Italy’s ineffective efforts to condemn and eradicate anti-Semitism — on the soccer field, in the courts and, arguably, in society at large — expose an inconvenient truth that Americans can learn from as they grapple with violence and racism in their own past. By not squarely confronting their fascist past, Italians have allowed pervasive strains of racist ethno-nationalism to persist and fester, waiting to explode in times of social or political crisis.
Italy’s failure in dealing with its fascist history has important implications in the United States. For Americans accustomed to thinking of their country as the proverbial shining “city on a hill,” it may be tempting to think of the ghosts of Europe’s fascist past as just that: someone else’s past, far removed from the social realities of contemporary American life.
That’s a more difficult myth to maintain after Charlottesville, where white supremacists marched through the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us” — which was followed by a 182 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Charlottesville and its aftermath should serve as a cautionary tale about the enduring power, even in America, of anti-Jewish prejudice to feed irrational social anxieties and propel powerful and dangerous political movements.
So how did Italy get here? In the wake of the Nazi war of annihilation against the Jews, Europeans — some of them, at least — reckoned with their past while paving a way, they hoped, to a more humane future. Doing so meant exorcising the inner demon of anti-Semitism, that vein of religious intolerance and racial hatred that runs deeply throughout world history. It meant confronting what the political theorist Hannah Arendt described as the “outrageous fact” that anti-Semitism, which in the 1800s had been, as she put it, a “seemingly small and unimportant” phenomenon, could gain enough political force to give rise to a mass movement — Nazism — which used racial ideology to mobilize millions to wage a global war and genocide.
The difficult process of reckoning with the legacy of authoritarianism, war and political violence played out differently in the various Axis countries. Germany and Japan were forced by the victor powers to confront head-on questions of guilt and responsibility by means of war crimes trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo. In the words of historian John Dower, these prominent trials “captured the imagination of a war-weary world.” To this day, they are synonymous with the rendering of justice and accountability after war and mass violence.
No comparable international trials were held in Italy. Not only have Italians never confronted fully their fascist past, they — politicians, intellectuals, the public — have cultivated, promoted and internalized the myth of the Italians as brava gente, that is, as innately good people, and thus somehow free from culpability and moral censure for the crimes of Nazism-fascism.
As a result, amnesty and amnesia have shaped Italy’s reckoning with its fascist past. Sure, a handful of prominent Italian fascist leaders were put on trial after World War II. But the Allies focused their attention on the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials, renouncing plans for an “Italian Nuremberg.” Why? In part because they saw Italian fascism as a “lesser evil” than Nazism; as a lesser form of totalitarianism, to borrow from historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
This reinforced an emerging public memory in Italy that rejected notions of collective responsibility while valorizing and even exaggerating the role Italians had in Mussolini’s downfall. At the same time, Western leaders worried that reckoning with fascism would empower the growth of Italy’s socialist and communist parties, raising the specter that Italy, which was home to the Vatican, would shortly be drawn by choice or by force into the Soviet sphere of influence. In the end, Cold War politics took precedence over reckoning with the past.
The decision to abort the processes of transitional justice in Italy meant, in practice, that hundreds of cases of alleged war crimes and fascist violence both in Italy and beyond were ignored, never to be thoroughly investigated, documented, prosecuted or publicized. The absence of a rigorous investigation and documentation of Italian fascism has contributed to glaring gaps in the documentary record of that dark era. This, in turn, has hampered the work of historians to offer a complete picture of Italy’s fascist past.
Worse yet, it has allowed successive generations to accommodate themselves to the history and memory of fascism, to rationalize and normalize it in ways that would be unthinkable for Germans.
Selective remembering and willful forgetting about the country’s fascist past permits Italians, and others, to see Mussolini’s regime as comparatively benign when measured against the racialist and genocidal nature of Nazism. Public memory of fascist-era racial laws or Italian collaboration in the persecution of Jews minimizes Italian responsibility by casting racist anti-Semitism as a German import, something utterly foreign to the inherently “good” character of Italians.
But this is both bad memory and bad history. Italy gave birth to Europe’s first bona fide fascist movement and sustained in power the world’s first fascist regime for over 20 years. In both substance and style, Mussolini’s fascism inspired Hitler and the Nazis, offering a model for exploiting people’s fears and prejudices to seize power in democratic societies.
Look beyond the romanticized image of Italy as an enchanted land of relics, ruins and rolling green hills, and you’ll see that the country still bears the marks of its fascist past. The persistence of anti-Semitic hooliganism in Italian sport culture ought to serve as a reminder, as if we needed one, that Mussolini’s ghost haunts Italy still.
When Arendt spoke of anti-Semitism as being relatively unimportant in the 1800s, she meant that scarcely a century before the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was not yet a politically or culturally powerful force — certainly not powerful enough to mobilize millions behind a genocidal vision of a world that was free of Jews.
Yet it happened. The unthinkable became reality. In a painful moment of self-revelation, Arendt, who was a proud child of the Western intellectual tradition, confronted an ugly truth: that the deep well of prejudice can erupt in times of acute social or political crisis to haunt us in ways most people simply will fail to anticipate, or resist. With white nationalists on the march across Europe and America, it’s time we confronted that truth as well.