Catholics Obedient But Unresigned
By Our Special Correspondent
Among the interesting visitors to London last week was the leader of the South Tyrolese, Dr. Edward Reut-Nicolussi, who for many years has identified himself with the struggle for justice of the Tyrolese minority in Italy. The doctor has been in London to fulfil a lecture engagement and was interviewed by our Special Correspondent, who knew him many years in mountains of the Tyrol.
Tall and handsome, still young despite all his tragic experiences and bearing the characteristic hallmarks of the mountaineer, Dr. Rcut Nicolussi is an exile now, far from his beloved South Tyrol. The Austria Which he has served so well welcomed him after his flight from Fascist Italy and he is now a professor at Innsbruck University, still among his own Tyrolese 'folk and almost within sight of that South Tyrolese border that he dare cross no more.
" It can have been no easy matter to escape from Italy as you did in 1927, with every Fascist hot on your heels," I said. " and I Can't imagine that you were able to use ail), of the ordinary frontier points to make good your escape into Austria."
Keeping Clear of Fascists " Indeed it was not an easy matter." He chuckled somewhat grimly. " You see, I had represented the South Tyrol in the Italian Parliament for years and so was very well known throughout the province.
" Moreover, I had an identity card issued to me by the Fascist authorities that expressly placed me in the category of datigerous or suspect persons. So it was absolutely vital to avoid Fascists or Carabinieri at all costs.
"Of course, I was lucky in so far as I was able to leave Bozen before the main hue and cry had started and wend my way slowly by little known tracks through the mountains.
" The last part of the journey before the frontier had been most unpleasant," said Dr, Reut Nicolussi, " and involved some dangerous going through the glaciers. It was there on the glaciers that I had to say goodbye to the South Tyrol. But I have never given up hope of seeing it again one day. Who knows?"
Austrian Metamorphosis " You must have seen many changes in the South Tyrol since the days of old Austria," I said.
"Yes, there is not much of old Austria left there now," he answered. " The German language is considered almost a crime nowadays. All notices and signs must be in Italian. Traditional German names have been ruthlessly altered, even family names. The very gravestones have had their inscriptions erased.
"Public officials and employees with German sympathies have been removed from the province and replaced by Italians, who are in any case forbidden to speak German. Even in private intercourse German is frowned upon and no effort has been spared to attack all that is dear and sacred to the South Tyrolese, and to obliterate German culture and traditions that have been theirs from time immemorial."
The Church the Only Hope " Of course the Tyrolese are Catholics to a man," I said. " What about the clergy? Have they not done what they could to stand by their people in such a crisis?"
"They certainly have," he replied warmly. "The Tyrolese have always been fervent Catholics. Their priests are of their own flesh and blood and despite Fascist attacks have led the struggle for their rights.
" Undoubtedly the Vatican has often been in a delicate position, but the Church has done its duty and is almost our one remaining hope. Moreover, the clergy have suffered along with the laity. In 1935 alone five or six priests from the South Tyrol were sentenced to imprisonment or banishment for the crime of their German sentiments and one, Fr. Wolf, of Sulden, was condemned for distributing to the poor of his parish money received from Austria."
Restriction of National Tongue " Has the situation not improved since Mussolini promised the Austrian Government to grant facilities for teaching German?" I asked.
"Definitely, no," he replied. " This concession was extended only to Bozen, Meran and Brixen. Lamentably few children are allowed to attend the classes in these three centres. This ' concession,' available to 500 out of 30,000 Tyrolese children, has been made an excuse for proceeding with the utmost severity against all German teaching at home. At this very moment, to give an example, Josephine Leitner is in prison for this heinous offence."
" Has the drafting of the huge number of Italian soldiers, whom I have seen myself, created any problems?"
"Yes. Some very awkward ones, particularly as regards the moral aspect. But I shall perhaps have more to say about that at some later date."
Obedient But Determined " Bu f all these crimes,'" I said, " are after all non-political. I have never heard of anti-Fascist activities or treason or violence against Italians or Italy or indeed anything other than a natural desire to retain the language and culture of the Tyrol."
"You are right," he answered. " A more law abiding population does not exist and the years of persecution have produced no counter-violence, merely a determination to remain Tyrolese and Germans."
"Was the Tyrol better treated prior to the rise of Fascism?" I asked.
" Unquestionably. There were disputes and points of difference, but compared to present conditions those days are a happy memory indeed."
" Yet," I reminded him, " there was no more unjust act committed after the Great War than this. According to the 1910 census 97 per cent. of the natives of the South Tyrol were German-speaking and here is one of the very few cases where the political frontier could be pushed back to the linguistic frontier without creating a fresh minority problem."
A Warning " Of course, and it would, after all, only be common justice. The overwhelming mass of the South Tyrolese implored President Wilson in 1918 to let them remain Austrian and the principle of self-determination was violated despite this. One day perhaps statesmen will remember this
" Have you any message for the Catholic Herald? I asked as I rose to go.
" Tell your readers," he replied, " that the Tyrolese whose loyalty to the Church is second to none want the sympathy of the English fellow-Catholics. They believe in English justice and fair play and I hope from the bottom of my heart that more and more English Catholics will get to know the sad story of the South Tyrol and the true facts. If so and if we have their sympathy and support our struggle will not have been in vain."