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South Tyrol – where high-alpine mountain backdrops meet Mediterranean ambiance. It truly combines the best of both worlds: Austrian charm and the Italian way of life. But the region has not always been known for its magnificent cities, amazing food, and challenging via ferratas. Its history is marked by betrayal, oppression and acts of terrorism, which resulted in a longstanding fight for identity and acceptance. Since the First World War the highly controversial issue of the affiliation of South Tyrol continued to be a driving factor in the division of Italy and Austria. Only after years of diplomatic negotiations, concessions and dedication to democracy and the European spirit the calm could finally be restored. 

South Tyrol’s history with Austria

Due to its geopolitical relevance in the Holy Roman Empire (mainly as connection to the Kingdom of Italy) South Tyrol’s territory has been fiercely contested for centuries and was consequently ruled by numerous noble families. But neither the Luxemburger nor the Wittelsbacher could securely establish their power for more than a few decades.

The German sounding name already suggests South Tirol’s long-standing history as part of the Austrian empire: 1363, when Duke Rudolph the 4th of Austria was announced as the sole heir to the widowed Margarethe von Maultasch, South Tyrol became part of what was later known as the Austrian empire under the House of Habsburg, where it remained for more than half a millennium. During these next 500 years South Tirol scored numerous relevant territorial expansions like Lienz and Kufstein, as well as political continuity. 

The division: South Tyrol became Italian

Contrary to popular believe, South Tyrol’s fate was already sealed in 1914, long before the Treaty of London was signed a year later: Italy’s default on the Tripe Alliance was a mere strategic move. The kingdom under Victor Emanuel III conducted negotiations with both sides before declaring war on its former allies: Whereas Austria-Hungary was willing to surrender the highly desired Trentino-area, the Entende promised Italy control over the entire territory, which is today known as South Tyrol. 

After the end of the war in 1918, South Tirol was mandated to an Italian military rule. The area was almost completely sealed off from Tyrol as the former free movement of persons and good were suspended and letters and telegraphs simply were not delivered any more. The Entende followed through on their promise: The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye officially moved the Italian border up to the Brenner pass – South Tyrol was now Italian. With the rise of fascist Mussolini, the oppression of German speaking residents began. The area of Italianization was characterized by forceful cultural and ethnic assimilation, partly through strategic relocation of Italians into South Tirol. The German language was gradually suppressed in the public sector and went as far as replacing German city names, forbidding German in daycares, schools and in court as well as outlawing the private alternatives South Tyroleans established to keep their mother tongue alive. After the ban and censorship of German newspapers and the replacement of German administrative staff even German surnames were forcefully replaced by their Italian pendants. 

On the long track of reconciliation

With the peace negotiations after the Second World War the question of the affiliation of South Tyrol arose once again. Hopes of reunification were fueled by the first British peace-treaty drafts, which originally included several border readjustments in favor of Austria. But Britain’s foreign minister Anthony Eden managed to change this stance drastically: Since Italy already lost Istria, it was crucial to spare the country of further humiliation. The Allies agreed: the border should remain the same. 

In 1946, Austrian foreign minister Karl Gruber and Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi, passed the Paris agreement, which later went down in history as the foundation for South Tyrol’s autonomy and minority rights. Article 1 guaranteed German speaking residents complete equality with their Italian counterparts, whereas Article 2 granted “the exercise of autonomous legislative and executive regional power”.

Although today the treaty is often viewed as a pioneer of European integration, the importance of this compromise was not widely recognized at the time of its enactment. Kreisky called the agreement “a unique sign of Austrian weakness” whereas De Gasperi was widely critised for granting “excessive sovereignty rights” and hence weakening Italy’s international stand. Although neither country was truly pleased with the outcome, the treaty was the first step on a long way of reconciliation. 

Due to the broad language and the numerous possible ways of interpretation the successful application of the agreement required continued dedication from both sides. Instead of the autonomous province South Tyrol, Italy established the autonomous region Trentino-Alto Adige, and thus granted rights to an area, where South Tyroleans were clearly in minority. This rightfully raised doubts about Italy’s dedication to the cause. The suspicions were consolidated once heavily state-subsidized flats for Italian workers led to a strong increase in migration. More than 60.000 Italians moved to South Tyrol in the span of 5 years. The promises of the Gruber- de Gasperi agreement were barely fulfilled and due to new legislation self-governing became virtually impossible.

The dissatisfaction in South Tyrol grew continuously over the next couple years. After peaceful protests the discontent finally culminated in multiple terror attacks, carried out by the BAS–Committee for the liberation of South Tyrol. On 12 June 1961, in the so-called “Night of fire” numerous power pylons were blown up. Unfortunately, in the coming years the fight also claimed more than a dozen human victims.

The situation in South Tyrol became intolerable for both sides:  In 1960 Austrian foreign minister Bruno Kreisky brought the issue in front of the United Nations’ General Assembly and hence to the fore of international politics. The following resolution acknowledged the Gruber-de Gasperi agreement and ordered the two parties to resolve their issues bilaterally, in a diplomatic manner. Since all previous negotiations failed, this outcome might seem meaningless. But it wasn’t at all: the ongoing conflict in the heart of Europe suddenly was in the center of the global eye and forced both parties to eventually reach a compromise. Although in 1961 the “Commission of Nineteen“ (consisting of eleven Italian and eight South Tyrolese delegates) started drawing up proposals for the better implementation of the Gruber-De-Gasperi agreement, it took another 30 years for the conflict to be finally resolved: Italy’s veto regarding Austria’s planned association with the European Economic Community further damped the relations. Only after the Second Statute of autonomy in 1972 and its full implementation in 1992, Austria officially declared the UN dispute settled. 

Austria’s accession to the European Union in 1995 brought a previously unprecedented level of cooperation between the two neighboring countries. The free movement of goods, persons, services and capital did not only reunite the “two Tyrols“, but also brought Austria and Italy closer together than they ever were before. Only a few months later the Representation of the European Region Tyrol – South Tyrol – Trentino was inaugurated. It is consequently the first cross-border cooperation bureau established on a European level. The Euregio academy or the EuregioFamilyPass are only a few of the transnational initiatives, that aim at furthering the European integration process, and consequently improving the quality of life in the region. It remains of the utmost importance to further protect and promote the cultural and social heritage of the area.


Today, South Tyroleans are one of the best protected minorities worldwide: The constitutional reform in 2001 further extended South Tyrol’s  legislative rights to all sectors, which are not explicitly reserved for the national government. Besides that, complete bilingualism and proportional representation in public service, as well as special financial privileges secure the autonomous position. 

Since the First World War South Tyrol has been used as a piece in the game of power, but after more than 80 years, the involved countries finally managed to put their national pride aside and focus on the weal of the people concerned. The South Tyrolean model might not be entirely perfect, but it can be seen as a pioneer for minority rights and transnational cooperation. In the time of globalization many of the most pressing problems don’t simply stop at state borders. In order for Europe to remain a crucial leader and a trusted partner on the world stage we have to act in unity and solidarity rather than letting borderlines get in the way of progress.