The Mussolini Contradiction - Boston’s North End “Street Corner Society”
The Mussolini Contradiction
In my experience, I find a contradiction between the mass culture ‘characterization’ of Mussolini and the ‘opinions’ of first generation southern-Italian immigrants and their American born sons who fought in Italy during WW II.
There is a contradiction between school and media representations of Mussolini and my memories of conversations heard on the street and at dinner tables in my southern-Italian American urban village during the post WW II years.
This contradiction flashes vividly whenever I see the picture of Mussolini hanging upside down from a meat hook in a Milan gas station. Invariably the immortal lines of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony comes to mind:
This is not to say I mean to play the role of Mark Anthony tacitly denying Mussolini’s crimes (sins) and celebrating him in anyway.
Rather, mine is purely an historiographic interest in the opinions of southern-Italian Americans about Mussolini in the years before and after the war, and how those opinions contradict the generally accepted representations of the man.
Oral History – Rochester, NY
In the conversations I remember from my youth, the men never outright and totally condemned Mussolini, as they categorically condemned Hitler. Whereas Hitler was unequivocally ‘evil’ with absolutely no redeeming qualities, Mussolini was criticized-with-qualification. Typical comments:
Also, and importantly to my mind, the children of the immigrants, men who fought in Italy, men whose brothers and friends died in Italy, did not categorically condemn Mussolini. Rather, he was thought of as a man who made mistakes and was a victim of his ambition (i.e. human frailty).
I found this contradiction between Rochester’s southern-Italian American oral history and school/media history intriguing. I wondered if there was any basis for generalizing to the southern-Italian American population as a whole.
The historian comes to know a society by critically analyzing the documents created by or about the society. I wondered if there was documentary evidence corroborating my oral anecdotes; thus, providing a basis for generalizing about southern-Italian American opinion of Mussolini in the years proximate to WW II.
I found such documentation in William Wythe’s renowned anthropological study of the late 1930s Boston North End neighborhood - “Street Corner Society.”
“Street Corner Society”
William Wythe lived in the North End from February 1937 until July 1940. Using the anthropological method known as ‘Participant-Observation’, he befriended and integrated himself into various groups (‘participation’) and systematically recorded notes about events and conversations (‘observation’).
The North End at that time was, in the author’s words, “inhabited almost exclusively by [southern-] Italian immigrants and their children.” Needless to say, after three and a half years of observation and note taking, the book contains an enormous about information about the southern-Italian Americans living in the North End; including two fascinating reports about Mussolini opinions.
First, there is a report similar to mine of an oral tradition expressing a sympathetic view of Mussolini. Second, and especially interesting, there is documented voting records corroborating both oral histories. For an historian, when documented statistics corroborate oral history – ‘it don’t get better than that!’
Oral history – North End
This oral claim of a “very common [positive] sentiment” about Mussolini correlates with North End voting patterns for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whyte reports:
However, after Roosevelt attacked Mussolini in his famous “stab-in-the-back” University of Virginia speech on June 10, 1940, North End sentiment turn precipitously and measurably against Roosevelt. Whyte writes:
Two oral traditions from two southern-Italian American neighborhoods in two different cities corroborated by objective voting statistics is strong evidence (albeit not conclusive) that the Mussolini sentiment of southern-Italian Americans during the years surrounding WW II may be characterized with Shakespeare’s “Evil that men do…” verse.
I have little knowledge about the history of Fascist Italy. I have even less understanding about the concept of Justice.
Accordingly, I leave it to historians, philosophers, theologians and morally confident people to judge the appropriateness of the brutally vicious dehumanizing mob vengeance the Communist exacted from Mussolini.
However, there is one indubitable fact I believe all Americans of southern-Italian descent should keep in mind.
were the mutilated carcasses of…Italians!