Twenty-two years ago, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen overturned the applecart in Holocaust studies, arguing provocatively in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners that the German people participated avidly in the Nazis’ systematic slaughter of their Jewish countrymen.
Goldhagen’s thesis, which fueled a fiery debate over the responsibility of everyday Germans for the Holocaust, now has an Italian analogue, as Simon Levis Sullam contends in a new book that thousands of members of the fascist regime—from ideologists to carabinieri to desk clerks—actively took part in the genocide of Italy’s Jewish population.
In The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy, Levis Sullam, a historian at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, draws on significant new archival research to present his revisionist account:
From 1943 to 1945, the Italians who declared the Jews “foreigners” and “enemies,” segregating and persecuting them on the basis of their race, hunting them house by house, arresting them, imprisoning them, ransacking their goods and belongings, transporting them and holding them in concentration camps and transit camps, and finally handing them over to the Germans, were, in fact, responsible for genocide.
The hinge moment arrived in September 1943, when, after a brief non-fascist interregnum following the (temporary) ouster of Mussolini, the Nazis seized the northern half of the country and helped establish the Italian Social Republic (also known as the Repubblica di Salò), whose Italian intellectuals, including most notably Giovanni Preziosi, “laid the ideological and propagandistic groundwork necessary to prepare, justify, and support the conflict of civil war and participation” in the Holocaust.
But Levis Sullam attributes the genocide of Italy’s Jews less to the Salò government’s grand elevated theory than to its quotidian bureaucratic practice. He reckons that Italians were responsible for 2,210, or roughly half, of all arrests and deportations of Jews, most on their own but some in conjunction with German officers. Yet even the remainder of arrests, which the Germans alone executed, universally relied on “the help of information and organizational support from the Italians”—most prominently the 1938 census that identified the names and addresses of all Jews residing in the country.
Levis Sullam’s recounting of mass arrests in Venice, Rome, and Florence, followed by deportation to the Italian-administered concentration camp in Fossoli di Carpi (a way station to Auschwitz), is appropriately chilling. He skillfully juxtaposes heartrending tales of betrayal and family separation with the impassive cruelty of Italian bureaucrats—and even nastier civilian informers. He quotes one Italian historian’s assessment that “the hunt for the Jew was part of an animus, a deeply internalized worldview that reduced the enemy...into a pariah, investing the holder of power with the right of life and death without appeal.”
Levis Sullam concludes by revisiting the historiography of Italian wartime conduct, finding that the reigning paradigm adds insult to injury by celebrating the righteous gentiles within the Italian resistance while whitewashing the perpetration of genocide by thousands of their fellow citizens. Nearly 10,000 fascist apparatchiks received a postwar amnesty in the spirit of national reconciliation, a process that spawned what has been called the “myth of the good Italian.”
Yet even as Italian Jews themselves sought to downplay the devastation wreaked by their brethren, and as organizations like Yad Vashem in Israel formally praised the collective resistance of the Italian people, it has become necessary to “plac[e] the executioners at the forefront” and conduct a comprehensive “examination of the misdeeds of the past.”
Some aspects of Levis Sullam’s analysis remain speculative. He forthrightly acknowledges that any examination of the executioners’ motivations “will remain mere hypotheses, questions lacking definitive answers, tentative queries with verbs used in the conditional tense.”
Of course, the tragedy in Italy pales in comparison to the ruination of the communities of Eastern Europe; some 6,000 Italian Jews perished, representing 10 percent of the country’s total Jewish population and only one-tenth of one percent of the Jews who were lost to the Shoah. Although there was a surprising thoroughness and efficiency to the efforts of many Italians to solve the “Jewish problem,” the fascist regime did not act with the same urgency as the Nazis did.
Still, the Italian Jewish community never recovered from the depredations; there are fewer Jews in the country today than before the war. And Levis Sullam’s story is relevant to today in another way. Anti-Semitism is again swirling in Europe. In Poland, disturbing legislation was enacted earlier this year sharply limiting speech about local and national participation in the Holocaust. At a time when some would prefer to keep ugly facts in the shadows, it is good that Levis Sullam and scholars like him keep working to shine the light of truth.