In 1938, between August and November, new race laws were introduced in Italy. Clearly based upon the race laws in Germany, the Italian version was similar in many ways to its northern predecessor. This law is the epitome of the direction in which Italy was moving, closer to Nazi Germany and more radical and oppressive laws, and Jews were forbidden to marry non Jews, forbidden from State schools, universities, the professions and the army. As well as this Jews were prohibited from owning large businesses or large estates and they would struggle to find work in Italian business.
However, to assume that Mussolini was introducing these laws purely to satisfy Hitler would be incorrect, and although there was a significant connection there, Mussolini himself had always believed that History was about a struggle between superior and inferior races. Clearly, in his mind, the Roman Empire gave Italians a clear pass as a ‘superior race’, and Italian troops in Ethiopia and Libya would have been accompanied by frequent instances of severe racism and brutality, which would have been encouraged by Mussolini himself. An example of the appalling brutality is the use of poison gas against Ethiopians in 1935 and 1936, and thereafter imposing strict and harsh segregation laws.
Mussolini was not alone in his hatred of racial minorities – many leading members of the fascist party expressed seriously anti-Semitic views, and people such as Giovanni Preziosi and Roberto Farinacci were notoriously racist, idolising the racial policies in Nazi Germany and desiring Italy to follow the same rout. This was not however, a reflection of the party membership as a whole. About one third of Jewish men living in Italy were members of the PNF, and the fact that they were allowed to join clearly shows that anti-Semitism was not as penetrating of Italian society as it was in Nazi Germany.
It is worth mentioning that in his early years Mussolini described Hitler’s attitude to the Jewish people as ‘illogical and crazy’. Whether this was really his view or he wanted to appear moderate, only Mussolini could say, but it is nonetheless in stark contrast to the Mussolini who introduced the race laws in 1938.
It is thought that in reality few Italians believed that there was a ‘Jewish problem’ in Italy, as was described by some leading members of the fascist party, and so in order to validate their anti-Semitism the fascist press had to work hard to implant anti-Semitic prejudices upon the Italian people. By many Italians it was simply regarded as a different religion, not a different race.
One of the few amicable acts of the Catholic Church during the whole of Mussolini’s regime was their public opposition to this policy of anti-Semitism, and as a result they were significantly attacked by the Fascist press.
On the whole, despite being undeniably wrong and highly racist, the discrimination against Jews in Italy was nothing compared to what was happening in Germany, and there were no concentration camps for Jews until 1943 when the country was under control of the Germans. Economic hardship and social isolation did occur, but widespread execution and persecution did not. Mussolini later came to regret, in private, his anti-Semitic policies.