The Plight of Italian Freemasonry in the Post-War Years
March 15, 2022
Today, we highlight a document from the Scottish Rite Masonic & Library’s archives. President Harry S. Truman wrote this letter to the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s Sovereign Grand Commander Melvin Maynard Johnson in 1948.
August 3, 1948
I am grateful to you for forwarding with your letter of July thirteenth, copy of a document – CIVIL TRIBUNAL OF ROME – CITATION ACT.
I had been hopeful that we could arrive at an amicable adjustment regarding the Masonic property in Italy. I was, however, apprehensive after receiving Ambassador Dunn’s report, copy of which I forwarded to you.
The Citation Act, text of which you sent, particularly paragraph eight, page eighteen, is most informative. With legal complications going back more than twenty years when Mussolini ordered the dissolution of the Masonic Lodges and seized their property, I fear court action now pending will be a long drawn out process. However, I shall continue to do everything possible to bring about restoration. I know you will keep me informed of any developments which come to your attention.
Honorable Melvin M. Johnson,
As Commander Johnson noted in his 1950 Allocution, Freemasonry had “led a precarious existence” in Italy since its inception in the early eighteenth century. However, since the rise of the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini starting in 1922, matters had only grown worse for Italy’s brethren. Throughout late 1923 and into early 1924, Fascist troops victimized Masonic lodges. Among the many losses were the temples of Lodge Giuseppe Mazzoni in Prato and Lodge Ferruccio in Pistoria, which were demolished, and the great Masonic library of Lodge Ernesto Nathan in Termoli, which was destroyed. Tensions in Italy during this period between its Freemasons and the government had risen to a boil, and The Builder reported in its September 1927 edition that a “nation-wide persecution was launched” against the supposed enemies of the state, Italy’s Freemasons and socialists.
These events and many others culminated in the passage of Mussolini’s anti-Masonic bill, Law No. 2029/1925, on May 19, 1925, which essentially banned the fraternity in Italy. Six months later, Fascist police occupied Palazzo Giustiniani, the grand sixteenth-century Renaissance building and seat of the Grand Orient of Italy in Rome. A few months later, on January 29, 1926, the ministry of public instruction declared the Grand Orient’s 1911 purchase agreement for the building null and void.
As President Truman noted in his letter to Johnson, the process to return Masonic property was a “long drawn out process" after the war. The matter was finally settled in 1960 in an out of court settlement mediated by American ambassador James David Zellerbach. Starting that year, the Grand Orient of Italy regained use of a wing in the Palazzo Giustiniani. Twenty-five years later, in 1985, the organization moved to its current location, the Villa del Vascello on the Janiculan, a hill in western Rome.
As for Truman and Johnson, these two Freemasons, along with many other American and European Freemasons, helped European Freemasonry rise from the ashes after the war.
Letter from President Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, 1948 August 3. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 069.
“Freemasonry and Fascism in Italy.” The Builder 8, no. 8 (1927) : 244-248. Accessed: 11 March 2022. http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/the_builder_1927_august.htm
“Freemasonry and Fascism in Italy.” The Builder 8, no. 9 (1927) : 257-264. Accessed: 11 March 2022. http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/the_builder_1927_september.htm
“Grande Oriente d'Italia,” n.d. Accessed: 11 March 2022. https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grande_Oriente_d%27Italia
Johnson, Melvin M. Advance copy of the allocution of the M. P. Sovereign Grand Commander Melvin M. Johnson, 33° : to be delivered at the one hundred thirty-eight Annual Meeting of the Supreme Council, 33° : Philadelphia, Pennsylvania : September 26, 1950. [Boston, Mass.] : Supreme Council 33°, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, U.S.A., 1950.