At an elevation of 2911 metres, the summit of Vetta d’Italia stands at the northernmost extremity of present-day Italy on its border with Austria. The mountain’s name – which translates into English as ‘Peak of Italy’ - has been in use since 1905, when it was christened thus by Ettore Tolomei, an Italian nationalist, who claimed to have made its first ascent. However, this was no mere peak-bagging exercise: Tolomei was standing on the great Alpine divide, extending a thousand and one hundred kilometres, from Nice in the west to Rijeka in the east, which marked what he believed were the limits of the Italian realm. Today, this might not seem entirely implausible: after all, the current boundaries of Italy follow this crescent-shaped watershed – more or less – all the way from the Ligurian to the Adriatic coast.
Significantly however, up until 1905 the mountain had never had an Italian name. It had always been known as Klockerkarkopf and lay at the centre of the County of Tyrol which extended 70 km northwards to Bavaria and 120 km southwards to Trentino. It was very much part of the German-speaking world and formed part of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, the very first ascent of the Klockerkarkopf was documented as having been achieved 9 years previously by two Austrian climbers, Franz Hofer and Fritz Kögl. At the turn of the 20th century, Italian linguistic and cultural influence in the region was almost non-existent: 90% of the population in that part of Tyrol south of the Alpine watershed was German-speaking, the remaining 10% being divided almost equally between Italian and Ladin speakers.
Since the time that Italy became united in 1866, a movement known as Italian irredentism had evolved whose aim was to annex territories which were deemed to be ‘Italian’, however flimsy these claims may have been. The irredentists set their sights on areas such as the County of Nice, Corsica, Ticino, Dalmatia and Malta, but also all the territory that extended as far north as Vetta d’Italia and the continental divide. Tolomei was one of the most fervent advocates of this territorial expansion.
When Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo a hundred years ago, it sparked off a chain of events that led to the Great War of 1914-18 and ultimately to the break-up of the Hapsburg Empire. Initially, Italy entered the war on the side of the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). As part of a strategy to get the Kingdom of Italy to change sides, in 1915 a secret pact known as the Treaty of London was signed by the Triple Entente (United Kingdom, France and Russia) which pledged that Italy would, on cessation of hostilities, “obtain Cisalpine Tyrol with its geographical and natural frontier (the Brenner frontier)”.
In the intervening years between his ascent of the Klockerkarkopf and the start of the First World War, Tolomei had been hard at work developing arguments for the Italian annexation of the southern half of Tyrol. Even before 1915 Tolomei had conceived a plan to Italianise its place names. By 1916 he had published the Prontuario dei nomi locali dell'Alto Adige, a translation into Italian of over 10,000 names for villages, hamlets and geographical features in the region, the vast majority of which had hitherto had only German toponyms. But to add real substance to his pretensions for Italian expropriation of the region, he presented this list as the ‘re-Italianisation’ of names which, he claimed, had been Germanized not many generations before. Legend has it that Woodrow Wilson, the American president, was so convinced by these claims that this was one of the key determining factors in the future of the territory.
In 1919, after the war had ended, the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was signed by the victorious Allies (including Italy) on the one hand, and by the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian powers on the other. Significant territorial losses were suffered by Austria, not least the southern German-speaking half of the County of Tyrol south of the Brenner Pass, known as South Tyrol (German: Süd-Tirol). The promises made in the Treaty of London had been kept.
When South Tyrol was ceded to Italy in 1919, self-determination and the preservation of linguistic and cultural institutions were still firmly on the agenda. In 1921, free and democratic elections were held, with the Deutscher Verband winning close to 90% of the votes in the newly formed Provincia di Venezia Tridentina. Nevertheless, events were overtaken in 1922 when the fascists came to power in Rome. One of the first actions of the new government was to withdraw the special privileges that had been given to the South Tyrolese and an Italianisation programme for the region was started in earnest by none other than Ettore Tolomei. This went much further than the ‘mere’ Italianisation of place names and included 32 measures, such as the introduction of Italian as the official language, dismissal of German-speaking officials, the use of Italian only in trials and courts and the establishment of Italian-only schools throughout the region. An assimilation programme was introduced by Mussolini who established an industrial zone on the outskirts of the capital of South Tyrol, Bozen/Bolzano, which led to the influx of thousands of Italians into the region. By 1939, their numbers had risen to 25% of the overall population.
With the rise of the Third Reich and the annexation of Austria by Germany (Die Anschluss), Hitler surprisingly did nothing to assuage the concerns of the German-speaking population of South Tyrol and he made a pact with Mussolini in which they were given the “option” of either leaving their 1300-year homeland to resettle in the Reich, or staying and accepting complete assimilation (=Italianisation). And although 80% opted to leave, most of them returned at the end of the Second World War.
The South Tyrolese had hoped that the borders would be redrawn at the end of the Second World War and the region returned to Austrian control, but this was heavily contested by Italy in the negotiations that followed. Ultimately, it was agreed that South Tyrol would be given much greater autonomy within Italy. Amongst other things German speakers were granted the right to elementary and secondary teaching in their mother-tongue. The degree of self-government was limited however, not least by the fact that South Tyrol became conjoined with Province of Trentino to the south to form the Region of Trentino-Alto-Adige, with Italian being the majority language of the combined provinces. With regard to education, for instance, German schools were obliged to make Italian-language teaching compulsory, but not the other way round. And Italian remained the de jure language of public office.
In 1972 a new autonomy agreement was signed which virtually severed the administrative links between South Tyrol and Trentino. The province would be given a greater degree of self-determination within the region and Austria would not interfere in its internal affairs. Nowadays, South Tyrol - in terms of GDP per capita - is one of the richest provinces of Italy. The majority of its citizens are quite happy to enjoy the special status they have with Rome rather than waste their time demanding a return to Austria. An importnat bone of contention today remains the language however. Whilst 60% of the province's current population have German as their mother tongue, the vast majority of Italian speakers in the region are concentrated in the major urban centres such as Bozen/Bolzano and Meran/Merano. This means that cultural and linguistic fabric of South Tyrol is still overwhelmingly ‘German’.
Surprisingly however, the topographical names for settlements and geographical features which - to all intents and purposes - have been German for a thousand years or so are still not officially recognised, but simply ‘tolerated’. Only Italian place names are accepted by the authorities, this having been laid down in law by decrees in 1923 and 1940. For the greater part, these Italianised place names date only as far back as the time of Tolomei, the inventor of ‘Alto Adige’, whose contrived contention was that since the Italians were the direct descendants of the Romans who conquered the region in the first century BC, it was only right for Italian names to hold precedence. So today, the hundreds of thousands of tourists crossing the Brenner every summer might be forgiven for thinking that they had entered a truly ‘mixed’ language region.
Of course, sizeable settlements (such as Bozen/Bolzano, Brixen/Bressanone, Meran/Merano), major lines of communication (Eisacktal/Val d’Isarco, Pustertal/Val Pusteria), and prominent geographical features (Die Drei Zinnen/Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Rosengarten/Catinaccio) would have always had their Italian equivalents. The vast majority of Tolomei’s Italianised toponyms however, were simply made up or given a literal translation. Villages, isolated valleys and mountain peaks (including Vetta d’Italia) which had been untouched by Italian culture suddenly found themselves with an Italian name.
Take Bletterbach, for example. In Italian the name is Rio delle Foglie or ‘river of leaves’, since ‘leaves’ is a direct translation of Blätter, the German equivalent. However, Bletterbach has nothing to do with leaves: the hydronym (river name) comprises the Tyrolean verb ‘plettern’, which means ‘to flow swiftly’. The example here is just one of countless which are highlighted on toponomastik.com, a site which lays bare the illogicality of Tolomei’s Prontuario.
Since the mid-nineties there has been a movement in South Tyrol to redress the balance. The aim of the Arbeitsgruppe der Vereine für Ortsnamengebung – a mix of German-speaking community-based and cultural organisations – has been to repeal the decrees of 1923 and 1940 which stipulate that Tolomei’s Prontuario is the only valid register of place names in the province. What the Arbeitsgruppe wants is for toponyms to reflect the historical character of the places they represent. This means that place names should only be bilingual where there is a truly bilingual community with a significant linguistic minority. It is based on a internationally recognised system which is applied in bilingual regions throughout Europe, such as Catalonia, Wales, Belgium and Friesland.
Be that as it may, the movement has only met with limited success. One organisation that supports the initiative, the Alpenverein Südtirol (Alpine club), has been replacing waymarking signs for hikers in mountain areas to reflect the local and historic toponomy. But this has led to counter-protests, since Italian-only speakers - so the argument goes - might conceivably get lost in the hills because the names on the signposts no longer tally with the names on the topographic maps.
As it happens, Rome seems dead set against making any concessions. As far as the government is concerned, Tolomei’s Prontuario dei nomi locali dell'Alto Adige remains the toponymic be-all and end-all for South Tyrol and any challenge to demean Italian national integrity is likely to fall on deaf ears - at least for the time being.