Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The March on Rome

It was on this day in 1922 that the Fascist “Blackshirts” led by General Emilio De Bono, Italo Balbo, Cesare De Vecchi and Michele Bianchi marched on Rome. For years this event has been misunderstood which is not too surprising given that both the pro- and anti-Fascist sides have tried to distort it to fit their own agendas. For the Fascists, this was the bold move taken by Mussolini to “take by the throat our miserable ruling class” and by this show of force and the intimidation of his enemies, seizing power. For the anti-Fascists the blame has traditionally been placed solely on King Vittorio Emanuele III. According to their narrative, the March on Rome was nothing more than a bluff that could have easily been dispersed with a simple show of force only for the King to inexplicably refuse to give the army orders to defend the city and then hand power over, submissively, to the bombastic Mussolini. Neither of these narratives are correct as both try to take some portion of truth and twist it to their own advantage; the Fascists to glorify Mussolini and the anti-Fascists to disavow any responsibility and place all blame on the King, portraying him as some sort of Fascist sympathizer from the start.

The truth is that the Kingdom of Italy was in a chaotic state and while there had not yet been a full blown civil war or Marxist revolution, the prospect was not as remote as some since have liked to imply. Nor was Fascism some minor, disorganized party that enjoyed no widespread support. In 1921 the Fascists and communists had clashed in the streets of Florence, vying for power and in 1922, the same year as the march, the Fascist Blackshirts had driven the communists from power in Bologna and had taken Milan. In 1921 long-time liberal statesman Giolitti had returned to power with Fascist support; he considered them to be preferable to the Marxists. But, in the chaotic situation, his government did not long survive and he was succeeded by Bonomi who, likewise, took no action against the Fascists in their street wars with the socialists. Bonomi could find no lasting majority and his government soon fell as well, replaced by that of Luigi Facta in early 1922. In short, the established, liberal parties in Italy were proving themselves totally unable to confront the situation facing the country. There were too many divisions and too many radical elements so that many were left looking for who, among those radical elements, would be most likely to save the country rather than destroy it.

In fact, the only reason Facta himself lasted as long in office as he did (and that was less than a year) was because none of the established liberal figures in Italian politics could agree to come together or wished to take responsibility for dealing with the crisis that Italy faced. Giolitti, Orlando, Salandra, none of them could get along with each other. Nitti was agreeable to joining in a coalition but stated he would sooner join a government led by Mussolini than another by Giolitti. What about the King? The King was always reluctant to intervene in politics. There were already enough republicans in the country and communist protests outside the Quirinale Palace were a common sight so that he did not want the monarchy to appear political and partisan. The idea that he played favorites is easily disproved by the fact that, at this time of crisis, he asked Turati, leader of the moderate socialists, to join the government and not for the first time. Turati refused, like so many others at this crucial point in Italian political history. In the period leading up to the March on Rome, aside from being the only leader some felt could deal with the chaos in Italy, Mussolini was seen more and more as the only one even willing to try.

To make himself more acceptable, Mussolini began moving noticeably to the right, voicing strong support for the monarchy and making common cause with the royalists of the nationalist party. The King, even in the fall of 1922, still expected Giolitti to return to power when a suitable political coalition could be formed. However, the other liberal politicians worked against this and Mussolini masterfully played them against the elderly statesman who had earlier squelched the forces of D’Annunzio in Fiume as Prime Minister. He secretly promised his support to Facta, Nitti and Salandra against Giolitti or even against each other. Meanwhile, the old wartime premier Orlando had come out as a supporter of the Fascists, thinking them manageable and preferable to the alternative of a Marxist revolution. More and more people were doing the same and Giolitti himself took no action to try to form a government himself to offer as an alternative. Whether out of fear, indecisiveness or the presumption that all must eventually come running to him for salvation, who can say? The fact is that in this time when leadership was needed, Giolitti did nothing. The liberals who like to condemn the King for eventually appointing Mussolini Prime Minister never like to, and rarely are expected to, explain where their leaders were and what alternative they put forward at the crucial time.

Finally, when it became obvious that Facta was not up to meeting the crisis, Salandra agreed to form a government that would include Mussolini and would not include the elderly Giolitti. It was at that point, with Facta still in office, that the March on Rome began to shape. Ever since, anti-Fascists have condemned the King for not deploying the army to use force to stop the Blackshirts while the pro-Fascists like to ignore the issue and pretend that they couldn’t have been stopped. The King made it clear that the order to, effectively, desist from shooting down the Fascists was his and his alone but he never revealed his reasons for this. Personally, and this is a matter of opinion to take as you please, I cannot help but feel that memories of Milan could not have but played a part in his decision. In 1898 his father, King Umberto I, had deployed the army to put down riots in Milan sparked by radical socialists. There was bloodshed in the streets and the King was widely criticized for overreacting. His eventual assassination in 1900 by an anarchist, which brought Vittorio Emanuele III prematurely to the Italian throne, was done in retaliation for the violence in Milan. How could the King have known that he would ultimately be condemned for failing to do what others had condemned his own father for doing? It does seem reasonable to ask why King Umberto I should not have used force against socialists in Milan but that his son should have used force against Fascists in Rome. Why the double-standard?

In any event, those who take issue with the King refusing to shoot down his black-shirted subjects in the streets like to imply that if he had done so, that would have been the end of it. But, what about all the parts of the country already effectively under Fascist control? Who can say that the movement would have stopped then and there? How do we know that the communists would not have seized the opportunity to launch their revolution and take power for themselves? Remember that there was still no decisive liberal leadership to take control of the situation. Salandra had agreed to form a government but, upon seeking support from De Vecchi and Dino Grandi of the Fascist Party, was told that Mussolini would settle for nothing less than the premiership. Plenty in the army spoke up for the Fascists, the leading industrialists in Milan sent messages of support and so Salandra willingly stepped aside in favor of Mussolini who, it should also be remembered, was originally appointed by the King as simply Prime Minister of a coalition government in which the Fascists were not the majority.

Ultimately, the March on Rome was more of a Fascist victory parade than a bold seizure of power. Everything was worked out behind the scenes in political discussions rather than being settled by force in the streets. The King had tried to stick with the traditional, liberal ruling class but they were unable or unwilling to take action. He even tried to reach out to the moderate socialists only to have his hand slapped away. It is no exaggeration to say that, whether the King felt any sympathy for the Fascists or not, at the time they were simply the only alternative left to him and he should not be condemned for that, especially by the liberal elites who sat back and did nothing out of fear for their own positions or because they wanted to hold out for a better offer. The idea that the King and the Royal Family later came to be the scapegoats for the Fascist era and held solely to blame for the rule of Mussolini is both flagrantly dishonest and totally disgusting, especially considering the quarters such accusations usually come from. Those who are so quick to blame the King do so only because it is far too painful to blame themselves.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Teano - When South Joined North

On this day in 1860 King Vittorio Emanuele II and Giuseppe Garibaldi met at Teano where the north and south of Italy, for the first time since practically the fall of the Roman Empire, came together under one flag, under one monarch.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Palaces of the Savoy

Chateau de Chambery
(residents of the Dukes of Savoy, in what is now in France)

Palazzo Madama, Turin
(residence of Queen Christine Marie of France, regent for King
Carlo Emanuele II, later used by the Senate & High Court)

Palazzo Reale, Turin
(primary residence of the Kings of Piedmont-Sardinia)

Palazzo Carignano, Turin
(residence of the Savoy-Carignano branch of the Royal House)

Castello del Valentino, Turin
(former residence of Queen Marie Christine of France)

Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome
(primary residence of the Kings of Italy)

Monday, October 20, 2014

MM TV Review: The Pizza Parlor

For those too young to remember or those unfamiliar, “Hogan’s Heroes” was an American television comedy set in a German prison camp (Luft-Stalag 13) during World War II. The German officers are totally incompetent and the Allied prisoners basically run the place, outwitting their inept captors at every turn. The main characters are, not surprisingly, Americans with one French and one British member on the team (the pilot also had a Russian character which was dropped in the regular series, also not surprising given that this was the 60’s when the Cold War was in full force). The Allies use Stalag 13 as a base from which to launch guerilla attacks against the Germans and to help Allied personnel escape Nazi-occupied territory. Since they are on a mission, they never escape and since no one has ever escaped from Stalag 13 the hapless commander remains at his post, glorying in his perfect record while the prisoners thwart the German war effort right under his nose. This episode is one of two featuring a recurring Italian character. It is episode 22 from season 1, airing on February 11, 1966 and directed by Gene Reynolds.

The cast consists of Bob Crane as Colonel Robert E. Hogan, the senior Allied prisoner-of-war and their leader; Werner Klemperer as Colonel Wilhelm Klink, the clueless German commandant; John Banner as the comic Sergeant-of-the-Guard Hans Schultz; Robert Clary as French Corporal Louis LeBeau (their master chef); Richard Dawson as RAF Corporal Peter Newkirk (a London pick-pocket); Ivan Dixon as Sergeant James “Kinch” Kinchloe (the American radio operator) and Larry Hovis as Sergeant Andrew Carter the simple-minded American explosives expert. For this episode the special guest star was Hans Conried as the Italian Major Bonacelli. If it seems odd having an American with a surname like Conried playing an Italian, this was typical for “Hogan’s Heroes”. Most of the actors were Americans but it is interesting to note that every character on the side of Nazi Germany in the series (Colonel Klink, Sergeant Schultz, General Burkhalter) were all played by Jews. It was something like an ‘in-joke’ of the series, one of a number of ‘running gags’ the show was known for. Another one that viewers must be prepared for is the extreme use of stereotypes, especially when it comes to the Axis forces.

“The Pizza Parlor” opens with LeBeau preparing a feast in the barracks only to be interrupted by Sergeant Schultz who tells them that Colonel Klink is coming to inspect them and Colonel Hogan remarks that the Germans have been sending a number of officers to inspect their camp lately to learn from Colonel Klink because of his perfect record of never having had a successful escape. Klink arrives and informs them that Major Bonacelli is due shortly from “Capizzio” to study their security methods for use in his own prison camp. When taunted about telling a foreigner his secrets, Colonel Klink angrily reminds Hogan that, “…the Italians are our allies!” to which Hogan replies, “Don’t remind me, remind them”. A subtle nod to the fact that, at this stage in the war Italo-German relations were not at their most friendly and that many in Italy were never very comfortable about being allied with Germany. After the credits, Allied HQ tells Hogan that tensions between Germany and Italy are high and that the Allies are planning a major landing near Capizzio and that Hogan should try to get some information out of him. Hogan agrees but isn’t too hopeful, imagining Bonacelli to be a rough character.

We are then introduced to Major Bonacelli who has pulled a gun on his German driver, trying to force him to take him to Switzerland instead of Stalag 13. He is fed up with the war and just wants to escape. However, an Allied bombing raid sends the driver scurrying for cover and before Bonacelli can get away an escort arrives to take him to camp. After arriving at the camp. Hogan digs him about the Germans pushing the Italians around and notice how Bonacelli grimaces at hearing what the Germans are fixing for lunch (lots of potatoes and cabbage). Hogan and company decide that they can get to Bonacelli with sentimentality, music and food. So, they call the Allied submarine they report to, which connects them to London which connects them to Garlotti’s Pizzaria in Newark, New Jersey. It is run by the father of one of the men at Stalag 13. From him they get a recipe for pizza for LeBeau to make to tempt Bonacelli and finish by asking him to sing ‘Santa Luccia’.

Later that night, with wine, pizza and song, the Allies tempt Major Bonacelli over to their barracks and get him to tell them how many Germans are stationed in Capizzio. While he is eating, he mentions possibly going to the United States as he has no desire to go back to his post and fight for the Germans. Hogan then gets the idea to turn him and asks the Major to become an agent in Capizzio for the Allies. At first, he is reluctant, having no desire to be shot as a traitor if he is discovered but the Allies play on his sentimentality again, persuading him that he would be benefiting his country by shortening the war. Finally, Bonacelli agrees on the condition that he gets the recipe for the pizza he’s eating. However, the next morning, as he is saying his goodbyes to Colonel Klink, a truck arrives with the driver he had pulled his gun on during his trip to camp. He accuses Bonacelli of trying to desert and Colonel Klink orders him placed under arrest. To rescue their new secret agent, Hogan hatches a plan to make Klink think Bonacelli is firmly on the Axis side and a hero as well.

Just as Klink is reporting the incident to Berlin, Schultz rushes in to inform him that ten prisoners have escaped and that Major Bonacelli is missing. Klink flies into a panic at the thought of his perfect record being destroyed. The escapees, meanwhile, meet up in the woods and tell Bonacelli that he has to march them back to camp, thus becoming a hero in Germany and the savior of Colonel Klink’s reputation. Back at the camp, Klink is fuming that none of his search parties have been able to find the escapees anywhere, even putting one of the search dogs on report for not living up to the standards of a *German* Shepherd. Just then, all ten prisoners return, led by Bonacelli, marching in perfect order back into camp, whistling the theme song of the show in a little homage to 1957’s “Bridge on the River Kwai”. Major Bonacelli is welcomed as a returning hero and in the last scene of the episode, Klink calls in Hogan to read him a letter from the Italian major. Earlier, when Hogan was asking Bonacelli how many Germans there were in Capizzio, he did it by asking how many pizzas they ate, figuring two per soldier. In his letter, Bonacelli uses this as a sort of code, saying that he has put his prisoners to work making pizzas for the Germans and by relating how many they are making, Hogan knows the exact number of German troops to report to Allied HQ. Hogan gives a parting remark, saying sarcastically to Klink how “some people think the Italians aren’t with you all the way”.

“The Pizza Parlor” is a fairly typical “Hogan’s Heroes” episode and those who like the show will surely find it enjoyable. It is noteworthy for being one of only two episodes to feature a non-German Axis power. For Italians, the stereotyping may be hard to take but if you have a good sense of humor it shouldn’t be a problem. There are a few cracks about the Major being cowardly but his attempt to escape to Switzerland is shown to be more about his disgust with the Germans than a fear of danger. He mentions on his first day in camp that “you can push a people only so far” and seems about to say that soon the Italians would take no more abuse from the Germans but, viewing his surroundings, stops himself. He also keeps his word to the Allied prisoners and ultimately takes on the very dangerous assignment to become a secret agent. The premise is rather absurd but this is even commented on in the episode with Newkirk doubting that a pizza and a few bars of “Santa Lucia” is not enough to make a man switch sides in a war, this, of course, also being a subtle illustration that it was more than that which motivated Major Bonacelli to do what he did. For those who like the character, he returned later in the series in 1969 with the episode, “The Return of Major Bonacelli” (though played by a different actor) in which the Germans discovered that he was passing information to the Allies and Hogan and his men have to help their Italian friend escape to England.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Columbus Day Controversy

Today is Columbus Day in the United States. In Mexico and much of Latin America it is celebrated as El Dia de la Raza (the Day of the Race) and it is National Day in the Kingdom of Spain. Sadly, some have seized upon the occasion to make the intrepid Italian explorer the scapegoat for the entirety of all the ills that came to Americas from the time of his discovery to the present day. It is, of course, absurd to say the least of it but it has gained ground with many because of 'political correctness'. Columbus, a man who was seeking a westward route to Asia and happened upon the Americas in the process is actually being held to blame for the devastation of the Native American populations by disease, for the entire period of European colonization, all of the clashes between European and European-descended peoples and the natives, even for slavery. To call that unfair would be an understatement. Columbus was an explorer, a navigator, a man hired to do a job and nothing more. It is a gross injustice to blame him for every ill that came after in all the centuries that followed. Some localities in the United States have, in an effort to gain favor with modern leftist sentiments, have replaced the celebration of Columbus Day with "Indigenous Peoples Day". Of course, there should be no problem with having a day to celebrate Native Americans (African Americans have an entire month). However, it is completely uncalled for to deny Columbus his holiday in the process and is an act of bigotry against Italian-Americans, the one group more than any other who have stood up in defense of Columbus and his place in history.

In making this point, I have had some dispute with me the assertion that replacing Columbus Day with "Indigenous Peoples Day" is discriminatory against Italian-Americans. But, how can it be otherwise? The truth of it is easily illustrated by imagining what would happen if another holiday was changed in the same way. Certainly if St Patrick's Day was done away with, this would be seen as offensive to Irish-Americans and if someone proposed replacing Martin Luther King Day with some other holiday the person in question would certainly be accused of racism against African-Americans. So, it should likewise be considered perfectly natural for Italian-Americans to regard efforts to do away with Columbus Day as offensive to the Italian community. Columbus was not a villain, he was a driven, courageous and deeply religious man who changed the course of history with his discovery. Of course, everyone knows that Columbus was not the first European to visit America but it was his voyage that mattered most.

As for the huge loss of life among the Native American peoples, this was certainly a tragedy but it was not as though it was the result of some genocidal scheme on the part of Columbus. The vast majority of the Native Americans who died did so as a result of the diseases carried by Europeans which they had no immunity to. It was an accidental and inadvertent tragedy caused by the coming together of peoples. To blame Columbus for this would be just as unfair as blaming Asians for the Black Death in Europe or holding Gaetan Dugas morally responsible for every person in America who has died from AIDS. It is also ridiculous to hold historical figures to the standards of contemporary morality which has certainly changed dramatically since 1492. There was nothing like the modern conceptions of human rights, civil rights, racial and gender equality and so on in the Fifteenth Century. By the standards of his time and place, Columbus was an upstanding man and a very devout Catholic, a third-order Franciscan in fact who actually had a cause for canonization opened on his behalf in 1877 with the support of Pope Pius IX. And, as Pope Leo XIII said, Columbus expanded human knowledge with his discovery. What others did with that knowledge is their responsibility and not his. The only alternative would be for humanity on opposite sides of the Atlantic to continue in ignorance and isolation.

However, it is particularly disgusting to see people who are themselves of European descent in the United States heaping blame on Columbus. Without his discovery and without European colonization, with all the good and bad aspects of it, neither the United States or Canada or Mexico or any of the countries of North, Central and South America we know today would exist. The populations, particularly in Latin America, which are largely of mixed European and native ancestry would also not exist. And surely, if Columbus had never made his voyage but if all European powers had remained on their own continent, they would be held to blame for being isolationists and not sharing their innovative technologies with the rest of the world. The Native Americans were so primitive compared to Europeans exactly because they had been isolated from the rest of the world where trade and commerce led to exchanges of information and knowledge from East Asia to Western Europe, going both ways. It must also seem extremely unfair for the Italian-American community in particular given that the one holiday celebrating a great Italian figure from history is the one constantly attacked and blamed for colonialism when, unlike Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland and the Scandinavian countries, Italy never had any colonies in the New World. It just goes to show that those who cry the loudest about justice and fairness are usually the most unjust and unfair of all.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Invasion of Abyssinia Begins

It was on this day in 1935 at 5am that Italian forces under the command of General Emilio De Bono marched across the frontier into Abyssinia in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. As one of the Quadrumvirs who led the March on Rome, the seminal event in the history of the "Fascist Revolution" but also a staunch monarchist who gave his first loyalty to the King, De Bono was chosen to lead this campaign because Mussolini wanted it to showcase Fascist military might. There would be a Fascist general in charge and the Blackshirts of the MVSN would make up the bulk of the ground forces initially involved, all with the intention of showing that the new, Fascist, Italy had prevailed in Ethiopia where Crispi's Italy had failed. Since De Bono was also a hero of the Great War and known to be an Italian patriot and loyal to the King, the Duce could expect no problems in the choice from the palace.

Unfortunately, many people have taken a very critical view of General De Bono and this seems, looking at the plain facts, to be rather unjust. His invasion of Abyssinia was a success, it simply did not proceed as rapidly as Mussolini wanted. General De Bono crossed into Abyssinian territory, captured several important positions, announced the abolition of slavery (something which is seldom recognized) and even accepted the surrender of the Ethiopian Emperor's son-in-law, some of whose troops even switched to join the Italian side. General De Bono advanced from the north out of Eritrea while General Graziani advanced from the south out of Italian Somaliland. There were to move methodically until all Ethiopian resistance was crushed between them. However, Mussolini wanted a swift, stunning sort of war which is not what General De Bono had in mind at all. Remembering well the horrific casualties of World War I, De Bono intended to fight a cautious and mostly defensive war in order to conserve the lives of his soldiers while inflicting greater losses on his enemies.

The plan General De Bono had was for the Italian forces to advance into Abyssinia slowly, taking, so to speak, one step at a time. They would move forward, stop, consolidate their lines on a strong, defensive front and then when the enemy attacked, having their primary asset in their huge numbers of Ethiopian soldiers, they could be wiped out by the machine guns and supporting artillery of the Italian lines with minimal losses for themselves. In the aftermath, the lines would be carefully advanced again, another defensive position taken up and then allow the Ethiopians to smash themselves to death again an impenetrable wall of Italian fire. There was nothing wrong with this plan, it was a plan for a slow, cautious advance that would keep Italian losses to a minimum and would end in certain victory. However, Mussolini was also correct in wanting the campaign to be more swift and not just because of his own impatience. The sanctions placed on Italy by the League of Nations meant that Italy could have been economically ruined by a long war and most experts thought that it would take Italy at least two years to conquer Abyssinia if it could be conquered at all without economic collapse at home and the fall of Mussolini's Fascist government. That was a real concern so it was not without some legitimate reasons that General Emilio De Bono was, properly, awarded the rank of Marshal of Italy and then removed from his position with the regular army General Pietro Badoglio taking over to lead a much more swift and aggressive campaign.

In the end, it all worked out and Ethiopia was conquered in an astonishing seven months time with Badoglio leading the Italian troops into the Abyssinian capitol. However, just because the new strategy worked, does not mean that De Bono's plan was necessarily wrong.