The truth is that the new Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio is right: Italian Fascism was not racist — at least not until its fatal alliance with German National Socialism. In truth, there is nothing necessarily racist about Fascism.
That many football hooligans and the entire Liberal Left disagree is irrelevant — irrelevant, that is, to the truth. Racism in the context of Fascism essentially means hatred of Jews rather than, say, of blacks. But here’s the funny thing: Fascism, unlike National Socialism, was not anti-Semitic.
True, the words 'Fascist' and 'Nazi' are interchangeable these days, and often synonymous with the word 'racist'. But Benito Mussolini, who founded Fascism, was not anti-Semitic. Indeed, many top Italian Fascists were Jews. The idea that the Duce wanted to exterminate Jews is inconceivable. Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini’s main mistress and muse until the 1930s, was Jewish. Question: would it be possible for a man who wants to exterminate Jews because they are Jews to fall in love with a Jewish woman and conduct an affair with her that lasts 20 years? Could a Jewish woman fall in love and remain with such a man for so long?
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning someone called Piara Power, of something called Fare Network Football Against Racism in Europe, said: 'A fundamental pillar of Fascism is the belief in the superiority of one race over another.'
No. That might be said of National Socialism, or Nazism. But the fundamental pillars of Fascism which has far more in common with Communism than either does with Democracy, were the State and the Nation. Mussolini, a revolutionary socialist, founded Fascism in 1919 as an alternative revolutionary movement of the Left: The First World War had made him, and many other European Socialists, realise an essential truth: People are more loyal to their country than their class.
Yes, Mussolini would have thought foreigners were 'inferior' to Italians and Africans inferior to Europeans. This was, alas, not a distinctive view at the time. We Brits were no better. And as for the French, see below. But on the specific issue of race, he told Emil Ludwig, a famous German journalist and author, in a remarkable series of interviews, entitled Talks With Mussolini, that took place in 1932, his tenth year in power:
'Naturally there is no such thing as a pure race, not even a Jewish one … Race: it is a sentiment, not a reality, it is 95% sentiment. I don’t believe that it is possible to prove biologically that a race is more or less pure …Anti-Semitism does not exist in Italy. The Jews have behaved well as citizens, and as soldiers, they have fought courageously.'
Ludwig was Jewish and in the preface to a new 1946 edition of his book he wrote: 'Undoubtedly no contemporary Englishman or Russian had so much sympathetic understanding of the Jews, as Mussolini with me in 1932.' Ludwig wrote those words, remember, the war now over, and the full horror of the Holocaust at last exposed.
In the Fascist Bible, La Dottrina del Fascismo, published in 1932, 'nation' is defined as 'not a race' but 'a multitude unified by an idea'. In the 1935 Enciclopedia Italiana in the section entitled 'Race' it states 'a race does not exist, but only a people and an Italian nation. There does not exist a Jewish race or nation, but a Jewish people; there does not exist, the gravest error of all, an Aryan race.'
Fascism only became anti-Semitic in the second half of the 1930s after it joined forces with Hitler’s National Socialism.
In 1938, the Fascists passed Anti-Semitic laws which made Jews second-class citizens, though there were numerous exemptions. Fascist anti-Semitism, though indefensible, was lukewarm compared to the Nazi version. It was justified not as a race issue but as a class and state of mind issue: the Jewish spirit came to epitomise the hated, anti-Fascist, bourgeois spirit.
No Jews were imprisoned in camps in Italy, or murdered in Italy, or deported from Italy to the Nazi death camps until after the overthrow of Mussolini in the summer of 1943. Then, during the Nazi occupation of Italy, a total of 9,000 Jews were deported, of whom nearly all died.
In France, meanwhile, the only hope for Jews was somehow to make it into the sector of the country occupied by Fascist Italy – the south east. There, Italian armed forces, diplomats and bureaucrats saved thousands of Jews — many more than the good German, Oskar Schindler of Spielberg film fame — from the collaborationist Vichy French who just could not wait to round up and deport Jews. In the Italian zone, the Italians stopped the French, by threatening to oppose them with force, from doing this. The Italian Fascist forces did the same thing in the part of Yugoslavia under their occupation, essentially Croatia and the Dalmatian coast.
Hitler and National Socialism are one thing; Mussolini and Italian Fascism quite another. Make no mistake: I am no follower of Fascism. But if we are going to attack Di Canio, we should at least know what we are talking about.
PS: If you really want to understand Italian fascism, look no further than Beppe Grillo.