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December 27, 2011

The fantastic world of South Tyrol

Clouds on the Etsch/AdigeIt is a proof of my weak national identity that my favourite Italian province – the one I visit most often just for pleasure, for no ulterior motives like family or work reasons – is the least Italian of all: Alto Adige, which I call with its original German name, Südtirol.

South Tyrol has, to name just three things, the most beautiful mountains (the province itself is a geological museum, with the Dolomites as masterpiece), the best apples and the best white wine in the world: Gewürtztraminer comes from here (from Tramin, as the name says), while Riesling achieves here very distinctive results, and the Sauvignon from Terlan is just about the only wine to go with asparagus. It is not that the red are worse (especially the local Lagrein grape), they just have stronger competitors elsewhere. This is the Italian region with the highest percentage of quality wine on the total production: the usable surface is so narrow that there is no point focusing on quantity over quality, so that, here, you run little risk of finding bland or bad wines, unlike in the rest of Italy (not a scary risk anyway, when prices start at 1€/bottle).

The famous Vinschgauer ÄpfelIt also has some of the best ski slopes in the world (the mythical ones in Gröden/Val Gardena), but this year so little snow has fallen to make them hardly skiable. A strong foehnkept all the clouds and snow just on the other side of the mountains, in the Austrian North Tyrol, keeping the Italian side sunny but dry. No big deal. We still spent a splendid weak in the Mutöfen – high mountain alms – overhanging 1,000 meters above Meran, the largest majority-German speaking town in the region (South Tyrol’s capital, Bozen, is now majority Italian-speaking), hosting marvellous thermal spas. Alpine pastures and farms are so high-cost today to be economically viable, and are among those activities that fully deserve European subsidies on the grounds of their positive environmental and cultural externalities (it is the implementation, not the idea of Common Agriculture Policy that is wrong). Most alms, to survive, combine agriculture with tourism, like our Muthof, dating back from the early XIX Century, when Tyrol, under the leadership of Andreas Hofer from the neighbouring Pustertal, rebelled against Bavaria, Napoleon and the Enlightenment. I guess that the let of our cosy apartment, with its breathtaking view, produces as much added value in a day as the fourteen cows put together.

Schloss TirolHere, it is as German as it can get. Pustertal is still tied to Hofer’s anti-Enlightenment views: men on important occasions still carry their huts with feathers indicating their marital status, and are the most opposed to any accommodation with Italian rule. Here in the Muthöfen, children speak only German: they do have some Italian at school, but with whom can they practice up here? On TV, a wide range of Austrian, German and Swiss-German channels, but the reception of Italian channels is too bad. And one can live in South Tyrol without speaking Italian: like the octogenarian landlady of the Meran’s B&B where we stayed a couple of years ago, who, with no hint of irony, moaned that Italians coming to live in Meran learned no German.

Nowadays, South Tyrol’s autonomy is often advertised as a model for minority rights and inter-ethnic relations, for instance in Northern Ireland. But the path to the current situation had its nasty moments and the reality is not as glamorous as the Alpine views and the current economic wealth. The four parts of Tyrol (East with Lienz, North with Innsbruck, South, with Bozen, and the Italian-speaking Welschtirol or Trentino with Trento), whose unity dates back to the middle ages under the castle of Tirol just below our Muthof, were split after the First World War. Austria had come to accept the idea to cede to Italy Trentino already before the war, as a concession to avoid Italy changing sides, but Italy profited of Austrian collapse to move the border till the Alpine dividing range, the Brennerpass, which made geographicbut no cultural sense: South Tyrol was then 90% German-speaking. Italy did not comply with Wilson’s criterion of self-determination, and instead started a program of forced Italianisation, building in South Tyrol industrial zones for Italian immigrants and forbidding German-language education. Soon, Mussolini pursued Italianisation with an even heavier hand. It is to some extent understandable, then, that the South Tyroleans made their own historical mistake in 1939, when 86% of them, under Goebbels propaganda, opted to relocate to the Third Reich within the framework of the Hitler-Mussollini pact. The war interrupted the relocation plans and after it the Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi, himself from Trentino, exploited this pro-Nazi episode to delegitimize the South Tyroleans and create a united Trentino-Alto Adige region where the German speakers would be a minority. This situation led to an international dispute in the UN between Italy and Austria and to the rise of South Tyrolean resistance. Under the leadership of Silvius Magnago, the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) became the assembly party of all German speakers. In 1957, a historic demonstration took place in the Sigmundskron castle under the ‘Los von Trient’ (Away from Trento) slogan. After waves of bombings by South Tyrolean extremists, negotiations led to the ‘Paket’ agreement on autonomy was reached in 1969, narrowly accepted by the South Tyroleans and implemented with characteristic slow pace by the Italian state: only in 1992 it was fully implemented and the Austrian-Italian dispute ended. With autonomy, South Tyrol has achieved the ‘Los von Trient’ goal, and only marginal minorities nowadays want the further step of ‘Los von Rom’. Last week, the Northern League’s leader Bossi was in Bozen try to tempt the SVP into an anti-Rome alliance, but he was coldly rebuffed: for the SVP, Milan is no better than Rome.

Today, also thanks to wealth coming from hydroelectricity and tourism, Südtirol is a peaceful and happy place. The Austrian access into the EU also opens the perspective of a united Tyrol, if not as a country, as a ‘Euroregion’, although Trentino is still to be convinced.

Is this a model, though? The German-speaking majority and the Italian minority (alongside a smaller Ladin minority) live peacefully, but separated by sectarian education and employment systems. Politically, on the German side the SVP, supported by the Athesia media empire and the only German-language newspaper Dolomiten, maintains its hegemony and is still to lose its absolute majority (only recently threatened by the extreme-Right Freiheitlichen, spillover of the FPÖ), while the Italians have often supported the neofascist Right. Lack of alternative and vote along ethnic-linguistic lines do not make a good polity. While the meeting of two cultures and languages has produced interesting results, especially gastronomically (try the Sissi restaurant in Meran by Langhe-born but Tyrol-adopted Fenoglio), this is arguably the least multi-cultural part of a non multi-cultural country. For most German-speakers, any multiculturalism is tantamount to surrender: in many ways, out of reaction and survival instinct, the South Tyroleans are more Tyrolean than their counterparts North of the border (but no more Austrian: as they say here, if anything South Tyrol can be above Austria, because its Ortler, at 3,905m, is heads and shoulders above any Austrian mountain).

Oberegghof

Schloss Tirol

The force that has done most to turn South Tyrolean protectionism (embodied by the Schützen) from what is no longer to defend (a unified mono-cultural Tyrol) to what is to be defended (a unique natural environment) are the Greens, who in this region reach the best results of the whole of Italy (2nd party with 17% in Meran last year). The leading figure of the South Tyrolean Greens was, until his shocking death in Fiesole in 1995, Alex Langer, a leader of the 1968 movement and an active pacifist. The best-known one, is the most famous of all South Tyroleans: the climber Reinhold Messner, first man to climb all world’s 8,000 meters, founder of the Mountain Wilderness movement and of the Messner Mountain Museum, and an MEP in 1999-2004. Among is numerous books, many translated into Italian and some also into English, there is Gebrauchsanweisung für Südtirol (2nd ed. 2010), for the non-touristic and no-nonsense German-language series Gebrauchsanweisung. A great climber unfortunately does not make a good writer, and Messner views are often contradictory, but the book express well his frustration for the SVP-Dolomiten power monopoly that has effectively defended the region from Italian intrusion, but unfortunately also from new ideas.Meran at night


February 21, 2011

At home in Vienna, with a ear to Hamburg

Italy celebrates its 150th birthday this year (among typical disagreement: should we celebrate? if yes, should we also spend money on it? if not, should we protest instead? and in any case, what about South Tirol?), and Rome has been the Italian capital for 140 years. But as a Milanese, even if as far from the Northern League as possible, ‘my’ previous capital is just as familiar: Vienna. Weather, architecture, music, cuisine, intellectuals and, some would add, efficiency and order: don’t we have more to share with Vienna than with Rome? After all, the Wienerschnitzel and the costoletta alla Milanese are only distinguished by a (mostly forgotten nowadays) piece of bone in the latter. For whatever reason, in Vienna I feel very much at home.

When I first visited Vienna in 1987 (on a school trip from which the main, not particularly good memory is Grinzling’s white wine), the city was Western Europe’s back yard, a cul-de-sac. It did have the remains of a multi-national empire, but in a very decadent setting. In two decades, during which I crossed the place at regular intervals, it has become the centre of Central Europe and the share of foreign population has doubled. In half an hour you can enter, at your choice, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary. Bratislava is round the corner; in a couple of hours you can get to Prague, Kraków, Budapest; just a little more effort and you arrive to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Munich or even Triest. Sister imperial capital Budapest may be bigger, more scenic and more imposingly metropolitan, but it is less connected and much less cosmopolitan. In Vienna, you hear on the street all possible Slavic languages, plus Turkish, although in the old town you mostly hear Italian tourists (I suspect more Milanese visit Vienna every year than Rome). It is not that the Viennese love their neighbours: in the opinion polls, the large majority is critical of the right to work for citizens of the new member states, which will come to force on the 1st of May, even if no invasion is expected (the Poles and Slovaks have already gone to the UK). But thanks to shared history and to the ‘downgrading’ of Austria as a nation, the Viennese take their neighbours much more seriously than the Germans do. Including the Italians: no silly jokes here. And including the Turks. If the problems of ‘integration’ are similar to the German ones, here, where the most ancient buildings still show the Turkish cannon balls from the two sieges, Turkey is more feared than despised. And fear involves respect: Oriental art is always in fashion in Vienna, and so are posh Turkish restaurants – in Berlin, there is no posh Turkish restaurant. Austria has been much less fussy than Germany at giving Turks (and other foreigners) citizenship.

And plenty to admire in Vienna, from the Sachertorte that I endlessly try to imitate in my modest kitchen, to the art exhibitions, to... public housing. From the Karl-Marx Hof and the other interwar Red Vienna buildings, similar to fortresses and strategically located for their military utility during insurrections, to the recent ones bearing utopian plaques such as “menschlich wohnen – glücklich leben” - I can’t imagine that for the English council estate I live in, Tile Hill. With such good-quality public housing subprime mortgages and housing-market induced crisis are unthinkable, not just impossible in Austria. Maybe the Irish, this week, if they find their own parties so hopeless, they should invite the Austrian (boring) Grand Coalition, or better, the new Viennese local Red-Green coalition, to rule them for a while - better than the IMF.

Vienna’s Red-Green coalition is in fact just an example of recent political experiments at the local city level all around Europe. Right now is the round of Hamburg, another city I am familiar with. Hamburg is actually used to political experiments. It had the Right-populist Ronald Schill ten years ago, then an aborted try at a ‘Black(CDU)-Green’ coalition, which collapsed after the middle classes resisted an attempt at making schools a little more ‘comprehensive’. On Sunday, the SPD, which at national level is in a state of disarray, won the absolute majority in the city-state elections, while Merkel’s CDU fell from 42% to 20%. Led by the pragmatic, moderate Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s SPD benefits from a ‘Helmut Schmidt’ effect: the 93-year old former Mayor and Chancellor is as popular as ever in his city, especially after the recent funeral of his even-more popular wife. Its success will allow a local experiment but will not be imitated in the other German Länder, or anywhere else. Curiously, the proud Viennese, when extolling their own best-in-the-world cafés, they contrast them to Hamburg’s allegedly miserable ones.


November 14, 2010

In praise of the Turkish ambassador in Vienna

There is a little of Schadenfreude, in Berlin, in the fact that in Austria the discussion has fallen to even lower levels than in Germany. The quite depressing, intellectually sloppy German debate on the alleged "parallel society" of “integration-objecting” Turkish immigrants was triggered in August by the over-million-selling book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” by Thilo Sarrazin, then Socialdemocratic member of the Bundesbank’s board. It rarely happens for a near 500-page long quasi-scientific book on the labour market to sell so much and to have so much ‘impact’ (lots of REF points for him – which also proves that instant impact and good research are unlikely to go together). Commenting on it was one of my priority tasks when arrived to Germany but I still have not read the whole book: I can’t bring myself to buy it and there is a queue of dozens reservations on the library copies. Fortunately, Berlin’s bookshops are very relaxed, comfortable spaces so I could easily read a few core chapters while immersed in an armchair for an hour or so, before putting the book back on the shelve and cleaning my hands. So I probably know the book better than most people who comment on it, but still I prefer to wait before a real review, and I limit myself to point at the striking similarities between Sarrazin’s charts on comparative fertility and the Nazi ones.

By contrast, I have read the whole interview in die Presse given on the 9th November by the Turkish ambassador in Vienna, Kadri Ecved Tezcan, which caused so much furore and offense in Austria. Of course, he has not been “diplomatic” and therefore he has probably stepped outside of his role (although it may have all been calculated as a warning to Austria to stop sabotaging EU-Turkey talks). But apart that I remember the German ambassador to the UK, on a visit to Warwick, being also quite undiplomatic about the Turks, this blog does not have to be diplomatic so I will take Tezcan’s words at face value. Anatolia

His sentence “except holidays, Austrians have no interest in foreign cultures” was indeed an undue generalisation. But it was largely justified by the preceding and following points, for instance that no Austrians, except politicians looking for votes, bother popping in at the large Turkish Kermes fest in Vienna. Beside the generalisation, the sentence actually sounds to me as too kind towards the Austrians: I would have said that even during their holidays abroad, Austrians [replace with the name of your western nation of choice, especially if England] have no interest in foreign cultures. Let’s be more frank than the ambassador: the crowds of half-naked, pork-eating, money-flashing drunk burping western tourists in Muslim countries are worse than the worst Muslim immigrants to Europe (I have seen some in Morocco, Egypt, Malaysia, and run away as far as possible from them).

For the rest, the ambassador only said things that are either well-known to migration specialists, or just good sense. That placing migration policies under the Home Office (Innenministerium), rather than for instance Social affairs, calls for police solutions instead of social policies. That the Austrian home secretary, Maria Fekter, just like Angela Markel are not giving good examples of tolerance when arguing against multiculturalism (all the more that they stop short of proposing any alternative model). That failed education and social integration stems from the ghettoes produced by housing policies and by Austrian parents’ unwillingness to mix their children with Turks (many Turkish children in Austria are segregated in schools where they make 60-70% of the class). That the presence of Turkish teachers could help Turkish children gain self-esteem and reading and writing skills. That pre-school education for migrants’ children should be enhanced. That if nude bathing is allowed, then headscarves could be allowed too. That forced headscarf-wearing, and forced marriage, should be prosecuted as crimes regardless of religion. That the Austrian social-democrats are so scared of the populist Right to say a word about the treatment of immigrants. That if the Viennese don’t want foreigners (26% of them just voted for the extreme-right FPÖ), also the international organisations that crowd (and enrich) the city (UN, OSCE, OPEC…) should leave. And that it is a pity this happens in a country heir of the most multicultural of modern European states, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

All this can be summarised with a point: integration is a social and political process, much more than a minority’s choice. Much is said in both Germany and Austria about an alleged 10-15% of Muslim Integrationsverweigenerer, or ‘integration objectors’. This much-repeated number comes from some surveys saying that this is the share of Muslim migrants who are very religious and/or have no regular contacts with Germans or Austrians. Now, this has nothing to do with refusing integration, nor even with integration itself. It is a basic sociological finding, since the times of the Chicago School, that involvement in a minority association or cultural life, is associated with higher, not lower integration with the rest of society – because those associations provide social capital, information, trust and self-esteem that are needed to integrate. As to the last question, in order to have contacts with German/Austrian neighbours, first you need to have German/Austrian neighbours, and second you need them not to refuse you. Ambassador Tezcan, in his first year in Austria, has only been invited once into an Austrian home, out of Vienna. Similarly, the most frequently repeated example of integration refusal in Germany is not attendance of the "integration courses", compulsory for non-working immigrants. But actually, there is a long waiting list for these course as it is the supply, not the demand, to be insufficient: who is denying the integration whom, then?

Of course, integration refusal is a serious problem. But not with regard to Muslim minorities. Even if that 10-15% were a serious number, 10-15% of 5% of the population makes some 0.5-0.7%: is this the invading army, the submerging flood we should be panicking about? A little de-segregating housing and education policies would be enough to dissolve it. The real, dangerous integration deniers are the native upper classes: who lock themselves in gated communities, socialise in their own clubs, send their children to private schools (or elite state schools), threaten to leave the country if taxes are raised, and undermine the democratic texture of society. That's a parallel society. I am all in favour of ‘forced integration’ policies, as long as we start from them.

The only Austrian party to express appreciation of Tezcan’s words are the Greens. They got 13% in last month’s Viennese elections and they now joined the city government in coalition with the socialdemocrats (the Green deputy mayor Maria Vassilakou is of Greek descent). In Berlin, the Greens are leading in the opinion polls and their leader Renate Künast may become mayor in 2011. Some fresh air?


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