Conference Paper

A “Friendly” Sharing of Land and People: The 1939 Agreement on South Tyrol Between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany

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In 1939, Hitler and Mussolini finally reached an agreement regarding a territory both coveted. The area in question was South Tyrol, an Alpine region inhabited predominantly by German speakers, which until WWI had belonged to the Habsburg Monarchy and was afterwards annexed by Italy. In spite of its volksdeutsch community, South Tyrol was one of the very few territories bordering to the German Reich where Hitler, because of his affinity to Mussolini, did not make irredentist claims of his own. Instead, the two dictators entered the “Option” agreement: a plebiscite where the native population was required to either “opt” for Germany, resettle in the Reich, and thereby preserve their “Germanness” or stay in Italy and become “Italian”. Based on the South Tyrolean case, this paper examines the relationship between the Axis partners. For one, the paper explores the ideological correspondence of Fascism and Nazism at a geographical juncture where the two powers actually clashed, and had to compromise. What do this agreement and its execution say about Fascist and National Socialist concepts and practices with regard to national belonging, territorial claims, and population management? What was particularly “fascist” about the way in which the Axis partners identified a problem and sought to solve it? Secondly, ideological affinities did not necessarily result in open collaboration. Where and why did the execution of the Option instead lead to competition and conflict between the Axis partners? Thirdly, the South Tyrolean case lends itself well to revisit the image of Italy as Germany’s “minor partner” and the “lesser evil”. To what extent was Hitler dictating his vision upon a “weak ally,” or was he accommodating Mussolini for the sake of the Axis? As the paper will illustrate, fascist Italy was neither a feeble follower nor helplessly susceptible to German power.

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