Last week, the remains of King Victor Emanuel III were brought back from exile in Egypt to Italy by an official air force aircraft — and then quietly reinterred in the burial plot for members of the House of Savoy.
The Italian Jewish community strongly condemned this, because the king had not only been a fellow traveller of Mussolini during the inter-war years, but had signed a royal decree enshrining “laws for the defence of the race” in November 1938 — which legitimised state antisemitism.
Jews could not marry non-Jews or serve in the army. They could not hire non-Jewish servants or be the guardians of non-Jewish children. There were restrictions on owning land and citizenship granted to foreign Jews after 1919 was revoked.
Large numbers of Jews were expelled from the professions. Some, like future Nobel Prize winner Emelio Segrè, left for the United States. The historian Arnaldo Momigliano became a professor at University College London.
Yet at the outset of Italian fascism, a minority of Jews had supported Mussolini. The struggle for Italian independence in the nineteenth century had gone hand-in-hand with Jewish emancipation and they saw themselves as loyal patriots after the political chaos following World War I. Jews were integrated into the fabric of society. Luigi Luzzatti had even become prime minister in 1910.
While Mussolini often equated “international Jewry” with both communism and capitalism, and Zionism with Bolshevism, there was no ideological antisemitism in the country. Italian fascism was not German Nazism. Mussolini’s Jewish mistress and muse over twenty years was the art critic, Margherita Sarfatti. His minister of finance in the 1930s was Guido Jung, a Sicilian Jew, while the banker Ettore Ovazza founded the La nostra bandiera (“Our Flag”) newspaper — required reading for all fascists.
From the outset, there were Jews in Mussolini’s inner circle. 230 took part in the fascist march on Rome in 1922 which resulted in his coming to power with the full approval of the king. The Israeli writer and academic, Dan Segre, recalled the image of his father dressed in the fascist uniform of fez with tassle, golden belt and silver dagger.
Jews began to desert the party when fascists kidnapped and murdered the outspoken socialist politician, Giocomo Matteoti, in 1924. Even so, Mussolini continued to have Jewish supporters who tried to turn a blind eye to his gradual alignment with Hitler in the 1930s and who were rendered speechless by the publication of the anti-Jewish laws. Many wrote to Mussolini expressing their “truthful fascist faith and endless love for the Duce”. One appeal to the king asked: “Can your majesty remain indifferent to the cry of indignation and of suffering that comes spontaneously from the heart of each of your Jewish subjects?”.
King Victor Emanuel only deserted Mussolini when he fell from power in 1943 and lost his throne when Italians voted for a republic after the war. Mussolini was rescued by the Nazis and resurrected as the dictator of the short-lived Republic of Salò. He then presided over the deportation of almost 7000 Italian Jews to concentration and death camps.
The warning from history is that belief in “strong leaders” and “good tyrants” to produce stability can be the precursor to antisemitic actions.
Autocrats and bullies today may distance themselves from antisemitism but they empower those on the far right to take action against those who are different.
Having Jewish colleagues — or even a Jewish lover — is no deterrent against narrow nationalism. As poets such as Primo Levi and Czeslaw Milosz have warned, complicity is not a Jewish option.
Colin Shindler’s latest book, The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History is published by Rowman and Littlefield