When we had our first meeting discussing what we would like our projects to be about, this idea came into my mind right away. I was born and raised in South Tyrol, which is part of the region Trentino-Alto Adige in northern Italy. It is at the border with Austria and has a mostly German-speaking population (around 70%). It also has a small minority of people who speak Ladin, a language that is only spoken in two South Tyrolean valleys by a few thousand people.

The province has a substantial political and economic autonomy, being able to pass its own laws and keep the tax money that would usually be managed by Rome, instead having total control over it. It is the richest Italian province because of excellent climate that favours agriculture – with up to 300 sunny days a year – and a flourishing tourism industry. South Tyrol is visited by around 6 million people a year, which is the same number of tourists who visit Brazil every year. This makes the region wealthy, but also creates difficulties for local people who have to deal with extreme traffic and crowded cities as well as polluted nature.

To understand the present-day situation in South Tyrol, It is necessary to study its interesting history. We could of course start far back, but it’s best to begin with the end of World War One.

In 1918, South Tyrol was officially declared a part of the Kingdom of Italy. This was written into the Treaty of Versailles and signed in Paris. Until this date, the region had been historically contested – with the Dolomites in the North forming the seemingly natural border that would attribute it to Italy – but had mostly been under Austrian rule.

This meant that a majority of the population spoke German and had deeply Austrian culture, traditions, and architecture. For example, the traditional dress – Dirndl and Lederhosen – are typically worn in Austria and Southern Germany, too. The cuisine is very different from the Italian one, with specialties such as Knödel and Sauerkraut, apple juice and beer. When the region was taken over by Italy, it was a purely rural economy. Families lived together in big farms in valleys and on the mountains. This meant that it was not economically advanced.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Italy was ruled by the Fascist party, which imposed a series of discriminating laws and limitations on the German population. For example, family names were translated into Italian, as were the names of villages, valleys, and mountains. The German language was declared to be illegal in public, as were traditional clothes and customs. The Fascist party wanted to completely wipe out the German culture and language.

They did this by installing people from all over Italy to work in the newly-built industrial complex. This is the reason why, to this day, most Italian people live in the region’s biggest city, Bolzano. These Italians who moved to South Tyrol usually came from the deeply underdeveloped South, where most were living in extreme poverty that had become intolerable after World War One. So, when the Fascist party promised them stable jobs and “semirurali” – family houses with a big garden and much space – many naturally agreed.

The German population, however, held on to their identity fiercely. They organized the so-called Katakombenschulen (catacomb-schools) where they would teach German and Austrian culture in secret. They also protested and tried to make their voices heard, which more than once ended in violent repression from the government.

Then, in 1939, Hitler and Mussolini decided to sign the “Option Agreement.” This consisted in giving German-speaking South Tyrolean people the option of moving to the Third Reich. Much was promised – a house, the same amount of land they owned in South Tyrol, and a rich life. On the other hand, rumors started spreading that the Italian government was planning on forcibly remove the remaining people and transfer them to Southern Italy.

Although a vast majority of the population decided to leave, the war broke out before most actually could. Those who did found themselves living in refugee camps in terrible conditions – usually in the territory newly occupied by the Germans. They also lost their property back home. Many decided to come back and had to face the hate of the Dableiber (those who had decided to stay).

After WW2, the promises of a substantial autonomy for South Tyrol were repeatedly neglected by the Italian government, and the German population began protesting. Most of these protests were peaceful, but there were more violent groups as well.

The BAS, for example, organized attacks on electricity poles as a concrete as well as symbolic attack against the government – which many people found was still acting like the Fascist party in relation to minorities. Thus, they wanted to sabotage the industrial complex that, they felt, had been forcibly imposed on them and had devalued the traditional agricultural work. This organization had clear neo-Nazi traits, which makes its actions controversial up until today, and caused the unwanted deaths of both Italian and German citizens. This is generally remembered as a period of instability and unsureness. However, it is important to state that these attacks never had people as the target and also never threatened the Italians living on the territory – it targeted places and the Italian central government.

When Austria regained its full political independence after the allied occupation of its territory until 1955, it brought the issue of South Tyrol to the United Nations. Austrian politicians wanted to defend this region that had been a part of the Austrian Empire for centuries and had not been given a substantial autonomy by Italy despite the promises made. The UN ordered Italy and Austria to come up with a new autonomy statute that would ensure the protection of the German language and culture.

This led to various commissions being formed and an agreement was reached in 1970 which gave South Tyrol an economic, political, and linguistic autonomy within Italy. It is now considered one of the best-working autonomies in the world, with experts coming from Elsass-Lothringen, Aosta, Catalonia, and many other ethnically contested areas to give advice.

Today, the region is completely bilingual. From street signs to city names, from official bureaucratic documents to announcements on public transport. To work in a public office – thus, for the Italian or the provincial government – one must have a language certificate in both languages. The higher the score, the better the pay. We have Italian and German schools. At eighteen, one must make an official statement and decide which language group to be a part of. This is necessary because the public workplaces are divided based on an ethnic proportion – Germans have 70% of jobs for them, Italians have 30%.

These measures were necessary to create a working autonomy, but many people feel like they need to be changed today because they tend to divide the people along ethnic lines too much instead of focusing on collaboration. The relations between the German and Italian speaking people remain scarce, as well as the willingness to learn the other language and get to know the other culture and worldview.

My grandparents all moved to Bolzano in the 1930s – they all came from poor families and needed the high-paying jobs offered in South Tyrol. They did not speak a single word of German. My parents did study German in school, but that has been proven to not be very efficient up to this day. So, when I was old enough to go to kindergarten, my mother insisted on sending me to a fully German-speaking one. Thankfully I had no difficulties in learning the language quickly, and we decided that I would go to a German elematary school as well.

This then led me to do all my school education in German, and I am so glad that I did.

Being immersed in a different language and culture – with holidays, songs, and games that I did not know – immediately sparked my interest in other cultures. I am convinced that one of the reasons I am studying Global Humanities now is because of this cultural melting pot I grew up in. It showed me that, after all, people are truly the same everywhere, and it always pained me to see Germans making fun of Italians and vice versa.

So, when the time came to make a documentary about something, I instantly knew that I wanted to make it on the unusual history of my region.

I started by writing down what I personally remembered from school – as we studied the history of our autonomy in great detail, especially being a German school. I decided that I wanted to focus on the lived experiences of people from both language groups, adults and young people alike. I wanted to ask them how the situation has changed throughout their life and how they hope it will evolve in the future.

The first person I interviewed was Margarethe Lun. She is a member of the Südtiroler Schützenbund. As the name suggests – the literal translation would be shooting club – the original purpose of this association was the armed defence of the territory. Today, they do a variety of things. They organize local holidays, work closely with the brass band that exists in every village, are often part of the volunteer firefighters, and generally try to keep close contact with the Schützen of North Tyrol and the Trentino. It is a generally right-wing association with very traditional values, and many members wish for a reunification with Austria or the founding of an independent State. However, most simply enjoy dressing traditionally and having a good time together.

Then, I interviewed a distant relative of mine, Claudio Polo. He was born during World War Two, and is officially Italian, but his mother spoke perfect German. She grew up in a time when South Tyrol was still part of Austria. He talked to me about his personal experience of having to learn German, because his mother didn’t teach him the language for fear of repression by the government, when the autonomy statute was approved and having to navigate the new bilingual bureaucracy.

The third person I talked to is Diego Laratta. He is a young Italian student and politician, and he gave me some interesting insights on the history of South Tyrol. He is very passionate about the future of this region and stressed the importance of creating bilingual schools and associations and of helping migrants or second-generation children who may struggle with having to learn two languages simultaneously. He also wished for better relations between German and Italian people, whose coexistence is now peaceful but still mostly separate.

Lastly, I interviewed Zeno Oberkofler. He is also in his mid-twenties, politically active and one of the founding members of Friday’s For Future South Tyrol. Fridays For Future is one of the only bilingual associations in the region, with meetings being held in both languages interchangeably. Raised in a bilingual household, he decided to enter politics when he turned eighteen and had to officially decide whether he felt German and Italian. He realized that it was an impossible question to answer – and, I must say, I agree with him wholeheartedly – to become politically active to try and change these norms. He says that they confine people into boxes and we need to find new ways to keep the German culture alive without having to keep it separate from the Italian one.


I want to alternate between an explanation of South Tyrols history, showing the beautiful landscapes I grew up in, and giving space to different opinions on the past and future of this region. The coexistence of two deeply different language groups and cultures on the same territory is complicated. Add to it that the Fascist government wanted to wipe them out completely through settler-colonialism techniques, and one can understand where some people’s resentment comes from. However, most people are generally happy with the autonomy and wish for more contacts between the ethnic groups.

One Reply to “Südtirol – Alto Adige: A Recent History of South Tyrol: Autonomy and Bilingualism”

  1. Today it is hard to believe, that President Wilson agreed to the annexation of South Tyrol by Italy after WW I. Tyrol belongs to Austria by history. tradition and language.
    It is time South Tyrol returned to Austria or becomes an independent State like Lichtenstein or Switzerland.

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