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1996.

HOLZER, Anton. Die Südtiroler Volkspartei. Thaur: Kulturverlag 1991.

JACOB, James E. Ethnic Mobilization on the Germanic Periphery: The Case of the South Tyrol. In: Ethnic Groups, 1981, vol. 3, p. 253-280.

JANKE, Peter (ed.). Terrorism and Democracy. Some Contemporary Cases. Report of a Study Group of the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies. New York: St. Martin's Press 1992.

LANDESINSTITUT FÜR STATISTIK. Wohnbevölkerung nach Sprachgruppen laut Volkszählungen von 1880 bis 1991. <> (version current at 9 March 1998).

LANDESINSTITUT FÜR STATISTIK. Jugendstudie 1994. Jugend, Modernisierung und kulturelle Identität in Südtirol. Bozen: Landesinstitut für Statistik 1995.

MIALL, Hugh. The Peacemakers. Peaceful Settlement of Disputes since 1945. New York: St. Martin's Press 1992.

MINGHI, Julian V. Boundary Studies and National Prejudices: The Case of the South Tyrol. In: The Professional Geographer, Vol. XV, No. 1 , January 1963, p. 4-7.

PFANZELTER, Eva. South Tyrol and the Principle of Self-Determination. An Analysis of a Minority Problem. In: Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, vol. XXIV, no. 1-2, 1997, p. 75-87.

PICKVANCE, T. J. Third-Party Mediation in National Minority Disputes. Some Lessons from the South Tyrol Problem. In: MITCHELL, C. R. / WEBB, K. (eds.). New Approaches to International Mediation. New York: Greenwood Press 1988, p 131-146.

PRISTINGER, Flavia. Ethnic conflict and modernization in the South Tyrol. In: FOSTER, Charles R. (Hg.). Nations without a state. Ethnic minorities in Western Europe. New York: Praeger 1980, S. 153-189.

SCHMIDTKE, Oliver. Politics of Identity. Ethnicity, Territories, and the Political Opportunity Structure in Modern Italian Society. Sinzheim: Pro Universitate Verlag 1996.

STEININGER, Rolf. 75 Years After: The South Tyrol Conflict Resolved. A Contribution to European Stability and a Model for Solving Minority Conflicts. In: BISCHOF, Günter / PELINKA, Anton (eds.) Austria in the Nineteen Fifties. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers 1995, p. 189-206.

WOODCOCK, George. The New Autonomy Statute of Trentino-Alto Adige. The End of the South Tyrol Question. In: Il Politico, vol. LVII, no. 1, 1992, p. 127-145.

Theoretical literature

CHAI, Sun-Ki. A Theory of Ethnic Group Boundaries. In: Nations and Nationalism, vol. 2, no. 2, 1996, p. 281-307.

CONNOR, Walker. A Nation is a Nation, is a State, is an Ethnic Group, is a … In: HUTCHINSON, John / SMITH, Anthony D. (eds.). Nationlaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994, p. 36-46.

GEERTZ, Clifford. Primordial and Civic Ties. In: HUTCHINSON, John / SMITH, Anthony D. (eds.). Nationlaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994, p. 29-34.

HOBSBAWM, Eric. The Nation as Invented Tradition. In: HUTCHINSON, John / SMITH, Anthony D. (eds.). Nationlaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994, p. 76-83.

HOROWITZ, Donald L. Ethnic groups in conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press 1985.

ISAACS, Harold-R. Basic Group Identity: The Idols of the Tribe. In: GLAZIER, Nathan / MOYNIHAN, Daniel P. (eds.). Ethnicity: Theories and Experiences. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1975, p. 29-52.

KEESING, Roger M. Theories of Culture. In: REDDING, Gordon (ed.). International Cultural Differences. Aldershot: Dartmouth 1995, p. 3-25.

KEDOURIE, Elie. Nationalism and Self-Determination. In: HUTCHINSON, John / SMITH, Anthony D. (eds.). Nationlaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994, p. 49-55.

KYMLICKA, Will. The Good, the Bad, and the Intolerable. Minority Group Rights. In: Dissent, Summer 1996, p. 22-30.

LIJPHART, Arend. Consociational Democracy. In: World Politics, vol. 21, January 1969.

STALIN, Joseph. The Nation. In: HUTCHINSON, John / SMITH, Anthony D. (eds.). Nationlaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994, p. 18-21.

WIEBE, Robert H. Humanizing Nationalism. In: World Policy Journal, Winter 1996/97, p. 81-88.

WOLIVER, Laura R. Mobilizing and Sustaining Grassroots Dissent. In: Journal of Social Issues, vol. 52, no. 1, 1996, p. 139-151.

Newspaper articles

DOLOMITEN. Normalisierung heißt aufsplittern. < html> (issue of 01/19/1998)

DOLOMITEN. Die Italiener verlassen Südtirol. < html> (issue of 02/11/1998)

DOLOMITEN. Das "Unbehagen" liegt im Detail. < html> (issue of 02/28/1998)

DOLOMITEN. Werden uns nicht entschuldigen. < html> (issue of 03/04/1998)

1. *"The South Tyrol autonomy has been hailed as one of the best examples of the protection of regional and cultural minorities in the world." (Alcock 1994, p. 46). See also Feiler's "South Tyrol - Model for the Resolution of Minority Conflicts" (1997, pp. 10) or the case study about South Tyrol in Miall's "The Peacemaker. Peaceful Settlement of Disputes since 1945" (1992, pp. 97).

2. * Alcock calls it a "policy of cultural genocide" (Alcock 1981)

3. * Still, by 1945, almost 75,000, or 30 percent of the South Tyrolean population had moved to the Third Reich. After the war, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 of those returned to their home and reapplied for Italian citizenship (Pfanzelter 1997, p. 78)

4. * See the original and definitive English text in Steininger 1995, p. 206.

5. * For instance, the philosopher August Friedrich Hayek wrote a letter to the editor of the London newspaper "The Times" entitled "Incidents in South Tyrol. Harsh treatment by police" where he reported the abuse of civilians during police examinations (The Times, 3 August, 1961, p. 9).

6. * As recent investigations by the Italian Parliament revealed, also the Italian secret service "Gladio" was involved in counter-terror actions (Steininger 1995, p. 198).

7. *About the causes, aims and different groups involved in terrorism in South Tyrol, see the case study of Janke 1992, pp. 1-33.

8. * Recently a national Italian newspaper reported that since 1994 10,000 Italian speaker have left South Tyrol (Dolomiten 02/11/1998).

9. * Very recently, a controversy over historical facts arose. The SVP wanted the postfascist Alleanza Nazionale (former MSI) to apologize for the cruelties of fascism. Alleanza Nazionale responded that also Germans never apologized for what happened during German occupation (Dolomiten 03/04/1998).

10. * Schmidtke writes: "Justifying its own political claims the political representatives of the German community portray South Tyrol, notwithstanding the contractual guarantees from the Italian nation-state, as suffering under a still pertinent peril of ethnic extinction." (1996, p. 281)

11. * In January, the Ökosoziales Forum organized a conference on democracy in South Tyrol. Anton Pelinka, political scientist at the University of Innsbruck, spoke about the dominant role of the SVP in South Tyrol and its impact on the still ongoing ethnic conflict by instrumentalizing ethnicity. He suggested the splitting of the two wings of the SVP in order to normalize South Tyrol's politics (Dolomiten 01/19/1998).

12. * This paper was made available kindly by Prof. Antony Alcock, Department of European Studies, University of Ulster at Coleraine.

Contact the author.

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