The motive had deeper roots.
Mussolini’s number-one enemy, both as a socialist and a fascist, had always been the bourgeoisie. This included Russia’s communists, whom he defined as state capitalists. The Jews, he came to believe, were its epitome. His anti-Semitism sprang not from hatred of the Jewish race but of the Jewish mindset whose anti-fascist spirit was a major obstacle to Italy’s fascistizzazione. But a Jew could always renounce his faith.
Hitler’s anti-Semitism, on the other hand, was a biological thing: Once a Jew, always a Jew.
Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws were terrible because they transformed Italy’s Jews into second-class citizens. But the idea of Mussolini constructing extermination camps complete with gas chambers for the Jews is inconceivable.
Not a single Jew was dispatched to the Nazi death camps from Italy, or from Italian-occupied France, Yugoslavia, and Greece, until after Mussolini’s overthrow by Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele III in July 1943 following the Allied liberation of Sicily.
Mussolini returned to power in the north of Italy in November 1943 as the head of the Repubblica Sociale di Salò based on Lake Garda, but he was effectively Hitler’s puppet.
Fascists in the part of France occupied by Italy’s forces until September 1943 actively saved thousands of Jews, far more than the good Nazi in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. But they didn’t save them from the Germans—they saved them from the Vichy French who could not wait to cart off Jews to the Nazi camps!
Between September 1943 when the Nazis occupied Italy and April 1945, a total of about 8,500 Jews (about 17% of Italy’s total) were arrested in Italy and deported to the Nazi death camps. An estimated 7,680 of them died. The Nazis had ordered their arrests for deportation and Nazi soldiers had carried out the arrests, although Italian fascists sometimes collaborated.
I have often wondered: Could Mussolini have avoided his fatal alliance with Hitler and remained neutral in the Second World War and what would have been the consequences?
General Francisco Franco, the nationalist dictator of Spain, did so and his dictatorship survived until his death in 1975.
But Spain is not Italy and Mussolini not Franco. Spain, unlike Italy, had just emerged from a devastating civil war. And Italy’s geographical position at the heart of the Mediterranean made neutrality much more difficult. In both world wars Italy was neutral to start with – for nine months each time.
Mussolini was driven not just by greed but also by fear. For good reason. If he had remained neutral Hitler, I feel sure, would have seized “Austrian” Italy in the north east from Lake Garda up to the Alps and those Balkan nations that had until 1918 been part of the Austrian Empire. Nevertheless Italy could have remained neutral regardless and so remain fascist after the war, though at some stage there would no doubt have been a civil war, as there had been in Spain, which Mussolini might however very well have won. And here’s another thought: if Italy had remained neutral, Hitler would not have had to delay so fatally his invasion of Russia in 1941 in order to sort out the mess the Italians had made of their invasion of Greece and thus Europe and America would have been spared the Cold War!
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