Hitler’s and Mussolini’s “Option” Left the Tyroleans with Nothing

Historical Background Features

After WWI and ratification of the Versailles treaty, Italy, as a European ally, was ceded the portion of Tyrol south of Brenner Pass. As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the population was German speaking and had been part of an autonomous province for some one hundred years, meaning they had controlled their laws, government, and all aspects of their society.  The allies stipulated that the German speaking population should have their rights, language, culture, and religion protected and that they should be able to participate in governing their own territory.

The idea of self-determination introduced by Woodrow Wilson in 1918 legitimized their quest for protection of their ethnicity and language. Yet, the peace of Paris of 1919 denied the South Tyroleans the right to self-determination and incorporated the German-speaking territory of the South Tyrol into Italy. The Allies and Austria recognized that “the Italian Government intended to pursue a liberal policy toward its new subjects of German nationality regarding their language, culture, and economic interest.[1]

During the first years of South Tyrolean integration into Italy, both Italian authorities and South Tyrolean representatives tried to find an appropriate solution for the future settlement of what was now—as part of Italy—a German-speaking minority. Yet, a movement called the irredenta, or the unredeemed, insisted that this area should have always belonged to Italy, and were determined to crush any sense of Tyrolean culture. When Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party took over in 1922, the South Tyroleans faced a different treatment by the Italian authorities. Fascism threatened not only to suppress the language of the German-speaking minority in the north, but also began to uproot the cultural identity of that area.[2]

The first and major aim was to Italianize the public language of the area, to Italianize all public inscriptions, town names, street names, and eventually family names and even inscriptions on tombstones.



[1] Eva Pfanzelter, The South Tyrol and the Principle of Self Determination: An Analysis of a Minority Problem, p33

[2]. Eva Pfanzelter, The South Tyrol and the Principle of Self Determination: An Analysis of a Minority Problem, p33

 

They provided “relief organizations,” which would aid in further penetrating the German speaking communities: free schoolbooks, meals and holidays by the sea for children who joined their youth organizations, jobs for those adults who joined the workers association and established trade connections for the companies who collaborated with the Fascist economic organizations.  For those who did not comply, there was major harassment, despotic laws that even regulated their pets and personal belongings.

“Majoritarianism” was the attempt by the Italian government to generate an Italian majority in the South Tyrol. In Bolzano, they built a new industrial complex, and apartment buildings for Italian factory workers. In other cities the government financed the construction of hydroelectric power plants which flooded lands and villages. The government started purchasing land from South Tyrolean bankrupted farmers and provided minor compensation for land destroyed by the flooding. The South Tyroleans had little chance to resist the dictatorial measures.

Although open confrontation with the Italian regime was rare, the South Tyroleans managed to withstand most of the Italianization efforts. They could not prevent the Italianization of the names of their villages and streets, but they prevented the Italianization of their children by speaking their German dialect at home and by teaching them written German in their illegal, secret schools. Organizations and associations that the Italian regime had not forbidden found ways to bypass the official orders. The marching bands renamed songs the fascists had prohibited. The traditional Austrian “Under the Double Eagle” became the “Eagle March” and the march “Vienna Always Remains Vienna” turned into “Wine Always Remains Wine.  Also, due to secret financial help from German relief funds during the economic crisis, many South Tyroleans did not have to face bankruptcy.[3]



[3] Eva Pfanzelter, The South Tyrol and the Principle of Self Determination: An Analysis of a Minority Problem, p 39

The idea of Volkssturm found its most radical realization in Hitler’s ideology. The new resistance group consisted mostly of young people. For them Germany, and especially Nazi-Germany, was the example of unprecedented economic rise and a reflection of the modern age.  Between 1928 and 1939 various resistance groups formed in the province to fight the fascist Italian regime and its policy of suppressing the German language.

Yet, no matter how intense the South Tyroleans’ effort to conform with national socialistic ideals was, Hitler had different intentions; he claimed that Germany’s only possible option was to assure Italy that the South Tyrolean problem did not exist. Despite Hitler’s public renunciation of South Tyrol and despite the development of the German-Italian friendship, the South Tyroleans’ continued to hope for integration with Nazi-Germany. For them Hitler’s foreign policy was an indication that his remarks on South Tyrol were tactically necessary steps[4]

During Hitler’s visit in Rome in May 1938, Mussolini confessed, “The past developments have shown, that this tribe cannot be assimilated,” therefore he promised that he would make some concessions to the German-speaking minority in the north as long as Hitler guaranteed the pacification of the area. By now, both Germany and Italy were interested in settling this question once and for all.[5]

June 23, 1939 the two dictatorial regimes decided to move the German-speaking South Tyroleans to German territory in the north and leave South Tyrol with Italy. The two governments gave the South Tyroleans the option either to emigrate to Germany or to remain in South Tyrol and become “good Italians.” At first, the South Tyroleans’ reactions were a fierce rejection of Hitler’s offer to “come home into the Reich.” But soon the Nazi-oriented VKS (Völkisher Kampfring Südtirols, or the South Tyrolean People’s Freedom Party) succeeded in convincing their fellow countrymen that the South Tyroleans’ resettlement in Germany was a necessary “sacrifice.”[6]



[4] Eva Pfanzelter, The South Tyrol and the Principle of Self Determination: An Analysis of a Minority Problem, p 45

[5] Eva Pfanzelter, The South Tyrol and the Principle of Self Determination: An Analysis of a Minority Problem, p 45

[6] Eva Pfanzelter, The South Tyrol and the Principle of Self Determination: An Analysis of a Minority Problem, p 47

The propaganda that evolved on both sides during the months following the June discussions, eventually divided the German-speaking South Tyroleans population into two hostile camps, those remaining and those who opted for Germany. 

85%-90% of the population opted for emigration; and were called Optanten. Those who chose to stay, called Dableiber, or the Leavers and Stayers. The Dableiber were condemned as traitors while the Optanten were defamed as Nazis. The Option destroyed many families and the development of the economy of the province was set back for many years. The first families left their homeland in 1939, and by 1943 a total of around 75,000 South Tyroleans had emigrated, of which 50,000 returned after the war. 

The era of the Options, however, had opened a deep gap among the German speaking population of the South Tyrol. Those remaining were in the minority and were repeatedly exposed to persecution from those who had opted to migrate. They were treated like betrayers of their country, their nationality, their blood, and their neighborhood. Friedl Volgger, who became an influential politician, had opted to stay in the South Tyrol and ended up in the concentration camp Dachau. He explained: “What the Jews were in the German Reich, were now part of the South Tyroleans in the eyes of their fanatical compatriots. The hatred between the two groups did not know any confines. Children left their parents, neighbors burned their neighbors’ houses, priests fought each other from the pulpit. In 1943 when Hitler’s troops finally marched into the South Tyrol the situation of those who had opted to remain became even worse. [7]

Seventy-three years after having their autonomy stolen from them, the German-speaking minority in the north of Italy succeeded in securing the ethnic, cultural, social, economic, and political uniqueness of their homeland. Today, the South Tyroleans are among the best protected minorities in Europe. They determine their own political future and administer their province by themselves. 



[7] Eva Pfanzelter, The South Tyrol and the Principle of Self Determination: An Analysis of a Minority Problem, p 50

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