There are an estimated 350,000 German-speakers who constitute around 70 per cent of the total population of the South Tyrol region in the provinces of Bolzano/Bozen and Trento. The service sector, especially tourism, accounts for almost two-thirds of employment, while industry provides a quarter of jobs and agriculture about one-eighth.
A few thousand other German-speakers are scattered in 11 linguistic islands elsewhere in the southern Alps, and their survival as a distinct minority is under threat. The smallest group is in Cimbri in the province of Verona and the largest in Kanaltal.
For 14 centuries the inhabitants of South Tyrol, now on Italy’s border with Austria, have belonged to the German-speaking world. Following the Treaty of St Germain in 1919, the area of Tirol south of the Brenner was ceded by Austria to Italy together with the predominantly Italian-speaking Trento. At that time the population of South Tyrol was 85 per cent German-speaking, and the annexation and consequent division of the Tyrol was widely resented.
Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini vowed to achieve the complete Italianization of the region, and South Tyrolese experienced serious repression between the wars; speaking German in public was forbidden, German political parties and unions were liquidated, and schools and personal names were ‘Italianized’. South Tyrolese were barred from taking part in industrialization and from employment in factories. Some had their land expropriated for industrial development. By the eve of World War II, 25 per cent of the population was Italian, and South Tyrolese Germans were confined to the underdeveloped Alpine agricultural regions.
In 1939, under an agreement between the Italian government and Nazi Germany they were given the choice of maintaining their ethnic identity, by leaving their homes and transferring to Germany, or remaining in their homes and accepting full assimilation. Pressure was put on them to vote for Germany, and over 80 per cent did so; but by 1943 only 75,000 had left, and one-third of these returned after the war.
After the war, many South Tyrolese Germans were anxious to have South Tyrol returned to Austria. However, with Austria occupied by Allied forces, the situation was uncertain. The Italian and Austrian governments signed the De Gasperi–Gruber Agreement of 1946, guaranteeing German-speaking inhabitants of Bolzano and Trento complete equality of rights with Italians and safeguards for their ethnic, cultural and economic development. German would be taught in schools, and German surnames were permitted once more.
But the Austrians and South Tyrolese were disappointed and continued to insist on the eventual re-unification with Austria or self-determination. The Sudtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), set up in 1945, lobbied both governments. The Italian government granted limited autonomy to the Province of Bolzano in 1946. On the regional level the province was twinned with Trento, a larger, wealthier and almost entirely Italian province. In the newly formed Trentino-Alto Adige region South Tyrolese were in the minority. Although the Autonomy Statute provided that the region should delegate its executive functions to the provinces, this was not carried out in Bolzano, and this practice was upheld by the constitutional court.
The vast majority of South Tyrolese Germans supported the Sudtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), which was represented in the provincial government, but the cultural, economic and social development of South Tyrol remained in Italian hands at the regional level and in Rome. Increasing Italian immigration to the area created fears of Italianization and prompted increased popular demands to make South Tyrol a region in its own right. Elements of the South Tyrolese resorted to attacks on infrastructure, cutting the electricity supply to a large part of Italy, and Italian far-right groups retaliated.
This and international pressures, notably from the United Nations, resulted in the improved autonomy package of 1972. While the newly named region of Trentino-South Tyrol still existed, many of its powers were transferred to the ‘Autonomous Provinces’ of Bolzano and Trento, including the remit for agriculture and tourism. Arrangements were prepared for financing the province. German was given full official-language status, equal with Italian, and all official announcements, documents and signs had to be in both languages. Education in the mother tongue, from nursery to tertiary levels, was guaranteed. However, implementation of this transfer of power was not completed until after a renewed bombing campaign in the late 1980s.
Tourism has brought considerable wealth to the province, which is now almost wholly Germanic in language, culture and appearance, with a high standard of living. In contrast, German-speakers in other areas do not benefit from any special status or protection for their culture. Only the Walser in the Aosta Valley benefit from measures to protect their language in education.
From the 1990s the notion of an Autonomous European Region of the Tyrol attracted some interest. In principle this proposed arrangement would have allowed for reunification of the Tyrol within Europe and leave central government with power only in matters of defence, justice, and foreign and monetary policy.
Under the Special Statute for the province of Bolzano/Bozen, both German and Italian can be used in the representative assemblies of the regional, provincial and local authorities. Government departments are required to use German in their dealings with Germans. German is a language of instruction in schools and higher education. Many children are bilingual. Italian is taught as a second language from the second year of the elementary cycle. A university in Südtirol allows teachers to study in their mother tongue in their own country.
The majority of the work force at all levels speaks German. German-speakers prefer to set up their own businesses rather than work for someone else. German is the predominant language in the area for both formal and informal communication, but the population is bilingual.
The Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) is represented at four levels of government: municipal, regional, national and in the European Parliament. In the national lower house, the SVP is part of the joint parliamentary group for linguistic minorities, and in the senate, it is part of the ‘autonomies’ group. In the European Parliament it is part of the European People’s Party.
While German language and culture are thriving in Bolzano/Bozen, they are under threat in the smaller communities not covered by special statute. With the exception of the Walsers in the Aosta Valley, German is not taught in the school curriculum. There are Walser radio broadcasts financed by central and regional government. There are a few periodicals dealing with Cimbrian language and culture.
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