Fascism, we’ll recall, started in Italy (lasting, in its purest form, from 1922-1943), and necessarily the earliest antifascists proprio detto were Italian. Here in the U.S., I recently came across a story about Scranton’s Italian ethnic church, St. Lucy’s, which was bombed by fascist sympathizers in January 1931 because, we are told, the parish had adopted an antifascist position. On 11 November of that year we’re told antifascists bombed the house of the Italian consul in Scranton, Cavaliere Fortunato Tiscar, to protest the Armistice Day arrival of Dino Grandi, the Italian (i.e., honest-to-God Fascist) foreign minister, for a U.S. visit.
Having lived a tenth of my life in Italy, I am familiar with the ‘stations of the cross’, as it were, in the rise, fall, and Nachleben of the fascist movement. One owes it to a host country to learn its history diligently and respectfully. But I had not known before writing about St. Lucy’s that Italian politics spilled over into the U.S. Italian community. I should have expected it, I suppose, and determined to catch up on my reading in that sphere. But before I got a chance to read about fascism and its discontents among the Italoamericani I stumbled across a major monument of just these struggles: the marker of Antonio Fierro in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City (figure 1).
II. The Monument.
[Bust of Fierro with palm and laurel bough]
NELLA PRIMA GIOVINEZZA
GLI IDEALI DELLA SCUOLA E DELLA VITA
IN UNA SINTESI EROICA
FECE SCUDO DEL SUO PETTO
ALLA LIBERTÀ DAL FASCISMO OFFESA
IL 14 LUGLIO 1933
QUESTO NOME QUESTO AMORE
AI MILITI DELLA LIBERTÀ
NATO A BISACCIA—AVELLINO
IL 25 DICEMBRE 1911
ASSASSINATO AD ASTORIA L.I. N.Y.
IL 14 LUGLIO 1933
The epitaph is in olde school Italian which has been influenced by Latin and poetry. My attempt at translation:
In his early youth, Antonio Fierro brought together the ideals of school and life in a heroic combination: he made of his breast a shield for liberty attacked by Fascism and fell the 14th of July, 1933. This name and this love are eternally sacred to soldiers of freedom.
The post script, probably translatable without my help, offers that he was “assassinated in Astoria, Long Island, New York.” Fierro, we also learn, was born in Bisaccia in the Provincia of Avellino, not terribly far from Naples.
III. On Fierro and his death.
De mortuis nil nisi bona; ‘of the dead speak nothing but good’. The monument portrays Fierro as a slain martyr, but we should not let platitudes about the dead prevent us from complicating Fierro’s story with some contemporary reporting from the Gray Lady.
RADICALS AT BIER OF SLAIN STUDENTNew York Times, Wednesday, July 19, 1933.
Carry Red Flags in Cortege of Youth Shot in Raid on Khaki Shirt Meeting.
Virtually every radical organization in the city sent a delegation yesterday to the funeral of Antonio Fierro, 22 years old, a City College student, who was shot and killed last Friday in a fight between Communists and members of the Khaki Shirts of America.
As the silver metal coffin was carried out of the youth’s home at 2,238 Adams Place, the Bronx, about 400 Communists and anti-Fascists formed a procession behind Carlo Tresca, leader of the anti-Fascists in this country. The marchers carried many brilliant red flags, but the Stars and Stripes was conspicuously absent.
The Red Front Band played the International and many in a throng of about 2,000 on the sidewalks joined in singing it. Following the hearse were three cars filled with flowers and twenty for mourners, who included the youth’s father, Michael, and mother. After circling the block of Fierro’s home the procession trudged the three miles to Woodlawn Cemetery. There were no religious services.
Inspector Joseph MacKenzie was on hand with fifty policemen, including ten mounted men. Some policemen were on guard on the edge of roofs. There was no disorder, however. The meeting at which Fierro was killed was held under the auspices of the khaki shirt organization, which believes in Fascist principles, in Columbus Hall, 31-06 Astoria Avenue, Astoria. Twenty-four other men were injured.
This puts things in a different light: Fierro was a heckler ‘tough’ brought in to troll the Khakis. He deserved to live, and I certainly drink to the Khakis’ confusion, but let’s face it, he went fixin’ to rumble and was not like a flower on the edge of the field that gets crushed by the passing plough. The bits about the Stars and Stripes being ‘conspicuously absent’ and that ‘there were no religious services’ play in a catty way to the stereotype that communists were unpatriotic athiests.
What about these bathetically named Khaki Shirts? Let’s hear a bit from Stephen Atkins’ Encyclopedia of Right-Wing Extremism:
During the summer of 1933, the Khaki Shirts became embroiled in a controversy over a shooting death during a meeting in New York City. Communists tried to break up a meeting of the Khaki Shirts on July 14, 1933, during which Antonio Fierro was killed and four were wounded. Agitated by news of an imminent police raid, in the middle of October 1933, Smith attempted to flee with the treasury of the Khaki Shirts. Police did raid the headquarters of two branches of the Khaki Shirts and arrested 25 members on charges of violating the State Firearms Act, inciting to riot, and disorderly conduct. On October 16, 1933, Smith [Arthur Smith, organizer and leader of the Khaki Shirts] surrendered to Philadelphia authorities. The police had little patience with Smith because he was considered “a confidence man and his organization a shirt-selling racket.”Stephen Atkins, Encyclopedia of Right-Wing Extremism in Modern American History, ABC-CLIO (2011) 66-67.
Smith’s legal problems led to the demise of the Khaki Shirts. Athos Terzani, a member of the antifascist group that had assaulted the Khaki Shirts, had been placed on trial with the charge of second degree murder for the killing of Fierro. Terzani won acquittal when witnesses claimed Fierro had been shot by Frank Moffer, a member of the Khaki Shirts and aide-de-camp to Smith. . . .
Another account in The Avocado (no author is mentioned) supplements Atkins’.
As the rally commenced, several of Tresca’s followers infiltrated Columbus Hall and began heckling Smith. Fort [Fortunato] Velona, a renowned socialist illustrator and caricaturist, shouted “Morte a Mussolini!” at every mention of the Duce’s name. After several such insults, a group of Khaki Shirts surrounded Velona and beat him senseless with fists, clubs and chairs, to cheers from the crowd. As Smith continued speaking, several other protestors attempted to rescue Velona, leading to a general melee as the Khaki Shirts pounced on the interlopers. Several protesters were beaten or stabbed; others were thrown down a flight of stairs and into the alley outside.The Avocado, “How We Got Here: March of the Khaki Shirts.”
Smith, his speech already disrupted, dismounted the podium and waded into the crowd with his lead-lined riding crop, spoiling for a fight. He spotted Antonio Fierro, a twenty-two year old college student and protester, grabbed him by the collar and repeatedly smashed his skull. Bleeding profusely, Fierro managed to escape Smith’s wrath, only for a phalanx of Khaki Shirts to block his escape. At this point a shot rang out, and someone killed the lights. When the lights flashed back on a moment later, Fierro lay dead at Smith’s feet.
In his study of the extreme right in Pennsylvania, Philip Jenkins offers information about the specifically Italian character of some of the violence connected with the Khaki Shirts, helping contextualize Fierro’s participation.
The height of Smith’s influence came in June 1933 when 2,000 supporters penetrated a mass rally of unemployed veterans in Reyburn Plaza [in Philadelphia]. Shortly afterward 150 “Khaki Shirts and Fascists” engaged in a street fight with a like number of Communists in South Philadelphia, near Passyunk Square, a battle that resulted in the death of one of Smith’s followers. Italian Americans predominated on both sides of the conflict. The funeral cortege was given added international credibility by the presence of a group of uniformed Nazis from a German ship in port. Smith boasted about this time that he had 7 to 10 million men, “equipped with artillery, tanks, machine-guns and rifles.” In reality supporters carried clubs and gaspipe in readiness for street confrontations with Communist foes.Philip Jenkins, Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950. UNC Press: 2000.
IV. Fierro’s portrait. Propaganda.
With the historical portrait of Fierro now complicated by contemporary and secondary reporting, let’s turn to the literal portrait on his monument (figure 2). Underscored by a palm of martyrdom and laurels of victory, Fierro looks to my eyes like a man more my age than 21, but in fact the portrait is not a bad one, as can be seen in a flyer dedicated to the martyr (with overheated Italian poetry by Antonino Crivello: figure 3). If Fierro’s commemorators were religious I’d liken the flyer to a mass card.
Fierro’s monument and flyer happen to be canting propaganda aimed at the left, but if you ever have the good fortune to go to Italy, you can still see plenty of pious cant in monumental form aimed at the right and raised by contemporary real fascists when they governed the place. How should we react to this stuff? Madison Avenue has so accustomed us to detecting manipulation through advertising that the cutting-edge propaganda of the 1920s and 1930s looks laughably childish and simple-minded. Communist posters in Socialist realist style (figure 4),
like Fascist monuments (figure 5),
can only be read as camp nowadays because they are so portentous and earnestly meant and yet so primitive and psychologically naive.
In reading of the fascists and communists, each readier than the other to bust heads, it’s hard not to think of the Star Trek episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield or of the Oscar Wilde who spoke of ‘The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’ (figure 6).
V. The Khaki Shirts. Arthur J. Smith.
Leaving the luckless Fierro aside for now, it’s worth a look back at Atkins’ 2011 account of the Khaki Shirts, and in particular Art Smith, who in many respects reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite think of who.
. . . Although he had only a third-grade education, Smith maintained that he could read and write. He had been a soldier of fortune with military experience in Africa, China, and Russia before forming the Khaki Shirts of America in 1933. He fancied himself a “general,” and he called his aids a general staff.Stephen Atkins, Encyclopedia of Right-Wing Extremism in Modern American History, ABC-CLIO (2011) 66.
His goal for his organization was to recruit an army of veterans and march on Washington, D.C., to seize control of the government. Once in control, Smith wanted to set up a military government with himself in charge. The platform for the party was the abolition of Congress, immediate payment of the veterans’ bonus, federal unemployment relief, repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment [prohibition], election of Supreme Court justices, revaluation of silver at a 16 to 1 ratio [with gold], and the building of the largest army and navy in the world. In his speeches to his adherents, Smith attacked the Jews, threatening to “kill all the Jews in the United States.”
Although Smith had plans to make the Khaki Shirts into a mass movement, it had fewer than 200 active members. Smith had made claims that there were 10 million members, but under oath in a court of law, he reduced the total to 10,000. . . . Smith made his wife the treasurer for the organization. Membership cost $2, with reduced prices for retail shirts, caps, and other clothing. . . . Arthur M. Schlesinger characterized Smith in the following fashion: “It’s headquarters were in Philadelphia where Smith, wearing a Khaki shirt, riding breeches, a brown suede riding coat decorated by four stars, and a plumed headdress, spouted political nonsense and sold shirts and boots to his followers.”
Smith was part of the ‘Lunatic Fringe’, as Theodore Roosevelt had called such extremists. Smith emerged, like other dangerous crazies, from the stresses of the Great Depression and tried to settle personal scores or monetize the situation. One thinks of Father Coughlin with his political ambitions and propensity to publish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and to quote or adapt “facts” drawn from the propaganda of Josef Goebbels. Indeed, it is interesting to read that Frank Spinogatti, second in command and self-proclaimed heir to Smith after the latter’s fall, turned to Father Coughlin’s movement when the Khaki Shirts petered out.
VI. So, what have I learned from Fierro’s monument?
Besides reaffirming the truism that “it can happen here,” I learned about some interesting American instantiations of stuff one already knew from European examples: that the natural antagonism between fascism and its cousins in Europe and shades of Marxism carried right over into American politics; thanks to Italy’s particular situation under Mussolini from 1922, Italian Americans were in the forefront of fights between the two world views; both sides targeted both church and unions for recruits and to manipulate large amounts of votes; the church and the unions were also focal points of organization on both sides; both sides cultivated a religious fervor in their adherents and borrowed oaths and commandments to manipulate and guide their faithful; the most ardent were ready to die (and kill) for their cause; as in Europe, the depression was a forcing ground for extremists, whose desire to remake the world, or some part of it, in accordance with their vision brought together political ideals with ambitious monetization schemes; political propaganda leads to interesting but dreadful art and poetry. And, needless to say, when Jews are maligned and targeted you know the group doing so is frightful.