Case Studies

Surnames and Nationality

Images of 1989 tend to center on dramatic events in Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, or other major East European cities. However, many of the changes in Eastern Europe and the world were far more subtle but no less important. This case study explores a new law passed in Italy in 1991, which was also an attempt to limit the the abuses of Communism as much as a regime change.

Images of 1989 tend to center on dramatic events in Berlin, in Beijing, in Bucharest, and in Johannesburg, just to name a few. Visions of mass demonstration and popular uprising predominate. Even in places like the former Czechoslovakia, where peaceful transition occurred in a "velvet" revolution, the perception is one of overthrow of statal authority in the name of popular reform. In western Europe and the United States, emphasis falls on the triumph of popular democracy over communist dictatorship. Lost in these vivid images is the view of events and subsequent reforms of 1989 and the years following as part of a historical process of openness and restructuring, a process begun before 1989 and stretching well into the decade of the 1990s and beyond.

The Italian surname law of March 1991 allows students to see "revolution" as "evolution," to see the dramatic events of 1989 as part of a process of European reform. It emphasizes the shift in national visions that was part of the political revolutions of 1989. The law offers an example of how "restructuring" on an international level in Central and Eastern Europe had a direct affect on the local level in areas outside of the Communist world. Finally, it invites discussion of the nature of government and offers an opportunity to examine the dynamic character of governance even where government structures appear static.

I chose this source for my History 201: Introduction to Historical Methods course, and I intend to utilize it in my Twentieth Century Europe course as well. Historical Methods is an introductory course for history majors to teach basic tools for historical analysis and interpretation and introduce the fundamentals of citation and attribution. In addition, it introduces students to the discipline of history and the work of historians. Too often students see history as an endless stream of dates, events, and actors to be memorized. The results of trying to teach 1989 can be particularly vexing when confronting students' lack of knowledge with regard to basic geography and political structures not to mention historical background and the Cold War. The law allows students to see how seemingly minute details can illuminate larger events. It can help students to focus on and remember context rather than to memorize content. Use of the law allows me to present my own research to students to walk them through the process of professional research and to discuss the problems that historians grapple with.

Laws seem to be underutilized as sources. Perhaps their language or "legalese" can be off-putting. They can seem arcane or boring next to a good historical novel or first-hand account. Perhaps, they are overlooked as reminiscent of attachments to unfashionable institutional, political history. However, in many cases, laws offer a short (easily readable even in a short class period), succinct summation of the political mood and intent in a particular society. They are, by nature, in the public domain, making them easily accessible and relatively free from usage restrictions.

I use this surname restoration law of 1991 for one class period. I give it to students cold and ask them to read it. It is one in a series of documents I use to discuss research and the use of primary sources. By the time they are given it, the class has already analyzed a telegram describing the discovery of a body near Italy's border with Austria in the early 1920s. As they read the 1991 law, I pull up a power point with maps showing the area affected by the law. I introduce the geography of the Cold War and eastern and western blocs. I begin the discussion of the source by asking the students what they find interesting about it.

I chose this particular law for its appeal on several counts. First, many undergraduates harbor aspirations to attend law school, but have never really read a law. They find the document intriguing. Second, all students have surnames, have some familiarity with the changing of names (through marriage, divorce, adoption, etc.), can understand the administrative importance of surnames, and have strong opinions, when prompted, on the changing of surnames. When we do this exercise, my students are already well aware of my research interest in names, and we have completed an in-class exercise using US government census statistics on first names given to babies in the United States since the 1880s. They feel invested in research on names or "onomastics." Generally, the first thing students latch on to is the "Fascist" aspect of the law. For some inexplicable reason, as is evident in all the European history courses I teach, students tend to be fascinated with Fascism. The law passed relatively recently allows me to demonstrate the continuing impact of Fascism on modern society, to show the lasting impact of what many assume to have been destroyed by the end of World War II.

The 1991 law allows me to directly connect pre-World War II society to post-1989 events. Although the law was promulgated in 1991, the legislative motion was introduced to the Italian Senate and referred to the Commission on Constitutional Affairs in May 1988. This was before the dramatic events of 1989 but after the victories of Solidarity were already evident in Poland and Michael Gorbachev had announced his reformist intentions in the Soviet Union. I give students this background and then ask, "What do the Poles' calls in Solidarity, Gorbachev's reforms, and this Italian law have in common?" The answer lies in historical conceptions of eastern Europe and Russia/Soviet Union. All deal with the fate of Slavs in an era in which the power of the Soviet Union or Russia is eroding. The 1927 measures under which new surnames were assumed or assigned affected Slavs, primarily Croats and Slovenes, living in Italy's eastern borderland. The Fascists also changed the last names of ethnic Hungarians, Austro-Germans, and other former Habsburg subjects from all parts of the empire who had settled for commercial reasons in the Adriatic provinces ceded to Italy. The 1989 "reawakening" of the peoples and nationalism is most often remembered as the collapse of the eastern bloc, but as many historians have explained, it was also the rebirth of Central Europe. The law demonstrates how Central Europe and the fate and "reawakening" of the Slavs affected all of Europe. The devastating effects of failures to deal with nationalist aspirations and sentiments of the South Slavs are only too evident in the years after 1991 with the eruption of several wars in the former Yugoslavia. This law, then, emerges as an effort by Italy to validate the nationalist sentiments of ethnic Slavs or ethnic minorities included in Italy's borders and recognized as persecuted by the Fascist government.

In the wake of the Second World War, with the burgeoning of the Cold War "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic" as Winston Churchill described, the aspirations, rights, and sympathies for ethnic groups asking for self-determination were lost in the din of superpower rivalry and the division of Europe into opposing blocs. On this southern fringe of the iron curtain, the law allowing for the reinstatement of surname changed or "Italianized" as part of the Fascist nationalizing project shows how such issues as national identity were submerged during the Cold War to re-emerge in various guises as aspects of political revolution in Europe after 1989.

Overall, the law works seems to work well because students can relate to what name change means. They seem to take away a sense of historical continuity and the study of history as a process. They also see the interconnectedness of history across Europe. Most recently, completion of this exercise led to a student-initiated discussion of ideas about how historians look at the expansion of the European Union and globalization in the contemporary world. But, I find, I can never know exactly where the presentation of the law will lead, and that is, for me, the enduring value of teaching it as a source.


Document 1: Provision for the Restatement of Names and Surnames

Maura Hametz
Associate Professor, Department of History
Old Dominion University