Why an Italian row over place names is dredging up memories of fascism

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy

  • Published
Signs in South Tyrol offer two versions of place names
Image caption,
German place names persist on signs in South Tyrol - sitting next to the Italian versions imposed after Italy annexed the region nearly 100 years ago

The names of thousands of streams, hills and meadows are causing a political row in Italy's mainly German-speaking province of South Tyrol.

The roots of the dispute date back to the fascist era, after the region, once part of Austria, was annexed by Italy after World War One.

In the corner of a cemetery near the town of Montagna (Montan in German) in the foothills of the Alps, is the tomb of a man known to some as the gravedigger of South Tyrol.

Ettore Tolomei was a fervent Italian nationalist and fascist, who was determined to Italianise the traditionally German-speaking region.

As well as making Italian the only official language in 1923, he invented and adapted around 8,000 Italian geographical place names to replace the German ones.

Tolomei asked to be buried facing north, so that he could watch the last German-speaking South Tyrolean leave for Austria.

That didn't happen.

Image caption,
Ettore Tolomei invented many of the Italian names in South Tyrol

After World War Two, German was reinstated as an official language along with Italian.

Why Tolomei's legacy remains controversial

Having bilingual place names for towns and cities is standard practice today in South Tyrol, but many of the names of hills, woods, fields and smaller mountains are still only official in Italian - even though they are situated in mainly German-speaking areas.

From his garden in the village of Glen/Gleno near Tolomei's grave, Hansi Weissensteiner pointed at a neighbouring vineyard.

"In German, it's been called Planggn for hundreds of years and it should stay that way," he told me. "But it's not official."

Image caption,
This beautiful vineyard is referred to by its German name, Planggn - but the name is not official

Political parties have been unable to reach agreement on a settlement of the geographical place-name issue - and the row has inflamed old resentments between German and Italian speakers.

Some groups, like the Suedtiroler Freiheit, a small opposition party seeking independence from Italy, want all the Tolomei names removed.

"Everything that fascism did with the aim of rewriting South Tyrolean history, with the aim of making South Tyrol Italian - which it never was - is a cultural crime and has no right to exist," Stefan Zelger from the Suedtiroler Freiheit told me. "No more Tolomei names."

The governor of South Tyrol, Arno Kompatscher of the conservative South Tyrolean People's Party (SVP), agrees that what Tolomei did should be condemned. But his view is that "life goes on".

He says none of the Italian names of towns and cities will be removed. But his party proposes getting rid of those Tolomei geographical names that are not commonly used. A decision will be taken by a commission of experts.

What's in a name: German or Italian?

South Tyrol in German is Südtirol, in Italian it is Alto Adige

Neumarkt is Egna; Auer is Ora

Gschnon is Casignano; Glen is Gleno

"We say let's use the names that are really used by the people," says Mr Kompatscher.

"Of course we have to use some Italian names which were originally fascist inventions but are in the meantime just used as names of places by the Italian speaking people living here, maybe 1,000 or 2,000 names. The commission should decide. Our position is the only one ensuring we live in peace together."

Image caption,
In Obereggen, not even Italians use the official name of San Floriano

But that proposal has upset some Italian speakers, concerned about German dominance in the province.

Alessandro Urzi from the L'Alto Adige nel Cuore (Alto Adige in the heart) party says Italian place names should stay, and that it is wrong to link the modern Italian community to fascism.

"How can a local ethic majority like the German one cancel part of the identity of the Italian minority here? And in what other part of the world would it be possible to outlaw the language of the state?" he says.

Francesco Palermo, a cross-party member of the Italian Senate, says a compromise solution has to be negotiated - for both languages.

At the ski-resort of Obereggen in the Dolomites near Bolzano, it was hard to find anyone who knew its Italian name of San Floriano. "No-one calls it that, not even the Italians," says Barbara Varesco, a journalist at the Dolomiten newspaper.

Overlooking the vineyards and mountains near his residence in Glen/Gleno, Mr Weissensteiner shrugs philosophically. "We are South Tyrolean, with German as our mother tongue - and Italian citizens. You can't turn the clock back one or two hundred years. Four generations here have grown up bilingual.

"We should keep our German language. But you can't send the Italians away. That's impossible.

"We respect the Italians. So many people have a German mother and an Italian father or vice versa. This has always been a mixed border region."