Like the United States has George Washington as its iconic founding father, an Austrian province in the middle of Europe, called Tyrol, gives homage through paintings and memorabilia to one man. His name was Andreas Hofer.
When Napoleon defeated the Hapsburgs in 1805, the Tyrolean territory was ceded to Bavaria. During the War of the Fifth Coalition, Andreas Hofer and two other men led a rebellion of farmers against the French and Bavarian occupying troops. After many skirmishes and battles, the Tyroleans lost. Hofer was betrayed by a Tyrolean peasant and handed over to the French and summarily executed. Hofer’s leadership and eventual heroic, if not legendary, status became the singular symbol of one peoples’ fight for freedom, self-rule, and the oppression of foreign occupiers for over the next 150 years!
Although Hofer was executed, the rebellion had not been fought in vain. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat, the southern territory was temporarily shifted to Illyrian (Italian) rule before being returned to the Hapsburgs in 1815.
All the formerly divided parts of Tyrol were ceded back to the Empire and Tyrol was recognized as one unified and independent county. And for just over 100 years, it stayed that way. It stayed that way until, in 1918, America, Great Britain, Russia and Italy entered the picture and split Tyrol in two, handing the southern half of the province to Italy.
Wait… huh? Why?
Irredenta, that’s why. Irredenta is a country’s or movement’s claim to “unredeemed” territories, possibly held by foreign governments. In other words, there were some grudges against the Hapsburgs' earlier presence in what was once considered Roman territory. In the 1800s, the Italian movement claimed that these territories—even primarily German-speaking settlements—historically belonged to Italy. Irredentists sought to re-establish a Romanesque Empire and traditional ethnic borders. Though if taken from a military standpoint, that mountainous Brenner Line to the north—a natural barrier to potential enemies—and that access to the sea at Trieste, for example, were strategically desirable as well. So, when Great Britain approached Italy with the request that they join in the war against the Prussians and Austro-Hungarians, Italy agreed to sign the secret treaty only if, in the case that they should win, France, Great Britain and Russia would cede those sought-after territories and provinces to Italy.
In other words, when the Great War ended, a new conflict began. And it was an ugly conflict.
In 1919, South Tyrol was awarded to Italy in the Treaty of Saint-Germain, although this actually contradicted the peoples' right of self-determination proclaimed by the victorious powers. A phase of repression began for the German-speaking population of South Tyrol, which was reinforced with the seizure of power by the Fascists in 1922. South Tyrol was to be Italianized, the German and Ladin languages were suppressed and banned, original place names and family names were exchanged for Italian, although the latter often had to be reinvented. For certain periods, the German language was forbidden in schools, and German-language newspapers were shut down. Italian was the only official language. Bolzano was especially targeted by settling an Italian-speaking population in the city. In addition, South Tyrol came under military protectorate. As one reader once shared in her review of my novels, it became very clear why Hitler was seen as some kind of savior for the German people!
In 1939, Hitler and Mussolini concluded an agreement that offered the South Tyroleans the relocation to the German Reich, the so-called "Option". Where the resettlement should take place was not clear, but those who wanted to stay in Italy, had to give up the German mother tongue and culture completely. Around 75,000 Tyroleans resettled, with some returning after WWII. The manner in which this “Option” was executed, however, remains—to this very day—a sore spot for just about anyone whose family stemmed from South Tyrol. It was ugly, it was inhumane, and it was downright dirty and corrupt.
With the end of World War II, hopes germinated for a reunification of Tyrol again. De facto, the possibility was never given and South Tyrol remained part of Italy. In the Paris Treaty of 1946, Italy granted South Tyrol autonomy and recognized Austria as a protective power. Implementation was slow, however, and strong immigration from the poorer regions of Italy continued.
Armed resistance began and the region was in turmoil until around 1969. In other words, Andreas Hofer rose again, not as a model but as a symbol of a free and unified Tyrol. Acts of terrorism took place. People were injured and killed. Young Tyroleans, who did not identify themselves as Italians, fought in underground political cells. It all culminated into the terrible "Night of Fire" in 1961. Many young men were arrested, tried and handed the death sentence.
Once again, it was not all in vain. Italy, through the intervention of the UN, was required to implement the Paris Treaty. In 1969, the Italian government and Austria agreed to the so-called "operation calendar", which led to the ratification of the "South Tyrol Package" in 1972, and the Second Statute of Autonomy for the province of Bolzano.
This new Statute of Autonomy now guarantees South Tyrol self-government, autonomy in many budgetary and legal issues, bilingualism and a distribution of public bodies and resources according to the ethnic proportions. However, the wounds are still very deep in this area.
Some political groups claim that the definition of autonomy and the implementation of autonomy do not match up. The extreme right political party in Austria, the Austrian Freedom Party led by H.C. Strache, even include promises a reunification of South Tyrol with Austria as part of their platform.
Despite the continued debates, the move for a peaceful resolution has turned out pretty well for the province, at least from an outsider's standpoint. South Tyrol has been able to use its autonomy to develop into one of the wealthiest, most modern and economically prosperous regions not only of Italy but in all of Europe.
Meanwhile, South Tyrol is considered a model example of the autonomy of ethnic minorities and shows how a peaceful coexistence of different cultural and linguistic groups is possible even in a very conflict-filled past. This also gives hope to other regions of Europe and the world, which still have this difficult road ahead of them.
Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is the author of the Reschen Valley series, a five-part series spanning the history of the South Tyrolean conflict and the building of the Reschen Lake Reservoir (a story unto itself) from 1920-1961.