August 23rd 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Saving the Internet from itself

EDITORIAL: Australia-US trade deal and the debt crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Marriage law changes: the fight is worth it

AGRICULTURE: Water rights and trading petition launched

ECONOMY: The housing boom: history repeats

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dictators and dark continents / Get Blair

HISTORY: How political myths are made

Senate calls for EU-style 'Pacific Community'

FAMILY: Governments put gay marriage on the agenda

COMMENT: Feminist arithmetic

NEW ZEALAND: The story behind the destruction of ANZUS

PHILIPPINES: Filipino coup attempt destabilises Arroyo

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How political myths are made

by Anthony Cappello

News Weekly, August 23, 2003
In his new book, The Pope's Battalions, Queensland historian Ross Fitzgerald cites historical references that paint Daniel Mannix, B.A. Santamaria and other members of the Catholic Church in Melbourne in the late 1930s as fascist sympathisers and admirers of Mussolini. Unfortunately for the credibility of the book and its author, these statements were some years ago exposed as politically-motivated defamations and, as Anthony Cappello explains, even the original source of the statements will no longer cite them. So why did Fitzgerald?

Father Ugo Modotti was chaplain to the Italian community in Melbourne from 1938 to 1945. He was well known to the Santamaria family, including the emerging youthful B.A. Santamaria. Fr Modotti was a leader in the Italian community, a close friend of Archbishop Daniel Mannix, a nuisance to the Italian consular corps in Australia and, after Italy entered the war in June 1940, a problem to the Australian authorities.

Fr Modotti was also an anti-communist who worked against pro-communist Italians in Australia, particularly those who operated within so-called "anti-fascism" fronts.

Front groups

In 1945, when the failure of the Italia Libera organisation (the Italian pro-communist, anti-fascism front group in Melbourne) was imminent, its members set about defaming its enemies as supporters of Mussolini and his regime.

As I discovered while researching my Master of Arts thesis, the questionable sources for these allegations did not dissuade later historians and commentators from using them to accuse Archbishop Mannix and B. A. Santamaria of being fascist sympathisers.

Such claims have been discredited in recent post-graduate theses, professional journals and even generally available articles.

It was, therefore, disappointing to see Ross Fitzgerald in his new book The Pope's Battalions resurrect the myth of a pro-fascist Modotti in its claim that the Italian priest was a "confirmed and outspoken admirer of Mussolini".

Confirmed by whom? The major conduit for this disinformation is Gianfranco Cresciani who, in his history of the period (1980), claimed that Fr Modotti was a fascist sympathiser. This reference has been much quoted by critics of B.A. Santamaria and Archbishop Daniel Mannix. But just how accurate is the allegation?

According to Cresciani, the vast majority of Italians in Australia were "indifferent" to the Italian political situation.

Real support for the fascist regime among the Italians of Melbourne before June 1940 was, as even Cresciani more recently admitted, limited to the Italian consular corps. As functionaries of the regime, this could only be expected.

And if the consular officials represented Italian fascism in Australia, why did they make numerous requests in 1940 to the Vatican to send Fr Modotti back to Italy?

Modotti had run foul of the consulate for his continued anti-fascist statements and activities. Appeals were made to the Apostolic Delegate right up until the consulate closed following Italy's entry into the war.

Denounced by enemies

From 1938 to 1940, Modotti was engaged in counter activities to the Italian fascist authorities. He made many enemies who denounced him. He was arrested in 1940 but released immediately after representations from the Vicar-General of the Melbourne Archdiocese. The arresting officer conceded that Modotti was considered an anti-fascist by the fascists and a fascist by the anti-fascists.

(It is worth noting that those Italians arrested and interned after June 1940 were a mix of fascists, anti-fascists, communists and even anarchists.)

Modotti's traducing is one thing; but then we have the ultimate howler. Ross Fitzgerald writes:

"Indeed, in 1943 the Archbishop declared 'Mussolini [to be] the greatest man living today'. Shortly afterwards Mussolini was deposed by the Italians, who apparently did not agree with Mannix's assessment."

This is a persistent citation, having been invoked with some relish by Professor James Griffin in his entry on Mannix for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. But is this true?

To start with, the chronology is all wrong. Italy surrendered in September 1943. Following the capitulation, Dr Mannix and Arthur Calwell, Minister for Information, called a meeting of the Italian community in Melbourne to remind the authorities that Italians were no longer enemy aliens and those interned should be released.

Dr Mannix spoke first, followed by Calwell. The Argus and The Advocate which both had reporters present, recorded the Archbishop as saying:

"History will call [Mussolini] one of the big men of the century. Like many other big men he seems to have failed."

Hardly an endorsement.

Calwell then argued that the pro-communist Italia Libera organisation was not welcome in Australia.

It was a bombshell, and the organisation was soon smearing Calwell as the leader of fascism in Australia - along with Fr Modotti, of course.

Disinformation cited

All this is on the public record, yet those with an ideological or personal antipathy to Daniel Mannix or Bob Santamaria preferred to use another, questionable, source: the minutes of a meeting of Italia Libera!

So disinformation has passed from a pro-communist group (openly criticised by a leading member of the ALP) to Cresciani on to Griffin and then Fitzgerald who is still citing it in 2003.

So this is how history is made!

Interestingly, Cresciani's recently released history of Italians in Australia - Cambridge University Press, 2003 - has removed all reference to Modotti, Santamaria and the Mannix speech!

Surely common sense would have dictated that if Australia's most prominent Catholic prelate (and himself no stranger to controversy) had launched a paeon of praise to Mussolini in the middle of the war and in front of the secular press, it would have made headlines the following day!

One wonders about the accuracy of other allegations in Fitzgerald's book.

Given that the well-known Catholic Redemptorist historian Bruce Duncan is called a Jesuit, one holds out little confidence.

  • Anthony Cappello

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