Feature image: Source © Rai Tagesschau

Authors: Mattia Zeba, Kerstin Wonisch

The context of separatism in South Tyrol

The analysis of the context of separatist radicalisation in South Tyrol – the Alpine region between Italy and Austria with a German and Ladin speaking population – highlights both how different radical ideologies may combine and how a polarised environment fosters and feeds individual radical ideas and actions.


Unresolved grievances in South Tyrol stemmed from numerous boundary changes, policies of forced assimilation, and international disputes that culminated in context where an “us vs them” narrative is sometimes further reinforced by systemic divisions. From the late 1950s until the end of the 1980s, this polarisation escalated into a conflict between organised separatist groups and Italian institutions. The violent actions targeted Italian institutions, monuments, infrastructures, and police forces, and were perpetrated in most part by the separatist organisations Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol (BAS, translated as Liberation Committee South Tyrol) and Ein Tirol. Fortunately, nowadays, South Tyrol is widely considered a successful laboratory of local autonomy and power-sharing, and the violent period of ethno-nationalist terrorism seems to have come to an end.

Nevertheless, the reconciliation between the Italian and German language groups has been called into question by the revival of old and new ethnic divisions. While there are no longer acts of clearly defined ethno-nationalist terrorism, elements of German-speaking separatist discourse have increasingly become embedded in and indeed swamped by the dynamics of right-wing extremism. Although the South Tyrolean mainstream separatist ideology, as endorsed and promoted for instance by some local parties and private organisations, has clearly distanced itself from the use of political violence, local ethnicised politics provide a breeding ground for possible contaminations between legitimate socio-political institutions and extremist groups who often have a transnational character and a very partial and distorted view of history. Indeed, individual members of separatist forces have occasionally been found to endorse or disseminate revisionist, xenophobic or misogynist ideologies.

Recently, radical separatist ideologies infused with chauvinism have for instance been promoted by some members of the Südtiroler Schützenbund (SSB), a private voluntary transnational association with counterparts in Tyrol (Austria), Bavaria (Germany) and the Italian neighbouring province of Trentino that bears the legacy of a historic militia. According to its statute and its defined objectives, the SSB builds on the tradition of the provincial and tributary orders of Tyrolean history; protects and defends the homeland and the identity of the Tyrolean people against internal and external enemies and threats.

‘Mamma Tirol’: a case study

Between December 27 and 30, 2020, the SSB announced a music video, called “Mamma Tirol” on their official website and on their Facebook and Twitter pages. It was ironically labelled as an “extraordinary project […] where genius and madness combine”. The announcement also foresaw a polarisation and harsh debate on the video, stating that “’Mamma Tirol’ is a project that will have our critics tearing us apart and our fans dancing on the tables”. The announcement itself, at least on the Facebook page, did not receive particular attention by other users, something which may also have resulted from the relative low number of followers of the SSB Facebook page – less than 15,000 (of a South Tyrolean population of about 500,000). On December 31, the video of the rap song was uploaded on the official SSB YouTube account, where it reached 50,000 views.

The video depicted overlays of rallies, marches, Catholic recollections, and pictures of the stunning South Tyrolean landscape contrasted by images of the perceived enemy, which is depicted as the Italian state represented by the flag, Italian fascists, made-up women, homosexuals, and immigrants. The video had a peculiar setting depicting the author, in a dark, cave-style room lit only by candles. While smoking, sipping red wine and browsing through a photo album, the Rapper lamented to pictures of the First World War about a South Tyrol “treated like a cheap whore for a hundred years”. The text clearly conveyed the narrative of historical injustices and perceived grievances by using lines such as “Today we live in the south in the wrong nation; Surrounded by liars, my neighbour a spy” or “They are becoming more and more these traitors to the homeland”. With reference to the dogma of the SBB as “…Tyroleans, democrats and Christians; We love our homeland, who can’t understand that?; Pride and respect, where is the problem” the Rapper used a typical ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric by asking “Where are the people who still represent our values”? and claims that the only people remaining are “migrants, students and many prophets” who want to save the planet, but “forget their roots” and “don’t even respect their own fathers”, while people engage in non-traditional forms of partnership as “In the park in front of my house, Dieter [male name] loves Peter”. Against this background, the “DNA of the SSB” was presented as an alternative. The song ended with the affirmation of“… the courage and the will never to surrender” and of the need to “take action not just fine speeches” with which the SSB “…will make it with God’s blessing”.

Between January 4 and 5, 2021, a series of public reactions start surfacing in local newspapers, mainly in German language, while also the parallel Austrian organisation condemned the politicisation of the SSB, that is, its engagement in the local separatist discourse, outside its prevalent cultural and social tasks. On January 5, 2021, the South Tyrolean Provincial Commission for Equal Opportunities for Women started a petition – which reached more than 7000 supporters –  on Change.org asking for “the immediate deletion of the video, a public apology from the Rapper, Wirth Anderlan, who was also the commander of the Schützen and information about public funding or contributions for the production, realisation and/or publication of the video and the possible amount of funding”.

On the same day, the author of the video, then commander of the Schützen, issued a statement on the official SSB webpage and in the official SSB Facebook page defending his action – although now labelled as a ‘private initiative’ – condemning personal attacks but also announcing that the video would be taken out of circulation “in the foreseeable future”. On January 8, 2021, local newspapers announced that the author had resigned from his commanding position in the SSB. Finally, on January 16, the SSB announced on Twitter, Facebook and in its official webpage that while SSB was strongly condemning all hostilities – in the online media but also outside – towards both the organisation and the author, the SSB would take care of internal reappraisals at all levels, and it was also discussed and made clear that individual initiatives – without consulting the federal leadership of the SSB – were not acceptable. In fact, even within the SSB, the video had triggered controversies prompting local Schützen Companies to issue rejection statements on Facebook.

‘Mamma Tirol’: DIY media and its success

The video/the rap was successful in resonating with the grievances of common individuals. The official announcement of the Rapper on the SSB Facebook page triggered 482 reactions of which 464 expressed their likes. From the 111 comments to this Facebook announcement post, a clear majority supported the video and expressed their backing for the Rapper as the only one who would finally dare to speak the truth and publicly name injustices. As one comment summarizes: “I liked the video very much. Stand firm. The truth must be spoken – even in this way. There will always be envious people and traitors who get upset, especially within their own ranks. […] The video is a blessing. The SSB is a ray of hope in this day and age. Stay firm”. The audience responded positively to discourses of patriotism, of perceived historical injustices, and the narrative of living under alleged foreign rule. As one comment puts it: “… Apart from the music, I think the lyrics are good. True to the homeland and against Italian foreign rule…”.

Those who condemned the video did so as they considered the content as being homophobic, misogynist, and offensive. Yet, the official statement of the SSB on the dismissal of Anderlan Wirth itself triggered 52 comments on FB with almost 90 % backing the Rapper and criticizing the SSB for having betrayed the Rapper and not standing firm with him. As one comment puts it “I am with the SSB for 26 years …. and am proud of it but the so-called resignation of Jürgen is for the SSB in South Tyrol a huge step backwards to replace him is completely impossible. And it is very shameful that none of the leadership has publicly supported him …Where is the cohesion ….Now it should be stronger than ever. And I would also be in favour of a petition to reinstate Jürgen Wirth Anderlan as national commander of South Tyrol”.

The Rap made it even into the Austrian political arena and on the agenda of the South Tyrol Committee of the Austrian Parliament not least due to the reaction of the South Tyrol Spokesman in the National Council, Peter Wurm, a member of the right-wing party “Freiheitliche Partei Austria” (Austrian Freedom Party, FPÖ), who said that “You can find Anderlan’s German rap good or bad, but the fact is that he speaks the truth and addresses problems. He also exaggerates, but that falls under artistic freedom”. Also, while the action was condemned by the Tiroler Schützen in Austria, it gained support by members of the local Schützen of the neighbouring Italian Province of Trentino, who defended the intentions and message of the song.

To conclude…

The analysis of the SSB video has pointed out how in the transnational context of border regions radical messages may resonate well beyond the local sphere, gaining support from different actors and audiences in other areas. Such support can be perceived as an ‘external legitimation’ by individual radical actors.

Furthermore, although local organisations such as the SSB have demonstrated the ability to tackle the issue of internal radicalism, individual members may exploit their network and communicative tools to gain a wider audience, as well as a form of ‘internal legitimation’. “Mamma Tirol” and its successor, “Tatta Tirol”, achieved a remarkable circulation, exposing a broad audience to the video’s messages, including their articulation of core injustices related with the suppression of ethno-separatist identities.

Finally, this case study clearly illustrates the role of YouTube and other social media in providing an echo chamber for sympathisers and members of extremist organisations, where their beliefs are validated and amplified in the broader public sphere.