Get out your atlas. You will likely need it when you read farther here about the intriguing but little known story in a lesser known part of Alpine Europe: Italy’s northern territory of Alto Adige, better known as South Tyrol. I used an atlas for geographical details about the borderlands with which this article deals and where I have spent long periods. For it’s the details—often geographical—that will confound you every time. Such details make you aware that military planners of national strategy never spend enough time with their atlases. Over much of my lifetime I have passed through these border territories countless times, from north to south, south to north and yet I still discover new things about them.
So these borderlands fascinate me … like stamp or coin collections do others. Before Europe eliminated border controls and adopted a single currency, I swore in frustration at the lines and the formalities of passport and visa controls, money exchange, barriers at exits from one country and entry into another; yet like others I found the procedures exciting. Sometimes romantic. Sometimes chilling. And today the unseen dividing lines of these fragile borderlands-territories separating one ethnicity or one nation state from the other are still enigmatic, fragile and floating.
For not even borderland peoples themselves really know who they are and where they belong. Many truly live in a no man’s land. They know little more about their identities than do the victors in the wars who in each post-war trace out new borders and establish new frontiers for them. Drawing the borders of other peoples’ lands is an old story in Europe, in which however in my lifetime the USA has played a principle role. Moreover, since its earliest beginnings also the European Union has been involved in border re-tracing.
The South Tyrol has been part of Italy since 1918. The existence of a South Tyrol presupposes a North Tyrol; the latter is chiefly in Austria, partially in Germany. And the existence of those two Tyrols is one aspect of the problem at hand: the Tyrolean people are divided, in different nation-states. The question of who should have the territory of the Tyrol and its German-speaking people has long been debated, discussed and decided. Tyroleans themselves have wanted to belong to Austria or to Germany or to an autonomous nation-state of their own.
My intention here was to add some details to a subject noted en passant in my novel, Fragments, scheduled for publishing early next year by Punto Press. For now, the more I read about the Tyrol, the more I find myself in a labyrinth of international intrigues, national interests, ideologies and intelligence agency operations, events and happenings under the shadow of last century’s burgeoning Cold War.
This excerpt appears in the early pages of Fragments:
“… it became a CIA affair and ran against their desire for secession. It had seemed so easy to the Tyroleans. A Rasputin-like priest, Michael Gamper, and nine militant activists founded the Committee For the Liberation of the South Tyrol, or BAS. Early separatists all. Their modest goal: secession of South Tyrol from Italy and unification with Austria of the entire Tyrol, north and south. The CIA did not share that goal … but for the wrong reasons. BAS distributed pamphlets and destroyed symbolic places. The CIA and NATO saw the mouth-watering opportunity when Tyrolean BAS people became violent. Service, bitte schön, they proffered to the busy secret agents. Terrorism served on a platter. Violence that prompted a ready and willing NATO Italy to intervene and armed forces arrived. Harsh rule over mutinous Tyrolean-Italians was the medicine. On Fire Night in June of 1961, undaunted BAS commandos destroyed thirty-seven electrical towers, interrupting the power supply of all of Upper Italy. CIA initiatives! One thing happened after another and according to plan the military arrived to set things right. South Tyrol was decidedly Alto Adige. It was Italian. There would be no secession here. It would not unite with North Tyrol. It would remain Italian. It would not become part of Austria—in CIA minds a nightmare, opening a corridor for Soviet tanks from occupied Austria headed for Rome. By that time the secret arm y of Gladio had been formed. It was ready to quell any revolts. The regular succession of a whole panoply of evidence confirms the Tyrol-as-laboratory to test the CIA strategy of tension.”
Until 1918, South Tyrol had been part of the Austro-Hungarian county of “Tyrol”—known also as Deutschsüdtirol. Italy annexed it after the defeat of the Axis powers in World War I. North Tyrol included the city of Innsbruck and the valley of the Inn River including the famous ski resorts of the Voralberg that Hemingway loved. The South Tyrol was the part extending southwards from the watershed of Brenner Pass, separating the two Tyrols … and north Europe from Italy. In 1919 the Treaty of St. Germain confirmed Italian possession of that German-speaking southern part of Tyrol, which in 1920 was named Alto Adige after the Adige River flowing from the Alps and into the Adriatic Sea near Venice.
No one was happy about the arrangement. Austria was unhappy because it lost not only its lands but also its beloved ski resorts and the sanatoriums for treatment of tuberculosis—like Kafka’s favorite in Meran-Merano where a bust of the writer stands in the city’s Passerpromenade—thus giving rise to irredentism in Österreich. Ethnic Germans of Alto Adige were unhappy about their annexation by non-German speaking Italy. The immediate result in Alto Adige was the formation of ethnic German terrorist organizations favoring secession from Italy. Nazi Germany had been displeased to lose the former Austrian territory when it annexed Austria but the Reich had accepted the arrangement in order to please its ally Italy; powerful Nazi leaders like Goering also used the rather obscure Alto Adige to stash away art treasures stolen in conquered European countries.
Italy however had annexed a territory and a people historically hard to dominate which forced Rome to send an army and station them there permanently (They are still there!) and then to create a special status for Alto Adige and making of South Tyrol-Alto Adige a special place in post-World War II Europe and Italy’s richest province. But such concessions were not sufficient to quell rebellious South Tyroleans: local terrorism replaced world war. The South Tyrolean Liberation Committee (in German Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol), or BAS, was a violent underground terrorist organization of the mid-1950s whose goals were self-determination and secession from Italy.
In those times secession was in the air in the world from China to Canada. From Mexico to India. And in Europe, the Flemish majority ignited secessionist terrorism in Belgium against its oppressors, the minority Walloons … and Brussels was considered one of the most dangerous cities on the continent. The Basques and the Catalans wanted to break away from Spain. The Reconstruction Party in Sicily which in 1945 claimed 45,000 members campaigned for Sicily to become a state of the USA. Contributing factors were the large number of Sicilians living in America and results of the American-led invasion of Sicily in 1943 during WWII on the heels of following a century of neglect of Sicily by all Rome governments since Sicily’s annexation in 1861.
BAS history in Alto Adige is a story of violence and assassination, yes, but coupled with interventions by the secret services of West and East. In the phase from 1956 to 1961, BAS focused on symbolic targets such as relics of the defeated Fascist regime in Italy. Then on June 12, 1961, BAS organized the bombing of 37 electricity pylons supplying power to the industrial zone of Bolzano and throughout north Italy. The events became known as Fire Night. (Feuernacht). After its leaders were all arrested, an even more violent phase began, characterized by the infiltration of Austrian and German Nazis into the organization and intensified secret service links culminating in the assassinations of members of Italian security forces.
Though Tyrolean Germans believed BAS was defending their interests alone, the terrorist organization was instead an instrument chiefly of the CIA, MI6, Italian secret services and the CIA- organized and financed secret Gladio Stay-Behind Army. The CIA organized BAS in the first place, then financed and manipulated it as it did Gladio. CIA Director Allen Dulles is supposed to have had a direct hand in the BAS affair which proved to be a false flag operation: Dulles’ sister was married to the Austrian Fritz Molden who also helped organize and finance BAS. As in the Fragments excerpt, BAS became a weapon in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
And the lands of South Tyrol-Alto Adige became a testing ground for myriad secret services. More important, this territory was the testing ground for the “strategy of tension” subsequently used by the CIA throughout the world … and today part of the repertoire of intelligence services of the world.
This heretofore little known part of Europe, hidden away in Alpine regions of Austria, Italy and Germany, Tyrol thus had become a laboratory and playground for the clandestine world of secret services and intelligence organizations. The CIA and MI6 discovered an unexpected asset in the BAS organization in the mounting Cold War; Italian secret service, SIFAR, found its role in assisting CIA activities (a habit of Italian secret services to this day), involvement in Italy’s Gladio Stay-Behind Army and defending Italy against rabid Tyroleans; Austrian agents roamed around the Tyrol trying to find a role in support of BAS, actually the exclusive territory of CIA-MI6; West German agents-ex-Nazis easily disguised as Austrians or Tyroleans of north or south infiltrated right and left.
Meanwhile, CIA feared a link between Yugoslavia and its “Yugoslav Road To Socialism” and the Südtirol Volkspartei (SVP) or South Tyrolean Peoples Party—still today Alto Adige’s biggest political party. Yugoslav agents offered support to BAS in its demands for a return of South Tyrol to Austria in exchange for Yugoslav control of the Bolzano industrial area: Yugoslavia wanted to purchase the Bolzano steel works, to be dismantled and reassembled in Yugoslavia (another story but concomitant with the BAS-Alto Adige affair).
Also, according to released German archives, East Germany’s Stasi (Staatssicherheit or State Security organization) followed Bonn-Vienna-Innsbruck-Bolzano-Rome relations and tried to make the world public aware of the “influence of West German revanchist forces” –-the many West German government ministers, officials, members of the judicial branch, and major politicians who had been enmeshed in the Nazi regime. The Stasi goal was the furthering of the idea of a German conspiracy against Italy, undermining the relationship between these two founding members of NATO and the European Commission.
I will conclude with a few words more about Gladio, the influence and significance of which has frequently appeared in the most diverse aspects of post-World War II European affairs. The secret Stay-Behind Army (called Gladio in Italy, named after the short two-edged Roman sword) organized by CIA in various countries trained soldiers (attractive above all to Nazis and Fascists everywhere) in sabotage and man-to-man fighting and established weapons caches and communications centers. The secret Stay-Behind Army was always a CIA affair. Its former director William Colby confirmed to me the CIA role years ago in a chance short impromptu interview in the bar of a Rome hotel where he was a conference participant. He said he had participated in the Gladio-Stay-Behind Army’s organization.
Gladio’s major tasks were two. Officially, the secret army was the first line resistance against Soviet armies allegedly ready to sweep over West Europe from Austria. Post World War II Austria –-in the center of Europe—was then divided into four zones, (as was its capital of Vienna), one of which was occupied by victorious Soviet armies. In Vienna, Russian language directions and slogans were still inscribed on walls in the center of downtown of Old Vienna. Perhaps a Cold War ruse to keep people on edge and fear alive.
Secondly, the secret army was a terroristic force to crush the rise of Communist parties and leftist groups in Western Europe using false flag operations and the application of the “strategy of tension”: create fear and apprehension and then crack down on the entire nation in order to contain the terror Gladio itself created.
A curious final note: Small Austria too had its own Stay-Behind army of 2,500 men, called, get this, Austrian Association of Hiking, Sports and Society (Österreicher Wander-Sport-und Geselligkeits Verein, or ÖeWSGV). It was funded by CIA to crush the Austrian Communist-led strikes which the CIA-MI6 controllers considered the “most dangerous” events since the end of WWII. Western agents had a fixation about the super Soviet T-34 tanks rolling over West Europe. But, I believe that was just for show. They couldn’t believe that. Or could they have?
Gaither Stewart is a Writer Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).