Last year, Professor Hannes Obermair, a South Tyrolean historian, agreed to meet with me. I was in Bolzano to do research for “Two Fatherlands: A Reschen Valley Novel Part 4” and since that illuminating afternoon, I have kept my eye on him and his work. Recently, I discovered an article in the digital magazine, Barfuss. As one of the curators for a permanent installation located in the controversial Bolzano Victory Monument, Obermair shared his thoughts and ideas in an interview with Julia Tappeiner in August this year. I have taken the liberty of summarizing that article because it is, unfortunately, only available in German and yet its message resonates with what the world has witnessed this past year.
Title photo by Wolfgang Moroder / Wikimedia Commons
Photo from WikiWand.
Hannes Obermair is the former director of the Municipal Archives of Bolzano. He played a leading role in the contextualization and historization of such controversial monuments as the Victory Monument or the Mussolini relief on the Casa Littoria in Bolzano. In the interview, Obermair claims that South Tyroleans are infatuated with their “victim” status, and he calls for a different approach to “the culture of remembrance,” or a collective culture of memory. South Tyrol was annexed by Italy in 1920 and that begins the background history to my Reschen Valley series.
“South Tyrol’s memory cultures – I prefer the plural – are divided,“ Obermair tells Tappeiner. “German-speaking South Tyroleans usually have different points of reference than their Italian-speaking fellow citizens. For example, the Option is deeply etched into the collective memory of many German- and Ladin-speaking families, but fails to be of any great importance to the Italian-speaking community.“ Especially to those who do not have as deep of roots to the province.
Obermair claims this causes a division of identities rather than a unified narrative and that, in its place, history becomes more mythic, ego-centric, and can cause a loss of identity within the cultural whole. This, he warns, can lead to cultural stagnation. For example, Obermair refers to how most South Tyroleans still glorify the 19th-century hero, Andreas Hofer but calls that mostly reactionary and can lead to serious exclusion.
Photo from WikiWand.
In sharp criticism, Obermair compares South Tyrol’s behavior to that of a spoiled child. “It wants to belong a little everywhere, but only to share and enjoy the respective amenities. A person is German when it fits, and Italian when it is more comfortable.“ He states that if that approach led to an ensemble of identities, then it would work. Instead, he sees that kind of design leading to opportunism and ethnocentric feelings of superiority. In other words, Tappeiner prompts, there is little room for self-criticism in the culture of remembrance. Obermair agrees with this assessment. “If someone were to skim over our historical contributions, one would have to conclude that South Tyrol’s history was populated by geniuses and heroes. This defiant refusal of knowledge is difficult to counter because it fulfills unconscious expectations of undisturbed joy and a flattering idyll of home. But it is false consciousness that is created and … [a]gainst this background, critical narratives are extremely difficult in South Tyrol.“
In general, in their national myths, the South Tyrolean society tends to portray itself as a victim and as a construct of external enemies, Obermair claims. “For example, none of the still celebrated local artists were fascists or Nazis. The downside of this is that it leads to the false claim that since we were injured, but have never injured one another, we are entitled to incessant reparation. It is very convenient if you don’t have to make amends yourself. And everything you do is then immediately excusable.”
The enormous political stability of post-war South Tyrol has, according to Obermair, created a glass ceiling for reflective ego-identities. He speaks of a “historical herd immunity” where nobody dares to break through the conventional narrative. And when someone does, they are ignored.
South Tyrol may be one of the most European and pluralistic societies in its history and yet one of the more tragically broken and contradictory of any other region on the continent. That there may very well explain why I am so drawn to the South Tyrolean story. This plurality reminds me very much of my connection to Ukraine through my own immigrant family. As a matter of fact, as I read the article, I was stunned at how much Obermair’s interview resonated for me not only based on my experiences in growing up in the Ukrainian diaspora, but what I observe on the sidelines of America’s polarized society today.
Though critical of the South Tyroleans, Obermair is also hopeful and has ideas and solutions that he brings to the table. For example, a few years ago he began curating an “experience” in the form of a permanent installation at the Victory Memorial in Bolzano, called “One Monument, One City, Two Dictatorships”. The double dictatorship experience would actually be an ideal basis for understanding in order to promote a symmetrical reappraisal, Obermair says.
When Tappeiner asks him whether he believes South Tyrol should better come to terms with its own past, especially its connection with National Socialism, Obermair responds: “It is the deep-rooted fear of weakening as a collective that leads to the successful fading out of South Tyrol’s National Socialist entanglements again and again. The same happens with fascism in large parts of the Italian language group. The double dictatorship experience, the power and influence of both fascisms, is actually an ideal basis for understanding, in order to promote a symmetrical reappraisal, which does not want to make any daily political capital out of its findings. If one approaches South Tyrol’s contemporary history impartially, and without a moral index finger, then the gray area in between will dominate. The stories of victims and perpetrators would be closely interwoven. This actually forbids the creation of ethnocentric narratives of suffering.“ The problem, he adds, is that it’s more comfortable to fall back on old habits.
Obermair concludes that if we were to build monuments, fashion statues, and place memorials that depict both the perpetrators and the victims, we might all benefit from a more factual and realistic historical narrative. “I find the addition of the Roman monument in Heidenheim, to which the silhouette of a mine victim has been added this year, very successful, and a model as to how we might better handle our public spaces.”
The historian praised the “Stolpersteine“ project – or stumbling blocks – in Bolzano and Merano, where plaques have been installed in various areas around the cities indicating where victims of the Holocaust and fascism were affected. What better way to come to terms with the dark chapter of South Tyrol?
Photo by Christian Michelides
The permanent exhibit at the Victory Memorial contains a collection of artefacts, documents and illustrations of radical transformations made to the city between 1918 to 1945. Obermair believes that using the Victory Memorial – which was erected to symbolize Italy’s power over South Tyrol – changes the symbolic character of the obscene testimony it stood for and transform it into a place of reason and reflection. Instead of seeing the memorial’s original intention, Obermair claims the object becomes a witness to itself.
“The bloody failure of the dictators’ concept of history and society is exposed as arrogance and real barbarism, especially in the monumental legacies they leave behind. That perspective is only possible with the authentic relics, and that is why they are so valuable.” Yes, it may seem paradoxical unless, Obermair states, you consider them to be “the historical dump from which the precious metals of our critical consciousness can be extracted.“