Letter from South Tyrol (pt. II)

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

Bozen/Bolzano/Bulsan, 25 July 2019

Dear Ekaterina,

I have been in Bolzano-Bozen for over a month now. Erica, a friend of mine from university, is letting me use a room in her flat during this summer. I look after her two cats when she is away. The apartment is on the slope of a hill, in a neighborhood called Haslach-Aslago. As you know, I'm here to research the Option, the 1939 agreement between Hitler and Mussolini: the German-and Ladin-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol had to choose whether to stay and get “Italianized,” or leave their home, land, and Heimat and move to the Third Reich territories.

I discovered that my apartment is located in one of the buildings erected for the so-called Rücksiedler, that is, the Optanten (those who voted to leave) who decided to move back to South Tyrol after the war. Every day I cycle beside the river, where many people gather to talk, play sports, or drink beer. In the first days, I couldn’t stop observing them, trying to guess their “linguistic group.” German-speaking or Italian-speaking? I soon realized that many of them spoke various other languages: African, Eastern European, Asian, etc.

Carolina, my wife, came to visit me here in Bolzano-Bozen. After a few days, she asked me, a little annoyed, “I don't get why you are so obsessed with comparing Italians and Germans. Can't you see that a lot of the people here are neither? Many were not even born here!” Carolina was born and raised in Colombia. Later, the same day, we had a drink at home with my friend Erica. She works in a youth center, where she organizes events and activities for young people in the city. She told us that many of the boys and girls she works with do not make much distinction between the two “language groups.” She knows a Kurdish boy, for example, who arrived in Bolzano-Bozen with his family during his childhood, and later learned both Italian and German. Or a boy from a Senegalese family, who speaks perfect Italian but attends a German school (fully bilingual schools do not exist in South Tyrol).

Here, of course, you also have the so-called “mixed couples”: an Italian-speaking person and a German-speaking one. I noticed it is a sort of literary topos: it recurs in well-known novels about this territory, such as Die Walsche (1982), by South Tyrolean writer Joseph Zoderer, or Eva Dorme (2010), by Italian writer Francesca Melandri, but also in the four-episode television series Verkaufte Heimat (Motherland Sold, 1989–94), which deals with local historical events from 1938 to the mid-1960s, including the Option and the Bombenjahre (bomb years).

I met curator Lisa Mazza, who lives and works in town. Her mother comes from a classic German-speaking family, while her father, Aldo Mazza, was born and raised in Southern Italy and then moved to South Tyrol, where he founded the language school Alpha Beta and the bilingual publishing house Edizioni Alpha Beta Verlag. The relationship between Lisa’s (Italian) father and her (German-speaking) grandfather, she told me, always remained very formal, proof of the extent to which the resentment towards Italians was ingrained in South Tyrolean German-speaking culture.

In the German school attended by Lisa’s daughter, more or less one third of the students come from “German” families, one third from “Italian” families, and one third from migrant families of first or second generation. “Many of the migrants who arrived in South Tyrol in recent years,” Lisa told me, “actually wanted to go to Austria and to other countries further north, but were stopped at the Brenner border.”

Just before we said goodbye, Lisa mentioned that South Tyrol is a land between two tectonic plates. I later checked it online. The province is crossed by the so-called Periadriatic Seam, a geologic fault dividing the small Adriatic Plate (which broke away from the African Plate in the Cretaceous period) and the gigantic Eurasian Plate (which includes most of the Eurasian continent). In other words, this territory embraces a suture, caused by the ongoing geological collision between Europe and Africa.

Those who, like me, arrive in this province without knowing much about it, will probably be surprised by the distinction between “linguistic groups.” Yet such a distinction is inherent to the South Tyrol autonomy policy, and was designed to protect the specificities of German and Ladin communities. There is an administrative instrument, which in German has a very long name: Sprachgruppenzugehörigkeitserklärung. It literally means “declaration of affiliation to a language group.” In order to work in the public sector, or to access public housing, everyone residing in the territory must sign a declaration of belonging to one of the three language groups: German, Italian, or Ladin. This declaration is free, meaning there is no need to undergo linguistic examinations or demonstrate any family lineage. And, needless to say, it is a constant cause for doubt for mixed families’ children, as well as for people of other mother tongues.

This declaration is also functional to the so-called ethnische Proporz, or proporzionale etnica: a legal regulation that applies in the allocation of employment in the public service, or in the distribution of public benefits and budget funds. The “ethnic proportionality” guarantees a distribution of funds to the three legally recognized language groups, the amount of which is determined by each group’s numerical strength, determined by the official census conducted at ten-year intervals. In 2011, 69.41% of South Tyroleans belonged to the German language group, 26.06% to the Italian language group, and 4.53% to the Ladin language group.

The use of the word “ethnic” surprised me, as it seems to imply a distinction not only linguistic. In 1985, Italian writer Sebastiano Vassalli published Sangue e suolo (Blood and Soil), a literary reportage on South Tyrol. The book denounced the division between the linguistic groups perpetrated in those years by the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP, South Tyrolean People's Party), the German-speaking party that has governed the province since its creation. Vassalli’s book was badly received in the province, with the exception of the local right-wing Italian nationalist party. Please find below a passage where the author criticizes the use of the term “ethnicity” in the South Tyrolean political discourse:

[…] the advantages of the new word come from the fact that it is clean, not involved in genocides or other atrocities of the past; that it is akin, a bit distantly, to the dignity of scientific jargons; that it is used only for humans and not for dogs or chickens. However, deep down, it shares the same substance with the cursed word (race); or, at least, both ethnicity and race can be used to contrast and divide, to establish hierarchies and claim privileges, to raise barbed wires and select species…1

The relationship between majority and minority is a tricky issue. Let me try to explain it through a sort of zoom-in. Considering the whole Italian territory, the German-speaking group is a minority. Then, if we consider the former County of Tyrol (roughly corresponding to today's Euroregion, including South Tyrol, the Austrian Tyrol, and the Italian Trentino), the majority is German-speaking. However, if we consider only the Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, the majority is Italian-speaking. Then, if we consider only South Tyrol, the majority is German-speaking, but in its capital, Bolzano-Bozen, the situation is reversed, with an Italian majority of about 74%.

When I cycle on the riverside, I always pass in front of the modern building that hosts EURAC, a European center for applied research and scientific training. There, a couple of weeks ago, I met historian Georg Grote. He was born in Germany, but he told me, “I don’t feel German at all. I have lived in Ireland, I feel Ireland is my home, that’s where I come from.” Grote has been Associate Professor at University College Dublin, and is now working with EURAC.

I tell him about my research on the Option, and he replies, “People here look at the Option as some kind of thunderstorm that came over them, and they had to weather it, like a sort of natural disaster. When I came to South Tyrol first, in the late 1970s, I was a child, and I befriended a lot of local people in the villages. We would walk around, and they would say to me: ‘This is the house where a Dableiber [those who opted to stay] lived; this is the house where an Optant lived.’ These were thirteen or fourteen-year-olds, and they knew exactly which people—forty years previously—had opted to go and which people had opted to stay. It was that deeply ingrained. Nowadays, forty years later, people talk more openly about the Option, since it is one generation removed. It is already history.”

I asked Prof. Grote how he ended up in South Tyrol. “I did my PhD thesis on Irish cultural nationalism, the Irish language revival, the Irish writers’ movement, which then led to the military nationalism,'' he replied. “Then I got a job in the German department of the University College Dublin, and they told me they did not need me for Irish history. But I wanted to stick to my methodology and focus, so I had to find a different area of study. I had been familiar with South Tyrol, and I was very interested in its history. When you study South Tyrolean history, you have the whole spectrum of European history in one small country: from historical nationalism to modern regionalism; from the nation-state to the EU, including the self-organization of minorities and collective identities.”

We talk about this wonderful, long German word: Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past). In an essay, Prof. Grote wrote about the “victim discourse,” the idea that Austrians portrayed themselves as “the first victim of German aggression,” and that this was “the most important foundation myth of the post-war Austrian republic and an escape from moral guilt for many Austrians.”2 I asked him if anything similar happened in South Tyrol. “Yes, absolutely. And within South Tyrol you have different victim discourses. You had the German victim discourse, that lasted until 1972, that is, until the status of autonomy. And now you have the Italian victim discourse, because Italians feel oppressed by the Germans. So, this victim discourse is really successful—it really works.”

Then, Prof. Grote gave me a suggestion: “When you look at the two biggest newspapers here, Dolomiten and Alto Adige, and you compare the covers of the very same day, you feel like you live in two different countries. Alto Adige focuses south, towards Italy, and Dolomiten focuses north, towards the German-speaking world.” In the following days, I took pictures of the newsstand just next to where I live. Indeed, the covers are always about different things. However, I later found out that Athesia, the publishing company behind the Dolomiten, recently bought the Alto Adige.

Since I started my research, many people suggested I should go and talk to Leopold Steurer, an authority when it comes to the Option, and an expert in 20th-century South Tyrolean history in general.3 Prof. Steurer agreed to meet me in his house in Meran/Merano. We talked for over an hour on his balcony, and he told me how, in the early 1980s, he was one of the first to study the history of the Option. His interest was frowned upon by the more conservative part of the local population, which feared coming to terms with a past they were not willing to dig into.

In 1981, world-famous South Tyrolean mountaineer Reinhold Messner, in a TV show, stated that he was upset with the continuous abuse of the Heimat myth in South Tyrol, perpetrated “by a people who has betrayed their Heimat like no other, when in 1939, by an overwhelming majority, they had opted for Germany, willing to leave their land.” After the ensuing controversy, in 1989 Messner edited a book named Die Option. 1939 stimmten 86% der Südtiroler für das Aufgeben ihrer Heimat. Warum? (The Option. In 1939, 86% of South Tyroleans voted to give up their homeland. Why?). Leopold Steurer was one of the main contributors to that book.

Prof. Steurer showed me a document he unearthed in Berlin.4 It is a folding pamphlet against the Option, released in July 1939. The first interesting feature is that it is folded so that, from the outside, it looks like a tourist flyer advertising the Dolomites’ beauty:

Inside, the leaflet conceals a text entitled Deutsche! Hitler verkauft euch! (Germans! Hitler is selling you!). The text is written by none other than Heinrich Mann, author of the famous novel Professor Unrat (1905, adapted into the 1930 film Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel], starring Marlene Dietrich). From his exile in Provence, Heinrich Mann, committed anti-Nazi and head of the German writers who emigrated to France, decided to produce a flyer against the Option.

Courtesy Leopold Steurer

That's all for now: in the next letter I'll tell you about some other encounters I had during my stay here.

All best regards,


i vantaggi della nuova parola vengono dal fatto che è pulita, non essendo implicata in genocidi o in altre atrocità del passato; che partecipa, un po’ alla lontana, della dignità dei gerghi scientifici; che si usa solamente per l’uomo e non per cani o polli. Ma, gratta gratta, la sostanza è la stessa della parola maledetta (razza); o quanto meno è lo stesso l’uso che si può fare dell’etnia come della razza per contrapporre e dividere, per creare gerarchie e rivendicare privilegi, per alzare fili spinati e selezionare le specie…” Sebastiano Vassalli, Sangue e suolo, (Torino: Einaudi, 1985), 20.
Georg Grote, “Challenging the Zero-Hour Concept: Letters across Borders”, in A Land on the Threshold. South Tyrolean Transformations, 1915-2015, ed. Georg Grote and Hannes Obermair (Bern: Peter Lang, 2017), 107
Leopold Steurer’s first book came out in 1980: Südtirol zwischen Rom und Berlin 1919-1939 (Munich: Europa Verlag).
The document gives the title to a book recently co-edited by Steurer: Deutsche! Hitler verkauft euch! Das Erbe von Option und Weltkrieg in Südtirol, ed. Günther Pallaver and Leopold Steurer (Bolzano/Bozen: Raetia, 2011).