South Tyrol – a distorting mirror for Vienna, Rome and liberal London

Benito says – believe, obey, fight! Bolzano’s bas-relief, 2008. Flickr/John Shave. Some rights reserved.South Tyrol is a hot
topic, currently being debated in Austria, Italy and Britain. They boast loud
politics, drawing in others as well. In all three, Euroscepticism has firmly
taken hold.

One section of the London
press and Vienna's newly elected government have zoned in on Italy's largest,
richest and least Italian of all provinces. What they discussed contains a
throwback to the upheavals of the first post-war period.

Half a million South
Tyroleans can still feel the icy reverberations of that time. Others know this
too; they peer anxiously, everyone holding a different lens.

The Guardian
published an analysis on how a fascist bas-relief in Bozen's Gerichtsplatz
(“Law Court Square”) has been defused by a work of art, one inspired by Hannah Arendt's thinking. (Oddly
enough, the op-ed never uses the terms 'South Tyrol' or 'South Tyrolean', but
instead employs the Italian name 'Bolzano', not emphasising sufficiently the
Austrian ethnic side of the story.)

From the bombastic
headline – “A small Italian town can teach the world how to defuse
controversial monuments” – it would rightly seem that the sole merit goes to
this mountain municipality.

But, digging deeper, you
find another consideration: in 2011 it was apparently the government in Rome
which asked Bozen to do something about the Mussolini-on-a-horse. Whereas London waxes lyrical about all things Italian,
Austria openly challenges Italy.

Not so much a local
initiative, then, as a push from Rome. A sign that Italy might well have woken
up from its torpor and recalibrated the past, ready to honour the return of the remains of disgraced Victor Emmanuel III,
the king who abandoned the country to the Nazis. A newly gained national
awareness which in liberal London's eyes is a step in the right direction.

Vienna too is focusing on
South Tyrol. But whereas London waxes lyrical about all things Italian, Austria
openly challenges Italy. The Austrian citizenship offered only to
German-speaking South Tyroleans is riddled with revenge, many argue.
Unfortunately, no public register exists explicitly stating who belongs to
which linguistic group.

What you do find
though, is an unrepresentative archive of who speaks which native language; a
rudimentary tool based on self-certification, which you can change at any time,
at a whim, as the Bozen-born acclaimed novelist Luca D'Andrea wrote in the national press, maybe
perhaps you have discovered that certain jobs in the public sector (22 per cent
of the job market) are only open to speakers of one language.

This is a mechanism based
on proportional representation of the size of the linguistic groups which
relies on the “infallibility” of the register. Grotesquely, this office is
located in that very Gerichtsplatz. Convoluted? It's worse than that –
divisive. Yet, Vienna finds this system reliable for calculating how many
Austrian passports they'd need to issue. All very convenient. Convoluted? It's worse than that – divisive.

But consider: if you want
to hand out Austrian passports in predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol,
then why not offer it to everyone who was born, or who has lived there
long enough, and can prove proficiency in German by showing their grade “A” in the Zweisprachigkeitsprüfung
(“Bilingualism Test”)?

By doing so, a proportion
of local Italian speakers could claim an Austrian passport, making this novel
idea less sectarian and acceptable (some may also have ancestors from Trentino,
part of the Habsburg empire until 1918, known as Welschtirol, or
“Italian Tyrol”). Not something the ultra-nationalist Freedom Party of Austria
would be thrilled about.

Did Vienna not realise
how unsystematic ethnic categorisation is in South Tyrol? Hard to believe they
didn't. The important thing is provocation. You can either challenge it or
ignore it. Rome has chosen the former: a resounding No to dual citizenship was the answer.
The important thing is provocation.

So, which Rome are we
talking about? Is this the same magnanimous Rome – applauded by the anti-Brexit
London press, determined to make Europeans sound enlightened – who allegedly
encouraged Bozen to do something about its fascist monuments (without
addressing its own)?

Here we have three
capitals speaking of Italy's outpost in diverging ways: London, Europe's
financial and military heart; Vienna, the bridge into eastern Europe; and Rome,
the ancient caput mundi. If you were to join these powerhouses on a map,
the lines would form a triangle, with South Tyrol right at its centre.

This is a tiny region
that has little to teach others, namely Donetsk and Catalonia, as local leaders have boasted, but it has
found a few solutions applicable to its own very specific circumstances. This
is why South Tyrol is much talked about in these Eurosceptic times, where
corners are getting tighter by the day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *