The night in which Mussolini gave a turning point to the Jewish question

Giorgio Fabre is a historian who is guided in his work by a great civil and political passion and by the freedom of those who have no constraints or compensation of any kind. However, not free from the rules of the trade in ascertaining the truth, indeed so dominated by philological scruple in the search for truth that we often see him stop in front of the interpretation of the sources and warn his reader by involving him in a kind of preventive self-criticism. An attentive and sagacious explorer, he knows how to move with extraordinary mastery between the deposits of the central archive of the State, those of the Ministries and those of the periodical press, as shown in his new volume: The great council against the Jews 6-7 October 1938: Mussolini, Balbo and the regime (il Mulino «Historical criticism», pp. 320, euro 26.00). Readers who follow him are faced with new proof of how his research makes progress in the knowledge of issues and problems of Italian society and politics in the contemporary age.
That of the racist turn of the fascist regime and its premises in the career of the “duce” and in the logic of the alliance with the Church and the monarchy, is certainly no small matter in a country that has had no Nuremberg court and has been able to emerge from fascism and the tragedy of war without a real reckoning – which we experience every day today. In this area, Giorgio Fabre’s research has led to a substantial change in the state of knowledge. Think of how in the book The register (2018), written with Annalisa Capristo, brought the large crowd of unknown and forgotten victims of the racial laws out of the shadows while until then the attention of studies had focused almost exclusively on the elite of university teachers.
This time one of those who are usually defined as lucky archival finds – in reality, the prize for the pertinacity and sagacity of the researcher – has made available to him the dossier of the «Declaration on race» which Mussolini drafted and had mimeographed for submission to the members of the Grand Council of Fascism. Which happened in a nocturnal meeting that began at 10 in the evening on October 6, 1938 and lasted all night. The story was known, Renzo De Felice had studied it since 1961. But what Fabre discovered and used is a complete dossier of that night’s debate. The use he made of it is revealed here as careful and acute. It is clear from his pages how the question presented itself in Mussolini’s eyes at an advanced stage of the anti-Jewish campaign but still with great uncertainty about its possible outcomes. There was a personal risk that the boss ran and from which he wanted to be safe. This nocturnal meeting was the occasion chosen by him to personally clarify his ideas. The occasion was created by him to find the bond with the supreme body of the party, that is, with the leaders who guided collective opinion through their newspapers. This is the starting hypothesis that Fabre verifies and confirms by analyzing the way in which the mimeograph was corrected and modified by Mussolini by listening to the opinions of his interlocutors.
The source reveals itself to the eyes of the historian with an unpredictable wealth of traces that make it almost a living recording of that nocturnal debate and subsequent outcomes. Those that speak to him are minimal traces, barely perceptible signs of the displacement or elimination of a word, the results of a work that was to continue not only until the morning, in the immediacy of sending the text to the official party newspaper but also in following.
On all the detailed questions discussed that night, Mussolini showed himself to be flexible and attentive to understanding, yielding and capable of adjusting the shot. And yet a plea addressed to Donna Rachele by the Italian wife of the Romanian Jewish doctor Amerigo Nugel was enough to make him change the terms already established by law. of the law.
As for the text he had prepared, Mussolini wanted to seize it, make it his own. And this is felt in the way he proceeds, continually retouching it, defining its nuances, adjusting every adverb or adjective. Giorgio Fabre’s analysis is very careful in following the different hypotheses of application of the racial legislation. Here it is worth noting at least his observation on the fundamental discovery that Mussolini made precisely during that night. He had started from the problem of how to define what they were the Italian Jews. A factual reality that is complicated and difficult to reduce into legal measures. But then he discovered that the reality problem could be circumvented by shifting the point of view. He was enough to think of as the Jew could be considered. “With the ‘considered’ – notes Fabre – the classification and the ‘racial’ definition (ie biological and at the same time ‘cultural’) would have been discretionary”. In this way it was possible to define complicated problems such as those of direct children of mixed marriage, if and when they were to be considered Jews. And here the difference between the path taken by fascism and the Nuremberg laws of which Mussolini was able to get news is revealed. In Nazi Germany, Aryanism and Jewishness were indelible characteristics of race. So much so that to root out the Jew we went back to our grandparents. Not so in the Italian and fascist case, at least at this date. The existence of a “pure Aryan Italian race” depended on characters not of blood but of collective historical and cultural evolution. And for Mussolini it was the recognition of the success of the transformation carried out by his fascist regime with the strategy of education and regimentation of young people aimed at creating, as the fascist songs said, a “strong people”.
So even to discriminate against the Jews, that is, to admit them to remain as Italians, one could play freely in the choice of times and measures. And it was in the relationship with the sympathies and ties of the members of the Grand Council with this or that province of their power (Balbo’s Libya, the Armed Forces – again Balbo, De Bono, Federzoni) that had to be negotiated. Without forgetting the Church, with a papacy worried about the issue of mixed marriages. But among the things that Mussolini learned on that night, that of the passage from the reality of the Jew to his possibility of being defined as such remains eminent. Gentile’s idealism had taught something, giving the fascist political power the possibility of playing as it wished with its categories of definition of Jewishness.
And meanwhile in that nocturnal discussion it was possible to discover that someone had carried on with the work. The Minister of National Education Giuseppe Bottai arrived there after having prepared schools and universities for a reopening without Jews. The king had signed the decree in September while he was enjoying his holidays in San Rossore. Thus the beginning of the courses began with the collective experience of empty benches and canceled professorships.
There were those who disappeared without a trace, such as Professor Enrica Calabresi, professor of zoology. She had become a free lecturer for the value of her discoveries and she had obtained the opportunity to teach a course at the University of Florence, then subtracted from her for a baronial arrogance. She disappeared retreating into silence and solitude. When they came to arrest her to take her to Auschwitz, she was ready: a vial of poison gave her freedom.
Only recently has his story been reconstructed. Since then her memory has become widespread in the cities where she lived, from Ferrara where she was born to Florence and Pisa. Her name is linked to several streets and also to a Florentine gimko biloba tree. Sign of different times. Maybe better? Let’s stop at «different». Last year, on February 14, 2022, a work dedicated to her memory by the artist Giovanni Bonfiglioli was vandalized by unknown persons.

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