Can Europe Make It?

South Tyrol – a distorting mirror for Vienna, Rome and liberal London

Three capitals – the financial and military heart, the bridge with eastern Europe, and the ancient caput mundi on the Mediterranean – form a triangle, at whose centre emerges South Tyrol.

Alessio Colonnelli
14 January 2018

Benito says – believe, obey, fight! Bolzano’s bas-relief, 2008. Flickr/John Shave. Some rights reserved.South Tyrol is a hot topic, currently being debated in Austria, Italy and Britain. They boast loud politics, drawing in others as well. In all three, Euroscepticism has firmly taken hold.

One section of the London press and Vienna's newly elected government have zoned in on Italy's largest, richest and least Italian of all provinces. What they discussed contains a throwback to the upheavals of the first post-war period.

Half a million South Tyroleans can still feel the icy reverberations of that time. Others know this too; they peer anxiously, everyone holding a different lens.

The Guardian published an analysis on how a fascist bas-relief in Bozen's Gerichtsplatz (“Law Court Square”) has been defused by a work of art, one inspired by Hannah Arendt's thinking. (Oddly enough, the op-ed never uses the terms 'South Tyrol' or 'South Tyrolean', but instead employs the Italian name 'Bolzano', not emphasising sufficiently the Austrian ethnic side of the story.)

From the bombastic headline – “A small Italian town can teach the world how to defuse controversial monuments” – it would rightly seem that the sole merit goes to this mountain municipality.

But, digging deeper, you find another consideration: in 2011 it was apparently the government in Rome which asked Bozen to do something about the Mussolini-on-a-horse. Whereas London waxes lyrical about all things Italian, Austria openly challenges Italy.

Not so much a local initiative, then, as a push from Rome. A sign that Italy might well have woken up from its torpor and recalibrated the past, ready to honour the return of the remains of disgraced Victor Emmanuel III, the king who abandoned the country to the Nazis. A newly gained national awareness which in liberal London's eyes is a step in the right direction.

Vienna too is focusing on South Tyrol. But whereas London waxes lyrical about all things Italian, Austria openly challenges Italy. The Austrian citizenship offered only to German-speaking South Tyroleans is riddled with revenge, many argue. Unfortunately, no public register exists explicitly stating who belongs to which linguistic group.

What you do find though, is an unrepresentative archive of who speaks which native language; a rudimentary tool based on self-certification, which you can change at any time, at a whim, as the Bozen-born acclaimed novelist Luca D'Andrea wrote in the national press, maybe perhaps you have discovered that certain jobs in the public sector (22 per cent of the job market) are only open to speakers of one language.

This is a mechanism based on proportional representation of the size of the linguistic groups which relies on the “infallibility” of the register. Grotesquely, this office is located in that very Gerichtsplatz. Convoluted? It's worse than that – divisive. Yet, Vienna finds this system reliable for calculating how many Austrian passports they'd need to issue. All very convenient. Convoluted? It's worse than that – divisive.

But consider: if you want to hand out Austrian passports in predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol, then why not offer it to everyone who was born, or who has lived there long enough, and can prove proficiency in German by showing their grade “A” in the Zweisprachigkeitsprüfung (“Bilingualism Test”)?

By doing so, a proportion of local Italian speakers could claim an Austrian passport, making this novel idea less sectarian and acceptable (some may also have ancestors from Trentino, part of the Habsburg empire until 1918, known as Welschtirol, or “Italian Tyrol”). Not something the ultra-nationalist Freedom Party of Austria would be thrilled about.

Did Vienna not realise how unsystematic ethnic categorisation is in South Tyrol? Hard to believe they didn't. The important thing is provocation. You can either challenge it or ignore it. Rome has chosen the former: a resounding No to dual citizenship was the answer. The important thing is provocation.

So, which Rome are we talking about? Is this the same magnanimous Rome – applauded by the anti-Brexit London press, determined to make Europeans sound enlightened – who allegedly encouraged Bozen to do something about its fascist monuments (without addressing its own)?

Here we have three capitals speaking of Italy's outpost in diverging ways: London, Europe's financial and military heart; Vienna, the bridge into eastern Europe; and Rome, the ancient caput mundi. If you were to join these powerhouses on a map, the lines would form a triangle, with South Tyrol right at its centre.

This is a tiny region that has little to teach others, namely Donetsk and Catalonia, as local leaders have boasted, but it has found a few solutions applicable to its own very specific circumstances. This is why South Tyrol is much talked about in these Eurosceptic times, where corners are getting tighter by the day.

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