Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule
Book Review by Jay Levinson
Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule
Ed. Joshua D. Zimmerman
New York: Cambridge University Press (hardcover 2005; paperback 2009)
It is certainly no understatement to say that Benito Mussolini was a complex personality who led Italy from rebuilding after World War I to catastrophe and defeat in World War II. Perhaps a major part of his personality was the ability to create the illusion that his threatening pronouncements were not to be taken seriously.
The popular image of Mussolini is that of a nationalist, dragged into anti-Semitism by his desire to appease his neighbor to the north, Nazi Germany. According to this book, nothing could be further from the truth. As early as 1909, when Adolph Hitler was an unknown twenty-year-old, Mussolini was writing of a caricature from a ghetto, who had “the hooked nose of the true Semite.” Four years later he became the editor of the anti-Semitic Avanti! newspaper. In 1930-1931, before Hitler’s rise to power, Mussolini essentially excluded Jews from professional societies.
In retrospect it is hard to believe, but Mussolini was so adept at covering his anti-Semitic sentiments that numerous Jews were amongst his earliest supporters. Disillusion came only later. After all, Mussolini promulgated a message of Italian nationalism, and many Jews saw their future as loyal citizens of a new and strong Italy.
Italy was not Germany. It can well be argued that Mussolini’s anti-Semitism was cultural and religious, not racial. He dangled the promise that Italian Jews who served the country honorably in the “Great War” would be exempt from increasingly harsh restrictive laws; the impression, though, was better than the reality. Very few Jews evaded restrictions. There were Italian “red lines” that did not exist in Germany. It was only after the German occupation of Italy in 1943 that Italian Jews were deported and murdered.
There were those Nazis who were uncomfortable with the deportation of Jews. There were those Italians who risked their lives to save Jews. And there were those who followed German orders with enthusiasm. At the individual level it is hard to generalize about Italian acquiescence to Nazi rule. The Roman Catholic Church, however, is different. It is a hierarchic institution with an ultimate leader, who bears final responsibility for the actions of his organization. The book devotes considerable discussion to the role of the Church in anti-Jewish actions.
As a preface to discussion of the Church it must be noted that Roman Catholicism, the predominate religion in Italy, is taken extremely seriously by the average person. Thus, the pronouncements of the Church have strong significance in the formulation of public opinion and action.
According to this book Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa, better known as Pope Benedict XV, set the tone of papal thinking when he declared that it is a Christian’s duty to adhere to those in authority. His successor, Pius XI followed that line until it became untenable. He remained silent in the face of racism and murder until his conscience dictated that he had to change course. He ordered the drafting of a papal statement opposing Nazi policies, but the document was held up in the Church bureaucracy. He passed away before he could approve it.
Pius XI was consistently undercut by Eugencio Pacelli (Pius XII), his successor, who remained silent on the issue of Nazi atrocities. The author of one essay goes to great length to prove that Pacelli never issued a papal encyclical condemning or even disapproving Nazi action. He remained silent (even verbally) in his effort to “save the Church.” (One can only wonder cynically why the physical Church was more to him than moral values.)
Not all, however, was negative. There were Roman Catholic religious institutions that saved Jews, sometimes from true humanitarian concern, and sometimes as an inducement to conversion. In one curious case a Church organization saved Jews during the war and former Fascists and Nazis after the fighting stopped.
If Pius XII was bothered by anything, it was that the Nazis still considered Jews converted to Catholicism as Jews.
How much did Pius XII know about local Church organizations protecting and saving Jews? According to this book, he probably was aware of a general picture, but he never received specific details. Again, he acted in accordance with his general behavior. He kept silent.
A strong condemnation of Pius XII is in the 1963 drama, “The Deputy,” by Rolf Hochhuth. An essay in this books details how Hochhuth’s work (later made into both a Broadway play and a movie) stirred world consciousness.
Pius XII is not alone in the atmosphere of silence. Recently declassified American communications intelligence documents show that the Allies knew of Nazis opposing the deportations from Italy. They knew the routes of the trains and even the numbers of the cars. Could the Allies have done more to thwart the mass murders that followed deportation? We shall never know.
This book is highly recommended as an introduction to the fate of Jews during Fascist and subsequent Nazi rule in Italy. The essays by a variety of authors together paint a picture of a small Jewish community tormented as a scapegoat, the disdain for which was used to unite the country under a dictatorial leadership. The book also succeeds in analyzing the situation of Italy --- very different from Germany. The book is certainly worth reading.
from the March 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine