The call to nationhood for the subject peoples of the Russian and Austrian empires enabled Napoleonic France to undermine its imperial opponents. Conversely, that same impulse was later turned against Napoleon in Spain, and the German and Italian states. In the case of the latter pair, nationalist sentiment helped to realise the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and the Second German Reich in 1871. Both newborn states fought against the Austrian Empire during their respective unifications, and it’s the legacy of that particular strain of nationalism that still, on occasion, leaves its mark on contemporary Europe.
Austria’s imperial dominance saw it lay claim to a territory which encompassed much of central and eastern Europe, and which at its peak played host to a number of ethnic groups including Croatians, Czechs, Hungarians, Italians, Poles, Romanians, Slovaks, Slovenians, Ukrainians and, of course, German-speaking Austrians. The Austrian ruling family, the Habsburgs, enjoyed more than five hundred years of continental influence and, until the final days of the First World War, it could be forgiven for thinking that its reign would continue yet.
Instead, Europe’s first civil war in a century saw the Habsburgs, like Germany’s Hohenzollerns and Russia’s Romanovs, deposed from power.
Dismantling the Habsburg’s multi-ethnic empire saw the arrival of two brand new countries, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, broadly constructed along ethnic and linguistic lines. A further portion of land was handed over to Italy, and it is in this country’s northern regions that the tensions of national identity still surface from time to time.
Outside of the ski season northern Italy tends to be exclusively frequented by hikers and climbers. As such, even in the peak of summer it’s not so difficult to find a quiet corner away from the hubbub of day trippers looking for a quick-fix Alpine experience. This is unsurprising. The stereotypical Italian holiday involves liberal helpings of Florentine art, Roman ruins and a dose or two of rolling Tuscan hillsides, replete with vineyards and sunflower fields. The mountainous north, therefore, tends to remain somewhat remote and untouched until the snows return and resorts like Cortina beat to the rhythm of the skier.
Peel away the tourist wrapping, however, and you’ll find a different sort of identity, forged in the white heat of Italy’s Risorgimento, which transformed a disparate collection of kingdoms, republics and duchies into a single unified state. This lengthy process was, in part, driven by a nationalist movement known as Irredentism, which sought to lay claim to those lands inhabited by Italian speakers.
Aimed primarily at the Habsburgs, Irredentism fueled Italy’s post-war annexing of Austria’s southern Tyrol – Südtirol – in 1919, along with additional territory in the north east which became the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia (FVG). It was here that the Italian state absorbed a sizable minority of ethnic Slovenians and Croatians, formerly subjects of the Habsburgs and now citizens of the new Italy.