Little Italy in the Great War by Richard N. Juliani

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Little Italy in the Great War
Philadelphia’s Italians on the Battlefield and Home Front
by Richard N. Juliani
Temple University Press, 302 pp., paper $37.95

With this work Richard N. Juliani, a professor emeritus of sociology at Villanova University, provides an admirably researched microhistory that explores how Philadelphia’s Italian Americans responded to the demands of World War I, the opening catastrophe of the 20th century. Juliani chronologically recounts how the war shaped thought and action in Little Italy from 1915 to 1920, and he details the response of Italian Americans to Italy’s call to arms. Several reservists took ships back to their native land and fought along the Alpine Front.

Juliani also traces the actual record of individual soldiers of both the Italian and U.S. armies and the way their sacrifice of service was perceived by both immigrants and native-stock Americans alike. With the United States joining the Entente Powers, contending loyalties were not necessarily burdened, but many Italian immigrants who had previously fled conscription in Italy fought for the United States for the promise of future benefits, including American citizenship.

In covering the pulse of Italian American life in Philadelphia, the author brings to light the mostly enthusiastic response by civilians of all ages, from school-aged children to working women, demonstrating patriotism for both Italy and the United States — mainly through parades, bond drives, and welcoming political dignitaries. These measures, in tandem with the active military service of soldiers, had a tangible impact upon the wider American society. U.S. citizens began to accept Italian immigrants more readily, and small steps toward greater assimilation began to occur, a movement that would fully bloom later with Italian American involvement in World War II. When discussing the Italian American home front, Juliani also captures the confusion, apprehension and heartache experienced by Philadelphians over the publication of casualty lists that at times clearly contradicted other forms of communication that families received.

Juliani’s publication makes a very strong contribution to the study of Philadelphia’s social history in the early 20th century. He deepens our understanding of how the Great War shaped Italian ethnic identity as immigrants and their children began to amalgamate within a wider American community.

Alan R. Perry
Gettysburg College