Iael Nidam-Orvieto gave a lecture titled: “Fascist Italy and the Jews of Italy,” during the recent Yad Vashem seminar. She broke the period of Italian fascism into three segments: 1922-1935 is the “Honeymoon Period,” (describing the relationship between Jews and Mussolini), the Second phase is 1935-1938, (or “Preparation for persecution,” which is classified with quantifiable increase in Italian anti-Semitic actions), and the last portion from 1938-1945 ( which is identified with legislation against the Jews, and mass murder).
Mussolini himself was extremely anti-Semitic. Unlike Nazi anti-Semitism, Mussolini’s anti-Semitism was not purely racist, in other words converted Jews were not offensive to him. He was a modern anti-Semite, in that he believed in International Judaism, and that all Jews are manipulative and rich, which will eventually ruin Italian economy. Mussolini was unique in the fact that he brought socialism to fascism, so Italian fascism wasn’t necessarily true fascism but Mussolini-ism. The Italian people loved Mussolini, including the Jewish population. They saw him as a “caring father of the Italians.” Meanwhile, he was publishing anti-Semitic articles in the newspaper anonymously.
Most Italian Jews could trace their family lines in Italy back to the age of the Second Temple. They were characterized as exceptionally Italian, and loyal to the government. They were considered an integral part of society by the general population. Mussolini was smart enough not to show his anti-Semitism publicly from 1922-1935. During this time there was no governmental sign of anti-Semitism. Additionally, the catholic church was against racist anti-Semitism, and could not approve of Nazi Germany. Mussolini decided not go against the church, because it would have likely destabilized the government.
Meanwhile, Mussolini was distancing himself from Hitler, in order to create an identity for Fascist Italy. After the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Mussolini specifically sought distinction from Hitler. In 1929, Mussolini successful pulled Italy out of the Great Depression, and for this Hitler looked to him as a role model. Because of this respect Hitler never raised the Jewish Question in Italy until 1943.
The Second Period, 1935-1938 was noted for increasing preparation for persecution of Jews. The Ethiopian War of 1935 increased racism in Italy. Questions were raised about the equality of the children born to Ethiopian women and Italian men, which also led to questions about Jewish equality. The Italians conquered Ethiopia through extremely violent measures, including gassing civilians in populated areas. The global community responded to the Ethiopian war with embargos. In order to end the embargos Mussolini contact two Italian-Jewish leaders, and asked them to plead with Jewish leaders in Great Britain to end the embargos. Of course, this didn’t work. They met with regional leaders, who had no say in British politics, but this was an example of Mussolini’s belief in International Judaism. Or it was Mussolini’s way of blaming the Jews for not ending the embargoes, because he knew their peace mission would fail. This event lead to significant anti-Semitism in Italy through widespread propaganda.
The period 1935-1938, also witnesses friendly relations with Hitler and Nazi Germany. Because Mussolini’s anti-Semitism was not pronounced in the first period Italians thought that they anti-Jewish legislation was coming from Nazi Germany. Mussolini made propaganda to negate this popular opinion, but it was ineffective. This idea was so widely believed that Jews in Italy thought themselves that the anti-Semitic laws were ordered from their new Nazi ally.
From 1938-1943 Italian Jewish experienced further persecution. In 1940, Mussolini gave an order for all Jews to leave Italy within five years. However, when the Nazis re-established Mussolini as ruler of Italy after the revolt in 1942, he had less power and was more of puppet. In 1943, Nazis started deporting Italian Jews. Italy is the only country that started deportations after part of the country had been liberated by the Allies. The north of the country had a better idea of what was coming because they had better communication with people in Germany, but Jews in the south and Rome didn’t know what to expect. Twenty percent of the Italian Jews were deported within a year and a half, and many Italians willingly participated in round-ups.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website