Yet this is not just the story of a Jewish composer finally getting the recognition he deserves. It’s also the story of a country that still represses the memory of its racist past, a phenomenon that carries serious consequences for modern-day politics, especially at a time when the populist right wing is on the rise.
“When it comes down to the racial laws, Italy never fully reckoned with its responsibilities. Unlike what happened, for instance, in France [or Germany], no Italian head of State or government ever apologized for the persecution of Jews,” Guri Schwarz, a historian at the University of Genova, told me. Many Italians, he said, grew up with the distorted notion that the racial laws were not such a big deal, that Italy was “out of the shadow of the Shoah,” that the Holocaust was “a German thing.”
“It’s not that Italians didn’t learn about the persecution of Jews, but often they learned about it as if it where something that happened somewhere else,” said Schwarz. This lack of historic consciousness, he added, is the result of what he described as “the normalization of fascism,” a political process that began in the 1980s, when the Socialist party attempted an alliance with the post-fascist Movimento sociale, and continued with Silvio Berlusconi, who included self-described “former fascists” in his coalitions. “The message was, ‘We can include fascists [in mainstream politics], and we can do that because they weren’t really so bad.’”
This normalization of fascism and of its racially derisive language is now on display in Italian politics. This month, Italy became the first nation in Western Europe to be headed by a fully populist government. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, one of the two populist parties in the coalition, praised Mussolini’s regime in a recent radio interview, and has often used xenophobic language against asylum seekers. He attacked the Roma minority on Twitter, writing, “They aren’t happy if they don’t steal.” His fellow party member Attilio Fontana, the new governor of Lombardy, vowed in a separate radio interview to defend the “white race.” Their coalition partner, the Five-Star Movement, chose as spokesperson a man who had famously argued in a TV interview that Africans “smell different.”
The inadequacy of Italy’s historic consciousness isn’t necessarily what led to the rise of the right wing, “but it’s definitively what’s making it possible for them to use such overtly racist language without causing much uproar,” Jacopo Tondelli, who edits the political blog Gli Stati Generali, told me.
Nowadays, African immigrants, Muslims, and Roma are the primary targets of verbal racist attacks in Italy, but data shows that anti-Semitism is still widespread: One-fourth of Italians say they wouldn’t accept a Jew as a member of their family, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month.