While prettying herself up for her launch party this evening (AT MONA on Amsterdam b/t 108 & 109), the Bwog has been pondering her place in history, especially as it related to the rise and fall of Fascism, which, it turns out, Columbia is not so far removed from.

Casa Totalitarina
By Jacob Jacobsonian

One of Columbia’s tour guides recently confided to a group of tourees that the Casa Italiana – the structure that today houses the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America – had been an outpost for the dissemination of fascist propaganda prior to the Second World War. At first, one might consider this to be a bit of propaganda itself, like so much of the Columbia trivia garbled over gargling at the West End. (And for the record, Wien Hall was not built to house the criminally insane). Having heard this particular rumor repeated far too often, and vowing never to let hapless tour guides upstage us, The Blue and White decided to investigate further.

Research in the archives unearthed an anonymous article in a 1934 issue of The Nation, alleging that the Casa had become “an unofficial adjunct of the Italian Consul-General’s office in New York and one of the most important sources of fascist propaganda in America.” The rumors, apparently, did not begin in the Admissions Department.

One of the most serious allegations made in the article was that Columbia’s Italian Department had sponsored a dissertation speciously linking Giuseppi Prezzolini (then the director of the Casa Italiana) and his publication La Voce to the political precursors of Fascism. Any such connection, the author argued, was nothing more than a “hoax” and thus proof of the “special pressure” exercised by Fascist influences on the intellectual climate of the Casa. The Nation article argued that this was an instance of the Casa sponsoring false revisionism; Prezzolini, they insisted, had been a devout liberal in the period prior to 1922’s March on Rome – when the Fascist party took control of the Italian government.

Supporting their claim, the authors pointed to the frequent attacks, in La Voce’s early issues, against “the intellectual bombast of the prewar nationalist movement, which later became the very keystone of the present fascist doctrine.”

Prezzolini’s sudden and complete reversal of position, they argued, was thus
a clear indication that he was acting under political pressure. The Nation authors further alleged that both the faculty of Casa and the publications it produced demonstrated clear signs of pro-Fascist bias in their treatment of Italian political and social issues. In the same issue’s opinion pages, the editors of The Nation addressed Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler, demanding that he take action consistent with his liberal reputation and ensure that the Italian Department observe “academic standards of free inquiry and discussion.”

Such allegations, it turned out, were not all that original. As early as 1928, the New York Times published an article bearing the headline “Charge Mussolini Wields Power Here,” which made similar claims about the Casa, even going so far as to point out that Mussolini himself agreed to donate furnishings for the building following its completion in 1926. But although it may have been true that Casa’s faculty, like many Italian intellectuals of the day, did indeed hold certain Fascist sympathies, the accusation that the intellectual climate of the University was somehow shaped by the Italian government during Mussolini’s rule seems rather far-fetched. Recent scholarship links Futurist views, like those espoused in La Voce, to Mussolini’s early rhetoric, thereby undermining the notion that Prezzolini’s treatment of Il Duce was entirely independent of his earlier criticism of the pre-war nationalists – a critical point for substantiating the Nation’s allegations.

All this, admittedly, fails to touch upon the larger question – why we find Fascism so fascinating that we would publicly proclaim Columbia’s distant ties to totalitarianism, be they real or fictive. Perhaps, as Susan Sontag suggested in a 1975 essay, it is precisely the failure of past generations to discuss Fascism that makes it so intellectually (and tourically) appealing, as an element of “the exotic, the unknown.” Or perhaps, as the beamingly conspiratorial tour guide later whispered, it’s because the Fascists have just switched departments.

This originally appeared in the March 2004 edition of the Blue and White.