David Aliano’s first book is a welcome study in English of a topic that has been primarily examined by Italian and Latin American scholars: how Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime conceived of, and tried to implement, a policy to reach the millions of Italian emigrants to the Americas. While it has long been recognized that the fascist regime sought to foster (read «manipulate») consensus abroad, Aliano demonstrates that this policy built on liberal-era polices, often times worked at cross purposes, sometimes fostered unintended consequences, and ultimately failed in its objectives.
Aliano – assistant professor of history and modern languages and literatures at the College of Mount Saint Vincent – reveals his thesis in the book’s title: Mussolini’s project in Argentina was not «fascist» but «national». A revised doctoral dissertation from the City University of New York that began under the supervision of the late Philip Cannistraro (and was completed under Marta Petrusewicz), Mussolini’s National Project in Argentina is based on extensive research in the archives housed at the Archivio Centrale dello Stato and the Archivio Storico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri in Rome, as well as relevant archives in Argentina. What those archival documents show is that the fascist regime was torn by internal debate over how to reach the nearly two million Argentinians of Italian descent. The fascist regime began by re-framing the enormous reality of emigration. Instead of a national catastrophe, or an indictment of the new nation-state, the Savoy monarchy, and the Liberal regime, emigration would now be thought of as the advance guard of a new Roman Empire reaching around the globe. Piero Parini, director of the Direzione Generale degli Italiani all’Estero, called this «a nation outside of the Nation» (p. 3).
As Aliano notes, there is already an extensive literature on this topic. The best works are Donna Gabaccia’s Italy’s Many Diasporas, Mark Choate’s Emigrant Nation, Matteo Pretelli’s Il fascismo e gli italiani all’estero, Emilio Franzina and Matteo Sanfilippo’s collection of essays, Il fascismo e gli emigrati, and Federico Finchelstein’s Transatlantic Fascism. While building on this impressive body of scholarship, Aliano is aiming at something different. Instead of just documenting fascist (and antifascist) activities in Argentina, or the influence of fascist ideology on domestic and foreign policies, he seeks «to analyze the discursive debate over the Italian national project abroad that emerged from those activities, activities that themselves look different when framed as a national project rather than a fascist one» (p. 7).
Argentina would seem to be an ideal case for both fascist and nationalist propaganda. Italians were the single largest ethic group in Argentina, constituting over 40% of the population and nearly two million strong. The Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Press and Propaganda, and the Fasci Italiani all’Estero, together with organizations such as the Dante Alighieri Society, often worked in coordination (but were sometimes divided by personal turf wars and petty personalities) to sponsor newspapers, textbooks, cultural exchanges, language classes, and diplomatic missions. While the fascist regime attempted to recast the myths of ancient Rome, the Risorgimento (they claimed Garibaldi as a precursor!), and the First World War into a Whig history of national grandeur, they were met at every turn by a minority of vocal anti-fascists ranging from monarchists on the right to republicans, socialists, and anarchists on the left. The so-called fuorusciti, in contrast to the fascists, «all characterized the Risorgimento and its heroes in universal rather than national terms» (p. 132).
A question the regime never seemed to ask itself was: If Liberal Italy could not make «Italians» over the course of six decades, what made fascism believe it could make «Italians» in Argentina? The decision to reframe the policy as one of nation-building, Aliano argues, undermined the goal of ideological conformity (p. 18). By conflating the national project with the fascist project («the only true Italian was a fascist Italian»), the regime ensured the failure of both.
By attempting to create a «nation outside of the nation,» Aliano notes, the regime inadvertently created a public sphere abroad vastly different from the controlled public sphere in Italy itself. In that very different (and free) public sphere of Argentina, the fascist national project was more or less rejected by Argentinian Italians. What, then, does this say about Italian fascism generally, that in a free public sphere, people rejected it?
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin took to the radio with a speech in which he beseeched his listeners to «defend Mother Russia,» not the Soviet Union. Similarly, perhaps Mussolini, shrewder than many of his ideologically «purer» colleagues, recognized that Italians in Argentina might embrace a nationalist overture but not a fascist one. This idea is best rendered in a subtitle found in Chapter 2: «Fascist Illusions Confront Emigrant Realities.» Exhibit A would be a report from an Italian diplomat that concluded: «With rare exceptions, we consider a child with Italian parents born in Argentina as Italian, while they instead think of themselves as Argentine» (p. 58).
Ironically, the very symbol of the regime, the Roman fascio, was problematic and a «perfect example of a symbol whose meaning can be contested when outside its national context. In Argentina, as in other New World republics, the fascio is instead associated with the republican traditions emerging from the French Revolution» (p. 93). Mussolini had to contend with the «imagined community» of Italo-Argentinians and their «elective affinities» which, in the end, proved stronger than fascist ideology.
Stanislao G. Pugliese (Hofstra University)