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.

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