Dolomites, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Center of Mounting Controversy

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established after World War II in an effort to create an “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.” Today, UNESCO plays many roles—maintaining peace and equity, encouraging sustainable development, advancing cooperation, sciences and communication, and preserving culture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, the Dolomites in Italy are now becoming a source of controversy.

The Gardena Pass in the Dolomites (Source: Wiki Commons/Moroder)

The Dolomites is a mountain range spanning more than 140,000 hectares in Northern Italy. Comprised of 18 peaks, the Dolomites boast breathtaking scenery with sheer mountain cliffs, glaciers, and clear mountain lakes. The mountains are a sought-after tourist destination, particularly for thrill-seekers who can ski and mountain climb during winter, and paraglide and hang glide in the summer. Free climbing has also been a tradition in the Dolomites for over a decade.

The mountain range’s rich history is not only defined by its outdoor activities. Communities in the Dolomites speak three languages, German, Italian, and Ladin, an early Romance language. The mountain range also served as a front during World War I from 1915 to 1917, where Italian and Austrian forces clashed. Between battles and natural forces such as avalanches, landslides and frostbite, 150,000 soldiers died in the Alps during WW1. Today, retreating glaciers are beginning to expose buried relics of the Austrian stronghold.

World War I memorial on Mount Piana, location of the “Open Air Museum of the First World War” (Wiki Commons/AnaisGoepner)

The UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, was formed in 2010 by several Italian provinces and regions. The Foundation is responsible for coordinating the effective management of the mountain range and acts as an intermediary between local authorities and the Italian Ministry for the Environment. According to Jacopo Pasotti, an Italian Journalist who specializes in scientific and environmental reporting, climate change and land use changes currently pose significant threats to the Dolomites. Speaking to GlacierHub, Pasotti explained that the mountains are highly developed in many places, with heavy traffic during peak tourism. Fewer snow days and less snowfall would have affected tourism, if it were not for the government subsidies that have allowed ski resorts to increase artificial snow production. Pasotti stressed the importance of creating protected areas tourists can’t access to protect the natural landscape and wildlife. But he does not hold out hope for the region’s glaciers, “under all scenarios this very sensitive area is going to lose the majority of its glaciers in the next few decades.”

Mountain Wilderness is a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 in Biella, Italy by mountaineers to pursue the preservation of the country’s natural environment and culture of mountain regions. The group encourages sustainable tourism. It has recently taken issue with the management of the Dolomites and is particularly concerned over threats from tourism. Last month, the organization published an electronic letter on their website declaring it was removing itself from the Board of Supporters of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, stating its displeasure with the management of the Dolomites. Signed by Mountain Wilderness President Franco Tessadri, the letter states, “We were assured (in 2017, then postponed to 2018, then again to 2019) that UNESCO would make a further visit to check the management of the Dolomites heritage. This never happened.”

The Marmolada Glacier, 2015 (Source: Wiki Commons/DarTar)

The Mountain Wilderness letter accuses the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation of focusing its attention on tourism marketing rather than sustainable management– a complaint no doubt exacerbated by increased tourism in recent years. The non-profit took particular offense at the Foundation’s failure to condemn the use of vehicles on mountain trails. Mountain Wilderness also criticized the Foundation for failing to effectively communicate with its supporters. They reference a joint letter sent by national and local environmental associations to the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation. According to Mountain Wilderness, this letter was ignored. In their letter withdrawing from the Foundation’s Board of supporters, Mountain Wilderness stated, “That silence was extremely offensive to all the signatory associations, not only to Mountain Wilderness Italy, as if the Foundation had freed itself of the burden of environmentalists with a shrug of its shoulders.”

When reached for comment, the UNESCO Dolomite’s Foundation stated, “we are pleased to inform you that the Board of Directors of the Foundation has acknowledged Mountain Wilderness Italia’s willingness to leave the Board of Supporters, despite the great attention paid in recent years to dialogue and confrontation. As you surely know, the situation in Italy for the coronavirus is still serious and the lockdown still in place. Once the situation will allow it, a confrontation at political level will be proposed to Mountain Wilderness Italia.”

The Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites (Source: Wiki Commons/Moroder)

Alessandra Giannini, a climate scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society fondly remembers a family trip to the Dolomites in the mid-1970s. She and her family stayed in San Martino di Castrozza, where they hiked nearby trails and picked blueberries, which her sister ate straight from the bush. Giannini told GlacierHub she remembers finding the lighter colors of the mountains’ barren peaks particularly striking. Years later, she now knows the lighter colors on the barren peaks are due to their oceanic origin.

When asked about preservation efforts and management, Giannini stated that at the time when her family visited the Dolomites, there was “no such thing as any restrictions, except that it was forbidden to collect rare flowers.” Giannini described how her mother noted how much the Dolomites had changed since she visited in the 1950s. Her mother was surprised how different even the small town of San Martino de Castrozza was, as the “woods in the village had given way to construction.” Giannini also drew connections between concern over management of the Dolomites and the situation in Cinque Terre, a section of the Ligurian Riviera close to her family’s home. Cinque Terre is a cultural UNESCO World Heritage site. She said in the last two decades Cinque Terre has become a popular tourist attraction in Italy. According to Giannini a “thin veneer of environmentalism” defined by the establishment of a national park or a UNESCO World Heritage site is to blame for tourists overrunning Italy’s natural resources. She said, “local government structures have given preference to the business of tourism over conservation efforts.”

San Martino di Castrozza (Wiki Commons/Threecharlie)

Whether as the result of the actions of the UNESCO Dolomite Foundation, or that of the Italian government, concern over management and preservation of the Dolomites is mounting. Like many other glacierized regions, the Dolomites are under threat of climate change. Organizations like Mountain Wilderness do not want to see these threats exacerbated by land-use changes or the wear of tourist activities. However, the issue is not so black and white, as the local economy depends heavily on tourism. Recent attempts to restrict vehicle use in the Dolomites were met with opposition from hotel and restaurant owners in the Dolomites and criticism from local officials. Preservation of the Dolomites has become a balancing act– conserve the natural environment without damaging the local economy.

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Glaciers and the Rise of Nazism

Poster from the 1938 Luis Trenker film, “The Mountain Calls” (Source: Prisma).

Glaciers and the mountains that convey them have come to symbolize purity— one which has been marred by glacial retreat. We long to return to a state in which glaciers aren’t retreating as a result of anthropogenic climate change, where the condition of the world aligns more closely with our belief in what it should be again. But, historically, glaciers and the mountains that convey them have also symbolized other, more insidious forms of purity.

In a recent article in German Studies Review, Wilfried Wilms outlines the ways in which a flurry of German films and novels in the 1930s recast the glacier-rich Alps and region of South Tyrol as traditional German living space. Wilms focuses on works produced between 1931 and 1936, a time when German nationalist discourse was on the rise and support of a greater pan-German alliance between Germany and mountainous Austria was gaining widespread currency in the lead-up to the Nazi takeover of 1933 and annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. By locating German speakers within alpine settings and showcasing their natural affinity to mountain climbing and glacier landscapes, filmmakers and novelists contributed to a discourse that sought to integrate the greater Germanic world by establishing a common set of uniquely German traits.

The jagged Dolomite range (Source: Kordi Vahle/Creative Commons).

In an interview with GlacierHub, Wilms described the roots of the notion of mountain and glacial purity in relation to both German racial and environmental ideals. “There is the discourse on elevation in Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra on rising above the lowlands; ennobling the Self in its struggle with the mountains; the purity of snow and firn [an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice], and its disconnectedness to the (soiled) realms below. After the defeat in World War I, the mountains become a place of individual, cultural and national renewal— a proving ground, a training ground for the youth and its future for Germany,” he said. Unlike “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which portrayed the horrors and banality of the first World War, German films after 1931 valorized war in ways that fed into the nation’s growing territorial ambitions.

The Langenferner Glacier in South Tyrol (Source: Noclador/Creative Commons).

Historically, the mountainous region of Tyrol had been home to a mostly German-speaking, Austrian population— that is, before Italian irredentists got in the way. With the Axis defeat at the close of the first World War, South Tyrol was formally ceded to Italy in the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain. Over the next decade, Mussolini instituted a series of Italianization programs in an effort to reduce the Germanic cultural sway in the region. These programs were well known to the public in Weimar Germany, and Wilms argues that a crisis emerged for Germans: as ideas of pan-Germanism were taking hold, their German-speaking brethren were being pushed out of their homeland, a place that was felt through its Alpine features to be distinctively German. A spate of cinematic and literary portrayals of the Alpine War, fought between Austrian and Italian troops in Tyrol during World War I, became a means through which the German population was mobilized and militarized in the lead-up to the second World War.

According to Noah Isenberg, a professor of culture and media at The New School, certain technical innovations also changed the way films were watched in Germany during this period. “In the early 1930s, thanks largely to the advent of sound (which came quite late to Germany), films tended to take advantage of recorded dialogue and elaborate musical scores. Berlin was known for its majestic picture palaces, with more than a thousand seats and ornate interiors, but in Germany’s smaller cities, audiences watched the films in mid-sized theaters, less grand in appearance and with more limited seating,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub. The stage was set for irredentist films to have a maximal impact on German society. 

The Illimani Glacier as seen from the Bolivian city of La Paz (Source: Globus-Film).

One work that Wilms analyzes in detail in his article is Luis Trenker’s 1931 film, “Berge in Flammen” (Mountains in Flames). Trenker was a native of South Tyrol, as well as an Alpine War hero, mountaineer, novelist, actor and director. “Berge in Flammen” opens with a visual ode to the Tyrolean Alps. One can easily imagine how a German audience would have been transfixed by the spectacle: the camera first muses over billowing clouds, then transitions to a frontal shot of a looming mountain before following dense waves of fog as they drift through the spaces between stark stone cliffs. Even in 1930s black and white, the landscapes are mesmerizing.

Enter the film’s hero, played by Trenker himself, a confident rope in hand as he leads the way up a precipitous rock face, undaunted by the thousand-foot drop that outlines his figure. As he climbs further up the impossible height, the camera focuses in on his muscled legs and steady hands. The Austrian reaches a small platform where he pauses to pull up his climbing companion’s rope. His climbing partner, an Italian, then begins his own ascent, but he quickly loses his grip and careens down the rock face. The camera pans quickly to Trenker’s hands as they grip the rope that separates his friend from certain death. Then the camera pans again, this time to a close-up of Trenker’s determined face as he grits his teeth, holding fast to the rope as he selflessly risks his own life to save his companion.

A still taken from another Trenker film, “The Mountain Calls” (Source: Ernst Baumann).

As Wilms persuasively argues, scenes like these come to place German speakers firmly within an environment dominated by mountains and glaciers, places in which Italians are decidedly not at home. “Berge in Flammen” is filled with stunning shots of the snow-laden Alps, their glaciers appearing voluptuous and pure. Austrian glacial fortresses are bombarded by Italian shells, and explosions of smoke and snow crash across the mountaintops, but in having to enact this destruction, the Italians further reveal their unbelonging. Where the Italians work against the mountains, the Austrians work with them.

A typical scene in which Trenker negotiates with the elements (Source: Ernst Baumann).

According to Wilms, films from “Berge in Flammen” onward differ from the climbing epics of Arnold Fanck, Trenker’s mentor and the progenitor of the German “Mountain Film” genre. While Fanck’s films were centered on the struggle between man and mountain, Trenker’s films found their antagonists in exogenous non-Germans attempting to live in German-speaking lands. “Trenker juxtaposes topophilic depictions of place – in his case, his homeland of South Tyrol – with almost xenophobic depictions of dubious intruders, generally city people, tourists, and business men. These topophilic attachments lend themselves to national or nationalistic extensions,” Wilms said.

The return of South Tyrol to German control was a priority for Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” and a collection of important writers also propagated this view. Some of the titles from the period are telling: novels with names like “Comrades of the Mountains” (1932), “Heroes of the Mountains” (1935), “The Fortress in the Glacier” (1935), and “War Diary of a Mountain Climber” (1936) populate the German literary scene of the 1930s. German speakers are portrayed within this corpus as the native, original inhabitants of these mountain realms. Tyrol’s mountains are portrayed as eternal in the way that the German bloodstream is felt to be eternal.

An English-language poster for the 1932 Luis Trenker film (Source: Universal).

Glaciers, we know, are not eternal. But it is important to pause and reflect on the nature of our discourse about glaciers and how our ideals of purity can be turned in horrifying directions. According to Andrew Denning, a professor of German history at the University of Kansas, Germany’s race-based nationalism emerged through notions of the poetic grandeur of nature itself.

“Romantic artists and thinkers laid the groundwork for the shift in the perception of the mountains in the late 18th and early 19th century from fearsome to awe-inspiring,” Denning said. “Romantics celebrated the spirituality of nature and saw in ancient, imposing mountain landscapes the physical manifestation of their critique of Enlightened hubris. Simultaneously, Romantics spoke of mystical, spiritual communities defined by common history and culture, laying the foundation for the rise of cultural forms of nationalism over the course of the nineteenth century.” Our own U.S. national parksspaces of exclusion in their own waywere born of that same Romantic spirit, after all.