Anti-Jewish Legislation and Persecution of the Jews in Western Nazi Occupied Europe: some examples - The Persecution of the Italian Jews under Fascist rule

1938 was certainly an annus horribilis (horrible year) for European Judaism. “At its start, only Nazi Germany had anti-Jewish legislation; at its close, such legislation had become one of the continent’s defining characteristics.” (Sarfatti M., 2006) Even for the small Italian Jewish community 1938 was the fateful year and a turning point in their bi-millenarian history.

From 1938 until 1943, before the German occupation and before the implementation of the “Final Solution” in Italy with the deportations towards Auschwitz, Fascist Italy enacted a comprehensive set of racial laws (the most draconian after Germany’s, Sarfatti M., 1994), hereby following in the footsteps of the antisemitic policies promoted throughout the thirties by other European countries, such as Poland, Romania, or Hungary.

 With the introduction of the Leggi razziali (Racial Laws) in autumn 1938, Italian Jews were deprived of their livelihoods and their right to public education. Among many other restrictions and discriminations that prevented them from fully integrating into the collective life of the country, they were no longer allowed to marry non-Jews, to serve in the armed forces, or to employ non-Jewish employees. Entire families were suddenly faced with the total collapse of their livelihoods. (Levi F., 2000). For the first time in Italian history, Jews were defined in racial terms rather than religious ones (children of Jewish parents were automatically defined as “of Jewish race” regardless of the professed religion).

One of the main features of the Italian legal framework was that this legislation was adopted by a country which had never been characterized by open or by violent physical or oral acts targeting Jews. This holds true for both the periods before and during Fascist rule. The Italian Jews were so assimilated and well integrated into Italian society that they had the highest intermarriage rate of any Jewish community in Europe, benefiting from the absence of legal and social disadvantages that existed elsewhere (at least since the unification of Italy in 1861 and the resulting establishment of the Italian Kingdom). Italian Jews had always felt loyal to their homeland with which they shared language, traditions, and values.

The documents of that time certainly show that Mussolini and a number of leading members of the extreme wing of fascism (such as Giovanni Preziosi who was responsible for disseminating the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in Italy or Telesio Interlandi who directed La Difesa della razza (The Defense of the Race) ) shared a common background mostly made up of catholic anti-Jewish prejudice mixed to the antisemitic rhetoric which during the Twenties had become a common theme which was used by politicians all over Europe. (Bensoussan G., 2006). In spite of the Duce’s contradictory and shifting behavior towards the Jewish community, the National Fascist Party (PNF) in Italy, unlike the Nazi Party was not established with an anti-Jewish orientation. Moreover, Mussolini showed his will to exclude the Jews from Italian society only at the end of 1935 (Sarfatti M., 2005, Fabre G., 2004). Because of this peculiar situation, the enforcement of such measures was probably perceived by Italian society not only as incomprehensible but also as completely disproportionate considering the size of the Italian Jewish community which with 48.000 Jews was one of the smallest in Europe, (according to the data of the 1938 special census made by the regime according to a on racial criteria).

However, today we know that actually the anti-Jewish laws resulted from a long and complex process as the regime had been moving towards the adoption of a racial legislation for some time. Moreover, the 1938 Laws were supported by violent defamatory propaganda against the Jews that was first launched in 1937 and then more vigorously during the summer of 1938. Indeed, a preparatory phase was a necessary precondition for the intended policy of expulsion from the country, but also to forge a national racial awareness with the aim of persuading Italians that they belonged to a “pure Italic race” which would generate the “new Fascist man”. An example for this is the The Manifesto of Race (Manifesto della razza) of July 1938, asserted that “the people of present-day Italy are of Aryan origin and their civilization is Aryan … A pure Italian race is already in existence …. The Jews do not belong to the Italian Race”.

Italian Jews reacted to the Racial Laws of 1938 with disbelief and disappointment. They felt rejected and humiliated also because they had always played an active role in the Italian cultural, economical and political life, as a matter of fact in the twenties and until 1938 10.125 of them joined in the PNF without hesitation. This meaningful enrolment rate proves not only their high level of participation but also the non-antisemitic nature of the early Fascist phase. The Fascist party allowed Jews to join until 1938.

Today the enforcement of the Fascist persecution of the Jews is a well-documented fact. The regime’s anti-Jewish policy can be divided into two periods. During the first phase, (1938-1943) - under total responsibility of the Fascist State – Italian Jews were stripped of their civil rights, removed from public life and treated as second-class citizens. Only a few Jews who were specific merits were exempted from certain bans: they got the so-called “discrimination” title which was another peculiarity of the Fascist prosecution of the Jews.

As Fascist Italy was determined to expel Italian Jews  from Italian soil and from Italian society, foreign Jews, who had arrived in the country after 1918, were ordered to leave Italy within six months.

From June 1940 on, after Italy entered the war on Germany’s side, Mussolini decreed the internment of foreign Jews in concentration camps like Ferramonti di Tarsia in southern Italy or in small towns or villages (the so called “free” internment in isolated sites for those Italian Jews who were considered dangerous). Significantly Sarfatti pointed out that “although internment was in itself an anti-Semitic measure, there were no acts of brutal violence in the camps and Italian Jews were never in life danger until autumn 1943. Even after September 1943, during the German occupation, the use of antisemitic violence in Fascist Italy never attained the level it reached in Nazi Germany" (Sarfatti M., 2006). This is another key-feature of the Shoah in Italy to keep in mind.

The second period (1943-1945) took place after Mussolini had been removed from power from within the Italian regime and during the German occupation of the Italian peninsula. When Marshal Pietro Badoglio, on 8th of September 1943, announced Italy’s unconditional surrender to the Allies, German troops responded quickly by invading Italy from the north and by setting up the Italian Social Republic (RSI), a puppet state under Mussolini’s nominal rule, which fully collaborated with the Nazis in the roundup and deportation of the Jews.

It was during the second phase of the persecution that Italian Jews were included in the “Final Solution” and deported to the death camps (the first train with 1,020 Jews left Rome on 18 October 1943).

However, to better comprehend the Shoah in Italy we should bear in mind that the Nazis were able to begin arresting and deporting Jews as soon as they occupied the country and without a preparatory phase, largely because the preliminary work of identifying the victims and compiling data and lists had already been efficiently carried out (between 1938 and 1943) by the Italian authorities (Clifford R., 2013). Sarfatti in particular underscores how the “the rights-related persecution” (1938-1943) combined with the cooperation of the Italian society vis-à-vis the administration paved the way to the subsequent “life persecution of the Jews” (1943-1945).

The most recent historiography on Fascism has primarily focused on the reactions of Italian society to anti-Jewish persecution. It is true that, in spite of the general disbelief provoked by the 1938 laws, the average Italian could not ignore the antisemitic climate that had been growing over the last two years nor the always more hammering and pervading propaganda. During the years 1938-1943 there were very few and (if at all) shy public protests. Neither King Vittorio Emanuele III – who even signed the racial laws – nor the Popes Pius XI and Pius XII took a clear stance condemning the racial laws. Many did not react to it because they considered it so excessive that it would soon burst as a big bubble. Actually the propaganda (aimed at defamation), the legislative action (aimed at discrimination) and the enforcement measures (aimed at persecution, expulsion and cancellation of the rights of the victims) were so swiftly coordinated that even the most skeptical or indifferent Italians had to admit that the regime was not joking. Moreover, Jews started to “disappear” from society as a whole, quickly becoming an invisible and unwelcome presence. The silence of the vast majority was mostly driven by a passive underestimation and indifferent attitude and not by a willingness to comply with the rules for fear of retaliation. (Turi G., 2010). It is worth noticing that out of the 2,5 million members the PNF had in 1938, only 1,000 were expelled for "pietism“, i.e. open support for the persecuted. There was no single Italian response to the racial laws, instead revealing a series of infinitively varied responses depending upon the time, place, individual, and the provision in question (Livingston M., 2014).

Certainly the persecuted Jews experienced private solidarity and rescue attempts carried out not only by ordinary Italian citizens but also by the clergy, diplomats and anti-fascist activists. However, these deeds saw the day during the phase of the “persecution of the lives of the Jews” which followed the attack on Jewish rights after the watershed marked by 8 September 8 1943.

The German occupation radically changed the fate of the remaining 43,000 Jews living in the occupied regions. Between October and December, the German authorities rounded up and deported Jews from Rome, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Trieste and Venice. In order to organize and coordinate the deportation, several transit camps like Fossoli-Carpi near Modena, Bolzano, Borgo San Dalmazzo and the Risiera di San Sabba-Trieste were established.

According to the detailed research of Liliana Picciotto, from autumn 1943 to spring 1945, 8 626 Italian and foreign Jews were deported to Auschwitz (about 600 Jews of foreign nationality were deported from Italy to other concentration camps, mainly to Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrück and Buchenwald). 6 806 of them were deported from Italy and 1 820 from the islands of Rhodes and Kos (almost the entire community there); 322 Jews were murdered on Italian soil by Nazi and RSI forces, and only 837 returned alive from the camps (The fate of nearly 1000 Jews remains unknown) (Picciotto L., 2002). It is necessary to underline that about half of the arrests were carried out by the Italian police without any German participation. Therefore, the interpretation that it was mainly the Germans who deported the Jews, whereas the Italians ‒ although co-operating in a significant way by identifying and arresting the victims ‒ hesitated or even refused to hand them over to its ally is too simplistic and needs to be further developed.

If until the early 1990s Italians tended to perceive themselves as innocent and not responsible (or not totally responsible) for the persecution of the Jews, recent research has painted a more nuanced picture of Italy’s persecution of its Jews and reached a better understanding of the real level of responsibility of the regime. However while it is not historiography  at least in the collective memory, the old adage of “Italiani brava gente” (the good Italians) still sounds very attractive and can even be found in recent works.

On the other hand, the myth of Fascist antisemitism as "a body foreign  to Italian society”, like or as "a virus inoculated into the country from the outside" (Pavan I., 2010) has been challenged by many scholars. Some researchers analyzed the anti-Jewish legal corpus (i.e. Sarfatti M. 1994, 2002 and 2005 Di Porto V., 2000, Colotti E., 2003), comparing it to similar laws of the same years and considering a longer time span before and after the regime in order to identify possible roots or later cultural derivations. They also pinpointed peculiar features which were typical of Fascist case law (it is well known that by expelling out Jews from schools in September 1938 Italy preceded Germany by at least two months). Regrettably, little of this newer literature has been translated or received significant attention outside Italy.

As a matter of fact, the topic of Italian Jewry during Fascism is still often discussed in relatively naïve and simplistic terms, almost always following the tendency to emphasize the differences of the Italian case, particularly in comparison to Nazi Germany (Stille A., 2005). This is also due to an inevitable historical and memory-related balance because if we only consider the years 1943-1945 and compare the deportation figures with those of other European occupied countries, Italy seems to draw a rather consolatory balance (about 85% of Italian Jews were able to avoid deportation thanks to help and support from third parties). The total number of the victims of the Shoah in Italy is by far lower than the average in other European occupied countries (except for Denmark). This fact seems to be a key argument for  the too long emphasized image of “the good Italian people”, often in contrast to the more brutal image of the Germans. But the fact should not be underestimated  that almost all Jews who were deported from Italy were sent to Auschwitz Birkenau and 96% of them did not survive the war (6007 out of 6806 Jews who could be identified, Picciotto L., 2002). This kind of benevolent self-representation was also extended to the Italian military occupation troops (in the south of France, in Dalmatia, Albania and Greece) which were often depicted as protective towards the Jews and as opposed to their deportation. On one hand, Italian Jews were undoubtedly protected from deportations in Italian occupied regions until the fateful day 8 September 1943. But on the other hand, it is clear that Italian military behavior was not related to any kind of charitable attitude or the will to protect the human rights of the victims: It was instead related to a specific military strategy aimed at avoiding any interference from the German ally as well as keeping an authoritative and powerful hold on “one’s own Jews”. Moreover there was an opportunistic reason related to the expropriation policy which played a role in this question. Recent studies have significantly broadened the picture and given new interesting perspectives (Bidussa D., 1994, Collotti E., 2000, Rodogno D., 2006, Focardi F., 2014).

However, it is also true that the great majority of Italian Jews were saved thanks to the actions of many other Italians and that until the collapse of 8 September 1943, Mussolini never considered the “Final Solution” as an option for Italian Jewry. Until autumn 1943 – half of all European Jews had already been murdered in the Shoah – he “limited” himself to exclude Jews from the nation, to cancel their rights and finally to expropriate their assets and properties.

Although scholars of Fascist Italy may have different interpretations of the antisemitic legislation, they agree on the fact that Mussolini’s anti-Jewish policy essentially resulted from an independent decision, undertaken without direct German pressure and as an internal political strategy which was aimed at the establishment of a more totalitarian society. French historian Matard-Bonucci argues that Fascist anti-Jewish policy was more of a political tool than a real policy and was thus aimed at accelerating the shift to a totalitarian regime fully in line with the German model. Other scholars such as  Michele Sarfatti disagree with this interpretation and insist on pointing the very deep roots of fascist antisemitism and particularly of Mussolini’s antisemitism, even without approaching towards an overly deterministic or teleological understanding of history. The question of continuity and discontinuity between the pre- and the post-1943 eras has been (for a long time) at the core of the debate and scholars have highlighted a specific Italian tradition that heavily contributed to the dissemination of the racial vision of the “national community” on which Fascism built its own ideology (Israel G., Nastasi P., 1998, Cassata F., 2006  De Cristofaro E., 2009, Falconieri S., 2011).

There is another interpretation that ends up appearing as completely anachronistic: “The Fascist anti-Jewish policy was enforced by the regime without real ideological conviction, in a perfunctory and superficial way, reflecting the degree of improvisation and opportunism of the Italian racial persecution” (Stille A., 1991). Several studies which focus on specific sectors such as education, universities, academies or specific local initiatives during the Fascist regime (e.g.  Capristo A., 2002, Levi F., 2009, Pavan I., 2009) opposed this idea of a “limited and mild” enforcement of the persecution. New research has proven the high level of diligence and the far reaching and zealous persecutory determination of several authorities and entities – such as the General Directorate for Race and Population called “Demorazza” – as well as of individuals.

Much remains to be researched on several aspects of the Shoah in Italy and on the facets of the Italian Jewish life under Fascism, before and after the fateful year 1938.

For instance, literature on the degree of Italian complicity and interaction in the implementation of Nazi Jewish policy on Italian soil is still limited and it needs to be developed further. Fascist Italy established at least 200 internment and transit camps, in which thousands Italian and foreign Jews were imprisoned. These camps were situated near towns or villages and their organization required contacts with local population (for example for food provisions for both prisoners and guards). It would be very interesting to investigate how Italians dealt with these places and whether they were aware of the fate of the Jews in Europe as a whole.

Furthermore, the narration of the Italian racial laws and of the first phase of persecution (1938-1943) should be strongly connected to the narration of the deportation of Italian Jews which started in autumn 1943 under German occupation and thus become fully integrated in the overall Holocaust narrative.

To conclude, there should be a more balanced approach when considering clashing interpretations regarding persecutors and rescuers. Things need to be put into focus, re-aligned, and re-arranged in a broader and more accurate picture likely to better depict the complexity and contradictoriness of history. If the story of the victims was carefully analyzed by Liliana Picciotto and Michele Sarfatti, among other scholars, if the research work on the Righteous has almost been completed by Yad Vashem and by the CDEC of Milan,  the story of the persecutors and the perpetrators, of black-shirt wearing Italy still awaits to be written.

Very recent studies carried out on the one hand by the Italian historian Simon Levis Sullam on Italian perpetrators during the Holocaust, and, on the other, by the Jewish community of Rome on collaborators and informers who denounced individual Jews living in the capital during Nazi occupation, are both encouraging examples likely to fill up this gap.

However, once again, the resulting interpretative framework is not comforting at all.


Laura Fontana, Francesca Panozzo


Recommended Reading (only quoted literature)

Bensoussan, Georges, Europe, une passion génocidaire, Paris, Les Mille et une nuit, 2006.

Bidussa, David, Il mito del bravo italiano, il Saggiatore, Milano, 1994.

Capristo, Annalisa, L’espulsione degli ebrei dalle accademie italiane, Torino, Zamorani, 2002.

Cassata, Francesco, Molti, sani e forti. L’eugenetica in Italia, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 2006.

Clifford, Rebecca, Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and in Italy, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Collotti, Enzo, Il razzismo negato in Id. (a cura di), Fascismo e antifascismo: rimozioni, revisioni, negazioni, Laterza, Roma 2000.

Il fascismo e gli ebrei. Le leggi razziali in Italia, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2003.

De Cristofaro, Ernesto, Codice della persecuzione: i giuristi e il razzismo nei regimi nazista e fascista, Torino, Giappichelli, 2009.

De Felice, Renzo, Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo, Torino, Einaudi, 1961.

Di Porto, Valerio (ed.), Le leggi della vergogna. Norme contro gli ebrei in Italia e in Germania, Firenze, Le Monnier, 2000.

Fabre, Giorgio, Il Contratto, Mussolini editore di Hitler, Bari, Dedalo, 2004.

Falconieri, Silvia, La legge della razza. Strategie e luoghi del discorso giuridico fascista, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2011.

Focardi, Filippo, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano. La rimozione delle colpe della seconda guerra mondiale, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 2014.

Israel, Giorgio, Il fascismo e la razza. La scienza italiana e le politiche razziali del regime, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2010.

Israel, Giorgio, Nastasi, Pietro, Scienza e razza nell’Italia fascista, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1998.

Levi, Fabio, “Social Aspects of Italian Anti-Jewish Legislation,” in The Jews of Italy: Memory and Identity, eds. Bernard Cooperman and Barbara Gavin, Bethesda: University of Maryland Press, 2000.

La persecuzione antiebraica. Dal fascismo al dopoguerra, Zamorani, Torino, 2009.

Levis Sullam Simon, I carnefici italiani. Scene dal genocidio degli ebrei, 1943-1945, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2015.

Livingston, Michael A., The Fascists and the Jews of Italy. Mussolini’s Race Laws, 1938-1943, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Matard-Bonucci, Marie-Anne, L’Italie fasciste et la persécution des Juifs,  (1ère éd 2007). Puf, Paris, 2012 (trad it. L’Italia fascista e la persecuzione degli ebrei, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008).

Pavan, Ilaria, Ebrei, università e persecuzione in F. Pelini, I. Pavan, La doppia epurazione. L'università di Pisa e le leggi razziali tra guerra e dopoguerra, Il Mulino, Bologna 2009, pp. 203-258.

Picciotto, Liliana, Il libro della memoria - Gli ebrei deportati dall’Italia (1943-1945), terza edizione, Mursia, Milano, 1991,2002.

L’alba ci colse come un tradimento. Gli ebrei nel campo di Fossoli. 1943-1944, Mondadori, Milano, 2010.

Rodogno, Davide, Adrian Belton, Fascism's European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War (New Studies in European History) , Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Statistical Tables on the Holocaust in Italy, with An Insight on the Mechanism of the Deportation, in “Yad Vashem Studies, XXXIII, Jerusalem 2005, pp.307-346.

Sarfatti, Michele:

- Gli ebrei nell’Italia fascista - Vicende, identità, persecuzione, Einaudi, Torino, 2000, nuova edizione aggiornata 2007.

- The Jews in Mussolini's Italy: From Equality to Persecution, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

- Le leggi antiebraiche spiegate agli italiani di oggi, Einaudi, Torino, 2002, La Shoah in Italia. La persecuzione degli ebrei sotto il fascismo, Torino, Einaudi, 2005.

- Mussolini contro gli ebrei. Cronaca dell’elaborazione delle leggi del 1938, Zamorani, Torino, 1994.

Stille, Alexander, Benevolence and Betrayal, Summit Books, New York, 1991.

Turio, Gabriele, Il 1938 e gli intellettuali. Persecutori, vittime, spettatori in Flores M., Levis Sullam S. Matard-Bonucci M.a., Traverso E. (dir) “Storia della Shoah in Italia, Torino, Utet, 2010.