Immigration – Italian Americans and Fascism

  

A young Benito Mussolini

 I swear to my honor
To serve with fidelity and discipline the Fascist idea of society – based on religion, the Fatherland, and the family, and to respect the authority of the League and of the hierarchy and tradition of our race.
To love, serve, obey and exalt the United States of America and to render obedience and respect to its constitution and its laws.
To keep alive the cult with Italy as the Fatherland and eternal light of civilization and greatness.
To combat with all my might theories and ideas tending to subvert, corrupt, and disgrace religion, the Fatherland, or the family.
To do my best to improve my culture, my physique and my morals, to render me fit for the part I am to play in serving the nation in its hour of greatness.
To submit to the discipline of the hierarchy of the Fascist League of North America.

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 by his former lover Angelica Balabanoff.

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 leading Socialist Deputy Giacomo Matteotti who had called for election results to be annulled due to wide-spread voter fraud.

In America, the Italian community of New York 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.

Salvatore Caridi, leader of the fascist Italian War Veterans and Fritz Kuhn, Nazi Leader of the German American Bund at Camp Siegfried.

The Fascist League of North America was formed as an umbrella group for fascist Italian-American organizations in 1924, the groups coming together under the umbrella of the FLNA.  By the mid-to late 1920s, the Italian fascist party decided to extend its suzerainty over the foreign groups through the Fasci Italiani all’Estero, or Fascists Abroad organization. Count Paolo Ignazio Maria Thaon di Revel was sent to the US from Rome to organize the Fasci clubs into the FLNA.

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.

Eventually about a dozen from both sides were killed in these street brawls.

When Mussolini attacked Abyssinia the Italian American community rallied to his support though most of the liberal democratic world sided with Ethiopia.  Many Italian-Americans naturally took the side of Italy. Some volunteered to go and fight for Italy in Abyssinia, joining the 221st ‘Italiani all’Estero Legion of the Fascist militia which was made up of Italian expatriates from around the world.

Italian American black shirt girls.

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 either 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.

Italain American Black Shirts

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.

Italian American Black Shirts (with white pants) among the Brown Shirts at Camp Nordland

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.

Carlo Tresca, the leading anarchist and labor agitator of the day was Mussolini’s most implacable foe in America. Italian diplomatic officials and the FBI worked tirelessly to have him deported into Mussolini’s clutches, without success.  Tresca was not a bomb thrower; he quietly published his small newspaper, Il Martello (The Hammer) relentlessly attacking fascists, communists and the mafia.  Many other “reds” were not so lucky as they were deported without so much as a by your leave.

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 in America and Italy declared war 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

Carlo Tresca was assasinated 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 was a lover of 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.”

In Italy, Berlusconi ruled for over twenty years.  Neo-fascism has made a revival.

Charlottesville

In America, we are at the cross roads.

.

 

About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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7 Responses to Immigration – Italian Americans and Fascism

  1. beetleypete says:

    I have actually read quite a bit about this in the past. It has always confounded me how someone can go from being a left-wing socialist to a right-wing fascist, in little more than a heartbeat.
    I could never imagine changing my lifelong political ideals so easily.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Coming from the West Coast where they put Japanese Americans in concentration camps and confiscated their property during World War ll, I have always wondered why the same suspicion didn’t apply to Italians and Germans. I know that wasn’t the point of your pose, but it reminded me of that question. I learned a lot from reading this, most of which I never knew.

    Liked by 2 people

    • toritto says:

      Hii Liz. Glad you liked. Hundreds of German and Italian immigrants in New York were arrested and sent to – of all places – Ellis Island where they were detained for years. They all however foreign nationals and not American citizens. On the west coast Italians were forbidden to fish off shore – Joe DiMaggio’s father was one of those.

      During World War II, 600,000 undocumented (illegal) Italian immigrants in the United States were deemed “enemy aliens” and detained, relocated, stripped of their property or placed under curfew. A couple hundred were even locked in internment camps.

      Besties from Florida

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Jennie says:

    Thank you, Frank. Our daughter married a native Florentine. His retelling of his grandmother’s stories of WWII are fascinating, like yours. Fascism was evil, and the only other choice was Communism.

    Liked by 1 person

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