The Godfather is the most famous portrayal of the Mafia. Did you know the Mafia also helped the Allies win World War II? Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy, tried to suppress the Mafia. Mussolini did not appreciate the fascist competition. Mussolini did not complete the job and saw the Mafia help the American invaders defeat him. Meanwhile, the American Mafia helped protect the New York docks from sabotage and other possible means of harming the war effort. The Mafia continued as a significant force after WWII.
During Prohibition, when the United States constitutionally banned the sale of intoxicating spirits, organized crime thrived. There was still a great demand for alcohol. Large-scale criminal enterprises took advantage of the profit potential. Many were Italian immigrants.
This “Mafia” originally arose in Sicily, the island that the boot of Italy seems to be kicking when you look at a map. The term did not always have a criminal connotation, meaning “acting as a protector against the arrogance of the powerful.” A mafioso was someone who had the power and influence to serve as a challenge to the officially accepted power bases of the time.
The Sicilian Mafia became a powerful criminal group. It also is known as Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing” or “The Family”). A system of loyalty and secrecy (omerta) arose. The Mafia had a lot of power, including over the government and the Catholic Church.
Italy became a unified nation in 1871. The Sicilian Mafia was a powerful political force.
Benito Mussolini became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 after his party, the National Fascist Party, enjoyed a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections. Mussolini promised economic reform and a return to prosperity for Italy. He was “Il Duce” or “The Leader.”
In mesmerizing speeches, Mussolini promised the people a return to the greatness of the Roman Empire. Mussolini ruled as a dictator, demanding absolute power. The Mafia was a threat.
Mussolini visited Sicily in 1924. He famously was met by a mayor, bringing along his usual heavily armed military entourage. The mayor, a mafioso, told Mussolini: “You are with me; you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?”
Mussolini felt disrespected and rejected the offer of assistance. But, rumors aside, this did not start his battle against the Mafia. The powerful criminal organization was on his radar as a rival that Mussolini wanted to suppress. Il Duce wanted to destroy any possible competitors.
Cesare Mori was selected to destroy the Mafia by any means necessary:
“Your Excellency has carte bianche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. If the laws still in force hinder you, this will be no problem, as we will draw up new laws.”
Mori became known as the “Iron Prefect” (commander of the police) for his hardline policies. He arrested thousands of suspected Mafiosi. Under his watch, entire towns were depopulated to defeat the criminal organization. Mussolini claimed success and recalled Mori.
Mussolini did not destroy the Mafia. Nonetheless, the Mori Operation did severely suppress its activities for a time. Many members of the Mafia fled to the United States.
The Mafia Helps Win WWII
Wars bring about strange bedfellows. When General Andrew Jackson had to defend New Orleans from the British during the War of 1812, for instance, among his allies was Jean Lafitte, a smuggler and a pirate. So, why not seek out the Mafia during World War II?
After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered World War II. Naval intelligence was concerned about sabotage threats to New York. A German sabotage effort during World War I known as the Black Tom Bombing showed the danger. That incident even damaged the Statue of Liberty.
The American Mafia controlled the New York City waterfront. “Operation Underworld” was established to use their help to keep an eye out. The alliance also helped to avoid strikes that would interfere with wartime labor needs and prevent mob-supported black market activities that would hurt the war effort.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano, then in prison, was part of the operation. The feds said, “Help us, and we will help reduce your time.”
The gangsters also had connections to the Sicilian Mafia. When U.S. forces landed in Sicily in 1943, local Mafia assisted them. Some American tanks even hoisted an “L” scarf as a symbol that they had the support of Lucky Luciano. Luciano’s prison term was cut short as a reward.
The Mafia also was entrusted with leadership roles. Sicilian Mafia boss Calogero Vizzini, for instance, was made mayor. The Mafia was trusted to be anti-fascist and anti-communist.
There is some historical debate over how much the Mafia, both in the United States and Italy, helped the Allied forces. But, the evidence does warrant us to conclude that the Mafia took part in the coalition against the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascists.
The defeat of Mussolini also helped the Mafia regain power in Sicily. Mussolini never did defeat the Mafia. The Mafia helped defeat him.