Letter from South Tyrol (pt. I)

12.7.19 / Text and images
Riccardo Giacconi shares his research on the Option Agreement (1939-1943)

Bozen/Bolzano/Bulsan, 25 June 2019

Dear Ekaterina,

the reason I am in this city is related to a proposal you made me over a year ago. You asked me if I would be interested in working on a piece about the border between Italy and Austria, to be presented at the steirischer herbst festival. I immediately thought about the Option, a subject I knew very little of at the time, which involves a territory far from Graz, and even further away from Tolentino, the town in central Italy where I grew up. You liked the idea.

I immediately began by questioning my position vis-à-vis the research I was starting. I usually fool myself into thinking that my position is that of an external observer, a forestiero, as we say in Italy. It is a position I often try to assume when I introduce myself to the people and places I aim to study. I present myself as a stranger, without pretending to be “one of them.”

In this case, however, I could not quite assume such a position. Yes: South Tyrol (which in German is called Südtirol and in Italian Alto Adige—a symptomatic, terminological discrepancy of perspectives) is a territory in which I had been only for short periods. I had never lived there. However, the more I studied the history of the Option, the more I realized that my position—that of a person born and raised in Italy—was not neutral. Even unintentionally, my mother tongue placed me in one of the two “sides.” Moreover, despite having studied it for five years at school, I speak very poor German. I felt that anyone could suddenly ask me the question: “Who are you, to talk about these things?” After all, my presumed "external” position is probably unsustainable in general.

I searched in the 1948 edition of the most prestigious Italian encyclopedia, the Treccani. I found a quick mention of the Option period:

„In November 1938, Hitler signed an Italian-Germanic cultural agreement, demonstrating his desire for an entente with Italy. He supplemented it, shortly afterwards, with the agreement of June 23, 1939, concerning the transfer of non-natives (allogeni) into the Reich, based on requests freely and individually expressed by the interested parties. For the examination of these requests and related questions, two high commissions were set up in Bolzano, one Italian and one German, the latter being attended mainly by local optants, who carried out intense propaganda for the Option in favor of the move to Germany, which gave an impressive result. In fact, out of a population of 253.953 inhabitants, excluding the 42.936 belonging to the Italian ethnic group, 179.503 opted for Germany; 31.514 for Italy. However, within the deadline set for evacuation (December 31, 1942), only 72.749 had moved to Germany."1

This brief, vintage blurb hardly captures the long trail of suffering and discord that the Option left on the people who inhabited the territory ever since. Members of an entire community were asked to either leave their homes and land forever, or to forever abandon their language and culture. Nazism or Fascism. Those were the two “Options"—a designation that may sound almost ironic.

One of the first people I met in South Tyrol was Ina Tartler, a playwright in the theater company Vereinigte Bühnen Bozen. In 2014, it presented a show called Option. Letzte Spuren der Erinnerung (Option. Last Traces of Memory), re-enacted again this year. To prepare it, they collaborated with the Institute of Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck to carry out over sixty interviews with the last direct witnesses of the Option events. Some of them ended up performing on stage, narrating their experiences to the audience: some were Optanten (those who voted to leave) and some Dableiber (those who preferred to stay).

Ina told me that in South Tyrol the Option may seem almost like a taboo subject. It marked the family history of virtually all German speaking families, yet it is experienced as a shadow from the past, still hard to address. Ina then told me about another “documentary theater” show that Vereinigte Bühnen Bozen staged in 2016. It was called Bombenjahre (Bomb Years), and it featured several protagonists of the so-called “bomb years” (that is, mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s), characterized by numerous attacks operated by the Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol (South Tyrolean Liberation Committee) (BAS), an underground secessionist organization which aimed to achieve self-determination rights for South Tyrol. For the theater company, Ina told me, Bombenjahre felt like the natural sequel to Option.

In January I moved to Innsbruck, on a fellowship from Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen. As the capital of Tyrol, situated just over the Brenner border, Innsbruck was a reference for all the Optanten. Several streets and squares of the city were given names linked to South Tyrol, as a sign of solidarity. I remember that during my last visit to Graz, you took me to a neighborhood called Südtiroler Siedlung. In and around Innsbruck there are many similar settlements, which had been designed to host South Tyrolean Optanten. Indeed, as the photograph below shows, many of the Optanten moved to Innsbruck.

Image: Tiroler Geschichtsverein, Bozen

While in Innsbruck, I often visited the Stadtarchiv and the library of Tiroler Landesmuseen. In the latter I found a series of documents from 1942, related to an optant’s transfer.

Courtesy: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

Courtesy: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

Courtesy: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

I also found a series of pro-Option propaganda flyers printed by the pro-Nazi organization Völkische Kampfring Südtirols in 1940-41. They are woodcuts composed of illustrations and short poems in rhyme.

Courtesy: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

Courtesy: Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

Courtesy: Tiroler Landesmuseum, Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

I read that they were donated to the library by Hannes Obermair, a historian who lives in Bolzano. I went there a couple of days later, and met him in a bar, right in front of the controversial “victory monument”, the marble gate that Mussolini decided to build in 1928 to signal the presence of the Fascist regime in South Tyrol. The Latin script on its main façade reads: HIC PATRIAE FINES SISTE SIGNA / HINC CETEROS EXCOLVIMVS LINGVA LEGIBVS ARTIBVS (Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner / From this point on we educated the others with language, law and culture).

“South Tyrol still misses a collective debate on the subject of the Option,” Obermair told me, “which is buried in a private, generational memory.” He observed that visual artists have often been functional to the Nazi mythopoesis, and he informed me that the flyers he had donated to the library of the Tiroler Landesmuseen in Innsbruck were by a South Tyrolean Nazi artist, Heiner Gschwendt. I asked him about his view on the contemporary situation.

“I consider this territory a laboratory, a case study," he replied. “My experience as a medieval historian has helped me appreciate how the alpine area that includes South Tyrol (which, as a separate territory, exists only since the end of the First World War) has always been a region of transit, exchange, hybridization of cultural models. This has helped me overcome the emotional and vindictive aspects, which is essential in order to go beyond the asymmetry, the tendency to judge what is wrong and what is right.”

Ever since I started studying the history of the Option agreement, I was struck by how sharply the difference between Fascism and Nazism is experienced in South Tyrol. Historically, Fascism meant Italianisation, while Nazism meant maintaining the link with the German world. This is why the Dableiber were often accused by the Optanten of being traitors to their Heimat.

“Actually, the Option is clear evidence of the strong collaboration between Mussolini and Hitler," Obermair interrupted me. "They struck a deal. One said to the other, ‘You guarantee the Brenner border and I give you back the population.’ It is true, however, that in this territory the difference between Fascism and National Socialism is experienced as a polarization between the Italian and the German ethnic groups. But these belonging patterns (schemi di appartenenza) are never clear cut. Not all the Italians who moved here in the 1930s were Fascists, just as not all Optanten were Nazis. There were simply no other options at the time.”

I remarked that the German-speaking and the Italian-speaking far-right groups are still opposing forces in South Tyrol.

“It’s astonishing,” replied Obermair. “They use the same language, yet they are at odds. This is typical of the South Tyrolean situation: far-right groups cannot converge because they constantly clash over the defense of their ethnic group. But if it weren’t for that, they would be cut from the same cloth.”

Back in Innsbruck, I visited the Stadtarchiv. The archive has an impressive collection of photographs. There I found a photographic series about a typical Tyrolean tradition, the Herz-Jesu Feuer (the fires of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), bonfires lit on mountain peaks, composing images or writings of a religious—or, sometimes, political—nature. One of these photographs depicts a mountain overlooking Innsbruck, with a series of bonfires forming the text "BIS SALURN,” meaning "until Salorno,” a territorial claim referring to South Tyrol, which extends up to the city of Salorno on the border with the Italian speaking Trentino area.

Courtesy: Stadtarchiv Innsbruck

I also found a propaganda poster, which depicts a fasces that cuts the Tyrol territory in half.

Courtesy: Stadtarchiv Innsbruck

In her office at the University of Innsbruck, I later met another South Tyrolean historian, Professor Eva Pfanzelter. She collaborated with the theater company Vereinigte Bühnen on the research for the Option play, collecting numerous interviews with former Optanten and Debleiber. One of the first things Professor Pfanzelter told me, is that 2019 is the eightieth anniversary of the Option agreement. Somehow I still had not realized it.

“There are two huge traumas in the history of South Tyrol,” she later told me. “The first is the imposition of the Brenner border after the First World War, hence the separation from the German speaking world. The second, much heavier, is the Option. After the annexation to Italy, German speaking South Tyrolers had gathered as a people, and the Option came to destroy such a unity.”

I asked her if the Bombenjahre could also be considered a trauma for the local population.

“The Bombenjahre were not good times for South Tyrol, or for Italy in general. It was a period when anything could happen. We should always ask ourselves why South Tyrol did not end up becoming a terrorist territory like Northern Ireland. But the idea of using bombs to enforce one’s rights was shared by only a part of the German-speaking population. Not everyone agreed with that approach. Then, from the 1960s onwards the economy improved, there were more jobs, the autonomy statute was signed in 1972, and people tended to reconcile.”

I heard myself asking Professor Pfanzelter an incredibly naive question: “Could you pinpoint what characterizes South Tyrolean identity, today?”

“We know there are so many things that make up an identity,” she replied. "Language, culture, education ... When I ask my South Tyrolean students what defines their identity, they always end up referring to Italy: they define themselves as ‘non-Italian.’ Indeed, identity is defined much more easily in relation to the other. It is hard to pinpoint what defines you as South Tyrolean; much easier is to declare what you are not. In this sense, today non-European migrants are reshuffling everything, and this could be very productive. The situation is getting more complex: today there are no longer only two identities.”

This observation reminded me of an old map of the whole of Tyrol I found at the Stadtarchiv, which signaled the linguistic boundaries between German, Italian, and Ladin areas.

Courtesy: Stadtarchiv Innsbruck

A couple of weeks ago I moved to the other side of the Brenner Pass. I left Innsbruck for Bolzano/Bozen. There are many people I would like to meet in the next weeks. I will keep you informed.

All best regards,


Treccani Italian Encyclopedia, II appendix 1948