Italian Jewish History (1848-1923)

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Jews in the Army of the Kingdom of Italy (1848-1923)

By Andrew J. Schoenfeld, MD
Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine

The Italian Jews of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were one of the most fervent nationalist groups in the nascent Italian State. As a result, they actively enlisted in the army of the Kingdom of Italy and its predecessor, the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. Indeed, their valorous and inspired service has prompted some authors to liken the Italian Jews of the nineteenth century to a type of military caste.

Many Jews, such as Giuseppe Ottolenghi, Cesare Rovighi and Enrico Guastalla attained high levels of command in the Italian military and were even counted among the King's most trusted martial advisors. Unfortunately, the events of World War II and the attitude that modern scholars maintain towards the Jews of Italy has resulted in the achievements of these inspired individuals and communities being lost to posterity.


Perhaps in no state since the Roman Empire did Jews attain such a level of integration and importance as they did in the late nineteenth century Kingdom of Italy. Residents of the Italian peninsula since the days of the Maccabees, nowhere in Europe was there a longer tradition of a Jewish community so well versed and productive within the parameters of "native" culture. Fluent in Italian long before the Renaissance, Jews were involved in a cross-cultural exchange with fellow Christians in almost every state on the peninsula.

A unique Italian Jewish culture was formulated by the cultural milieu in the lands below the Alps (possessed of its own religious rite and Judeo-Italian prayers) even as Jews could not help but influence Italian Christians with their prominence in the fields of medicine, literature and business. While official state regulations restricted Jewish activity in certain fields, the coming of the Risorgimento removed hindrances that prevented Jews from laboring in state service. The enlightened Savoyard Kings of Sardinia-Piedmont and later Italy allowed Jewish Italians to achieve success in a dizzying number of fields, most notably government administration and the military.

Yet, for all their great achievements and dedication to the land of their birth, the history of the Italian Jews remains one of the least well documented in all of Europe, with perhaps only the Jews of the Balkan states receiving even less attention in the historical literature. Countless treatises have been penned on various aspects of Jewish history in the German, Russian and Polish lands but only relatively few works have been published on the Italian Jews and none of these have been definitive.

The Russo-Polish Jews have Dubnow and the German Jews have Graetz and Zunz, but no great Italian Jewish historian has emerged in order to recount the achievements of this grand civilization that spans the entire scope of Western history. While it is too great an endeavor to attempt to record the entire treatise of Italian Jewry here, I hope to bring to light a small facet of this community's story: one which speaks to its high level of integration and dedicated service within the Italian state.


At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the Italian Peninsula was carved up into a myriad number of small kingdoms and duchys, all of whom expressly proscribed members of the Jewish faith from service in state government, including the military. Although certain Jews like Abraham Castello, Salamone Fiorentino and Isaac Maurogonato played prominent roles in Parma, Venice and the Papal States, it was well accepted that Jews were not suited for the profession of arms.

While individual Jews were able to achieve a modicum of political influence at certain courts, the practice of the military profession was strictly forbidden in Sardinia-Piedmont, Parma, Modena and the Papal States. Lombardy and Venice, as provinces of Austria, technically allowed Jewish military service but there are no specific examples of Italian Jews from these regions serving in the Austrian army. While these injunctions against Jews were either holdovers from more conservative times or the reflection of popular sentiments, the political clime of the early nineteenth century would not only pave the way for Italian Jewish emancipation but also remove the impediments to national service.

The French Revolution and the military success of Napoleon were not only responsible for eliminating Jewish disabilities in Italy and elsewhere but also contradicted the popular belief that Jews were unfit or unable to serve in a military capacity. The example of Andrea Massena proved particularly inspiring for the Jews of Italy, especially since he was a scion of their community.1 Born at Nice in 1758, Massena was an early volunteer in the French Revolutionary army. As general of the 32nd division, he was personally responsible for liberating the Jewish communities of Northern Italy. After his pivotal role in the Battle of Mantua, General Massena was named commander of the Roman territories and Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Army.

This great general, champion of Italian Jewry and the "right hand of Napoleon's army,"2 would end his career as Prince of Rivoli, Duke D'Essling and Marshal of Provence. But the affairs of the Italian Jews were too closely linked with the success of Bonaparte and his generals. Following the debacle at Waterloo and the rise of the conservative Austrian, Prince Metternich, the old disabilities and injunctions once again saddled the Jews of Italy.

But, the examples set by Napoleon and his Jewish Field Marshall were not lost on the younger generation of Italian Jews. They had proven that the dominion of the Old Order could be challenged and that Jews, as much as any other citizen, could take up arms in the service of freedom, brotherhood and national unity. As the influence of republicanism and liberalism grew in the cities of the peninsula, so too did Jewish participation increase in the movements for freedom and Italian unification. Jews were particularly active in Giuseppe Mazzini's Giovine Italia movement, among them Angelo and Emilio Usiglio3, Pellegrino Rosselli, David Levi Chierino and the Todros family of Turin, who financed Mazzini's republican incursion into Savoy4. The allies of Giovine Italia in Leghorn, the Veri Italiani society, were led by two Jews: Ottolenghi and Montefiore.5 The implications of these popular movements in Northern Italy were not lost on the state governments and several official reforms were made throughout the late 1830s and 1840s.

This change in dogma was spearheaded by the Codice Albertino, promulgated by the forward thinking Savoyard King Charles Albert, which made Piedmont the first Italian state to grant its Jewish citizens equal rights and allow them to enter the military.6 The situation in Piedmont was closely mirrored by events in Tuscany where the Grand Duke issued a series of edicts that culminated in Jewish emancipation. Tuscan Jews were allowed to enlist in the National Guard in 1847 and, in that same year, Pope Pius IX accorded civil rights to Jewish residents of his Papal domains.

The collapse of the French monarchy in 1848 served as a springboard to a period of revolution and national foment that would ultimately result in the Italian unification of 1860. Republican revolutions erupted across the peninsula as the Italian people launched a concentrated effort to throw off the onerous yoke of the Habsburgs and Bourbons. Revolutionary fervor spread to its greatest extent among Italian Jews and, in every state, rabbis actively preached recruiting sermons from their pulpits. The exonerations of their prelates were met with equal enthusiasm by the Jewish populace and, in every state throughout the north, Jews played an active role in the movement for independence.

Ciro Finzi was important in the Milanese revolution popularly recalled as the "Five Days of Milan" and Daniel Manin was commander of the armed forces that ousted the Austrians and set up the Venetian Republic.7 Venetian Jews served as officers and enlisted men in the state's republican army and Daniel Manin, Leone Pincherle and Isaac Maurogonato became elected officials.8

While Jews were influential in the revolutionary movement all over Italy, nowhere was their military effort as concerted as it was in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. 235 Jews volunteered for service in the army as war loomed with Austria, among them Giuseppe Finzi and Enrico Guastalla, who would go on to enjoy an outstanding military career.9 The Chief Rabbi of Turin, Lelio Cantoni, actively recruited amongst the city's Jews and helped organize volunteers into three battalions of sharpshooters. Jewish volunteers also formed the 7th Company of Bersalgieri that performed admirably throughout the conflict with Austria, especially at the Battle of Bicocca where members of the 7th rescued the colors of the 16th regiment.10

Meanwhile, the proclamation of a Roman Republic under Mazzini and Garibaldi had temporarily put an end to Papal rule in the Eternal City. Italian Jews from across the peninsula and even Europe flocked to the Republican flag and rushed to Rome to participate in its defense. Five Jews were present in the ranks of the Lombard Legion, among them Ciro Finzi and Giacomo Veneziano who were both martyred in the French onslaught that eventually spelled the end of the Republic.11 Giuseppe Revere, Abraham Pesaro, Salvatore Anau, Leone Carpi and Enrico Guastalla were also prominent in the defense of the Roman ramparts. When the situation proved untenable, and Garibaldi began his imperiled retreat to the north, there were eight Italian Jews in the entourage that followed him into exile.12

Despite the setbacks endured by the dissolution of the Roman Republic and the Piedmontese defeat at Custoza, the twin movements for Italian unification and Jewish emancipation were proving themselves indomitable. By the time King Victor Emmanuel II ascended the throne of Sardinia-Piedmont in 1849, full emancipation had already been granted to the Jews of his state. Furthermore, Piedmont's Prime Minister, Camillo Cavour, was a firm proponent of equality for Italians of all faiths and brought his forceful personality to bear against what few inadvertent relics of intolerance remained in the Savoyard kingdom. Under the watchful gaze of Cavour and King Victor Emmanuel II, the first Italian Jews, Treves de Bonfili and Franchetti, were raised to the nobility and received the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.13

In 1854 the government of Sardinia-Piedmont endeavored to send a contingent of troops to fight with the allies in the Crimean War against Russia. Once again, Italian Jews from the North eagerly responded to the call to arms. The now storied Enrico Guastalla and Cesare Rovighi were among the legions of Italian Jews who enlisted in order to combat the Russian enemy.14 When war once again erupted with Austria in 1859, Italian Jewish veterans of the Crimean War would form an important cadre for recruitment in their communities.

The Italian War of Independence (1859-1860) would not only realize the dream of Italian unification but also serve as the conflict in which many fabled Jewish veterans first saw combat. There were already ninety Jewish career officers in the army of Piedmont-Sardinia at the outbreak of hostilities and these numbers were swelled by a flood of Jewish volunteers. 260 Jewish soldiers would serve in the Piedmontese army during the war of liberation and many of them would be decorated for valor.15

Both Enrico Guastalla and Cesare Rovighi continued their service in the army and played important roles in the campaigns against Austria and Naples. But the war of liberation would also initiate a new generation of Italian Jewish combatants, one which would eventually rise to the highest echelons of the Kingdom's army. A mere cadet in the war against Austria, Giuseppe Ottolenghi would eventually become a Lieutenant General and Minister of War. Other young Jews fighting in the Savoyard army who were destined for martial prominence included Edoardo Arbib, Emilio Arbib and Roberto Segre.

As the armies of Victor Emmanuel vanquished the forces of the Austrian Emperor and turned their attention to the south, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his mythic 1,000 single handedly defeated the Neapolitan army. There were 11 Jews serving in the ranks of the Garibaldini, including Enrico Guastalla who distinguished himself at Volturno and eventually became one of Garibaldi's most trusted aides.16 Five Jewish officers were awarded the Order of Merit of Savoy and the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus for their service in the Neapolitan campaign.17

The sweeping success of the army of Piedmont and the activities of the triumphant Red Shirts in the south resulted in the unification of the vast majority of the Italian peninsula under Savoyard hegemony in 1860. As members of a nation spawned from the romantic and republican notions of the nineteenth century, the citizens of the Italian state viewed service in the military as one of the highest career aspirations and Jews proved themselves no less adherent to this ideal. Fervent nationalists and supporters of the Savoy Dynasty, the decade of the 1860s saw disproportionate numbers of Italian Jews enlist for service in King Victor Emmanuel's army.

Meanwhile, Italian Jews who had begun their careers in the wars of liberation continued to advance in the ranks of the army. Roberto Segre was promoted to captain of artillery and several Jews achieved the same rank in the Italian infantry and cavalry, including Enrico Guastalla.18 Giuseppe Ottolenghi joined the general staff in 1860, was promoted to captain in 1863, and became an instructor at the Modena military academy.19 At this time there were so many Piedmontese Jews in the ranks of the Italian Army that some authors have chosen to liken them to a type of military caste.20

Both Giussepe Ottolenghi and Enrico Guastalla achieved special recognition for their achievements in the 1866 conflict against Austria. Ottolenghi was awarded the Cross of Savoy for valor and Guastalla was promoted for acts of bravery at Como, Brescia, Lonoto and Desenzano. King Victor Emmanuel II named Guastalla a Knight Commander in the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus shortly after the cessation of hostilities.21

By 1870 only the Jewish citizens of the now truncated Papal State remained beyond the liberating policies of the Kingdom of Italy. Roman Jews, prominent among them Chief Rabbi Angelo Citone, actively campaigned for the Eternal City's annexation by the Italian State and rejoiced when revolutionary foment provided a pretext for the Italian Army's invasion of Rome. Once again, Jewish soldiers would play prominent roles in the forces that engaged the armies of Pope Pius. 87 Jewish officers saw action in the campaign to take Rome including Cesare Rovighi, Achille Coen, Edoardo Arbib and Emilio Arbib.22 Captain Roberto Segre commanded the batteries that opened the mythical breccia di Porta Pia and Captain Mortara commanded one of the first infantry companies to enter the besieged city.23

Rabbi Angelo Citone reported a touching scene, although probably apocryphal, during the fall of Rome where Captain Segre and Colonel Rovighi gathered around the commander of the Italian army, General Cadorna, as he embraced the son of the Roman Jew Abramo Mondolfo who cried Italia, Italia.24 Shortly after the fall of Rome, Colonel Cesare Rovighi became a knight of Saint Maurice and one of King Victor Emmanuel's aides-de-camp.25

Captain Giuseppe Ottolenghi did not participate in the Italian action against Rome as he was serving at the time as an attaché to the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War. He would go on to serve on the international commission on Montenegro in 1878 and eventually became a military tutor to the children of King Umberto I. He was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in 1888 and became commander of the Turin Division in 1895. In 1902 King Umberto I raised Ottolenghi to the rank of Lieutenant General and named him commander of the 4th Army Corps. He would end his career in 1904 after serving two years as Minister of War and died shortly afterwards.26 Over the course of his illustrious service in the Italian Army, General Ottolenghi received many awards and honors from various states including the Cross for Military Valor, the Order of Merit of Savoy and the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus.27

The outstanding service of Italian Jews in the Kingdom's military did not end with the conquest of Rome and the realization of the dream of Italian unification. Indeed, throughout the remainder of the century, Jews continued to retain their prominence in the highest ranks of the country's armed forces. Emanuele Pugliese, Roberto Segre and Angelo Arbib all became Lieutenant Generals and Paolo Marani achieved the rank of Vice Admiral in the Navy.28 Colonel Angelo Modena was a senior lecturer at the Turin Military Academy and commanded an infantry regiment in the Italo-Turkish War. He would also eventually achieve the rank of Lieutenant General.29

With Italy's entry into the Great War in 1915, many Jews answered the call to arms and enlisted in various branches of the military. Throughout the three years of Italy's involvement in the conflict 8,000 Italian Jews would perform valorous service within the ranks of the armed forces.30 500 Jews would fall in defense of the colors and nearly twice that number were wounded. Angelo Arbib, Emilio Arbib and Armando Bachi served in command positions while Carlo Archivolti, Adolfo Olivetti, Giacomo Almagia, Umberto Pugliese, Raimondo Foa and Ettore Ascoli among others were prominent in the junior officer corps.31 Colonel Angelo Modena began the war in command of the 208th infantry regiment but, after his valiant stand at the Zugna-Torta heights, was promoted to Major General and assumed control of the 32nd Infantry Division.32

General Roberto Segre commanded artillery formations at the start of the war and was cited for bravery at the Battle of Gorizia. In 1917 he was promoted to chief of staff of the Fifth Army Corps and became head of the Italian-Austrian Armistice Commision.33 Colonel Emanuele Pugliese distinguished himself during the battle of Vittorio-Veneto and was promoted to general by the end of the war.34

Throughout the war, Italian Jews also played an active role in the naval effort, although in much lesser numbers than their coreligionists in the army. Paolo Marani was prominent as a Vice Admiral and Augusto Capon, Franco Nunes, Guido Segre and Aldo Ascoli all commanded ships.35 Capon, Nunes and Segre would all go on to achieve the rank of Full Admiral and Capon was named Chief of Naval Intelligence in 1931.36


The great military achievements and martial ardor of Italy's Jews are unfortunately colored by the dark shadows of Fascism and the catastrophic events of the Second World War. In 1938 Benito Mussolini enacted discriminatory legislation against Italian Jews and barred all but two Jews from service in the military. Many Jewish civilians, soldiers and veterans saw this as a great betrayal by the state which they had fought valiantly to both forge and defend. One can only imagine the response of great Italian Jewish militarists, such as Ottolenghi or Guastalla, had they lived to witness Mussolini's disgraceful edicts. Indeed their reaction may have been similar to that of Colonel Roberto Segre or General Ascoli who committed suicide rather than resign their military commissions.37

Scholars and historians tend to view the nineteenth century, if not the entire scope of Italian Jewish history, in light of the lachrymose events of the 1940s. Many have stylized or outwardly characterized the Italian Jews as naïve victims or fools for their inspired service to a state that ultimately betrayed them. This stance has not only sullied and obfuscated the achievements of Italian Jewry but also prevented the names of such inspired individuals as Ottolenghi, Guastalla, Rovighi and Segre from being remembered by posterity. I also take umbrage with the above mentioned lachrymose approach as it distorts the historical record, for the events of one decade should not be used as the prism through which the entire history of a people is viewed.

Nowhere in Jewish history, perhaps not even in the United States, have Jewish citizens displayed the type of military ardor evident in Italian Jewry. In no other country have so many Jews achieved martial prestige, become commanding generals, or served in the capacity of Minister of War or Chief of Naval Intelligence. Unfortunately, the attitude that many scholars have maintained towards the history of Italian Jewry has resulted in the achievements of this society being lost in obscurity. I feel that this fact renders a great injustice to Italian Jewish history in general, and incongruously discounts those Italian Jews whose belief in liberty, equality and brotherhood prompted them to offer their lives in exchange for the romantic ideal of a unified and democratic Italian Nation.


1 Ralph Nunberg, The Fighting Jew (New York, 1945) 128.

2 Nunberg, The Fighting Jew, 136.

3 Cecil Roth, The History of the Jews of Italy, (Philadelphia, 1946), 457.

4 Nathan Ausubel, Pictorial History of the Jewish People, (New York, 1953), 199

5 Roth, The History, 457.

6 Cecil Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 9, (Jerusalem, 1971), 1127.

7 Roth, The History, 460.

8 Ausubel, Pictorial History, 199.

9 Cecil Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1559.

10 Roth, The History, 461.

11 Ausubel, Pictorial History, 199.

12 Roth, The History, 466.

13 Roth, The History, 476.

14 Cecil Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1559.

15 Cecil Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1559.

16 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 7, 955.

17 Roth, The History, 484.

18 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 7, 955.

19 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol 12, 1523.

20 Roth, The History, 484.

21 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 7, 955.

22 Roth, The History, 484.

23 Robereto Maria Dainotto, "The Jewish Risorgimento and the Questione Romana," The Italian Jewish Experience, ed. Thomas P. DiNapoli (Stony Brook, 2000), 108.

24 Dainotto, "The Jewish Risorgimento," 109.

25 Roth, The History, 484.

26 Ausubel, Pictorial History, 200.

27 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 12, 1524.

28 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1559.

29 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1559 1575.

30 DeLange, N. Atlas of the Jewish World, (1992), 64.

31 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1559

32 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1575.

33 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 14, 1114.

34 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 13, 1379.

35 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1559.

36 Roth (Ed). Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, 1572.

37 Roth, The History, 530.


from the April Passover 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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