The Holocaust came to Italy toward the end of 1943 with the German occupation that ensued on the collapse of Mussolini's Fascist regime. Only 15 percent of the Jewish population perished, among the lowest figures in countries occupied by the Germans. Tens of thousands of Italian and foreign Jews were saved by Italians, people whom scholars customarily considered too humane to participate in genocide. Comparative studies typically contrast the "good" Italians (Italiani brava gente), with the "bad" antisemitic Germans. True, Mussolini imposed antisemitic legislation in October 1938, but scholarship conventionally attributed this to the regime, not to the Italians themselves, who were never mobilized around antisemitic platforms.
But recent scholarship has questioned the self-serving myth that in Italy discriminatory laws were subverted by sympathetic administrators, in particular showing that the persecution of the Jews was more severe in practice and ominous in consequence than previously recognized. To date, however, no reputable scholar has claimed that antisemitism was deeply embedded in Italian culture and identity. Feinstein does precisely this, frontally attacking "the idea of Italy as collectively innocent during the Holocaust," and arguing that "antisemitism is an important element in the very definition of italianità." Antisemitism, he argues, is "the inevitable result of a necessary 'moral' grounding of a Christian collectivity in Church teachings and practices focused on attacking heresy and sin and consequently on waging a perpetual war against Judaism, perceived as an immutable, evil, cultural-religious force." [End Page 518]
"This study will show," Feinstein claims at the outset, "why it is impossible to utter the word 'giudeo' or 'ebreo' in Italian without evoking the sinister image of a perfidious, iniquitous and malevolent enemy of the Italian people and of Italian civilization and culture." By the end of the book Feinstein concludes that "the emergence of anti-Semitism [was] merely the triumph of a long-established and clear pattern of cultural-political thinking that from 1850 on had always been very strong and had always made cultural sense to the majority of Italians."
Feinstein's method consists of an analysis of antisemitic texts, most importantly those of three Fascist-era writers: Giovanni Papini, Ardengo Soffici, and Agostino Gemelli. From this the author draws the inferences mentioned above. No Christian country during the interwar period failed to produce its own antisemites and antisemitic literature, and it is certainly important to investigate antisemitism as a current within Italian culture. But some methodological prudence is in order before jumping from literary to historical analysis. Feinstein makes no attempt to determine whether the texts he studied were representative of Italian culture in general. No mention is made of the laic Enlightenment tradition that informed the Risorgimento and liberal, post-unification Italy; during this period Jews were emancipated and experienced dramatic social mobility, rising to important positions in government, industry, the military, and the arts. During these formative seventy years, the anti-Judaic Catholic cultural current that Feinstein regards as central and determinative was not only confronted with an antithetical liberal one, but largely marginalized in cultural and public life.
Given Feinstein's leap from literary analysis to macro historical claims, one would want to know in detail how significant pre–World War I antisemitism really was in regard to the later emergence of anti-Jewish social movements and political parties, or to restrictions the Fascists later imposed on Jews in economic, social, political, or cultural life. Here a comparative perspective is helpful. Unlike other European cases such as France and Austria, there had been no antisemitic movements or parties in late nineteenth-century Italy, agencies that might have been redeployed after World War I. By way of contrast, Italy did produce Europe's first Jewish prime minister in 1912, fifty Jewish generals during World War I, and, by the 1930s, in Alberto Moravia and Italo Svevo, two of the peninsula's leading novelists. In fact, the first sixteen years of Fascism witnessed no break in the pattern that had come to predominate under the liberal state: no antisemitism marked Fascism as...