Articles by: Stanislao Pugliese*

  • Op-Eds

    What Is in a (Street) Name? Too Much History. And Italian Americans in Chicago Make the Headlines.

    In the summer of 1933, Italo Balbo (1896-1940), Italian General and Minister of the Air Force, led a squadron of twenty-four seaplanes from Rome to Chicago for the Century of Progress International Exhibition (also known as the World’s Fair). This was a propaganda coup for Mussolini’s fascist regime. Not the fascist regime of Blackshirts rampaging in the streets of Italy administering castor oil to their opponents or murdering socialist and communists but the technocratic, modernist fascism derived from Futurism that sought to harness the vitality of the modern: speed, technology, violence and the glorification of war. This was one aspect of the contradictory nature of fascism: reactionary in looking back to ancient Rome; modernist in its understanding and manipulation of modern technology and communication.

    Balbo triumphantly landed in Chicago where he was greeted by the masses and the mayor. A parade was held in his honor with the street naming to follow. President Franklin Roosevelt invited Balbo to lunch at the White House where the Italian was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. In New York’s Madison Square Garden, Balbo thrilled a large audience of Italian Americans, charging them to be proud of their heritage because “Mussolini has ended the era of humiliations,” evidence of what I have called elsewhere “fascism as an ideology of compensation.”   In short, the young, dashing and charismatic Balbo and his endeavors (he had already flown to Rio de Janeiro in 1930) were a perfect example of the “new Italy,” the Italy where “the trains ran on time”: modern, technologically advanced, with a political regime that seemed rigorous and energized compared to the declining and decrepit Western liberal democracies. Hence the street in Chicago named in his honor.

    And the petition drafted to re-name the street:
    Be it resolved that whereas Balbo Drive in Chicago was named after the most violent of the Fascist warlords, Italo Balbo, who was a founding member of the Fascist Grand Council, who was responsible for the killing of numerous Italian citizens including the parish priest Giuseppe Minzoni, and who as governor of the Italian colony in Libya supervised concentration camps in which thousands of civilians perished, the name of Balbo Drive should be changed.  Be it further resolved that the former Balbo Avenue be re-named Fermi Drive, after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who won the Nobel
    Prize in Physics, was driven out of his homeland because his Jewish wife suffered under the Manifesto of Race promulgated by Mussolini, and found refuge in Chicago, where he developed the first nuclear reactor (the Chicago Pile 1). Whereas in Italy itself, in which Italo Balbo’s crimes are well known, no streets are named after him, many are named after Fermi.
    This sparked an editorial in the Chicago Tribune on June 27, also calling for the renaming of Balbo Drive in honor of Enrico Fermi. The editorial generated a counter-petition addressed to Alderman Bob Fioretti, counter-editorials and letters, most in favor of retaining the Balbo name. The counter-petition, drafted by Don Fiore, William Dal Cerro and Rosario Iaconis of the Italic Institute of America, can be found online here.
    The controversy has found its way to the H-ITAM (Italian American) list serve ( where several posts in favor of Balbo Drive contain a decidedly anti-intellectual animus:
    “Some Egg Head Professor's [sic] are attempting to discredit him,” writes Richard Annotico while Giorgio Iraci (M.D., Ph.D., F.A.C.S.), writing from Italy, complains that the “contemptuous egg heads” of the anti-Balbo petition are not sufficiently Italian to criticize Balbo:
    “Now, the academic titles of all these seven honourable ladies and gentlemen (“so are they all, all honourable…”) are too lengthy and farraginous to be transcribed here, BUT – can ANYONE find an Italian-sounding surname in this medley? The closest one might be Cardoza’s, and THAT one clearly is of Spanish, not Italian derivation. One of them is an ‘associate professor of MUSICOLOGY’. WHAT has ‘musicology’ possibly got to do with the price of fish, namely something that can connect with politics and/or contemporary history??!!!”
    This is, to say the least, bizarre logical reasoning: notice the sarcastic “honourable” (quoting Shakespeare) and the explicit statement that unless one is Italian, one is not a legitimate interlocutor in this debate. Also note the requirement that one be a specialist in Italian history, implying that a musicologist could have no possible understanding of the subtle nuances involved in the debate. It is possible Dr. Iraci would be further outraged to learn that one of the signers of the anti-Balbo petition, Deidre N. McCloskey (born Donald McCloskey) is a transgendered person, surely confirming the good doctor’s opinion that we in academia are all somehow politically, culturally and sexually beyond the pale.
    I oppose changing the name of Italo Balbo Drive in Chicago, not for the reasons listed on the petition, but because it would be too easy a way to erase some dark aspects of our collective past. (I would also support naming a street in Chicago for Fermi and it hard to believe there isn’t one already.)
    You can’t have it both ways: if we accept the naming of the street in Chicago for Balbo’s heroic trans-Atlantic flight, his opposition to anti-Semitism and his counsel against an alliance with Nazi Germany (all admirable things), you must also accept the historical facts that:
    1) Balbo was the ras of Ferrara in the 1920s when, at the bidding of the wealthy industrialists and large landowners, he lead “punitive” (read murderous) expeditions against peasant agrarian leagues, workers’ unions, socialist cooperatives and communist groups, in the process killing dozens of people;
    2) Balbo was implicated in the murder of the anti-fascist priest Don Giuseppe Minzoni;
    3)  Balbo, as one of the Quadrumvirs (fantasies of ancient Rome!) of October 1922, actively participated in a technically bloodless but still illegal coup d’état against the Liberal monarchy of Italy. In another country, Balbo, Mussolini and the others would have been shot for treason.
    4)  Balbo’s administration of Libya was anything but humane; true, he was not a brutal murderer like Rodolfo Graziani, but he acquiesced in the colonial enterprise and therefore must bear some responsibility for Italian colonial policies.
    5)  Balbo was considered a worthy successor to Mussolini, telling us something about his  moral character.
    Can we get past this easy philo-Italianism and examine our history with a more critical eye?
    The pro-Balbo petition mentions that Balbo was against the anti-Semitic Laws of 1938 and implies that since many Italian Jews survived, Balbo deserves some credit. I can’t speak for Susan Zuccotti, a highly respected historian, but I am pretty sure she would be horrified to see her work on the Holocaust in Italy put on par with the absurd and Orwellian logic (Jews survived Italy, hence Mussolini and fascism were good) of Jonah Goldberg book’s Liberal Fascism.
    I have often written and spoken to local groups, schools, and synagogues about the Holocaust in Italy, and I always mention that Jews in Italy had the second highest survival rate in Europe. But I also mention that because there was Hitler and the Holocaust, Mussolini and Italian fascism “get off the hook” so to speak. Let’s go beyond the myth of “italiani brava gente.” Yes, many Italians saved many Jews. Should we mention here that Mussolini had a long-term affair with a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti? Does it matter? How can we know?  Italians – and some were Italian fascists – saved Jews; but there were plenty of Italian fascists who were fanatical anti-Semites (Telesio Interlandi, Roberto Farinacci). And how are we to consider Celeste Di Porto, notorious for betraying countless Jews and Jewish herself? As I tell my students, history – real history, not Hollywood history, not History Channel History, not self-serving history – is far more complex than what we might prefer.
    Yes, Balbo was no genocidal colonizer, but he was a colonizer. And yes, I have often heard it said: the Italians built roads in Libya, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc. etc. This is the same logic as “Mussolini wasn’t so bad. His only mistake was the alliance with Hitler.” Italians built roads in Africa: true. Italians used aerial bombardment and gas to kill civilians in Africa: true. Where the roads worth the moral crimes?
    The arguments in favor of keeping Balbo Drive are rather weak. The fact that various British officers and American politicians sang his praises is an argument from authority and the inverse of ad hominem attack. “Balbo was never an enemy of the United States.” Well, yes, because he had the good fortune to die before Dec 7, 1941. Most American politicians (including President Roosevelt), businessmen (J. P. Morgan gave a loan of $100 million) and most Italian American prominenti (foremost among them Generoso Pope), sang Mussolini’s praises. Doesn’t mean they were right.
    The excerpt below is from Balbo’s Diario, 1922.
    “I [then] announced to [the chief of police] that I would burn down and destroy the houses of all Socialists in Ravenna if he did not give me within half an hour the means required for transporting the Fascists elsewhere. It was a dramatic moment. I demanded a whole fleet of trucks. The police officers completely lost their heads; but after half an hour they told me where I could find trucks already filled with gasoline. Some of them actually belonged to the office of the chief of police. My ostensible reason was that I wanted to get the exasperated Fascists out of the town; in reality, I was organizing a ‘column of fire’ . . . to extend our reprisals throughout the province. . . . We went through . . . all the towns and centers in the provinces of Forlì and Ravenna and destroyed and burned all the Red buildings. . . . It was a terrible night. Our passage was marked by huge columns of fire and smoke.”
    I would like to point out one particular sentence in the pro-Balbo petition:
    “In light of these undeniable facts it is obvious that opponents of maintaining Balbo Drive seek to distort history for their own socio-political beliefs.”
    This is a disingenuous statement, clearly demonstrating that those who have drafted the
    petition subscribe to an outmoded (and, I would argue, even dangerous) conception of history: “we have the truth, it is absolute and eternal, and anyone who disagrees with our truth must be acting according to suspicious, dishonest and perhaps even evil motives.”
    Can’t the signers of the petition see that they, too, seek to write history according to their own “socio-political beliefs”?
    What I am asking for — what I am pleading for — is a more nuanced understanding of history. Rather than use history to console ourselves, to inflate our esteem, or to whitewash the past, let’s read, write and discuss history with an eye to understanding the incredible complexity of what it means to be human.  Balbo’s life (and afterlife) is a perfect occasion to do so.
    * * *
    For more information and further reflection:

    Claudio Segre, Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Berkeley, 1987) a rather positive bio.

    Mimmo Franzinelli, Squadristi: Protagonisti e techniche della violenza fascista, 1919-1922 (Mondadori, 2003).

    Ruth Ben Ghiat, ed. Italian Colonialism (Palgrave 2008)

    Ali Ahmida, The Making of Modern Libya (NYU, 1994).

    * Stanislao G. Pugliese, Ph.D.
    Professor of History
    Queensboro Unico Distinguished Professor of Italian and Italian American Studies
    Hofstra University


  • Life & People

    Return to Naples. The Power of Family, History and Memory

    Robert Zweig has written a delightful and charming book that manages to both illustrate and overcome cultural differences.

    Zweig’s father was a German Jew who somehow managed to survive internment in the Auschwitz extermination camp and the Death March to Dachau; his mother was born into a Jewish family in Naples. The two met when the father was in Naples searching for a lost brother. The two fell in love, married in July 1946 and the elder Zweig took his Italian bride to America. But during the 1960s, as Robert was growing up as a young boy, he and his family would return to Naples every summer to visit his mother’s extended family. By the time he was ten, in 1965, Zweig had already spent ten summers in Naples.  His was a family where “the past is a subtle, yet tangible presence,” emerging “in whispers, hovering overhead like the vapors of a cloud.”

    Here is a work that treats of two aspects of modern Italian culture not familiar through the tourist industry image of Italy: Jewish culture in Naples and the 1960s divorced from the “dolce vita” stereotype.

    Of particular note is the emphasis on Neapolitan daily life – both private and public – as a performance. Indeed, we come to recognize the ambiguous and often murky delineation between public and private. Zweig’s writing captures his child-like wonder at a place so different from his home in the Bronx of the 1960s and 1970s. This is not a “coming-of-age” memoir but rather a lovingly-drawn remembrance, tinged with a bit of nostalgia, for a world now lost.

    There are beautifully rendered episodes at the family table, on the street and especially the purchase of a book which assumes almost mythical dimensions in the mind of the young boy.  There are light-hearted and humorous scenes such as the search for Virgil’s tomb, which reveal something of the Neapolitan character. The image of America – an America of John F. Kennedy, big cars and prosperity – as seen through the eyes of the Neapolitans is something that readers of a certain age will remember wistfully. Readers will laugh out loud (as I did) at the cross-cultural miscommunication, misconceptions but common humanity of an episode that ends with the image of the Madonna and Child printed on Zweig’s Bar Mitzvah invitation.

    Zweig has mastered the Neapolitan art of the aphorism: “Nothing in Naples is bad, even for children, as long as it is diluted enough (p. 8); in Naples, “complaining, it seems, was a moral imperative”; at the local market, “aesthetic appeal was paramount in every display.”  And there is wisdom that comes only from experience and the passage of time:


    The beating of a young boy’s heart has a different calling than that of a seasoned man. Only as an adult could I grasp the sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes when desire can no longer be satiated by illusions of progress. Rather, the day comes when solitude and the cessation of activity are the true requisites for satisfaction.

    Eventually the childhood trips to Naples came to an end; but in 2004, Zweig returned, this time with his wife and daughter. This time, the people and places of his childhood were mere ghosts, haunting the cityscape. Zweig found himself “mining a dark, unknown terrain that had become an important part of who I was.”

    Return to Naples is not just a delightful way to pass a few hours in the company of a good storyteller: it is also an insightful memoir about the importance and power of family, history and memory.

    * Stanislao G. Pugliese is professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of the forthcoming biography Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone.   


    Return to Naples: My Italian Bar Mitzvah and Other Discoveries by Robert Zweig, Barricade Books, 2008, 222 pp. $23.95.



  • Art & Culture

    Of Miracles and Men

    A media controversy has exploded in Italy and the United States over Spike Lee’s recently-released film, “The Miracle at St. Anna,” based on a novel by the same name written by James McBride. As screenings opened in Italy, veteran partisans and their organization the ANPI, as well as survivors from the notorious Nazi massacre at Sant’Anna da Stazzema (August 12, 1944), have protested what they see as an insulting and historically inaccurate portrait of the armed Resistance. Giorgio Bocca, the dean of Italian Resistance historians opened an attack in the pages of “La Repubblica;” Lee has responded that he did not intend to denigrate the partisans but that he stands by his film. As an historian of the Resistenza and one of the few people who have both read the book and seen the film, I would like to comment on the interpretation of book, film and historical fact.


    "The Miracle at St. Anna", Trailer

    The story concerns four black American soldiers, part of the segregated Buffalo Soldiers of the American Army, caught behind German lines in Tuscany in 1944. One soldier, the sympathetic Sam Train, rescues an Italian child after a bombing. The child, whom Train takes to be an angel (and is actually named Angelo), thinks his savior to be a “chocolate giant.” For their part, the black American soldiers come to realize that the Italian peasants see them as men, soldiers and Americans; the color of their skin is a curiosity, not a condemnation. The “miracle” of Sant’Anna is not only the rescue of Angelo, but that black men come to be seen as men, and not black.

    The current controversy concerns the depiction and interpretation of the massacre at Sant’Anna and the portrayal of the partigiani. There is a traitor among the partigiani and it seems that they are responsible for massacre. Some partigiani might find Spike Lee’s movie and James McBride’s book “insulting;” I cannot speak in their name. But no serious student of the Resistenza subscribes to a whitewashed history of 1943-1945. While there is quite a bit of talk (and complaint) of the “mythology” of the Resistenza, including the present Prime Minister of Italy who wishes history books to be re-written with a more critical (read: revisionist) eye, those who participated in the armed Resistance against Italian fascism and the Nazi occupation were always conscious of the deep moral ambiguity of the conflict. One need only to read Italo Calvino’s “Path to the Nest of Spiders” (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno) of 1947 to see that the Left was fully aware of what Primo Levi, in another context, called the Grey Zone. 
    I did not find the portrait of the partigiani offensive. Yes, there is a traitor in their midst; but this was all-too-common. (I will leave it to others to critique a crucial scene in the film where the black soldiers are denied service in a 1943 Louisiana ice cream parlor; the same parlor where captured German soldiers are enjoying themselves immensely. In the novel, the soldiers are sent away humiliated; in the film, they return in vengeful triumph.) And no Hollywood film on World War II is complete without the stereotype of the “good Nazi.” Spike Lee gives us not one, but two (where only one exists in the book). They are responsible for saving the lives of the two main protagonists, Angelo and Hector Negron. I find it curious that those who demand a more critical (and negative) portrayal of the left-wing partigiani never complain about positive portrayals of Nazis. (Not that there were not examples of German officers and even Nazi officials displaying a moral conscience).  
     Some contend that the film depicts partisans fleeing to the mountains and leaving defenseless civilians to fend off the Germans. This, I think, is not the intention of either the writer or the director. During the so-called Republic of Salo’, men were to be drafted in a last-ditch effort to win the war. It was at this point that many men (and women) chose to fight against the fascists (a civil war) and the Nazi occupation. They were often considered traitors. We now know that some prominent post-war politicians and intellectuals supported Salo’ out of some sense of misplaced nationalism. Most have admitted their mistake; others have not.
    More important is that this mistaken interpretation fosters the perpetuation of a right-wing, fascist myth: that the partigiani were unscrupulous cowards in placing civilians in harm’s way. The myth here begins with a partisan attack on a German police battalion on via Rassella on March 23, 1943. With 33 Germans dead, the SS and Gestapo command in Rome were ordered to execute 10 Italians for each dead German and accordingly rounded up 335 (not 330) men and boys (aged 17-77 with 73 Jews), none of whom had anything to do with the attack.
    And here is where memory and history play tricks on us. To this day, there are Romans who insist that they saw posters immediately after the attack, posted by the German command, demanding the partisans present themselves for punishment, or civilians would pay the price. In fact, some of these “eyewitnesses” can still claim what these posters looked like. When the partigiani failed to appear, the Germans executed the 335 the next day, March 24, 1943, in the Fosse Ardeatine. From the beginning, this myth circulated around Rome and Italy. Just one problem: the Germans never placed those posters; the order to execute was secret and was to be carried out within 24 hours. All this was confirmed by Herbert Kappler, the SS Captain in charge of Rome in his post-war trial. And yet, as Alessandro Portelli’s magisterial book, “L’ordine e’ gia’ stato eseguito” (The Order Has Been Carried Out, Palgrave, 2003) so eloquently and tragically shows, there are still Romans who insist that the partigiani were to blame.

    Those blaming the partigiani for Nazi massacres are repeating, almost word-for-word, what the SS officer responsible for the massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema says in the film. In what is perhaps a fictitious scene, he berates the “partisan” traitor for the massacre; it was THEIR fault! In shifting moral responsibility for this massacre (and effect others as well) he effectively absolves himself, the German Wehrmacht, the SS, Italian fascism and National Socialism and conveniently places the blame on the partisans. This is a cynical re-writing of history. James McBride should be commended for rescuing the story of the Buffalo Soldiers from the dustbin of history; Spike Lee should be congratulated on a strong, but flawed film; readers and viewers should run to bookstores and the cinema and judge for themselves. Last night, Spike Lee and President Giorgio Napolitano were to have screened the film together; no word yet of their conversation.  



    Stanislao G. Pugliese is a professor of history at Hofstra University; his book, “Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone” will be published in April.
    Italian version of this article on "Oggi7" (10/05/2008)