The Tyrolean County, which was basically independent within the Holy Roman Empire, was acquired by the Habsburgs in 1363, after the last countess died without descendants. In 1511, the old privileges of the Tyroleans were confirmed by Emperor Maximilian in the so-called Landlibell.
In this agreement were confirmed the rights of the free Tyrolean peasantry as well as the exemption of the Tyroleans from military service, on the condition of creating a volunteer militia called Schützen to defend the strategically important alpine passes.
From the second half of the 19th Century onwards, pioneer alpinists and rich citizens came in increasingly greater numbers to spend their holidays in Tyrol in the middle of nature and mountains. With the construction of the southern railway in 1870, the development of the touristic branch proceeded steeply until the beginning of the First World War.
The Great War in the Dolomites
The First World War broke in over Tyrol like a sudden thunderstorm, although a year later than for the rest of Europe. The Italian Kingdom, even though they were part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria, saw in the latter its biggest adversary, since Austria still held the Italian-speaking territories of Trento and Trieste, which in Italy were called the “unredeemed territories”.
After a lengthy internal discussion, the interventionist party of Italy prevailed, and neutrality was dismissed: on 23 May 1915, Italy went to war against Austria. Since the main force of the Austrian army was desperately fighting on the eastern front, only reserve units and the volunteers of the “Standschützen”, composed of the youngest and oldest Austrian fighters, remained together with obsolete fortifications to block the advance of the Italian Army.
The war in the peaks was fought at altitudes of over 3.000 meters, the highest frontline in the First World War. Battles had to be fought not only against the enemy, but also against nature: in the Dolomites more than half of the casualties derived from natural phenomena like avalanches, the bitter cold and diseases.
Fascism in Southern Tyrol
After the end of the war in 1919, South Tyrol was annexed to Italy from Austria. The advent of fascism in Italy soon led to severe consequences for the region, which remained primarily German-speaking after its annexation. The ultra-nationalist and ultra-chauvinist ideology of fascism had the intention, among others, to assimilate the ethnic minorities present in Italy. This was particularly true for South Tyrol, since the new won frontier on the main range of the Alps on the Passo Brennero/Brennerpass was seen in Italy as its true “natural border”.
The first action in this context was the prohibition of German classes in the schools. In addition, all public jobs were given only to Italians, who were encouraged to come up to South Tyrol from the original Italian heartland. Next was the forced Italianization of all family and place names, as the fascist regime attempted to ‘cleanse’ the region of its German culture.
The indigenous population reacted with passive resistance. For example, the pupils were taught the German language in hidden underground schools called “catacomb Schools” in the afternoons. The fascist regime answered this and other methods of civil resistance with increasingly severe repression, including long detention sentences and exile to remote localities in southern Italy.
The infamous option
After 15 years of more or less unsuccessful assimilation policies, and because of the evolved geopolitical situation between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, both regimes agreed in 1939 to the option agreement. The South Tyroleans had now to declare themselves for one of the two states: renounce your German name and heritage and remain in Italy, or retain your cultural identity and be deported to Germany.
South Tyrol was hence the only German-speaking territory Hitler was ready to sacrifice in return for an alliance with Italy. On December, 31, 1939, at the end of the poll, over 90% of South Tyroleans had opted for Germany, thanks to incessant Nazi propaganda and rumours that those who remained in the region would be deported to Sicily.
Paradoxically, the outbreak of the Second World War saved the South Tyrolean population from a cultural genocide, since the transfer of the optants had to be postponed due to military activity. Unfortunately, all young men who had opted were immediately and forcibly recruited into the German Wehrmacht.
The years of the bombs
Even though after the end of the Second World War South Tyrol gained a first autonomous status as a result of an agreement between Italy and South Tyrol, many Italianization measures dating back from fascist times remained in place. This brought widespread discontent among the population and the perception of a fake autonomy – things which lead inexorably towards violent resistance.
In June 1961 the situation ignited: In one night alone, South Tyrolean activists blew up dozens of electricity pylons. The state reacted with utmost repression. Over 15,000 additional security troopers were sent to South Tyrol to stop the attacks. Widespread arrests and mistreatment of prisoners was the result.
As a consequence, the underground struggle radicalised further, but abated when talks for a new autonomy agreement started to bear first fruits. South Tyrol remained an occupied country until the attacks ceased at the end of the 1960s.
With the onset of violent actions by South Tyrolean separatists at the beginning of the 1960s, the Italian state understood that something had to be done to avoid more bloodshed. Although the initial objective focused on repressing violence, Italian politics quickly moved towards negotiations with Austria, who vouched as guarantor of South Tyrolean rights.
The local party SVP, which has been representing South Tyrol in the Italian parliament, voted for the implementation of the so-called “package” of measures for the implementation of a second autonomy statute negotiated by Italy and Austria, albeit with a small majority. The second autonomy agreement was finally implemented in 1972.
With the implementation of all planned measures by the Italian state, Austria gave its blessing for the official fulfillment of the Second autonomy statute before the UN in 1992, which ended years of political tension about South Tyrol. Since then, the country has been developing itself gladly in the sense of a dynamic autonomy.
Border and smuggling
Where we find borders, we also find smuggling. The smuggling of goods that were less taxed or cheaper in a neighbouring country took place continually. This guaranteed the peasants a good income in addition to their poor wages in the years before the economic and touristic boom.
Goods that were smuggled over the border in mountains over 2,000 meters high were consumer items like chocolate, wine, liquors, sugar, tobacco and livestock. Although the border line in the high ground was patrolled by the Guardia di Finanza, the whole frontier was impossible to control.
With the coming into force of the Maastricht agreement between the member states of the European Union in 1992, preparations were made to abolish border controls, which were then put into action with the Schengen agreement a few years later. This decreed also the death of the organized, traditional smuggling activities.
The EU and the Schengen agreement
Since the 1970s, in the context of the European Community before and the European Union after, Europe has been growing ever closer – consequentially, the importance of the borders diminished accordingly. The Maastricht agreement from 1992 then laid the base for the abolishment of all border controls between member states of the EU.
On December 1st, 1997, all border controls were stopped on the Italian-Austrian frontier. De facto, for the people living on both sides of the frontier, the border doesn’t anymore. This has planted the first seeds for a truly united Europe, and the separate provinces of Tyrol, Austrian and Italian, have been growing closer since, despite still being separated politically.
The downside of this is the disappearance of a whole economic branch which lived off the border by managing customs duty and other logistics, but the chances which have arisen since much outweigh the downsides. Not only has the continental peace project of the European Union been boosted, but also new economic and social possibilities of interstate cooperation have come up since. It is therefore our task to exploit these chances.