Friday, February 15, 2013

Fascists, Rome, and Chicago

Monument to Italo Balbo in Chicago (wikipedia)
While doing research for my new book Wars Amongst Lovers (which I write in a parallel life and will be out this summer), I came across an interesting and strange bit of factual history about Chicago, Fascists, and World War Two. It has to do with the naming of Balbo Avenue on Chicago’s near south side. The street runs east to west and begins near the Buckingham Fountain and South Lake Shore Drive. The street is named for one of Benito Mussolini’s most important political allies and Fascists, Italo Balbo (1896-1940). A devoted Fascist since World War I, Balbo was one of the most powerful men in Italy and helped bring Mussolini to power in 1922.

Even though new to flying, Balbo was tasked with building the Italian Royal Air Force and he led Italy into the twentieth century skies. Aviation was the “New” thing in 1925, not unlike some of the strange things we recently see like electric cars, high speed rail, and even smartphones. All started slow and built momentum until they became the rage. In air travel that meant a lot of amateurs lost their status by burrowing their airplanes into cornfields. For nations, air was prestige and glamor. And Italy was one of the leaders of the times; Italian aviators accomplished amazing feats in aircraft built by Italians. Italo Balbo led two transatlantic flights in seaplanes, twelve Savoia-Marchetti S.55s to Rio de Janeiro in December 1930 and twenty-four seaplanes to Chicago in July, 1933, that landed on Lake Michigan.

Chicago was in the midst of its glorious Worlds’ Fair, The Century of Progress. All manner of new and exciting post WWI exhibitions and events continued to add to Chicago’s reputation as a new and upcoming leader in American and world commerce. This squadron of Italian seaplanes added to this image. Chicago, by the mid-1930s, had a large and expanding Italian population. On the south side, Little Italy spread along Taylor Street and Italians were making their way, like the Irish, into important political jobs. Balbo only added to their pride and prestige.

In Chicago. he was treated to a huge parade, dinners, and other public presentations. His pilots and crews were welcomed as conquering heroes and with great pride shown off across the city. And, in an even greater example of international friendship, Mussolini “borrowed” a marble column from the historic city, on Italy’s coast, Ostia, and presented it to the city of Chicago to be displayed at Italy’s exhibit at the fair. It now sits a few hundred yards southeast of Soldier Field. And the city renamed Seventh Street to Balbo Drive (now Avenue). Later, during the war, there was much controversy over the name – but it still remains today.

Balbo was treated to lunch with President Roosevelt (who gave him the Distinguished Flying Cross), the Sioux adopted him as a brother with the title “Chief Flying Eagle”. He stopped in New York on his way back to Italy and in Madison Square Garden told the huge crowd, “Be proud you are Italians. Mussolini has ended the era of humiliations.”

Balbo was one of the few who was against the rise of Italian anti-Semitism and laws the specifically targeted Jews in Italy, sadly he was a minority voice in Mussolini’s need to curry favor with Hitler. He was later Governor-General of conquered Libya and was involved with Mussolini’s grand designs on much of North Africa. In the late 1930s collaborations between Hitler’s air force and the Italian military began to expand, much of it do to their assistance to Franco in Spain’s civil war. But Balbo leaned toward Britain. Few followed his lead, and when he was informed of Italy’s formal alliance with the Nazi’s, he exclaimed, “You will all wind up shinning the shoes of the Germans.” Sadly Italy did far more than that before their surrender in September of 1943.

On June 28, 1940, while trying to land at an Italian airfield in Tobruk, his plane was shot down by his own Italian gunners and he was killed. Some have claimed it as an assassination by his own government, but it was really one of those tragic accidents of war. How his voice might have changed the outcome, we will never know. Later when Muammar Gaddafi threatened to disinter the Italian cemetery in Tripoli, Balbo’s remains were brought back to Italy.

Balbo Avenue still remains, the Balbo monument, with its 2nd century marble column, still remains, and Chicago’s connections to Italy remain as strong as ever.

More Later . . . . . . .

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