Anti-Semitism was not a major concern of the Italian people in modern Italy until Mussolini introduced it. Mussolini combined anti-Semitism and racism to form the Fascist racial policy.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, Mussolini felt threatened by Hitler’s designs on Austria. Mussolini considered himself the protector of Austria and intended to resist German expansion into the region. In order to placate Hitler, while still thwarting his ambition, Mussolini decided to develop an anti-Semitic campaign in Italy. When the Nazis assassinated the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss in July 1934, Hitler decided to take no further action in order to avoid a conflict with the European powers. Mussolini believed that the German threat was thus removed, therefore, there was no longer a need for any anti-Semitic program at this time. It wasn’t until 1936 that Mussolini re-instituted his anti-Semitic policies due to the political and economic conditions confronting Italy.
One of these conditions was Mussolini’s incursion into Ethiopia. Mussolini became concerned with the increase of interracial fraternization with the Ethiopian people and its affect on Italy. Racism now increasingly became an issue in Italy, and Mussolini seized upon this growing trend to promote his racial propaganda. The Ethiopian War and Italy’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War resulted in Italy being isolated by the western powers. As a result, Mussolini decided to develop a greater friendship with Hitler. He believed that Hitler would be impressed and willing to ally himself with Italy if anti-Semitic racial laws were instituted in Italy.
Mussolini mobilized the press and radio broadcasts to further galvanize support for his anti-Semitic propaganda which constantly bombarded the Italian people causing some to adhere to his hatred of Jews. In addition, on July 14, 1938 he embraced the “Manifesto of the Racial Scientist”, which stated that the civilization of Italy is of Aryan origin, and there exists a pure Italian race to which Jews do not belong. This Manifesto was false and dishonest but was utilized to justify the racial laws. Between September 2, 1938 and November 17, 1938, Italy enacted a series of racial laws. Some of these laws included the following:
- Foreign Jews were forbidden to settle in Italy, Libya or in the colonial possessions of the Aegean.
- The Italian citizenship granted to Jewish foreigners after January 1,1919 was revoked, and they were required to leave within six months.
- Jews were banned from jobs in the government, banking, insurance, education, entertainment industry and the practice of law.
- Jews were banned from attending all education institutions.
- Marriage was prohibited between Jews and non-Jews.
- Jewish property was confiscated.
- Jewish businesses were “Aryanized” (Jewish businesses confiscated by non-Jews).
- All foreign Jews were required to leave Italy.
- Jews were forbidden to employ non-Jewish Italian domestics.
- Jews were forbidden to serve in the military.
- A special Jewish census conducted in 1938 and continually updated facilitated the future arrests of thousands.
While thousands of foreign Jews were expelled as a result of these racial laws, they were replaced by thousands of Jewish refugees escaping harsh circumstances in their native lands. Since some individual Italians were basically suspicious of government and lax in following rules, not everyone complied with enforcing the racial laws that they believed were unjust.
Those who followed their conscience and resisted the unjust treatment of Jews did so at great personal risk to themselves and their families. This resistance took many forms.
Some Italian Jews transferred businesses and other sources of wealth to trusted Christian friends for safe keeping. In addition, there were Jewish lawyers who continued servicing non-Jewish clients with the assistance of non-Jewish attorneys. Other examples of non-compliance included those bankers who overlooked or ignored Jewish bank accounts thereby protecting their assets from being confiscated.
In spite of Mussolini’s efforts to rid Italy of Jews, individual Italians not only helped to protect Jewish property but also rescued Jews from certain death by offering them a safe haven from those who planned to murder them. Some Italians made the decision to protect their Jewish friends and neighbors as a matter of conscience. As a result, approximately 80% of Italy’s Jews survived the Holocaust.
While Italy’s racial laws were harsh and unjust, after Germany invaded Italy on September 8, 1943, conditions worsened for the Jews and survival became the only issue due to the threat of Nazi deportation. What occurred in Italy during the Holocaust is a multi-faceted and complex piece of history that must be examined within the context of the time period.