Meloni’s predecessor as FdI leader, Ignazio La Russa, declared that: “We are all heirs of Il Duce,” referring to fascist leader Benito Mussolini. But Mussolini had different views of Jews than Hitler
By MARK REGEV Published: OCTOBER 20, 2022 20:35
Like thousands of other Israelis, I spent part of the Jewish holidays enjoying Italy, where the big news was the electoral victory of far-Right leader Giorgia Meloni. She is set to be sworn in as the country’s next prime minister, and, understandably, many are apprehensive about the rise of the Italian populist Right.
One doesn’t have to go back to ancient Rome or the Italian Renaissance, to appreciate Italy’s importance on the global stage. It has Europe’s third-largest population and is its third-biggest economy. Italy is part of the G7 group of leading industrial nations and is a founding member of both the EU and NATO.
Nonetheless, Meloni’s party, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI), or Brothers of Italy, is not seen as championing Western freedoms; instead, its politics can bring back memories of a much darker period in European history.
Founded a decade ago, the FdI has roots in the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. Meloni’s party grew out of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), which, in turn, emerged as a political home for the far Right after post-war democratic Italy banned Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.
Meloni’s predecessor as FdI leader, Ignazio La Russa, declared that: “We are all heirs of Il Duce” – Duce being the title Italian fascists gave to their leader Mussolini, equivalent to the German term Fuhrer.
But the relationship between the Italian and German dictators was more than semantic. Hitler and Mussolini were the linchpins of the World War II European Axis, their partnership formalized in the 1939 Pact of Steel. The fascist seizure of power in Rome even provided inspiration for the German Nazis, predating the rise of Hitler’s regime by a decade.
Yet, just as not all communists were the same – the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin was different from Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, and China’s Mao Zedong distinct from Cuba’s Fidel Castro – so too did important differences separate Mussolini from Hitler, especially when it came to the Jews.
Overlapping with facist history
According to Yad Vashem, Mussolini “was not strongly antisemitic.” He “had close ties to Italian Jews, including several early founders and members of the fascist movement.” Mussolini was also “strongly affected” by his relationships with two Jewish women, Angelica Balabanoff and Margherita Sarfatti (the latter his lover).
After the fascist takeover in 1922, Mussolini publicly reassured the Jews of their place in Italian society, proclaiming that “the Jewish problem does not exist in Italy.”
Initially, Mussolini was critical of Nazi antisemitic “anti-scientific drivel,” even allowing some 3,000 German Jewish refugees to find sanctuary in fascist Italy, and personally intervening in the cases of specific German Jews made known to him.
BUT THERE was to be a change for the worse. Facing international condemnation from Western democracies over Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini ranted against “international Jewry.” And as his alliance with Nazi Germany solidified, Mussolini began to reposition his policy toward the Jews.
In 1938, fascist Italy adopted a set of discriminatory laws that stripped the Jews of their rights and property, imposing segregation and internal exile. But this new harsh antisemitic phase did not include the genocidal measures for which the Nazis became infamous; on the contrary, Italy continued to afford relative physical safety for its Jewish inhabitants and even for the non-Italian Jews in the areas of Europe that it occupied.
Although Berlin was never approving of Rome’s tepid approach toward “the Jewish problem,” it tolerated Italy’s behavior, respecting the sovereignty of its fascist ally.
However, in July 1943, following the Allied invasion of Italy, the Fascist Grand Council deposed Mussolini and sued for peace, and the formerly all-powerful dictator found himself imprisoned.
But, in a bold rescue operation that September, German paratroopers freed Mussolini, and Hitler placed his Axis partner at the titular head of a new German puppet state, the Italian Social Republic. With the Germans in effective control, the deportation of Italian Jews to the death camps in Poland commenced.
In the final tally, 7,680 out of 44,500 Italian Jews perished during the Holocaust. Compared with other Axis and occupied countries, the number of the murdered is proportionally modest, a testament not only to the Allies’ advance across the Italian peninsula from 1943, but also to Mussolini’s lack of enthusiasm for Hitler’s “final solution.”
(A quirk of history: Waffen-SS lieutenant colonel Otto Skorzeny, who participated in the German raid that freed Mussolini, was reportedly recruited by the Mossad in the 1960s to operate against German scientists working on Egypt’s ballistic missile program.)
The fine line between fascism and conservative politics
LIKE FRANCE’S Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Meloni vigorously denies an allegiance with fascism, preferring to present herself as a conservative-populist-nationalist in the Donald Trump mold. And unlike Marine Le Pen’s National Rally – antisemitism having been ubiquitous on the French far Right, from Edouard Drumont to Pierre Laval to Jean Marie Le Pen – Italy’s FdI does not carry significant antisemitic baggage.
Moreover, Italian hard Rightists are not new to government. Meloni herself served for more than three years as Minister for Youth in the government of Silvio Berlusconi.
She was not alone: Neo-fascist MSI and far-Right National Alliance leader, Gianfranco Fini, once said, “Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman of the 20th century,” and that “fascism has a tradition of honesty, correctness and good government.” He went on to be deputy prime minister (2001-06), foreign minister (2004-06), and president of the Italian parliament (2008-13).
In these government positions, Fini visited Israel several times and was received by prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Fini publicly apologized for fascism’s treatment of the Jews, saying, “Italians bear responsibility for what happened after 1938, when the race laws were promulgated.”
He added that Italians have “a historic responsibility, which is written in our history, and a responsibility now to take a position and ask forgiveness.”
Unlike Fini, Meloni will be prime minister, the first representative of the far Right to head an Italian government since Mussolini. But while the EU genuinely worries about Meloni’s commitment to liberal European values, and NATO is justifiably anxious about her approach toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Jewish state has no unique cause for concern.
If Israel could work with Fini, it can work with Meloni. And when detractors condemn Jerusalem for conducting business as usual with illiberal European governments, Israelis could remind those critics that they regularly urge us to embrace Palestinian leaders, who are also not particularly renowned for their commitment to liberal values.
Published Originally in The Jerusalem Post