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The League of Nations and National Minorities: The case of South Tyrol

On October 22, 2015, took place the regular seminar “Boundaries of History”, where was made the presentation “The League of Nations and National Minorities: The case of South Tyrol” by Professor Nathan Marcus, who joined the department of history a year ago.

The speaker began with the story which happened in 2012 during his time at the European University in Florence. Once he was at the restaurant, where he tried to help the woman. He asked her something in Italian, but her answer was with a very strong German accent. Nathan Marcus speaks German, so, they continued to talk using this language. This woman came to Florence from South Tyrol. Her friend was learning Italian there and she came to visit him. Nathan Marcus was surprised, because South Tyrol is a part of Italy since the World War I. But as it turned out, local population do not use Italian and speak only German. It was interesting for Professor Marcus, how the locals identify themselves - whether they are Italians, Germans or Austrians. The woman said that they consider themselves as Austrians with an Italian passport. After this event Nathan Marcus started his study of the question about South Tyrol.

One of the main question at the Peace Conference in Paris after the World War I was about the border between Germany and Poland. France was enthusiastic about creation huge Poland and little Germany in the political arena. On the other hand, Britain was not really interested in significant increase the territory of Poland and reduce the territory of Germany, because if too many Germans would live in Poland, it could cause some problems. France won and Germany lost a lot, but France had to accept the fact that the peace treaty included minority rights. The Poles had to recognize rights of Germans, who lived on their territory. For example, Germans had the right to have their own schools, where they were tought in German, they can also publish German newspapers and have their own churches. There was also another important point: if minorities feel that their rights are infringed, they can appeal to the League of Nations. Nevertheless, the question about the protection of minority rights is debatable. There is a perception that the whole system was counterproductive, because of internationalization of the issue. Therefore, talking about the system of protection minority rights as about positive or counterproductive innovation, we should take into account the case of South Tyrol. Italy did not sign minority rights treaties, because only newly formed countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland had to accept it. France, Italy, Britain, Germany were considered as countries, which have already had experience with minorities and did not need such measures.

South Tyrol was promised to Italy as a result of agreement, which was signed at the end of the First World War. People there were forbidden to learn German at school, German newspapers were closed, seminaries, where future teachers were taught were also eliminated, German street names were changed to Italian. In this situation people from South Tyrol appealed to Germans and Austrians. They also appealed to the League of Nations, but get no help. Government in Berlin, Vienna and Rome were trying to avoid the internationalization of the issue. South Tyrol was divided into two parts - North and South. North had representatives in the Parliament of Vienna, where they were calling to punish Italians, for example, by raising tariffs. Italians were furious every time, when they heard about such situations: they recalled their ambassador from Vienna or Mussolini gave a speech in which he said that Austrians can not try to change something with South Tyrol.

According to the presentation, in most cases minority problems in Europe were solved by killing the minorities or moving the minorities. The case of South Tyrol shows an alternative variant, which does not require movement of people. It shows the example of the woman in Florence, who does not speak Italian, but lives in Italy and identifies herself as Austrian with an Italian passport. The reason for it is that in 1930 Austria and Italy signed a friendship agreement. After it the question about South Tyrol was not disscused neither in the Austrian parliament, nor in the Austrian press.

The speaker also explained why this case is related to economic history. In this context is important the reason why Austrians signed the agreement. The reason for it was the fact that after World War I Austria took the large loan for the reconstruction of the country. This loan was guaranteed by France, Britain, Italy and Czechoslovakia. Some of these guarantees meant that France, Britain and Italy also have the right to know about the Austrian economic policy. In 1930, Austria would like to take more money. France and Britain were not against it, but Italy took advantage of it to put pressure on Austria with the signing of the agreement.

Thus, the purpose of Nathan Marcus was not look like most historians at countries, where were minority threaty agreements (such as Poland and Czechoslovakia), but consider the case, where was no such thing. Professor Marcus believes that the fact that the woman in 2012 still uses German, and the fact that in 1930, Austria and Italy signed the friendship treaty strengthens the argument that internationalized and institutionalized protection of minorities by League Nations was not necessarily productive.