The recent exhibition commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss drew large crowds in London and Leeds. It reminded many a visitor that 1938 was a year filled with fateful events—Czechoslovakia, Kristallnacht, the Evian Conference. It was a year of foreboding and premonition—the last full year of peace before the Shoah.
It was also the year when Fascist Italy forsook its ambivalence toward Nazi Germany and introduced a series of racial laws designed to discriminate against its Jewish citizens. Although both Dan Segre and the late Primo Levi have written on this subject, few historical works in the English language have been published on Italian Jewry under Fascism.
By the turn of the century, Jews were totally integrated into Italian life. One Prime Minister, Luigi Luzzalti was Jewish. Another, Sidney Sonnino, had a Jewish father. The late Cecil Roth commented that for most Italians “the profession of Judaism was regarded as an amiable eccentricity rather than a social mistake”. Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist theorist also remarked on the lack of antisemitism amongst Italians.
Not surprisingly, therefore, a number of Jews supported Mussolini when he embarked on his political career and assisted in the exorcism of socialism from his political soul. There were at least five Jews who were founders of the fighting Fasci while another three were regarded as “martiri fascisti”, having fallen for the cause even before the march on Rome. Although some Jews were active in the early anti-Fascist movement, many others were attracted by Mussolini’s narrow appeal to middle-class conservative values. Jews were among the business fraternity who financed the early Fascist movement and some 200 were thought to have participated in the march on Rome. In her recent book The Italians and the Holocaust, Susan Zucotti revealed that slightly more than 10 per cent of the Italian Jewish population were members of the Fascist Party between 1928 and 1933.
Mussolini himself commented in 1932 that “we too have our Jews. There are many in the Fascist Party and they are good Fascists and good Italians. A country with a sound system of government has no Jewish problem.” Yet Mussolini was complex in his attitude to Jews despite the fact that he was highly influenced by his Jewish mistress, Margarita Sarfatti. Throughout his political career, Mussolini veered irrationally between judeophobia and philosemitism. For example, he attributed the October Revolution in 1917 to a Judeo-Bolshevik plot—a view he later recanted probably under pressure from Jewish Fascists. With the rise of Nazism, many Italian Fascists refused to imitate the Nazi model. Mussolini objected to the use of the term “Jewish race” and in fact advocated Jewish statehood. Indeed the irony of Fascist Italy’s policy toward the Jews must lie in the spectacle of Jewish officers participating in a goose-stepping parade in honour of Hitler when the Führer visited Rome in May 1938.
A few months later, Mussolini drew up a ten point “Manifesto of the Race” which declared that ‘Jews do not belong to the Italian race and are therefore unassimilable”. Historians such as Meir Michaelis and Renzo de Felice have argued that this was not simply the result of direct German interference. It was more an opportunist policy decision engineered by Mussolini to totally break with the West and to move closer to Hitler as the Czech crisis loomed. Mussolini like Franco in Spain decided to advertise his solidarity with Germany through the vehicle of anti-Jewish laws in which few Italians and few Fascists actually believed. Even so, it was a tremendous psychological wrench for most Jewish Fascists and assimilationists who had regarded themselves as Italian patriots first and foremost—a catastrophe enacted in Giorgio Bassani’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1988