The Italian racial laws (Italian: Leggi razziali) were a set of laws promulgated by Fascist Italy from 1938 to 1943 to enforce racial discrimination in Italy, directed mainly against the Italian Jews and the native inhabitants of the colonies.
The first and most important of the leggi razziali was the Regio Decreto 17 Novembre 1938 Nr. 1728. It restricted civil rights of Jews, banned their books and excluded Jews from public office and higher education. Additional laws stripped Jews of their assets, restricted travel and finally provided for their confinement in internal exile, as was done for political prisoners.
The promulgation of the racial laws was preceded by a long press campaign and by publication of the "Manifesto of Race" earlier in 1938, a purportedly-scientific report by fascist scientists and supporters that asserted racial principles, including the superiority of Europeans over other races. The final decision about the law was made during the meeting of the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo, which took place on the night between 6 and 7 October 1938 in Rome, Palazzo Venezia. Not all Fascists supported discrimination: while the pro-German, anti-Jewish Roberto Farinacci and Giovanni Preziosi strongly pushed for them, Italo Balbo strongly opposed the laws. The laws prohibited Jews from having any professional position and prohibited sexual relations and marriages between Italians and Jews and Africans.
Fascist Italy highly publicized a publication titled "Manifesto of the Racial Scientists" which included a mixture of biological racism and history; it declared that Italians belonged to an Aryan race, Jews were not Italians and that it was necessary to distinguish between Europeans and non-Europeans.
After the fall of Benito Mussolini on July 25, 1943, the Badoglio government suppressed the laws. They remained in force and were made more severe in the territories ruled by the Italian Social Republic until the end of the war.
Leading Fascists such as Dino Grandi and Italo Balbo reportedly opposed the racial laws, and they were unpopular with most ordinary Italians; the Jews were a small minority in the country and had integrated deeply into Italian society and culture. Most Jews in Italy were either ancient Italian Jews that practiced the Italian rite and had been living in Italy since Ancient Roman times; Sephardic Jews who had migrated to Italy from the Iberian countries after expulsion by Alhambra Decree in the 1490s; and a smaller Ashkenazi population that had arrived in the Middle Ages and largely assimilated into the Italian rite Jewish and the Sephardic communities. In any case, Jews in Italy, in general, had assimilated into Italian society and had contributed to Italian culture over the course of two millennia. Most Italians were not widely acquainted with Jews, and Italian society was unaccustomed to the kind of anti-Semitism that had been relatively common and thrived for centuries in German-speaking countries and other parts of northern, northwestern, and eastern Europe, where Jews had a greater presence and lived in large numbers for a long period of time.
No racial laws were promulgated in Fascist Italy prior to 1938. The racial laws were introduced at the same time as Fascist Italy began to ally itself with Nazi Germany and mere months before Fascist Italy would form the Pact of Steel military alliance with Nazi Germany. William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich suggests that Mussolini enacted the laws to appease his powerful German allies, rather than to satisfy any genuine anti-Semitic sentiment among the Italian people.
Indeed, prior to 1938 and the Pact of Steel alliance, Mussolini and many notable Italian fascists had been highly critical of Nordicism, biological racism, and anti-Semitism, especially the virulent and violent anti-Semitism and biological racism found in Nazi Germany. Many early supporters of Italian fascism, including Mussolini's mistress, the writer and socialite Margherita Sarfatti, had in fact been middle class or upper middle class Italian Jews. Nordicism and biological racism were often considered incompatible with the early Italian fascist philosophy; Nordicism inherently subordinated Italians and other Mediterranean people beneath the Germans and Northwestern Europeans in its proposed racial hierarchy, and early Italian fascists, including Mussolini, viewed race as a cultural and political invention rather than a biological reality.
In 1929, Mussolini noted that Italian Jews had been a demographically small yet culturally integral part of Italian society since Ancient Rome. His views on Italian Jews were consistent with his early Mediterraneanist viewpoint, which suggested that all Mediterranean cultures, including the Jewish culture, shared a common bond. He further argued that Italian Jews had truly become "Italians" or natives to Italy after such a long period on the peninsula. However, Mussolini's views on race were often contradictory and quick to change when necessary, and as Fascist Italy became increasingly subordinate to Nazi Germany's interests, Mussolini began adopting openly racial theories borrowed from or based on Nazi Germany's racial policies, leading to the introduction of the anti-Semitic racial laws. Historian Federico Chabod argued that the introduction of the Nordicist-influenced racial laws was a large factor in the decrease of public support among Italians for Fascist Italy, and many Italians viewed the racial laws as an obvious imposition or intrusion of Nazi German values into Italian cultures and a sign that Mussolini and Fascist Italy's power was collapsing under Nazi German influence.