The Race Laws After 75 Years


Thoughts on the “Darker Side” of European Law

Michael A. Livingston, the author of The Fascists and the Jews of Italy, draws parallels between Mussolini's Italian Race Laws and sentiment about immigration through the ages—from the Jim Crow American South to today's Europe.


Historians tend, for good reason, to be skeptical about practical applications of their work. When I suggest applications of this type, my editors say I am being “ahistorical,” which seems to be the historian’s equivalent of a four-letter word. Yet it is difficult to avoid the temptation entirely, and sometimes not even appropriate.

Groups that have been victims of discrimination—Jews, Blacks, women—are reluctant to “share” victim status with others, even when they could learn from their experiences.

In my book on the Italian Race Laws, I emphasized three issues: the so-called Italian Question (were the Italian antisemitic laws indigenous in nature or a watered-down version of the German Nuremberg Laws); the Universal Question (what common features did the laws share with other anti-Jewish laws as well as racial laws in the United States, South Africa, and the Italian colonial empire); and the Legal Question (what was the role of lawyers in creating and implementing the Race Laws, and did they make the laws harsher or less severe). Not surprisingly, the answers to these questions proved evasive, and some—particularly the first—turned out not to be real questions, at all. A concluding chapter, which was to have dealt with postwar Italy, was deleted, partly because it was a separate topic and partly (you guessed it) because of the “ahistorical” speculation it contained.

This being a blog rather than a full-length book, I may be forgiven for  reviving  speculation regarding the lessons of the Race Laws—and indeed the entire period of “pre-Holocaust,” 1930s-era anti-Semitism—for today’s world. As is often the case, these lessons are not always pleasant, and are sometimes counterintuitive in nature.

A first lesson concerns comparative legal history and (more specifically) the comparative study of racism and race discrimination. One of the things that struck me in writing my book was the relative dearth of work that compared anti-Jewish legislation with (say) the American Jim Crow Laws or the apartheid laws in pre-1990s South Africa. In part this results from technical challenges. Comparative work is difficult, especially when one must learn two or three different legal systems together with languages and cultures. But there is also an emotional issue at work here. Groups that have been victims of discrimination—Jews, Blacks, women—are reluctant to “share” victim status with others, even when they could learn from their experiences.   More work of this type, and more institutional support for it, would pay rich dividends.

A second, more focused lesson concerns today’s Europe. It does not take a historian to identify the parallels between anti-immigrant sentiment in today’s Europe and the antisemitism of the 1930s. Many of the stereotypes applied to Islamic communities—large families, extremist religious ideology, supposed hatred of women—are similar to those applied to Jews in an earlier era. The assumption that European integration or “harmonization” will solve these problems is similarly dubious from an historical perspective. Harmonization can proceed around positive or negative goals: the Race Laws themselves may be understood as a harmonization process, in which European countries came to share racially exclusive principles but allowing for national differences in the application of those principles. Unification is not always for the better.

Last but not least, the Race Laws have important implications for the Italian legal and political system. Many Italians would like to treat Fascism as an aberration which left no permanent marks on their society. The Race Laws and Fascist jurisprudence in general, cast doubt on this analysis. Three of the four principal Italian legal codes were written in the Fascist era.   Pretending that these have no carryover effect is a bit like expunging slavery from American history: politically pleasing but, well, ahistorical in nature.

Of course, confronting the “dark side” of history does not automatically make things better. But in the long run it is inevitable. George Orwell to the contrary, ignorance is not strength.   At least, not for long.

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About the Author: Michael A. Livingston

Michael A. Livingston is the author of The Fascists and the Jews of Italy....

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