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 A Failure of Fascism Abroad: the Construction of Little Italies in Nazi Germany

by Claudia Baldoli (Newcastle University)

In March 1928, the Italian consul in Breslavia, worried by the absence of patriotic feelings among children born in Germany of Italian emigrants, wrote to the ambassador to Berlin about the need to ‘create among the sweet and precious souls of these Italian children, who have never known their country, nostalgia about their motherland’.[1] The difficult task of ‘creating’ a feeling such as nostalgia was entrusted to the Fasci in Germany, where Italian communities appeared alarmingly forgetful of their national origins.

While the Italian emigration to Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries has been researched thoroughly, few studies have explored the Fascist period, except for the forced emigration of 1938, a compulsory relocation of workforce rather than a genuine phenomenon of migration. Within a wider project on the Italian Fasci abroad, I sought to reconstruct the relationship between Italian emigrants and Fascism in Germany during the 1930s.[2] In particular, I analysed patriotic celebrations of the Great War and of the March on Rome, Italian films showed to the emigrant community, and the organisation of Italian schools in German little Italies.

From the 131,000 residents in Germany in 1907, the Italian community had shrunk to 22,470 by 1933, as a consequence of the Great War and of the economic crisis. Following Mussolini’s anti-emigration campaign, which intensified in the 1930s with the foundation of internal colonies and in 1935-36 with the invasion of Ethiopia, by the end of 1936 the number of Italian workers in Germany had dropped to 7,597.

At the centre of the Breslavia consul’s worries were the economic, social and cultural conditions of the Italian communities in Germany: the majority of these emigrants, both then and well into the 1930s, were poor, lived in small villages or at the peripheries of cities, and were employed as peasants or miners. They were mostly men who often married German women; as a result, Italian was rarely spoken in their families and their children did not know it. In the vast correspondence to both Berlin and Rome from the various diplomats across Germany, there is never mention of ‘little Italies’ with a strong national connotation. There are no descriptions of Italian boroughs comparable to those that existed in British cities, where new emigrants could find relatives or acquaintances who managed bars, shops or restaurants; no ‘fragments of the far away motherland’ portrayed by Italians in London or Edinburgh could be found in Germany.[3]

The history of Italian Fascism in Germany, unlike its British counterpart, is indeed one of continuous frustrations for the Fascist authorities. Besides extremely poor economic conditions, Italians in Germany were still blamed for the ‘betrayal’ of the First World War. Hitler’s seizure of power had at first a positive impact on the activity of the Fasci: cultural exchanges between the two dictatorships made public ceremonies of friendship between the ‘old enemies’ possible, in which the two leaders appeared to have shared the same struggle. Italian propaganda documentaries were shown in German cinemas, and plans for the production of Italo-German films were discussed by the respective foreign office personnel.[4] However, as the almost complete failure of Italian schools demonstrate, these activities did not succeed in transforming Italians into Fascists, but were rather the result of agreements between two regimes in search for a common cultural policy. Moreover, Hitler’s regime eventually became an obstacle to the development of the Fasci in Germany. While in 1935-36 fascistisation of Italian in Britain took the form of anti-British nationalism, the Fasci in Germany were increasingly controlled by the Nazi regime and Germanisation of Italians could not be opposed. A whole decade of unsuccessful efforts is summarised by a Berlin embassy report on the Italian schools in 1940: the Italian communities, it explained, were made of poor and ignorant people, whose children spoke German; the few who went to the Italian after-school sessions were always tired, and results were ‘around zero’; the older ones intermarried with Germans, ‘to the point that, by the third generation, the only Italian aspect left is their surname’.[5]

 

[1] Archivio Storico-diplomatico del Ministero degli Affari Esteri (ASMAE), Archivio Scuole (1929-1935) (AS), b. 812, fasc. III-9, ‘Corso Balilla e Piccole Italiane’, Consul of Breslavia to the Italian embassy in Berlin and to the Italian Foreign Office, 10 March 1928.

[2] C. Baldoli, ‘Un fallimento del fascismo all’estero. La costruzione delle piccole Italie nella Germania nazista’, Italia Contemporanea, June 2004, n. 235, pp. 221-38.

[3] For a description of Italian community life in Britain in the interwar years, see for example C. Cavalli, Ricordi di un emigrato (London: Edizione La Voce degli Italiani, 1978); C. Forte, Autobiography of Charles Forte (London: Sidgwick, 1986); E. Salvoni, A Life in Soho (London: Quartet, 1990).

[4] Articles in Il Legionario, the newspaper of the Italian Fasci Abroad, reported on Italian cinema showings in Germany from 1933. See also documents on the discussion of common initiatives, particularly from 1935, in Archivio Centrale dello Stato, Ministero della Cultura Popolare, Direzione generale servizi della propaganda, b. 92.

[5] ASMAE, AS, b. 84, fasc. 3, ‘Pro-memoria. L’organizzazione fascista al servizio della scuola’, report from Berlin, 3 March 1940.

 

Claudia Baldoli is Senior Lecturer in European History at Newcastle University. Among her publications, Exporting Fascism: Italian Fascists and Britain’s Italians in the 1930s (Oxford: Berg, 2003); A History of Italy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2009); Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy under Allied Air Attack, 1940-1945 (London: Continuum 2012), with Andrew Knapp.

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This entry was posted on April 29, 2014 by in Academia.
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