Forte Belvedere: World War I fort stands as a memorial in Italy
Apart from the generators droning in the distance and the diesel fumes hanging in the air, the narrow tunnel leading to the howitzer battery seemed much as it probably did 90 years ago.
Bunches of electric cable coupled to the curved ceiling hung overhead, and lights spaced every few yards gave off a feeble, eerie glow as water trickled down the walls onto the slippery concrete floor.
Walking along, it was easy to imagine being a recruit just reporting for duty. At any moment the commander, Oberleutnant Anton Perschitz, might appear, grab me by the collar, and have me outside picking up cigarette butts.
The Lavarone high plains, or Altipiani di Lavarone, north of Vicenza, Italy, are dotted with old Austro-Hungarian forts from the World War I era. Most are heaps of rubble. But one, thanks to an ironic twist, remains intact.
The old fort, perched on a jagged limestone spur, is visible from the bottom of the Val d’Astico. A 30-minute drive along a winding road through the valley brought me to the fort, where I joined a group of mostly Austrian tourists inside the casemate, now a museum.
Dressed in hunter-green lederhosen, a gray Tirolean jacket and a jaunty campaign cap, tour guide Fabrizio Corradi began his spiel. Despite his name, he couldn’t have looked more Austrian, even with Emperor Franz Joseph’s mutton- chop whiskers.
He said Forte Belvedere — its original name was Werk Geschwendt — sat 4,000 feet above sea level on what was then the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy. It “anchored the middle of seven ‘hardened’ forts built by Austro-Hungary between 1908 and 1914 to defend the Tirol and the vital Brenner Pass to the north,” he said.
Since the early Middle Ages, the southern part of the Tirol had been a predominantly German- speaking region. But a sizable ethnic Italian minority also lived along its border with Italy in the Trentino. For the most part, the Trentini supported the Hapsburg monarchy and harbored no desire to become a part of Italy.
Nevertheless, on May 23, 1915, after what would become known as World War I had been raging in the rest of Europe for nearly a year, Italy renounced its neutrality and declared war against the Austrian Empire to “liberate” its ethnic brothers from foreign domination.
When the war ended three years later, the Treaty of St. Germain, which broke up the Austrian empire, awarded Italy not only the Trentino, but also all of the Tirol up to the Brenner Pass, 100 miles to the north. The region was renamed Trentino-Alto Adige, and German became forbidden during a brutal 20- year “Italianization” program under the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
Standing next to a large display case filled with old Austro- Hungarian uniforms much like his own, Corradi shook his head and said, “Things got so bad, even tombstones had to be inscribed in Italian.”
After Corradi’s presentation, the group split up to explore the rest of the fort. Water squished under our shoes as we navigated the narrow tunnel that led to the battery. A gusting wind growled through a distant porthole, and from the far end of the tunnel, an Austrian tourist yodeled in delight. Maybe he got through without falling.
During the war, the battery’s three gun emplacements contained 105 mm howitzers in rotating steel turrets like battleships. Now, from the outside, the rust-colored turrets look more like giant mutant mushrooms growing on the peaceful mountain plateau.
From the battery, another series of long, dank tunnels led to fortified pillboxes carved into the southern, eastern and western edges of the limestone spur.
Equipped with heavy machine guns and 60 mm rapid-fire cannons, the pillboxes were the fort’s “eyes and ears” and the last line of local defense.
To the dismay of enemy troops creeping along at night, the pillboxes also possessed searchlights on retractable rails that could light up the valley floor like the stage of the Vienna State Opera House during the final act of Wagner’s “Die Götterdämmerung.”
Corradi said Bavarians had settled numerous German-speaking enclaves in the Trentino centuries ago. During the war, their descendants manned a network of trenches and advanced fighting positions that defended the territory between the forts.
“Though understrength and armed with one-shot Werndl rifles,” Corradi said, alternating between German and Italian, “they held their own against the Italian regular army.”
When the Standsschützen, the Tirolese militia, quit their posts at the end of the war, the forts were left empty. Years later, in the 1930s, Mussolini needed raw material for arms to fight his colonial wars in Africa. The abandoned forts, “hardened” with hundreds of tons of iron girders buried in 10 feet of concrete, lured metal-scavengers like lodestones.
Only Forte Belvedere dodged the wrecking ball, spared by someone who had tried to destroy it only 20 years earlier.
“When Vittorio Emanuele III, the King of Italy, visited the fort in 1935,” Corradi said, “he saw the great shape it was still in, and decided it should be saved as a memory to those who gave their lives during the war.”
Thirty years after it was awarded as war booty, Trentino-Alto Adige became an autonomous region within the Republic of Italy in 1948. Discrimination against German-speaking minorities is long gone, but some still yearn for the idyllic days under Hapsburg rule.
An hour later the group trickled out of the fort and headed toward the parking lot. As I left the fort, I saw Corradi standing outside the souvenir shop drinking beer with several Austrian tourists. He hoisted his mug and made a toast. I’d bet a Wienerschnitzel it wasn’t to the memory of King Vittorio Emanuele III, the man who saved the fort.
Donald G. Jean is a free-lance writer living near Vicenza, Italy. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.