On this day, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels records in his journal his contempt for the Italians’ treatment of Jews in Italian-occupied territories. “The Italians are extremely lax in their treatment of Jews. They protect Italian Jews both in Tunis and in occupied France and won’t permit their being drafted for work or compelled to wear the Star of David.”
Joseph Goebbels had made the persecution, and ultimately the extermination, of Jews a personal priority from the earliest days of the war, often recording in his diary such statements as: “They are no longer people but beasts.” “Their destruction will go hand in hand with the destruction of our enemies.” “[T]he Jews… are now being evacuated eastward. The procedure is pretty barbaric and is not to be described here more definitely. Not much will remain of the Jews.” It was on his recommendation that all Jews in occupied Paris be forced to wear a yellow star on the left side of their coats or jackets in order to identify and humiliate them.
His vituperative anti-Semitism, which included blaming the war itself on the Jews in a screed published in the German magazine Das Reich, could not be contained within the boundaries of Germany. He expected the same of his allies. But, truth be told, in the earliest days of fascism, Mussolini had denied any truth to the idea of a “pure” race and had counted Jews among his close colleagues-and was even a Zionist!
But with Italy’s failing fortunes militarily, Mussolini needed to stress the Italians’ “superiority” in some sense, and so began to mimic many of the racial and anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazis. Nevertheless, Mussolini never had the stomach—or the conviction—for the extremes of Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler. And certainly the majority of the Italian people never subscribed to the growing anti-Semitic rhetoric of the regime. In fact, the Italians refused to deport Jews from Italy-or from Italian-occupied Croatia or France-to Auschwitz.
The majority of Italians’ courage to reject the worst of fascist ideology—its anti-Semitism—remains one bright spot in Italy’s otherwise appalling World War II record.