By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 24, 2015 at 9:03 AM

When Milwaukee’s Italian community read the news that a group of Americans – including many prominent city residents – would protest Italian intervention in Spain outside the Italian Consulate in June 1937, it must have awaited the event with at least some trepidation.

After all, although American relations with Italy had not been bad over most of the 15 years Benito Mussolini had been at the helm in their homeland – even Britain’s Winston Churchill was "charmed" by Mussolini in 1927 – with Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 cracks had begun to appear in America's esteem for il Duce.

When the protests took place, everyone – including the picketers themselves – were surprised by what occurred and by the reaction of Milwaukeeans.

News of the demonstration itself would have been no surprise. After Italy invaded Ethiopia in autumn 1935, there were protests in numerous American cities, including one that drew 300 people to the consulate in Chicago.

The response was loud enough to lead Mussolini’s government to launch an effort to counter the bad publicity, according to John Diggins' "Mussolini and Fascism: The View From America."

By the time Italian troops left Ethiopia in 1936 it was too late. In their book, "Il Duce's Other Woman," Philip Cannistraro and Brian Sullivan pointed out that, "By late 1936, Fascist Italy was perceived by many Americans as an aggressor nation led by a megalomaniac. … ‘Fascism’ had become synonymous with aggression, fanaticism and racism."

Italy’s intervention in the Spanish conflict did little to alter this view.

In 1936, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the F.B.I. to conduct surveillance not only of communists in the U.S. but also fascists and, according to Charles Killinger's article "Wartime Anti-Fascism: Gaetano Salvemini and the American Authorities," bureau director J. Edgar Hoover immediately launched a program that used informers, files and daily reports to monitor activities of suspect individuals.

Because the issues were surely more nuanced then than they appear now with hindsight, in Milwaukee, as in many other American cities, some in the Italian community (as well as some outside it) weren’t as quick to see the light, remaining enchanted by the pride that Mussolini and Italy’s progress had instilled in them.

German Milwaukeeans, of course, experienced similar issues during – and between – the World Wars.

According to Joseph Salituro's "Italian Americans and Nationalism: A Case of Mixed Loyalties," fascism reached the apex of its popularity in Milwaukee’s Italian community with Italy’s defeat of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, which was feted with a mass at Our Lady of Pompeii church, a celebration at Casa Italia Colombo on Wisconsin Avenue and a procession through the streets of the Third Ward.

A front-page headline in the Milwaukee Journal on May 6, 1935 read, "City's Italians Celebrate Victory Won in Ethiopia," adding that "Sales of Wine, Spaghetti Increase as Parties Are Held."

Milwaukee's Italian consul Angelo Cerminara – who was also an attorney with a private practice – urged those assembled to "remember that they were Americans, but not to forget that they were Italian under the skin.

"Allow no feelings of inferiority to enter your minds," Cerminara exhorted, "and go out into the world upon an equal footing with all."

The Italian Consul in Milwaukee

Cerminara, born in Platania, a small town south of Cosenza in Italy's Calabria region, in 1886, came to America in June 1903, when he was 17, landing on the doorstep of an uncle in Utica, N.Y. By 1912, he had become the first Italian to graduate from the law school at the University of Wisconsin and had been hired to work in the office of W.B. Rubin, who was attorney for the Italian consulate in Wisconsin. In 1916, Cerminara became the Italian consul in Milwaukee.

At the dawn of the 1930s, Cerminara was an outspoken supporter – as would be expected of a consular official – of Mussolini and he argued that militarism wasn’t so much a choice made by Italy but a reality of the world.

In a speech delivered at a meeting of the Rotarians’ Fathers and Sons group in Fond du Lac, in April 1931 – and covered by Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter – Cerminara said, "It was Mussolini who started to take an interest in the Italian youth and it is due to his efforts and foresight that the youth of Italy today is so much in the limelight. … (The youth of the fascist movement) will continue the work that has been started by Mussolini to make Italy a great nation, loved by the Italians and feared and respected by the other nations. … There is no denying that these boys receive a militaristic training … it is a product of the times, the result of existing conditions."

Later, he founded a monthly newspaper Il Corriere Italiano, which described itself as "organo delle Associazioni Italo-Americane del Wisconsin" (the organ of Wisconsin's Italian-American associations). A brave – or foolhardy – move at the time, the paper often carried, alongside news of the Italian groups in Milwaukee, articles such as the one reporting on the presentation in Milwaukee of a documentary showing the "triumphs of Adolph Hitler in Rome."

The paper ceased publication in May 1940 and the following year its editor, Frank Fragale, was arrested and sent to Fort McAlester in Oklahoma, becoming the only Italian-American from Wisconsin to be interned. More than 1,500 Italians were interned in camps in Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

During an era when many Italian-American families – including my own – emphasized the American over the Italian Cerminara, a respected figure both inside the Italian community and beyond it, believed that there was room for Milwaukee's Italian-Americans to celebrate both adjectives flanking the hyphen.

Once, during an Italian-American Federation of Milwaukee County testimonial dinner in his honor, Cerminara perhaps perfectly summed up his philosophy when he said, "To be a good American, you have to be a good Italian as well, and remember in your heart the accomplishments of Italy. You have to love both America and Italy."

In 1931, in a speech a The Pfister, Cerminara urged young Italian-Americans to participate in the civic life of the city.

The Protest

On Wednesday, June 2, 1937, The Milwaukee Journal carried a three-paragraph article bearing the headline, "Intervention in Spain is Protested by Group." It announced that the Milwaukee Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy would hold a protest two days later outside the Italian consulate in the Colby-Abbot Building at 759 N. Milwaukee St., in the city’s Downtown, and would deliver a written protest to Cerminara.

The following day, another protest would take place at the Milwaukee Auditorium where, according to the article, "Milwaukee Nazis are to hold a ‘German day’ celebration." The group also planned to present a letter or protest to the German consul in Chicago, who was scheduled to speak at the German days event.

The Milwaukee Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy was the local chapter of the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy and had as a member of its executive board Meta Berger, widow of Milwaukee socialist politician Victor Berger. A list of members of the Milwaukee section of the group bears many prominent surnames in the city: Falk, Chase, Greeley, Biddle and Klotsche.

As promised, the protest outside the Italian consulate took place that Friday afternoon and according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal, about 35 men and women of all ages carried signs emblazoned with slogans like "We Protest the Brutal Murder of the Basque Catholics" and "We Demand That Hitler and Mussolini Stop Their Horrible Slaughter of the Spanish People" and "The American People Demand the Evacuation of Italian and Nazi Troops From Spain!"

During the picketing, reported the Wisconsin News, members of the committee entered Cerminara’s office. Among them were Berger, Dr. Frank E. Baker, president of the Milwaukee State Teachers College, and Catherine Duncan, wife of Thomas Duncan, secretary to Gov. Philip LaFollette.

They presented Cerminara with a four-paragraph letter, signed by Berger, Duncan and Baker, along with Rev. Edwin A. Brown and Herbert J. Webster, of the University of Wisconsin Extension, who were also present.

They expressed shock "at the tragic events in Spain and the slaughter of women and little innocent children as well as non-combatants" and protested against the "continued holocaust" and the "presence of Italian troops in Spain not only because of the inhuman warfare practiced against an unarmed people … but because Italy through its continued interference and its public pronouncements is inviting a world conflict which may well wipe out civilization in Europe and elsewhere in the world."

The letter closed by urging Cerminara to "transmit this protest to your government with the earnest appeal that all efforts of the Italian Government be bent towards a cessation of intervention and towards a recognition that the self-determination of peoples is an inalienable right that shall be truly established through democratic processes."

Berger read the protest aloud and handed the letter to Cerminara, who had, according to the Wisconsin News, "been elaborate in his courtesy" when the group arrived. Cerminara reportedly bowed and, according to the newspaper, "declared it was a privilege to have known the Mr. Berger and expressed admiration for his widow’s sincerity and honesty. He assured her he accepted the protest in that spirit and would see it reached the government he represented."

Oral high explosives

Before the protestors left, Cerminara's demeanor changed and he asked for a moment of their time to say something.

At this point, the Wisconsin News reported, "the Italian representative let go his oral high explosives" and launched into a tirade against Baker’s institution and Duncan’s husband.

"I have no use for the Milwaukee State Teachers’ College nor for Tom Duncan. Tom Duncan refers to us as ‘just foreigners.’ The teachers’ college flunks our young people because they have foreign names! … Oh, yes, I’ve known Tom Duncan for a long time. And that’s what he says about us."

Upset and reportedly in tears, Duncan left, declaring, "I don’t think we should stay and listen to this display of ignorance."

But Cerminara wasn’t finished. "You know as much about Spain as I do. And that’s what we read in the newspapers – propaganda furnished by the other side from the country I have the honor to represent. … Spain is 5,000 miles away. Why should we here butt into the affairs of Europe?"

With attitudes in America toward Mussolini’s Italy changing, it’s perhaps notable that Cerminara would be so outspoken to a native group peopled with local notables, especially considering it would be certain to make headlines. On the other hand, perhaps that was exactly his goal, as he then crafted a written statement submitted to the Wisconsin News.

"From a statement given to the press by the N. American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy I notice that these worthy persons have complained about my ‘discourteous outburst,’ and have intimated that I have deliberately obscured the issue and misrepresented the sentiment of Italian people in Italy and in America," he began.

"Knowing, then, that this committee had called on me in the so-called interests of peace and neutrality and democracy, while at that very moment their cohorts were seeking to annoy and intimidate in picket formation outside; seeing, also, among the committee’s number the wife of a high state official, whose sympathy and ‘love’ for persons having ‘foreign’ names was well known to me, I was not much inclined to believe that the ‘protest’ sprang from a source of unadulterated sincerity. … As for the attitude of Italians in Italy towards Spain – this need not be the concern of the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy.

"And as for the attitude of the Americans of Italian birth or descent, I am pleased to state that I have lived for 34 years, continuously, among these people, and I believe therefore that I am more competent to speak for them, than persons – state officials and pedagogues who consider us as foreigners, and who have on many occasions shown their contempt and disregard for us, except in time of election. … Americans of Italian birth or descent believe that no foreign problem should be fought on American soil; and that the discussion of foreign problems rocks the boat of American democracy."

Cerminara concluded, "I do not despise those sincere people who honestly and earnestly are working for the cause of world peace; nor do I bear and personal ill-will towards the National Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. But I would like to suggest that if they genuinely wish to accomplish their purposes they should, first, select their representatives and direct their activities with a keener sense of the fitness of things and, second, refrain from stooping to such undignified methods as picket formations. There is a point at which Quixotism ceases to be amusing and lovable and becomes only pathetic."

The American response

If one were to assume that all Milwaukeeans agreed with the committee populated by "Americans" rather than with the people Cerminara claimed were described by Tom Duncan as "foreigners," one might be surprised.

The newspaper reports seem to subtly suggest support for – perhaps with a hint of amusement at – Cerminara’s outburst. The Wisconsin News article, for example, carried the headlines, "Italian Aid Hits Duce Critics: Wife of La Follette Secretary in Tears After Scene" and "Duce Critics Lashed By Consul."

Additionally, among Cerminara’s papers – held at the Milwaukee County Historical Society – are a handful of letters of support, most dated the day after the protest, suggesting that some non-Italian Milwaukeeans were spurred by newspaper reports to offer their opinions to the Italian consul.

"I hope you do not take the visitation of the delegates from the North American Committee to aid Spanish Democracy too seriously and hope that you represent the protest you received for what it is worth," wrote Mortimer Kastner, Commander of the Army and Navy Union in Milwaukee.

"It seems that these advocates of peace certainly know how to stick their neck out in the most propitious manner to promote strife; which always falls to the lot of somebody else to finish. This delegation from top to bottom has no more right or authority to represent the American people to any government than I have. So far that duty has always fallen on the broad shoulders of our state department in Washington; who seem to be making a successful job of it despite the meddling of such crackpots as you came into contact with yesterday."

Matt Carpenter of the M. Carpenter Baking Co., had similar ideas and congratulated Cerminara on his valor in the face of communist protests.

"It is quite refreshing in these days of pussy footing and intimidation to find men like yourself unafraid to tell a clique of ‘red’ and red streaked busy bodies to mind their own business. … Your warranted and fitting rebuke to these Milwaukee ‘meddlers’ is being applauded throughout the city today, and I want the privilege of adding my congratulations and appreciation of your patriotic service and courage."

Cerminara was also lauded by his superiors for his response to the protest. Consul General Franco Fontana sent a telegram on June 11, writing that he was satisfied with Cerminara’s energetic and justified "retaliation" against the members of the committee. 

In another, Fontana requested three copies of each newspaper article about the event along with a brief summary of each in Italian. On the 16th he wrote a note conveying the Italian ambassador’s pleasure at Cerminara’s rebuke of the committee.

"I believe that after this favorable meeting with those people," he wrote, "should they or others present themselves at your office with the same purpose, it is perhaps best to not receive them."

While events like these may have made Italian-Americans unsure of their standing in the United States, the looming war would bring contradictions of its own. Italian consulates across the country – including those in Chicago and Milwaukee – closed. (After the war, Cerminara served as legal counsel for the consulate, a position he held for nearly 30 years, until shortly before he died, at age 89, in 1975)

And while hundreds of Italian aliens were interned in camps, hundreds of thousands more were required to carry identification cards.

In 1941, a newspaper article suggested that the Italian consular service in America had been taken over by Hitler's government, a charge denied by Cerminara, who told the Milwaukee Journal the notion was ridiculous.

At the same time, many more Italian-Americans served with honor and dignity in the U.S. military during World War II.

In 1961, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller lauded Italian-American patriotism during the war, pointing out that "more than 10 percent of the might of American forces in World War II" was Italian-American. That's nearly 1.5 million Americans with roots in Italy.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.