Email: Pius XI, Mussolini and Italian Jews (7.3.2021)

Mussolini Had Problems Selling German Anti-Semitism in Italy!

Dear Gillian 

What I find interesting – and it’s a point I had never considered before – is that Mussolini was not that initially interested in aligning his ‘fascism’ with Hitler’s ‘National Socialism’. Indeed, they disagreed upon policy at the beginning – but Hitler went on a charm offensive and slowly won Mussolini over to a more or less united front against the democratic countries and the USSR. For instance, Italy only possessed a very few people of Jewish origin – perhaps no more than 20,000 in the North and Central areas of Italy – with most Italian people completely ‘unmotivated’ by anti-Semitism as a defining policy. The vast majority of Italians had never met a Jew whilst whose who did know them – saw them as fellow Italians rather than an ‘enemy within’. There really was not any point in it all. This was particularly true as the Pope (who generally supported Italian fascism) was opposed to singling-out the Jews the persecution if only on the grounds that many ‘converted’ to Catholicism for protection and support. The Pope was continuously arguing with Mussolini who in-turn had to deal with Hitler on the other-side demanding decisive action! Given that the Communist Movement was so strong in Italy, this might explain the dire performance of the Italian Armed Forces – although, to be fair, they were also defeated by spear-wielding tribesmen (in Abyssinia) at one point during their invasion! Mussolini had been in power for eleven years prior to Hitler coming to power in 1933 – and Hitler eulogised him for this fact. When Hitler tried to cease power in the early 1920s – he ended-up in prison! Of course, Pius XI died in 1939 and missed the disaster of what was to come… 

A Beautiful Photograph of Romaniote Jewish People!

Dear Adrian 

I think you may have underestimated the number of Jews in Italy at that time

But your point is good, Italian fascism can never have been motivated by the idea of ‘Volk’ , it was far more about preservation of the mercantile class and the Venetian way of doing things.

Venice: Jewish Graves

Dear Gillian 

I will check the reference. Hitler pressurised Mussolini into depriving the Jews of all citizenship and rights. The Pope demanded that converted Jews should be exempt from the pogrom and be allowed to marry other Catholics. Even Ribbentrop turned up to pressure Mussolini demanding a military alliance that united the military forces of Germany, Italy and Japan in preparation for any upcoming war. The Pope was told that most Italians hated the Germans and were indifferent to the Jews! The political cut and thrust is riveting as the Vatican attempted to out-manoeuvre Mussolini. The Pope was stuck in the middle between advisors that favoured fascism and National Socialism and those that rejected both or favoured one over the other. None of this sophistry stopped the eventual persecution of the Jews in Italy.

Hitler’s Hatred Combined with Mussolini’s Stupidity!

The Wiki reference suggests a population of 48,000 Jews (for 1942) living in the entirety of Italy (which is still a very small over-all population) – but my reference (David I. Kertzer – The Pope and Mussolini) says the largest single concentration of Jews was 20,000 situated in North and Central Italy in the late 1930s. I suppose both numbers are correct when viewed in their proper context. By way of comparison, New Malden (which is not far from Sutton) has a population of 10,000 South Koreans – the largest concentration outside of their own country. Parents come to the UK to work in the car industry and bring their children for the duration of their stay. However, virtually no one in the UK has ever met a South Korean or knows that they even live in the UK! 

Harry Arlin & parents, Emily & Leo Armstein
Ferramonti di Tarsia Concentration Camp

Dear Adrian 

That makes sense. 

I also think that Italy always saw itself as multi-ethnic.  Sicily is Norman and proudly so. The Roman Empire itself was not based on a single ethnicity: North Africans, Goths/Visigoths and Franks are all in the mix in the makeup of what became Italy . Italy’s Fascism had to be based around something else and in many ways, it was about conservatism and simply attracted anyone who saw Bolshevism as a horror.  The mercantile Jews are very much part of that reactionary trend. A small Jewish population and also quite a prosperous Jewish population would not be seen as anything to purge. That is why Fascism remains a force in Italy and why they have less sense of shame over it than the Germans do. Pogroms are only possible where the majority of the ethnic/religious to be persecuted are poor and under represented amongst the Patricians. 

Italian Concentration Camp – Libya (c. 1940)

Dear Gillian 

Pope Pius XI was very much trapped between a rock and hard place – eradicate the Jews or convert the Jews? No one appears to have suggested ‘leaving them alone’. Still, I know certain Italian were tried and found Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity and were executed. Actually, some were beaten to death by angry crowds before any judicious action could be carried-out – whilst Mussolini’s former Head of Police was sat on a chair in public (he had a broken leg) and was executed in public by Italian firing-squad! The Americans soon started colluding with the Vatican (under Pius XII) to turn the Italian population away from the Communist Revolution the country was heading toward. Although technically, this is yet another story. I had imagined a hegemonic alliance that all fascists were just naturally ‘born into’ which turns-out to be nonsense! Politics operate even amongst representatives of the far-right – just as it does on the left. Pius XI was literally ambling from one theological emergency to the next – as Mussolini was swayed one-way and then another by a domineering Hitler! In fact, I get the impression that Pope Pius XI ‘willed’ himself to live longer in an attempt at managing it all! After-all, even Mussolini was having to bat-off Hitler’s more obvious attacks on the Catholic Church! 

Pietro Koch, Nazi collaborator, Near Rome, Italy. 5 June 1945

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