Monumental moment for South Tyrol

South Tyrol– Almost 70 years have passed since Benito Mussolini was overthrown. But in South Tyrol in northern Italy, the monuments that were raised during his fascist regime still provoke dismay. A recent agreement with the government in Rome has now made it possible to remove the monuments– but this has also brought new life into the old conflict between German- and Italian-speakers in the province.

Photo: Anna Rydholm

Remains from the fascist era– like statues, buildings and street names are a common sight throughout Italy. But nowhere else are they such a big issue as in the region of South Tyrol. The fascist monuments that are placed over this province– in the capital Bolzano as well as on the countryside– have been a problematic issue for decades now.

SVP vice President Martha Stocker in her office Photo: Anna Rydholm

Martha Stocker,who is the vice President of the leading South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP), has no doubt in why this is the case.

“These monuments just tell the rest of the world that we are barbarians, since they show the history and glory of fascism”.

To understand why these monuments cause such a stir in South Tyrol, one must consider the rather turbulent history of this northeast corner of Italy.


From annexation to autonomy

The region belonged to Austria until the end of the First World War, when it was annexed by Italy as a part of the peace treaty. This meant that the historical Tyrol was split, but also that the German-speaking population, as well as the Ladino minority, overnight were made foreigners in their own homeland.

Tyrol before- and after 1919 Photo:Anna Rydholm

The years that followed would not prove easy for these groups. The fascist regime sought to solve the ‘South Tyrolean problem’ through massive immigration of Italians from the south. Housing and public offices were generally reserved for these newcomers, and German- and Ladino speakers faced hard difficulties in making a living. They were also denied the right to their own culture and language.

The Paris agreement of 1946 made South Tyrol an autonomous province, and the three language groups are today granted equal rights. The relationship between the German-speaking majority and Italians is still tense, though, and the presence of the monuments hardly makes things easier.

German-speakers are in majority in South Tyrol

Negotiating with Berlusconi

The provincial authorities, lead by the German-speaking SVP, have therefore for a long time tried to find a solution to the problem. This has proved hard, though, since the monuments are under the protection of the Italian state. The discussions with Rome suffer from the notoriously frosty relationship between the capital and South Tyrol. This has not improved during the latest years of Berlusconi-lead governments, dominated by his different political parties Forza Italia and The People of Freedom (PDL).

But this status quo has now transformed into progress, as the matter reached a sudden breakthrough three months ago. In January, Luis Durnwalder– leader of the SVP and Governor of South Tyrol, received a letter from the Italian Minister of Cultural affairs, Sandro Bondi. The letter was surrounded with a large portion of hush-hush, but the essential part was nevertheless soon on the air; an agreement that allowed South Tyrol to develop a solution for the monuments that they might seem fit.

Martha Stocker doesn’t find it very surprising that the agreement was reached right now.

“Berlusconi and his government is not in a good situation at the present moment, and they need our support to reach the majority in the parliament. This agreement was the only possibility that our representatives in Rome wouldn’t vote against them”.

Like Hitler at Potsdamer Platz

In South Tyrol, the agreement has caused controversy– since German and Ladino speakers on one hand, and the Italian speakers on the other – have different opinions on how the monuments shall be treated. For the first group, the monuments represent a time of suppression, assimilation and discrimination– and they would happily see that the monuments were removed already tomorrow.

One of them is Matthias Hoffer, a 23-year-old student from a village near Bolzano. Matthias is a member of the Südtiroler Schützenbund – a German-speaking organisation working for South Tyrolese freedom and the return to Austria. He thinks that the monuments are obsolete and does not fit in a modern city.

Matthias Hoffer in front of the Victory monument Photo:Anna Rydholm

“I just think that it is strange that we have such things in our streets in the year of 2011. I mean– you would never see a statue of Hitler in Germany”.

Fascist relics, identity marker, or both?

Not surprisingly, representatives for the Italian-speaking part of the population have been less happy about the agreement and the following discussion about whereas the monuments should be removed or not. Michaela Biancofiore, representative for the PDL in the national parliament, has emerged as one of the most persistent critics. In an interview in the local newspaper Südtirol Online, Biancofiore described the feeling among the Italians in South Tyrol as “broken, humiliated, offended and upset”. She meant that the Italian-speakers never got the possibility to have a say in the matter.

“As an Italian in this region I feel hurt. We have been ignored completely, this agreement was settled over our heads”.

PDL politician Maurizio Vezzali thinks that the monuments are more than Fascism Photo:Anna Rydholm

Her party colleague Maurizio Vezzali uses a more downplayed language. But he also says that Biancafiore’s statements merely reflect the opinion of most Italian speakers in South Tyrol. Mr Vezzali thinks that the monuments should stay, since they are a part of Italian identity in South Tyrol.

“For the linguistic group of Italians these monuments also have a meaning which is not fascist. For me they represent Italianity, not fascism. Fascism as such is dead and doesn’t interest me”.

Martha Stocker thinks that the Italian-speaking group’s lack of historical connection with South Tyrol make the monuments more important.

“The problem for the Italians in this region is that they all came from the outside. They don’t have any other symbols, so the monuments have become kind of a sign of identity for them”.

SVP- decided to not decide

Due to the sensitivity of the matter, it was clear that it would not be easy to find a solution that was satisfactory for all partners. As a first step, the regional government decided to appoint two committees, consisting of members with expertise in history and Art, which are now looking into the matter. The focus is on the monuments situated in Bolzano– the Victory monument and the Mussolini relief on the façade of the tax office– since these are considered to be the most problematic ones.

Governor Durnwalder meets the press on a weekly basis Photo:Anna Rydholm

Governor Luis Durnwalder thinks that this is the right way to go.
“We have these different monuments, and they all have to be treated in different ways. We need to find a solution that doesn’t provoke people and makes it clear that the South Tyrolese people are not fascists. This doesn’t mean that have to transform everything into gravel, but the monuments have to be interpreted from a historical context. What we now want is to reach an agreement and finish this discussion for good”.

A lack of consciousness that leads to misunderstandings

One of the members of the Victory monument committee is the historian Christina Roilo. She says that the question is complex, wherefore it is even more urgent to find a solution.

“The problem with these monuments is that they are still here without being explained, so there is no consciousness about why they were built. This also leads to misunderstandings between the different ethnic groups. Many people–mostly the German-speakers– think that they should be totally destroyed. Others –the Italian– say that these are the only visible testimonies of our right to be here. Personally, I am somewhere in the middle. I think we must consider the fact that they have been a part of our history for 60 years now, they should be able to stay, but they have to be explained in a historical context”.

The Victory Monument is not easily accessible these days Photo:Anna Rydholm

The future of the monuments is still unclear, and will remain so until the committees present their plans in mid-April. But Christina Roilo reveals some of the possible solutions for the Victory monument.  A museum devoted to South Tyrolean history 1919-1945 will be opened in the crypt under the monument, and the fence that now surrounds the monument will be removed, so that anyone who likes can visit it.

Conflict as a way forward

Martha Stocker has no doubt of that the committees will be able to find good solutions that satisfies all the ethnic groups living in South Tyrol.

“I am sure of that whatever the outcome might be, it will be accepted. In this region, we always have to consider all the three language groups every time we make a decision. It should not be so hard to find out something that everyone can approve with to the major part”.

Also Christina Roilo hopes that the current debate will lead to something good.

“Here in South Tyrol history is always overwhelming us, whatever we want to do. The most urgent problems we have here are due to the conflict between German- and Italian speakers, and it is very hard to unify the population. But what we have at this present moment is a very interesting opportunity. Something is changing, we are all becoming aware of our history, and that can also help us to understand each other”.

In the end, she thinks that the people of South Tyrol are now tired of conflict, and ready to come to terms with history and move on.

“What I can sense is that the population is waiting for something to happen in this case. If we are able to make them happy, then we I think we have done some good stuff”.

Photo:Anna Rydholm





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