In the late summer of 1942 a small group of Italian diplomats and senior officers decided to save the lives of a few thousand Jews. The Jews, mostly from Croatia, had fled to the parts of Yugoslavia which the Italian Army occupied during 1941 and had since that time lived in peace under the protection of the Royal Italian Army. They had run from the unsystematic butchery of the Croatian Fascists, the Ustasi, but by the middle of 1942 they were threatened with the systematic extermination planned for them under the Nazi ‘new order’ in Europe. In August of 1942 the German Government formally asked the Italian Government to hand them over. Mussolini agreed; a handful of Italian diplomats and generals said no.
Such is the tangled and perplexing sequence of events that Jonathan Steinberg undertakes to unravel. He adds that the same story occurred in Greece, and subsequently in South-Eastern France following the Allied landings in North Africa and the Axis takeover of what had previously been the Unoccupied Zone. For 13 months the Italians held firm. ‘Until the sudden armistice on 8 September 1943 ended the Axis partnership, no Jew under the protection of the Italian forces was ever surrendered to the Germans, the French, the Croatians or anybody else.’
Steinberg has plunged into a mass of documents and come up with a convincing explanation. No easy task: the high-ranking Italians in question covered their tracks; they behaved like conspirators. But one crucial file – the one concerning the Jews in Croatia – was saved from destruction when a foreign ministry official hid it in his house, thinking ‘it would be good if somebody in the future were to know that we had done something good in our lives.’ On those last few words, a large part of the explanation hinges. How and why the conspirators behaved as they did is therefore Steinberg’s ‘main story’. Why, he asks, ‘did senior figures in the Fascist regime risk their careers to save Jews who were not even Italian?’ Behind this first question, he adds, lurks a second and even more obscure one: ‘Why did the Germans let them’ do it?
The first question is not new to historical scholarship. It has frequently been touched on, and it has been discussed at some length in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and Susan Zuccotti’s The Italians and the Holocaust. But Steinberg finds unsatisfactory the explanation in terms of national character that such works offer. To say, as Arendt does, that saving Jews ‘was in Italy the outcome of the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilised people’ is, he suggests, patently inadequate. The great contribution his book makes is in going beyond the familiar categories of Italian tradition to an examination – sociological, psychological, ideological – of his protagonists’ sub-culture.
One day in March 1943, Mussolini, who more than once flip-flopped on the issue, was taxed by the German Ambassador for his countrymen’s lack of co-operation in the holocaust. The Duce replied that ‘his generals’ were not behaving with malevolence but as ‘a logical consequence of their way of thought’. Evidently he did not go into detail: it is Steinberg’s task to elaborate. A curious mix of ‘prestige, humanity and self-interest’, he finds, ‘fused in the Italian determination’ not to go along. Perhaps primarily ‘it had become a matter of ... honour ... the last shred of honour left’ in a war Italy was losing. And, most curiously, this resistance ‘was carried out by people who were ... often precisely the same people who ... tortured innocent Slovene and Croatian civilians’. There was apparently ‘a border beyond which they could not and would not go’.
‘Like the peasants in the Italian South and organised workers in Fiat plants, soldiers lived in a world of their own ... insulated ... from the regime ... There were no purges of senior generals nor tests of true Fascist sympathy ...
The traditional liberal, Masonic, philo-Semitic culture of the Royal Italian Army provided a framework within which a conspiracy to save Jews ... would be applauded ... Hence when [General Mario] Roatta said, “the thing is just not possible,” he could count on an officer corps which had already, loudly and frequently, said the same thing.’
‘Liberal’? ‘Masonic’? ‘Philo-semitic’? Such a string of adjectives does not sound like the generals (or diplomats, for that matter) with whom most of us are familiar. But in this regard Italy, as Steinberg underlines, was a special case. Loyal to the King rather than to the Duce, mindful of the fact that their country’s unification had come about in opposition to the power of the Church, the nation’s top brass cultivated a form of in-group snobbery virtually unique in the Western world. Here alone, as far back as the early 20th century, one could find generals (and even an admiral) who were Jews. So long as the Jew in question subscribed to an undefined but perfectly clear set of values, he need fear no prejudice. Indeed, his comrades-in-arms might sometimes be unaware that he was a Jew at all. The upper ranks of the military and of diplomacy took their cue from the House of Savoy. Among Europe’s monarchs, the Italian kings ranked as both the least attached to religion and the most favourable to the Jews. And Italy’s Jews (at least the more conventional of them) responded with passionate loyalty to the ruling house. This much needs to be said in defence of a series of kings whose reputation Denis Mack Smith’s recent Italy and its Monarchyhas left in tatters.
However ‘insulated’, Steinberg’s conspirators well knew how to operate within the guidelines of Italy’s mainstream culture. They knew that ‘the best tactic available’ was ‘to do nothing in the most officious possible way’. Still more: ‘the disorder, disobedience and menefreghismo (I-could-not-care-less-ism) of Italian public life made the specific disobedience in the Jewish question easier’ – to which Steinberg adds the traditional ‘slyness (furberia), the all-pervasive corruption ... and the casual carelessness’ of officialdom. Thus Italy’s minor vices facilitated the major virtue of humanity. (In Germany it was just the reverse. There inhumanity rested on and could appeal to ‘a system of secondary virtue: cleanliness, punctuality, efficiency, dedication, honesty, sense of duty and responsibility’ – enough in itself to explain how Hitler managed to achieve the ‘total state’ that eluded Mussolini’s grasp.)
By a fateful concatenation of events, in November of 1942 the humanitarian and the realistic reasons for saying no to the holocaust converged. In that month the Italians ‘got hard evidence’ that the Nazis’ gas chambers and incinerators were going full blast. By that same month ‘Rommel was in retreat in the Western Desert, the Allies had landed in Morocco and Algeria, the Wehrmacht had begun to fight the battle for Stalingrad, and the Italians faced for the first time the certainty that they at least would lose the war ... If Rome had to seek a separate peace with the Allies, it would be a good idea not to have helped the Germans to murder Jews. It was, perhaps, not an ace up a sleeve but might be a joker.’
Ten months later, after Mussolini’s fall, the Italians did indeed make such a peace. But its results were totally different from what the ‘conspirators’ had calculated. German occupation of the peninsula spelled a second phase of the war, crueller than the first, a conflict which swallowed up diplomats, generals and Jews alike. The élite figures suffered broken careers – the Jews suffered shipment east into the grisly depths. That so many of them survived is a tribute to the humane sentiments of the ordinary Italians who shielded them: on this point Arendt and Zuccotti are quite right. (And for the purposes of comparison one might add that at both the official and the popular level the French record leaves little reason for retrospective pride: in their Vichy France and the Jews, Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton have documented how after 1942 in the South-Eastern departments the Italian occupiers were obliged to fend off not only the Nazis’ round-up but that of the French police as well.)
So much for the ‘main story’, the story of Italian élite behaviour. The second question – why, despite constant protests, the Germans permitted such sabotage of the holocaust – Steinberg finds easier to answer. He discovers the key in the relations between Hitler and Mussolini. The Führer, it appears, had one (and possibly only one) soft spot. He actually ‘felt affection’ for his opposite number, the Duce. In the paranoid world he inhabited, he cultivated with Mussolini ‘a kinship shared by nobody else’. Hence he gave orders that the Italians should not be humiliated, reproached for their defeats, or unduly taxed for their failure to shape up to Nazi racial ideals – a slackness to which the Duce himself in the end succumbed. A strange line of reasoning, perhaps – but I know none better.
If Steinberg had deployed his argument in the sequence outlined above, I would have no quarrel with it. Yet his book does present a problem – a problem of technique rather than of substance. Apologising for his violation of the historian’s conventional procedure, and alleging the complexity of his data, Steinberg has split his account into two parts: 1. Events, 2. Explanations. This bifurcation strikes me as mistaken on two grounds: first, it is unnecessary; second, it lengthens and confuses what might better have been a short and single-track book. I say ‘unnecessary’ because the first part contains most of what the reader needs to know, and the additional interpretation required (the more important passages of which I have cited) could easily have been fitted into the consecutive story. Instead we find diplomats and generals behaving in an odd fashion before we reach an analysis of the sub-culture to which they belonged.
As for the lengthening and confusion, three examples may suffice. Steinberg’s chronicle of events in Croatia is alike exhaustive and bewildering: we do not require all this detail to convince us that its ruler, Ante Pavelic, could well lay claim – in a crowded field – to rank as the most unsavoury of Hitler’s puppets. Similarly the tale of Mussolini’s fall has by now been told so often that Steinberg’s blow-by-blow account grows tedious. More generally, his character analysis of the two dictators could have been much abbreviated: all we really need to know is how they came to differ so widely in their ability to enforce obedience and in their views on ‘race’.
These last two points lead to a critique of the book’s title and subtitle themselves. They are inappropriate and even misleading – luring the author as they do into obiter dicta on the Axis in general and the holocaust in particular. Some of these are arresting and probably deserve to figure where they do, as when Steinberg notes that the German 20th of July conspirators risked far more than their Italian counterparts, or when, in contrast, he tells us that ‘in many years of intensive research in German Army archives’ he has found ‘fewer than five examples of German officers’ voicing any objection to anti-semitism. Such nuggets aside, however, Steinberg’s Italo-German comparisons are implicit in the central story itself and do not require spelling out. It suffices for him to assert that ‘in their attitudes to Jews the two Axis allies inhabited different moral universes.’ If one adds to these flaws an amateurish discussion of Hegel, minor mistakes in Italian and periodic lapses into slipshod phraseology, one may suspect hasty writing, or, more tellingly, surmise that what began as an analysis of a single clearly-delimited (and crucial) problem little by little expanded until it spilled over onto lugubriously familiar ground.
I do not want to close on a sour note. For all its faults – and they are all forgivable – Steinberg’s book is a noble enterprise, bold in conception and suffused with warm human feeling. It is good to read about something until now known only to specialists, something that ‘stands out in the entire history of the Second World War’ and that ‘deserves a place in the history of modern Italy’: what ‘a handful of diplomats and generals’ did first and foremost ‘because it was right’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.