Reinterment of King Victor Emmanuel, Who Supported Fascists, Opens Old Wounds for Italy's Jews

Victor Emmanuel III is known for signing off on Mussolini's racial laws in 1938 and his 1940 decision to join World War II on the side of Nazi Germany

A coffin with the remains of Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III, draped in a flag with the House of Savoy crest, arrives at the Sanctuary of Vicoforte, December 17, 2017.
Raffaele Sasso/ANSA via AP

Seventy years after he died in exile, the remains of the king of Italy and emperor of Ethiopia, Victor Emanuel III, were brought from Egypt on Sunday for reinterment in his native land.

He was buried in the House of Savoy burial plot in Vicoforte in Italy’s Piedmont district, alongside his wife, Elena, whose remains had been moved there two days earlier from Montpellier, France. One of their descendants, Emanuele Filiberto, told the Italian press recently that he believed the right place for them to be laid to rest was in the Pantheon in Rome.

Victor Emmanuel’s 46-year reign is notorious for his agreement to appoint Benito Mussolini Italy’s prime minister in 1922. He also signed off on Mussolini’s racial laws in 1938 and Il Duce's 1940 decision to join World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. However, he never hid his hostility toward Germany in general and Nazism in particular, a hostility that deepened after Hitler visited Rome in May 1938.

Queen Elena and King Victor Emmanuel III (right) of Italy leave Vatican city after an official visit to Pope Pie XII, December 26, 1939.
AFP

On September 8, 1943, after signing an armistice with the Allies, he fled Rome for the southern port of Brindisi, leaving the capital to be occupied by the Nazis.

After the Italian people voted to form a republic and disband the monarchy in 1946, all male members of the House of Savoy were forced to leave the country. Victor Emmanuel took refuge in Alexandria, Egypt, where he died in 1947.

News that the king’s remains were being repatriated in a semi-secret operation, via an Italian Air Force jet, stirred controversy in Italy; the move was sharply criticized by both the left and the local Jewish community.

“In an era characterized by an increasing loss of memory and basic values, the return of the king’s body on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the racial laws is a source of deep concern,” said Naomi Di Segni, the head of Italy’s Jewish community, in a statement on the Jewish community's website, Moked. “It must be said loudly and clearly: Victor Emanuel III was a partner in the fascist regime whose rise and violence he did not prevent from its earliest months, and he was never tried in any court for these serious allegations.”

In response to the calls by descendents of the royal family to bury his remains in the Pantheon, she said, “No public honor should be bestowed on someone who was responsible for a decision that cast shame on an entire country. Italy cannot and must not forget.”

People pay tribute to Victor Emmanuel III and his wife Queen Elena of Montenegro at the Regina Montis Regalis Sanctuary in Vicoforte, December 18, 2017.
MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP

Giulio Marcon of the new left-wing Free and Equal party, wonder why an Italian Air Force jet was used “to return the remains of someone who didn’t object to the rise of fascism, signed the racist laws against the Jews, brought the country to disaster of war on the Nazi side and abandoned his soldiers in battle.”

Speaking to the RAI, Italy's national public broadcaster, on Sunday, historian Lucio Villari said the king could and should have acted differently, but he feared for his throne. “He doesn’t deserve to be buried in the Pantheon, but there’s no problem with his being buried in Italy,” he added. But as the late fascism researcher Renzo de Felice noted in his writings, “Without a partner in the royal palace, it’s very possible that fascism couldn’t have really come to power.”