From Sÿdtirol to Alto Adige

by Sophia Clementi:

Everyone born within the borders of the boot extending into the Mediterranean Sea has the right to the same maroon-colored passport. The bold print reading “REPUBBLICA ITALIANA” above the golden laurel leaves surrounding the European star leaves no doubt as to the nationality that the document bestows upon its owner.

Everyone born in the northern Italian region of South Tyrol also possesses these passports. But in their case, the Italian print on the pages, the iconic Italian imagery, and the signature of the Italian  government official do not tell all. Unmarked on their passports is the story of a historically Germanic region caught in the middle of two cultures, two languages, and two histories.

Bolzano is surrounded by the Italian Alps. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

A walk through the heart of Bolzano, the South Tyrolian capital, reveals a Germanic city dating back to the Middle Ages. Narrow pathways covered by stone arches lead to cobblestone squares buzzing with the activity of lively outdoor markets. The Waltherplatz -Piazza Walther -Walther Square surrounds a raised statue of Walther von der Vogelweide, a celebrated Middle High German lyric poet. Leaving the city center by crossing the TalferbrŸlcke -Ponte Talvera -Talferbridge, visitors immediately see the white fascist victory arch towering over the Siegesplatz -Piazza della Vittoria -Victory Square. This  younger Italian part of town is home to huge buildings recalling classic Roman architecture. Stylized columns line covered sidewalks along the wide road connecting the old and the new Bolzano.

South Tyrol became part of Italy in 1919 after the Allied Nations promised Italy the right to annex the region, if the nation switched allegiances during the First World War. In the blink of an eye, a region which had belonged to Austria and the German tradition for over a thousand years became “Italian.”

Italy wasted no time Italianizing its newly gained Germanic territory. The government encouraged Italians to settle in the region. It forbade the use of the German language, prohibited Germans schools, and altered German names, even if new Italian substitutes had to be invented. A common language serves as a bearer of tradition and a means to self-understanding. By taking away German, Italy sought to alter identity and assert authority over the Germanic population.

The South Tyrolians did not accept their fate easily. After years of protests, bombings, political struggle, and even a hearing before the United Nations General Assembly, they saw South Tyrol declared an autonomous bilingual province of the Italian state in 1972. Today, the region is held up as a successful example of peaceful coexistence in ethnic border regions.

Nonetheless, the cultural and linguistic differences that caused those protests have not disappeared. Both Italian and German are accepted as official languages in the region today. Of the 500,000 inhabitants of South Tyrol, 26.5 percent are native Italian speakers, 69.1 percent are native German speakers, and 4.4 percent speak Ladin, another local language. The larger cities are home to most of the Italian speakers, whereas more Germans live in the rural areas.

Zeitungen -giornali -newspapers in two languages are sold side by side at every newsstand; kanale -canali -television channels from Italy, Austria, and Germany can be viewed by pressing one button on a  remote; Italian and German lieder -canzoni -songs are sprinkled between the typical American top 40 on the local radio station. Everything illustrates the everyday ethnic multiplicities. But the German-speaking population still needs to master the Italian language to live their daily lives in South Tyrol. The Italian-speaking majority, on the other hand, does not necessarily require German fluency to operate in the region. After 90 years in which four generations of German-speaking South Tyrolians have walked the fine line between assimilation and cultural resilience, the question arises: Will subsequent generations become more and more Italian?  The school system is one of the strongest indicators of the ethnic and cultural issues at constant play in the region. From kindergarten through the lyceum, the equivalent of high school, children must enroll in either German or Italian schools. Two separate ministries of education, one Italian and one German, oversee the parallel activities of two distinct academic systems.

The statue of Walther von der Vogelweide adorns the town square. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

Starting in first grade, instruction of the “other” language is mandatory in both Italian and German schools. The approach to this teaching varies by region and teacher. “At first, I attended German school in a town where about 75 percent of the population are native Italian speakers,” said Greta Unterlechner, a current high school senior. “Italian was taught like a second mother tongue.” But when she switched to her current German-speaking lyceum in Bolzano, she noticed that Italian became the foreign language. “I think the teaching methods strongly depend on the percentage of Italian-speaking families present,” she observed.

A South Korean-born student who attends a German lyceum also noticed a difference in the instruction of English, German, and Italian in all of the progressing stages of her education. ”In elementary and middle school, Italian was taught like a foreign language in the sense that we would study vocabulary, grammar, and syntax,” she said. “In the lyceum on the other hand, it was completely different. Our Italian classes basically mirrored Italian instruction at the Italian high schools.” By the time students attend high school in South Tyrol, their schedules include the same number of German and Italian classes a week.

While native German speakers often learn to speak Italian fluently, not many native Italian speakers can claim fluency  in the second language by the time they graduate, as the German language is often not highly valued in the Italian education system.

(Courtesy Creative Commons)

Many teachers are aware of the inadequacy of language instruction. Professor Bruno Klammer, who co-founded the Association of Private Schools in South Tyrol to obtain government funding for both German and Italian private schools in the region, recognizes the good intention behind extensive foreign language instruction. “There is, however, a surprising downward movement in the level of language competence in both ethnic groups,” he noted. He added that many students do not even acquire the bilingualism necessary to study at the Free University of Bolzano, a university that prides itself on  trilingual usage of English, German and Italian in all of its departments.

Most students choose to attend schools with members of the same linguistic group. In order to break down that language barrier, some families purposefully enroll their children in the other school system to guarantee dual fluency. Increasingly, Italian families are choosing to send their children to German schools because the rigorous German schooling system tends to enjoy a better academic reputation. Having taught at German lyceums for many years, Klammer explained, “Many forward-thinking Italian families enrolled their children in the German education system to ensure their German skills and provide them with greater chances abroad.”

After the Italian annexation of South Tyrol, strong support for rejoining Austria and the German nation dominated the part of the population lacking Italian patriotism. As time progressed, the German-speaking minority realized the hopelessness of a reunion with the Germanic nation. A minority began to strive towards self-determination. Even today, a small minority group wishes for an independent nation.

The simple truth is that most have long accepted the unchangeable identity of the region as part of Italy. The unique political situation continues to shape the self-understanding of German speakers. “We are German-speaking Italians,” one student whose family owns a popular hotel in the mountains above Bolzano declared. “Too much has changed in the past century for me to feel a strong bond to the Austrian or German culture,” echoed another student. ”Personally, I feel Italian.”

Today’s youth certainly did not grow up amidst the same rough reality of Italian oppression that shaped their grandparents youth. Still, some students feel no tie to Italian nationality. Alexa Ladinser, a 20-year-old pharmaceutics student who grew up in a rural area, shares this view because “[her] language and culture are not Italian.”

The concept of nationality is being blurred everywhere by increased human mobility and greater cross-cultural exchange. Unterlechner said, “I see myself as a part of the new, bilingual, and bicultural  generation.” This duality may only grow stronger as today’s youth come of age in a globalizing world. South Tyrol will continue to shape its place within the Italian nation while retaining its Germanic history. Subsequent generations will become more “Italian” as time progresses. But they will also retain their South Tyrolian identity, setting them apart from the rest of the boot.

Sophia Clementi ’14 is an Ethics, Politics and Economics major in Saybrook College. Contact her at