Let’s take a look at a place where terrible decisions made after World War I resulted in a map that left an ethnic group divided by an international border instead of united under a single flag—and no, I’m not thinking of the Middle East where the Kurds were spread over four countries without a nation of their own. The place I have in mind is South Tyrol, a German-speaking Alpine district, once part of the Austrian Empire, but in 1918-9 handed over to Italy (some would say stolen) where it remains today.
In Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points for world peace, number 9 was about adjusting the borders of Italy along lines of nationality. Well, they blew it big time. Even though 90% of South Tyroleans were Germans, they now had to pledge allegiance to Italy. Their language was no longer taught in schools, their names were changed (from Josef to Giuseppe, for example). They were the American Indians of the Alps, given the raw end of the stick in many ways as their culture was gradually suppressed. World War II changed some of that briefly, but the Allies let Italy have the province again in 1945 so it was back to being second-class citizens with attempts to de-Germanify the entire population, a feat France accomplished so successfully in Alsace-Lorraine.
A terrorist group of Germans rose up in the 60s, protesting their treatment, and the Italians, to their credit saw the error of their ways. They worked with the Austrians and locals to resolve the tension. What was the answer? Greater autonomy. Now German is spoken almost everywhere again, it’s the most prosperous area in Italy, and people get along just fine for the most part.
Is everything good in South Tyrol? There are still reports of dissatisfaction with some still wishing for independence or to rejoin Austria. Then at the end of December, the leader of the Freedom Party in Austria, now a partner in the government, stirred things up by pledging to allow the German South Tyroleans dual citizenship. That got some Italians living there pretty mad, but by and large things are peaceful there on top of the Alps, as far as anyone can tell from this distance.
The moral of the story is that you’re never going to satisfy everyone when it comes to questions of freedom and sovereignty. Get used to that idea—there will always be those who are unhappy. But perhaps the best answer to solving the tension is more autonomy and less concern about sovereignty; more focus on getting along and building bridges and avoiding divisive gestures. Maybe more autonomy might be all that Catalonia and the Kurds and the Karens, the Southern Cameroonians and the many other ethnic groups who feel slighted would need to stop protesting, or stop killing each other and to channel their energies into more productive avenues than chasing the elusive bubble of sovereignty.