Adaptation forced by external factors? The anti-Semitism movement in Fascist Italy

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 1,1


Table of content

1. Summary

2. Introduction

3. Research Background

4. Analysis: The Developments in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

Fascist education is moral, physical,

social, and military: it aims to create

a complete and harmoniously developed

human in a fascist one according to our views.”

Benito Mussolini

1. Summary

During the last 25 years, starting from the fiftieth anniversary of the anti-Jewish laws in Fascist Italy, there has been an increasing interest in the Italian history at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many political and historical scientists thereby focussed on one main question: What developments led to the enormous radicalization policy and the progressive anti-Jewish movement under Mussolini? As it will be outlined in this paper, Italian researchers gave an answer to this by primarily analyzing the national history, whereas political scientists and historians from Germany, England, and the United States based their studies on a comparison between the situation in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The Italian system, in opposite to the regime in Germany, turned radically against the Jews not until 1938, after a long period of political acceptance. Due to the suddenness of this attitude change, researchers saw the developments in Italy as a result of bilateral dependencies and continuous force coming from Germany. As the following comparison will underline, however, the Italian anti-Semitism[1] movement arose from internal, historically constituted factors, and it shows evident differences to the developments in Germany. This paper looks in detail at the period between 1933-1945 in both political systems, as the most decisive decisions were taken within those years.

2. Introduction

After the First World War, many European countries had to face a disastrous national situation – thousands of civic victims, infrastructural destructions, economic paralysation, and instable as well as fragmented governments. This situation provided the fertile soil for a new form of political movement, “an opportunistic form of extreme nationalism which, in political terms, lies somewhere between communism and capitalism” (Todd 2002: 8) – Fascism. As this movement led to an international radicalisation, political persecutions, and in the end to the Second World War, scientists have focussed upon Fascism for a long period of time. Despite a huge number of decisive researches in this field[2], however, finding a general and widely acknowledged definition of Fascism remained hardly possible until today (Todd 2002: 7). This difficulty results mainly from the fact that Fascism was not a terminated ideology that all nations in the period after the First World War followed. Instead, “every country’s history played an important role” (Levy 1999: 110) and shaped the outline of the national Fascist movement[3]. Looking at the cases of Italy and Germany, however, as the most important influential Fascist nations during the interwar period, political scientists and historians were able to constitute a minimum definition of the phenomenon. According to this definition,

“Fascism is a system of political authority and social order intended to reinforce the unity, energy, and purity of communities in which liberal democracy stands accused of producing division and decline. Its complex tensions (political revolution versus social restoration, order versus aggressive expansionism, mass enthusiasm versus civic submission) are hard to understand solely by its propaganda.” (Paxton 1998: 21/22)

In the early 1920s, Italy was the first country that brought up the expression of Fascism (Todd 2002: 8)[4]. Benito Mussolini, who became the first Fascist leader in Europe in 1922 (Mommsen 2001: 55), saw this movement as a successful way to a national rebirth and the development of a new, strong citizenship[5]. Generating this idea he became an ideal for many other political governments that took power in Europe during the next years, the most influential among them the Nazi regime in Germany (Levy 1999: 120). At this early stage of a Fascist policy in Italy, there existed no correlation between the political aspiration to build an “ideal nation community made up of healthy and worthy individuals” (Kallis 2009: 101) and the isolation, or even persecution, of the Jewish population. Having both experienced the national unification and sharing the sense of a common identity, Italians and Jews obtained an equal citizenship[6].

Mussolini himself declared in 1929

“The Jews have been in Rome ever since the time of kings; perhaps it was they who supplied clothes after the rape of the Sabine women. There were fifty thousand at the time of Augustus, and they asked to weep on the corpse of Julius Cesar. They will stay here undisturbed.” (Adler 2005: 291)

The case of Germany illustrates a highly different picture. Already in the early 1920s, many political organisations were based on a radical anti-Semitic program (Kershaw 2001: 43). When Hitler took the lead of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) in 1921, he had the idea of creating a new kind of society, a unification of all Germans, which he defined as Volksgemeinschaft (Todd 2002: 166). For him, in contrast to his Italian role model Mussolini, the Jewish people didn’t and shouldn’t belong to the German nation[7]. During the following years, Hitler massively propagated his ideas among the German population, and so the anti-Semitic program had radicalized nationwide even before he gained the political leadership of the country in 1933. Mussolini was impressed by the triumphant way Hitler had mobilised the German population for his ideas and how politically influential he had become within only a few years (Moos 2004: 17). As a consequence, the Italian leader tried to constitute a strong relation to the German regime in order to mutually fight for a future of prosperous nation states. Had this hope at the end led to the drastic changes within the Italian policy? Why did Mussolini turn strongly against the Jewish population during the 1930s? Did only external forces from Germany influence him? Or did the radicalisation in Italy result from international factors?

By comparing the developments in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany between 1933-1945, this paper aims to analyze these questions and to contribute to the scientifically revisited deliberations about the alliance between both regimes and its consequences for a radicalised anti-Semitic movement in Europe. The following paragraph outlines the research background to this topic and the contradictory answers scientists have given until today to the question whether or not Mussolini’s political change was influenced by Hitler or not. Thereafter, the analysis will concentrate on the most important legislative measurements that were taken in both countries during the 1930s and 1940s.

3. Research Background

The first analyses about the Fascist movements in Europe started shortly after the Second World War. Political scientists and historians explicitly focussed on the history of Italy and Germany, as these two countries had implemented the core Fascist ideas more effectively than any other nation (Mommsen 2001: 15).

One of the most important, and for a long time most influential, source about the Fascism in Italy and its radical anti-Semitic development is the Italian scholar Renzo de Felice (1929-1996) (De Napoli 2012: 112). Starting in the 1960s, de Felice contributed profound researches to the history of the Italian nation between Mussolini’s political overtake and the outbreak of the war[8]. The historian saw the continuous external force from Nazi Germany as well as Mussolini’s dependency on a successful Italian-German cooperation as main explanatory reasons for the sharp change within Italy’s internal policy (Zimmerman 2005: 6). At the beginning of his leadership, so de Felice’s argumentation, Mussolini did not intend to harm the Jewish population. He didn’t negate that in the early years of Italian Fascism Mussolini accepted anti-Semitic statements from political and social institutions, but for him the ideological radicalisation was only driven by the Nazi regime.

“Mussolini did not personally harbour, even after rising to power, any real prejudice against the Jews; he did not view them with either sympathy or antagonism; (…) he was not immune to anti-Semitic remarks and prejudices, but this was not important; (…) This traditional anti-Semitism had no practical consequences for him (…). The Mussolini of the “origins” and of the years to the racial campaign would never adopt the extreme views (…).” (De Felice in Fabre 2005: 66)

A second considerable author was the Jewish historian Meir Michaelis. In his book Mussolini And The Jews: German Italian Relations And The Jewish Question In Italy, 1922 - 1945, published in 1979, Michaelis supported de Felice’s conclusions about the Italian shift towards a violent anti-Semitism (Adler 2005: 286). Also he argued that Mussolini was decisively influenced by the German regime when he initiated the purposeful isolation and persecution of Jewish people.

For many years, de Felice and Michaelis shaped the scientific opinion about the Italian history under Mussolini. In the late 1980s, however, many scholars became again interested in the interwar-period and the political correlation between the Italian and the German developments (Zimmerman 2005: 8). Drawing on original documents from the 1930s, historians soon were able to show that picture de Felice and Michaelis had drawn before wasn’t simply as black and white as they had claimed. On author from this group of critics that should be mentioned in this context is Michele Sarfatti. According to his books[9], two aspects have to be considered when looking at the Italian history under Mussolini. Firstly, documents and political decisions from the early years of the Fascist regime show that anti-Jewish policies began much earlier than so far acknowledged[10] [11]. Secondly, it already existed an anti-Judaist tendency in Italy having evolved from doctrines of the Catholic Church (Moos 2004: 16). A radical thinking towards the Jewish population was therefore no new phenomenon, but during the 1930s it was changed into a biological justifiable radical movement (Zimmerman 2005: 7).

Giorgio Fabre, Italian historian and scientific journalist, adds another argument that disproves the early assumptions by de Felice and Michaelis. Already in the 1920s, Mussolini propagated his concept of the “new Fascist man” that clearly showed racial features long before any German influence. In fact, Hitler inherited this concept a few years later in his own racial political program, but this time it was tend directly against the Jewish population (Fabre 2005). Also the fact that Mussolini formulated the Racial Laws by a time when Italy was not yet occupied be the Nazis weakens the validity of the after-war analyses (Bartikowski 2013: 10).

In opposite to the early researches that were mainly based on a national historic view of either the developments in Fascist Italy or in Nazi Germany, the recent scientific works use a comparative approach. In order to answer the question why Mussolini during the 1930s changed his policy towards the Jewish population so dramatically, many researchers now study the period between 1933 (Hitler’s assumption of the political leadership) and 1945 (end of the Second World War) (Bartikowski 2013: 14). For them it is important to find especially the decisive differences between Mussolini’s and Hitler’s policy to prove that the developments in Germany acted supporting, but not influential on the Italian radical turn.


[1] The expression „anti-Semitism“ was created in 1879 by the German propandagist Wilhelm Marr and described the anti-Jewish movements in Europe at that time. Originally, the people defined as Semites are not only Jews, but all people that belonged to a Semitic-speaking population in the Near East. During the fascist period in the early twentieth century, however, this expression regarded to the radical practices against the Jews. For this paper, I’m going to refer to this later definition. See Encyclopedia Britannica,

[2] The most important scientific contributions came from Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism, London, 1993; Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, New York, 2004; Michael Mann, Fascists, Cambridge 2004.

[3] In his analysis The Five Stages of Fascism, the American historian Robert Paxton illustrates apart from the different national influences on Fascism four more problems that hamper the attempt of defining the phenomenon generally: the problem of timing, mimicry, the ambiguous relationship between taught ideology and real action, and the fact that Fascism as a word itself has been scientifically overused during the last decades. See R. O. PAXTON, The Five Stages of Fascism, in «The Journal of Modern History», Vol. 70 (1998), No. 1, pp.1-23.

[4] The expression „Fascismo“ as used by Mussolini originates from the Latin word „Fasce“, a cluster of rods tied around an axe. These clusters used to be an important historical Roman symbol of the civic magistrate’s authority, and so they were often used for corporal punishment. Mussolini chose this expression for his political movement concerning the symbolic meaning. Only by tieing the rods together, they worked as an unbreakable unity. See A. TODD, The European Dictatorships. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.8.

[5] In his 1932 published work The Doctrine of Fascism Mussolini underlines the close connection between the Fascist individual and his nation: „Therefore, for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, muss less have value, outside the State. In this sense Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strenght to the whole life of the people.“ See B. MUSSOLINI, The Doctrine of Fascism, in M. J. OAKESHOTT, The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1939, pp. 164-168.

[6] An important example for the national integration and political power that the Jewish population had gained during the Italian unificationi is the fact that Italy had the first Jewish prime minister in Europe, Luigi Luzzati. Moreover, in the years after Mussolini had founded the PNF (Partito Nazionale Fascista), more than 10% of all Jews living in Italy joined the fascist party and many of them hold a high political position. See L. THOMAS, Die Juden im faschistischen Italien. Die Razzien im römischen Ghetto und im Ghetto von Venedig, Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2009, pp.13-16.

[7] Within his „Twenty-Five-Point-Programme“ 1920, Hitler banned the Jewish population ideologically from the German nation. Moreover, he pointed out that those people would endanger a successful and bright future of Germany. Therefore, so his radical conclusion, there existed only on possible solution: to separate the Jews from the German population and to support the development of a strong ruling class. See A. KALLIS, Genocide and Fascism. The Eliminationist Drive in Fascist Europe, New York, Routledge, 2009, pp.115-117.

[8] In his famous book The Jews in Fascist Italy: A History (Storia degli ebrei sotto il fascismo) from 1961, de Felice analyses in detail Mussolini’s decisions and the influences coming from the Nazi regime that together ended in the violent anti-Semitism in the 1930s. See J. D. ZIMMERMAN, Introduction, in J. D. ZIMMERMAN (edit.), Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule, 1922-1945, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.6.

[9] Gli ebrei nell'Italia fascista and Mussolini contro gli ebrei. Cronaca dell'elaborazione delle leggi del 1938.

[10] In 1926, as a direct aftermath of an attempted assassination on Mussolini, anti-Semitic movements developed. Especially the Italian mass media decried the Jewish population of having caused this attack on the Italian leader and of not being worth the Italian citizenship. See J. WETZEL, Der Mythos des “braven Italieners”. Das faschistische Italien und der Antisemitismus, in H. GRAML, A. KÖNIGSEDER, J. WETZEL (Hrsg.), Vorurteil und Rassenhaß. Antisemitismus in den faschistischen Bewegungen Europas, Berlin, Metropol Verlag, 2001, p. 57.

[11] During the late 1920s, Mussolini secretly banned many Jewish people from high positions within the political and scientific field. See G. FABRE, Mussolinis engagierter früher Antisemitismus, in «Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken», Vol. 90 (2010), pp. 353.

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Adaptation forced by external factors? The anti-Semitism movement in Fascist Italy
University of Pavia
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Second World War, Fascist Italy, Mussolini, Anti-Semitism
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B.A. Anna Leiber (Author), 2014, Adaptation forced by external factors? The anti-Semitism movement in Fascist Italy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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