South Tyroleans

Location: North Italian province of Bolzano or South Tyrol
Population: 280,000 (1981)
% of population: 66% in Bolzano province; 0.5% of total Italian population
Religion: Catholic
Language: German

The German-speaking population of South Tyrol, on Italy’s border with Austria, is a close-knit ethnically homogeneous farming community who for 14 centuries were a part of the German-speaking world. Italy entered World War I on the side of Britain and France on the understanding that in the event of victory it would be granted South Tyrol, this took place in 1919. Following the Fascist seizure of power in 1922 there was outright oppression of the South Tyroleans. The use of the German language was forbidden in public life and German-speaking officials were replaced by Italians. Schools were Italianized as were personal names, and employment in local factories was reserved for Italians, forcing Germans back to the land for their livelihood whilst the urban centres became increasingly Italianized.

In June 1939 an agreement was signed by Germany and Italy whereby the entire population of the South Tyrol was given the choice of transference to the German Reich, keeping their ethnic identity but losing their homeland, or complete assimilation into the Italian population, with the prospect of deportation to other parts of Italy. Under intense pressure the majority opted for transference to the Reich and some 75,000 had been transferred when war intervened. A third of these later returned to Italy.

Under the terms of the Paris Peace Conference Agreement of 1946, parity between German and Italian was to be restored, German was again to be taught in primary and secondary schools and German forms of surnames were once more permitted. Regional autonomy was granted but it covered not only the South Tyrol but the entire region of Tren-tino-Alto Adige, in which Italians were in the majority. As a result true autonomy according to the terms of the Paris Agreement was not implemented in South Tyrol. There was increasing immigration of Italians into the region and many thousands of German speakers migrated to Switzerland, Austria and West Germany. Whereas in 1910 some 97% of the population was German-speaking the percentage had dropped to 62% by 1961, and the main towns of South Tyrol had gradually become almost completely Italianized. Resentment at government failure to implement the Paris Agreement expressed itself through the actions of the Sùdtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) and extremist organizations which were responsible for a number of terrorist attacks.

In 1969 the Italian government agreed to alter the Statute of Autonomy to lessen its pro-Italian bias, and the 1972 Statute granted the region full powers in matters other than currency, taxes, foreign affairs and defence, and the province was to receive a share of central finance proportionate to its population and territory within the Italian state. German now has full official status with Italian and all official documents, signs and announcements must be in both languages. The 1972 Autonomy Statute has greatly eased tensions and improved the position of the German speakers. The numbers of Italians in the province declined and there was an economic boom, especially in the tourist sector; nevertheless some tension persists. The majority of the specific reforms promised in 1969 have been implemented but some remain outstanding. The tourist industry has expanded so rapidly that Italian temporary workers fill job vacancies. Extremist groups have continued to commit terrorist acts, mainly bombings of Italian property; there were 139 such attacks in the decade 1978-1988. Most German speakers continue to support the SVP which dominated the provincial government and negotiated with the central government for increased linguistic rights. In 1988 the Italian parliament was due to vote on a package of further linguistic rights for German speakers, a move backed by the Austrian government.

(See also Friulians; Ladins)