CRF Blog

Scientists in the Grey Zone in 1930s Italy

by Bill Hayes

In Scientists in the Grey Zone in 1930s Italy for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Massimo Mazzotti, director of the UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society, examines the rise of fascism and its effects on Italian academic life.

ONE OF ITALY’S most consequential creations has nothing to do with the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, or Galileo. It saw the light a century ago, on March 23, 1919, in a quiet square of Milan, when an unlikely politician joined a group of black-shirted unemployed war veterans to forge a paramilitary nationalist organization. By 1922, the group had turned into the National Fascist Party and seized power.

Key to the Fascist Party’s impressive ascent were acts of brutal violence against labor and socialist leaders in what it saw as a continuation of the Great War. Unlike the anonymous mass killing of the war though, fascist violence had highly symbolic targets and was minutely choreographed. It was also cyclical, and in constant need of new types of victims to feed its momentum and amplify its reach. By 1938, this led to laws targeting Jews, even though they constituted only a tiny assimilated percentage of the population, and the “Jewish question” had not thus far been a relevant political issue in Italy.

Jews were first excluded from public life in the domains of science and education. Universities in particular became training sites for implementing antisemitic legislation that was then extended to the rest of society. And yet academia’s complicity in persecuting Jews has long gone unnoticed. Indeed, the blithe postwar consensus was that Italian universities were themselves hapless victims, their collaboration halfhearted and very limited.

Last year, for the first time since 1938, that consensus visibly fractured: several Italian universities were willing to publicly commemorate the hundreds of Jewish professors and students who had been expelled from their ranks, thus acknowledging their role in persecuting them. To be sure, this constitutes a belated acknowledgment, but at least it does launch a public discussion into how and why Italians from all walks of life — including from among the scientific elites — participated in the regime’s violence.

The first question that raises itself is why this acknowledgment took so long. In part, it’s because, unlike their German counterparts, the majority of Italian scientists and technologists did not espouse biological theories of race or myths of racial purity. On the contrary: Many of them were vociferous critics of Nazi racial hygiene. This saved their reputations and careers after the war, alimenting the narrative of Italian science — and, by extension, Italian society — as essentially hostile to the regime’s antisemitic persecution.

And yet the rationale for the belatedness of this acknowledgment is also at the heart of the riddle surrounding their complicity. The 1938 laws were implemented swiftly and frictionlessly within academic ranks. Why? How was it possible for the regime to enforce a full-fledged antisemitic legislation without encountering resistance? How could an academic community that by and large did not subscribe to biological racism dutifully comply with, even speed along, legislation founded on the explicit assumption that Jews belonged to a different “race”? [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism.” It is available from CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.