Chicago’s Fascist Problem

The New York Times of August 29 featured the recent unveiling of a monument to Fascist general Rodolfo Graziani (“Village Tribute Reignites a Debate About Italy’s Fascist Past“) in the Italian town of Affile, one paid for in part for by public funds no less. Graziani can legitimately be called a war criminal on two continents for his role in Italy’s Ethiopian conquest and for his service to prolonging Mussolini’s doomed rule in the home country itself.

Before the gentle reader clucks his or her tongue at the recalcitrance of the unreconstructed Italian right, it must be pointed out that the great city of Chicago (home to both Criticism &c. and the Barack Obama re-election campaign) has its own Fascist problem.

The Windy City has had a prominent downtown street named after Italo Balbo, one of Mussolini’s early lieutenants since the early 1930s. Balbo, one of the organizers of the 1922 March on Rome and often referred to by the anodyne descriptor “aviator,” led a convoy of planes on a flight from Italy to Chicago as part of Fascist Italy’s participation in the 1933 International Exposition. These long-distance endurance flights were popular as feats of nationalist aggrandizement in this era—Stalin’s U.S.S.R. had a weakness for them also.

Balbo was feted as a celebrity at the exhibition and was even invited to dine with President Roosevelt, who was no doubt anxious to appeal to those Italian-Americans  sympathetic to Balbo’s message that Mussolini had made Italy a country to be “respected.” Mussolini donated a Roman column to Chicago—which is still standing—to thank the city for the warm welcome extended to the Fascist airman.

Upon his return, Mussolini appointed Balbo governor of the newly-created colony of Italian Libya. The Fascist potentate took his job seriously and forced the British colonial forces in Egypt to divide their attention in North African in two directions while the Italians invaded Ethiopia, then called Abyssinia. It was in this bloody campaign, during which the League of Nations temporized magnificently, that Graziani made his first mark on history.

Balbo met a fitting end in 1940 by being shot down over Tobruk, Libya by his own troops (Tobruk was later the site of a massive tank battle between the German-Italian forces and Britain). Italy’s African adventures came to a definitive end by 1943. Mussolini held on as a Nazi figurehead in Italy until he was captured and summarily executed by the Partisans in April of 1945.

The upshot of this sorry story? Criticism &c. proposes that Chicago’s Balbo Drive be renamed in honor of Domenico Saudino, a socialist, journalist and anti-fascist leader of the Italian immigrant radical workers’ movement in Chicago. Saudino wrote for the Italian-language workers’ newspaper La Parola del Popolo and was the author of the anti-Mussolini book, Sotto il Segno del Littorio, published in Chicago in 1933, the year of Balbo’s visit. An archival collection of his papers are located at the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center.

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