A picture taken in September 1937, in Munich, shows German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) riding in a car with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini while the crowd gives the fascist salute..
(photo credit: SNEP / AFP)
As the Vatican stood silently by during the Second World War, Catholic Italy took a different approach to the Nazi decree to wipe out the God’s Chosen People in the “beautiful country.”
On January 23, 1943, Italian authorities made it clear that they would not assist the Nazis’ Final Solution, rounding up the Jews and deporting them for extermination, with the head of the Italian police saying that “we shall inform German high authorities of our guidelines according to which the Jews should remain in Italian concentration camps,” reveals Michael Robert Marrus in The ‘Final Solution’ Outside Germany, Part 1.
Despite being a fascist country since 1922, the Italians never made an issue of their Jewish citizens. Jews were part of the Fascist party, holding high-ranking offices and even serving in the government.
Mussolini even took part in the establishment of the future Jewish state’s defense force, helping Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky establish the Betar Naval Academy officer training camp in Civitavecchia for Mandatory Palestine Jews – which would eventually become the Israel Navy more than a decade later, and Italian colonial authorities also took steps to enact special laws to protect Ethiopian Jews.
The 1938 racial laws, passed under the behest of the Nazis, changed the Catholic country’s official status toward Jews, but unofficially, the Italians weren’t willing to change their values. Jews were later sent to internment camps, but they didn't have any of the restrictions that the Nazis had placed on concentration camps in their jurisdiction.
In January 1942, the Italians had already denied the Nazis’ wish to deport the Jews in Croatia, and in the Italian-occupied zone of France the situation was the same. “Italian occupation troops first in France and later in Greece and Yugoslavia defended the local Jews against the racist Germans. Especially in southern France their work was methodical, pre-ordered and undoubtedly directed by higher command, and it saved thousands of lives," wrote Luciano Tas in The Jews of Italy, 1938-1945: An Analysis of Revisionist Histories.
Tas reveals that a few days before Mussolini fell, "a German official reported that, ‘The Italian military authorities and the Italian police [ordered to] protect the Jews by every means in their power. The Italian zone of influence, particularly in the Cote d’Azur, has become the Promised Land for the Jews in France. In the last few months there has been a mass exodus of Jews from our occupation zone into the Italian zone.”
After Italy’s capitulation to the Allies in 1943, the story was different. As the Nazis invaded Italy, they did all that they could to make up for the Italians' desire to protect the Jewish people. And even with the Nazis expediting their deportations to the death camps, many religious figures, such as Rev. Aldo Brunacci of Assisi, helped the Jewish people to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Catholic Italy had one of the highest rates of survival for Jews.
This can be attributed, no doubt, to their religion, which played a major role in their lives.
“Unlike the Wehrmacht
[united Nazi forces], the Regio Esercito
[Royal Italian Army] was never gleichgeschaltet
[forced into line]: loyalty to the crown, traditional values and the inheritance of the Risorgimento
[Italian nationalism] insulated it from the Fascist regime," wrote Jonathan Steinberg in All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941-43
. "Italian officers ‘habitually used the language of Christian virtue in both public and private pronouncements. There was also a legacy of chivalric [sic] behavior, a strong awareness of the dictates of honor and a determination to protect the weak and oppressed... Thus while Italian generals did their best to save Jewish lives, German generals willingly cooperated in Hitler’s extermination policies."
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