Linguistic, Ethnic and Cultural Heterogeneity in South Tyrol. JS 13/1/14

“Nestled in the mountains of the Alps, it’s Italy’s richest province, and has been part of that country for almost 100 years – but some in South Tyrol just don’t feel fully Italian.” (BBC News 8/12/2012).


Summer climbers, winter skiers enjoying a holiday in the beautiful Alpine scenery of the northern Italian Province of Bolzano/Südtirol, may be surprised to encounter German everywhere; in speech, place names, even restaurant menus. Other than on official documents, road signs and in the two principle towns of Bolzano and Merano, Italian can seem largely absent. Others, acquainted with the region’s recent history may be struck by the relative lack of the once omni-present (German language) separatist graffiti demanding Freiheit für Südtirol (Freedom for South Tyrol). How a resolution to a significant European stability problem, based on ethnicity, has been achieved forms the basis for this essay.

The doxa of population heterogeneity (groups or individuals with different ethnicity, culture and speech) is conflict, and as a consequence, ‘political systems that are inherently more unstable’ (Anderson, Paskeviciute  2006:785).  In addition to the ‘utilitarian role’ of language homogeneity and national language cohesion Wright (2004:42) states ‘ to speak the language is an act of inclusion’ and failure or refusal seen as ‘schismatic and unpatriotic’. It is also widely held that linguistic minority communities suffering discrimination, can have low socio-economic status and limited prospects. I will show, however, that in this Italian province, linguistic, ethnic and cultural heterogeneity has finally succeeded through mature compromise and negotiation, despite the route to success being long and divisive.
To avoid losing focus amidst the complexities of this highly charged, but relatively unknown central European struggle, I will approach it within the framework and terminology of linguistic human rights. I propose using the Phillipson definition of linguistic imperialism (1192:47) being defined as ‘ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language’. (1992:47). Also the term linguicism (defined in Gynther& Nijhoff et al, 2007 from Tove Skutnabb-Kangas 2000), as active conscious and visible deprivation of power and influence due to their language.

The South Tyrol, Ethnographic and Geopolitical information :

South Tyrol (German and Ladin: Südtirol) is also known by its Italian name Alto Adige. It is a small mountainous province, about the size of the English county of Dorset, south of the Brenner Pass to Austria. It is the more northerly of the two provinces that make up the Italian Autonomous Region of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. It has a total population of 511,750 (mainly Roman Catholic) inhabitants (census 31/12/2011). The capital is the ancient city of Bolzano (German: Bozen; Ladin: Balsan ). South Tyrol has many world-class ski resorts and some of the most impressive scenery in Europe. (Steinbrech 2004) There are three identifiable ethno-linguistic groups in South Tyrol. For clarity, I propose grouping them by language, ethnicity and culture. It is a generalisation which works in this context and is used by the peoples themselves. By far the largest group is the third of a million autochthonous ‘South Tyroleans’. To this day they are German L1 speaking (Austro-Bavarian) hill farming villagers, with intimate cultural and kinship ties to the Austrian ‘Bundesland Tirol’, and its capital Innsbruck, immediately to the north. The ‘Italians’ are the Italian speaking, largely urban community of the host nation, the majority of whom arrived in the valleys after WW1. In addition there is a very small ‘Ladin’ speaking Rhaeto-Romance population (20,548 people – 2011 census,) who are considered to be the aboriginal people of the Sella region in the Dolomite mountains. Their fortunes are closely allied with their German speaking neighbours and not with the city dwelling Italians below.

Declared language group association from Census 2011
Language Groups
SPRACHGRUPPEN Sprachgruppen- zugehörigkeitserklärungen
Dichiarazioni di appartenenza Sprachgruppen- zuordnungserklärungen
Dichiarazioni di aggregazione Summe der gültigen
Totale dichiarazioni valide

Italienisch (Italian L1) 115.161 2.959 118.120 Italiano
Deutsch (German L1) 310.360 4.244 314.604 Tedesco

Ladinisch (Ladin L1) 20.126 422 20.548 Ladino
Insgesamt (Total) 445.647 7.625 453.272 Totale

1915 – 1939

The inter-ethnic bitterness and conflict between the Italian and German speech communities in South Tyrol, flared up with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy at the end of World War One. At the Treaty of St Germaine 1919 Italy acquired this hitherto Austrian Imperial (K&K ) territory. It was the prize for Italy entering the war against Germany, Austria-Hungary in 1915. On the map, this ceding of cisalpine Austria to Italy, may not appear unreasonable (Alcock 2001:3). The Brenner Pass forms a defensible barrier, fluvial watershed and ‘natural’ frontier to the north [The Fascists, were later to claim that South Tyrol was originally Italian, with the local (Italian speaking) peasantry ‘germanised’ from the 5th Century onwards. (Alcock in Dunn, Fraser: 1996:68)] However, the Austrians, north and south of the Brenner considered this a great injustice (Alcock 2001:1). The German speaking South Tyroleans, who made up 86% of the region’s population had always considered themselves Austrians. They also believed it breached the letter and spirit of Point IX in US President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, in his ‘just and lasting peace ’ speech of 8th January 1918. It states:
“IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality . A month later he was to add, with reference in particular to them (the Tyroleans believed) ‘peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty …..every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned…
Furthermore, to the Austrians (Tyroleans), the Brenner Pass had never been a border in the cultural, ethnic or linguistic sense, but a totemic cleft through the high Alps where people, animals and goods have moved north and south for millennia (Alcock in Dunn, Fraser 1996:69). They saw the ‘real’ border being the Salurn Gorge (Salurner Klause) south of Bolzano (Bozen), marking the boundary between the German sprachraum and the Italophone lands to the south. However at the Peace Conference of 1919 the Italian government eschewed the American president’s Fourteen Points. They argued that taking the Trentino and South Tyrol (Alto Adige) regions together, the populations were overwhelmingly Italian. However such legerdemain was about to become irrelevant. Three years later the Fascists under Mussolini seized power (1922) and the forced assimilation of the ‘Germans’ and linguicide  of the German language began under the Provvedimenti per l’Alto Adige overseen by the Fascist Senator and ethnographer Ettore Tolomei (d. 1952).
Monolingual German speakers, no matter how competent or qualified, who failed to meet the new mandatory fluency in Italian, were dismissed from jobs, from public office, hospitals and schools. German was banned in all official intercourse and documentation, newspapers, clubs and associations. It was no longer permitted in courts or-on road signs. One example of the vindictiveness of the Fascists towards Crucchi (slang = Krauts); Germanic christian names which ‘offended Italian sentiment’ (Alcock in Dunn, Fraser 1996:71) were forbidden. Place names were Italianised, including major and famous passes and mountains. The name Südtirol itself was outlawed.
With the ban on German enforced by the State paramilitary police Carabinieri, secret Catacomb Schools (Katakombenschulen) were established to teach children their now illegal L1 language. These were discrete, disguised gatherings in private homes, using books smuggled across the border from Austria, with the tacit support of the local Catholic church. Discovery could mean imprisonment and deportation for the teachers, the householder and parents. The only exception tolerated was religious instruction (the Roman Catholic catechism) at the insistence of the Bishop of Bolzano. At schools non Italian teachers suffered discrimination on the grounds of a new offence, didactic insufficiency  and were either dismissed or transferred out of the region altogether. Thus, within a matter of years, by 1928, over 30,000 children in 360 German schools were being taught in Italian by Italians from Kindergarten upwards. German had ceased to exist.
Still, the Fascists deemed the forced assimilation of these mountain farmers too slow. Next they created new industrial zones in the regional capital Bolzano/Bozen to which Southern Italians were encouraged to come for work. 95% of all state employment went to ethnic Italians. The South Tyroleans, three-quarters of the population, were foreigners in their own home. In 1936 Hitler and Mussolini created the Axis non-aggression pact; but a solution only came in 1939. With the Nazi Anschluss, Austria was now fully integrated into Germany, thus a plebiscite was agreed to coerce Südtiroler possessing deutsche Volkszugehörigkeit (the notion of belonging to the German race by descent, language, upbringing and culture) to agree to be repatriated elsewhere in the Third Reich. Eighty percent voted to go. Families were split apart; those remaining were deemed traitors and those leaving seen as Nazis. This diaspora ceased suddenly with the outbreak of the 2nd world war.

1944 – 1972

In 1944 the Americans and the British landed in Italy. The government in Rome fell, but South Tyrol remained under Fascist/Nazi control for another year. Hopes of reunification with Austria rose, but in 1945 the Allies refused to permit South Tyrol to return to Austria. The reason given (Alcock in Dunn, Fraser 1996:74) was the unsure future of Germany/ Austria under the Four Country occupation. This left South Tyrol in a parlous economic and administrative vacuum – A generation had been deprived of access to formal German language education. The southern Austrian oral dialekt of the South Tyrolean sprachinsel (language enclave) being markedly distinct in pronunciation, lexis and syntax from Standard [Austrian] German. With no education and no training in Hochdeutsch, there were no administrators, community leaders, politicians, teachers or lawyers able to conduct the business and safeguard the rights of the, by this time destitute, communities. To quote Karl Marx ‘Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten werden’ (they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented). This left them again, a ‘minority’ at the mercy of Italian administrators, concentrated in the larger towns of Bolzano and Merano, inflaming the old hostility yet further. Minority should be understood in the national sense rather than the provincial, given the German-speaking population is the majority in South Tyrol. In addition local Italian nationalists campaigned that those 80% of ‘Germans’ who had voted to leave in 1939, should now do so.
This threat to their existence, in a country they had farmed for over a thousand years, led to the formation of the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP – Peoples Party of South Tyrol) to which almost everyone flocked, no matter what their prior politics or status. Significantly, the tiny Ladin speaking communities, with little or no linguistic kinship, preferred to side with the self detirminatory (separatist) agenda of the SVP against the Italians too. In the absence of an alternative, the new SVP was recognized by the Allies as the political representative of the German-speaking population of South Tyrol. (Steinbrech 2004:4). Thus an agreement (The 1st Autonomy Treaty) was agreed between the Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi and Austrian foreign minister Gruber. (5/9/46). It meant the South Tyrol question was formalised and part of the 1947 Italian Peace Treaty. It established a limited autonomy with German mother tongue primary and secondary education, equality of rights and restitution of ‘German’ names etc., but the de Gasperi Gruber agreement, in its haste contained two particular flaws.
A) It tied the Italian province of Trento, with South Tyrol, thus concreting the ethnic imbalance the South Tyrol had been fighting against for so long, and
B) It only ‘parified’ the German language with Italian, German was not given the status of an Official Language, (Alcock in Dunn Frazer :75) As a result there was still a need for Germans speakers to learn Italian but no equivalent obligation for Italian (officials) to learn or speak German.

This was, to quote Alcock (2001)  “far from the parification promised …Much would depend upon whether the Italian Government would adopt a generous or a restrictive attitude to these questions.” As the agreement did not contain the Austrian renunciation of the South Tyrol – this ‘first’ Autonomy was met with anger on all sides, rendering it unworkable.

Elements of the German speaking Freiheit fur Südtirol (Freedom for South Tyrol) movement turned violent. Bombings and assassinations occurred both in South Tyrol and in Austria. In one event on the 12 June 1961 Notte dei fuochi (Night of Fire) thirty electricity pylons were dynamited by BAS Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol. As a result the South Tyrol Question was no longer viewed as a domestic Italian problem. The continued intransigence by the Rome Government to find a solution resulted finally it coming before the United Nations under UDHR Article 2.1. But another decade (1972) was to go by, before the Package ‘Paket/Pacchetto’ of 137 Measures in Favour of the population of South Tyrol known as the 2nd Autonomy was finally agreed by all parties including the SVP (Wolff:12) .

1972- Present

For contextual purposes it is noteworthy that Italy is home to some fourteen linguistic speech communities and over the years these minorities from Aosta, to Sardinia and Sicily have sought and been granted linguistic and legislative rights and ‘provincial autonomy’ (Wolff; 2009). Thus these measures, effectively a constitution, guaranteed the rights of the three groups in all areas of politics, language, healthcare, education etc. German and Ladin were finally recognised as Local Official Languages. This meant bilingual place names and the symbolic reinstatement of the name Südtirol under a Landeshauptmann (an ethnic German speaking Regional President) and Regional Parliament. The numerically small Ladin population, benefitted similarly. Additionally it included a bilateral agreement between Austria and Italy that disputes be adjudicated at the UN International Court of Justice in the Hague and not in the Italian supreme court. The statute also indicated a significant change in the Italian State to its German and Ladin its linguistic minorities – indeed at the last moment, an additional phrase was added that the protection of linguistic minorities was in the national interest (Alcock 2001:11). Monolingual schooling was placed under the direct primary legislative control of the region as were hygiene and healthcare. This meant, for example, that Austrian qualifications for doctors, teachers, nurses etc. were recognised once more.– however while ethnic proportionality now operates in all areas, (except to this day the police  – considered a State competence), a thirty year timespan was introduced to prevent the dismissal of Italian public employees on linguistic grounds, as the Fascists had dismissed the German speakers during the Fascist years.
South Tyrol, now known officially (in German) as the Autonomen Provinz Bozen-Südtirol,has become an exemplar of sophisticated conflict resolution, some of which was novel  as recently as 1970 (Wolff 2009). Measures include territorial self-governance, tax raising powers with 9/10ths retention and the German speaking community exercising executive and administrative power ‘independently of the (Italian) State but subject to the legal order of the State’, through complex rotational ‘consociational’ power sharing. Each language is used in the Provincial parliament, but the Italian text ‘version’ is deemed authentic in the event of disputes. All candidates for employment or promotion in public sector jobs must now take a bilingual-proficiency exam.
Since 1972, additional measures have reinforced the fortunes of the South Tyroleans. The EU Schengen area (1998) has enabled free movement within Europe. Co-operation on Tourism and Environment is achieved through the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Alp (Alpine Consortium) incorporating South Tyrol into the Deutsches Sprachgebeit (German language area) with South Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Contextual Observations

It is a recognised that the Italian host nation has overtly and variously endeavoured to destroy the German community culturally, linguistically and ethnically through forced assimilation, domination, repression and expulsion.(Alcock 2001). Seen from the other side, Sue Wright  (2004:42) states that during the ‘nationalist’ era, (by which is meant pre World War 2) political leaders ‘believed it was essential to encourage a single community of communication’. This ‘language of exchange’ is inevitably the language of the dominant group and of the capital. Furthermore Wright (2004:43) then identifies what occurs when peripheral groups are excluded. Quoting Joseph (1987) she states exclusion produces a centrifugal force that encourages separate and dissenting development.
The South Tyrol, unlike other European pluralistic regions (eg Catalonia) has not taken the ultimate next step of demanding independence nor do they now want re-unification with Austria. For the most part people are content to remain within Italy as part of the wider EU. Thus it can be argued that South Tyrol now breaks the orthodox mould of heterogeneity creating conflict. Alcock (2001:22) offers some clues as to why this might be. Primarily, he states, it was the (mostly) peaceful but energetic pursuit of reasonable demands, by the SVP who represented and still represent almost the entire ethnic South Tyrolean population. In addition, the internationalisation of the South Tyrol question followed the establishment of the Common Market (EEC) in 1957. This created a new supra-national environment in which the Italian government guaranteed the rights of its linguistic minorities, pre-dating the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages 1992  . The Common Agricultural Policy has additionally enabled this hitherto impoverished alpine corner of Europe to prosper, as the statistics  show.
Understanding the issue of functioning heterogeneity is greatly assisted by the literature on pluralist speech communities. Where it may fail is in the presumption that cultural, ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity must de facto lead to under-performance. While this may be accepted as evident in certain colonial legacy countries with imposed and ethnically inappropriate borders, in South Tyrol this is not the case.
However, a parallel can be found in Kachru (1986 in Phillipson’s 1992:81) identification of the four basic areas (linguistic, literary, attitudinal and pedagogical) in which the power (of English) manifests itself in outer circle countries. This linguicism (‘overt, conscious and action orientated’) was the situation in South Tyrol, cruelly imposed, under Italian fascist imperialism prior to WW2. The influx and forced immigration of Italian speaking workers, combined with outlawing of the German language, teaching, and literature, meant that without ‘competence and proficiency’ in Italian, the South Tyroleans became functionally, culturally and intellectually redundant, unless they renounced their Austrian-ness entirely. Forcibly cut off from what Phillipson terms a linguistic ‘fountainhead’ (1992:228) linguicide  followed. Such linguicidal policies, mostly accompanying invasion, have been pursued from classical times onwards. For example France as the international language of European ruling groups, (ibid:104) harnessed ‘linguicidal policies at home and abroad’. And for much the same reasons as Mussolini’s Fascists; namely the belief that non-romance languages, like German and English, were inferior, and lacked the elegance, clarity and natural syntactic order of languages rooted in Latin. Here too a further parallel can be drawn (with indigenous peoples further afield), whereby the Fascists, armed with ‘extrinsic material resources’ (Phillipson 1992:276) acted to destroy the South Tyrolean culture by ‘breaking  the nexus of (the) indigenous people with their land’  something which Fishman (1972) termed ‘nationalism stressing uniformation rather than unification’ (in The Language Ethnicity and Race Reader ch 9:117 Ed. Harris & Rampton)

Going Forward

“In ethnically, linguistically and/or religiously heterogeneous societies in which corresponding group identities have formed and become salient, the degree of self-governance enjoyed by the different segments of society is often seen as more or less directly proportional to the level of acceptance of an overall institutional framework within which these different segments come together” (Wolff: 2009:16)

To conclude this tortuous journey from orphaned province to a stable and mutually beneficial heterogeneity, it is my opinion that the last hundred years has seen racist discrimination by Italians towards the ethnic Austrian population. They have suffered linguistic imperialism, linguicism and linguicide throughout much of the 20th century. Why little is written now (or interest taken) outside the German/Italian speech communities may stem, in part from the stigmatisation of both parties (German and Italian), with German speakers as the responsible aggressors in two world wars. Furthermore the Italians in the valley, with notable amnesia, depict the German speaking separatists, who mainly live in mountain communities, as Nazis, to this day. However, the intense social re-engineering since the 2nd Autonomy (revised 2001), allied with a shift in the financial fortunes from subsistence farming to mass tourism has resulted in a functioning resolution to the South Tyrolean Question.
Recently, the question of heterogeneous apartheid in education as enshrined in Article 19 (see box) has become an issue. Most students attend schools with instruction in their native language, even if they are not obliged to do so. This does not promote integration. Families, retaining their unique heritage, continue to self-segregate. (Steinbrech 2004) ‘ (the) German-speaking population treats Italian basically as a school subject and makes little use of the access to Italian media’ (Baur S in Differenzierung, Integration, Inklusion 2011.) However the demographic of the region is changing once more, with the large-scale influx of Europeans and other immigrants, servicing both the light industrial sector in the valley bottoms and the massive seasonal employment needed for the summer and winter tourist trades. Monolingual schooling is of limited advantage to these people’s children, nor is English necessarily part of their repertoire. Therefore they adopt vernacular forms through natural transmission, termed ‘emergency lingua-francas’ (Blommaert 2010:1.3 onwards) either based on Italian or German depending on their work place. Seeing this as detrimental to their long-term needs, the Italian national and regional (Provincial) governments have attempted to remedy this on the basis that second and third language acquisition and competence (required in the public sector) is a transactional benefit, lowering the barriers to interaction in commerce too . A view endorsed within the German speaking academic community (trans: the declared goal of multilingualism among school-children is not just be thought of in local terms but terms of international development’ . This progressive view is not shared throughout the South Tyrolean community. As a reaction there is evidence of a new and heightened linguistic, ethnic separatism with the formation of the SSB Südtiroler Schützenbund (Riflemen of South Tyrol) promoting a right-wing pro Austrian nationalist message of Faith, Hearth and Fatherland. They are resisting what they see as the ‘backdoor’ destruction of Article 19. . These sentiments are countered, at times aggressively, by the Italian neo-fascist student movement ‘Blocco Studentesco’ (see photo Bolzano 5/3/2011) who do not concord with the more open-minded “I tedeschi che conosco io sono gente a posto” (the Germans I know are nice people)  liberality said to be found in Bolzano presently.
These hard-line positions are at odds with practical realities. Tourists will often be greeted with competent fluency in English. Social media too is no respecter of enshrined status planning, (see EuroRegion on Facebook). However the 2nd Autonomy package (2001) allows for such eventualities and disputes. A minority veto is a last line of defence (for all three language communities)  If the principle of equal rights for all language groups is perceived as being threatened by a particular language group, the provincial assembly can demand a separate vote for each language group or challenge a law in the constitutional court’. (‘This is South Tyrol’ August 2012). Nonetheless there are still those like ‘Die Freiheitlichen’ (the Freedom minority, official opposition to the ruling SVP, representing both ethnic German and Ladin speakers, viewed as Nazis by some Italians), who despite all the safeguards and proportionality achieved in recent times, are still protesting the injustice of what occurred nearly one hundred years ago to a border which now only persists in their minds.

‘Demo.  93 YEARS. THE UNJUST BORDER- Sunday 13.11.2011 at 11am Brenner Pass – Together, we demand the abolition of the Brenner border  [ inset Tyrolean Patriots are not Nazi-idiots].
Alcock A (2001) THE SOUTH TYROL AUTONOMY A Short Introduction University of Ulster
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De Gasperi Gruber Agreement 1946. Full text.
1. German-speaking inhabitants of the Bolzano Province and of the neighbouring bilingual townships of the Trento Province will be assured a complete equality of rights with the Italian-speaking inhabitants within the framework of special provisions to safeguard the ethnical character and the cultural and economic development of the German-speaking element. In accordance with legislation already enacted or awaiting enactment the said German-speaking citizens will be granted in particular:
(a) elementary and secondary teaching in the mother-tongue;
(b) parification of the German and Italian languages in public offices and official documents, as well as in bilingual topographical naming;
(c) the right to re-establish German family names which were Italianised in recent years;
(d) equality of rights as regards the entering upon public offices with a view to reaching a more appropriate proportion of employment between the two ethnical groups.
2. The populations of the above-mentioned zones will be granted the exercise of autonomous legislative and executive regional power. The frame within which the said provisions of autonomy will apply, will be drafted in consultation also with local representative German-speaking elements. 3. The Italian Government, with the aim of establishing good neighbourhood relations between Austria and Italy, pledges itself, in consultation with the Austrian Government, and within one year from the signing of the present Treaty:
(a) to revise in a spirit of equity and broadmindedness the question of the options for citizenship resulting from the 1939 Hitler-Mussolini agreements;
(b) to find an agreement for the mutual recognition of the validity of certain degrees and university diplomas; (c) to draw up a convention for the free passengers and goods transit between Northern and Eastern Tyrol both by rail, and to the greatest possible extent by road;
(d) to reach special agreements aimed at facilitating enlarged frontier traffic and local exchanges of certain quantities of characteristic products and goods between Austria and Italy.

#The Agreement was annexed the 1947 Italian Peace Treaty.

About JS

John Stonborough FCIPR specialises in media relations, providing an authoritative and discreet advocacy to corporate and private clients world-wide. He specialises in handling the hostile media and media regulation. He is known for observing "An interview is no time for an original thought." He is the great-nephew of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. His working career began as a London policeman and then as a reporter for the Daily Mail, BBC Radio 4, Thames Television and Channel 4 TV. From 2001 to 2004 he was The Media Advisor to the House of Commons Commission. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. He is married and lives in London, England.
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