One hundred years ago on November 11, 1918, the ethnicity and homeland of the Tyrolean people changed. For on that day the Armistice of World War I was signed, breaking apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Shortly afterwards, on September 10, 1919, the Treaty of Saint Germain was signed, formerly annexing German-speaking South Tyrol and Italian-speaking Trentino to Italy. For centuries this entire area was inclusively known as “Tyrol”. With signing of the 1919 treaty, the region of Tyrol located south of the Alps was transferred from Austria and now became the northern Italian provinces of Trentino-Alto Adige.
According to Lou Brunelli, publisher of “Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans”, Tyrol had a long cultural history stretching back 915 years under Austrian sovereignty:
- 800 years under the Bishopric of Trento
- 115 years under the Austrian Empire
In comparison, Italy was a young country, having only become a unified Kingdom (a monarchy) in 1861. By 1922 it fell into a Fascist dictatorship under Mussolini. After World War II, Italy became a democratic republic on June 2, 1946.
For most of the past millennia our ancestral lands were influenced and controlled by Austria. Although our ancestors spoke Italian and regional dialect, their nationality and passports prior to 1919 stated that they were citizens of Austria, as they had been for centuries. Now with the stroke of a pen (and much political maneuvering by Italy), the region became Italian. (The events that lead up to Tyrol becoming part of Italy and the subsequent suppression of Tyrolean culture is a complicated and involved story. If you would like to read more about the history of this region, I have provided informational links at the end of this blog post.)
Since most Tyroleans emigrated to the United States prior to the 1918/1919 annexation, they came to America as Austrian citizens, and were never really considered Italians. However our relatives who remained in Trentino, now officially became Italian citizens. Mr. Brunelli told me that 97% of USA-bound immigrants arrived before the annexation and were not subjected to the subsequent Nationalism fueled by Fascism that occurred particularly in the Province of Alto Adige/Sud Tirol.
The confusion of ethnicity for Tyrolean immigrants is reflected in the United States Federal Census. My immediate family is identified in three different censuses as: Austrian, Swiss and Italian! I have seen other Tyroleans listed in census as Bavarians and Czechoslovakians. But when you research our shared genealogy, you realize that all of these families are from the same region of the Val di Non, often from the same village! For those unaware of historical events, the 1900, 1910 and 1920 US Censuses can seem bewildering when it refers to ethnicity. Are we Austrian, German or Italian? Is Tyrolean an ethnicity if it doesn’t exist as a country?
In the latest issue of Filò (Volume 19), publisher Lou Brunnelli (a 1st generation Tyrolean American) offers an insightful answer to the cultural and ethnic questions that plague American descendants of Tyrolean ancestors. He has given me permission to reprint this issue’s Introduction here:
Dear Tyrolean American …
Father Bolognani, the historian, sociologist, and apostle of our Tyrolean American community asserted the following … “A strange situation hindered the immigrants from the Trentino, making life more difficult for them then for other ethnic groups that arrived as the same time. Though they spoke no German and were Italian by language, they belonged to the Austrian empire and held Austrian passports. Considering themselves Austrian, or Tyrolean, they did not settle in cities as did most Italians. A search for their identity was difficult.” In other words, our people sought their definition, their differentiation from other groups. As their homeland, the ancient Tyrol was annexed by President Wilson and the Allies without a plebiscite [direct vote by eligible voters to decide an important public question] to Italy, they literally became ethnic orphans as Italy adopted a process of Italianization, becoming Fascist and then our [America’s] political adversary as they declared war on us in their affiliation with the Axis Powers. Defeated in the war and recovered with our American help, Italy became culturally adverse by no longer differentiating our history [Tyrolean] and our identity and imposing on us an identity that they had evolved while forgetting ours. What happened after the annexation, happened there and not here [America] … to them and not to us.
The Filò does not engage in a political polemic but legitimately and justifiably seeks to differentiate, to enhance the literacy and legitimacy of our historic existence and experience. Article by article it asserts with pride and joy: that who we are is who we were! ~ Lou Brunnelli
I find it fascinating that our immigrant ancestors brought to America a culture that they kept alive in small communities, but that 100 years later many might say no longer exists in their ancestral homeland. Even today there is a conflict brewing between Austria and Italy concerning the proposed dual-citizenship for German-speaking South Tyroleans (see articles noted below).
Many of us were told as children that we were Tyrolean, not Italian. This concept might seem confusing to our cousins in Italy. But our grandparents and great-grandparents arrived in America as Austrians, became United States citizens and never accepted the label of “Italian”. From the scribbling and crossing out of country origins I have viewed in the US Census, our ancestors were just as confused about their ethnicity after the annexation as we are today attempting to describe our own background as Tyrolean Americans.
In conclusion, I take no sides and make no opinions concerning the ethnicity of Trentino-Alto Adige. I present this information only as a means to bring understanding to our shared Tyrolean American experience, place our ancestry in context to the 1918 Armistice and grasp how the events of the past century have changed Tyrol and its people.
My thanks to Lou Brunelli for sharing his knowledge and insights of Tyrolean culture. I highly recommend subscribing to Lou’s publication Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans. It is a quarterly magazine provided free of charge to the descendants of Tyrolean immigrants.
Click here to register for a subscription to Filò
For more information see:
Filò: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans (where you can scroll through current and past issues of Filò)
World War I Armistice Signed: November 11, 1918 – 100th Anniversary
Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1919)
South Tyrol: A Minority Conflict of the Twentieth Century (Studies in Austrian and Central European History and Culture)
Italy and Austria at odds over South Tyrol dual-citizenship
What an informative story Louise. I found it extremely interesting and even more interesting that is still going on over there today. I’m so happy our ancestors got out in time I didn’t have to experience that mess. I look forward to hearing more.
Thank you Margaret. I really enjoy researching our historical background. Glad you found it interesting.
I’m Chris Martin(i). My ancestors, Andreas Martini (a Scarparo) and Virginia Martini (different clan) from Revo emigrated at the first wave in 1882 or so, though they first landed in Argentina for a few years 2 of his brothers and a one of Virginia’s stayed, I believe) . Word has it that they kept a portrait of Franz Joseph on their wall, when they came over. My Great Uncle was even named Franz Ferdinand Martini in 1912 no less, even before the assasination and decline of our homeland into WW1.
Our name was first changed to Martine, then to Martin. I do not know precisely but it is assuredly largely due to my ancestors’ disdain with Italy’s Fascism and the eradication of our Nonese dialects and traditions in early 1920’s. They were fiercely “not Italians,” but Austrians of German descent. This is however despite the overwhelming and obvious Italian influence in the region evidenced by the Italian language spoken along with the Nonese dialect, which was clearly Latin based and closer to Italian than German. But one can understand the resentment with a bit of historical perspective.
I was fortunate enough to visit Revo following a business trip to Austria last April. BTW: if you hail from the area PLEASE GO VISIT, for your sake. It is infathomably beautiful. Interestingly, despite my complete ignorance of Italian language, I quickly was able to locate and connect with my double-2nd cousins 1X removed: Alfredo and Luciano Martini. But as you say, Lisa: it took them some time to understand why we consider ourselves Austrian… NOT Italian. They have been so for so long that they took mild offense. But all is well, and I look forward to returning, though I will need to brush up on my Italian- NOT German.
Thank you for sharing Chris! I am familiar with the Martini family of Revo. One of my great grandmothers was a Fellin from Revo and her mother was a Martini – there is a high probability that we are distant cousins. And yes, I have visited the Val di Non three times since 2011. My paternal side is from Castelfondo, Revo and Cavareno. I know many of my Italian cousins who now live in Bolzano and Trento area. And I just returned from a visit to Italy a few weeks ago. If you subscribe to this blog, watch for future posts about my 2018 trip. Thanks again for visiting the Genetti Family website!
Very nice, Louise! You are so right about the confusion caused on both sides of the ocean by our ‘Tyrolean’ identities as children (and grandchildren) of immigrant Trentini. I feel like I have to explain this to people every day! Cultural Identity is an extremely personal thing, and it has nothing to do with boundaries or even ethnicity. It is an inner thing!
Thanks Lynn. I totally agree with you about the inner thing.
Your name is a homage. I named my girl Serafina, partially after my great aunt Serafina Martini. I could not believe how many Serafinas and Serafinos I saw at the cemeteries in Revo and Romallo!
This is wonderful, Louise. I haven’t visited the site lately, but should more often. I am amazed at the history you have collected. Thank you so very much for making us feel part of this vast family.
Thanks Carol. After taking a break for a number of months, I’m trying to add more content. Glad you enjoyed the post!
I am writing for my wife who is of Tyrolean descent. Conzatti, Moser, Dalapicolla, from Trentino. We have been there and still have some contact with relatives in Del Pine. Would you possibly be attending RootsTech 2019 in Salt Lake City, Feb 26-Mar 2. We would love to meet you. My DNA test says that I am 25% Italian, but there is no Genealogy supporting that. I suppose it would be a long way back because my Grandmother was born in Bavaria.
Hi Wally, thanks for writing to us and for reading our Genetti family blog. I’m not familiar with the surnames you mentioned. Most likely your wife’s family is from a different valley in Trentino than our family (we are from the Val di Non). No I’m sorry, I won’t be attending RootsTech. I’m sure you’ll have a great time and learn many new things while there.
Hi Louise, Well this explains my DNA results with very little “Italian” and the surprise German/Austrian. When my Tyrolean grandma from Caselfondo came to the US, she married an Italian from Brescia, Lombardia Region of Italia. However my DNA says “Sardinia” so, I will be now researching that history as well.
This post helps me more than anything I’ve read on the Tyrolean History.
Lol – many Tyrolean Americans have no idea that they are actually Austrian. I am 50% Tyrolean and have almost no Italian ethnicity in my DNA. For the most part, our ancient ancestors were either Lombard or from another Germanic tribe that moved into the region sometime around 800 AD. Most of us are not related to the original native people (the Rhaetians or Etruscans) that lived in the northern part of the peninsula prior to the Romans conquering the region. However, you may have a hint of ancient DNA with your Sardinia ethnicity. This was an isolated island population and the DNA markers for these people indicate a more ancient culture, plus their DNA was not mixed with outside tribes unlike ours. My uncle, who is 100% Tyrolean, also has a small amount of Sardinia DNA. Otzi, the famous Iceman, is also most closely related to the DNA found in Sardinia.