South Tyrol

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Sign at the Brenner Pass Austrian-Italian border: "South Tyrol is not Italy!"

The South Tirol (German: Südtirol or Süd-Tirol) is an ancient Austrian province, today part of the region Trentino-Alto Adige in northern Italy. Despite a century of Italian occupation 70% of the population still speak German as their first language.


Memorial for fallen of South Tyrol in both world wars in Bozen (St. Jakob)

South Tirol was removed from Austria and awarded to Italy under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. An overwhelming number of the majority population spoke German and had a deeply Austrian culture, traditions, and architecture. For example, the traditional dress – Dirndl and Lederhosen – are typically also worn in Austria and southern Germany, too. The cuisine is very different from the Italians, with specialties such as Knödel and Sauerkraut, apple juice and beer. When the region was stolen by Italy, it was a purely rural economy. Families lived together in big farms in valleys and on the mountains and was essentially an agricultural economy.

After 1919 the German population held on to their identity fiercely. They organized the so-called Katakombenschulen (catacomb-schools) where they taught German and Austrian culture in secret. They also protested and tried to make their voices heard, which more than once ended in violent repression from the Italian government.

After 1945, the promises of a substantial autonomy for South Tyrol were repeatedly neglected by the Italian government, and the German population began protesting again. Most of these protests were peaceful, but there were more violent groups as well. The BAS organization, for example, organized attacks on electricity poles as a symbolic attack against the government – which many people found was still acting like the former Fascist party in relation to the South Tirol. Thus, they wanted to sabotage the industrial complex which, they felt, had been forcibly imposed on them and had devalued their traditional agricultural work. This is generally remembered as a period of instability. However, it is important to state that these attacks never had people as the targets and also never threatened Italians living in the territory – it targeted places and the Italian State.

When Austria regained its full political independence after the Allied occupation of its territory until 1955, it brought the issue of South Tyrol to the United Nations. Austrian politicians wanted to defend this region that had been a part of the Austrian Empire for centuries, and had not been given substantial autonomy by Italy despite the promises made. The UN ordered Italy and Austria to come up with a new autonomy statute that would ensure the protection of the German language and culture.

This led to various commissions being formed and an agreement was reached in 1970 which gave South Tyrol an economic, political, and linguistic autonomy within Italy. It is now considered one of the best-working autonomies in the world, with experts coming from Elsass-Lothringen, Aosta, Catalonia, and many other ethnically-contested areas to give advice.

21st century

Today, the region is bilingual. From street signs to city names, from official bureaucratic documents to announcements on public transport. To work in a public office – thus, for the Italian or the provincial government – one must have a language certificate in both languages. The higher the score, the better the pay. There are Italian and German schools. At 18, one must make an official declaration and decide which language group to be a part of. This is necessary because the public workplaces are divided based on an ethnic proportion – Germans have 70% of jobs for them, Italians have 30%.

See also

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