Originally published in 2011
A young Benito Mussolini
It’s easy to laugh at Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini today.
We see him in those old black and whites. Kind of fat. Bald. Overly dramatic and theatrical. Silly. Chin thrust out. Arms folded. We can laugh at the thought of stitches straining to hold his uniform together.
He seems like a buffoon. A cartoon. A joke.
But it wasn’t always so. It wasn’t so easy to laugh at Mussolini in the 1920s and 30s. Especially if you were an Italian living in little Italy. It wasn’t easy to laugh at him at all.
In 1911 Mussolini was one of the leading Socialists in Italy and Editor of the Socialist newspaper Avanti. The outbreak of World War in 1914 split the socialist movement into interventionist and non-interventionist camps. Mussolini supported intervening in the war on the side of the allies and was eventually expelled from the Italian Socialist Party.
The First World War split the Italian community in America as well. The left, socialists, syndicalists and anarchists, bomb throwers and not, urged Italy to stay out of war, characterizing it as a war of capitalists and royal families. There was nothing in it for Italian workers and proletariat.
On the other hand, the establishment – the “prominenti”, well to do community leaders, Italian clerics, associations such as the Order of the Sons of Italy, Italian language newspapers, diplomats and Consular officials and eventually the U. S. Government supported Italy entering the war.
As usual, those opposing the war were “subversives”, reds, anti-capitalists.
The Bolshevik revolution in Russia only served to solidify the fear of the “reds”.
In Italy as well as elsewhere in Europe there was fear of a Bolshevik take-over after the war. Strikes and land seizures, especially in the Italian South, were creating an atmosphere of anarchy and dread among the ruling classes of Italy. Socialists were demanding the ouster of King Victor Emmanuel and the abolition of the monarchy while doing little to stem worker and peasant militancy.
After the war Mussolini had founded the Italian Fascist Party completing his abandonment of socialism. He gave up his ideas on egalitarianism and worker’s rights and adopted Nietzsche’s theories on the ubermensch. His “Black Shirts”, the “revolutionary vanguard” believed in taking a strong hand in the streets and soon pitched battles between socialists and fascists were a daily occurrence.
In October 1922 Mussolini and his Black Shirts “marched” on Rome in a coup d’etat against Prime Minister Luigi Facta. King Victor Emmanuel refused to support Facta and handed power to the fascists. Mussolini was supported by the military, the business classes, the Catholic Church and the liberal right-wing.
Mussolini used the next several years to turn Italy into a one-party state. Fascist thuggery in the streets culminated in the murder of the Socialist Deputy Giacomo Matteotti who had called for election results to be annulled due to wide-spread voter fraud.
In America, the Italian community was taking notice. Most Italians of the day were apolitical, just trying to make a living. The prominenti. clergy and new fascist Italian consular officials however did everything possible to rally support for Mussolini among the diaspora. Over 200 Fascist clubs (Lictors) were established; newspapers published and support for fascism came directly from the pulpits on Sunday mornings.
Those who opposed Mussolini were godless “reds” and communists. And anti-Italian. Mussolini poured medals and honors on his fascist supporters in the Italian community in America.
Members of the pro-Nazi German American Bund and the pro-Fascist Italian Blackshirts give the salute. This gathering took place at the Bund’s Camp Siegfried on Long Island. Yaphank, New York, – October 16, 1937.
Pitched battles were fought in the streets between black shirted members of the fascist clubs and left wing anti-fascist demonstrators. At the Garibaldi Memorial on Staten Island in 1931 the fascist prominenti, the Order of the Sons of Italy and the black shirts were on the dais while hundreds of radicals battled the police outside. Heads were bloodied and one man was killed. It was not at all an unusual ocurrence.
Carlo Tresca, the leading anarchist and labor agitator of the day was Mussolini’s most implacable foe in America. Italian diplomatic officials and the F. B. I. worked together tirelessly to deport Tresca and other anti-fascists into Mussolini’s clutches. But Tresca was no bomb thrower. He published his small newspaper Il Martello (The Hammer) relentlessly attacking fascism both in Italy and America. Others were not so lucky and were deported. But hey, they were reds.
When Mussolini attacked Abyssinia the Italian American community rallied to his support. When Mussolini signed the Lateran Accords with the Roman Catholic Church in Rome, the clergy could not heap enough praise on him.
The American government, both Republicans in the 1920s and Democrats in the 30s, loved Mussolini. He was after all anti-communist. And the Democrats needed Italian American votes. Fiorello LaGuardia attended a fund raiser at Madison Square Garden along with 20,000 others to raise money for the Italian Red Cross after the start of war in Abyssinia. Tammany Hall needed Italian votes and the fascist supporter Generoso Pope who owned the largest Italian language newspapers on the East Coast was a major LaGuardia contributor. LaGuardia, dependent on Italian and Jewish votes always attacked Hitler; he never attacked Mussolini in public.
Roosevelt never condemned Italy’s attack on Abyssinia nor did he embargo vital war material notwithstanding the fact that most Americans abhorred the war of conquest. Nor did Britain or France. The ruling class in each country greatly admired Mussolini.
American bankers including J. P. Morgan liked and supported Mussolini. He was after all anti-communist. Morgan arranged a $100 million loan for Italy to shore up the fascist economy. He also believed that Southern Europeans needed a strong man type of government. Most Republicans did. Democracy was only suitable for Anglo-Saxons. Italy’s World War I debts to the U. S. were conveniently rescheduled at il Duce’s request.
After the signing of the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, Pope Pius XI called Mussolini “a man sent by Providence to save Europe from Bolshevism”. Support for Mussolini among the clergy was overwhelming.
Only “reds” opposed him.
The apolitical Italian, who didn’t join a local fascist club or wasn’t a well to do businessman found himself reflecting in a quiet pride. Those who had previously treated him and his country with contempt and disdain now listened to what the Duce of Italy had to say. Suddenly we mattered. The apolitical were predominantly pro-fascist in their hearts.
The anti-fascist Italian left splintered over the issue of a united anti-fascist front. The anarchists would not work with the communists, viewing the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as just another dictatorship. The communists did everything they could do undermine anarchist goals particularly in infiltrating labor organizations.
The Spanish civil war brought the anarchist-communist split into full view as Republican leftists turned on each other while Franco, Mussolini and Hitler marched to victory. Mussolini contributed 40,000 troops and modern weaponry to Franco while England and France did nothing.
Tresca noted that the capitalist countries, while different in many ways, were de-facto allies in wanting to see the Spanish Republican forces defeated. They were, after all, godless “reds”. Doing nothing to help them while ignoring Mussolini and Hitler’s aid to Franco made total sense. They were, in the final leftist analysis, all capitalists.
Italian American support for Mussolini, especially after the attack on Abyssinia was the high-point of our shameful flirtation with fascism. Once war broke and Italy joined on the side of Hitler we quietly put away our Italian flags and black shirts and became loyal Americans. The community’s contact with Italy was fractured for a decade, the old timers died and we never again cared much as to what was going on in the old country.
Carlo Tresca was asassinated on 13th street and 5th avenue in NYC on January 11, 1943. He had spent his entire life opposing capitalists, communists, fascists and the mafia. He had all the right enemies.
The fascists blamed the communists. The communists blamed the fascists. The cops blamed the mafia.
His killer was never found.
At his funeral, Angelica Balabanoff, the grand dame of European Socialism, who had known both Tresca and Mussolini from their days in exile in Switzerland described him in Italian as one of Italy’s great martyrs, “slain by those who are afraid of enlightenment, truth and reason”.
The Italian – American radical left died with him. Only Vito Marcantonio would survive into the 1950s.
In Italy, Berlusconi ruled for over twenty years.
In America our most illustrious sons are the Justices Scalia and Alito.