The Jews in Fascist Italy

A 36244

And he would shake his head, with the expression of someone who, should they wish to, could even understand such subtleties and complications, but who is just not minded to. Such tiny fine discriminations, intriguing and engaging as they might be, at a certain point became irrelevant: they too would be swept away. (1)

In November 1938 the Italian Fascists introduced a set of Racial Laws that targeted Italian Jews, barring them from public office, banning mixed marriage, stripping their assets and restricting travel. Looking back after the destruction of the major European Jewish populations by the Nazis, the experience of the Italians before and during the Second World War is full of tragic contradictions and historical ironies. In his 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani portrays some of these complexities as experienced by the Jewish community of Ferrara, seen retrospectively through the eyes of a narrator recounting his youthful infatuation with Micol Finzi-Contini and her reclusive, aristocratic family. Giorgio’s story plays between reality and fiction, memory and fantasy, but unravels against the very real backdrop of Mussolini’s doomed alliance with Hitler and its implications for the Ferrarese Jews.

In the novel, Giorgio has a heated exchange with his father two months after the introduction of the Racial Laws that captures the defiance and denial still being expressed at this late stage by many Italians, including Jews:

“I hope you won’t want to start on the usual story,” I interrupted him, shaking my head.

“What story?”

“That Mussolini is more good than Hitler.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But you have to admit it’s true. Hitler’s a bloodthirsty maniac, whereas Mussolini is what he is, as much of a Machiavellian and turncoat as you want, but…” (2)

Even at this point there was reason for uncertainty and indecision, if not complacency. Until the Racial Laws, Italy had no antisemitic tradition to compare to the majority of early twentieth century European nations. The introduction of racist legislation triggered shock and open revulsion throughout the country and caused a “crisis of conscience” in the Fascist movement itself (3). The cynics and antisemites of the party elite, men like Roberto Farinacci and Giovanni Preziosi,  understood the need to “prepare” Italians for this new policy, which many considered “the ‘barbaric’ and ‘Celtic’ doctrines from beyond the Alps” (4). The Laws were preceded by a change in the tone and reporting of Jewish stories in the national press, followed by the publication of ‘The Manifesto of the Racial Scientists’ which was generally met with disgust and derision: according to Giorgio’s Communist friend Malnate, “it was hard to know whether it was more shameful or more ridiculous” (5). Renzo de Felice described the Manifesto, the first clear shot in the antisemitic campaign in Italy, as “a text that, from every point of view, scientific, political and moral, remains one of the worst and shabbiest episodes of the Fascist period” (6). However, these measures singularly failed in their aim to convert Italian public opinion to antisemitism for the simple reason that Italians could not see any reason to discriminate against those citizens they had worked and lived with (and married) without prejudice since the Emancipation.

The Jewish population of Italy, while numerically small, is highly assimilated, successful, and ancient. The first Roman Jews settled in the Second Century B.C. and the Jewish community of  the Portico d’Ottavia neighborhood — the ghetto liquidated by the Nazis in October 1943 — dated back to Emperor Vespasian. The word ‘Ghetto’ partly derives from the original segregation of the Venetian Jews in 1516 on the site of a foundry (‘getto’). The Emancipation and the Revolution of 1848, the Risorgimento and the Liberal Regime that followed unification, successively secured their status. They prospered and integrated. Many distinguished themselves in the Great War and subsequently participated in the early squadristi and local Fascist parties. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio’s pen portrait of his father is intended to symbolise an Italian (not only Ferrarese) type from the subsequent period: “medical graduate and free-thinker, army volunteer, since 1919 card-holder of the Fascist Party, and sports enthusiast, in short the Modern Jew” (7). In the novel, his father never fully recants his allegiance to the Fascists; in Vittorio de Sica’s 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi Contini, however, his pro-Fascism is muted and his final rejection of the regime actually depicted in the closing scenes. This was a serious point of contention between the novelist and film-maker, erasing the record of local participation in fascism by the Ferrarese Jews — the very difficult and biting point of the work — and replacing this with a general (if moving) portrait of persecution. But the power of Bassani’s novel is precisely this exploration and exposure of the accommodations made with the regime, its subtle entwinement in everyday life and thought processes, individual and communal self-awareness, even at a moment of grave and growing danger.  

The reasons that Jews could accommodate and participate in Fascism before and even after the introduction of the Racial Laws were numerous and overlapping, but also as contingent as the regime itself. As Michael Ledeen wrote in his book on the short-lived Fascist International, Universal Fascism:

Like all other Italians, the Jews saw a variety of tendencies at work in the Fascist Regime. What they saw most clearly, however, was that the situation of the Jews got better and better over the first decade of fascist rule. They consequently behaved pragmatically when they supported a government which not only improved their legal status but […] also became for a time one of the foremost advocates of the Zionist cause in Europe. (8)

Giorgio’s father accuses the Finzi-Contini of avoiding the local community by joining the “scornful isolation of the Spanish synagogue” without even being “good Zionists” to warrant it:

Given that here in Italy, and in Ferrara, they always found themselves so ill at ease, so out of place, they could at least have benefited from this situation and taken themselves off, once and for all, to Eretz! But not at all. Apart from fumbling every now and then for a wee bit of cash to send to Eretz (which was nothing to boast of, anyway) the thought of going had never even crossed their minds. (9)

Mussolini’s shifting attitude towards Zionism illustrated those particular traits recognised by Giorgio’s father at a different moment: cynical, “Machiavellian” and “turncoat”. In the attempt to consolidate Italian influence over the Mediterranean, Zionism proved a useful, if temporary, tool. Mussolini held cordial meetings with Chaim Weizmann and Nachum Sokolov and from 1932 his regime collaborated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionist movement. By 1937 different considerations and tendencies abruptly ended this accord, as Renzo de Felice detailed in The Jews in Fascist Italy:

The Zionist card had lost its value in the eyes of the Fascists: alliance with Germany, a pro-Arab policy, and a Mediterranean agreement with England had modified the view the Palazzo Chigi had of Palestine. The efforts of those Jews who, feeling the storm rising above their heads, tried to ward it off by attempting to convince important Fascist leaders that Italy could at last replace Great Britain within the mandate over Palestine, came to nothing. (10)

The Jewish community in Ferrara was perhaps the most advanced and successful example of Jewish assimilation in Italy. This is why the the fate of the city’s aristocratic and middle class milieu so effectively illustrated the overall tragedy of the Italian Jews, in both Bassani’s fiction and the historical archives. Alexander Stille describes how, in Ferrara,

an ancient bond of tolerance and affection tied the Jews to their city. From as early as the thirteenth century, it had distinguished itself among Italian city-states for its religious openness…while most other cities prevented Jews from doing any business other than banking, to avoid competition with local merchants, Ferrara granted them full rights. (11)

This was interrupted by the city’s absorption into the Papal States in 1597 which saw the creation of the ghetto and the abolition of civil rights for Jews. Following liberation, the story of the Jewish community is one of energetic integration and significant contributions to the development of the Italian State. During the Fascist era many middle class Ferrarese Jews were members of the Fascist Party, like Giorgio’s father. Bassani himself claimed that when he was growing up he did not recall a single Jew in Ferrara who was not a Fascist. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a portrait of the moment this concord fell apart.  For Giorgio’s father the full import of the Racial Laws does not immediately register and is deflected by rage and suspicion at the aloof attitude of the Finzi-Continis: “Of course […] they were pleased with what was happening! Because to them, halti as they’d always been (anti-Fascist, sure, but above all halti) deep down the Racial Laws gratified them!”(12)

In his group portrait of five Italian Jewish families under Fascism, Stille documents the fate of the Ferrarese Schönheits, sent to Fossili before final deportation to Buchenwald, like the fictional Finzi-Contini. He quotes Franco Schönheit who recalled the reaction of the Ferrarese Jews to the Nazi assault on the Roman Jews in an interview with the author:

We heard about the October roundup in Rome the day after. Trains carrying prisoners from Rome had passed through Northern cities, and the people inside had thrown postcards and letters from the cars. But we were very incredulous. Italian Jews in general were very incredulous. German refugees who had escaped into Italy would take every opportunity to warn Italian Jews about what was happening to Jews in Germany, but we always said, ‘What happened in Germany can never happen in Italy.’ You heard that phrase constantly, up until the end. (13)

Up until the end. It became difficult, if not actually impossible, for Italian Jews to remain loyal to the Fascist Regime after the promulgation of the Racial Laws. This was also true for Italians in general and marked the beginning of Fascism’s decline in Italy. Renzo de Felice writes:

Those who had shunned politics up to that moment and had, so to speak, “delegated” it to Fascism, began, during the second half of 1938, to think for themselves once again […t]he corruption, the immorality of Fascism, quickly became obvious to everyone, causing disgust, solidarity with the Jews, and loss of confidence in the state. (14)

For the majority of Jews who felt loyal to Italy, who fully believed that they owed their emancipation and equality to the birth of Italian State, and who had also contributed so much to it, the conflict was profound, fundamental:

The realization that Fascism did not represent Italy, and had not made a mistake or misunderstood them, was slow and painful. Fascism had consciously and cynically prepared and undertaken their persecution and it was now useless, naive, and shameful to attempt to convince it of their “good faith” through demonstrations of loyalty, which it obviously did not deserve and in which Jews no longer believed. (15)

But there were even some Jewish exceptions to this. Stille recounts the tragic story of Ernesto Ovazza, a leader of the Fascist ‘bandieristi’ group and the Jewish Community in Turin who felt certain that his well-documented loyalty to Mussolini would save his family from persecution. He held onto this conviction until they were literally dragged out of their hotel in the Italian Alps to be executed and incinerated by drunk SS guards. Before leaving Milan himself, Ovazza told fleeing relatives, “they’ll never touch me, I’ve done too much for Fascism.” Stille quotes another fugitive who encountered Ovazzo at a later date, in hiding: “During several walks we took together he always seemed rather calm because he claimed to have in his possession a signed photograph of Mussolini dedicated to him.” (16)

The whole arc of Ovazza’s awful story provides some insight into the way that Jews were able to find a place within Fascist Italy that was not possible in Hitler’s Germany. In its  conception of the New Man as well as its “spiritual” racism, Fascist elitism diverged from Nazi racial genealogy.  The Italian Fascist ideologues, and Mussolini early on, conceived of Fascism as a revolution of the spirit: dynamic and open-ended where Nazism was fixed and reactionary. As De Felice suggested in his famous 1975 Intervisto sul fascismo,

[w]hile Nazism has a revolutionary appearance through its mobilization of the masses, insofar as the transformation of society is concerned it moves on a double path different from the Italian case. It seems to create a new society, but the most profound values on which this society must be created are traditional, antique, and unchangeable…Nazism sought a restoration of values and not the creation of new values. The idea of the creation of a new kind of man is not a Nazi idea. (17)

De Felice presented the view that Italian Fascism was a movement with roots in the French Revolution (18), an analysis that provoked hostility in post-war Italy, where the Communist Party laid claim to the revolutionary tradition and the legacy of the Resistance was appropriated by the First Republic. Even the Fascist cult of violence had roots on the revolutionary Left: the influence of Georges Sorel and the Syndicalists was always present alongside D’Annunzio and the Futurists. In these years there was a tension in the movement between traditional nationalism and revolutionary, avant-garde tendencies. George L. Mosse, in his essay ‘Fascism and the Avant Garde,’ writes:

Italian Fascism was certainly more open to the future than German National Socialism; the new man of the south had avant-garde features lacking in the north, where the ideal German was the ancient Aryan whom Hitler had roused from centuries of slumber. Mussolini was much more ambivalent…[he] did leave the door ajar to the future, while in Germany nationalism and racism blocked all exits. Neither Mussolini nor many of his followers gave up the idea that fascism, while rooted in the past, was not destined to cling stubbornly to these roots. Nevertheless, however uncharted the new spaces, they were to be controlled and dominated by a national stereotype, rooted as a matter of fact in the imagery and the ideals of the attempted revolution of bourgeois youth at the fin de siecle. (19)

Even after the adoption of antisemitism and racist policies it remained important for the Italians to distinguish themselves from the Nazis. Due to the very composition and history of Italy, their racial ideal could not be the pure Aryan of the Northern imaginary; nor could it completely break from the New Man or Universal Fascism or the mystical and Idealist elements espoused by the likes of Arnaldo Mussolini, Giuseppe Bottai and Giovanni Gentile. On a practical level, Mussolini had been drawn towards racism during the campaigns in Libya and Ethiopia, when he decided to emphasise the superiority of Italians over Africans for the purpose of war propaganda and to condemn reports of the sexual activities of Italian troops. Antisemitism was a harder sell and Mussolini’s own rhetoric even more wild and contradictory than on other topics: he could often be candid about the tactical cynicism of antisemitism, stating as late as 1938 that Italy had no ‘Jewish Problem’ and describing Mein Kampf as “that incoherent tirade I have never managed to read” (20).

Once racism and antisemitism had been incorporated into the Fascist programme attempts began to theorise this turn in line with the doctrines of “revolutionary fascism”. Again, this led to a key distinction with Nazi racial doctrine and its pseudo-biological Weltanschauung, fixed and immutable, with non-Aryans marked for slavery or extermination. For Mussolini and the Fascists the difference between Italians and Jews became a spiritual contrast, as described by Ledeen:

For Mussolini there were various spiritual types in the world, and he believed that at certain dramatic moments in history it was possible to speak of “races” becoming coextensive with “nations.” Such was the case with fascist Italy, where the genius of the Italian race (a spiritual “type”) had made it possible to begin the construction of the Fascist State. Yet within that State were some recalcitrant elements, which did not share in the qualities of the “race,” which did not adapt to the new spiritual climate of the period, and which insisted on clinging to the values and goals of an earlier, corrupt epoch. The purpose of the antisemitic policies, as viewed by the Duce, was to retrain these elements, to Italianize and “fascisticize” them, and finally to reintegrate them back into fascist society. When this reintegration was achieved, the Italian “race” and the Fascist State would be coextensive, both geographically and spiritually. (21)

That is: “The Fascists insisted upon their ability to change the human spirit”. Even their most discriminatory policies, in theory if not practice, left enough ambiguity for those inclined to find some psychological space in the Fascist state. After the Racial Laws, Ettore Ovazza did not protest against the Fascist policy, but severed all connections with organized Judaism, “protesting what he believed as the Jewish community’s insufficient fascist rigor.” (22) This chaos of tensions, ambiguities and contradictions within Fascist doctrine is key to the attitudes and fate of Italian Jews during the Fascist epoch but also the final destruction of the Fascist state. It was crushed by a more ruthless and murderously deterministic regime than itself.

The clues to this outcome were evident in the early 1930s. In 1934, the Italians organised a pan-fascist congress at Montreux under the leadership of the Comitati d’azione per l’Universalità di Roma (CAUR). Representatives of fascist movements arrived from across Europe, apart from the Nazis who declined to attend. The trigger that undid this enterprise was the Jewish Question, tabled by the pro-Hitler Romanian Iron Guard contingent. The conference split along national lines and in common with their hostility or sympathy to the Nazis. At this point Italy retained a position of prestige within the prospective Fascist International and was far from adopting its own antisemitic policies. In fact, at this stage, antisemitism served to highlight the division and suspicion between the Italians and Germans. The resolution of this split sealed the fate of Italy’s Jews.

Nazism was a terminal ideology for European Jews which could count on mass antisemitic sentiment existing in, say, Romania, Poland or Ukraine. Italy and its Fascist movement was a more complex proposition. It had antisemites and racists among its elite hierarchy and followers, but these ideas were marginal until 1937. Ultimately it was Fascism’s protean and opportunistic nature, aligned with the cynicism of its leadership, that proved deadly for the Italian Jews, rather than any large-scale antisemitic currents within Italian society. This endpoint was as inevitable, maybe, as the Italian Fascist regime’s squalid and violent collapse; the seeds for catastrophe sown at the start.

  1. Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin, 2007, trans. Jamie McKendrick), p. 223
  2. Bassani, p. 58
  3. Michael Ledeen, Universal Fascism – The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, 1928-1936 (Howard Fertig, 1972),  p.134
  4. Ledeen, p.132
  5. Bassani, p.136
  6. Renzo de Felice, The Jews in Fascist Italy: A History (Enigma, 2004, trans. Robert Miller), p.265
  7. Bassani, p.34
  8. Ledeen, p.137
  9. Bassani, p.61
  10. De Felice, p.173
  11. Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal – Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (Vintage, 1993), p.284
  12. Bassani, p.61
  13. Stille, p.283
  14. De Felice, p.297
  15. De Felice, p.317
  16. Stille, p.86
  17. Renzo de Felice, Fascism: An Informal Introduction to its Theory and Practice (Transaction, 1977), p.56
  18. This analysis is influenced by J. L. Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. See De Felice, Fascism, p.106: “Insofar as Italian fascism is concerned, I am in complete agreement with Talmon’s analysis; but I do not agree if it were extended to nazism. I, too, see in fascism a manifestation of that left-wing totalitarianism of which Talmon speaks. Nazism, however, is tied to a right-wing totalitarianism and should be discussed in terms of a different analysis…”
  19. George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, 1999), p.150
  20. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin, 1983), p.256-7; Ledeen, p.101
  21. Ledeen, p.150
  22. Stille, p.78
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