Late July 2009. We spend our family summer holidays in Eppan an der Weinstrasse, close to Bolzano in South Tyrol. The landscape resembles North Tyrol, because topographically we are still in the Alps. Nevertheless, the air is filled with a taint of Italian odour, which grows stronger the more southern one moves, coming closer to the Italian cities of Modena, Verona or Venice. It is the odour which reminds me so much of my childhood vacations, when we left our home north of the Alps towards the Mediterranean Sea. People speak both German and Italian. Products in supermarkets differ from those we are used to in Vienna. The architecture of buildings has slightly changed and clearly demonstrates a mixture between Alpine and North Italian styles. Somehow I feel like being in both countries at once; and it is this peculiar perception of this region that gives it its special character. It is a special character which is also found in other regions bordering Austria, like for example in the Balkan countries which I described in Amsterdam. It is the amalgam of two or more different cultures which does not anymore fit into the simplistic Weltanschauung of people like Mr. Graf. Mr. Graf sees his world only in two colours. Black and white. White are the Germans, Black are the Barbarians; an attitude which reminds me of my Greek lessons a long time ago, where I was taught that the ancient Greeks only made a difference between themselves [helenas] and the others, who don’t speak their language [barbaros]. Only later with the creation of nation-like cities the still nowadays used term foreign [xenos] came into usage; the people of Athens, 2500 years ago, were though surely more tolerant towards other ethnic groups than Mr. Graf is today. I pity him, because he misses the richness of mankind. There is not only black and white, but many more colours in all hues and shades one can possibly think of. Mr. Graf possibly misses a very subtle cream yellow, if he can not perceive the differences between Austrians [themselves already a bunch of heterogeneous people] and the people of South Tyrol; and once, when he will announce as a next step that Austria and South Tyrol shall return to Germany, he will probably realize that he has much more in common with a Bosnian than with a Kraut from Bremen or Pommern.
It seems that topographically Germanic tribes used to settle in mountain areas only. Wherever the European Alps decline into low and flat lands other ethnic groups become a majority. The only exception is Germany itself, which extends from the Northern Alps to the North Sea and eventually found its ethnic and linguistic boarders with the French along the Rhine River and with the Polish in the East along the Oder River. But even there we can notice the same peculiarity as here in South Tyrol: two or more ethnic groups settle one area and at least since the beginning of nationalism in the 18th century political forces try to extend their power into these areas by expelling the respective “foreign” ethnic group. At Sigmundskron/Firmian, a ruin-like castle close to Bozen, where Reinhold Messner opened in cooperation with the city government [the city renovated the castle for eight million Euro] a museum dedicated to the world of mountains in general, one exhibition in the white tower tells the story of the castle itself and Tyrol, the land where the building was “originally” once located. Archeological relicts display a history that dates back more than 5000 years; a time when Homo sapiens did not have a concept of nation, but everybody apart from his own family or horde was an enemy. One might think that something like an ethnic and national identity must have existed in 476 AD, when Odoaker defeats Western Rome and unites today Italy, Austria and most of Croatia under his rule; but most probably it was not a strictly speaking political, but more a cultural and religious force that defined the identity of most people in South Tyrol. Throughout the 5, 6, 7 and 8th century the geographic area of today South Tyrol is divided and re-divided between East Gothic Rulers, Bavarians Earls and Langobard Kings until Charles the Great unites the entire area with his empire in 774 AD. It is though an organizational decision of the Roman Catholic Church, which probably has the most lasting impact on the political identity of the region. In 798 AD, the episcopal territory of Säben, close to today Brixen, is seperated from the Southern arch-episcopal territory Aquileja and transferred to the Northern arch-episcopal territory of Salzburg, whereas the episcopal territory of Trento remains with Aquileja. It could be said therefore, that the separation of autonomous region Trentino and Alto Edige and the autonomy status which was granted in 1972 derives from this rather not nationalistic motivated incident. Meinhard II from Tyrol re-unites the biscopal territories Brixen and Trient and Tyrol reaches its largest territorial expansion, which today is sometimes still displayed on maps of the region. Tyrol is incorporated into the Habsburg Empire in 1363 and the Habsburgs are able to confirm their territorial sovereignty in the Wiener Congress 1815. Italy gains control of today Trentino and Alto Edige after the 1st WW through the Peace of Saint-Germain, which still defines today’s borders between Austria and Italy. It is bequeathed that US president Woodrow Wilson lamented his decision to give 150.000 Tyrolese Germans to Italy in spite of a petition, signed unanimously by all South Tyrolese mayors, presented to the Allies in Saint-Germain.
The two nationalist and racist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini mark the darkest point in the politically aroused ethnic conflicts of the area. The two leaders sign in 1939 a re-settlement agreement, which obliges inhabitants of South Tyrol to either take on German citizenship and move north over the border or remain in South Tyrol and thus fascist Italy and relinquish all minority rights. Hitler and Mussolini where political figures who ignored history, only knew black and white and had no space for the shades and hues in between, the parts of mankind which are truly the most interesting, bridging two cultures and thus two ethnic and linguistic identities. It is only today, in a unified Europe that exactly Europeans from border regions have turned into a blessed group, fluent in at least two languages and equipped with an intimate understanding of at least two cultures. Politically interested people in Bozen understand Rome, Vienna and Brussels; the business community does not see any borders from the North Sea towards the shores of the African continent. South Tyrolese are privileged, and they shall be warned: Mr. Graf’s intentions are base and nationalistic. His long term vision for South Tyrol would surely resemble Mr. Haider’s vision for Carinthia: absolute expansion of Deutscher Lebensraum towards the national borders of Austria; no acceptance of bilingualism; no acceptance of anything that does not fit into the narrow definition of culturally purged Austrian FPOE politicians. The dangerous Gedankengut of Hitler and Mussolini lives on in fascist politicians like Mr. Graf, who still serves as third president of the Austrian Parliament. Mr. Graf is part of the Austrian political force which still deprives his “own” people of the privileges that a far sighted education policy could harvest: Austrians who do not only speak German, but also Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croatian and Italian; Austrians who have enriched their cultural identity with shades and hues of their neighboring fellow European citizens.
I admit that my Austrian inferiority complex tosses and turns like a heavy pain body, when I read that one of my favourite authors, the Prague born Franz Kafka, spent his holidays in Meran and called the area the most beautiful landscape he has ever seen. Yes, then Austria-Hungary was a large, multiethnic empire, probably the political organization that was closest to what the EU is or could be today. But I believe the only way to overcome this collective pain body, which [I am sure of that] is still alive in many Austrians [although many are not aware of it], is the adoption of a policy that embraces its location not only business-wise, but also culturally. The Austrian Selbstbild needs to shift gradually from “Empire Leftover” [Monarchists], “Ostmark” [German nationalists] or “Neutral Nowhereland” [postmodern nihilists] to a new identity which consists of more than post-national consumerism; and I believe the key for this shift is an active implementation of a Europe of Regions, like since 2001 the Euroregion Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino. Since Homo sapiens establishes his or her group identity foremost by means of language, compulsory bilingual education in addition to Europe’s lingua franca, English, shall be the rule in all Austrian provinces that border another not-German-speaking EU country. Simply follow the example of South Tyrol, and a new heterogeneous Selbstbild can be forged.
From an anthropological point of view, the ancient Greeks [helenas] were right by calling everybody not capable of speaking Greek, a foreigner [barbaros]; thus there will never be something like a European nation. I don’t want to judge whether this is for the good or bad. We leave the autonomous province of Alto Adige as I read in the newspaper that the governor Luis Durnwalder, age 67, becomes father of his third child, little Greta. The 41 year (!) old mother is an Austrian citizen. Although subtitled the “enlightened governor”, by such important voices as Reinhold Messner, he sticks with his ethnic kind. We take the great Via Dolomitii into the autonomous province of Trentino, which once was the most southern part of the Dukedom Tyrol. The German speaking inhabitants already then, several hundred years ago, dubbed the non-German-speaking population Welsch, which simply meant people living in Tyrol, but not being adherent to the Germanic ethnic group, a terminology very similar to the one of the ancient Greeks. The mostly Italian speaking inhabitants of Trentino have always been Welsch to the German people of Tyrol; and this differentiation eventually lead to the splitting of the region into two autonomous provinces, one predominantly German, the other predominantly Italian speaking. Reinhold Messner writes that the conflicts between the two ethnic groups still exist nowadays, even if not obviously perceptible.
We spend a night in the Rifugio Auronzo at 2300 meters altitude just below the probably most famous peaks of the Dolomites, Tres Cime di Lavaredo. I there experience the anti-German bias of local Italians personally, when I ask the male host to provide us with some ice to cool the medication which we have to take along for our daughter. Like he did twice before, he roughly points us to his German speaking partner at the reception desk [although he himself understands German, too]. I walk over to her and patiently wait as she talks at length to an Italian guest. When they finish, I ask her for some ice, and she replies abruptly that she has none and turns her head to other guests. Since I had to tolerate this attitude before and we really needed the ice, I insist and interrupt her talking to the other guests. Her reaction was a wild gesticulation combined with the verbal eruption “Ah, wee are iin Iitaalyy and thiis iis not the Graand Hootel!” Well, come on, I think to myself, you just talked for five minutes to that nerd about mountain photography [that’s what I understood, when I waited at the reception desk next to them], but you don’t want to spend a minute to get some ice to cool antibiotics? She runs off into the kitchen and comes back with an ice block. I have my ice block, but apart from that, the hosts invoked a feeling in me that first of all, I belong to a minority, that is moreover foreign to this land [Italy]. And secondly, she made me feel like a neurotic Kraut, who demands impossible things from relaxed Italian hosts. We leave the Rifugio Auronzo shortly after and circle the Tres Cime di Lavaredo, enter South Tyrol again and suddenly we are again part of the German speaking majority at the Lange Alm Hütte, where we have lunch with stunning vistas of the Drei Zinnen. Narrow-mindedness can not only be encountered in Austria, but also in Italy.
The Via Dolomitii, once constructed under the rule of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef [and thus should have been originally called Kaiser Franz Josef Jubiläums Strasse to celebrate the emperor’s 50th ruling anniversary in 1898] ends in the beautiful Puster Valley which connects South Tyrol and East Tyrol. East Tyrol is cut off the rest of Austria and not directly connected to Tyrol, because the linking part, South Tyrol belongs to Italy. It is the only part of Austria without highways due to its remote location between the Hohen Tauern and the Lienzer Dolomiten, two high mountain ranges. After 10 days vacation in South Tyrol and then Trentino, I am startled as we enter Austria again. Topographically the same region with stunning mountain vistas, we have left an ethnically heterogeneous region and entered into Germanic monotony. I briefly feel deprived of a culturally enriching aspect, but soon realize that this monotony is my home culture. Full stop. We continue our journey from Lienz and drive into Carinthia, where we start ascending the Grossglockner Alpine Road in Heiligenblut and eventually reach the majestic Pasterze glacier just below the 3798 meter high Grossglockner, the highest peak in the Austrian Alps [it was the Ortler at the Southwestern border of South Tyrol with 3904 meters until 1919]. Driving along this mountain road, in the National Park Hohe Tauern, I realize again, what has made my life miserable throughout the years, i.e. that my inherent cultural identity is defined by boring monotony caused by the limitation of the small German-speaking Austrian world. A friend of mine keeps describing this limitation on an individual level as a too small pyjama, and I see it as a straightjacket, preventing us contemporary Austrians from transcending the limits of our small German speaking world.
Like this friend there are many more people I know, who have tried to transcend the limits of Austrian consciousness. Most of them – at least in my generation – have turned their minds to England, the US [like myself to a certain extent], France or Spain, only a few turn to the East and expand their consciousness with the Hungarian or Czech culture. And a few gifted go beyond language and transcend their inherent lingual limitation through music and arts. The former Austrian foreign minister Alois Mock (1987-95), once said in the 90ies at an European People’s Party congress in Budapest to his Hungarian hosts “Dear friends, I am ashamed. You all speak German fluently, but we do not speak a word Hungarian. I promise to you: our fathers spoke your tongue and our sons will do so again!”
Mr. Mock was a visionary for Austrian standards and a gifted speaker; but he was not able to keep his promise. According to the statistical handbook of the Austrian Ministry for Education, there were a total of 1,177,052 pupils in Austria in 2001/02 in the standard education system. 1,132,461 (96.2%) studied English, 124,806 (10.6%) French, 57,346 (4.9%) Italian, 16,643 (1.4%) Spanish, 3,765 (0.3%) Russian, 3,491 (0.3%) Slovenian, 2,543 (0.2%) Croatian, 855 (0.1%) Hungarian, 53,040 (4.5%) Latin, and 994 (0.7%) classic Greek. If the ancient Greeks were right, the people from our neighboring countries will always remain foreigners to us – at least they will be more alien to our mind than Spanish or English speaking people from the American continents. It is the responsibility of politicians to act farsighted and open minded in order to prepare a populace for upcoming societal and economical changes. At least since the late 80ies and the collapse of the USSR, the inactivity in Austrian educational policy must be seen as a tremendous failure of the respective decision makers. Today, 20 years later, this country already has to pay a high toll. The lack of a paradigm shift in Austrian foreign language education caused the young generation to still stick to an old mindset which is not fit for the economical challenges in an enlarged European Union. Although the Austrian business world praises its success in Central Eastern Europe, where banks, law firms and companies have acquired high market shares relative to the size of the Austrian economy, the country loses in a HR perspective. In 2006, only one out of 15 selected candidates for a high potential training program at OMV, an Austrian based leading oil and gas corporation in Central Europe, was an Austrian native. His cutting edge was a proficiency in Romanian, the language of one of OMV’s main markets. All other selected candidates were citizens of Eastern European countries, who not only excelled in their management capabilities [which many Austrian candidates did too], but were also fluent in one or more Eastern European languages, English and German.
These are the more obvious effects; and we could continue to talk in more depth of the indisputable values of a thorough European integration of the Austrian people to enlarge their mindset and get rid of the Germanic straightjacket that people like Mr. Graf try to make even tighter. But why should we? The majority seems to be fine with this mixture of throughout provincialism, nostalgic monarchism and German-catholic lingoracism; And people who tried to point at these collective flaws like the great Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, were at lifetimes denunciated as nation traitors. Wait. Which nation are we talking about anyway?