Over the past few weeks, Rome has once again become the centre of far-right politics in Italy. For many in Italy and beyond, recent events bear worrying resemblance to things that happened almost a hundred years ago. In October 1922 the National Fascist Party staged a coup d’état in which Mussolini lead the Fascist Blackshirts in the March on Rome. The Fascist takeover was swift and effective, and within a day Mussolini was instated as Prime Minister and the Fascist state in Italy was born.
On 9 October 2021, protests by neofascist group Forza Nuova descended into violence, and on 12 October the Italian police blocked their website amid fears of further violence. Most recently, candidate in the mayoral election in Rome Enrico Michetti, who is supported by an alliance of far-right parties, was heavily criticised for offensive remarks about the Holocaust. He had suggested that the Shoah is commemorated because Jews continue to control banks and political power, thus referring to a longstanding antisemitic trope which portrays Jews as greedy capitalists who control the world’s wealth and power through banking, politics and the media.
Michetti’s comments have created a feeling of tension and unease for the Jewish communities in Rome, and sparked anti-Fascist protests organised by national trade union the CGIL. These incidents serve to show that the legacy of Fascism in Italy is far from over, and that both the Holocaust and antisemitism continue to be emotionally and politically charged historical topics in the country.
It seems that the time is ripe once again for a reassessment of the history of antisemitism during the Fascist period in Italy. Prior historical research into Fascist ideology and the Jews in Fascist Italy tends to underestimate the significance of antisemitism in the Fascist state. It is therefore relevant to revisit this history in the context of recent right-wing populism and antisemitism in Italy.
The myth of the Italiani brava gente (the good Italians) is the dominant narrative about Italy during the Holocaust. According to this myth, Italians acted as saviours of Jews, mostly because of the Italian people’s naturally humane and benevolent national character.
The myth also states that Italy in the Fascist era was not truly antisemitic. Rather, racial antisemitism was a foreign product imported from abroad due to the alliance with Nazi Germany. Italian antisemitic legislation was itself limited and not approved of by the Italian population. Traditional historiography maintains that antisemitism was in fact incompatible with the ‘real’ Italian character.
However, this myth ignores both the severity of the restrictions on Jews under Fascism and the particularities of the Italian context of racial antisemitism. The Racial Laws, which took effect in September and November 1938, placed harsh and widespread restrictions on the lives of Jews in Italy. They were barred from attending or working in state schools and universities, and Jewish intellectuals were forced out of other academic institutions and societies across the country.
Even though non-Jewish Italians watched their friends and co-workers suffer these persecutions, there was little protest from those within universities against the Racial Laws. Subsequently, even harsher discriminatory laws were passed against Jews, infringing on both public and private life. Marriages between Italian Aryans and Jews were now prohibited and any pre-existing mixed marriages were considered illegitimate.
Application of the Racial Laws served to distinguish Jews, both Italian and foreign, from the ‘true’ Italian race. Most famously, Italy’s Axis ally Nazi Germany implemented strict racial laws in 1935 which separated the Jews from the ‘Aryan’ German race. The Italian case is often considered as a weakened copy of the German biological racism. However, Italian intellectuals distinguished their own brand of Italianised racism which promoted the concept of a shared blood kinship.
In the application of the laws, people were considered Jewish based on their parentage. This meant that even those who did not observe Judaism suffered the restrictions. In the Fascist state, therefore, Jews, broadly defined, were essentially stripped of their citizenship and could no longer participate freely in large parts of Italian society.
The significance of Fascist racial antisemitism, which designated Italian Jews as no longer being truly Italian, should not be underestimated. As neofascism and antisemitism are once again on the rise in Italian politics, it is helpful to question the dominant narrative concerning Fascism and the Holocaust in Italy. By scrutinising the simplistic Italiani brava gente myth, we can better understand the specificities and severity of Italian antisemitism in the Fascist era. At the same time, revisiting this history helps us gain insights into the historical context for developments in Italian far-right politics today.
Abigail Walker (she/her), graduated in 2021 from the University of Sheffield with a BA in History and Philosophy. Her undergraduate dissertation dealt with the Holocaust in Italy. She is currently pursuing an MA in Modern History at the University of East Anglia.
Cover Image: Hitler and Mussolini meet in Munich. Courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/photo/hitler-and-mussolini-meet-in-munich