Casa Italiana at Columbia University: a stronghold of Mussolini support in the 1930s
Frank Rosengarten, “Through Partisan Eyes”, pp 3-4:
I should say, regarding my unfamiliarity with the material I was discovering at the Biblioteca Nazionale, that I did have a slight acquaintance with the history of Italian Fascism. It was not, to be sure, anything that helped me very much to understand the vicissitudes of Pratolini’s life and work; it was a small piece of historical evidence that had made me aware of the worldwide influence, the rayonnement, of the Italian Fascist regime. I’m referring to the extremely close, mutually supportive association that existed for close to twenty years between Mussolini’s government and Columbia’s Casa Italiana, several of whose professors were enthusiastic advocates in their youth of the Fascist regime. Two of the professors with whom I had done my course work, Peter Riccio and Howard Marraro, had strong Fascist sympathies in the 1930s, when they were themselves young candidates for Ph.D. degrees. In their early years both had written books that proposed a socially progressive, politically dynamic interpretation of what Mussolini and his cohorts were trying to accomplish. I recall reading these autobiographical writings with considerable dismay and keen interest. My personal contact with Professors Riccio and Marraro were pleasant enough. They were both friendly, approachable men, with none of the authoritarian traits that I probably expected to see in them, given their early attraction to Fascist ideology.
Nicholas Murray Butler was president of Columbia University at the height of Mussolini’s popularity in the United States. A friend of Theodore Roosevelt, an accomplished diplomat and philosopher, and a widely traveled man, like many Americans in the 1930s he was impressed by Mussolini’s grandiose plans for Italian development, which he apparently viewed as, if nothing else, good for the Italian people. But it seems that there was another more immediate and practical reason why he expressed positive views of the new Italian order. In the 1930s Columbia’s office of development was trying to cultivate relationships in the Italian-American community for the purpose of expanding the Italian program at Columbia. They succeeded in this effort: The building of the Casa Italiana was paid for in part by contributions from well-heeled Italian-American businessmen, several of whom were sympathetic to Fascism.
Stephen H. Norwood, “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower”, pp. 89-93:
During Butler’s presidency, Columbia’s Casa Italiana, which opened in 1927 as a center for the study of Italian culture and which also housed the Italian Department, was controlled by supporters of Premier Benito Mussolini, who used it to propagandize for Fascism. The Casa Italiana also sponsored student exchanges between Columbia and universities in Fascist Italy and arranged many receptions for Mussolini’s emissaries, during which his regime was enthusiastically praised. The Mussolini government supplied most of the furniture for the Casa, with President Butler’s consent. Mussolini himself in September 1933 wrote to Professor Giuseppe Prezzolini, director of the Casa from 1930 to 1940: “I am following with interest the work done by the Casa Italiana of Columbia University and I am very pleased with what is being accomplished.” Prezzolini translated Mussolini’s letter and proudly forwarded it to President Butler. Butler responded by thanking Prezzolini for the “charming message from Mussolini” and noted, “It is pleasant, indeed, to know that he is following our work and appreciates it.”42 Nicholas Murray Butler was a longtime admirer of Premier Mussolini and enjoyed a warm personal relationship with him for many years. In 1931 President Butler startled many when, in his welcoming address to the incoming freshman class, he declared that “the assumption of power by a virtual dictator whose authority rests upon a powerful and well-organized body of opinion” produced leaders “of far greater intelligence, far stronger character and far more courage than does the system of election.” Informed listeners understood at the time that it was Mussolini with whom Columbia’s president was “conspicuously impressed.”43 The next year Butler maintained that Mussolini’s leadership of the Fascist movement had “brought new life and vigor and power and ambition” to Italy.44 Butler met with the Italian dictator in Rome several times during the late 1920s and 1930s for cordial conversations about international politics. Escorted by Mussolini’s federal secretary, Butler was received by the Florence Fascisti at their clubhouse, and he donated books to its library. As late as January 1938, Butler was pleased to inform a leading Italian-American donor that Premier Mussolini had recently asked him about the Casa and “was much gratified when I told him the work that was being carried forward.”45
Butler cultivated Mussolini’s friendship despite his suppression of opposition parties and newspapers (completed by 1927) and elimination of academic freedom in Italian universities. In 193 I Mussolini enacted a law requiring all professors in Italian universities to join the Fascist party and take the Fascist oath. Public schools indoctrinated students to promote “national aggrandizement [and] power . . . the spiritual essence of fascism.” The Fascist government made the teaching of Catholic doctrine the “foundation” of public education, and compulsory in the schools. It introduced standard textbooks for the elementary grades that included passages very hostile to Judaism. As early as 1923, opponents of Mussolini voiced fear that the Fascist educational reforms would drive Jews from the schools, both teachers — because they could not “impart Catholic doctrine” — and students.46
Giuseppe Prezzolini, director of the Casa Italiana from 1930 to 1940, and Dino Bigongiari, head of the Columbia Italian Department during the 1930s, were members of the Italian Fascist party (Prezzolini formally joined in 1934). Bigongiari was also a founder in 1923 of the Fascist League of North America and translated the works of leading Italian Fascist theoreticians like Giovanni Gentile and Alfredo Rocco. Prezzolini proudly declared to President Butler in 1935, “I have been for thirty years a friend and admirer of Mussolini.”47
The other leading members of the Italian Department, Howard Marraro and Peter M. Riccio (whose appointment was at Barnard), were also ardent Fascists. In 1927, Marraro published a book entitled Nationalism in Italian Education that proclaimed, “Fascism is the exaltation and ennoblement of all the elements concurring to form and assure the greatness of Italy,” and he praised the Fascist program of education instituted by Mussolini’s minister of public instruction, Giovanni Gentile. President Butler contributed the book’s foreword, which “cordially commended” the work. Upon his return from a 1934 trip to Italy, Marraro declared, “The labor situation in Italy should be a model for the world.” He claimed he had not seen in Italy the “distress and suffering” that then prevailed in the United States.48 Professor Peter M. Riccio’s Columbia dissertation, “On the Threshold of Fascism,” sought to establish Prezzolini as a leading intellectual progenitor of Italian Fascism. Italian anti-fascists charged that Riccio’s work was “one of the worst and most disgraceful dissertations ever written,” a crude Fascist polemic that did not meet even “elementary standards of scholarship.”49
In the fall of 1934, Professor Riccio had a leading role in bringing a delegation of 350 Italian Fascist university students to the United States for a tour of Eastern and Midwestern campuses, and he served as secretary of the committee in charge of the visit.50 President Butler made Columbia University one of the thirty American colleges and universities sponsoring the tour. The Italian students considered themselves “official ambassadors from Mussolini.” The Nation, a prominent national liberal weekly magazine, charged that the Italian student tour was “a propaganda move designed to win the friendliness of American university students to the fascist cause.” 5I
Docking in New York in September 1934 singing the Fascist anthem “Giovinezza,” the Italian student delegation made Columbia its first American university stop. Columbia College dean Herbert E. Hawkes officially greeted the Fascist students on President Butler’s behalf at the university’s McMillin Theatre. Dean Hawkes declared that Americans had “much to learn” from the Italian delegation.52 When the Italian students encountered pickets from anti-fascist Columbia student groups, they raised their hands in the Fascist salute and sang the “Giovinezza.” 53
About a month later, the Italian consul-general in New York, at a Casa Italiana ceremony, bestowed on Professor Riccio a medal for his devotion to Italian “culture and ideals.” As she introduced the honoree, Dean Virginia C. Gildersleeve of Barnard dismissed the concerns of pickets outside the Casa protesting Riccio’s statements in the press that Fascism was the best system of government for Italy. She declared emphatically to the audience, “I don’t care what Professor Riccio is.”54
In November 1934, The Nation charged in a series of articles that Columbia’s Casa Italiana was “one of the most important sources of fascist propaganda” in the United States. It claimed that the Casa, dominated by Fascist professors, worked closely with Italian government officials to present a favorable image of Mussolini’s regime in America. The Nation accused the Casa of regularly sponsoring lectures by Fascists, while denying opponents of Mussolini the opportunity to speak, and even forbidding “student gatherings for discussing aspects of fascist rule.” It claimed that Professor Arthur Livingston, the only member of the Italian Department opposed to Mussolini, had been transferred to the French Department. According to the Columbia Spectator, the reassignment had occurred at the insistence of a Fascist donor.55
President Butler angrily denied The Nation’s charges, labeling them a “hodge-podge of falsehood, misrepresentation, and half-truth,” and assured Casa director Prezzolini that he considered them “nonsensical and untrue.” He insisted that the Casa was “without political purpose or significance.” Butler praised the Italian Department faculty as “distinguished scholars, so recognized on either side of the Atlantic.”56
Butler had presided over, and participated in, many events at the Casa Italiana and elsewhere featuring Italian Fascist speakers. He gave the welcoming address for Mussolini’s official biographer, Margherita Sarfatti, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in which he hailed her as a “second Columbus.”57 Butler officially received at the Casa such emissaries of Mussolini as Foreign Minister Dino Grandi (who also spoke at Columbia’s Institute of Arts and Sciences); Ambassador Augusto Rosso, who visited Columbia several times between 1933 and 1936; the director of Italians in foreign countries, Signor Parini; and the Italian consuls-general, along with Fascist scholars like Sarfatti and Marchese Piero Misciattelli.58
In an effort to discredit The Nation’s charges, officers of Columbia’s Graduate Club of Italian Studies announced that the club was inviting Gaetano Salvemini, a distinguished historian exiled by Mussolini who was teaching at Harvard at the time, to speak at the Casa Italiana. Salvemini replied to the Graduate Club that, considering The Nation’s charges, he would accept the offer only if Professor Prezzolini, as the Casa’s director, personally agreed to invite him. He also asked that the Graduate Club inform President Butler of his request, so that he could not dodge responsibility. But Prezzolini refused to invite Salvemini. He explained to the Graduate Club that Professor Salvemini was a “political trouble-maker” whose only purpose in lecturing at Columbia was “to stir up some trouble.”59 As a result, Salvemini, the leading Italian spokesperson for anti-fascism in the United States during the 1930s, never spoke at the Casa Italiana.
Butler shared Prezzolini’s desire “to maintain good and friendly rela-tions” with the Mussolini government, which had the support of wealthy Italian-American businessmen whose financial donations to the Casa both men valued highly, and he made no effort on Salvemini’s behalf. Prezzolini stated to Butler that had he permitted “anti-Fascist political agitators of the type of Mr. Salvemini” to speak at the Casa, he would not have been able to host Fascists like Margherita Sarfatti and Piero Misciattelli, whom he had invited, he noted, at Butler’s own request.60
The Columbia Spectator, stating that Columbia stood “gravely indicted” by The Nation’s charges, demanded that the administration launch an investigation into Fascist control of the Casa Italiana and accused President Butler of evading the key issues. Protesting Butler’s refusal to discuss the matter with campus delegations that asked to meet with him, students began picketing his mansion and Low Library, where his offices were located.61
In the midst of the controversy, the Casa Italiana sparked more furor when it held a lavish reception to honor Dr. George Ryan, president of the New York City Board of Education, who had just returned from Rome, which he had visited as guest of the Mussolini government. Dr. Ryan arrived in New York “full of enthusiasm” for Fascist Italy’s educational system. The event seemed singularly ill-timed, and The Nation suggested that Prezzolini had set it up “under direct orders from Rome.” At the Casa, Ryan’s Board of Education colleague William Carlin praised Fascist Italy as “the true successor to the glory of Rome,” whose “present educational system has the admiration of the world.”61