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An ABC of South Tyrol: an Unfinished Book

From Aufsätze zu Südtirol 1978 - 1995 Scritti sul Sudtirolo
Started as a rough copy of an essay to be printed in the book entitled Option 1939 published by Reinhold Messner, it was written in fits and starts in German by Alexander Langer until 1988, but never finished.
It is a fragment that testifies to the sensibility of this frontier-crosser and bridge-builder through his cautious, sensitive choice of words as well as in the careful, yet pressing and convincing, descriptions of the chosen subjects themselves.
There were 134 keywords, 108 of which were of greater importance and 26 less so. 40 were completed. Here are some examples:


The fact that South Tyrol lies amidst the Alps and that most of its problems are common to the other Alpine regions is a home truth, one which would not even be worth discussing had the decades of introspection into the national problem not distorted or dulled the view of the basic fundaments of life in South Tyrol and of its survival. Today we have begun to see the Alpine area as a common ecosystem which has generated a largely shared culture and civilisation amongst the Alpine peoples which go beyond the differences in language and tradition, disregarding political or administrative boundaries. The worries about the future of this common Lebensraum (“living space”) - which extends across various states (France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany and Yugoslavia) - could contribute to the incorporation of the South Tyrolean experience in an appropriate cross-national frame.
That the Alps could not be “protected” or “saved” without, or even from, its inhabitants and that the closer amalgamation of nature-linked, moderate forms of alpine life and cultivation represent the basis for the ecological and social balance of the alpine area, can be seen through many positive examples in South Tyrol.
Cooperation between the alpine regions has happily increased in recent years, but its geographical limits have still not been fixed, given that we have both the “Arge Alp” and the “Alpe Adria” areas - as can be seen by the fact that the province of South Tyrol is involved only in the north-south oriented “Arge Alp” and has little to do with the west-east “Alpe Adria”.
Maybe increased reflection on the responsibility and role South Tyrol has in the multilingual, small-scale alpine area, and closer cooperation in this context from the cramped German character can lead to a wider European perspective.


Fears play a big role in the whole South Tyrolean question and naturally they are experienced in different ways by those involved. The experience of the unwanted annexation by Italy, and in particular the suppressions and the attempts to Italianise the territory during both the Fascist and the post-war periods, is deeply felt by German-speaking South Tyroleans: they experienced what it means when confrontation with a superior power results in your sense of security being removed.
The actions of the police in the 60s while trying to resist attacks on infrastructure, as well as other official measures over the years, have contributed not only to awakening fears, but also to keeping them alive. But the Italian-speaking population of South Tyrol has also often known what fear means: not only during the German Nazi occupation, but also later for example during the life-threatening attacks in the 60s and again in the 80s and more recently the fear of autonomy with the consequent increase in the power of the Südtiroler Volkspartei that came with it.
Moreover, both sides are afraid of discrimination and unjust treatment by the (sometimes real, sometimes only imaginary) superior power of the other: for the German-speaking South Tyroleans this power is represented by the Italian state, and the “60 million Italians”, while for the Italians it is the local “German superior power” and sometimes even all the Germans north of the Brenner Pass.
Politics are based on fear. SVP Chairman Silvius Magnago has often explained that a minority can only maintain their vigilance and unanimity when there are suitable feelings of anxiety; on the Italian speaking side, it was not only the propaganda of the neo-fascist MSI party which stirred up and raised the fear of expulsion of the local Italians in order to pursue a policy of strength and so maintain Italian interests.


It would be hard to find anywhere where history is debated as much as in South Tyrol: who was here first, who did what to whom, whose side the historical facts in current ethnic conflicts support, and so on. In the struggle to win the debate, the ethnic groups throw fragments of history at each other (also via the media), filtering memory and knowledge through their ethnic-tinted glasses: each side knows the arguments to support their own position and prefer to leave out those that do not fit in.
Unfortunately, the development of common, true historical awareness (why not, for example, allow school classes of different mother tongues to work towards this) has still not come about. Only in isolated cases have critical teachers or well-intentioned youth groups started along this road. What a shame.

Whenever a compositor or a typist in South Tyrol sees the word “ethic”, they usually correct the supposed mistake with “ethnic” without checking further; this is how far this foreign word has gone towards becoming a ubiquitous keyword. Ethnic sounds better than racial (or “völkisch” as you say in German), the term generally used until the mid 70s. In South Tyrol nearly everything is viewed through ethnic-tinted glasses. In practice the term ethnic group has the same meaning as language or racial group, which is a little strange given the quite different situations. Indeed German and Ladin-speaking South Tyroleans for example belong “ethnically” (if this word has a meaning or use) to the same group, and you could include most of those from Trentino, North Tyrol and God only knows where else.
However, from a linguistic point of view they are far apart seeing that the former belong to a Germanic, and the latter to a Romance, language family. The local Italians on the other hand are only with difficulty definable as an ethnic community. However, the term ethnic (peculiarity, group, consciousness, characteristics, defence, survival and so on) is widely used and basically means the parties at conflict in the racial struggle - if the word “race” was still common in polite circles, then probably we would prefer to use the word “racial”.
On the German-speaking South Tyrol side the word “ethnic” is associated with the ideological-political reference to Germanism, and for the two largest ethnic groups this widely used word finds its meaning especially as an expression of demarcation and classification - closer studies into ethnic characteristics are virtually non existent and nobody misses them. The ethnic dynamic (i.e. of the ethnic conflict) is often used as a basic pattern for all explanations of facts and universal actions. That is why we would recommend South Tyrol as ideal terrain for studies into ethnocentricity.
It is somewhat paradoxical and strange that in reality ethnic groups have become united through modern development; more than ever have they become alike and the differentiation and classification of the people we meet is no longer as unequivocal as it may have been 10 or 20 years ago. But thanks to good fertilisation, the ethnic difference flowers particularly well in people’s heads.

Homeland (the right to have one)

Tyroleans who now belong to Italy basically have no homeland. If the idea of Austria as their homeland is ever raised today, it can only be rhetorical, seeing that in reality it never was such a homeland, and only those with pan-Germanic dreams could think of Germany (which one?) in this context.
Italy cannot fulfil this demand, either. But we intensively feel we have a homeland and hark back to it, although even here there are terminological and emotional difficulties: the historic greater Tyrol, i.e. its “German” part, is seen as the real homeland in patriotic songs but it is hardly present in the everyday consciousness of most South Tyroleans and so in the end (independently of ideology) we have to be content with the small homeland of South Tyrol. By the way, this is not such a bad thing - compared to a large homeland, a small one such as South Tyrol is unlikely to start a war outside its borders.
The Italian-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol are no better off. They might have a national homeland which they can more or less identify with, but they usually have to struggle to acquire a local one. In doing so they are usually seen as the intruders, infiltrators, usurpers or anyway as disturbers of Tyrolean intimacy, even though they may have been living in this area for two or three generations. It is a little easier for them when they can speak German and when they give clear signs of goodwill and a willingness to adapt, although for many German-speaking South Tyroleans this is still not sufficient reason to give them the moral right to consider South Tyrol as their homeland.
A shared right to a local homeland, recognised on both sides, a common consciousness of that homeland, not to mention less nationalistic impulses, are all required if the shared future of all the people living in South Tyrol should at some point break down the everlasting ethnic barriers - but this would imply quite a great deal of effort on both sides.


A horrible, yet useful, coined word which stands for all that which does not stop at the border of your ethnic group, but embraces people of different mother tongues, crossing linguistic barriers: groups, publications, initiatives, events, opinions, mental attitudes and so on. Yet not all that glitters is gold: because even those people who are interethnic for form’s sake, in that they do not directly exclude the participation of people of another language group or maybe even wish this to happen, do nothing to make the others feel at their ease and understood. The army, for instance, is interethnic as the soldiers are drawn from all three language groups, but the whole body is organised in such a way that German and Ladin-speaking young men usually have one more (ethnic) reason to feel uneasy and that they are in the wrong place. The same also happens on the other side, for example in some village or tourist celebrations where formally they have to take care of the Italian speakers but they make them understand they could willingly do without having them there.
To behave in a real interethnic manner is an art which needs to be worked on and practised because you have to unite different languages, mentalities, customs, backgrounds and so on into a common experience where nobody should feel as if they were a guest or only tolerated on the fringe. Just dealing with more languages (Ladin usually falls by the wayside) which are not always really understood and spoken by all the interethnic sympathisers, requires a lot of tact and possibly even simultaneous translation or some repetition, which obviously can also be cumbersome. People participating in interethnic experiences not only have to respect their partners on the other side, and have much empathy, but at the same time they have to resist the pressure which often stems from their own language group and more or less dissuades them from taking part. Everything which smells of mixed culture is despised particularly, but not only, on the German side.
Those who anyway manage to participate in a real interethnic experience (whether just on a day out, amongst friends, at a party or whatever), generally consider themselves to be repaid for the effort. Those who, on the other hand, as sometimes happens in political organisations, institutions, trade unions or similar, only go down the interethnic road because they feel obliged to even though they are not convinced, will not get any great pleasure from this and will probably recount on the quiet that their prejudices have been confirmed.
Whereas in past decades cross-language group initiatives and groups were quite rare and sometimes appeared rather formal and somewhat forced (e.g. in political parties, trade unions, associations and so on), since the end of the 70s a culture of cohabitation has developed in increasing quantity and quality which for many, particularly the young, has now become an obvious need unless they are willing to be satisfied with the ethnically divided society in South Tyrol.

From Aufsätze zu Südtirol 1978 - 1995 Scritti sul Sudtirolo

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