Essay. The story of Benito Mussolini's antisemitic persecution stayed hidden for six decades, until the historian Michele Sarfatti carefully exposed the truth in "Mussolini contro gli ebrei." Now the 1994 book is being reissued in a second, extended edition.

Mussolini the antisemite: The truth was a long time coming

In May 1994, Michele Sarfatti published the first edition of his Mussolini contro gli ebrei (“Mussolini against the Jews”), with Zamorani, a publisher specializing in the history of anti-Jewish persecution. At that time, Renzo De Felice, the historian of the Fascist period, was already ill, but still active at the head of his journal, Storia contemporanea. His many former students were a powerful lot, representatives of the academic establishment and collaborating with various journals. Mussolini contro gli ebrei put De Felice’s arguments in a fundamental crisis (particularly his Storia degli ebrei), mainly due to Sarfatti’s careful approach and the irrefutable character of the documentary evidence he used. It marked a turning point in this field, and also in the realm of methodology.

The reaction was an oppressive silence about the book by everyone from the powerful De Felice school. One year afterwards, De Felice published his famous Rosso e Nero (Baldini e Castoldi), which ignored Sarfatti’s book altogether. However, there was one sole exception: a review written by none other than Nicola Tranfaglia, at that point an enemy of De Felice, in La Repubblica. In any case, Sarfatti’s book had a very difficult time.

Sarfatti had managed to reconstruct in painstaking detail, often by recovering original manuscript documents and working directly with the sources, all the positions taken and the concrete acts of persecution committed by the Fascist ruler against the Jews in 1938. This included the writing of the “Manifesto of Race” (the attribution of it to Mussolini was practically unprecedented), and the careful preparation of the antisemitic laws.

The reconstruction made clear that Il Duce had personally overseen a task of enormous complexity, which Sarfatti retraced as much as possible in its various phases, step by step, using original documents and highly innovative interpretations. It is obvious how such a reconstruction would have been bothersome to a historian like De Felice, who had tried to demonstrate that Mussolini had only ‘discriminated’ against the Jews in 1938, rather than ‘persecuted’ them. In a certain sense, Sarfatti played the role of ‘revisionist’ as regards the work of De Felice, the Italian historian credited as the greatest representative of historiographical revisionism on the Peninsula.

One who took note of this was George Mosse, who had until then followed De Felice to the letter on the issue of Italian Fascism. In short order (and after the death of De Felice in May 1996), Mosse did an about face and in 1997 declared that, on the question of antisemitism and racism, he did not agree ‘all the way’ with the historian from Rieti. A few years afterwards, he confirmed that he now considered Mussolini to have been ‘a staunch racist.’

Today, almost a quarter century after the first printing, Sarfatti is publishing a new and extended edition of Mussolini contro gli ebrei, with the same publishing house (Zamorani, €28.00). It has 217 pages instead of 199, in a smaller format, in which he adds and illustrates a number of new instances of Mussolini’s antisemitism in 1938, some reconstructed and re-analyzed on the basis of new studies published in the meantime, others pieced together in a novel fashion. The volume ends with a chapter on the census of the Jews in August 1938, which does not add new information compared to the 1994 edition.

This second edition achieves the effect of demonstrating Mussolini’s antisemitic commitments, even more powerful than was known or could have been guessed. It shows that, while Mussolini worked quickly and tirelessly, the particular attention and care with which he prepared the ground for, and then put together, the new anti-Jewish laws was truly striking. Compared to 20 years ago, we now know that during 1938 he wrote (anonymous) articles on the racist campaign, he briefed the ministers that would need to act early on, one month before the “Manifesto,” and he took care to inform the Nazis, from November 1937, about the antisemitic campaign that was being prepared in Italy. He did have certain ‘experts’ by his side, whose roles are still rather obscure, and some politicians as well, but it was he who conceived and guided the whole operation, with a firm hand and sometimes extreme severity, as we can see clearly today from the way he treated Pope Pius XI and the Church, not shy of ridiculing them.

It almost goes without saying that all this industriousness could not have vanished without a trace between the end of 1937 and 1938. Mussolini acted very differently than Hitler: He was methodical, he took a long time for preparation and development, and on several occasions he experimented and sometimes turned back in his tracks, as he did in 1938, when he prepared the details of the racist measures in February, five to six months in advance of the actual date. He did the same on other issues as well: on the fundamentally important and delicate matter of corporatism, which needed years of preparations, or on the censorship of books. It is therefore plausible that the preparations would have taken a much longer time, although they were perhaps not continuous (as was also the case in 1938 after all).

Still, other research has brought forth a different interpretation of the period before the anti-Jewish laws, with preparations that go back further than 1936-38. Sarfatti himself hints at these, but focuses his analysis on the period of ‘public’ persecution. However, by now it has been amply documented that the removal of particular Jews from various positions of responsibility had been ordered starting from 1933-34. This occurred in small towns, provinces, unions, hospitals and in some cases in universities. Mussolini was able to prepare the ground with caution, weighing his actions carefully and proceeding in a stop-and-go manner, before the fateful 1938 and the earthquake he caused with the racist laws. He did more than just plot: He eliminated his targets. More evidence continues to emerge in this regard, but the overall account of this ‘prequel’ period is clear and inescapable.

Nevertheless, even with these limitations, Sarfatti’s book remains a small masterpiece of 20th-century historiography, on such a difficult and still-controversial subject as the racial laws. Nowadays, this field of historiography has become a battlefield, replete with academic infighting and the striving to further academic careers, and the quality of the research has gone into free fall. It is only natural that this book should still be in many ways a model to follow.

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