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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee