And yet it happened, and in a part of the world where the outward picture of contentedness is more deceptive than it first appears. For three weeks, from the first murders on 8 February until the bloody climax to the affair last Friday, the town lived under a self-imposed curfew of fear as the victims piled up and the mystery deepened. First on the list were a German banker, Hans Otto Detmering, and his Italian fiancee, Clorinda Cecchetti, who were hoping to buy a holiday home in Merano when they were cut down on the Winter Promenade, a romantic walkway along the banks of the Passirio river that flows through the town. Five days later, a crippled old farmer called Umberto Marchioro was hit outside his own cattle shed in Sinigo, a village a few miles down the road towards the provincial capital, Bolzano. Another week passed, and then the murderer struck again outside a bookshop opposite the cathedral, killing a factory worker called Paolo Vecchiolini directly in front of his girlfriend, who fled before she could become a target herself.
Finally, last Friday, the rampage came to its shockingly violent climax. Another farmer was killed, this time in the hamlet of Rifiano north of the town, and his wife and daughter were taken hostage in a barn next door. When the police arrived, their commander, a carabinieri marshal called Guerrino Botte, was shot in the head and later died in hospital. A long, tense shoot-out ensued, with the police taking cover among the vineyards and olive trees, until finally the killer let his hostages go and committed suicide with the same weapon he had previously trained on each of his six victims.
What could possibly have linked all these crimes? What was it that pushed the culprit, a withdrawn, secretive 39-year-old farm labourer called Ferdinand Gamper, over the edge into unbridled violence? While the killings were still going on, investigators considered every usual motive for a serial killer: a grudge against courting couples, perhaps, combined with a morbid interest in guns. But they forgot completely about the peculiar social and political context for the murders. Merano may be a quiet spa town, but it is also in one of the most ethnically divided regions in Western Europe - the Alto Adige, whose large population of German speakers has spent the last 80 years struggling to assert its minority rights.
It occurred to nobody that this rather tormented local history might have had anything to do with the murders. But there, in the barn where Gamper took his own life, and which he rented from the farmer he shot on the fateful last morning, were leaflets and handwritten notes pointing to a deep anti-Italian hostility, and sympathy for the neo-Nazi separatist movement that wants the Alto Adige (or Sudtirol, as they call it) to secede from Italy altogether and join up with Austria, its direct neighbour to the north.
Suddenly all the pieces of the puzzle began to make sense. Gamper was an ethnic German, while all but one of his victims had been Italian. What he had been about, it seems, was a demented attempt at ethnic cleansing, with the German banker killed either because he was mistaken for an Italian or as a punishment for wanting to marry one of the "enemy". Yes, Gamper must have been crazy to think this way. Yes, all evidence suggests he acted alone. But, in a region with a history as fraught as the Alto Adige's, the question nevertheless begs itself: were his acts somehow an expression of a deeper malaise between the region's ethnic groups? Is all the peace and tranquillity no more than a veneer, beneath which seethes a potentially destabilising hostility?
So alarming is the very raising of such questions that most citizens of Merano have, for the past few days, refused to contemplate them. But those who have undertaken a little soul-searching have come up with some pretty disturbing answers. "One of the papers quoted Gamper as saying before he died that he was only doing what others wanted to but didn't dare. I have to say, as an Italian of long standing here in the Alto Adige that I recognise something true in such sentiments," said Pierluigi Marteuzzi, a local painter. "Before we knew who the killer was, I must admit I caught myself wishing he wasn't an Italian, and I'm quite sure Germans were wishing he wasn't a German. Nobody is willing to talk about this, but if you go out on the street now you can see Germans in Tyrolean hats carrying thick walking sticks. It's a self-protection reflex. Nobody was carrying these things around a month ago."
These are not sentiments that most people dare to air in public. The German community, in particular, seems so determined to minimise the significance of the ethnic angle that many of them have sought to deny it even exists. The eminent local writer Joseph Zoderer suggested the neo-Nazi leaflets found in the barn in Rifiano were merely unwanted junk mail that Gamper had not had time to throw out. The German mayor of Merano, Franz Alber, has taken a similar line, saying that if in the future any broader ethnic tension manifests itself, it will be the fault of the Italian national press, which has had the bad taste to give vent to the issue. "People who live here understand that there is no basis to this supposedly ethnic motivation for the killings," Mr Alber said. "Talking about it can only make things artificially worse and take community relations a step backwards. It's not always easy to live together but we are all working hard to do what we can."
True, life has been pretty quiet in the Alto Adige for the past 10 years or so. But it was not ever thus. The original occupants of the region were neither Austrian nor Italian but speakers of a quite different language, Ladino, which still survives in a few of the more remote valleys. Bounced around as a political football between the Austrians, the Bavarians and Napoleon, the region became ever more Germanic over the centuries but, in a crazy twist of fate, was awarded to Italy in the great geopolitical carve-up at the end of the First World War. Mussolini rubbed salt into this wound with an aggressive Italianisation campaign, renaming every town, village, mountain and stream and banning German in schools and public offices. Anyone caught giving German lessons risked imprisonment or exile, and even gravestones had to be engraved in the new official language. The Fascists brought new architecture and new industry to the Alto Adige's capital, Bolzano, bringing ethnically pure Italian workers and state functionaries up from the south to do the jobs and to try to tip the ethnic balance.
Mussolini's Italianising zeal was tempered somewhat when he formed his alliance with Hitler, and in 1939 the two leaders offered the Germans of the Alto Adige an unenviable choice: stay put and become fully Italian, or else leave for Austria as faithful followers of the Third Reich. As it turned out, the war prevented this enforced repatriation programme from getting very far, but the attempt to divide the region into German Fascists and Italian Fascists, with no space for moderates in between, left a deep psychological scar.
In 1945, geopolitics again dictated that the Alto Adige should remain Italian, although this time the newly democratic governments of Austria and Italy worked out an autonomy package under which the region would be able to direct many of its own affairs and receive generous state subsidies, but on condition that it did so in conjunction with the Italian province of Trentino to the south. The main German party in the region, the Sudtiroler Volkspartei (SVP), just about swallowed this package, but more extreme groups did not. When the Rome government failed to deliver the terms of the autonomy agreement, the bombing began.
In the Fifties, the targets were mostly electricity pylons, railway lines and other state property, but in the Sixties the extremists started to target people. When six policemen were killed in two years, Rome eventually capitulated and honoured its 1945 commitments. There was another outbreak of extremist violence in the mid-Eighties, including a bomb attack on the state broadcasting company's headquarters in Bolzano, and again the Italian state reacted with further terms favourable to the German population.
Since then, there has been peace, or at least a semblance of it. The 400,000 citizens of the Alto Adige receive four trillion lire (around pounds 2.5bn) a year in state money, and the Germans are guaranteed their own school system and state jobs in direct proportion to their population. Although the extremist movement has not gone away, the Germans can scarcely complain. They are richer than they would ever have been either as Austrians or as an independent state; and the Italians who once persecuted them now provide the bulk of the tourist trade that accounts for their wealth.
The boot, if anything, is now on the other foot, and it is the Italians who feel unfairly treated. While nearly all the Germans of the Alto Adige speak Italian, few Italians speak German and many of them choose to leave rather than compete for a state job for which bilingualism is a requirement under the 1945 accord. The Italian population is falling dramatically, from 26 per cent according to a 1991 census to nearer 20 per cent now; according to one study, there will be none left at all by the year 2010. The SVP therefore has no serious competition, and local government looks more and more like a one-party state. "We are an endangered species," as Orlando Facchini, Merano correspondent for the Italian language newspaper Alto Adige, puts it.
As a result, the reformed Italian neo-fascist party, the National Alliance, is booming, enjoying 13 per cent support in the region as a whole, or something like half the Italian vote. The party's local spokesman in Merano, Mauro Minniti, complains that the SVP refuses to listen to Italian proposals on language teaching in schools, or the allotment of state jobs to give weight to merit as well as ethnic origin. "The Germans got what they wanted through the blackmail of terrorism, and now they aren't prepared to give anything back," he complained.
Community relations on a personal level are cordial, even warm, especially in the towns. But politically there seems little interest in bringing the two language groups together. Both the SVP and the National Alliance do everything they can to remain separate, while newspapers in the respective languages snipe endlessly at each other. Nazi stickers appear in an elementary school here, a group of German children is beaten up there. It is an uncomfortable coexistence, cemented above all by economic interests, not affection. A drama like the recent serial killings is exactly the sort of event, therefore, that can shake the region's fragile modus vivendi.
"People say this is an isolated incident, but if something like it happened again I don't think our society could handle it," said Leopold Steurer, an eminent local historian and campaigner for the Green party. Merano might seem friendly enough to the passing tourist, but up in the lonely mountain villages, where contact between Germans and Italians is minimal, there may well be other Ferdinand Gampers quietly seething away, sitting in front of their open log fires with their hunting rifle beside them, reflecting on the Alto Adige's peculiar fate and deciding that the time has come to act.Reuse content