How Mussolini Got Blindsided

Historical Background Features
Propaganda is by no means simply commercial advertising applied to the political, or spiritual arena. … political propaganda seeks the systematic enlightenment necessary to win supporters to a worldview.
Nazi propaganda training manual

On the 23rd June 1939 in Berlin, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany signed an agreement that fixed the absolute relocation of South Tyroleans in territories in Eastern Europe that had yet to be conquered. The Italian government was eager to get rid of Austrian troublemakers, and Hitler was eager to get as many migrants as possible into Germany for financial and military reasons.

The National Socialists launched a huge propaganda campaign to encourage the South Tyrolean population to “opt” for resettlement. The South Tyroleans were given just half a year to decide for or against the resettlement. Lies were deliberately spread amongst the people to incite hatred against one another. Soon a crack ran through the entire South Tyrolean population – the divide between those willing to resettle and those wishing to stay in their homeland was irreconcilable for generations to come. The majority of South Tyroleans decided on resettlement.

Germany developed a detailed approach to convert the masses to their ideals. The “Big Lie” propaganda technique was developed by Adolf Hitler.  A succinct definition of Big Lie reads like present-day political strategy: make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually the people will believe it.

Misinformation was spun and filtered to the South Tyrolean populations, creating the belief that the Italian government would resettle them regardless which statehood they chose. Propelled and initiated by the fervent Italian nationalistic rhetoric from decades earlier, the Tyroleans understood that, if they chose to stay in Italy, they would be resettled to African colonies or to the south, such as Sardinia or Sicily. In other words, whether they chose German or Italian citizenship, they would be forced off their properties anyway. The question was, did they want to be under a German regime (yes, mostly) or Italian, which had already demonstrated systematic oppression.

The propaganda for resettlement or staying in South Tyrol was almost unbearable for those six months between June and December 1939. The population was bombarded with arguments for and against the resettlement. The Nazis did their utmost to try and persuade the South Tyroleans to resettle by launching a huge campaign, but the Italians believed that “nobody would leave their home voluntarily.” They did little about it. On the contrary, those most fervent nationalists encouraged it. By early December, however, almost 60% of the South Tyroleans had chosen German statehood. And only then did Mussolini and his government wake up to the alarm that their lands in northern Italy would be drained of one of the most prosperous economies in the nation.

The Fascist government set forth an aggressive campaign to counter the Nazi propaganda, but it was far too late. Mussolini had newspapers splash huge headlines with promises that nobody would have to leave their homes, but by end of December, almost 90% of all South Tyroleans had chosen to resettle within the Third Reich.

Two leaflets are presented here exactly as they were handed to the people by the respective organizations.

An Optant (voluntary re-settler) leaflet

Autumn 1939

South Tyroleans!
The propaganda of the so-called “Dableiber”, (against emigration) that is to say those who voluntarily and blindly give their consent to the Italianisation of our nationhood, continues. They cannot comprehend that there cannot be a homeland without taking care of national character first. Foreign elements, emigrants, aristocrats and incited clerics make up a bunch of crooks who preach about their love of the homeland. People who show off their money and yet fear having to sacrifice a few Lire to the Reich at the end say: “Don’t go, it’s war out there! Consequences of war are upheaval and devaluation of the money you’re still owed for selling your property“. Yes, have we South Tyroleans of 1939 turned into cowards who fear war and sacrifice for our Fatherland? (…) They say, “In the Reich there is no religion”. In the Reich, one is against the sanctimonious, politically active priesthood, which hates national Germany out of a lust for secular power and protects that Judaism, which crucified Christ, our Lord, as only it can. The commandment of kindness and the 10 commandments are almost basic laws in the German Reich. (…)

A Dableiber (stayer) leaflet

Autumn 1939

Consider before deciding!
We are told to register as German and then stay! But at the same time, the Innsbruck news writes that houses are being built for us already! Why should there be houses built if we are staying? First, we were told that we are coming to Salzburg, to Burgenland, to Poland – now all of a sudden all of us South Tyroleans are supposed to find space in northern Tyrol? How is that possible? However, one thing is certain: whoever signs and accepts German nationality will have to leave their farms and homes in South Tyrol.
A farm that is estimated at around 100,000 lire here will be difficult to find for less than 100,000 marks in the Reich – but 100,000 lire are not even 25,000 marks and for that I can only get a hut! It’s war out there! And out there, no-one wants paper money – they want property!
Loyalty is tradition in the Tyrol! Stay faithful to the homeland and stay faithful to the Lord until death! Think of the hour when you take the cross from your old parlour’s altar and close the front door behind you for good! Think of the hour when you look at your home, your fields and your meadows for the last time. Think of this difficult hour – then go and decide you and your children’s fate and future!
Choose between home and abroad!

In the end, the resettlement program could not come to full fruition: with their assets frozen in foreign banks and already at war, Germany could not afford to pay up all the restitution due. Only 75,000 Tyroleans resettled into Germany before the migration efforts ended. Nothing could have pleased the South Tyroleans, unhappy victims of the undertaking, more. From the very beginning they had been faced with a cruel dilemma. They loved their alpine land…had no wish whatever to leave it. Only the message of Nazi propaganda – that those who did not choose resettlement in Germany would face forced resettlement by the Italians in Southern Italy or Africa – had let them to opt en masse for the skewed and tasteless German project.

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Book 4
How do you take a stand when the enemies lurk within your own home?

1938. South Tyrol. Katharina, Angelo, and Annamarie are confronted by the oppressive force created by Mussolini’s and Hitler’s political union. Angelo puts aside his prejudices and seeks an alliance with old enemies; Katharina fights to keep her family together as the valley is forced to choose between Italian and German nationhood, and Annamarie finds herself in the thick of a fascist regime she thought she understood. All will be forced to choose sides and none will escape betrayal.

G. Stark, Moderne politische Propaganda (Munich: Verlag Frz. Eher Nachf., 1930).
History Collection: “Fake News is Nothing New: 5 ‘Black Propaganda’ Operations From the 1930s and 1940s” By Jeanette Lamb Latour.
Multicultural Interdisciplinary Handbook:
The Separation of South Tyrol from Austria and the Option Agreement as an example of Forced Migration in the 20th Century: Andrea Krimbacher, Franz Riegler.
C. F. “Germany, Italy and South Tyrol, 1938-45.” The Historical Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 1965, pp. 95–111. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Jan. 2021.
Source: An abridged version from: Kirchler und Tasser, Die Option. Unterrichtseinheit für die Oberschule, Bolzano, 1989.

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