Racial laws and the rise of Fascism in Italy

Paul Magrath
3 min readJan 25, 2018

Italian Cultural Institute seminars, History and Democracy No 2.

In the second of a series of interdisciplinary seminars, hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute in London on 24 January 2018, and curated by historian Andrea Mammone, from Royal Holloway, University of London, Professor Paul Corner from the University of Siena discussed questions about the racial laws introduced in Italy in the 1930s and their significance both at the time and in the context of the current rise of the far right in Europe. The following is a necessarily imprecise precis of their discussion.

The racial laws which were targeted against Jews in Italy were not simply something imposed by or in imitation of those imposed by the Nazis under Hitler in Germany, despite the cherished view of many in Italy that such laws were not really part of Italian fascism. The notion of Italians as ‘bravi genti’ — decent people not really capable of doing nasty things — was erroneous, as was the idea that if so many Italians supported or accepted such things, they can’t really have been that bad. In fact, the racial laws, though not introduced until later on, were an integral and inevitable part of Italian fascism, given its emphasis on a strong state and unity of the population against a common enemy. However, the early fascists were not necessarily anti-Semitic, and there were Jews who were part of the movement. The early focus was on the common enemy of Bolshevism. But there was a fear of contamination of the population which initially took the form of laws prohibiting soldiers from consorting with the native population in Libya and Eritrea and that was reinforced during the war in Abyssinia. Notions of colonial superiority were imitated from the British Empire. But in Italy the Jewish population was relatively small and not seen as a significant threat until after 1934 when anti-fascist conspirators were arrested, and the newspapers began to identify the Jews with being anti-fascists (as some were) and therefore collectively not properly Italian. By 1936 Mussolini had begun to talk about the Jewish Question. The racial laws which ensued where intended to persuade the Jewish population to emigrate to Palestine. They were also an attempt to re-galvanise fascism at a time when it had begun to stagnate. An internal enemy was needed, a scapegoat. The response of the Italian population was largely one of indifference, but that should be seen (though not excused) in the context of a climate of fear and economic uncertainty. There was an ‘inertia of conformity’, but also pockets of resistance or support, with many individuals hiding or helping Jews to escape. The exception was the younger student supporters of fascism who used the racial laws as an opportunity for what they described as a crusade against the ‘Jewish Masonic plot’.

Viewing these developments in the context of the present day rise of the far right in Italy and elsewhere, there remained a problematic complacency in Italy about the extent of support for fascism, and a widely shared belief in the idea that it wasn’t as bad as Nazism in Germany. In fact, the German population appeared to have accepted and processes its guilt far more extensively than the Italian. It was alarming how often newsreels produced by the fascists, showing the extent of public support for fascism, were still played on Italian media without comment, in particular without reminding viewers that they were fundamentally propaganda productions, not news footage. And it was evident that many of the far right parties currently vying for the democratic vote in Italy were supported, explicitly or implicitly, by fascist sympathies. Burlusconi’s phony ‘Dolce Vita’ revival had not erased that. You still heard contemporary Italian politicians talking openly about preserving the integrity of the white race. (Alarming footage was shown of far right rallies mimicking those of the 1920s and 30s.)

Italian Cultural Institute, History and Democracy seminars continue with History and Democracy #3 — Religion, Radicalization and European democracy

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Paul Magrath

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