On Wednesday, Staff Writer Charles Bonkowsky attended Angelo Caglioti’s lecture, Science and Fascism, or Fascist Science? Meteorology, Empire, and anti-Semitism in Fascist Italy through Columbia’s Center for Science and Society.
“The climate of the [Fascist] revolution can be particularly beneficial to scientific research,” announced Mussolini in 1932 to the Italian Society for the Advancement of Science—but was it really? And what are the ways in which the history of science can explain the history of Italian fascism?
Angelo Caglioti, an Assistant Professor of History who joined Barnard College in 2020, sought to answer those questions and more by capturing the large-scale entanglement between science, society, and Italian fascism. Previous work, he said, has focused on specific stories of science or scientists under fascism, but hasn’t attempted to unify the history of science and the history of fascism. What defined “fascist science,” he said, was scientists’ adoption of practices and goals focused on competition and garnering support from the regime.
The majority of Caglioti’s talk focused on Italian meteorology. Meteorological networks are social networks, requiring collaboration between the state, scientific experts, and even amateur researchers. Fascism promised perfect cooperation between state and society, making these meteorological networks the perfect place to test that promise. Spoiler alert: there was no such perfect coordination, and it was cutthroat competition between agencies which dominated meteorological research during the fascist period.
During the liberal period, both the Italian state and the Catholic Church were key sponsors of meteorology. This was also the “golden age,” between 1870 and 1914, of international meteorological cooperation across European borders, holding regular meetings to standardize measurements or to time observations of the upper atmosphere. World War I changed all that. The international fabric of cooperation was destroyed, and governments, especially their military branches, suddenly became very interested in forecasting the weather. “Knowing where the direction of the wind would go,” Caglioti explained, “was especially critical for chemical warfare.”
Meteorology under fascism, then, looked much different than its predecessor. The interwar period is where Caglioti introduced the most compelling character of his lecture: Father Bernardo Paoloni, a Benedictine monk and director of the Practical Meteorology journal—and a prominent Fascist scientist. Within his own journal he suspended democratic norms for the Directive Council, and helped cement meteorology as a “fascist science” under Mussolini.
It was through Paolini’s private papers that Caglioti was able to draw many of his examples for this transformation of meteorology. Paoloni wrote to the Ufficio Centrale in 1931 that “you cannot mess with the Fascist system, which does not take well critiques,” clearly fearing that if he allowed criticism of the regime to pass, the meteorologists would strip their support from his journal. This was repeated all over Italy: in order to promote their own projects and stay in good standing with the Fascist regime, scientists themselves articulated this competitive, zero-sum view of fascist science. (Much of his research, it seemed, was based on Paoloni’s private papers, as a trove of documents which dealt directly with, but were not censored by, the Fascist regime.)
These scientists’ work was also used to justify fascist Italy’s reconquest of Libya and its invasion of Italy, with scientists expected to work in the name of “autarchy” and provide whatever support was requested from the state or the military. Fascist science also boosted the rise of anti-Semitism in Italy: in 1938 Mussolini published the Manifesto of Racial Scientists, which was used as justification for the laws which removed Italian Jews from schools, universities and public office. Caglioti included a memorable sentence from a former director of the Meteorological Office to Paoloni, refusing to fill out the census which asked if he was Jewish.
Caglioti concluded by noting the ways in which the divided scientific community allowed this scientific fascism to emerge: competition within the divided community, between state-backed and Church-backed meteorological institutions, meant that scientists tried to curry favor by proving just how fascist they were. But despite fascism’s glorious claims, Italy’s defeat in World War II marked the failure of this fascist science. A key reason for its failure, Caglioti said, was that it was built on division.
When his talk was finished, I had time to ask Caglioti about the other ways in which this fascist science presented itself—was data fudged by scientists hoping to present better results to the regime? Given that almost everything printed was heavily controlled by the state, he said, he didn’t have specific examples, but he was able to point to a section in Paolini’s private papers where the scientists sent proofs from Practical Meteorology directly to Mussolini to get the dictator’s approval for what was to be published.
This was all historical—Caglioti’s presentation, while exhaustive, dealt most specifically with Italian fascism—and I still wondered how this kind of fascist science would come about like today, or whether there were existing modern-day equivalents. . Fortunately for me, (and you lucky readers!) that was the final question of the presentation. Our current time period, he said, looks a lot like the scientific liberalism of the late 19th century, with broad international cooperation—though largely fueled by a similarly far-reaching imperialism—but it was World War I and its nationalism which soured that relationship. Bitterness among scientists and a national loyalty placed above a scientific loyalty was what fascism used as leverage. “Division,” he concluded, “is the breeding ground for dictatorships.”
Weather measurements via Charlie Bonkowsky