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Schiassi, Omero (1877–1956)

by James Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Omero Schiassi (1877-1956), 'spiritual leader of Italian anti-Fascism in Australia', was born on 3 September 1877 at San Giorgio di Piano, Bologna, son of Guglielmo Schiassi and his wife Virginia, née Biagioni. He studied law at the University of Bologna with his socialist friend Giacomo Matteotti (murdered in 1924 by Mussolini's squadristi) and graduated doctor of laws.

In 1898-99 Schiassi was secretary of the Provincial Federation of the Workers of the Land and in 1900 official propagandist of its national federation. When, soon after, he undertook research and writing for the employment office of the Humanitarian Society of Milan and joined the democratic reformist Socialists, he came to know Mussolini (then a socialist) and eventually to hate him so passionately that, at his overthrow, Schiassi said his 'moral satisfaction' was 'incommensurable'. During World War I he served in the elite Alpini regiment, and later became an alderman of Bologna City Council and editor of the Socialista. His vehemence and generous legal aid to leftists caused the squadristi to destroy his office and papers and threaten his life. Denied permission to emigrate he was assisted to do so in 1924 by influential Fascists, former friends. Pietro Nenni had appointed him Australian correspondent for the socialist Avanti.

Schiassi chose Melbourne, reputedly mistaking an average for an equable climate. His winter long johns, woollen knee-pads, two thick singlets and sweater did not mar the elegance of his bizarre wardrobe, which included a full-length frock-coat, gold-tipped cane, diamond ring and gaiters. He brandished defiantly his certificato penale—'no criminal record'. His pride—he insisted on 'Doctor'—courtly manners and self-conscious erudition isolated him from barely literate Italian migrants who none the less flocked to his flamboyant anti-Fascist orations. Living in stoical penury in single rooms in East Melbourne, where he withstood seven ousting landladies, in 1927 Schiassi, with the support of Professors A. R. Chisholm and A. Lodewyckx, was appointed instructor in Italian at the University of Melbourne. Angered at the appointment of this 'dangerous Communist' the Italian consul-general 'advised' Italians not to attend; unfortunately Schiassi was paid by enrolments.

In 1928 on the anniversary of Matteotti's death, Schiassi launched the internationally linked Anti-Fascist Concentration of Australasia with Maurice Blackburn as speaker and Donald Cameron in the chair. A pamphlet containing Schiassi's speech opened dialogue with the Communist International in Berlin, and thereafter he received and distributed the Italian party's theoretical journal, Stato Operaio. He was 'a diligent student of Marxism', but would not preach it. Ralph Gibson, a leading communist friend, believed only 'bourgeois upbringing and intellectual snobbery' and fear of violence—Italian sailors were alleged to have tried forcibly to 'repatriate' him—kept him out of the party. Chisholm saw him as an 1848 socialist. Because of Fascist-circulated slanders, Schiassi was denied naturalization from 1929 until 1931, whereas a Fascist who assaulted him received his certificate in less than a month. Schiassi pressed on, doggedly publicizing his cause, sending Federal ministers verified anti-Fascist indictments of other migrants.

While the Anti-Fascist Concentration gave witness that not all Italians were Fascist, it failed to unite factions; to Schiassi his former allies, the anarchists of the Matteotti Club, were an inflammatory 'bunch of rogues'; his egotism made the Concentration a one-man band. It collapsed during the Depression but Schiassi continued working for popular front and rationalist causes. In 1938 he accepted nomination as honorary president of the anti-Fascist Casa d'Italia club.

The distrust of all Italians engendered by World War II convinced Schiassi and his associates of the need for a more broadly based pro-Allied movement. An officially recognized Italia Libera society was set up to save Italy from 'chaos' and promote democracy, with Schiassi as foundation president (1943-56). It effected the release of many anti-Fascists from internment camps, publicized Italian affairs and campaigned for Victory Loans. In 1944 Italia Libera was allowed to launch a newspaper, Il Risveglio (The Awakening). Schiassi saw it as having a modest role in influencing the British Commonwealth on the future of Italy. However, it encountered not only Italian apathy but, because of anti-clericalism and 'fellow-travelling', the organized hostility of Archbishop Mannix supported by A. A. Calwell. Schiassi's value lay in promoting rapport between Italians and British Australians rather than in political organizational skills.

After the war Schiassi was appointed tutor in the university's Italian department, earning a modest income teaching elementary Italian and lecturing on the Divine Comedy, on which he also wrote voluminous unpublished commentaries. He had shaved his Leninesque beard, leaving an enduring juvenile rosy complexion, which enhanced his blue eyes and which he attributed to discreet and consistent use of wine and indiscreet garlic. In class his hat often topped his 5 ft 5 ins (165 cm) frame; he wore a woollen night-cap after dinner till dawn. Tetchy and vain, he exasperated co-examiners by occasionally giving 100 per cent. An aloof bachelor with no apparent romantic attachments, he entertained his few friends singly with overwhelming repasts including minestrone alla Schiassi and 'honest' Rutherglen bulk wines. The most 'uninhibited and demonstrative' man Chisholm had met, he would launch into pantomimic monologues and lengthy declamations of Dante. An uncompromising socialist, he looked down on workers; an anti-clerical atheist, he observed Christmas punctiliously, regularly brought God into conversations, discoursed on theological minutiae and lived a Christian-ethical life.

On 2 January 1956 Schiassi collapsed and died almost immediately at Myrtleford while on an examination tour. He was buried there with, equally by chance, Catholic rites. A well-attended memorial service at the Melbourne Unitarian Church was addressed by Percy Laidler, a cable from Nenni was read, and on his tombstone his friends of Italia Libera engraved: LIBERTY, HUMANITY, JUSTICE HE ADVOCATED. A memorial library and resource centre (1981) at Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, commemorates his name.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • R. Gibson, My Years in the Communist Party (Melb, 1966)
  • B. Walker, Solidarity Forever (Melb, 1972)
  • G. Cresciani, Fascism, Anti-Fascism and Italians in Australia, 1922-1945 (Canb, 1980)
  • F. Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia (Syd, 1983)
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 3 Mar 1945
  • Il Risveglio, 17 Jan 1945
  • Modotti papers (Society of Jesus Archives, Hawthorn, Melbourne)
  • CRS A1 item 31/721, A466 item 1957/67255, A981 Fascism I, A989 item 1943/455/7/2 and 43/40/40, A1066 item E 45/19/3 and 11, A1608 item 19/1/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Schiassi, Omero (1877–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/schiassi-omero-8357/text14667, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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