“The Book and the Rifle”: Cultural and Racial Policy in Fascist Italy, Part 3


Eugenics and Racial Policy

Tarquini devotes substantial attention to race and eugenics in Italian culture under Fascism. She notes that the Fascist government gave Italian eugenic scientists support and attention which they had never enjoyed under previous regimes:

From 1922 to 1945 Italian scientists contributed to racial culture and policy. These included anthropologists, statisticians, demographers, and doctors who were already well-known in the scientific world in the early years of the century, when demography and eugenics — the science which studies the methods to perfect the human species by favoring the proliferation of individuals deemed best (positive eugenics) or through the suppression of individuals considered harmful (negative eugenics) — brought their attention to the demographic decline present in many Western countries. … With the advent of fascism these scientists played a role which they did not have in previous regimes. In exchange they offered the totalitarian and racist policy their own generous support. (pp. 201–202)

Demographic issues were given particular attention in the aftermath of the massive bloodletting of World War I and a significant fall in the birth rates of Western countries.

In a May 1927 speech, Mussolini highlighted the importance of defending the race, considering the Italian people one organism, which had to be made more virile and numerous. Tarquini paraphrases: “For this reason he reminded the Italians that the problem of fertility, and therefore having children, was a serious political problem and not a private issue” (p. 202). To this end, the government mobilized scientists, imposed a celibacy tax funding programs dedicated to motherhood and infancy, gave tax breaks to large families, provided maternity leave to most groups and extended it to two-and-half months, banned contraception, and launched public awareness campaigns to increase fertility. The welfare state in general, also a fascist innovation, was used to incentivize child-rearing. Thus Maria Sophia Quine writes in her doctoral thesis on Fascist eugenics:

Mussolini professed commitment to the cause of public provision for women and children. Promulgated on 10 December 1925, the founding statutes of the National Organisation for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy gave credence to this claim. Guidelines for government support of gynaecological and obstetric clinics, subsidised free meals, infant day care centres, financial benefits for child support, hardship allowance for the needy, and a host of other schemes promised to improve the quality of the Italian stirp [i.e. lineage].

According to the regime’s spokesmen, the advent of fascism marked the beginning of a welfare revolution in Italy. No previous prime minister had delivered such a comprehensive package of public health reforms. Fascist commentators used the purported creation of a stato assistenziale [welfare state] for social leverage both at home and abroad. Official press and propaganda reports highlighted how little liberalism had cared for the Italian people. The hesitant nature of liberal government, these arguments repeated, had kept the financial and institutional bases of relief private and charitable. Soon after his accession to the premiership, the Duce had done what over seventy years of liberal rule had failed to accomplish. The dictator had transformed the loose and untidy structure of beneficenza [charity] into a national system of social services.

In his grand designs, Mussolini may have fulfilled the social mission of nineteenth-century statecraft. A health service based on universal right and free access replaced miserly and minimal government under liberalism.[1]

Population scientists and eugenicists prospered under Fascism, having a lively intellectual scene and publishing numerous books and periodicals. The most influential was perhaps La Difesa della razza (The Defense of the Race), a state-subsidized publication in which scientists and racial thinkers argued that Italy was engaged in a constant battle for the Italian race, that its characteristics should be preserved, and that Jews were a foreign group. Tarquini writes that “scientists welcomed with great favor fascism because it offered a new alliance between population science and politics” and because they were treated by the regime as influential “advisers” (p. 204). Eugenicists looked forward to the creation of a National Genetics Center which, while never created, would have developed a database of people suffering from congenital illnesses and would have worked to prevent their spreading.

Nicola Pende was one of the country’s most influential eugenicists, taking an explicitly biological approach to race. In his influential work Bonifica umana razionale e biologia politica (Rational Human Remediation and Political Biology), Pende defined the Fascist Regime as “individual freedom conditioned by the collective freedom and interest” (p. 203). He called for policies rooted in human biology which would “improve the innate qualities of each breed with the means of natural selection, with a state anthropocentrism [antropocentrica statale], which aims, as does zootechnics for animals, a selection and rearing without pollution of the variety of human crops thanks to a physical and mental education of the people” (p. 204).

Pende believed race to be biological and to influence physical and psychic characteristics. Somewhat incredibly however, most Fascist thinkers of race apparently took a more “spiritual” approach. In 1939, the National Institute of Fascist Culture declared its “racism” was not rooted in biological reality but reflected the creation of a “political community”! Leone Franzì of the University of Milan declared: “ours is a racism which can be universal because it is political. Theirs [the Germans’] remains deep down a kind of ‘biological nationalism’” (p. 208).

The Italian Fascists may have been somewhat allergic to biological interpretations of race because of the popularity of Nordicism in racialist circles, which naturally placed Mediterranean Italy in a subaltern position. Thus the Italians often emphasized their differences with German racial thinking. For instance, in a 1932 interview with a German journalist, Mussolini claimed that pure races do not exist. Pende argued that race was biological but that no race was pure as every nation had “an ethnic polyvalence” (p. 203).[2]

Pende claimed the Italian way was superior: “Once more, we Fascists, with our approach to the political problem of race, demonstrate the realistic Mediterranean balance in the face of Nordic abstractionism and mysticism” (p. 203). This explanation, while resorting to racial stereotypes, rings rather true if one considers the contrast historically between northern and southern Europe. Lutheran intolerance for corruption and morally rigid Puritanism have been more characteristic of the north. Most importantly in modern times, we can contrast the extreme “cuckoldry” of Nordic and Germanic countries today and the generally healthier attitude of southern and eastern Europe. The same holds true for the contrast between the historically Anglo-Germanic nations (United States, Canada, Australia) and Argentina (of largely Latin/Mediterranean origin). This is compatible with the idea that northwest Europeans tend to be more “selflessly pious,” more principled, and prone to forming moral communities where dissenters from moral ideals are shunned, whereas southern Europeans tend somewhat more to form communities based on clannishness.

In any event, the regime did institute some biologically-conscious racial policies. In 1937, Italians were banned from having “relations of a conjugal nature with subjects of Italian east Africa” (p. 205). This measure was aimed at preserving the Italian population’s biological traits and identity by prohibiting gene flow with Sub-Saharan Africans. In August 1938, the Ministry of the Interior established the Directorate-General for Demography and Race (Demorazza) to design and implement population policies.

In September 1938, the government moved to expel foreign Jews. Schools, universities, public institutions and the army were “Aryanized,” removing Jews. Marriages between Jews and non-Jews were banned, and gentile quotas were instituted in real estate, the stock market, and the liberal professions. Tarquini notes that there was little protest against these measures from Italian intellectuals, contrary to the “reassuring stereotype” spread by some historians that Italians as “decent people” had instinctively opposed such laws as unjust (p. 200). She notes that race was more important to Fascist ideology than anti-Semitism, and we can add that race had a decidedly secondary place in Italian Fascism in contrast with German National Socialism.


Tarquini does not dedicate much space to the successes and failures of Italian demographic policies. The Fascists did succeed in stemming the decline of fertility, stabilizing at 3.1 between 1938 and 1939.[3] It fell again during World War II however and has now reached catastrophic lows.[4] Despite maintaining fertility well above replacement level of 2.1, this was well below traditional levels, and Quine claim that the Fascists’ natalist policies had only limited success:

While most of the promises in [the National Organisation for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy]’s founding statutes remained unfulfilled throughout the fascist period, the organisation devoted a large share of its budget to a single campaign. Slow in attempting to meet other social targets, particularly those affecting married women workers, ONMI moved quickly to provide aid for single mothers. …

Even an efficient welfare system would find the delivery of material rewards substantial enough to influence the birthrate a difficult undertaking. But the fascist welfare state offered only lamentable incentives for Italian women to increase their fertility.[5]

I have been unable to identify any major measures for positive eugenics implemented by the Italian Fascists.

Fascist Italy thus promoted a flourishing scientific and cultural scene concerning eugenics and racial policy. Successful policies were implemented to preserve the Italian gene pool and arrest the decline of fertility, but more positive population goals were not reached. The regime however attempted to systematically use the means at its disposal, notably the welfare state, and with time no doubt would have further developed its scientific research, learned from its experiences, and improved its effectiveness.

Conclusion: A Powerful Example of Socio-Cultural Transformation

Tarquini’s study is unsatisfactory in certain respects. It is principally an intellectual history. As such, there is little investigation of the actual social impact of Fascist cultural policy, beyond the approval of the Italian elite and masses. The Fascists’ attempt to mold the Italians into a more warlike race evidently did not meet much success, as evidenced by the country’s rather lamentable performance in World War II.

Furthermore, Fascist culture, while perfectly hegemonic and fairly popular during the regime’s heyday, fizzled rather quickly in defeat. The regime was toppled and the country defected to the Allies very shortly after suffering invasion in 1943. There has been no resurgence of fascist culture in Italy, notwithstanding the country’s relatively vibrant (by Western standards) nationalist political scene, embodied in organizations like CasaPound and the Lega Nord. Italian fascist culture, it seems, survived only in the most obscure forms, such as neorealist cinema and the implicitly politically-incorrect population genetics of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza (who began his scientific career in Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany).

Nonetheless, Tarquini’s study shows how a small, committed, and organized group of men, virile and convinced of being a moral elite, were able to take power of a major European nation-state. Through a show of force and sheer will, they could take control from agnostic liberals and Marxist subversives, and systematically reorganize politics and culture, thus changing the nation’s social and historical direction.

In all this, the Italian Fascists were remarkably successful in certain respects. Their revolution entailed very little bloodshed — certainly compared to the ideological revolutions of the past, whether the English Civil War, the French Revolution, or indeed the millions murdered as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Fascists were largely able to bring the Italian intelligentsia and youth on board, thus allowing the cultural revolution to consolidate and radicalize over time. The working masses and women were integrated into society and informed. Culture and pro-social behavior were promoted using a variety of innovative methods from mass tourism to the welfare state. On racial policy, the Fascists succeeded in preventing race-mixing and stemming the decline of fertility.

World War II was truly an era of radical escalation. This was no doubt underestimated by Mussolini and many other leaders of that era. Mussolini likely had no inkling that, in launching his popular revolution or in siding with Germany in 1940 after the Fall of France, he would be sucked into a global ideological and geopolitical conflict which would end with his being murdered by communist butchers and his movement being persecuted and demonized far into the future. He had no idea that he had done anything to merit such a destiny. This escalation of violence and intolerance was not led by the Fascists. Had Mussolini stayed neutral or chosen to side with the victors, if that were possible, perhaps his regime would be remembered as perfectly “normal” within the Western tradition and even as positively progressive. Indeed, one can see why the Jewish writer Karl Popper believed that the foundational Greek philosopher Plato was an intellectual precursor to fascism.

The lesson from the Italian Fascist experience in cultural and racial policy is clear: in the face of an apathetic majority and an ineffectual and morally bankrupt establishment, a small, virile elite, armed with will and convinced of its righteousness, can decisively change a nation’s course and, in so doing, its destiny.

End of Part 3 of 3.

[1]Maria Sophia Quine, From Malthus to Mussolini: The Italian Eugenics Movement and Fascist Population Policy, 1890–1938 (PhD thesis, University College London), pp. 11-12.

[2]Perhaps it is correct to say that indeed all nations are the fruit of some ethnic mixing but that some nations are more genetically homogeneous than others. Nordic Denmark, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been found to have been extremely genetically homogeneous prior to the immigrant invasion. Georgios Athanasiadis et al, “Nationwide Genomic Study in Denmark Reveals Remarkable Population Homogeneity,” Genetics, August 17, 2016. http://www.genetics.org/content/early/2016/08/15/genetics.116.189241

[3] Arianna Caporali and Antonio Golini, “Births and Fertility in Interwar Italy: Trends, Images, Policies and Perceptions,” Université Catholique de Louvain.

A fertility rate of around 3 is probably a reasonable objective. The idea that modern societies must have a sub-replacement fertility rate is belied by the example of Israel. Through a social consensus and muscular policies surrounding the need to outbreed the native Arab population, the Jewish ethno-state has succeeded in raising the Jewish fertility rate from 2.6 in the 1990s to 3.1 in 2014, almost equaling Arab-Israeli fertility. The current Israeli baby boom is furthermore largely driven by secular and moderate Jews, not the traditionally fertile ultra-orthodox. Yaroslav Trofimov, “Jewish Baby Boom Alters Israeli-Palestinian Dynamic,” Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2016.

[4] Today, Italy has a fertility rate of 1.4 and has begun natural population decline, with deaths outstripping births. One can visit many picturesque villages in the Italian countryside which are tragically dying out from emigration and childlessness. Unusually for a Western European country, the current center-left government is cognizant of the long-term problems such low fertility will cause and recently launched a campaign to encourage women to have children. This included publishing advertisements under the hashtag #fertilityday (in English) with posters featuring slogans such as: “Beauty has no age: But fertility does,” “Young parents: The best way of being creative,” and “Fertility is a common good.” Predictably, there was a media backlash on the part of feminists, who claimed the campaign was sexist. This is a very visible marker of the intellectual and moral collapse of the West since at least the 1960s: the suggestion that individuals have a duty to conduct their lives in a manner conducive to the long-term interests of the community is considered offensive. These are the ravages of solipsistic and selfish individualism.

[5] Quine, From Malthus to Mussolini, p. 12.

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