Saturday, February 9, 2013

From H-Net: Simon Levis Sullam on Italy and the Holocaust

I am a subscriber to H-Net for a number of threads.   This article below was sent in by its author, Simon Levis Sullam.  Interested readers may wish to subscribe to this excellent news service here.

Sullam's article in an interesting and, I believe, important context-setting exercise for our continued study of Pope Pius XII. He was a Roman and an Italian who shared many of the social and cultural attitudes of the time.  Sullam's thesis that the largely accepted theory that Italy's behaviour during the Holocaust as it was implemented in the country between 1943 and 1945 should be challenged with historical rigour is to be applauded.  He cites several historians whose work sets out compelling reasons to dismantle the mythologies surrounding Italian involvement in the implementation of the Final Solution without neglecting the genuinely heroic role played by many ordinary Italians who put their lives at risk to help save their Jewish neighbours.

Simon Levis Sullam

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The following is a piece I wrote for this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day
(27 January).  I sent it recently to various Italian newspapers. It deals
with the Italian involvement in the Holocaust and specifically with the
use of the category of genocide in writing the history of the period
1943-45. This approach, in my view, can allow the historian to say - and
should bring the Italian (and not only Italian) citizen to consider -
that, contrary to wide-spread common knowledge, ordinary Italians were
indeed involved as direct actors (co-protagonists) in the destruction of
the Jews of Europe. Despite many important books and much research
available today, I believe the story of ordinary Italians during the
Holocaust (ordinary men and women, in Christopher Browining's sense)
remains to be written in much greater detail.

Simon Levis Sullam

January 27, Remembrance Day: ordinary Italians and genocide 1943-45,

by Simon Levis Sullam*

What is a genocide and how does it occur? This is a question that we
Italians can and should ask as Remembrance Day (January 27th) approaches
again this year.  We should ask ourselves if what we remember and how we
remember is enough. And, we should take into consideration the sense of
saturation that this institutional recurrence can provoke in some of us. 
Can we try to ask some new historiographical questions this year, seventy
years after the beginnings of the deportation from Italy?  Is the category
of genocide useful for the historical interpretation of the Holocaust in
Italy, and specifically of the Italian participation in the deportations
and extermination of Jews in 1943-45?

In recent years the best historiography on the Holocaust has been
developing in growing relationship with research on genocides (from the
Armenian to the Cambodian genocide, from Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia).
This has allowed us to compare, and at the same time, to better define and
contextualize  the “historical singularity of Auschwitz.” It has also cast
new light on the different national contexts and on the dynamics in which
the “Final Solution” was carried out: to compare does not mean to dwell on
similarities but to highlight specificities.

Twenty-five years ago, the historian of Fascism Renzo De Felice said in an
interview with Corriere della Sera, that Italy was outside  the “shadow of
the Holocaust” – and this phrase became notorious. Such a view – still
largely held as credible among the general public and even among
historians – can hardly be considered tenable today, especially if
Remembrance Day, as established by Italian law in 2000, is truly to make
sense. De Felice wrote, “Italian Fascism is immune from the charge of
genocide.” With this precise formula he meant to exclude not only Italian
liability, but even Fascist responsibility in the Holocaust.

The first and strongest refutation of De Felice’s position came a few
years later with the publication in 1991 of the monumental book, Il Libro
della Memoria (The Book of Memory), edited by Liliana Picciotto for the
CDEC Foundation (Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica
Contemporanea). The Libro della memoria provided a list of names and
biographical information about the individual fate of approximately 8,000
Jews who were victims of the Holocaust in Italy. The book also contained
precise details on the arrest of Jews carried out by Italians between 1943
and 1945. In 1995 David Bidussa drew on these data – and the numbers until
now neglected, revealed that the arrests were mainly carried out by
Italians – for his short but influential study, aimed precisely at
deconstructing from a historical perspective “the myth of the good
Italian”. Drawing on, among other evidence, the number of arrests in
Picciotto’s work, Bidussa revealed a part of Italy’s history – the period
of Fascist extremism and collaborationism of the Republic of Salò, from
1943 to 1945 – that resulted not only in the suppression of the Jews’
rights, but also in the direct Italian participation in the extermination.

Since 1988, Michele Sarfatti’s research on Mussolini’s racism and on
Fascism and the Jews, together with a series of studies on the Italian
path to anti-Semitism (which still continue), have helped rewrite a
history that clearly did not begin only in 1938, at German instigation,
nor can it be understood reductively as the “Nazification” of Italian
Fascism, as some also recently still claim.  It would be enough in this
regard to turn one’s attention, as some historians have been doing for a
while, to the history of Italian colonialism, which began well before
Fascism, so that we can understand that we Italians have had no need of
instructions or models when we chose to use violence.

But what can we achieve today by analyzing the deportations of Italian
Jews between 1943 and 1945, the arrest and imprisonment of thousands of
young and old people, women and children, within the context of the
international historiography on genocide?

First of all, historians concur today that genocides do not take place
exclusively in colonial or ex-colonial contexts or in conquered
territories. We cannot imagine them as taking place only in distant
places, for different reasons unfamiliar to us (Cambodia or Rwanda, or
even the Armenian-Turkish border or Tito’s decaying regime with the rising
inter-ethnic conflict in post-1989 Yugoslavia). Indeed, there is an
intrinsic relationship between intimacy and genocide: genocide actually
strikes our next-door neighbors – thus it can involve us and it does
involve us all – as Jan T. Gross has shown in his book, Neighbors (2001),
dedicated to the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish
compatriots in 1941, before the arrival of the Germans.

But on the Italian territory, one might object, no massacre took place;
not at the hands of Italians. This is generally true if we consider only
physical extermination by mass shooting – as in the first phase of the
Holocaust in Eastern Europe (readers may recall on this, for instance,
Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, 1996) – or the industrial
extermination in gas chambers that took place in the heartland and at the
hands of the most civilized, (Judeo-)Christian, Europe.

However, historians of genocide such as Donald Bloxham or Jacques Semelin
have explained that, in addition to detention in prison camps and
consignment of people in the hands of “willing executioners” (or even
consignment to an Eichmann-style “desk executioner”), preexisting behavior
can become genocidal acts, especially in the context of war.  This
behavior includes the identification, arrest and separation of groups on
the basis of ethnicity, religion, social difference or other criteria (and
let’s not neglect perceived physical or mental differences, one of the
first criterion for the extermination policy that started the Holocaust in
Europe).  Acts of this nature clearly concerned the tens, hundreds,
perhaps thousands of Italians who contributed to the design, organization
and implementation, on political, bureaucratic and police bases, of the
“Final Solution of the Jewish question” in Italy from 1943 to 45, after
the Italian Social Republic had declared the Italian Jews “foreigners” and

Ordinary Italians in the police, the armed forces and among the volunteers
of the revived Fascist Party, but also ordinary citizens who were simple
collaborators and informers (as Mimmo Franzinelli documented in an essay
included in La Shoah in Italia, 2010, 2 volumes by various authors), got
up one morning in the autumn of 1943 or the winter, or the summer of 1944,
shaved or did their make-up (there were women executioners directly
involved), drank their coffee, greeted their families and then went out to
hunt for Jews who had been their next-door neighbors, their classmates,
their colleagues (perhaps their friends?). They seized property,
imprisoned Jews, transferring them to transit camps and delivering them,
finally, into German hands. They sent these Jews, not to some “unknown
destination,”  but consciously, to certain death, as Liliana Picciotto
began to shown in her L’alba ci colse come un tradimento (Dawn Caught Us
As a Betrayal, 2011).

Although it is a duty to remember the thousands of Italians who saved
their fellow Jewish citizens, individual stories of ordinary Italians who
participated in the genocide – Italy’s history inside the shadow of the
Holocaust – remains to be written. It is a process that, in many ways,
began at the very earliest with the promulgation of the Racial Laws in the
autumn of 1938, thus involving thousands of Italian “executioners,” even
if what eventually developed out of those laws was not already written
into them.

This is why we commemorate Remembrance Day and – I write as a historian
first and foremost to my fellow historians: the seventy years since those
events and the twelve years since the promulgation of Remembrance Day in
Italy have not been enough to show us the urgency and necessity of writing
that particular history; the history  of “ordinary” Italians and genocide:
our history.

Translated by Paul Arpaia, Indiana University of Pennsylvania/Editor of
H-Italy, and Alessandro Cassin, Primo Levi Centre, New York.

*Simon Levis Sullam teaches modern fistory at the Ca ‘Foscari University
of Venice and is the author, among other works, of  L’archivio
antiebraico. Il linguaggio dell’antisemitismo moderno (Laterza 2009) and
the co-editor of Storia della Shoah (UTET 2006-2007) and La Shoah in
Italia (2010)).

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