Demographic Change in the Alps / Ethnic Minorities and Refugees

FWF Project 32500:
The demise of “Little Europe”
Assimilation and cultural landscape in North - East Italy

The demise of “Little Europe“ is a project dealing with autochthonous minorities in the Valcanale (German: Kanaltal / Slovenian: Kanalska dolina / Friulian: Valcjanâl), a border region in North-East Italy. Research on the project has started in February 2020 and will be conducted until January 2023.

With its small-scale ethnocultural pattern, the European Alps offer an ethnic diversity that is not to be found anywhere else in Western Europe. In the Alpine region between the autonomous Italian province South Tyrol and the Slovenian border, an extraordinary concentration of ethno-linguistic minorities exists. Therefore, the Valcanale as an area of special historical development and high cultural diversity offers itself as the core research area.

Fig.1: Valcanale’s linguistic majority before WW I. Source: Steinicke (1984, pp. 30-32)

After WW I not only South Tyrol but also the Valcanale was severed from Austria. Thus, German- and Slovene-speaking Carinthians suddenly became Italian citizens. Due to the so-called “Option-Agreement” of 1939, almost 2/3 of the autochthonous Germans and Slovenes relocated to Austria and by that changed the demographic structure of the valley fundamentally.

Fig. 2: Option and resettlement of autochthonous Valcanale residents (1939-1943). Source: Steinicke (1984, p. 45); modif.

Through massive in-migration of Italians and Friulians from the 1920s onwards, specifically during WW II, this Alpine region became a multi-ethnic mosaic where Europe’s three most dominant language families meet: Slavic, Romance and Germanic. No fewer than four distinct ethnic groups have settled in the Valcanale and mixed in an overlapping pattern: the Friulians, Italians, Slovenes and Germans. This justifies the label “Little Europe”.

Until the annexation of the Valcanale, the border along the Torrente Pontebbana represented a dividing line between the traditional Carinthian and the Alpine Friulian / Venetian construction style. In the meantime, the sharp division that could be recognised in the cultural landscape has lost its clarity. Besides newly built leisure domiciles and touristic infrastructure, the Carinthian construction style has almost become a rarity in some villages. Nevertheless, the remaining traditional buildings, as well as implemented multilingual signs in public and private areas are part of a cultural memory and thus contribute to a symbolic ethnicity.

Photo 1: Disused Köse, an agricultural construction once utilized for drying hay, Fusine in Valromana. Source: Steinicke (2019)
Photo 2: Preserved traditional building, Carinthian-style (Gail Valley), Camporosso. Source: Steinicke (2019)
Photo 3: Quadrilingual sign, Valcanale. Source: Steinicke (2019)

An analysis of the region’s post-modern development shall examine assimilation processes, demographic change and the influence of newcomers (amenity migrants) and new farmers on the cultural landscape. Concerning assimilation, self-identification and heteronomous differentiation constitute an important element. These processes are not entirely independent from demographic development. Special attention must be given to newcomers, since they stabilize the population and potentially initiate innovations. Studies of our research group in other Alpine regions have demonstrated the phenomenon of new farmers, whose behaviours are determined by their non-agricultural and external background.

Further investigation shall reveal migration trends and distinguish between different types of newcomers and their ethno-geographical effects. Although the research is explicitly geographic, different fields of social sciences are at the core of the studies. Consequently, the use of a pool of concepts and terms needs to be explicated. Therefore, it will be the very first step to discuss concepts such as symbolic ethnicity and cultural landscape. Connecting spatial concepts with those of social sciences will remain a continual challenge with the potential of generating new insights.


Thesis 1:Although the minority languages are disappearing more and more in the Valcanale, symbolic ethnicity is particularly pronounced. This manifests itself in the preservation of traditional customs and thus in the cultural landscape and in economy.

The project will start with an analysis of the everyday language use, especially focusing on the minority languages German and Slovene. Furthermore, we seek to highlight the cultivation of tradition and customs. In connection to this, we aim to investigate the local awareness of cultural landscape as well as to clarify both socio-economic processes and human-induced landscape changes.

Thesis 2:Undoubtedly, emigration is overall still outnumbering in-migration in the entire research area, and population losses dominate due to birth deficit. Nonetheless, newcomers are bringing innovations to businesses and culture. Their socio-cultural influence is pivotal for the safeguarding of cultural heritage.

For detailed analysis of the demographic development, we will conduct extensive data collection focusing on newcomers. Moreover, it is fundamental to investigate the effect of the new highlanders on the research area.

Thesis 3:Among the newcomers are also new farmers. Their agrarian activities are particularly significant for revitalizing the cultural landscape of peripheral areas. People engaged in agriculture can maintain traditions in an ideal way, and in interaction with traditional local farmers regional identity will be strengthened.

We will draw our attention on the role of new farmers in regard to the cultivation of land, the preservation of the cultural countryside, the prevention of out-migration and the attraction of new in-migrants as well as tourists. Fundamental questions concern the number of new farmers, their interaction with local farmers and in how far they perpetuate traditions and customs.

Research area

The main research area is the Valcanale, which encompasses 13 traditional villages. The valley is situated in the northeast of Italy, bordering on Austria (Carinthia) in the north and Slovenia (Carniola) in the east.
The Resia Valley (Slovenian: Rezija) in the south as well as the German language pockets Timau (German: Tischelwang), Sappada (German: Pladen) and Sauris (German: Die Zahre) in Friuli act as neighbouring comparison areas.

News archive

Project details


1. February 2020 - 31. May 2023

Taskforce & DCA-Team:

Demographic Change in the Alps / Ethnic Minorities and Refugees

Project leader
Dr. Ernst Steinicke
Maga. Leonie Hasenauer, PhD
PhD candidate
Maga. Anna-Maria Plautz

Research funded by

FWF – Austrian Science Fund

The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) is Austria's central funding organization for basic research. The purpose of the FWF is to support the ongoing development of Austrian science and basic research at a high international level. In this way, the FWF makes a significant contribution to cultural development, to the advancement of our knowledge-based society, and thus to the creation of value and wealth in Austria.



Ao.Univ.-Prof. Dr. Peter Čede,
Department of Geography and Regional Science,
Karl-Franzens-University Graz
Prof. Igor Jelen,
Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Triest
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