The World Zionist Organisation's attitude toward Italian Fascism was determined by one criterion: Italy's position on Zionism. When Mussolini was hostile to them, Weizmann was critical of him; but when he became pro-Zionist, the Zionist leadership enthusiastically supported him. On the day Hitler came to power they were already friends with the first Fascist leader.
As a revolutionary, Mussolini had always worked with Jews in the Italian Socialist Party, and it was not until he abandoned the left that he first began to echo the anti-Semitic ideas of the northern European right-wing. Four days after the Bolsheviks took power, he announced that their victory was a result of a plot between the 'Synagogue', that is, 'Ceorbaum' (Lenin), 'Bronstein' (Trotsky), and the German Army. By 1919 he has Communism explained: the Jewish bankers --'Rotschild', 'Wamberg', 'Schyff' and 'Guggenheim'-- were behind the Communist Jews.But Mussolini was not so anti-Semitic as to exclude Jews from his new party and there were five among the founders of the Fascist movement. Nor was anti-Semitism important to his ideology; in fact it was not well received by his followers.
Anti-Semitism in Italy had always been identified in the public mind with Catholic obscurantism. It was the Church which had forced the Jews into the ghettos and Italian nationalists had always supported the Jews against the Popes, whom they saw as opponents of a united Italy. In 1848 the walls of the Roman ghetto were destroyed by the revolutionary Roman Republic. With their defeat the ghetto was restored, but the final victory of the nationalist Kingdom of Italy in 1870 brought an end to discrimination against the Jews. The Church blamed the Jews for the nationalist victory, and the official Jesuit organ, Civilta Cattolica, continued to insist that they had only been defeated by 'conspiracies with the Jews [that] were formed by Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, Farini and De Pretis'. But this clerical ranting against the heroes of Italian nationalism merely discredited anti-Semitism, particularly among the anti-clerical youth of the nationalist petty bourgeoisie. Since the essence of Fascism was the mobilisation of the middle class against Marxism, Mussolini listened carefully to his followers' objections: what was the point of denouncing Communism as a Jewish conspiracy, if the Jews themselves were not unpopular?
'True Jews have never Fought against You'
As with many another, Mussolini originally combined anti-Semitism with pro-Zionism, and his Popolo d'ltalia continued to favour Zionism until 1919, when he concluded that Zionism was merely a cat's-paw for the British and he began to refer to the local Zionist movement as 'so-called Italians'. All Italian politicians shared this suspicion of Zionism, including two Foreign Ministers of Jewish descent --Sidney Sonnino and Carlo Schanzar. The Italian line on Palestine was that Protestant Britain had no real standing in the country as there were no native Protestants there. What they wanted in Palestine was an international 'Holy Land'. In agreeing with the position of the pre-Fascist governments on Palestine and Zionism, Mussolini was primarily motivated by imperial rivalry with Britain and by hostility to any political grouping in Italy having a loyalty to an international movement.
Mussolini's March on Rome of October 1922 worried the Italian Zionist Federation. They had no love for the preceding Facta government, given its anti-Zionism, but the Fascisti were no better on that score, and Mussolini had made clear his own anti-Semitism. However, their concerns about anti-Semitism were lifted immediately; the new govemment hastened to inform Angelo Sacerdoti, the chief rabbi of Rome and an active Zionist, that they would not support anti-Semitism either at home or abroad. The Zionists then obtained an audience with Mussolini on 20 December 1922. They assured the Duce of their loyalty. Ruth Bondy, a Zionist writer on Italian Jewry, relates: 'The delegation, on its part, argued that Italian Jews would always remain loyal to their native land and could help establish relations with the Levant through the Jewish communities there.'
Mussolini bluntly told them that he still saw Zionism as a tool of the British, but their pledge of loyalty softened his hostility somewhat and he agreed to meet Chaim Weizmann, the President of the WZO, who attended on 3 January 1923. Weizmann's autobiography is deliberately vague, and often misleading, on his relations with the Italian, but fortunately it is possible to learn something of the meeting from the report given at the time to the British Embassy in Rome. This explains how Weizmann tried to deal with the objection that Zionism wore Britain's livery: 'Dr Weizmann, whilst denying that this was in any way the case, said that, even if it were so, Italy stood to gain as much as Great Britain by a weakening of Moslem power.'
This answer cannot have inspired too much confidence in Mussolini, but he was pleased when Weizmann asked permission to name an Italian Zionist to the commission running their settlement in Palestine. Weizmann knew the Italian public would see this as Fascist toleration for the WZO, which would make it easier for Zionism amongst wary Jews, frightened at the thought of coming into conflict with the new regime. Mussolini saw it the other way around; by such a cheap gesture he would win support both at home and abroad from the Jewish community.
The meeting produced no change in Italian policy toward Zionism or the British, and the Italians continued to obstruct Zionist efforts by harassing tactics on the League of Nations Mandate Commission. Weizmann never, then or later, mobilised opposition to what Mussolini did to Italians, but he had to say something about a regime that actively opposed Zionism. He spoke out, in America, on 26 March 1923:
Today there is a tremendous political wave, known as Fascism, which is sweeping over Italy. As an Italian movement it is no business of ours --it is the business of the Italian Government. But this wave is now breaking against the little Jewish community, and the little community, which never asserted itself, is today suffering from anti-Semitism.
Italian policy toward Zionism only changed in the mid-1920s, when their consuls in Palestine concluded that Zionism was there to stay and that Britain would only leave the country if and when the Zionists got their own state. Weizmann was invited back to Rome for another conference on 17 September 1926. Mussolini was more than cordial; he offered to help the Zionists build up their economy and the Fascist press began printing favourable articles on Palestinian Zionism.
Zionist leaders began to visit Rome. Nahum Sokolow, then the Chairman of the Zionist Executive and later, in 1931-3, the President of the WZO, appeared on 26 October 1927. Michael Ledeen, a specialist on Fascism and the Jewish question, has described the political outcome of the Sokolow-Mussolini talks:
With this last meeting Mussolini became lionised by Zionism. Sokolow not only praised the Italian as a human being but announced his firm belief that Fascism was immune from anti-Semitic preconceptions. He went even further: in the past there might have been uncertainty about the true nature of Fascism, but now, 'we begin to understand its true nature ... true Jews have never fought against you'.
These words, tantamount to a Zionist endorsement of the Fascist regime, were echoed in Jewish periodicals all over the world. In this period, which saw a new legal relationship established between the Jewish community and the Fascist state, expressions of loyalty and affection for Fascism poured out of the Jewish centers of Italy.
Not all Zionists were pleased with Sokolow's remarks. The Labour Zionists were loosely affiliated to the underground Italian Socialist Party via the Socialist International and they complained, but the Italian Zionists were overjoyed. Prosperous and extremely religious, these conservatives saw Mussolini as their support against Marxism and its concomitant assimilation. In 1927 rabbi Sacerdoti gave an interview to the journalist Guido Bedarida:
Professor Sacerdoti is persuaded that many of the fundamental principles of the Fascist Doctrine such as: the observance of the laws of the state, respect of traditions, the principle of authority, exaltation of religious values, a desire for the moral and physical cleanliness of family and the individual, the struggle for an increase of production, and therefore a struggle against Malthusianism, are no more or less than Jewish principles.
The ideological leader of Italian Zionism was the lawyer Alfonso Pacifici. An extremely pious man, he ensured that the Italian Zionists were to become the most religious branch of the world movement. In 1932 another interviewer told of how Pacifici also:
expressed to me his conviction that the new conditions would bring about a revival of Italian Jewry. Indeed, he claimed to have evolved a philosophy of Judaism akin to the spiritual Tendenz of Fascism long before this had become the rule of life in Italian polity.
Establishment of Relations between Mussolini and Hitler
If the Zionists at least hesitated until Mussolini warmed to them before they responded, Hitler had no such inhibitions. From the beginning of the Fascist take-over, Hitler used Mussolini's example as proof that a terror dictatorship could overthrow a weak bourgeois democracy and then set about smashing the workers' movements. After he came to power he acknowledged his debt to Mussolini in a discussion with the Italian ambassador in March 1933. 'Your Excellency knows how great an admiration I have for Mussolini, whom I consider the spiritual head of my ''movement" as well, since if he had not succeeded in assuming power in Italy, National Socialism would not have had the slightest chance in Germany.
Hitler had two cavils with Fascism: Mussolini savagely oppressed the Germans in the south Tyrol which the Italians had won at Versailles, and he welcomed Jews into the Fascist Party. But Hitler saw, quite correctly, that what the two of them wanted was so similar that, eventually, they would come together. He insisted that a quarrel with the Italians over the Tyrolians would only serve the Jews; therefore, unlike most German rightists, he was always willing to abandon the Tyrolians. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that he had no knowledge of Mussolini's earlier anti-Semitic remarks, in 1926, in Mein Kampf, Hitler declared that in his heart of hearts the Italian was an anti-Semite.
The struggle that FASCIST ITALY is waging, though perhaps in the last analysis unconsciously (which I personally do not believe), against the three main weapons of the Jews is the best indication that, even though indirectly, the poison fangs of this supra-state power are being torn out. The prohibition on Masonic secret societies, the persecution of the supra-national press, as well as the continued demolition of international Marxism, and, conversely, the steady reinforcement of the Fascist state conception, will in the course of the years cause the Italian government to serve the interests of the Italian people more and more, without regard for the hissing of the Jewish world hydra.
But if Hitler was pro-Mussolini, it did not follow that Mussolini would be pro-Nazi. Throughout the 1920s the Duce kept repeating his famous 'Fascism is not an article for export'. Certainly after the failure of the Beer Hall putsch and the Nazis' meagre 6.5 per cent in the 1924 elections, Hitler represented nothing. It required the Depression and Hitler's sudden electoral success, before Mussolini began to take serious notice of his German counterpart. Now he began to talk of Europe going Fascist within ten years, and his press began to report favourably about Nazism. But at the same time he repudiated Hitler's Nordic racism and anti-Semitism. Completely disoriented by his philo-Semitism, the Zionists hoped that Mussolini would be a moderating influence on Hitler when he came to power. In October 1932, on the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome, Pacifici rhapsodised about the differences between the real Fascism in Rome and its ersatz in Berlin. He saw:
radical differences between the true and authentic Fascism --Italian Fascism, that is-- and the pseudo-Fascist movements in other countries which ... are often using the most reactionary phobias, and especially the blind, unbridled hatred of the Jews, as a means of diverting the masses from their real problems, from the real causes of their misery, and from the real culprits.
Later, after the Holocaust, in his autobiography Trial and Error, Weizmann lamely tried to establish an anti-Fascist record for the Italian Zionists: 'The Zionists, and the Jews generally, though they did not give loud expression to their views on the subject, were known to be 'anti-Fascist'. Given Mussolini's anti-Zionism in the early years of his Fascist career, as well as his anti-Semitic comments, Zionists hardly favoured him in 1922. But, as we have seen, they pledged their loyalty to the new power once Mussolini assured them that he was not anti-Semitic. In the first years of the regime, the Zionists knew he resented their international affiliations, but that did not b ring them to an tiFascism and, certainly after the statements in 1927 by Sokolow and Sacerdoti, the Zionists could only be thought of as Mussolini's good friends.