Monuments to problematic figures and historical events are increasingly the focus of issues relating to race and violence in the United States. Chicago’s own monuments to Italo Balbo are at the forefront of such discussions here in the city. The following is an abridged version of a research paper written for Loyola professor Dr. Timothy J Gilfoyle’s Urban History graduate seminar in 2015, meant to give historical context to the monuments, as well as to contextualize current calls to have them removed.
In Chicago’s Grant Park, just east of Soldier Field, stands a single, solitary, classical Roman column. An inscription in English and Italian at the base of the column, badly faded, reveals its surprising origins:
TWENTY CENTURIES OLD
ERECTED ON THE SHORES OF OSTIA
PORT OF IMPERIAL ROME
TO SAFEGUARD THE FORTUNES AND VICTORIES
OF THE ROMAN TRIREMES
FASCIST ITALY BY COMMAND OF BENITO MUSSOLINI
PRESENTS TO CHICAGO
EXALTATION SYMBOL MEMORIAL
OF THE ATLANTIC SQUADRON LED BY BALBO
THAT WITH ROMAN DARING FLEW ACROSS THE OCEAN
IN THE ELEVENTH YEAR
OF THE FASCIST ERA
The column, mounted on a travertine base, was presented as a gift to the city of Chicago by Benito Mussolini in commemoration of the Italian Air Force’s 1933 transatlantic flight led by Italo Balbo, Air Marshall of the Aeronautica. Balbo and his squadron of pilots completed the final leg of their record-breaking flight in a spectacular landing in Chicago on the waters of Lake Michigan during the 1933-1934 World’s Fair. The column was unveiled a year later outside of the fair’s Italian Pavilion and has not moved from that spot since.
And the column is not even the only monument to Balbo in Chicago. Two other memorials include Balbo Avenue, formerly 7th Street, which was renamed in Balbo’s honor in 1933, and a plaque on the side of the statue of Columbus in Grant Park, which was presented to Chicago by the Italian community at the Century of Progress World’s Fair.
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke (14th) summed up many Chicagoans feelings when he recently commented to the Sun Times:
“I’m amazed the citizens of Chicago have not demanded that these symbols of fascism – a street and a statue bearing Balbo’s name – donated by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a sidekick of Adolf Hitler, be removed decades ago from the city’s landscape…It is now time Chicago does something permanent about this embarrassing anomaly.” 
The US was not always vehemently opposed to Mussolini’s brand of fascism. David F. Schmitz has written extensively on why the United States remained friendly towards right-wing dictatorships such as Mussolini’s during the interwar years. He argues that a desire to support order and stability in Europe, as well as anxiety over the Bolshevik threat, led United States policymakers to welcome Mussolini’s rise to power and support his regime in direct contradiction with US ideals. 
Historians have also argued that monuments such as Balbo’s remain because, in American memory, the actions of Mussolini’s brutal regime are eclipsed by the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. 
Despite the United State’s tacit support of fascism in the interwar years, Alderman Burke’s campaign to have the monument removed and to rename Balbo Avenue is not the first. Individuals and politicians have periodically challenged the monuments and their place in the city since they were installed more than 80 years ago.
The 1933 flight and dedication were protested by the Italian Socialist Federation and the Italian League for the Rights of Man, who circulated a pamphlet at the fair titled “Who is Balbo?” which described him as a terrorist and murderer. In 1946 residents waged a contentious battle in city council to rename Balbo Avenue after World War II hero John C. Waldron (Waldron did eventually get his own, different street). Opposition again arose during the 50th anniversary celebration of the flight in 1983, and as recently as 2011 a group of academics submitted a petition to Alderman Bob Fioretti to have Balbo Avenue renamed for Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who built the first nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago and came to the United States to escape fascism. 
The monuments and the discussions they generate about how history should be remembered illustrate a complex process in which public memory is created and reinterpreted through time. The narrative of Balbo’s transatlantic flight and monuments began as a triumphant story of innovation and technology propelling humanity towards a more enlightened future. Today, they are seen as outdated at best and offensive at worst. Following the trajectory of how the flight was memorialized and the arguments that centered around the appropriateness of the monuments shows that public memory is a fluid and dynamic force, continually defining and redefining how individuals and institutions such as cities incorporate memory of historical events into the fabric of their identity.