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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 18.1 (2004) 127-130

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Racial Theories in Fascist Italy, Aaron Gillette (London: Routledge, 2002), 247 pp., $80.00.

Neither racism nor anti-Semitism had been part of Italian Fascism's formative principles and ideology. There were prominent Jewish fascists and antifascists, and membership in either camp had less to do with Judaism than other attributes such as class, region, generation, and ideological orientation. If anything, the fascist regime was [End Page 127] philo-Semitic for the first fifteen years of its twenty-year reign, before turning abruptly toward anti-Semitism. Mussolini had ridiculed Nazi racial bombast before Hitler came to power, and continued to do so until 1936, while fascist Italy became a celebrated refuge or place for "extended visits" by prominent German Jews. George Mosse recalls arriving in Rome during this period as a youngster with his family, and finding at the hotel a bouquet of flowers sent to his mother by none other than Mussolini. To be sure, Mosse's father was an influential publishing magnate, not merely a Jew, but no comparable gesture had ever been made by Hitler.

It would be wrong to reduce Italy's turn toward racism simply to a necessary accommodation to Germany, once Mussolini decided on the alliance with Hitler. By the mid-1930s, the fascist regime had entered a serious legitimation crisis. Growing social unrest followed a decline in living conditions occasioned by the Depression as well as the failure of syndical reform and corporatist initiatives. The lack of movement and the bureaucratic involution of the regime were openly criticized by a broad range of actors. Responding to this worsening situation, Mussolini called for the creation of a new, heroic uomo fascista and launched a campaign against the "bourgeois spirit." He delivered what he called "three punches to the belly of the bourgeoisie": the "antiLei" campaign (against the formal second-person pronoun, identified as "antipopular"), and two clearly proto-Nazi measures, introducing the so-called passo romano marching step (an Italian version of the infamous goose step), and racial legislation against the Jews, now denounced as incarnations of the bourgeois spirit. Thus the turn toward racismóformalized by the "Manifesto of Racial Scientists" in 1938, a new racial office in the Ministry of Popular Culture, and racial legislation and propagandaómay be understood also as a radical extension of the "antibourgeois" campaign, a strategy to jump-start a regime that had run out of gas.

Racial Theories in Fascist Italy seeks to reconstitute the ideological climate of this period, paying close attention to competing racial theories elaborated by separate, mutually suspicious, and altogether hostile "Nordic" and "Mediterranean" camps. The former supported a Nazi-derived biological determinism and identified the Italians as "Aryans." The Mediterraneanists ridiculed both Aryan identity (to them Aryans were a disparate linguistic group, not a race) and the historical importance of Germanic "barbarians," insisting on the centrality of the Mediterranean, the Greco-Roman inheritance, latinitý, and the primacy of spirit over biology. Aaron Gillette displays an impressive command of the holdings of the massive Archivio Centrale dello Stato, as well as mastery of a large body of racist literature directly produced or sponsored by the regime. His account is nuanced, rich in detail, and attentive to shifts in the relative weight between Nordicists and Mediterraneanists. To two previously published journal essays on Italian racism, he has added what might well stand as a definitive monograph.

Gillette carefully demonstrates that internal debates on racial policy were determined by political exigencies and thoroughly dependent on Mussolini's [End Page 128] personal mediation. In fact, on this Gillette is so convincing that one wonders whether his protracted hermeneutic effort was necessary, especially since racial propaganda was largely unread by an indifferent, if not hostile, public that was never effectively mobilized around racial themes. To the general public indifference one might add the Church's hostility to the state's mimetic racism, especially that of the Nordicist biological genre, which violated Catholic universalism and spirituality; the opposition of leading Fascists such as Italo Balbo, Luigi Federzoni, Emilio De...


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