Book Review: The Fascists and the Jews of Italy: Mussolini's Race Laws, 1938-1943


by Michael A. Livingston

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. x, 268. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $90.0. ISBN: 110702756X

A decade ago, then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was compelled to apologize for remarks that he made about Mussolini’s “benign dictatorship”:  “Mussolini did not murder anyone.  Mussolini sent people on holiday to internal exile.”  Over the years, it seems that Il Duce has largely and undeservedly benefited in the eyes of numerous historians and public perception for, well, not being Hitler.  In actual fact, Mussolini was directly responsible for the deaths of many political opponents and the persecution of Italian Jews under his own comprehensive set of anti-Semitic racial laws that were a counterpart to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws.

Similarly, there is a widespread view that Fascist Italy’s leggi razziali (Race Laws), enacted in November 1938, were neither as severe nor as rigidly enforced as the Third Reich’s.  While it is true that the Race Laws were initially concerned with the persecution of Jews and their exclusion from Italian political, economic, educational, social and cultural life, and that the deportation of Italian Jews to Nazi extermination camps (nearly 7,000 identifiable persons, or almost 20% of the prewar total Italian Jewish population, died) didn’t begin until after was Mussolini overthrown in the Summer of 1943 and the Germans occupied northern Italy, by weakening the Jewish community (the oldest in Western Europe) and by gathering detailed information about them, the laws, though not inherently genocidal, helped facilitate the Italian stage of  the Holocaust.  So contends American legal scholar Michael A. Livingston.  Livingston has a juridicial emphasis, applying legal methodology, rather than from the more common political approach, relying on both Fascist and Jewish archives, and examines the legal framework, context, and operation of the Italian anti-Semitic laws, from their shaping and drafting (and, in view of conversions and intermarriages, their painstaking consideration of “who is a Jew”) to their day-to-day administration by the bureaucracy and their interpretation by the judicial system (which was remarkably independent), evidenced by specific cases.  The work’s subtitle is fitting; while Mussolini didn’t originate the Race Laws, he did directly edit them.

In doing so, Livingston overturns common assumptions and beliefs, such as that anti-Semitism was uncommon in Italy (not so; indeed, the word “ghetto” is of Italian, or, more exactly, Venetian, origin), and that consequently, Italians didn’t support the Race Laws and they were only half-heartedly enforced.  As Livingston shows, in actuality, they were actively, rigorously enforced with regularity and applied with increasing dedication until 1943, particularly after the war began to go badly for Italy; A month before his overthrow, Mussolini initiated plans for Jews’ deportation to forced-labor camps.  Furthermore, contrary to connly held belief, these laws were as harsh as the Nuremberg Laws and, rather than being imported from, and imposed under pressure by, Germany, were distinctly Italian – and Fascist – in character, rooted in Italy’s history and not an anomaly.  Where they differed from the Nazis’ equivalent was in the presence and influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which had reached accord with Mussolini in 1929, the Lateran Treaties, and which, despite its own preaching of anti-Semitic doctrines, tended to regard Jewishness as primarily a matter of religion, as opposed to the Nazis’ racial criteria.  So the Church favored biological Jews who had converted to Catholicism and particularly stood up for their non-Jewish spouses and children.  The Italian laws, in their nominal, if superficial, legalistic structure, gave a veneer of “legitimacy” both for their administrators and even some of their victims.  The main difference from Germany being institutional, rather than attitudinal, in the absence of a large-scale agency obsessed with targeting Jews; The “Department of Demography and Race,” or Demorazza, was composed of fewer than 70 career bureaucrats rather than hundreds of ideological anti-Semites like the SS.  It was not that the Fascists were softer toward the Jews as that anti-Semitism simply wasn’t a preoccupation for them.

While nominally racial, the leggi razziali considered both “race” and religion in “borderline” cases, a number of which are cited by Livingston, pertaining to employment, property and marriage, and he devotes a chapter to the wide and complex spectrum of Jewish response to the Race Laws, from setting up their own schools and providing charity to forging documents to challenging interpretations of their provisions.  While there was no hope of overturning the unjust laws, there were some attempts by Jews and jurists to restrain or limit their application.  However, despite exemption provisions (discriminazione), which were limited and temporary, the laws were not easy to evade or get around, and, over time, fewer and fewer cases were decided in favor of the Jews.

Prof. Livingston’s research is admirably detailed and offers a rare perspective on an underaddressed aspect of the road to the Holocaust, countering many myths about its Fascist Italian incarnation.  Two caveats, however, are that, as a lawyer, Livingston frequently descends into lengthy legal minutiae, dry and dull to non-lawyers, and skirts the pitfall, as even he recognizes, of treating the Race Laws as valid legal provisions rather than as illegitimate and criminal.


Our Reviewer : Mark L. Blackman is a lifelong history and Jewish history buff.  He previously reviewed Under the Heel of Bushido: Last Voices of the Jewish POWs of the Japanese in the Second World War for StrategyPage.


Reviewer: Mark Blackman   

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