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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Shaping the New Man: Alessio Ponzio's new book on youth training programs under Fascism and Nazism

Buildings of the Foro Italico (nee Mussolini).  At left, the pool building.  At right, behind the obelisk, the training academy. 
On the side of the obelisk, the words
Opera Balilla, Anno X [1932].
This--and the rest of Foro Italico--
is on an itinerary in Modern Rome: 4
Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
Romaphiles with an interest in the modern, 20th-century city will be familiar with the northern-Rome complex once known as Foro Mussolini, and now as Foro Italico (#5 on RST's Top 40): a 650-ton obelisk of Carrara marble, engraved with the words "MUSSOLINI DUX"; a small, harmonious sports stadium (The Marble Stadium), surrounded by sculptures glorifying the male body; an indoor swimming pool, decorated with mosaics in a nautical theme (the building also houses Il Duce's private gym, which we've visited); a entryway of stone, now enjoyed by skateboarders, with marble markers announcing the foreign conquests of the Fascist regime; and, centering these and other athletic facilities, and linked to the stadium, a massive building in Pompeian red. Mostly designed by architect Enrico del Debbio, the complex opened in 1932.

What is less well known is what happened inside the U-shaped red building.  As Alessio Ponzio explains in his recently published book, Shaping the New Man: Youth Training Regimes in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), that building housed the Fascist Academy of Physical Education of Rome, essentially an elaborate boarding school, with apartments for instructors and a dormitory for students, where the "political and pedagogical leaders" of the Fascist youth organization--then known as the Opera Nazionale Balilla (ONB)--were trained.

One of Fascism's summer "camps."  The ramps at left
made possible elaborately orchestrated presentations.
During a two-year program of coursework and athletic activities, the instructors were trained not only to teach sports and to organize summer camps (Colonie di Vacanze), displays, and parades, but to "give lectures about Italian history, the Fascist regime, and Fascist ideology" and to manage and mold groups of children and adolescents into believers in the Italian New Order. The case del Balilla (Balilla houses), where the graduates of the Academy engaged the country's young people, were educational (or ideological, or propagandistic) in the broadest sense.  While sports were important, minds too were trained--in libraries, theaters, reading rooms, radio rooms, lecture halls. The experience was intense.  "By now we all have the same character," wrote one student, "we all think in the same way."

Boys training at a Fascist summer camp
In 1937, the ONB was replaced by the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio (GIL).  Between 1937 and 1939, years that Ponzio describes as the "totalitarian acceleration," the new organization, now directly run by the PNF (National Fascist Party), devoted more attention to military training and endorsed the race laws of 1938; Jewish youth and leaders were expelled.  The case del Balilla (named after Giovan Battista Perasso, a hero of the Great War, whose moniker was Balilla) were renamed case della GIL.  The slogan of the GIL, taken from yet another Fascist-era youth organization, was "Credere, Obbedire, Combattere" (Believe, Obey, Fight).  In 1943 there were about 40 GIL institutes for the training of youth leaders, though the Academy at the Mussolini Forum continued to have a major role.  While the ONB had operated independently of the public schools, the GIL "invaded and conditioned the schools" by organizing a variety of
educational activities during school hours.  It also subsidized summer camps.  And the attack on Catholic youth organizations sharpened, so that in 1940 members of Catholic Action were forbidden to wear badges of that organization in public.

Architect Luigi Moretti's stunning GIL edifice, as it
looked in the 1930s.  It's still there, in Trastevere,
at Largo Ascianghi 5 (and is #10 on RST's Top 40 and
on one of the RST itineraries)
The Academy was important, but Fascism's efforts to produce a "New Man," to shape the bodies and minds of Italy's youth had begun a decade earlier and was given official, legislative sanction in 1926, with the creation of the ONB and approval of a measure that gave to the organization an "absolute monopoly over male education in all extracurricular and extrafamiliar activities.  With the exception of some Catholic youth associations, all other youth organizations, among them the Boy Scouts, the Republic Youth Federation, and the Socialist Youth Federation, were disbanded.  Pius XI resisted decrees that included Catholic groups, arguing that education belonged to family, church and state, and in May 1931 the Vatican broke diplomatic relations with Italy over these issues.

But Mussolini was insistent:  "The Fascist state," he had announced in 1929, "asserts at full its own ethics.  It is Catholic, but it is Fascist. Rather, it is above all, exclusively, essentially Fascist."  An accommodation, if one can call it that, was reached in 1933, with Catholic organizations allowed to exist if they desisted from participation in union, political, and even sports activities.  The spiritual realm was theirs, but that was all.
Foro Italico complex.  The statues circle the small stadium, behind the main buildings.  

It would be tempting to assume that youth education was of minor importance to the Italian Fascist state (and for Germany, too), but it would be wrong to do so.  According to Ponzio, both regimes, and both Hitler and Mussolini, believed "that if states wanted to have a complete control of their citizens, they had to monopolize the education of their future generations."  In addition, Mussolini's commitment to youth education was grounded in the belief that the adult generations had failed (in the Great War, especially), and that the creation of the New Man could only occur when malleable young people were taught a new set of values.

In the final pages of this rich, detailed, and thoroughly researched comparative history, Ponzio briefly assesses the memoirs and oral histories of students and teachers that participated in the ONB and GIL programs.  So "multifaceted" were these experiences, he concludes, so "diverse and various," that "it is not possible to find a common voice."  The results were "uneven," and "the idea of Italian and German youth being blindly mobilized by Mussolini's and Hitler's regimes is artificial."  That's a comforting perspective, but not, I think, one entirely consistent with, or supported by, the Ponzio's own powerful, underlying narrative.

Ponzio explains, too, how knowledge of Fascist programs of youth education--and the comparison with similar Nazi programs--can help in evaluating the idea of "italiani brava gente"--the "myth of the good Italian." Assembled in the postwar era, the myth had several components: compared to the horrific behavior of Nazi Germany, the Fascist regime seemed relatively benign--a pale imitation, really, of its wartime ally.  In addition, Italy's early withdrawal from the conflict was easily interpreted as a sign that Italians were ill-suited to combat and warfare--just too nice to fight.  Finally, the resistance movement--celebrated and revered to this day--allowed Italians to believe that opposition to the Mussolini dictatorship had been widespread, the norm.  

The Italian experience with youth education makes the myth of "italiani brava gente" hard to accept.
Italian Fascism was a pioneer in this area, and the program it created was, for much of a decade, the envy of the Nazis--and of many other European regimes.

Despite what the word implies, totalitarianism is never "total."  But Fascist efforts to reconstruct the bodies and belief systems of youth were, by Ponzio's own accounting, elaborate, invasive, and pervasive, and in Italy they were in place for a generation--long enough to create a substantial cadre of believers, of New Men. The "New Men" who survived the war must have had quite an adjustment.


Shaping the New Man was published September 29.  It is available for purchase through the University of Wisconsin Press and  

1 comment:

Marco said...

G.B. Perasso was long dead well before the Great War, though - he lived in the 18th century!