Austria’s Graf gets grief over “united Tyrol”

July 29, 2009

Breaking into the summer holiday lull, Austrian politics has gotten into a lather over a far-right populist’s call for a referendum on whether a mainly German-speaking region of northern Italy should rejoin Austria.

No matter how far-fetched, his proposal raised a hue and cry by challenging the taboo of old unreconstructed nationalism in a country restlessly determined to live down its Nazi past.

South Tyrol – Alto Adige in Italian – is an autonomous, Alpine province of Italy bordering Austria. It was annexed by Italy from defeated Austria-Hungary at the end of World War One.

Italy granted increasing self-government to South Tyrol in the decades after World War Two, defusing separatist unrest by Austro-German speakers. It is now among Italy’s richest regions, with an open border to Austria thanks to EU integration.

But Martin Graf, a rightist deputy speaker of Austria’s parliament, declared on Sunday that South Tyrol was actually “part of overall Tyrol”, and only “currently” within Italy.

The universal right of self-determination should apply for all “the German people” in Europe - just as those in old Communist East Germany got their wish to merge into one Germany at the end of the Cold War in 1990. “It’s time to ask the people if there should be one Tyrol,” Graf said.

Graf owes his parliamentary post due to the fact that his far-right Freedom Party replaced the Greens as Austria’s No. 3 party in last year’s parliamentary election.

Some Freedom members have called into question an Austrian law that prohibits neo-Nazi activities. Graf has links to a rightist fraternity, Olympia, that nurses old German nationalist causes and has acted as a platform for Holocaust deniers.

So his South Tyrol remarks were unsettling and drew swift fire from mainstream conservative and centre-left politicians protective of Austria’s delicate democratic reputation.

Some pointed out what they deemed the absurdity and danger of redrawing borders or re-championing national differences in a 21st century European Union that has largely done away with frontier barriers in a spirit of common peace and prosperity.

“(Graf) should avoid such ill-considered and unrealistic statements,” said Guenther Platter, conservative People’s Party governor of Austria’s (North) Tyrol province. “Borders have long since fallen and we live today in the heart of a common Europe. Cooperation between (the two Tyrols) is better than ever.”

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said Graf’s “radical, unrealistic” comments were at odds with good neighbourly relations with Italy and invited misunderstanding.

Social Democratic party general secretary Laura Rudas accused Graf of “political pyromania”.

A defiant Graf retorted: “None of my attackers are in the position to explain why there should be a self-determination right for Tibetans and Kurds, but it is still being withheld from South Tyroleans after 90 years.”

The solid front of criticism was briefly punctured by a statement of support for Graf from the South Tyrol Freedom faction in the provincial assembly in Bolzano (Bozen in German).

Unconvinced, Austrian media sought out the ethnically German governor of South Tyrol, Luis Durnwalder. He said he was convinced that if a vote were held tomorrow, most South Tyroleans would choose to stay as they are now within Italy.

 ”If parties had six months to campaign on this, you might see a small majority for ‘Anschluss’ with Austria,” he told Austrian state television, using the discredited word for Austria’s enthusiastic accession to Nazi Germany in 1938.

“But it wouldn’t be realistic. Italy would never consent. Violence or terror naturally would be no option. And, given existing treaties, we would never get a majority (for rejoining Austria) in the United Nations.”

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said he would try again to have parliament dismiss the rightist from the speaker job over what he called behaviour damaging to Austrian interests.

But Finance Minister Josef Proell said that while Graf’s remarks were “totally unacceptable and scurrilous”, his conservatives would not contribute votes crucial for a two-thirds majority needed to topple Graf.

He said it would be wrong to turn Graf into “a martyr via parliamentary manoeuvre” and he should resign himself.

Graf ruled that out, saying he could not be punished for exercising his right to free speech.

(Photo: Martin Graf drinks beer during a Fraternity Group meeting in Innsbruck June 20, 2009.  REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler)

9 comments

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I’m not so sure the relatively recent Nazi experience in Austria has much to do with the Tyrol question. To me it’s more about a desire to recreate the Hadsburg Empire, following its WW1 defeat. Already there is a descendant of the former King of Bulgaria back on his “throne” in the guise of “prime minister” and other worrying signs that the European monarch is getting back on its feet having almost annihilated itself in WW1 (the last war of the monarchs in Europe) (at great expense to their “subjects”).To me monarchy has no place in a democratic society and I believe the far-right represent the monarchy and the rule of the few over the many, with the children of the few being the only people in line for future power. Sadly America might not be a true democracy anymore either.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

While the deputy speaker of the Austrian parliament may be goofy, the idea isn’t. Not exactly.There is the German example, Hungarians narrowly rejected a similar proposal involving ethnic Hungarians anywhere, there are strong separatist movements in Europe aiming at redrawing national borders along ethnic, as opposed to historic or political lines, current political trends in Belgium point in the same direction.They all shake the foundations of established hierarchies, national sensitivities and econo-political realities, and at least in some cases they might, partly, draw from the desire to relive old imperial greatness. But to dismiss it as nuts or irrelevant?True, Europe’s borders are open so what does it matter? Strangely, I think it matters more BECAUSE of it. It is the degree of integration and co-operation in the EU that makes these ideas feasible in the first place. While 20 years ago they may have justifiably be labeled disruptive and unrealistic, that is no longer the case. I think we should expect more and more of it and Europeans, and eventually the world, will have to deal with it.I mean actually deal with it.

Posted by Laz | Report as abusive

I have a concern with those who support the re-drawing of borders along ethnic lines. While the concept has some naive logic to it it also leads one to conclude that to maintine such a border’s integrity it would then be necessary to keep the ethnic composition of the region “pure” or at least resist change in the peoples that populate the region. That would then suggest imposing rules governing racial and social interactions. It’s an ugly slope back to the mud pile that was once white South Africa amd more recently ex-Yugoslavia. It boggles my mind that in a time when freedom of movement of goods, services and people has been shown to produce wealth for the societies who subscribe that there are those, like Graf, who still resort to 1930′s style nationalism in the vain hope of resurrecting some fantasized historical era. Remember, Graf has never lived in a united Tyrol, as he would call it, so he can only dream that it is somehow better than what he has today. What he has today is of his own making unlike the South Tyrol which he finds so inviting.

Posted by Milano | Report as abusive

Here we go again WWI all over again and I suppose WWII, Korea, and Vietnam won’t be far behind!!! Wars just set the stage for the next war and are a false profit and peace is like a rainbow!!!

Posted by Wildthing | Report as abusive

What is so “nationalistic” about folks with a common cultural heritage wanting to be together, but under moderate principles of democractic governance? Golly gee! Besides, the concept of the EU which we promoted in the 1950s is destroying the sense of traditional societal culture and heritage of any given people in Europe or elsewhere. Free trade, open borders and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) worked quite well. Our own sense of traditional regional identity is ‘going down the drain’. One size does not fit all, except in the minds of elite leadership. Go figure.

Posted by Iowalad | Report as abusive

Too bad. Austria started and lost the war and Italy benefitted. Should France also give back Stassbourg to the Germans – who also started and lost the war? If they don’t like living in Italy then they can freely move to Austria!

Posted by JADR | Report as abusive

@ Peter H:”Already there is a descendant of the former King of Bulgaria back on his “throne” in the guise of “prime minister” “You should check your facts – the descendant of the former king of Bulgaria WAS prime minister, but not anymore. As a matter of fact his political party was’nt able to get 4% of the votes in the recent elections and is no more part of the bulgarian parlament.

Posted by De | Report as abusive

Thanks for the update De, I do try to keep up with current events but it’s not always possible. I stand corrected.

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

And as you do, you go back and check your facts! The current Prime Minister in Bulgaria is Boyko Metodiev Borisov, a former body guard for Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and in 2005 a candidate for the National Movement Simeon II party although his new party is called Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria. I’m sure it’s all kosher and doesn’t indicate the European Monarchs are trying to regain their former glory!

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive