by Roderick Conway Morris

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Othmar Seehauser
Senator Roland Riz speaking at the 1992 Congress of the Süditoler Volkspartei (VSP)

Arrivederci, Italia

By Roderick Conway Morris
BOLZANO, South Tyrol 8 August 1992


'Ich bin ein Wassertrinker', said Italian Senator Roland Riz, declining the waitress's suggestions of wine as he settled into a corner table at the Griffone/Greif (everything is bilingual, sometimes trilingual here), a 16th-century inn on Piazza Walther/Waltherplatz, Bolzano's main square. The white-haired, blue-eyed Law Professor had returned that morning from Rome, where the Senate had been voting on the new anti-Mafia decree as the army went into Sicily.

'Sending the troops in,' he said, shaking his head, remembering perhaps when the Italian army was swarming the South Tyrol in search of nationalist terrorists, 'is an admission that the policy has broken down.'

Senator Riz is the leader of the Sudtiroler Volkspartei (South Tyrolese People's Party, or SVP), which represents 90 per cent of the Province's majority German-speakers and over 70 per cent of the Ladins (the ancient native population that still inhabits some high valleys and pastures) of the South Tyrol Autonomous Province, a concept on paper that, after more than twenty years of negotiation, Roland Riz is finally bringing to fruition.

High-handed post-war map redrawing; three distinct communities speaking mutually incomprehensible languages; a history of racial discrimation, 'ethnic cleansing' and terrorism; a majority in favour of reunification with a neighbouring country, and a mountainous landscape purpose-built for guerrilla warfare should be recipe for bloody conflict. Yet, though a kind of revolution is now drawing to a close as the Province acquires an advanced form of semi-detachment from the rest of Italy, far from being alive with the sound of gunfire, the hills echo to nothing more menacing than the clank of cowbells and the chirping of crickets.

The South Tyrol - Sudtirol to German- and Ladin-speakers, and Alto-Adige (a term invented in 1906) to the Italians - was promised to Italy in the secret Treaty of London of 1915, as an inducement to Italy to join the war on the side of the Allies. There were then well over 200,000 German-speakers, less than 20,000 Italians and around 6,000 Ladins.

No guarantees were imposed on Italy safegarding minority rights, and by the 1930s Mussolini had instituted a full-scale programme to extirpate German language and culture in the area, whilst importing tens of thousands of Italian immigrants, most from the poor South. The 'final solution' to the South Tyrol question was framed in 1939, when Hitler and Mussolini agreed that the entire German-speaking population should chose between moving to Germany or being forcibly Italianized. More than 70 per cent opted for migration - although, since the war intervened, only 70,000 actually went.

The Austrians' attempts to regain the territory got short shrift from the Allies in 1945, who were in no mood to reward them for failing to put up any resistance to the Nazis (though the Italians were now obliged to grant equal rights to the minorities, and a degree of self-determination). The Italian government responded by creating a larger, notionally autonomous Region consisting of the Trentino and Alto-Adige - making sure the Germans remained permanently in the minority - and closed the file.

In 1957 the bombs started going off. Two years later the SVP walked out of the Regional Government. More than a decade of tension and further terrorist outbreaks at last gave rise to the pachetto, or Package: 137 measures, including the setting up of an assembly and local administration with extensive powers for the South Tyrol Province (leaving the combined South Tyrol-Trentino Region with purely decorative functions); nursery, primary and secondary education in the language of the parents' choice; the distribution of housing and state jobs according to lingusitic proportions (in 1972 the German-speakers, who made up 65 per cent of the population held less than 10 per cent of state jobs). Most of the Package's provisions are now in place - and the SVP, despite accusations from within the party and from die-hard nationalist splinter groups that it is a sell-out, has just voted overwhelmingly to accept it as the status quo, thereby renouncing the long-cherished goal of unification with Austria.

Roland Riz was at pains to point out that the Package was an historic compromise, not a perfect settlement. 'All over Europe,' he said, 'there are situations of ethnic conflict, so the way we have reached an agreement here goes against the general trend. On the other hand, this is a model for a peaceful solution, not a model for autonomy.'

The Package would work, he said, only within the context of a federal Europe, where borders ceased to exist, a Europe of regions rather than traditional states. And what if such a Europe failed to materialize? 'It would be a problem for the whole of Europe, not just for us. In such a Europe, with existing states becoming more and more nationalist, not only would the South Tyrol question be reopened, but a thousand other ones as well.'

Nor does Roland Riz, after decades of procrastination, delaying tactics and pettifoggery by the Italian government, rule out further attempts at back-tracking. 'It is with actions not words that problems are solved. An agreement makes sense only if it is kept in all its particulars. I made this agreement trusting and hoping that it would be honoured. The question will be closed only when the whole Package is put into effect.'

Meanwhile, whilst the Ladin population strongly support the Package, seeing, said Franz Demetz, the SVP's Ladin vice-president, every concession won by the German-speakers as a gain also for them, the MSI-DN (Italian Social Movement-New Right, which grew out of the old Fascist and Monarchist parties) is fighting a rear-guard action. The MSI won 20 per cent of the vote in Bolzano in the spring parliamentary elections, something like four times its national showing. Pietro Mitolo, a 71-year-old chemical engineer and Euro-MP, who leads the MSI in the South Tyrol, told me that the Italian state had already ceded far too much.

'Italy has gone way beyond what was envisaged in the international agreements. No state in Europe has ever conceded to a minority language group such administrative and legislative powers as the German-speaking minority have in the Alto-Adige.'

Mr Mitolo clearly pins as many hopes on Europe as Roland Riz, but his Europe is one of strong, unified nation states. Granting autonomy to the Alto-Adige could only retard the realizaton of the European idea. 'Where else in Europe, 'he said,' do you have to declare which language you speak, and where else are children separated and sent to different schools according to what language they speak?'

The German-speakers' demands for self-determination, said Mr Mitolo, was, in spite of Austria's formal renunciation of its claims on its old territory, a dangerous step down the road to the ultimate realization of a Greater Germany, especially after the reunification of East and West Germany. 'Next they will not be speaking of independence, but will start talking about Volksgebiet, the People's Land... After which they won't need autonomy, because German rule will have been established by other means.'

First published: Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023