University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The experience of Italian Jews under the racial laws of 1938

Italy’s involvement in the persecution of Jews is often overshadowed by the horrors of Nazi Germany. Chanel Parker earned a first in her dissertation titled “Inscribed Otherness: The Role of Historical Integration on Italian Jews’ Experiences and Responses to the Leggi Razziali,” where she unveiled Italy’s historically understated role in anti-Semitic prosecution, and investigated how the country has perpetuated the idea of its benevolence towards Jews. Below, Chanel details the intricacies of her research, and discusses her experiences and advice for writing the dissertation.

Primo Levi’s haunting memoirs are among the few famous reminders of Italy’s involvement in Jewish persecution. In the overbearing shadow cast by Nazi Germany, Italy has been depicted as a beacon of morality, embodying a contrasting narrative of salvation, assimilation, and righteousness. Yet, beyond the harrowing confines of Auschwitz, Levi bore witness to the insidious effects of the Leggi Razziali– a set of racial laws imposed by Mussolini’s regime, to systematically marginalise and disenfranchise Italian Jews. He was one of many victims of Italian antisemitism.

Photograph of Primo Levi as a child with his family in Rapallo, Italy, 1927

Primo Levi as a child with his family in Rapallo, Italy, 1927, CDEC digital library


In my pursuit of underrepresented avenues in Holocaust history, I encountered the Italian racial laws for the first time. How interesting, I remember thinking, that Italy has been perceived historically as a safe haven for Jews – a lesser evil – despite its concurrent implementation of a racially discriminatory campaign independent of Nazi directives. Moreover, I found myself questioning if the substantial integration of Italian Jews into fascist society could have affected the ways in which they chose to navigate the sudden onset of antisemitism. Fascism was not anti-Semitic at its roots like Nazism; perhaps Italian Jews responded uniquely to this ideological shift. This is what ultimately inspired my dissertation question.

Deciding on my question was the most difficult part. Being notoriously indecisive, I allowed myself an anticipated period of hesitation before beginning my reading in late November. Two research challenges quickly became apparent. Firstly, the subject had garnered little attention in the English language until the revisionist period in the 1980s, when historians began to reassess prevailing ideas of Italian tolerance and leniency. This meant that many of the primary sources that I encountered were in Italian, and, even upon translation, often carried an underlying propagandistic tone. Secondly, Germany stands as the epicentre of major historiography on the Holocaust and Jewish experiences, meaning that the literature documenting Italian Jews’ experiences is notably limited in comparison to German Jews, or the global Jewish community.

Setbacks like this can leave you with your head in your hands– I spent consecutive days staring at the wall, I totally get it. However, if it is any reassurance, it is also these challenges that underscore the significance of your dissertation; the objective is to fill a gap in the historical knowledge, so approaching the topic from a unique and less-explored perspective is highly indicative of a successful piece of scholarly work. For me, the scarcity of English language literature on my topic also served to reaffirm the critical importance of minority studies; I knew that I had to responsibly portray the diverse experiences of Italian Jews under the Leggi Razziali, refraining from generalisations, and acknowledging the individuality of each perspective. This depth of research required the analysis of several diary entries, letters, and transcribed interviews, recorded in the works of leading scholars such as Renzo De Felice, Alexander Stille, and Joshua Zimmerman, among others.

What became evident from these diaries, was that the historical integration of Italian Jews resulted in distinct traumas and responses when the Leggi Razziali was implemented in 1938, emphasising the importance of assessing Italy’s history independently from the wider Jewish experience. Italian Jews’ widespread prevailing hope in Mussolini, and their struggle to relate to the Jewish aspect of their identity, influenced the ways in which they reacted to anti-Semitic legislation, causing many fascist Jews to comply with measures, with the intention of reasserting their loyalty to the regime. Italian Jews’ coping mechanisms also exhibited considerable variation depending on socio-economic status. Notably, lower-class Jews experienced comparatively less impact, primarily due to their pre-existing financial impoverishment, strong religious adherence, and infrequent affiliation with fascist ideologies. Moreover, feelings of isolation, confusion, and betrayal were particularly heightened for Italian Jews, since antisemitism had not always been a part of Italy’s fascist state, which was not the case for Germany, like other European countries.

Antisemitic cartoon published in "La Difesa della Razza" 15 November 1938 on the anti-semitic laws, Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Milan: "Jews cannot provide military service. Jews cannot exercise the office of guardian. Jews cannot own national defense interests. Jews cannot own land and buildings. Jews may not have Aryan domestics in their households. Expulsion of foreign Jews."Translation of right panel: "There can be no Jews in military and civilian administration. There can be no Jews in the Party. There can be no Jews in the provincial and communal bodies. There can be no Jews in Parastatal Bodies. There can be no Jews in the banks. There can be no Jews in the insurance company. Jews are excluded from the Italian school."

Cartoon published in “La Difesa della Razza”, 15 November 1938 on the anti-semitic laws, Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, Milan.  It states that Jews were prohibited from military service, acting as guardians, owning defence interests, owning land or buildings, and from having Aryan domestics in their households.  Foreign Jews were to be expelled.  Jews were prohibited from all aspects of government, banks, insurance companies and universities.

While there is so much to be said about Italian-Jewish experiences, the most important conclusion to be drawn is that the unique traumas of Italian Jews do not, of course, diminish the unique traumas of Jews of other nationalities; each community’s history is valid, and deserving of recognition. I placed significant stress on myself to address every facet of my topic comprehensively, however the reality is that the constraints of a 10,000 word limit inevitably leave some areas unexplored. While this realisation can be disheartening, it is essential to focus on delivering a thorough and coherent analysis within the given parameters. Refine your arguments, prioritise your most crucial points, and cut out anything that you don’t need- you will be completely fine.

I wish I considered myself equipped to give advice such as “start early,” and “do a little bit every day,” but that has never been my work style. If you thrive on the adrenaline of a last-minute deadline like I do, then ensuring that you have a rich repository of detailed notes and references is paramount. As you deepen your understanding of your topic through extensive reading, you are unknowingly laying the foundations that will enable the natural and effortless articulation of your argument at a later date. I sincerely can’t write well without extreme pressure, so this is what completely saved my degree. More importantly, cliché as it is, ensuring that your topic ignites a passion within you is crucial for creating compelling work. The dissertation is a lengthy process, but it can be incredibly academically rewarding; aim to approach it in a way that ensures you can reflect on it with satisfaction, not resentment. Choose a topic that really interests you, and I promise that it’s not as scary as it seems.

Good luck, you’ve got this.

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