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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 44, New Delhi, October 16, 2021

Marina Cardozo. Review of Giannattasio, Valerio, Il fascismo nella Banda Oriental

Friday 15 October 2021


Reviewed by Marina Cardozo (Universdad de la República, Uruguay)

Il fascismo nella Banda Oriental

Valerio Giannattasio

Rome: Edizioni Nuova Cultura

2020. 292 pp.

EUR 28.00 (paper)

ISBN 978-88-336-5318-1

Fascism in Uruguay

This innovative volume reconstructs twenty years of Italian-Uruguayan relations, with special attention given to the fascist penetration in Uruguay, through channels of diplomacy, the press, and a network of Italian Fasci in the South American country. The author combines written press with other documents, in particular diplomatic sources. This book reveals, in an original way, the use of Italian consular structures to channel consensus for the fascist government, at the cost of dividing the peninsular community, a sector of which nevertheless remained attached to the republican, socialist, and anarchist traditions that distinguished Italian immigration to Latin America from the second half of the nineteenth century onward. The book also examines the personalism, protagonism, and maneuvering of the leaders of the pro-fascist associations, who were divided by rivalries and commercial interests. Valerio Giannattasio’s research is part of a more ambitious project that studies political-diplomatic and cultural relations between Latin America and fascist Italy, thus it does not only focus on the case of Uruguay.[1]

The first part of the book analyzes the 1920s: the repercussions in Uruguay and the local Italian colony of the rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy and the first attempts of fascism to gain support in the Italian community living in the República Oriental. The second part substantially examines forms of propagandistic penetration of fascism in the Italian colony from the key moment of the arrival of Serafino Mazzolini as Italian ambassador in Uruguay, in the context of the world economic depression and shortly before the coup d’état led by President Gabriel Terra.

The author introduces the first part with an initial section focusing on immigration, regional origins (from the beginning of the twentieth century, with an increase in arrivals from the South, with Campania leading the way), and capacity for integration into local society, with an important contribution to commercial and business activities.[2] The considerable magnitude of Italian immigration to Uruguay meant that in the 1920s, Mussolini’s government was particularly interested in fascistizing the Italians living on the eastern bank of the River Plate, where they had a strong community concentrated in Montevideo since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The research examines in detail the publications of both the Italian community in Uruguay and the local political party press.[3] A part of the Uruguayan public opinion with a conservative orientation looked with interest at Mussolini’s model, with the idea of adapting it to Uruguay. The newspaper El País, linked to the Partido Nacional, adopted this line, even before the Marcia su Roma (March on Rome) called Mussolini “the man of the day.” In contrast, the newspaper El Día, which belonged to the Batllista sector of the Partido Colorado (main opposition to the Partido Nacional), was critical, concerned about the violence of the camicie nere (blackshirts), as well as the fascist shift from initial republicanism to pro-monarchist positions.

At the end of 1922, Uruguay drew closer to Italy with the rise to the presidency of José Serrato, member of the Partido Colorado from a Ligurian family. The new foreign minister, Pedro Manini Ríos, made no secret of his pro-fascist leanings, as did the president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Montevideo, Emilio Coelli. These figures were to play a decisive role in the initial phase of relations between fascist Italy and Uruguay.

Political projects were combined with commercial aspects. The book delves into the different perspectives of liberal Italian governments and fascism on Italian communities abroad: these communities sought to mobilize them in favor of the regime’s objectives, which could be summed up as Italy’s greatness in the world. In short, Uruguay represented a sort of bridgehead in the Latin American Southern Cone, along with Argentina and Brazil, the other two most important countries for Italian immigration. The first propagandist sent to the Southern Cone was Ottavio Dinale, in charge of reorganizing the sections of the Partito Nazionale Fascista in the Italian community in Latin America. Dinale was a former revolutionary socialist, a volunteer in the Great War, and a follower of Mussolini: the fascist promoters in Montevideo shared a similar political itinerary, one of the approximately 150 fascist sections scattered around the world, part of the Direzione Generale dei Fasci all’Estero, headed by the former squadrista (squad member) Giuseppe Bastianini (future Italian ambassador in London).

With the consolidation of the fascist dictatorship in Italy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, directed between 1922 and 1929 by Mussolini himself, put at the head of many consulates leading elements of fascist squadrismo who had no diplomatic experience in terms of studies or curriculum and who were entrusted with the task of combating and marginalizing anti-fascists. Among the Italian community in Uruguay, there was resistance to the plans to fascistize the community, particularly from one of its most important exponents, supporters Giuseppe Nigro (founder of the newspaper L’Italiano in 1912), who was annoyed by the activism of Montevideo’s fascists but who after the Matteotti crisis adhered to fascism.

The research highlights another key aspect of the regime’s foreign policy, which shook the collective imagination awakening nationalist pride, in particular a series of important events of a propagandistic nature, such as the arrival of the commercial cruise ship Italia in 1924, celebrated in Montevideo by thousands of people mobilized by the Comité de Acogida (welcome committee), which also included Italian masonry (despite Mussolini’s campaign to outlaw it). The head of the delegation, Giovanni Giuriati (later president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in 1929-34 and secretary of the Partito Nazionale Fascista in 1930-31), highlighted in public speeches the figures of Giuseppe Garibaldi and José Artigas, visiting later the main industrial plants in Montevideo and attending cultural events (conventions and concerts at the Sociedad Italiana de Socorros Mutuos, the Banco Italiano del Uruguay, and the Scuola Italiana, among others). Isolated attempts of protest led by left-wing militants were overwhelmed by the general patriotic-nationalist wave. On March 13, 1927, the arrival in Montevideo of Francesco de Pinedo, who was flying over the Americas on an initiative sponsored by the fascist government, sparked an even more heated debate. He was received by the new president, Juan Campisteguy, and visited the various immigrant associations, with the intention of intensifying the friendship between the two countries. At the same time, the regime organized regular tours by illustrious cultural figures, such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (in Montevideo in 1926 and again in 1936) and Luigi Pirandello (in 1927 and 1933), in order to strengthen the countries’ friendship. These events followed the same script, from the solemn welcoming of the guest to the sound of “Giovinezza” and the Uruguayan national anthem, to banquets and street demonstrations. The common aim of the various initiatives was to win for the fascist associations a monopoly on Italianness, in analogy to what was happening in Italy, where the dictatorship denigrated and punished opponents as “anti-national elements.”

The second part of the book describes the remarkable qualitative leap both in fascist propaganda and in its influence on Uruguayan internal affairs that took place from 1932 onward, with the arrival in Montevideo of Mazzolini. The new ambassador had approached fascism from a nationalist point of view and was destined to play a leading political role later in the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (the so-called Republic of Salò), heading the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Mussolini. Formerly consul general in São Paulo, the charismatic diplomat increased the fascistization of the local community and boosted the cultural propaganda of the fascist regime in Uruguay. He reorganized and politicized the colony’s associations, both in Montevideo and in other cities throughout the country. His position of extreme politicization of diplomatic activity is summed up in his message to the fascists living in Uruguay in April 1933: “The fascist abroad represents the aristocracy of our communities, because he draws from Fascism a high consciousness and a new strength. The world today looks to Fascism with sure hope, as it looks to the pilot capable of leading the whole of humanity into a fresher and healthier stream: that is, to Benito Mussolini” (p. 177).[4] After a year of intense work, the work of fascistization had achieved important results, and in the next four years of his mandate it grew even more. Mazzolini also took an interest in the Uruguayan situation, which, by this time, had entered a difficult phase, due to a crisis in the livestock production sector and a decline in exports.

The book gives an account of the complex biennium 1931-33, marked by the repercussions of the world economic crisis in Uruguay and also by the reorganization of political party life, especially within the Partido Colorado, whose majority was affected by the physical disappearance, in October 1929, of its main figure, former president José Batlle y Ordóñez, in the context of the centenary of the republic’s commemorations. This social tension and economic crisis would contribute to the political-institutional crisis that would initiate the dictatorship led by the original Batllista president, Terra, seconded by the Herrerismo, the conservative wing of the Partido Nacional.[5]

The book analyzes in detail the important action of Mazzolini, not only in the fascist line initiated in the previous decade, which he reinforced intensely, but also in his intervening role in local politics, supporting the hard line of the dictator Terra and encouraging him in his opposition to Batllismo, which, according to a report written in April 1933, “represented the expression of an irreducible anti-Italianism and a fierce anti-fascism” (p. 185). The investigation points to Mazzolini’s influence on the dictator Terra, who praised Mussolini as a wise and capable ruler, in taking a favorable position toward the Italian fascist regime. This period, reinforcing the pro-fascist line that the Uruguayan government seemed to adopt—by breaking off relations with the Spanish republican government and the Soviet Union—saw an important strengthening of commercial and financial relations between Italy and Uruguay.

Similarly, at the diplomatic level, in 1935 Uruguay adopted a benevolent stance in the face of the Italian attack on Ethiopia and, despite the economic sanctions decreed by the League of Nations, maintained trade relations with Italy.[6] These events are examined in detail in the second part of the book. At the same time, the visit to Rome of Luis Alberto de Herrera, Partido Nacional’s leader and main ally of Terra, and the trip to Montevideo of the Italian Senate president, Luigi Federzoni, in 1937 formalized the excellent relations between the two governments.

In 1938, when Mazzolini was transferred to Cairo, the Italian Fascio (Fascist branch) in Montevideo had more than a thousand members. His successor, Ettore Perrone di San Martino, lacked Mazzolini’s political skill, both in dealing with the new president, General Alfredo Baldomir, and in maintaining control of the Italian community, which, as World War II unfolded, saw a resurgence of the anti-fascist component. Racial legislation in Italy from 1938 onward, although approved by fascist circles in Uruguay, created tensions with local society. This legislation provoked the arrival of prominent Jewish anti-fascists, such as Rodolfo Mondolfo and Renato Treves, who were well received by emigrant circles: public opinion was not favorable to the anti-Semitic campaign.[7] Perhaps to make the picture more complete, it would be important to delve deeper into the anti-fascist associations to generate a better understanding of the confrontation between the two currents, as well as to account for the opposition of anti-fascism to the Italian community’s fascistization projects in Uruguay.

Uruguay’s neutrality in the European conflict, proclaimed on September 5, 1939, by the Baldomir government, was, in any case, oriented in favor of the Allies, as shown by the attitude toward the crew of the Graf Spee, which, having taken refuge in the port of Montevideo on December 13 due to serious damage suffered in a battle with British ships, had to return to the open sea after only seventy-two hours and consequently decided to blow up the battleship, given the impossibility of repairing it. From the outbreak of the war, the non-fascist Italian associations (Circolo Napolitano and Círculo El Progreso) stepped up their activities and forced the pro-Mussolini associations on the defensive; they experienced further difficulty because of the passage of Uruguay to the Allied side. From January 1942, when the government moved in a pro-American direction and then broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis powers, the fascist associations were considered fifth columns of the enemy and gradually ceased their activity. At the same time, Italia Libera’s movement was born, bringing together anti-fascists (with the exception of communists) and encouraging the war against Nazi fascism. The valuable work carried out by Mazzolini crumbled in the space of a couple of years, mainly due to international events, which deprived Mussolini’s government of both the favors of the Italian community and the political backing of Uruguay.


[1]. In this regard, among the bibliography referred to in the book, for a set of topics it deals with on the transnational dimension as a perspective, see Matteo Pretelli, Il fascismo e gli italiani all’estero (Bologna: CLUEB, 2010).

[2]. On the contribution to industrial, business, and commercial activities made by Italian immigration in Uruguay, see Alcides Beretta Curi, Los hijos de Hefestos: El concurso de la inmigración italiana en la formación del empresariado uruguayo 1875-1930 (Montevideo: UdelaR, 1998).

[3]. On the former, see Pantaleone Sergi, Storia della stampa italiana in Uruguay (Rende: Fondazione Italia Nelle Americhe, 2014).

[4]. All translations are mine.

[5]. The works of Gerardo Caetano and Raúl Jacob, mentioned in the bibliography of Il fascismo nella Banda Oriental, continue to be key to the study of this period of terrism. See Gerardo Caetano and Raúl Jacob, El nacimiento del terrismo: El golpe de Estado (1933), vol. 3 (Montevideo: Banda Oriental, 1991); El nacimiento del terrismo: Camino al golpe (1932), vol. 2 (Montevideo: Banda Oriental, 1990); and El nacimiento del terrismo (1930-1933), vol. 1 (Montevideo: Banda Oriental, 1989).

[6]. See Ana María Rodríguez Ayçaguer’s volume Un pequeño lugar bajo el sol: Mussolini, la conquista de Etiopía y la diplomacia uruguaya: 1935-1938 (Montevideo: Banda Oriental, 2009).

[7]. On the arrival of prominent anti-fascists, the bibliography referred to in the book includes the volume by Clara Aldrighi: Antifascismo italiano en Montevideo: El diálogo político entre Luiggi Fabbri y Carlo Rosselli (Montevideo: FHUCE/UdelaR, 1996).

[This work appeared earlier in H-Italy (August, 2021) and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License]

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