South Tyrol: a model for autonomous regions?

Par Balázs Gyimesi | 20 mars 2018

Pour citer cet article : Balázs Gyimesi, “South Tyrol: a model for autonomous regions?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Mardi 20 mars 2018,, consulté le 02 juin 2023

The traditionally German-speaking Alpine region of Südtirol (South Tyrol) became a part of Italy after the First World War – today, South Tyrol is an exemplary autonomous region where the rights of German-speakers are widely protected. How did South Tyrol become the autonomous region it is today? In order to explain, we need to understand the region’s history and Austria’s role as the “protector” of the German-speakers of South Tyrol.

South Tyrol is situated in an idyllic region of the eastern Alps, with summits such as the Ortler (Ortles in Italian) raging over valleys and cities such as Meran (Merano in Italian) or Bozen (Bolzano in Italian), which Wolfgang von Goethe described as a “herrliche Gegend” (beautiful region) in his travel diary in 1786.  Goethe was crossing Tyrol to get to Italy – at the time of his journey, the whole of Tyrol was under Habsburg rule, and it remained, with temporary changes in its political structure, a part of the Habsburg Empire until the end of the First World War. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 separated South Tyrol from the rest of Tyrol, and attached the region, with 89% of its population being German-speaking at the time , to Italy. Although German speakers constitute until today the majority (64%) in the modern province of South Tyrol, they are a minority in Italy. How can the rights, culture and language of the German-speaking population of the region be protected in this situation? 

The solution in South Tyrol was the creation of an autonomous region, the Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano – Alto Adige/Autonome Provinz Bozen – Südtirol, with the adoption of the “New Statute of Autonomy” in 1972. What exactly is an autonomous region and how did South Tyrol become one?

Autonomous regions and national minorities

For regions where a group that is distinctly different from the state’s majority constitutes the majority, creating an autonomous region can be beneficial on many levels. Autonomy can provide “for the possibility to share legislative and executive powers between the central states and national minorities safeguarding both aims: the preservation of the integrity of a state and its sovereign territory and self-government for the minority group in its specific region.” However, the possibility of the creation of autonomous regions within a state depends on the given state’s constitution and legal framework, therefore a comparison between countries is a difficult task. Furthermore, there is “no internationally agreed definition as to which groups constitute minorities” according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of autonomous regions in Europe, such as the Åland Islands in Finland, the Faeroe Islands in Denmark, and the Basque country in Spain, which are all organized differently, depending on their legal status and the country’s constitutional framework.

South Tyrol: the first statute of autonomy 

The creation of the South Tyrol autonomous region was the result of a long process, which, despite some violent moments, was largely characterised by peaceful negotiations. In the interwar period, Mussolini’s fascists initiated a “March on Bozen/Bolzano” against the German-speakers in 1922, and the regime initiated an aggressive policy of Italianization of South Tyrol, trying to erase the German-speakers’ demographic and cultural importance in the region. The end of the Second World War brought a change with the creation of the first autonomous region in northeastern Italy, the Trentino-Alto-Adige. However, this autonomous region did not only comprise the mainly German-speaking South Tyrol, but attached the traditionally Italian-speaking region of Trentino (Welschtirol in German) to it, thereby shifting the majority to the Italian-speakers.  This situation was not satisfactory from the point of view of the mainly German-speaking South Tiroleans, who demanded a new arrangement for their region.

Austria’s role: internationalisation of the South Tyrol issue

The negotiations to create a new statute were significantly shaped by Austria. The country saw itself as the protector of the German-speakers of South Tyrol, and it advanced the cause of autonomy by internationalising the issue. Bruno Kresiky, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1959-66, brought the issue of South Tyrol to the attention of the United Nation’s General Assembly in 1960, where he proposed a resolution  to call on Italy and Austria to resolve the question together. In the same period, terrorist attacks were perpetrated in South Tyrol by groups such as the Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol (South Tyrolean Liberation Committee), which caused the death of 21 people and wounded 57 between 1950-80. However, these attacks did not lead to a permanent breakdown of the negotiations between Italy and Austria. 

The new, second statute of autonomy of South Tyrol was achieved through peaceful, diplomatic negotiations in 1972, defining the institutional framework of today’s Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano – Alto Adige/Autonome Provinz Bozen – Südtirol. This new statute covers the territory of South Tyrol/Alto-Adige and introduced two new elements compared to the old statute: the obligaroty bilingualism of the region’s public administration and a linguistically proportional system in the region’s economy.   Furthermore, this new statute was the first to take the region’s Ladin-speaking community into account, a Rhaeto-Romance language spoken in the provinces of South Tyrol, Trentino and Belluno.  


The case of South Tyrol demonstrates that creating an autonomous region that effectively protects the rights of national minorities is possible, without threatening the territorial integrity of the country. However, the importance of the South Tyrolean issue’s internationalisation by Austria, and the country’s role as the protector of German-speakers in South Tyrol played a crucial role in the creation of a second, more efficient statute of autonomy. As mentioned above, the possibility of creating autonomous regions depends on the constitutional orders of countries, therefore it is difficult to compare the situations of minorities in different countries. Nevertheless, South Tyrol is a remarkable example of minority protection in Europe.



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