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Originally produced in: Österreich
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2. The South Tyrol Option Agreement as an example of Forced Migration in the 20th Century

On the 23rd June 1939 in Berlin, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany signed an agreement that fixed the absolute relocation of South Tyroleans in territories in Eastern Europe that had yet to be conquered. The South Tyroleans were given just half a year to decide for or against the resettlement. This decision process drove a large wedge between the South Tyrolean people – often it tore entire families apart, with each person fighting for what seemed the best for themselves at that time. Scars from this period of discord were to be felt by the South Tyrolean population for years to come.

The National Socialists launched a huge propaganda campaign to encourage the South Tyrolean population to “opt” for resettlement. Lies were deliberately spread amongst the people to incite hatred against one another. Soon a crack ran through the entire South Tyrolean population – the divide between those willing to resettle and those wishing to stay in their homeland was irreconcilable for a long time. The majority of South Tyroleans decided on resettlement. Ultimately 75,000 emigrated abroad.

Propaganda for leaving and staying – A comparison of two leaflets from 1939

For or Against? Excerpts from two leaflets

The propaganda for resettlement or staying in South Tyrol was almost unbearable for the people from June to December 1939. They were bombarded with arguments for and against the resettlement. The Nazis did their utmost to try and persuade the South Tyroleans to resettle by launching a huge campaign.

Two leaflets are presented here exactly as they were handed to the people by the respective organisations.

An Optant (voluntary resettler) leaflet, autumn 1939:

South Tyroleans!

The propaganda of the so-called “Hierbleiber”, that is to say those who voluntarily and blindly give their consent to the Verwelschung (Italianisation) of our nationhood, continues. They cannot comprehend that there cannot be a homeland without taking care of national character first. Foreign elements, emigrants, aristocrats and incited clerics make up a bunch of crooks who preach about their love of the homeland. People who show off their money and yet fear having to sacrifice a few Lire to the Reich at the end say: “Don’t go, it’s war out there! Consequences of war are upheaval and devaluation of the money you’re still owed for selling your property“ Yes, have we South Tyroleans of 1939 turned into cowards who fear war and sacrifice for our Fatherland? (…) They say “In the Reich there is no religion”. In the Reich, one is against the sanctimonious, politically active priesthood, which hates national Germany out of a lust for secular power and protects that Judaism, which crucified Christ, our Lord, as only it can. The commandment of kindness and the 10 commandments are almost basic laws in the German Reich. (...)

Source: An abridged version from: Kirchler und Tasser, Die Option. Unterrichtseinheit für die Oberschule, Bolzano, 1989.

For easier understanding:

Hierbleiber were those South Tyroleans who spoke out against resettlement.

Verwelschung was the Tyrolean expression for Italianisation.

A Dableiber (stayer) leaflet from autumn 1939:

Consider before deciding!


2. We are told: All register as German and then stay! But at the same time, the Innsbruck news writes that houses are being built for us already! Houses for what if we are staying? First we were told that we are coming to Salzburg, to Burgenland, to Poland – now all of a sudden all of us South Tyroleans are supposed to find space in North Tyrol? How is that possible? However, one thing is certain: whoever signs and accepts German nationality will have to leave the area (South Tyrol).


6. If we leave our country, our people will cease to exist! Nowhere anymore! Closed settlement? That is impossible. Where there are no people we do not want to be, and where there are people, they will not accept us just like that! Old and sick people prefer to die at home than to roam around abroad. (...)For many farmers the love of their land and religion is greater than national causes! They stay. Workers continue to go to the factories.Only a few poor South Tyroleans will (...) go to live in Poland, amongst foreign people, soon to be homeless again!

7. A farmyard that is estimated at around 100,000 lire here will be difficult to find for less than 100,000 marks in the Reich – but 100,000 lire are not even 25,000 marks and for that I can only get a hut! It’s war out there! And out there, no-one wants paper money – they want property!


10. Loyalty is tradition in the Tyrol! Stay faithful to the homeland and stay faithful to the Lord until death! Think of the hour when you take the cross from your old parlour’s altar and close the front door behind you for good! Think of the hour when you look at your home, your fields and your meadows for the last time. Think of this difficult hour – then go and decide you and your children’s fate and future!

Choose between home and abroad!

Source: An abridged version from: Kirchler und Tasser, Die Option. Unterrichtseinheit für die Oberstufe, Bolzano, 1989.


  1. What does the word option mean? Look up the definition in your dictionary.
  2. Read through both leaflets und fill in the grid:
    Optant Leaflet (For Resettlement) Dableiber Leaflet (For staying)
    How should „a people and a homeland“ conduct themselves in the opinions of each group?
    In the opinion of the leaflets‘ authors, who are the followers of each group?
    How important are property and assets for each group?
    According to each group, what is the German Reich’s position on religion?
  3. One of the two leaflets is a striking example of a negative campaign – in places, an example of “dirty campaigning”. Which one is it?
    What do you understand by “negative campaign” and “dirty campaigning”?
  4. In your opinion, which group presents the best arguments?

Display teacher's view to find the answers.

Description and Analysis

The “option”for the South Tyroleans – an agreement between Mussolini and Hitler for the resettlement of German-speaking South Tyroleans – was a political act which we would today call ethnic cleansing. In June 1939, both dictators agreed that South Tyroleans should be expelled from their homeland - where their ancestors had been living for centuries – because they did not fit into the fascist idea of a closed Italian nation (Hitler-Mussolini Option Agreement).

“Heim ins Reich” (Home into the Empire) was the slogan of the Nazis, who used it in 1938 to occupy Austria and parts of Bohemia. However, as Hitler did not want to offend his ally Mussolini, he waived the annexation of South Tyrol. To leave South Tyrol in Italian hands but transfer the people was the order of the day in 1939.

The Nazis began a huge propaganda campaign to persuade the South Tyrolean population to opt for resettlement. The people had six months to decide for or against leaving their homeland.

Propaganda for leaving and staying – A comparison of two leaflets from 1939

What appealed to many South Tyroleans about resettlement?

  • The Nazis promised the South Tyroleans a closed settlement area – which however had yet to be conquered – and the South Tyrolean representatives a voice in the selection of settlement area.
  • Many South Tyroleans wanted to escape Mussolini’s policies, which were aimed at italianising the South Tyrolean population.
  • Amongst the South Tyroleans, there were definitely also a certain percentage of people who followed the Nazi ideology and preferred to live in a Nazi country.
  • There was also a great fear of being driven out of South Tyrol by the fascists and forced to live in Sicily. A fear, although unfounded, which was fuelled by the propaganda for resettlement.

What factors were there in favour of staying?

  • The majority of those wishing to stay were South Tyrolean property owners who did not want to leave their land. It was unclear to them who would replace their properties: Italy or the German Reich?
  • Above all, the simple clergy were in favour of staying at first because they did not agree with the Nazis‘ expulsion and extermination policies. However, the high clergy joined the optants – this is how voluntary resettlers were called – and prohibited conflicting opinions among other members of the clergy.

On the German side, Heinrich Himmler was responsible for implementing the ‚Option‘. To influence the South Tyrolean population he unleashed a huge propaganda campaign which didn’t shy away from scattering lies and evil threats. In this way, people were incited so much that some even carried out assaults on others.The Dableiber were constantly condemned as traitors.

The results of the “elections” were announced differently: According to the Germans, 86% opted for resettlement in the German Reich, while the Italians had the figure at 72%.

Answers to the Questions

  1. Option – several definitions are possible.
  2. Optant LeafletDableiber Leaflet
    The People and the HomelandThere is no homeland without first taking care of national character (e.g culture and language).If the country is left, the people will cease to exist.
    Who are the supporters of each group?Foreign elements (!), Emigrants, Aristocrats, Incited clerics, The rich would advocate staying. Cowards who are not prepared to fight for Germany would also be amongst them.The poor population;
    Importance of property and future assets.Property is not so meaningful – sacrifice for the Fatherland is more important.The property will largely dwindle away due to inflation as the prices of property in the German Reich have greatly increased because of war.
    The position of religion in the German Reich according to each factionAgainst politically active clergy, who take up the stand of the Jews.
    Kindness and the 10 commandments are greatly appreciated by the state.
    There is no statement on the Third Reich concerning religion.
    The practising of one’s religion is seen as more of a „tradition-based“ thing by this group.
  3. The optant leaflet particularly focuses on maligning the other group. It creates an atmosphere and does not offer many factual arguments. Phrases like “foreign elements”or “people who show off their money” are used.