How Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Failed Tyrol.
Imagine driving south, over the Austrian border into northern Italy. You start to run through your rudimentary Italian, and as you cross the Reschen Pass—still a German name—you encounter the first pizzeria on the side of the road and think, “Yeah, baby! We’re in Italy!”
Other than the little bit of Italian signage, not much has changed, yet. It still looks like Tyrol: mountains, fields, a bubbling creek, the alpine architecture. Right next to the pizzeria is a Speck and Äpfel stand. Because you’ve been in Austria for at least a day, you already know that these are the signs for that incredible smoked bacon and those delicious apples used in the last guesthouse’s Strudel.
At first, you might consider that some Tyroleans migrated over the border, maintained their “brand” and wrote their signs in German. Except, that’s not it. The first town you encounter, Reschen also has another name: Rescia. Graun—the sign indicates—is also called Curon Venosta. The valley itself is both called Obervinschgau and Val Venosta. And then, coming over a small hill, you gasp. Where once there was fertile farmland, now a beautiful 4-mile-long reservoir, nestled in the Alpine peaks, stretches to the southern horizon. You slow down because something else has caught your attention and everyone on the road is pulling off to the right. You follow them because you can’t believe what you’re looking at. About 200 yards from the eastern shore, and rising out of the water, is a medieval church tower, fully intact. And you ask, “What the hell happened?”
Step into the time machine, dear reader. Let’s go back to just before the outbreak of World War 1 and illustrate the situation: the Austro-Hungarian Empire had its reach into a good part of today’s northern Italy, all the way to the Po Valley and Trentino. A good majority of that land also belonged to the autonomous province of Tyrol, who had earned its hard-won freedom after the Napoleonic Wars. However, in Italy, a large group of disgruntled nationalists held to the belief that the lands to the Brenner Frontier (if you Google this, look just south of Innsbruck) were traditionally Italian. Of course they should have been—that line of mountains was a wonderful natural barrier against potential enemies to the north.
The thing is, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had little conflict with one another. And in the Tyrolean province, Italian migrants were generally welcomed with open arms. They worked there, lived there, filled in the jobs that needed filling, especially in agricultural labour. All in all, these two cultures worked pretty well together, as well as with the Slavs to the east among a handful of other “regulars”.
So, what happened? It’s called the Treaty of London. Signed in 1915, the Triple Entente promised huge swaths of land to these Italian nationalists if Italy took up arms against its neighbours and Germany. And there you go. Now imagine Giuseppe and his family work on your Tyrolean farm. He’s called to service. He has to cross the line to the south, pick up his weapon, turn around and face his employer in a war where not one single Italian unit ever crossed into Tyrol. Not one. The battles were all fought south of the line.
Enter the good ol’ U-S-of-A. And the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, specifically 9-11:
“IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.
“X. The people of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.
“XI. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan states to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality...”
All very well and good, right? Noble. Righteous. Principally sound, especially if you’re an American. All three of these were contentious matters.
Imagine you’re Wilson and the French, the Russians and the British pull you aside at tea and say, “Emmm, Sir? With all due respect, we’re going to have to ignore those points in the case of Tyrol, south of the Brenner Frontier” as well as the Balkans—like Trieste, for example—because there was…well…a secret treaty.
Wilson was not prepared to budge on this, so Italy’s prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, arrived with his delegation and debated how the Brenner Frontier was absolutely Italian. He rolled out some maps and pointed out that this was naturally true. The rivers, look! They flowed from the south to the north.
Very simply put, Wilson was in a pickle. Italy was granted the new frontier and the Tyroleans were faced with a cultural pogrom not unlike Stalin’s over Ukraine: the German language and culture were systematically eradicated between 1918 and into World War 2, with Hitler and Mussolini even creating a pact and demanding the Tyroleans choose either to be Italian or German citizens. Those who voted German, were relocated to new territories within the Third Reich. Those who chose Italian, were threatened with relocation to the colonies in Abyssinia. Either way, they were about to all be displaced. If World War 2 had not broken out, who knows how things would have turned out? But when Hitler marched onto Poland, the whole program came to a halt.
But what of this church tower? What happened at this lake on the Reschen Pass?
The Austro-Hungarian Empire had laws in place, which dictated that no man-made structure could be built if it affected over a certain percentage of the locals’ livelihoods. Those laws protected the Obervinschgau Valley from a proposal to raise the lakes of Reschen and Graun by five meters for the purposes of producing electricity. The plan was reneged. Dead in the water, so to speak, before it could find its legs because it would have affected too much of the fertile farmland in the valley.
But Italy suffered in World War I. They had barely managed to hang onto their britches and one of the first things that occurred was a very strong force that swore that would never happen again. Enter stage right: Benito Mussolini. Italy was in chaos, and after wresting control from the monarchy he laid out a plan to make Italy the strongest industrial nation in Europe. The race with America began.
In order to build machines and technology, you need power. You need electricity. And the new territory of the Alto Adige / Südtirol, or South Tyrol, had a treasure trove of areas for reservoirs and dams. But how do you get around those old laws?
Very simply. You write new ones.
The Reschensee / Lago di Rescia is just one of perhaps a thousand stories about the misdeeds enacted against the German-speaking Tyroleans but the way this particular reservoir was built reads like a thriller. Corruption, greed, and prejudice were the key cornerstones in making this beautiful reservoir possible. Beneath the surface, lie seven villages, wholly and completely destroyed and a history of families who were ripped from their homes.
Have you ever heard of this? I hadn’t. My history lessons in school taught me only how important Wilson’s Fourteen Points were to bringing stability to Europe after WW1. We were taught how noble, how righteous, how just they were. Yet, “Wilson himself would later admit that he conceded the territory based on ‘insufficient study’ and that he came to regret this ‘ignorant’ decision.” (Scott A. Berg, Wilson)
Discovering the plight of the Tyroleans to the south of the Brenner really got under my skin. The more I dug into the history, the more I could understand why there is—to this day—a film of discontent, of bitterness that lies just beneath the surface, still hot to the touch. Tyrol regained its autonomy in an agreement negotiated between Austria and Italy in 1946. Its last measures took effect in this century.
Isn’t it interesting how, when you dig beneath the surface, you uncover the reality and complexity involved in political relationships? Isn’t it interesting how, when you look beneath the surface, you can begin to calculate the differences between intentions and actions? For the purposes of diplomacy, they often lead to inactions.
The Reschen Valley:
Season 1 - 1920-1924 - Box Set
By Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger
She wants her home. He wants control. The Fascists want both.
1920. Former Austrian Tyrol.
When Katharina Thaler, a young Tyrolean farmer, finds a wounded Italian engineer in the mountains of the Reschen Valley, her decision to save his life thrusts both of them into a labyrinth of corruption, prejudice and greed.
Angelo Grimani, a civil engineer, knows the details of a project that may destroy Katharina’s valley. Not in favour of it himself, he returns home to fend off the forces that envision the biggest reservoir in Italy, headed by Angelo’s own father.
As the Tyroleans gear themselves to fight for their land, the Fascist party gathers power and momentum. Katharina and Angelo must each decide what to protect: love or country?
Dive in and discover the gripping saga based on a history you never knew. This box set contains the first three of six books: No Man’s Land: Part 1, The Breach: Part 2, The Smuggler of Reschen Pass: The Prequel and bonus material including, From Jutta’s Kitchen: 12 South Tyrolean Recipes to bring the Reschen Valley series closer to home.
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Only 2.99* on Kindle for a Limited Time.
The Reschen Valley:
Season 1 - 1920-1924 - Box Set
Only 2.99* on Kindle for a Limited Time.
Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is an American author living in Austria. Her focus is on historical fiction now. She has been a managing editor for a publishing house, has worked as an editor, and has won several awards for her travel narrative, flash fiction and short stories. She lives with her husband in a “Grizzly Adams” hut in the Alps, just as she’d always dreamed she would when she was a child.