Letter from South Tyrol (pt. III)

25.9.19 / Text and images
Riccardo Giacconi shares even more research on the Option Agreement (1939-1943)

Bozen/Bolzano/Bulsan, 20 August 2019

Dear Ekaterina,

these are my last days in South Tyrol. This period has been full of encounters: I had long conversations with many historians, politicians, and practitioners of all kinds, all kind enough to spend some time with me. I started every conversation by asking their opinion about the 1939 Option Agreement, and we would always end up talking about the characteristics of this territory today. Everyone tried to explain to me how historical events, here, have left a legacy of differences and divisions on many levels, not perfectly overlapping.

Just a few days ago, for example, I went to San Martin de Tor, in the stunning Val Badia (Badia Valley) to meet the Ladin writer, journalist, and songwriter Iaco Rigo. Rigo is editor-in-chief of La Usc di Ladins (The Ladins’ Voice), a newspaper in Ladin language. San Martin is also home of the Istitut Ladin Micurà de Rü (The Institute for Ladin Culture “Micurà de Rü”), whose mission is to preserve and promote the Ladin culture and language. There, road signs are written in three languages—not only two. Despite the fact that I have been always telling you about the distinction between “Italians” and “Germans,” the most ancient language spoken in these areas is Ladin, a “linguistic group” who today amount to more than 4% of the population. Rigo explained to me that Ladin is a Romance language mainly spoken in the Dolomite mountains in Northern Italy, especially in four valleys. Two of them (Gherdëina and Val Badia) are in South Tyrol, while Val de Fascia is in Trentino, and Fodóm is in the Belluno province.

When I told Rigo how complicated to grasp I found the situation in South Tyrol, he smiled wryly. He told me that there are divisions even within the Ladin community. The Ladin population is divided between three Italian provinces, each with a different policy towards linguistic minorities. Moreover, there are differences even if we only consider the two Ladin valleys in South Tyrol: while Val Badia is historically more linked to the Italian context, Gherdëina has more ties with the German one. Proof can be found in the fact that the Ladin inhabitants of the two valleys voted very differently during the 1939 Option. And, even today, political views differ.

Photo: Courtesy the artist

A few days ago, in Bolzano-Bozen, I met the artist Nicolò Degiorgis. I have known Nicolò for a long time, but I had never visited his studio, home of his publishing house Rorhof. Born and raised in this city, Nicolò is totally bilingual: he comes from an Italian-speaking family, but he only went to German-speaking schools. As one of the most prominent young artists in South Tyrol, a few years ago Nicolò entered the Südtiroler Künstlerbund (South Tyrolean Artists’ Association, founded in 1946). Nicolò was the first “Italian” artist to join the association: as a German-speaking institution, the Künstlerbund had previously admitted only “German” members.

After we drank a glass of wine in his garden, Nicolò put three or four books in my hands, saying, “You can’t leave South Tyrol without having read Langer.” I knew nothing about the politician and intellectual Alexander Langer (1946–1995). Yet his name sounded somehow familiar.

Image: Courtesy BAS – Verein Südtiroler Geschichte, Bozen

A building right in the heart of Bolzano-Bozen hosted an exhibition called BAS—Opfer für die Freiheit (BAS—Sacrifice for Freedom), which traces the history of the Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol (South Tyrolean Liberation Committee) (BAS). Variously defined, according to the historian's perspective, as activists, terrorists, or Freiheitskämpfer (freedom fighters), BAS members used bombs and attacks to claim the rights of the German-speaking population against the Italian state, with the ultimate aim of obtaining the secession of South Tyrol.

The exhibition opens with a panel commemorating all thirty-five victims of the “South Tyrol Conflict”, from both sides. The exhibition tells the story of the BAS (active from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s), displaying documents, propaganda materials, newspapers, and period items, including bombs and armed-struggle devices.

“Tyroleans! Self-determination for South Tyrol!”, flyer distributed on 30 January 1961. Image: Courtesy BAS – Verein Südtiroler Geschichte, Bozen.

A chapter of the exhibition is dedicated to the so-called Feuernacht (Night of Fire), the night between 11 and 12 June 1961, when BAS blew up thirty-seven electricity pylons throughout the whole of South Tyrol, to draw worldwide attention to the “South Tyrolean question.” The date was chosen as a reference to the local custom to light fires, Herz-Jesu-Feuer (Sacred Heart Fires), to commemorate the 1796 vow the Tyroleans made to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, asking for protection for their land. The following morning, road maintenance worker Giovanni Postal died in an attempt to remove a bomb placed on a tree by BAS members in Salorno, near the Trentino border. He was the first victim of the so-called Bombenjahre (Bomb Years).

Another pivotal moment in BAS history occurred in 1964. In a hay barn near Saltaus, BAS member Luis Amplatz was shot and killed in his sleep by Christian Kerbler, probably an agent of the Italian intelligence agency.1 Fellow BAS member Georg Klotz was also injured by two shots, but he managed to escape across the border to Austria. Today, Georg Klotz (1919–1976) is remembered as one of the most famous BAS members.

His daughter, Eva Klotz, is one of the most iconic figures in South Tyrolean politics. Leader of the party Süd-Tiroler Freiheit (South Tyrolean Freedom), she has been a member of the provincial council for over thirty years. Her political objective has always been Selbstbestimmung (self-determination) for the local population.

I met Eva Klotz in her office, located right next door to the BAS exhibition. I asked her to tell me about her father. Like many Optanten (those who voted to leave), he enlisted in the Wehrmacht, because “he thought it was a way to liberate South Tyrol from fascism, which was carrying out a real ethnic cleansing.” After the war, according to Eva Klotz, “many of the fascist officials, disguised in ‘democratic coats’, remained in their posts and carried on with their violent effort to turn South Tyroleans into ‘good Italians’. My father, then, entered the BAS. They began their armed struggle, but only against objects, never against people. Had my father wanted, he could have carried out a massacre every day: he knew the area extremely well, and he would always have his machine gun with him. But my father, together with other BAS members, made a vow never to kill or hurt people. Italians had to understand that in this land they were strangers.”

Eva Klotz then told me, “my father was considered ‘public enemy number one’ by the Italian army. Everyone feared him. They called him a 'terrorist', even though his actions are not comparable with the terrorism we know today, ISIS for instance. But nonetheless, what he did was instil fear, to make sure that Italian soldiers abandoned the territory.” I asked Klotz if her father would be satisfied with South Tyrol’s autonomy today. “My father would never have been satisfied with the autonomy we have now,” she replied. “He was for self-determination. What we have today is not autonomy, but only ‘acts of decentralization’. My reference are the Åland Islands, which politically belong to Finland but are ethnically Swedish. There, the autonomy statute was 100% implemented. Here, instead, we need to fight for our rights.”

Finally, I asked Eva Klotz to give me a definition of a concept that, here, is omnipresent: Heimat. “Heimat is a difficult concept to define,” she replied. “It originates in the family, in the Stube [another typical Tyrolean concept: the room where the stove is—the heart of the house]. Then, the Heimat extends to the village where you live. In our case, it then extends to the land of Südtirol, then to the entire Tyrol. Then, my kulturelle Heimat extends to the entire German-speaking area, then to Europe, and finally, to the whole world.” I asked her if Heimat is  “what one feels at home in” (a definition provided to me by Nicolò Degiorgis). “Yes,” she replied. “But I can feel at home in more than one place: I can feel at home even on planet Earth. Heimat is a much more important concept than Vaterland [fatherland]. For example, Austria is no longer our Vaterland officially, while Italy will never become that, because it does not protect our rights.”

Photo: Courtesy Parkhotel Laurin

Several of the people I met gave me appointments at the bar of the Parkhotel Laurin, one of the most renowned hotels in Bolzano-Bozen. There I met Meinrad Berger, one of the leaders of the Südtiroler Heimatbund, an association founded in 1974 in support of BAS members who were serving time in Italian prisons. Mr. Berger told me about the Schützen, to which he belongs. Schützen (literally: shooters) was a militia formed in 1511 to protect the borders of Tyrol. Dissolved as a result of the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Schützen have survived as private folk associations in Austria and Italy until today, where they are active proponents of the reunification of historic Tyrol (that is, also including the Italian Trentino province). In 1959, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Tyrolean war of liberation of 1809, a gigantic crown of thorns, as a symbol of the painful division of Tyrol, was carried by a group of Schützen in a parade in Innsbruck (this became a recurring event).

Mr. Berger envisages the relationship between linguistic groups as such: everyone should be allowed to speak their own language, and be able to understand the language of the other. He also explained the meaning of the derogatory word “Walschn,” used to denote Italians in South Tyrol. After paying for my coffee, Mr. Berger told me about an episode that happened to him recently. He was in a cable car going up to the high mountain. In the same car there was an elderly Italian tourist, who asked his daughter, “I don't understand why they keep speaking German here. Aren't they Italians?” Mr. Berger broke into the conversation: “Pardon me. I may have Italian citizenship, but I am not Italian, and I will never be.” At that, the elderly tourist replied, annoyed, “But we have won the war…” He was immediately interrupted by a younger Italian tourist from Friuli (an area on the border with Austria and Slovenia), who, pointing to Mr. Berger, said, “I agree with this gentleman. If the Italians were in charge here, this region would be a mess, just like the rest of Italy.”

I remember that I got a fever that night. I had a nightmare. There were two rock bands (or, perhaps, they were heavy metal) that played at the same time. The music of both was very percussive, and at a very high volume. I was between them, and I think I was trying to stop them, or maybe to have them play at the same rhythm. I woke up very tired and agitated. That morning, I picked up the books by Alexander Langer that Nicolò had lent me. I started reading them, and it was like a breath of fresh air.

Photo: Courtesy the artist

Born in 1946 in Sterzing-Vipiteno, near the Brenner Pass, Alexander Langer was a politician, a pacifist, a writer, a journalist, an environmentalist, a translator, and a teacher. From a young age he was an indefatigable opponent of the “ethnic” divisions in South Tyrolean society, and a proponent of forms of dialogue and cohabitation. After a Catholic education in the German schools of Bolzano-Bozen, Langer went to university in Italy, in Florence, where he became active in the Italian radical leftist political organization Lotta Continua. In 1978 he returned to South Tyrol to found the interethnic movement Neue Linke/Nuova Sinistra (New Left). Later, he would join the Green Party, eventually becoming president of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group in the European Parliament in 1989.

Ever resistant to imposed ethnic boundaries, in 1981 Alexander Langer led a movement to refuse to declare one’s linguistic group during the 1981 census in Bolzano-Bozen (the so-called Sprachgruppenzugehörigkeitserklärung). In his words, he succeeded in reuniting “5000 ethnically stateless people,” who “refused to take sides with the German, Italian or Ladin group, because they [did] not want or [could not] recognize themselves in any of the three pre-arranged ethnic cages.”2 This refusal made him ineligible to run for local election.

To give you an idea of Langer’s thinking regarding cohabitation, I copy below some excerpts from his high school writings:

"We young people must be bilingual. [...] We all must know how to speak and write not only ours, but also the language of the other ethnic group.”3 Included in Il viaggiatore leggero, 39. “Today we still bear the signs of what fascism has meant for our land. And perhaps it is precisely because we continue to feel this fear in our bones, that even today we often refuse to approach the Italians. I think that this is one of the biggest failures we have to assign to ourselves and that we must, if we are honest, feel guilty for. [...] The isolation and the refusal of any dialogue can only harm us, in every sense. [...] We must commit ourselves [...] to create a new society in South Tyrol; we must even have the courage to accept being called ‘traitors’."4

One of Langer's most famous passages is the following: a ferocious self-criticism of Tyrolean culture.

“An unhappy constant runs through Tyrolean history. Innovation, progress, openings and reforms no longer stem from the Tyrolean people’s strength, but only come from the outside. Enlightenment arrives with the Franco-Bavarian battalions’s bayonets; the government of Vienna imposes liberalism, which Tyrol fights (in the second half of the nineteenth century) in a long and tenacious ‘Kulturkampf’; socialist ideas are soon identified—especially in the southern part of Tyrol—as ‘Walsch’, ‘Italian’, thus becoming easier to denounce and fight. Furthermore, ‘socialism’ is held accountable (quite nonsensically) for the sins of Italian rule in South Tyrol, identifying the Left with a kind of Trojan horse for Italian denationalization. Due to the fact that new ideas always come from the outside, it is easy to slander and isolate them. Conversely, taking conservative—if not reactionary—positions becomes a civic, almost patriotic duty for the Tyroleans. Only once, in recent times, has a new and ‘external’ idea been accepted in Tyrol, despite the opposition of most of the clergy: it was Nazism, which was not exposed and fought as a ‘foreign body’, but was instead welcomed by a large part of the Tyroleans as the most adequate antidote to socialist and republican infection (in North Tyrol) and to Italian nationalist oppression (in South Tyrol).”5

In 1995, Alexander Langer took his own life near Florence, hanging himself from an apricot tree. Ten years before his suicide, he had written, “Each of us is as many individuals as the amount of languages (and dialects) he knows. It is a drive to relativize, to grasp differences, subtleties, nuances that do not suffer translation. Where there is a latent multilingual vocation, it should be cultivated with care. All the more so in a Europe with more and more refugees, immigrants…”6

Yesterday, while I was going through the photos I took four months ago in the Innsbruck archives, I came across this picture. It comes from a book by journalist and writer Hans Karl Peterlini:

Photo: courtesy Hans Karl Peterlini, Bomben aus zweiter Hand. Zwischen Gladio und Stasi: Südtirols missbrauchter Terrorismus (Bolzano: Raetia, 1992)

The photograph depicts the aftermath of a 1986 bomb attack at the Lana-Burgstall railway station claimed by the terrorist organization Ein Tirol. The message spray-painted on the station walls reads, “Alexander Langer Sau Walsche.” When I saw this image for the first time, I had no ways to relate to it: I didn't know what “Walsche” meant (or “Sau”, which means sow), and I had no idea who Alexander Langer was. Now, after these months of research and conversations, the violence of this picture struck me in full.

I would like to end this letter with a last passage by Langer, which, for me, acted as a motivation for the research I have been doing here: “A strong belief sustains me: in the South Tyrolean situation I read a number of teachings and experiences that can be generalized well beyond a small provincial ‘case’. Being a minority without closing in on complaints and nostalgia; cultivating one’s own peculiarities without choosing the ‘ghetto’ and ending up in racism; experiencing the potential of a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic coexistence…”7

Dear Ekaterina, there are so many things I encountered during my stay in South Tyrol. Especially, I would like to tell you about all the people I talked to, whom in these letters I have not mentioned yet, and whom I thank deeply: Riccardo Dello Sbarba, Hannes Egger, Maurizio Ferrandi, Franz Haller, Hans Heiss, Albert Mayr, Giorgio Mezzalira, Georg Mischì, Renate Mumelter, Günther Pallaver, Carlo Romeo, Martha Verdorfer... I will tell you about these conversations in future letters.

See you soon in Graz,


Kerbler would later be sentenced in absentia by an Italian jury, but was never caught.
Alexander Langer, “Glockenkarkopf vuol dire Vetta d’Italia?,” first published 3 October 1985 in the Italian newspaper Reporter. Included in Alexander Langer, Il viaggiatore leggero. Scritti 1961-1995 (Palermo: Sellerio, 2011), 113. All text from Il viaggiatore leggero translated from Italian by Riccardo Giacconi.
Alexander Langer, “Conoscerci,” first published in Italian in December 1964 in the students’ magazine BiZeta 58.
Alexander Langer, “Cari studenti tedeschi: qualcuno ci chiamerà perfino traditori,” first published in German in December 1964 on BiZeta 58. Included in Il viaggiatore leggero (trans. Donatella Trevisan), 42-44.
Alexander Langer, “Andreas Hofer, l’imperatore, i francesi e noi,” first published in Italian in March 1984 in Letture Trentine. Included in Il viaggiatore leggero, 121-122.
Alexander Langer, Il viaggiatore leggero, 133.
Alexander Langer, Il viaggiatore leggero, 111.