A Land on the Threshold

South Tyrolean Transformations, 1915–2015

by Georg Grote (Volume editor) Hannes Obermair (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection XXII, 418 Pages


Among the many commemorations of World War I, little was made of the 100th anniversary of the secret Treaty of London between Italy and the Western War Allies in April 1915, which sealed the fate of South Tyrol for the duration of the twentieth century by passing it from Austria to Italy. In May 2015, a symposium was held in the medieval Prösels Castle in the Italian Dolomites to mark this historical moment. Contributors set out to explore the political, social and cultural impact of South Tyrol’s existence «on the threshold» during the twentieth century.
Individually and collectively, the essays in this volume challenge the simplistic reading of South Tyrol as merely a geographic region torn between Germanic and Italian cultures; instead, they explore the dynamic effects of its geographical, political and cultural history since 1915. South Tyrol, as a modern regional state in Europe, faces many of the same problems as other European regions, be they individual states or sub-state regions. Most of the contributions in this volume are from academics and intellectuals within the Province of Bolzano/Bozen who negotiate and discuss these issues through their native languages: German, Italian and Ladin. By making their research accessible through English translations and abstracts, this volume seeks to bring their work on historical and contemporary developments in South Tyrol to a wider European and global audience.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: South Tyrol: Land on a Threshold. Really? (Georg Grote and Hannes Obermair)
  • Part I: History
  • 1: 1918/1919. Die Teilung Tirols (Rolf Steininger)
  • 2: Südtirol im St. Germain-Kontext (Carlo Moos)
  • 3: Economic Hurdles after the Great War: How the South Tyrol-based Swiss Monastery Muri-Gries Overcame an Existential Crisis (Nina F. Caprez)
  • 4: The Annihilation of the Jewish Community of Meran (Sabine Mayr)
  • Part II: Historiography
  • 5: Genesis of the South Tyrolean Iconic Figure Sepp Innerkofler: Actors, Narrative, Functions (Markus Wurzer)
  • 6: Challenging the Zero-Hour Concept: Letters across Borders (Georg Grote)
  • 7: The (Un)digested Memory of the South Tyrolean Resettlement in 1939 (Eva Pfanzelter)
  • Part III: Society Today
  • 8: “Calcutta lies … near the Rombrücke”: Migration Discourse in Alto Adige and Dolomiten and their Coverage of the Bozen “Immigrant Barracks Camps” of the Early 1990s (Sarah Oberbichler)
  • 9: Ankommen, verbinden, vernetzen: Vereine und Vereinigungen von Migrant_innen in Südtirol. Eine Gegenüberstellung der Donne Nissà, der Associazione Panalbanese Arbëria und der Rumänischen Gemeinde (Julia Tapfer)
  • 10: Beobachtungen aus musiksoziologischer Sicht (Friederike Haupt)
  • 11: Historicism and the Rise of Regionalism as “Style”: South Tyrol’s Successful Special Path (Bettina Schlorhaufer)
  • 12: Die Unbequeme Wissenschaft (The Uncomfortable Science) (Gareth Kennedy)
  • Part IV: Border Stories
  • 13: Border Stories: Negotiating Life on the Austrian–Italian border (Johanna Mitterhofer)
  • 14: Sulla soglia. Leggende meranesi, storie di confine (Paolo Bill Valente)
  • 15: Identità e riconoscimento attraverso i culti della fertilità e il paesaggio agricolo nel Tirolo del Sud. Il case study della popolazione giovane maschile di Stilfs im Vinschgau (Marta Villa)
  • Part V: Renegotiating Belonging
  • 16: Alsace, South Tyrol, Basque Country (Euskadi): Denationalization and Identity (Antonio Elorza)
  • 17: Living Together is an Art (Lucio Giudiceandrea and Aldo Mazza)
  • 18: Between Stigma and Self-Assertion: Difference and Belonging in the Contested Area of Migration and Ethnicity (Hans Karl Peterlini)
  • 19: Living Apart Together in South Tyrol: Are Institutional Bilingualism and Translation Keeping Language Groups Apart? (Barbara Angerer)
  • 20: Grenzregion Südtirol. Schwierigkeiten und Möglichkeiten einer Erziehung zur Mehrsprachigkeit für ein vielsprachiges Europa (Siegfried Baur)
  • 21: Redefining Categories: Construction, Reproduction and Transformation of Ethnic Identity in South Tyrol (Chiara De Paoli)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← viii | ix →


← xii | xiii →


The editors of this volume would like to express their gratitude to all contributors, to the Peter Lang team for their support, University College Dublin, the Institute for Minority Rights in the EURAC and the Stadtarchiv Bozen, the Prösels Castle Kustos Michl Rabensteiner and the Kuratorium Schloss Prösels for the use of the castle facilities on 8 and 9 May 2015, the Völser Goldschmiede, the Binderstube and the Caffè Caroma in Völs, and to the Hotel Heubad in Obervöls for their generous support. ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | xv →


Introduction: South Tyrol: Land on a Threshold. Really?

While South Tyrol is a part of Italy, it is also an autonomous province with distinct Austrian and German characteristics. Both South Tyrol’s geographic location and history underscores its position as a region where the north meets the south of Europe: at its border, Italian and German cultures and languages converse and Mediterranean and northern European climates collide. Hence, it has regularly been described as an “Übergangsland” – as a passage from north to south and vice versa. It has, however, been a contested region for 150 years, and political viewpoints have often characterized the approach of writers and commentators towards this mountainous region in the Central Alps. Depending on the source and context, the region has been claimed as a German or Italian one; only in recent years has there been a growing tendency to regard the region as both German and Italian.1 It is this latter tendency to view South Tyrol as a unique hybrid of both these cultures that this volume wishes to explore through the prism of various disciplines. While the German and Italian influences may not always harmonize with each other, this collection of essays reveals that they do inform and enrich the region resulting in a complex and diverse collective culture that is modern South Tyrol.

Nothing has epitomized the German and Italian claims on South Tyrol as succinctly as the name of the area itself: Südtirol (South Tyrol) in German, Alto Adige in Italian. In many respects the word pair Alto ← xv | xvi → Adige/South Tyrol hints at its complexity. Where there is a South Tyrol, there should be a North Tyrol, otherwise there would be no need to add the prefix “South” to distinguish one part of the landscape from another. North Tyrol is part of another independent state, Austria, which is located beyond the Brenner border. South Tyrol therefore highlights a connection to an area outside the Italian state. Those who call the region South Tyrol today, the vast majority of the 320,000 German-speaking South Tyroleans, keep alive the memory of the division of Tyrol in 1918 and a loyalty to a historical unity with Austria. They also stress their cultural affinity with the German-speaking world beyond the Brenner Pass.

Alternatively, the fact that the 160,000 Italians in South Tyrol refer to the region as Alto Adige, the high Etsch/Adige region, implies that there must be a lower Etsch/Adige region. As the river Etsch/Adige flows from the Austrian–Italian–Swiss border down through the Vinschgau/Val Venosta, unites with the river Eisack/Isarco and then flows to central Italy, this lower Etsch/Adige region is in Italy where the river flows into the Adriatic Sea. The Italian name for the region therefore emphasizes its geographical connection to the entire Italian landscape: it is literally drawing the region into the Italian homeland. Thus the two names for the region are not merely German and Italian versions of each other, they are, in fact, linguistic attempts to appropriate the area, based on competing political and cultural understandings of the region.

Claims old and new

It is widely accepted that the dispute over where South Tyrol belonged – to which state it should affiliate – began in 1866 with the leading exponent of Italian emancipatory nationalism, Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazzini claimed that only 20 per cent of the Tyrolean people living south of the Brenner Pass were of German origin and thus a minority easy to Italianize. The area, therefore, belonged to Italy and should become part of the new Italian ← xvi | xvii → state.2 By the 1890s, the pro-Italian nationalist Ettore Tolomei had developed a pseudo-scientific argument that Italy’s boundaries were defined by nature and not by the ethnicity of the region’s population.3 This view went against the grain of contemporary nationalist sentiment across Europe, which regarded ethnicity as the marker of borders. Tolomei’s rationale was contested by an alternative Austrian–German vision expounded by various groups, in particular, the Tiroler Volksbund established in 1905. This Austrian–German cultural and political movement articulated a competing desire to see a Germanized Northern Italy as far south as Verona.4

Thus, on the eve of World War I, South Tyrol was in the eye of a cultural storm with two distinct and, apparently, incompatible views of the region’s cultural identity and political future. Hence in the early stages of the conflict, Italy played its political hand with its ambitions regarding South Tyrol firmly in its sights. In 1915, when it was far from certain that the Austrian–German alliance would lose the war, Italy joined forces with the Western Allies. Its strategy paid off when in 1918, as part of the spoils of war, it was rewarded with the southern part of the Austrian crownland Tyrol.

When Mussolini came to power in late 1922, he tightened the Italian grip on South Tyrol by embarking on a Tolomei-led campaign of Italianizing the German-speaking population. The fascists attempted to Italianize all areas of individual and collective life in order to eradicate any traces of the Austrian–German tradition: place names and family names were Italianized; the only language accepted was Italian; and all kinds of Tyrolean collective organizations and newspapers were suppressed.5 In the face of such fascist suppression, many Tyroleans welcomed Hitler’s declaration that all German peoples belonged in the German Reich. However, Hitler was more interested in securing Mussolini’s friendship and creating the fascist axis in Europe than protecting or supporting German-speaking ← xvii | xviii → South Tyroleans. Consequently, an agreement between the two fascist governments in Berlin and Rome in 1938 presented the German-speaking South Tyroleans with an option: if they wished to remain German-speaking and thus part of the Germanic cultural sphere, they had to physically emigrate to the German Reich, or remain in their “Heimat” in Italy and give up their loyalty to their Austrian–German language and tradition. This was a scenario that quite literally tore the German-speaking South Tyroleans apart through bitter disputes. By 31 December 1939, 86 per cent declared they were willing to leave, but, due to the wartime developments, only 75,000 actually managed to leave and of these 25,000 returned after 1945. The Option is still remembered as a traumatic event in South Tyrolean history because it symbolizes the limits of internal solidarity among the German-speaking population.6

Even after the end of fascism in Rome and Berlin in 1945, when all chances of reunification with Austria were truly dashed, many German-speaking South Tyroleans continued to harbour hopes of an end to Italian rule in the region or at least an end to Italianization. It was generally believed that the historic injustice of St Germain, the partition of Tyrol, would be remedied and Tyrol would be reunited. After 1945, the Cold War emerged swiftly and the Western Allies’ agenda to contain Stalin and communism took precedence over the fate of a small minority, which was also tarnished by its (alleged) sympathy for the German Reich. Italy managed to hold on to South Tyrol and, as Italian post-war domestic politics underwent no radical break with its past, unlike in Austria and Germany, South Tyroleans soon felt oppressed again by what they perceived as a continuation of fascist policies of Italianization in the province. Dissatisfaction smouldered over the years and finally erupted in what has become known as the “Bombenjahre” in the mid-1950s, a violent period of terrorist attacks on Italian infrastructure and representatives ← xviii | xix → in South Tyrol and beyond which continued into the 1960s.7 It was not until the intervention of the United Nations and the ratification of the South Tyrolean autonomy in 1972 that South Tyrol finally embarked on a regionalist course within the framework of regional development stipulated by the European Economic Community. Within this programme of regional development and political engagement with the regions of Europe the protection of South Tyrol’s German-speaking population has achieved its full potential. It has resulted in a lasting appeasement with Italy, but also to the creation of a remarkable state-like regional self-confidence, distinct from both Italy and Austria.8

The “Regional State” South Tyrol has many of the hallmarks of historical nation-building, for example, the emergence of national literature and an accepted culture of writing history and commemorating crucial historical events central to the region’s development. Hans-Karl Peterlini’s recent history of the province, 100 Jahre Südtirol – Geschichte eines jungen Landes [100 Years of South Tyrol – History of a Young Country], testifies to this development. This publication sits beside other German language monographs on key events of the past 100 years and the biographies of the “founding fathers” of the “regional state”, among them the protagonists of the bombing campaigns in the 1960s and significant politicians.

Hence, it can be argued that South Tyrol has transformed its position on the proverbial threshold into its raison d’être. The region defines its international significance by the strength of its autonomy and in providing a powerful example of the potential role European regions can play in the politics and culture of the EU. South Tyrol generally sees itself as a distinct entity, no longer as an area precariously perched between worlds, states and cultures, but as a region drawing strength from its political and geographical position and its cultural complexity. ← xix | xx →

The modern land and its issues

Spring 2015 heralded the hundredth anniversary of the secret treaty of London that sealed the fate of South Tyrol for the duration of the twentieth century, when this part of Habsburg’s crown colony was handed to Italy. While the German-speaking South Tyroleans have often stressed their histo-cultural allegiance with the Germanic world, the 1915 treaty resulted in the creation of new loyalties and new societal developments. The twentieth century would bring to the region war and violence, two dictatorships (Italian fascism and German national socialism), democracy, republicanism, peace initiatives, political wisdom and economic affluence, which have accompanied and influenced the drawn-out societal changes.

A symposium was held in the medieval Castle Prösels in the Italian Dolomites in May 2015 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the 1915 London treaty. Contributors set out to explore through various disciplines the political, social and cultural impact of South Tyrol’s existence on the threshold during the twentieth century. Individually and collectively the essays in this volume challenge the simplistic reading of South Tyrol as merely a geographic region torn between two cultures; instead they explore the dynamic effects of its geographical, political and cultural history since 1915. South Tyrol is presented here as an institutional and state-like entity, a region facing very similar problems to many other regions in Europe, be they individual states or sub-state regions. Most of these contributions are from academics and intellectuals within the Province of Bolzano/Bozen who are used to negotiating and discussing these issues through their native languages German, Italian and Ladin. This volume seeks to bring their work and the history and development of South Tyrol to a wider European and global audience, hence the chosen language of English.

The volume is subdivided into five thematic parts. In Part I Rolf Steininger analyses the steps towards partition in 1918; Carlo Moos explores the mechanics of the post-World War I St Germain Treaty negotiations; and Nina F. Caprez investigates the consequences of the partition for the economic survival of the monastery Muri-Gries. Finally, Sabine Mayr ← xx | xxi → provides an insight into the fate of the Jewish community in Meran during the early part of the twentieth century.

Part II explores the historiography of the region: Marcus Wurzer demystifies and re-contextualizes the World War I hero Sepp Innerkofler; Georg Grote explores the realities of a zero hour in Austria, Germany and Italy for ordinary people by exploring hundreds of letters written by a couple suddenly divided by borders; and Eva Pfanzelter critically evaluates the commemoration of the Option period.

Part III focuses on current challenges the province faces: Sarah Oberbichler investigates how major provincial newspapers presented the migration issue in the early 1990s; Julia Tapfer offers an analysis of how migrant societies have fared in South Tyrol; Friederike Haupt and Bettina Schlorhaufer analyse South Tyrolean regionalism in the arenas of music and architecture; and Irish artist Gareth Kennedy explores how anthropology was conducted in South Tyrol during the period of the Third Reich.

Part IV deals with the existence of borders and their relevance for South Tyrol’s communities: Johanna Mitterhofer investigates life on the Austrian–Italian border; Paolo Valente looks at the significance of borders in the Meran area; and Martha Villa takes a detailed look at the small border community of Stilfs.

Finally, Part V adds to the ongoing discussion on belonging in South Tyrol: Antonio Elorza compares and contrasts the situations in Alsace, the Basque Country and South Tyrol; Aldo Mazza and Lucio Giudiceandrea argue that cohabitation of different linguistic groups in South Tyrol equals art; Hans-Karl Peterlini analyses difference and belonging in migration and ethnicity; Barbara Angerer and Siegfried Baur both investigate the use of language in the process of cohabitation of German- and Italian-speaking populations; and Chiara de Paoli challenges existing definitions of ethnic identity. ← xxi | xxii →

1 See Lucio Giudiceandrea, Spaesati, Italiani in Südtirol (Bozen: Raetia, 2007); and Lucio Giudiceandrea and Aldo Mazza, Stare insieme è un’arte. Vivere in Alto Adige/ Südtirol (Meran: alphabeta, 2012).

2 Rudolf Lill, Südtirol in der Zeit des Nationalismus (Konstanz: Universitätsverlag Konstanz, 2002), p. 26.


XXII, 418
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
South Tyrol multi-disciplinary approaches dialogue between linguistic groups regional development memory and commemoration politics and history
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XXII, 418 pp., 2 coloured ill., 19 b/w ill., 4 fig.

Biographical notes

Georg Grote (Volume editor) Hannes Obermair (Volume editor)

Georg Grote, Associate Professor at University College Dublin, researches nationalism and regionalism in Europe. He has published widely on Irish and South Tyrolean history. He is currently, in cooperation with the EURAC in Bozen/Bolzano, establishing a collection of private archival sources on twentieth-century South Tyrolean everyday life in Prösels Castle. Hannes Obermair is an historian, Head of the Civic Archives of Bozen-Bolzano and Lecturer in Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck. His research areas include medieval history, historiography and fascism. Recently he participated in South Tyrol’s historians’ commission, which developed the contentious Monument to Victory in Bozen into a museum of contemporary history.


Title: A Land on the Threshold
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
441 pages