Italy’s Universities to Apologize for anti-Jewish Laws That Aped Nazi Germany

It’s the first time an Italian institution is taking responsibility for the Racial Laws, as Italy still lags behind countries like Germany and France in admitting its role in the Holocaust

The Via Panisperna boys outside Rome University's Physics Institute on Via Panisperna, circa 1930: Oscar D’Agostino, left, Emilio Segrè, Edoardo Amaldi, Franco Rasetti and Enrico Fermi.
Bruno Pontecorvo / Wikimedia Commons

MILAN — On September 5, 1938, Victor Emmanuel III, then-king of Italy, signed the infamous Racial Laws that excluded Jews from public life in fascist Italy. Academia was the first place hit. “Within a week, Jews were kicked out of schools and universities; it took a bit longer to expel them from the public administration, the army and hospitals,” says historian Anna Foa.

Eighty years later, Italian universities are apologizing for this. On September 20, the deans of all 83 major Italian universities will gather in Pisa to apologize to the country’s Jewish community.

The location was chosen because the Racial Laws were signed in the town of the leaning tower. King Victor Emmanuel happened to be in the city’s outskirts, where he owned a vacation home.

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This is “the first time that an Italian institution is officially taking responsibility for the Racial Laws,” notes historian Guri Schwarz, a member of the event’s scientific committee. Unlike what happened in France and Germany, he says, Italian authorities still haven’t taken full responsibility for the persecution of Jews.

At least 1,175 Jewish academics were swiftly expelled from Italian universities and other cultural institutions, wrote historian Ilaria Pavan in an Italian-language book she co-authored on the Racial Laws at universities.

In pre-Holocaust Italy, only 0.1 percent of the population was Jewish, but Jews were far better represented in the academic world. Pavan estimates that on the eve of 1938, about 7 percent of professors at Italian universities were Jewish.

“For Italian Jews, education has traditionally been a means of emancipation,” she told Haaretz. “It was a process begun in the last two decades of the 1800s.”

The expulsion of Jews, she adds, could be described as “cultural and scientific suicide.” Italian universities expelled, for example, three academics destined to win the Nobel prize: physicist Emilio Segrè, who moved to the United States and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1959; microbiologist Salvador Luria, who also moved to America and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969; and neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who remained in Italy, survived the Holocaust and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

A father of the nuclear age, Enrico Fermi, also left Italy because of the Racial Laws; his wife was Jewish. Fermi, who was already a Nobel laureate, moved to the United States, where he created the world’s first nuclear reactor.

In fact, the so-called Via Panisperna boys, the group of young scientists in Rome who pioneered the study of neutrons, was broken up because of the Racial Laws. Their discoveries would become instrumental in the construction of the first atomic bomb.

It’s hard to quantify how many Jewish students were expelled. The Racial Laws banned new Jewish students, but allowed those already enrolled to continue until graduation. Still, many decided to move abroad because of the anti-Semitic climate; in the end only four Jews graduated under the Racial Laws. One was Primo Levi, the author of the memoir “If This Is a Man," also known as "Survival in Auschwitz,” while another was Elio Toaff, the future chief rabbi of Rome.

As Schwarz puts it, there is still a tendency in Italy to dismiss the Racial Laws as if they were something the fascist regime didn’t take seriously and were introduced only to please Italy’s German ally. But actually they were thoroughly enforced, and it was Mussolini who pushed for them without receiving any request from Hitler.

True, the fascist regime wasn’t particularly anti-Semitic in its early days; in the early ‘30s, Mussolini mocked Hitler for his anti-Semitism and dismissed the very concept of race as “unreal.”

But as Foa points out, the 1938 anti-Jewish laws were more the result of Italian fascism’s own descent toward racism than its desire to please the Germans. “It was the result of colonialism in East Africa,” she says.

Italian fascism developed its own racist ideology to justify its treatment of the indigenous people of the Horn of Africa in today’s Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, where the Italians committed several atrocities such as the 1937 Addis Ababa massacre. That year the fascists introduced an apartheid system separating blacks and whites based on the concept of racial superiority.

“It proved to be a powerful tool for the regime, so they decided to extend it to the Italian peninsula,” Foa says. Because Jews were the most easily recognizable minority at the time, they had to be the target.

Foa concludes that Italy’s atrocities in Africa and the persecution of Jews are more intertwined than people, including some Jews, tend to think. These events, she says, are “a reminder that there cannot be racism without anti-Semitism, and vice versa.”