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A short history of Südtirol

Alto Adige, known as Südtirol in German, is a province in the north of Italy. It forms a part of what used to be the County of Tyrol, which was once ruled by the Holy Roman Empire before falling to the Habsburgs. The County of Tyrol spread over Trentino-Alto Adige and Tyrol in Austria. The current Italian name of the province represents Italy’s symbolic recreation of the area after World War I. However, despite being an Italian region, the area still holds its German legacy.

Villnöß, South Tyrol. Photo: alexvi82 via Pixabay


The Treaty of London of 1915 granted Italy the annexation of this land, on the condition that they joined the war efforts. Following the war, the County of Tyrol became a part of the Kingdom of Italy. However, prior to this, the area was mainly German-speaking and so some problems existed due to this annexation.


The main period of the Italianization of Alto Adige started during Italy’s fascist regime. Speaking German in the public service was officially banned, as was the teaching of the language at school. One of the only legacies of the area’s German-speaking past that survived was the magazine Alpenzeitung, due to its fascist articles.


Following Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, citizens of the area were given the choice to stay where they were and give up their German identity, or to move to Germany to keep the identity. However, in 1943, the alliance ended because the Armistice of Cassibile was made between the Kingdom of Italy and the Allies. As such, Germany occupied the area and used it as the ‘Operation Zone of the Alpine Foothills’; it was a strategic location for entering Italy. This annexation ended after the fall of the German Reich under the Gruber-De Gasperi Agreement. This agreement arranged for the German-speaking population of the area to have autonomy and the protection of its cultural heritage. Those families that had been forced to give up their German names under Mussolini’s rule were granted the right to revert back to them. Additionally, both Italian and German were recognised as official languages in Alto Adige/ Südtirol.


The agreement, however, did not fully satisfy everybody and led to an investigation by the United Nations in 1960. The Südtirolfrage (South Tyrolean question) was caused mainly by the Austrian government’s interference with the area’s affairs. By 1972, the issue was resolved thanks to an Austro-Italian treaty which ensured that the province would be an autonomous Italian region without interference from Austria. Since then, the province has done very well economically and is the wealthiest region in the country. Today, following the creation of the Euroregion Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino in 1996, the Italian provinces of South Tyrol and Trentino seek and promote peace and cooperation with the Austrian state of Tyrol.


The cooperation is reflected by the large number of citizens who speak German. That is to say, 69.4% of the population speak German, whilst only 26.1% speak Italian. Today, citizens are allowed to speak in either German or Italian at court; traffic signs are at least bi-lingual; schools are divided into German- or Italian-speaking categories; and when the general census of the population occurs, citizens have to declare whether or not they wish to be considered Italian- or German-speaking. The results of the census allow for the government to understand the ethnischer Proporz (ethnic proportion), so as to decide the proportion of people in each group that can work in public service.


Culturally, Alto Adige or Südtirol is largely German and Austrian as opposed to Italian. For example, there exists a tradition called Scheibenschlagen, which involves throwing burning discs on the first Sunday of Lent. Many children also believe in the Krampus, a demon who scares those who have behaved badly. On 5 December, St. Nicholas and the Krampus visit the houses of the children in the area. Those who have behaved well are given small gifts, whilst the badly-behaved are punished with birch rods. READ ALSO: You better watch out: the history of Krampus


Additionally, in 2019, UNESCO recognised Almabtrieb (Alpine Transhumance) as a universal intangible heritage. This annual tradition, which takes place between September and October, involves bringing the livestock down from the high pastures into the valley, with a lot of traditional music and dancing.


Südtirol has been a very problematic area over the course of history, due to a conflict between cultural traditions and governmental interference. However, today it seems that there is a great deal of peaceful cooperation between the German-speaking citizens and their Italian-speaking counterparts.

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