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Finis for One Ethnic Spat

1992'S TROUBLING LEGACY. This year, Austria and Italy ended a 30-year-old wrangle

By Richard C. HotteletRichard C. Hottelet is moderator of `America and the World' on National Public Radio. / December 31, 1992



THIS year, violence has shaken Europe, Asia and Africa, reaching new dimensions of depravity. In Somalia, tribal gangsters have deliberately starved hundreds of thousands. In the former Yugoslavia, Serbian thugs have pried open tombs in at least one Croatian cemetery and machine-gunned the remains.

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But 1992 has also given the world a small wonder: Italy and Austria amicably ended more than a quarter century of bitter ethnic struggle over South Tyrol.

In the 1930s, driving south across the Alps through the Brenner Pass into Benito Mussolini's Italy, you saw the conflict in slogans painted on rock walls along the way: "Nostri frontieri, non si discutono, si difendono." ("Our frontiers, we do not discuss them, we defend them.") Italy had an Austrian province, 95 percent ethnically German, and feared the rising, perfervid nationalism of Hitler's regime.

When Mussolini's fascism seized power, he worked hard to "Italianize" South Tyrol. Large numbers of Italians, farm and industrial laborers, and government officials were settled there.

Nearly all the place names were changed. German families were obliged to Italianize their surnames. German-speaking schools were abolished, and the language could not be used in legal transactions. A weak Austria protested, to no avail. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, he vowed never to forget Il Duce's forbearance toward the Austrian Anschluss. Hitler affirmed Italy's possession of South Tyrol.

After World War II, Austria again demanded the return of South Tyrol, but the Allied foreign ministers refused. Italy had turned against Mussolini and was now a democracy. Better to let things be.

Italy, however, foreseeing trouble and not too sure of its position, promised the ethnic Germans equal rights. As usual, the devil was in the details. The old, forcible Italianization was out, but more subtle means seemed to head in the old direction.

Austria complained. In 1956, South Tyrolean extremists weighed in with their own protest. Explosions and other violent attacks went on intermittently until 1981. Gun and grenade attacks were aimed at Italian soldiers, border guards, and other government personnel. Rome accused Vienna of abetting the violence and of failing to stop shipments of explosives into South Tyrol. Austria took the matter to the United Nations General Assembly, which threw up its hands and asked both countries to seek a solution.

In Italy, neofascists campaigned with some success in the north on a nationalist, anti-German platform. In the 1987 national election, a series of bombings and shooting attacks in South Tyrol were subsequently blamed on the neofascist Italian Social Movement.

It took political courage to steer a straight course over nearly 30 years. As late as October 1991, the Italian government had to make one last sensitive autonomy issue a parliamentary vote of confidence. But it also took skill. Austria soon dropped its effort at the UN to internationalize the problem and agreed to let Italy handle it as a domestic affair.

This foreclosed opposition arguments that Rome was compromising national sovereignty. Austria, carefully, did not appear as a party to the autonomy negotiations. These were conducted by Rome with the South Tyrol Peoples Party; but the Tyroleans knew that Austria stood by their side. As time went on, Italy and Austria found they could trust each other. Italians came to regard the issue as essentially a local problem and not a danger to national security.

The experience shows that, with enough time and good will, something can be done. But, alas, it is not a blueprint for what is likely to happen farther to the east.