The persecution of the Jews in Fascist Italy remains enigmatic. There had been nothing antisemitic in the founding principles of the movement, and there had been a significant number of Jewish fascists from the very beginning; support for the Fascists grew to roughly ten percent of the Jewish population. Though many of the most important anti-Fascists were Jews, Jews also held important positions in Fascist organizations, as well as in government service, from local to national government, from education to the military (including admirals and generals). Unlike France, Austria, Germany, or other countries, during the late nineteenth century Italy witnessed no antisemitic movements or political parties whose familiar themes could be redeployed for political mobilization during the interwar years. By the time of the 1938 racial laws, almost sixteen years after Mussolini came to power, Italy's small Jewish population had been fully integrated into the mainstream, experiencing the highest rate of intermarriage of any Jewish community in Europe. Thanks to greater literacy than the rest of the population, Italy's Jews experienced unusually high rates of mobility during the liberal post-unification period. Though one-tenth of one percent of the population, Jews constituted more than seven percent of the university professorate, and by World War I there already had been three prime ministers of Jewish origin (Fortis, Sonnino, and Luzzatti); by comparison in France no Jew occupied such an important post until 1936. Clearly Mussolini's abrupt turn in 1938 lacked historical precedent, and strikes the comparative reader as an exception to the European pattern.
The two books under consideration are major contributions to the study of antisemitism in Fascist Italy, indispensable for both specialists and general readers. Sarfatti's book, now translated into English, has been for more than a decade the definitive monograph in Italy. Director of the Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea in Milan, Sarfatti has revised this text numerous times to take account of new work in the field, while also continuing an impressive scholarly output of his own and generously supporting the research of others. By contrast, Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci's book represents an exciting new contribution, the best of French scholarship on Fascist Italy. Matard-Bonucci is a professor of contemporary history at the Université de Grenoble II, and has collaborated with the celebrated historian of fascism Pierre Milza.
After the Second World War, Italian Jews tended to be dropped into the all-inclusive category of "victims of Fascism," as if they had been persecuted as "anti-fascists" rather than "Jews." Thanks mainly to Mirella Serri's book I Redenti, we now know that many Italian notables, including some who became famous anti-fascists, collaborated with the regime at least until the end of the 1930s, and either betrayed or offered little solidarity with Jewish friends and colleagues who were purged from public employment after 1938—a blot they hoped would be forgotten in the postwar republic. The reintegration of Jews into public life, especially the restitution of property and jobs, was a tortuous process (the last remaining racial law was abrogated only in 1987).
With the exception of some journalistic pieces, nothing substantial was written on what had happened to Italy's Jews under Fascism until Renzo De Felice's classic 1961 study later translated into English as The Jews in Fascist Italy, followed in 1978 by the Israeli historian Meir Michaelis' Mussolini and the Jews. Both argued that Mussolini's turn toward antisemitism had been a response to external factors, in particular consolidating the alliance with Nazi Germany. By the time De Felice returned to the topic in 1981, he had published three volumes of his monumental biography of Mussolini and a whole generation of superb scholarship on Italian fascism had been printed. While not renouncing the primacy of diplomatic imperatives, De Felice now acknowledged that the organizational and ideological development of the Fascist regime had to be brought into the analysis, conceding the limitations of his earlier book as well as Michaelis's. Nevertheless, what remained was the misinformed popular view that other than a few Fascist leaders and antisemitic extremists, Italian society was not implicated in the antisemitic campaign; to the contrary, Italians had been repulsed...