In our travels we have always been interested in learning about the ways languages have influenced the history of a region or country.
And while separatist movements are typically caused by economic inequities, power struggles, religion, etc. they can be further fueled by language differences – even if the language differences don't seem to be significant to a foreigner.
It's well understood that language unites the members of a family, tribe, community, state, nation etc. You can feel it yourself when you encounter someone in a foreign country who speaks your language: there is an immediate connection with that person, and the language is the link.
So it is no wonder that conquerors and kings, dictators, and victors in wars have tried to impose their language on the acquired regions. But generally, a NEW foreign language cannot be forced on populations without causing anger, resistance, and often bloodshed. There are many examples in history where such attempts were not successful.
South Tyrol had been awarded to Italy after World War 1. By 1923, Italian became the mandatory language at all levels of local, provincial, and local government, and by 1928, the only language of instruction in schools.
Mussolini accelerated the Italianization by settling many Italians in a region which, in 1919, was 90% German speaking. When the region remained with Italy after World War 2 - with many of the pre-World War laws remaining - the German majority was not happy.
I visited South Tyrol in 1965 as part a graduating class trip, and my class mates and I experienced first hand the friction between the German and Italian speaking population (which, at that time, still involved violence and bombings).
South Tyrol – Key Ingredients for success
With the many separatist movements in the world today, the recent article in the New York Times, Italy’s Historic Multicultural Compromise, gives reason for hope.
The article notes that the German-speaking population in South Tyrol is still the majority, albeit with 61.5% vs. 23.1% Italian, based on the 2011 census. (About 4% speak “Ladin,” a language quite close to the Swiss “Romansch,” and 11.4% speak a variety of other languages.)
It also appears that among the key ingredients that allowed South Tyrol to overcome its separatist past are both a willingness to compromise, embrace bi-lingualism and cultural diversity, as well as Rome's concessions on “home rule,” (i.e. strong local governance and retaining 90% of the tax revenues).
It's quite likely that it takes ALL of these “ingredients” to achieve success and continued efforts to maintain it. Let's hope that the lessons learned in South Tyrol can be shared with and applied in many other parts of the world.
In view of Russia “encouraging” Crimea's vote to separate from Ukraine just recently, possible plebiscites looming in Catalonia and Scotland, attempts by the Veneto region to separate from Italy - South Tyrol's recent history is a good reminder what it takes to overcome separatist movements.
On the other hand, Norway's peaceful separation from Sweden in 1905 was quite extraordinary both for its deliberate process and adherence to the law. It makes great reading for history buffs and has also some interesting language implications which we described in our 2013 post A Cruise and Norwegian language Politics...