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Fascism and Italian American Culture

14Sep5:00 pm8:00 pmFascism and Italian American Culture5:00 pm - 8:00 pm(GMT+00:00) Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò, 24 West 12 Street, New York, NY 10011Italian Jewish Studies SeminarItalian Jewish Studies Seminar

Event Details

Seminar in Italian Jewish Studies

Presented by Centro Primo Levi – NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò and Department of History

Introduction: Ruth Ben Ghiat (New York University)
Fraser Ottanelli (University of South Florida)
Matteo Pretelli (New York University and Middlebury College, Florence)
Discussant: Marcella Bencivenni (Hostos Community College, CUNY)


Literature on the Fascist regime’s reaches in the Americas has a distinguished history going back to Gaetano Salvemini, whose recording of, and sharp commentary, provides today’s scholars with an invaluable source. In the 1970s, John P. Diggins began groundbreaking research in this field, followed in the next decades by Phillip V. Cannistraro and other international scholars.

In the past two decades, with a large amount of primary sources still untapped, research has began to investigate the modalities through which Fascism sought to control Italians abroad and, through them, maintain relations with countries that were not under totalitarian rule.

Italian Americans’ self-images during those years were shaped by propaganda, foreign press reports, economic interests, and the establishment of the Fascist League of North America on the one hand, and by the Regime’s cultural and educational showcases along with a network of local police informants, on the other.

Fascism, however, was forced to adapt its methods to the requirements and style of the American society and values producing ambiguous cultural and political categories that continued to operate after Mussolini’s fall and the end of World War II.

How did the Italian American community and their leadership negotiate their position and role within the larger horizon of the relations between the US and Italy and the US and the Catholic Church? How did ethnic leaders and intellectuals of Italian background interpret the relation between dictatorship and democracy within the Italian communities in the US? To what extent were Italian American radicals also antifascists? How did they respond to Fascism and what relations did they develop with the mainstream Italian American population, by and large supportive of Fascism, and with various factions of Italian antifascist in exile?

The study of Italian American history, politics and culture during the Fascist Regime provides an important dimension to better understand Italian Fascism. It also contributes important sources for research topics that are crucial part of Centro Primo Levi’s ongoing activities, such as the story of the Italian Jewish exiles in America and the role of the Italian press, publishing and cultural propaganda in the US. The discussion opened by this seminar will continue in future sessions addressing more specific issues about antisemitism in the US, the Italian Jewish exiles in America and the transition to the post-war period.

As many as 2,000 Jewish exiles arrived in the US in the wake of the Racial Laws. To what degree did anti-Semitism resonate among Italian Americans whose relation with Jews had been defined by the immigrant experience and, for some, by common activism in the unions? What does this Italian-American story add to our reading of the development of racial policies in Italy and of the arrival of the Italian Jewish exiles in America?

This seminar is a first step toward addressing these questions by analyzing some aspects of Fascist outreach in America, its reception and consequences.

Fascist Italy and the Cultural Campaigns in the Little Italies

Matteo Pretelli (New York University)

In the 1930s, Fascist Italy led by dictator Benito Mussolini aimed to maintain tight control of the sizable communities of Italians who lived in the U.S., people born in Italy or in the U.S. to Italian parents. 1930 U.S. census counted around five millions of them, a considerable mass of people that – according to the regime in Rome – could be utilized as lobby to endorse Italian foreign policy’s interests. In the previous decade, the regime had sought unsuccessfully control of Italian-Americans through the activities of the Fascist Party branches established in the U.S. The reaction of either Italian-Americans or the American authorities to these political activities had been negative. Consequently, Rome designed a new project aimed to foster overseas the Italian language and culture in the Italian communities to the goal migrant new generations (born and raised in the U.S.) maintained the capacity to speak Italian, a tool believed instrumental to keep alive transnational ties to the native land.

After an explorative phase, the cultural project started in mid-1930s, when all Italian consulates in the U.S. were called to coordinate and supervise the establishment of Italian catholic parochial schools in which Italian was taught; or to push campaigns devoted to lobby school boards promoted by Italian-Americans to search for the introduction of the teaching of Italian in the American public schools attended by their children. In addition, consulates endorsed ethnic associations that dealt with similar cultural activities. Special educational agents were sent from Italy and aggregated to the consulates to take the lead of local pro-Italian language movements and to report back to Rome about the outcomes of their activities.

Tapping into the growing research field relating to the transnational ties between migrants’ countries of origin and their diasporas abroad, this paper aims to analyze the articulated cultural project that the Fascist regime put in motion in the U.S. through its consulates. Specifically, activities and profiles of the educational agents will be described, while results of these campaigns will be tested at the eve of World War II.

Class, Migration and Transnational Politics: Fascism, Antifascism and the definition of Italian American identity.

Fraser Ottanelli (University of South Florida)

During the late 1930s and through the war years, a striking characteristic of the organizations set up by Italian exiles was their lack of contact with the broader Italian community in the United States. Factors such as class distinction and different educational backgrounds widened the chasm between migrants and political exiles. The unwillingness of many exiles to engage with Italian-Americans in general was based on a certainty that most of them enthusiastically identified with Mussolini and his regime.

The traditional interpretation put forth by Salvemini was that for a community marginalized by continued Anglo-xenophobia and alienated by discriminatory immigration laws, support for Mussolini was the product of the Regime’s ability to construct an idealized image of a modern, imperial and feared “new Italy” that provided them with a sense of pride within U.S. society. This, view that Italian American support for Mussolini was non-ideological but rather a psychological reaction to a feeling of inferiority within the host society was embraced by many exiles along with subsequent generations of historians.

This presentation wants to “complicate” the discussion of the attitudes of Italians in the United States toward Mussolini and his regime by calling attention to how the intricate interaction between forms of integration of Italian migrants into U.S. society, the repressive presence of the Italian state within the ethnic community, and finally the cooperation between the US and the Italian authorities to repress political dissenters, combined to shape conflicting political attitudes and definitions of Italian-American identity.

About the speakers: 

Matteo Pretelli (PhD University of Trieste) is the Tiro a Segno Fellow 2016 at the Department of Italian of the New York University. In 2016, he taught Italian History and Culture in the Middlebury College in Florence. He was also a Fulbright Research Scholar at the University of Minnesota (2008), Lecturer in Italian Studies at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne (2008-2009), Research Fellow at the University of Trieste (2010-2012), Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute (2013), Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick (2013-2015). He is the recipient of the Alberto Aquarone Prize, the Gianfausto Rosoli Prize, the American Italian Historical Association Memorial Fellowship, the Altreitalie Dissertation Prize. He published extensively in particular on the history of Italian migration. His latest publications include ‘Mussolini’s Mobilities: Transnational Movements between Fascist Italy and Italian Communities Abroad,’ Journal of Migration History, 1 (2015), 100-120.

Marcella Bencivenni is an associate professor of history at Hostos Community College (CUNY). In addition to her recent book, Italian Immigrant Radical Culture, she has written numerous articles about American labor, immigration and Italian American history, and has co-edited with Ron Hayduk Radical Perspectives on Immigration for the journal Socialism and Democracy of which she is an editorial board member. She is also the incoming editor of the Italian American Review.

Fraser Ottanelli is Professor at the Department of History at the University of South Florida in Tampa. His areas of specialization are ethnic and labor history, comparative migration, and U.S. history in a global age. On these topics he has authored two books and numerous articles and essays. Currently he serves on the Executive Committee of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) and is on the research team of the Asaba Memorial Project—an effort to document and memorialize a mass killing of civilians that took place in 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War.

Image: Italians celebrate Mussolini’s victory in Addis Ababa. New York’s ‘Little Italy’ went wild with joy over entry of Il Duce’s troops into Addis Ababa. This group in front of 115 Mott Street drinks toast to Mussolini and to victory. Getty Images, May 06, 1936

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