THE German South-Tyrol and its people are purely German. Never in history has the Brenner been the frontier of Italy. It can be proved that the following statement made by Mussolini in February, 1926, is not correct: "We shall Italianize this territory, because it is Italian, geographically and historically. The frontier of the Brenner has been traced out by Our Lord. The Germans in the Alto-Adige are not a national minority, but an ethnographical relic." The contrary is true. For fourteen centuries, as at the present day, the frontier between the German-speaking and Italian-speaking populations has been the Gorge of Salurn. It was in the 12th and 13th centuries that German South-Tyrol became a political unit with North-Tyrol, first under the Counts of Tyrol (their castle still exists today, near Meran, now in Italy), and after 1363 under the sceptre of the Hapsburgs. The history of this country was always German, and German was its population, its language, its law, its culture and its art. Andreas Hofer, born in the Passeier valley (now in Italy) was a German hero.[i]

This German country's tragedy in consequence of the Treaty of St. Germain is twofold: first, its annexation by the Kingdom of Italy; second, its present situation within the Kingdom of Italy.

The peace treaties and other treaties concluded in 1919 and 1920 created a system for the international protection of national, linguistic and religious minorities under the guarantee of the League of Nations. But the Great Powers, including Germany and Italy, were not bound by these international obligations, so that the Germans of German South-Tyrol are not to be reckoned among the national minorities in whose favor special conventions exist. In consequence, the normal procedure in dealing with minorities questions (that is, action on the initiative of a member of the Council of the League, or as a result of petitions) cannot be followed.

Italy nevertheless has an international obligation with regard to the rights of the German population of South-Tyrol. When the Austrian Peace Delegation protested against the attribution of this area to Italy, it received the following reply through the Peace Conference: "According to the very definite declarations made by the Italian Prime Minister in the Parliament at Rome, the Government intends to carry out a wide and liberal policy towards its new German subjects, in respect of language, culture and economic interests." And the Austrian National Council replied on September 6, expressis verbis: "The Austrian National Council expects that the promises given in the reply shall be fulfilled by the Powers in question."[ii] This note was accepted by the Allied and Associated Powers, including Italy, without any contradiction. As the promise in question was given not only by Italy, but by all the Entente Powers, the juridical situation of the inhabitants of German South-Tyrol within the Kingdom of Italy (despite the fact that Italy is not bound by the obligations of a minorities treaty) is no longer a "domestic affair" in the sense of article 15, paragraph 8 of the League Covenant, but has come within the realm of international law.

At the time of its annexation South-Tyrol enjoyed a very large degree of self-government, for the old Austrian Empire, though not a federal state, had a system of decentralization. South-Tyrol had a special Diet, with not only administrative but also legislative competence. After the annexation the Germans of South-Tyrol asked for autonomy in accord with the words of Signor Luzzati, rapporteur in the Italian Parliament.[iii] Opposite action was taken. By the Royal Decree of January 21, 1923,[iv] German South-Tyrol was united with Italian South-Tyrol into one administrative unit, thereby losing its separate legal locus standi and the possibility of national self-determination.

The same thing happened with the self-government of the parishes. The Royal Decree of April 16, 1925, made the secretaries of the parishes officials of the government, nominated by the prefect and removable by him. Germans can be nominated secretaries of parishes only if they fulfill (apart from the other conditions required) the condition of having studied at an Italian college or having satisfactorily served in a public office, with Italian as the official language, for at least three years. The same decree gives the prefect the right to unite different parishes, whether they wish it or not. Another Royal Decree orders that official burgomasters shall be nominated for all parishes. Before, the burgomasters were freely elected by the citizens.

The Decree of the Prefect of Trento, No. 1796, of October 28, 1923, fixed Italian as the official language of all public services, including organizations for the promotion of foreign trade, savings banks, chambers of commerce, sick funds, etc., as well as of all works under the control of the State or the province or the parishes, such as tramways, waterworks, gas and electric works, etc. Laws and decrees are published exclusively in Italian, though there are hundreds of parishes where no one knows Italian. The former officials, most of whom knew both German and Italian, were nearly all dismissed and replaced by officials from the South of Italy who do not know a word of German. Another step towards the denationalization of the country was taken in the Royal Decree of October 15, 1925, which stipulates that Italian is to be the only language used in pleading before the courts of law. The counsel of the defendant is forbidden to address questions in German to his client, even when he is unacquainted with the Italian tongue. Only citizens who know Italian can be jurymen.

The Decree of the Prefect of Trento of October 28, 1923, No. 14718, orders that in the province of Trento[v] inscriptions, signs, placards, titles, catalogues, time-tables and all inscriptions and descriptions in general addressed to or destined for the public, or accessible to the public, even if referring to private matters, must be drawn up solely in the official tongue of the State. This applies even to picture postcards, which, like maps, guide-books, time-tables and names of all places in general, must bear exclusively the official Italian designation. By the Decree of the Prefect of Trento of August 9, 1923, No. 12637, only the official title "Alto-Adige" ("Oberetsch" in the German translation) is

allowed and the people who have been Tyrolese for more than one thousand years are forced, under penal sanctions, to call themselves henceforth "Atesino," "Etschlander."

A special commission was created in Rome by Royal Decree, March 28, 1923, with the duty of translating the old names of towns and villages in German South-Tyrol into Italian. This Commission freely invented Italian names for places, the German names of which have existed for centuries. No one understands these new names, -- neither the native population of the country nor foreign tourists, especially as even to use the old German names in parenthesis is prohibited.

A campaign of decrees, administrative acts, censorship and acts of violence (such as the destruction of printing-presses) was directed against the German press in German South-Tyrol. In 1925 all four German provincial newspapers of German South-Tyrol were forced to close down, so that today no native German newspaper is edited there. Instead of them the Government has founded at Meran a Fascist newspaper, written in the German language, the editor of which is the former chief of the press department at the Foreign Office at Rome.

The proclamation issued to the population of German South-Tyrol by the first Italian Military Governor, on November 18, 1918, promised: "The idea of the suppression of other races or tongues is far from Italy. . . . The Germanspeaking parishes will be allowed German elementary schools, and all private and confessional schools already in being will be allowed freedom to retain the German language as the language of instruction."

Italy partially kept these promises in the first years after the annexation. The first school law, the "Lex Corbino,"[vi] provided for German schools, with instruction in German, for the children of families of German origin, and schools with instruction in Italian for the children of families of Italian origin. Nevertheless this law meant a loss for the German schools, for the Italian authorities themselves decided whether a family was originally German or Italian.

But with the inauguration of the Fascist Government the systematic Italianization of the German schools began. Article 31 of the Royal Decree of October 1, 1923, reads as follows: "Beginning with the scholastic year 1923-24, all instruction in the first classes even of the non-Italian schools will be carried on in the Italian language only. In the scholastic year 1924--25, also, the second classes will be taught in Italian only. In the same way the successive classes 3, 4 and 5 will be taught entirely in the Italian tongue, so that within five years the language of instruction throughout the elementary schools will be Italian." In this way more than 500 classes of German elementary schools (that is to say, nearly all of them) were closed by the end of 1925.

German could thenceforward be taught only in supplementary lessons. Moreover, this teaching was impeded in many ways, especially by the Decree of the Education Board of Trento, May, 1924, which prohibited German spelling-books and the use of Gothic letters. Then, by the Decree of the Education Board of Trento of January 18, 1926, No. 626 a/3, these supplementary lessons of German were entirely abolished, so that it is no longer allowed to speak a single word of German in the schools.

This situation is still more aggravated by the prohibition even of private instruction in German. In spite of the fact that there are no laws in Italy restricting private instruction, the Prefect of Trento, in an urgent and secret decree of November 27, 1925, gives the Under-Prefects of German South-Tyrol the following orders in this connection: "It is absolutely necessary to crush with the utmost determination all efforts of this kind. . . . I request you therefore to employ every possible means for detecting the instigators and helpers of this organization. . . . Should you succeed in detecting any such private schools, close them down immediately; all their means of instruction are to be confiscated and the responsible persons are to be denounced to the tribunals. With regard to the persons acting as teachers in such private schools, they are, when foreigners, to be expelled from the Kingdom. When Italian subjects, they are to be forcibly removed to their native parishes. The trespassers, moreover, are to be officially reprimanded and kept under police supervision. For this purpose you will secure also the assistance of the Volunteer Militia which, on request, will be put at your disposal."

Is it not more than paradoxical that in German South-Tyrol instruction in French, English and any other language is allowed, even to German children, that the teaching of German is allowed to Italian children, but that the teaching of German to German children constitutes a crime?

The liberal legislation of the old Kingdom of Italy concerning the rights of free association and the holding of public meetings is not extended to German South-Tyrol. Discussions on German poetry and philosophy are proscribed. Catholic juvenile organizations and clubs for the culture of the German language are forbidden. The Decree of the Prefect of Trento of September 3, 1923, orders the dissolution of all Alpine tourist clubs, unions or sections, in so far as they are not sections of the Club Alpino Italiano. At the same time the property, both personal and real, used by or in possession of the above-named organizations, was transferred to the Club Alpino Italiano.

The Decree of May, 1924, No. 1122, involves extraordinary restrictions on landed property in the German and Slav frontier districts (but not in the French and Swiss frontier districts). The real object, of course, is not so much military defense as the control of sales of land in these territories. Article I prohibits building operations of whatever description, without the previous consent of the military authorities. Article 7 orders that every full or partial sale of real property, as also the transfer of rights of usufruct, residence or hereditary tenure, and in general all transactions involving a change of proprietorship or leasehold or tenancy of real property, are to be submitted to the approval of the prefect.

In many minor ways the Fascist Government seeks to destroy the ancient traditions of the South-Tyrolese people. The school books have been "cleansed" of everything reminding one of German customs, traditions and history. The singing of German "Lieder" is considered dangerous to the Kingdom of Italy. The Decree of the Prefect of Trento of December 26, 1922, No. 24515, requests the directors of all schools to remove all pictures of local heroes such as Andreas Hofer, Haspinger and Speckbacher from the premises.

As is well known, Italian laws have been created for the purpose of silencing the anti-Fascist Italian opposition in domestic politics. As applied to German South-Tyrol, these laws constitute another means for outlawing the Germans there. Take for example the Royal Decree of January 31, 1926, No. 168, which orders the cancellation of the Italian citizenship of persons who take any action abroad calculated to endanger public order in the Kingdom, prejudice Italian interests, or diminish in any way the good name and prestige of Italy, even though such action does not involve a crime. In graver cases private properties can be confiscated in addition to the cancellation of citizenship. The application of this law to the Germans of South-Tyrol makes it nearly impossible for them to inform public opinion abroad of their real situation, as they risk losing their citizenship and property.

A second decree is aimed directly at the Germans of German South-Tyrol. It is the Royal Decree of January 10, 1926, No. 16, dealing with the cancellation of rights granted to foreigners who opted for citizenship. This Decree states briefly that "the citizenship acquired by option on the basis of the stipulation of the Peace Treaties can at any time be repealed when the person concerned proves by his political attitude that he is unworthy of Italian citizenship." This constitutes a violation of the Peace Treaties, and renders the persons in question "heimatlos" (stateless).

With these acts the denationalization of the German people of German South-Tyrol might have been considered complete. But a new climax has been reached by the promulgation of the Royal Decree of January 10, 1926, No. 17, concerning the "repristination" of the Italian form of family names in the province of Trento. Family names "derived from the Italian or Latin and translated into other languages or altered by suffixes or foreign spelling," and "all titles of nobility translated or transformed " must be restored to the Italian form. This process will be carried out arbitrarily through the Prefect by means of a decree published in the Gazetta Ufficiale, and whoever thereafter adheres to the old form of his family name or title of nobility will be liable to a fine of from 300 to 5,000 lire. This so-called "repristination" of the family names is determined by the Prefect of Trento. Families which have for centuries borne honored German names will learn by reading a decree in the Gazetta Ufficiale what their names are to be in future.

After having lost their provincial and parish autonomy and the use of their language in all public services, after the barring of German teaching either in schools or in private lessons, after the prohibition of the use of the words "Tyrol" and "South-Tyrol," after the Italianization of all geographical names, the Germans of German South-Tyrol are now deprived of their last German heirloom, their family names.

[i] For details of the history of South-Tyrol see the excellent study by Prof. Voltelini. Statistical information is given in the study of Prof. Winkler, "Deutschsüdtirol im Lichte der Statistik;" also in "The Case of German South-Tyrol Against Italy," London: Geo. Allen & Unwin, London, 1927.

[ii] "Bericht über die Tätigkert der deutsch--österr. Friedensdelegation in St. Germain," 2 vols., Vienna, Government Printing Office, 1919. Vol. II, p. 323, and p. 360.

[iii] "It must be an honorable duty for the Government and Parliament to grant autonomy to those Germans, who were annexed only owing to the absolute necessity for defending our frontiers. . . . They must feel themselves completely free and unmolested in the observance of their cultural and religious needs in administrative and economic life. . . . "

[iv] See "Gazetta Ufficiale," for text of Royal Decrees cited in this article.

[v] Not in the old Kingdom of Italy; this is therefore an exceptional law for the annexed province only.

[vi] Royal Decree of Aug. 28, 1921, No. 1627.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JOSEF L. KUNZ, a writer on legal and historical subjects, member of the "Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerrecht"
  • More By Josef L. Kunz