The hills are alive with the sound of linguistic squabbling

Sarah Helm visits South Tyrol, and finds simmering tensions between German-speakers and Italians

Sprawling under a concrete superhighway carved out of the South Tyrolean Alps is a small smudge of a village on the edge of a fast-flowing river. Study of an official Italian map (for we are in Italy) reveals that the name of the village is Prato al'Isarco, which means "near the Isarco river".

But according to local German-speakers, who outnumber Italian-speakers by two to one in the province of South Tyrol, the Italian name is an invention: the village should be called Blumau - "flowery fields". This, they say, was its name when South Tyrol was part of Austria, before it was given to Italy at the end of the First World War. No matter that the "flowery fields" of Blumau have long since been obliterated by the Brenner Pass, the name of the village, they insist, must be officially restored.

The same bitter dispute is being repeated in every village and town of South Tyrol, where an extraordinary new drive has been launched by the German-speaking majority to "Germanise" names across the region. Proposals have been made in the local parliament for the renaming not only of every village and town but also every street, river and mountain.

Only if "historical experts" can prove that an existing Italian name has genuine historical roots can it remain, say the German-speaking political parties. "Most of these Italian names are a historical lie, invented by Mussolini and his fascists," says Karl Rainer, a German-speaking political adviser in the provincial capital of Bolzano - which the Germans call Bozen.

Italians are reacting with horror. "They are trying to rub us out - to cleanse the area of Italian. But Italians have been here since the days of the Romans," says Marco Bolzonello, a leader of a local Italian- speaking political party.

Also up in arms are the 18,000 Ladins, who say they have lived in the region for 2,000 years and that their language is closer to Latin than that spoken by modern Italians. "We are the oldest community here. We want our language protected too," says Carlo Willeit, a member of the provincial parliament.

Ethnic Germans, meanwhile, say their grievances are rooted in the tyranny experienced at the hands of Italian fascists after the First World War. Until then the region had for hundreds of years been firmly part of Austria, and at the beginning of the 1920s was 97 per cent German. Mussolini transformed the population, bringing in Italians from the south and erasing German names.

Italians here concede that German-speakers were wronged, but say they are equally guilty of spreading "historical lies". Even the Germanic names in the region have Latin roots, points out Luigi Schiatti, a Bolzano councillor. "Siebeneich is the German name for a village which we call Siebenico. The Latin root is Sebeneco, the same as Srebrenica in Yugoslavia."

Both Italian and German speakers insist that South Tyrol could never be the next Yugoslavia, but the barricades that now stand around Bolzano's triumphal arch, built by Mussolini in 1928, bear witness to a history of violence here.Thanks to pressure from the German majority, South Tyrol has been granted increasing autonomy by Rome, and the local ethnic- German government now has wide-ranging powers. "We are treated like a minority in our own country," says Mr Bolzonello.

South Tyroleans like to claim they are peaceful people, but the row has revived memories of violence in Bolzano in the Sixties and a bombing campaign by German-speaking fanatics in the Eighties which killed several Italian policemen. Rome recently angered Italians by restoring full civil rights to the bombers - the Italian government is under pressure to appease German political leaders in South Tyrol because their votes help support the coalition in Rome.

There are equal dangers, however, in alienating local Italians: in recent elections the far-right Alleanza Nazionale won two-thirds of the votes among Italians in Bolzano.

The dispute has so far been confined to political debate. But in the context of the nearby conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East, the talk of "cleansing" and "historical lies" could prove highly dangerous.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations and Administration Support Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading Solar P...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Specialist

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is changing the way at...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Web Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Web Designer is required to join a f...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Business Development Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to develop an ...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor