- The Jews in Mussolini's Italy: From Equality to Persecution
When Michele Sarfatti's Gli ebrei nell'Italia fascista:Vicende, identità, persecuzione was first published by the prestigious house of Einaudi in Turin in 2000, scholars and specialists recognized it as a major achievement. Now fluidly translated by John and Anne Tedeschi in the University of Wisconsin Press's "George L. Mosse Series in Modern European Intellectual History," with the financial assistance of SEPS (Segretariato Europeo per le Pubblicazioni Scientifiche), English readers will be able to see for themselves what more than a decade of research and thinking has produced. This English edition is an expanded and revised version of the Italian original, with two maps, eighteen black and white photos, half a dozen tables, more than one hundred pages of notes, and six valuable appendices of documents. (A bibliography would have been helpful.)
For the past sixty years, Mussolini and his fascist regime have profited from their far more sinister counterparts in Nazi Germany. In the light of Nazi Germany and the extermination camps on the one hand and the Moscow trials and gulag system on the other, Mussolini and his blackshirts somehow managed to avoid being thrown together with Hitler and Stalin. One today can still hear people saying, "Mussolini wasn't so bad; his only mistake was yoking Italy to Germany." This is not just from "the man (or woman) in the street." The former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, in an interview with British journalists, insisted,"Mussolini didn't kill anyone; he sent them away on holiday."
A central aspect of this Italiani brava gente ("Italians are good people," implying that we are not the Germans) was the fate of Italian and foreign Jews. Until the German occupation of Italy in the fall of 1943, not one Jew was deported to a concentration camp. "Only" 8,000 Jews perished from Italy. Hence, "Italy had no anti-Semitic problem"(Mussolini himself had a Jewish mistress), and fascism was "not inherently anti-Semitic." Mussolini was forced to adopt Nuremberg-style laws by Hitler and to placate his Nazi colleagues.
Sarfatti's great contribution is to dismantle surely and systematically these comforting myths and mistaken historiography. Beginning with a valuable introduction situating Italian Jews in their historical, political, social, economic, and, yes, religious context, he then offers a detailed chapter on demographics, perhaps the best that we have in any language. The three subsequent chapters ("The Attack on Jewish Equality, 1922–1936"; "The Attack on Jewish Rights, 1936–1943"; "The Assault on Jewish Lives, 1943–1945"), might be criticized for offering a Whig history of the Holocaust in Italy, but it seems that Sarfatti is on firm ground when he argues for "Rome's capacity to act independently from Berlin" and that "Mussolini and his regime bear greater responsibility than is often asserted" (pp. x–xi). [End Page 391]
Another challenge to the traditional interpretation is Sarfatti's insistence, amply documented, that, within certain prescribed limits, Italian Jews were active agents rather than passive victims. While some Italian Jews actively supported fascism, many more were involved in antifascist movements and parties. On the left, Italian Jews were particularly attracted to Carlo Rosselli's Giustizia e Libertà movement,founded in Paris in 1929. Rosselli, from a notable Jewish family, had escaped from prison on Lipari and fled to Paris. He and his brother, the historian Nello, were assassinated by French fascists on June 9, 1937. Giustizia e Libertà eventually evolved into the Partito d'Azione and attracted Jewish intellectuals such as Carlo Levi and Primo Levi.
Sarfatti, whose own family history is intimately tied with that of Italy, has spent an academic career mining the archives, examining documents, and reflecting on the vagaries of history. As director of the Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea in Milan, he has directed the research of an entire generation of younger scholars, both Italian and foreign. [End Page 392]