The Ital­ian Exe­cu­tion­ers: The Geno­cide of the Jews of Italy

Simon Levis Sul­lam; Oona Smyth and Clau­dia Patane, trans.

  • Review
By – March 21, 2019

In this rel­a­tive­ly brief book, his­to­ri­an Simon Levis Sul­lam presents a com­pelling argu­ment about the role of Italy and Ital­ians in the Holo­caust. Hereto­fore, with some excep­tions, the pre­vail­ing opin­ion on Italy’s treat­ment of Jews has been benign. In con­trast with Jews who lived in Ger­many and many coun­tries in East­ern Europe, a major­i­ty of Ital­ian Jews sur­vived; there were no wide­spread mas­sacres in the coun­try. Only” 20 per­cent of the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion was deport­ed to Nazi death camps, large­ly at the hands of the Nazi forces that occu­pied north­ern Italy after Sep­tem­ber 1943. Most Ital­ians con­sid­ered them­selves to have not been com­plic­it in the depre­da­tions car­ried out by the Nazis, and sur­viv­ing Jews have rec­og­nized the role of good Ital­ians” in their sur­vival — or so the sto­ry, which Sul­lam con­sid­ers a myth, goes. Con­sid­er­ing the breadth and depth of Sullam’s indict­ment, his lan­guage rarely ris­es above aca­d­e­m­ic neu­tral­i­ty. But this is clear­ly a book infused with moral pas­sion. As he states in his acknowl­edge­ments, this book is“first and fore­most an eth­i­cal and polit­i­cal gesture.”

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ital­ian in 2015, Sullam’s book joins a grow­ing library of accounts of the Shoah that focus on the role of ordi­nary cit­i­zens in the car­ry­ing out of geno­cide. In Sullam’s account, the round­ing up and depor­ta­tion of Ital­ian Jews was, to a greater extent than most Ital­ians know or are will­ing to rec­og­nize, the work of Ital­ians them­selves. In the post­war peri­od, for var­i­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal rea­sons, Italy’s role in the Shoah (espe­cial­ly in the so-called Repub­lic of Salò in north­ern Italy after the Allied inva­sion of the penin­su­la in 1943) was white­washed from pub­lic mem­o­ry. Anti­semitism was not con­sid­ered to be an Ital­ian trait, but the prod­uct of Mussolini’s polit­i­cal expe­di­en­cy, to cur­ry favor with his Axis part­ner, Hitler. In the post­war peri­od, few Ital­ians were tried or con­vict­ed of crimes against Jews, and many who were con­vict­ed were grant­ed amnesty. Lead­ing Fas­cist offi­cers and judi­cial offi­cials went on to hold promi­nent gov­ern­men­tal posi­tions. As David I. Kertzer asserts in the book’s fore­word, Italy has yet to come to terms with its uncom­fort­able past.”

That past, in Sullam’s reck­on­ing, includes a high degree of offi­cial Fas­cist, anti­se­mit­ic pro­pa­gan­da, and legal restric­tion inde­pen­dent of that of Nazi Ger­many; wide­spread involve­ment in iden­ti­fy­ing, round­ing up, and trans­port­ing Jews to con­cen­tra­tion camps and Nazi death camps; inform­ing against Jew­ish neigh­bors or those in hid­ing; out­right betray­al by peo­ple osten­si­bly help­ing Jews escape; and a good deal of qui­et com­plic­i­ty on the part of ordi­nary cit­i­zens who saw what was hap­pen­ing to their Jew­ish neigh­bors but said or did noth­ing. In Sullam’s view, cul­pa­bil­i­ty does not belong only to those who per­son­al­ly car­ried out arrests.”

Parts of the book’s argu­ment draw on pre­vi­ous schol­ar­ship, but there is a lot of new doc­u­men­tary and archival mate­r­i­al that sub­stan­ti­ates Sullam’s case. Most chill­ing is the account of offi­cial anti­se­mit­ic pro­pa­gan­da that iden­ti­fied Jews as a can­cer in the body politic and called for their elim­i­na­tion and exter­mi­na­tion. This was a thread in Fas­cist ide­ol­o­gy that was, for the most part, kept under wraps dur­ing the first decade and a half of Mussolini’s regime (many Jews were mem­bers of the Fas­cist par­ty), but that came into full view with the pro­mul­ga­tion of the racial law of 1938 — which Sul­lam, along with oth­ers, sees as not mere­ly a bid by Mus­soli­ni for Hitler’s favor. Also dis­turb­ing is Sullam’s depic­tion of the roundup of Jews in Venice while the rest of the city went about its busi­ness and leisure.

Sul­lam reminds us of the com­plex nature of what he calls the dynam­ics of geno­cide.” Beyond ide­o­log­i­cal belief, oth­er fac­tors moti­vat­ing indi­vid­u­als to par­tic­i­pate in geno­cide include per­son­al vendet­ta, fear of reprisal for non-par­tic­i­pa­tion, and sheer oppor­tunism. This com­plex­i­ty under­scores the dif­fi­cul­ty of pro­vid­ing a full account of these events, since doc­u­men­tary evi­dence of the actions and moti­va­tions of ordi­nary cit­i­zens is lack­ing. The role of the Catholic Church adds yet anoth­er lay­er to the Ital­ian role in the Holo­caust. Sul­lam does not dis­cuss this con­tentious issue in his account, but with the promised open­ing of the archives of Pope Pius XII in the near future, this aspect will receive renewed atten­tion and deep­en the debate over per­son­al and insti­tu­tion­al responsibility.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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