“I Don’t Really Care. Do You?”: Scientists in the Grey Zone in 1930s Italy

Massimo Mazzotti reflects on how Italian scientists failed as a bulwark against fascist politics in the 1930s.

“I Don’t Really Care. Do You?”: Scientists in the Grey Zone in 1930s Italy

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”?


The historical record suggests that the regime, in testing various tactics of intimidation and surveillance in Italian universities, wanted to keep academic elites in line and undermine their expertise. Universities also became sites of quite ruthless transaction. Italian scientists, even though they did not for the most part adopt notions of biological racism, collaborated with the regime in the creation of the sociotechnical infrastructures that enabled the persecution.

A key condition was their stance of general cynicism, which would translate not only into outright indifference to the reasons for the persecution but also to the destiny of its victims. Horrified by the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell claimed in 1930 that scientists, unlike literary intellectuals, could never fall for cynicism. He was wrong. Indifference, cynicism, and brutal careerism were essential to how fascism functioned in Italy — and were certainly at play in the transactions between the regime and the scientific community. Far from constituting a problem, these qualities accounted for their dreadfully effective collaboration.

Primo Levi coined the expression “grey zone” to refer to the space between persecutors and their victims, a space of compromise and collaboration that defies simplistic binary thinking. Contrary to Bertrand Russell’s conviction, the Italian case makes it all too clear that science, too, can inhabit that grey zone.


In the fall of 1939, the chancellor of the University of Pisa opened the new academic year 1939–’40 on an upbeat note: he saluted the “departure” of some hundred foreigners “who did not contribute in any way to the prestige of our university, nor to the quality of our teaching.” He was talking about the Jewish faculty and students who had been expelled from the university in the autumn of 1938, in compliance with a government decree “for the defense of race.” Foreign students were numerous in Italy, and included many Jewish exiles from Nazi Germany.

That the first Italian antisemitic laws would target schools, universities, and scientific research is perhaps not so surprising: Jews constituted only about the 0.1 percent of the population (as compared to 0.7 in Germany in 1933), but they were far better represented in academia. In 1938, about seven to eight percent of university full professors identified as Jews. The system of education was therefore a “model site” for an antisemitic persecution.

Jewish professors of all ranks, as well as schoolteachers, technicians, administrators, and members of scientific academies were, at first, “suspended from service.” Jewish students were hastily disenrolled. Across the nation, principals gathered schoolchildren in large rooms or playfields, and read out lists of names. Those called out were ordered to go back to their classes, collect their things, and leave the school immediately. In universities, a few exceptions were made to allow Italian Jews to complete their degrees. Such was the case of a student of chemistry at the University of Turin, Primo Levi, who graduated with full marks and merit in 1941. His degree certificate, however, did not omit that he was “of Jewish race.”

The expulsions had a seismic impact on Italian education and research. Many prominent scholars were dismissed, from literary critic Arnaldo Momigliano, to historian Paul Oskar Kristeller, to scientists who worked with famed teams like that run by anatomist and histologist Giuseppe Levi in Turin. Three of Levi’s collaborators would go on to win Nobel Prizes in the postwar period, including the neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who survived the war under false identity and continued her career in the United States. Others left even though they were not directly targeted by the laws — for instance, Enrico Fermi, whose wife was Jewish, and who did not return to Italy after receiving the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics. His colleague Franco Rasetti moved to Canada because he no longer wanted to live in such an “uncivilized country.”

Overall — as noted by an annoyed Joseph Goebbels — the 1938 Italian antisemitic laws were more radical and comprehensive than even the German ones at the time. And yet for a long time, in Italian public discourse, this episode has been considered inconsequential. The general assumption was that the laws were nothing more than momentary aberrations. Cold War historians and politicians saw them as merely derivative of the German antisemitic legislation of 1935 (the “Nuremberg laws”) which, so the argument went, Mussolini had replicated as part of his strategy of political alignment with Hitler.

According to this perspective, Mussolini was a reluctant antisemite and the 1938 laws extraneous to Italian culture and politics — indeed extraneous to Italian fascism itself. Historians maintained that the laws were received coldly and passively across Italian society, with the exception only of a few oddball fanatics of race theory. They claimed as well that 1938 marked the beginning of a decline in the consensus favoring the regime.

While unsubstantiated, these arguments proved popular in postwar Italy. Even in 2013, media tycoon and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was still echoing them when he remarked that the antisemitic laws had been Mussolini’s “gravest mistake,” and that up to that point the dictator “had done many good things.”

Recent historical research, however, reveals that this self-congratulatory narrative is a myth.

For starters, the regime had barely made a dent in the notorious inefficiency of the public administration. Surely one would expect the implementation of the racial laws in the state-controlled university system to be slowed down by passive resistance if not inertia. Not so. University administrators implemented the laws dutifully and efficiently, in many cases with alacrity, going out of their way to make their lists of Jewish employees as accurate as possible. Not one voice in the academic and scientific world was raised against this collection of data, nor against the expulsions.


How are we to understand this active participation and deafening silence? It may be that speaking against the racial laws would have been costly for academics in terms of their careers, or worse. But this is not entirely true. Or, rather, it is probably true to some extent after the promulgation of the laws. But those laws were the end result of a process that had begun earlier — in the mid-1930s — when it would not have been costly to speak.

When dealing with potentially unpopular measures, the regime invariably tested public sentiment before making official decisions. This meant that the antisemitic laws were vetted first: they were preceded by four years of debates on “the Jewish question” raging in Europe. These debates started in 1934, with the regime orchestrating a campaign to denounce the allegedly Jewish roots of the anti-fascist political movement. By the following year, Mussolini was emboldened enough by the public’s indifference to feel he could safely sideline his Minister of Finance — war veteran and loyal fascist Guido Jung — because of his Jewish heritage (the Jewish presence in the Fascist Party had actually been significant up to that point).

Another year later, in November 1936, the Grand Council of Fascism was already considering the possibility of introducing antisemitic policies. Members of the regime’s top brass were hardly on the same page, however, on the subject of antisemitism. Mostly they were indifferent to “the Jewish question,” but all of them were determined to use it strategically if they could. The attitude of Italo Balbo, the legendary aviator, party leader, and the governor of Libya, is emblematic: he was ready to side with Libyan Jewish communities whenever this could strengthen his rule in the colony.

In 1937, the rector of the University of Perugia Paolo Orano, a former journalist close to Mussolini, published a book for the mass-market titled The Jews in Italy. Orano nodded to the age-old argument that antisemitic persecutions were primarily a responsibility of Jews themselves, allegedly from divided loyalties. His arguments were couched as opinions. Tellingly, no significant criticism was raised against them.

Not even Giovanni Gentile, the architect of the Fascist Party’s education system and a philosopher whose neo-idealist doctrines contradicted biological racism and antisemitism, intervened publicly in the debate on the Jewish question. Indifference, in other words, was the norm across the board, even though biological racism was inconsistent with the prevailing philosophical and scientific theories of the time. Primo Levi would later remember that his professors described the antisemitic laws as foolish rather than tragic.

In January 1938, the Minister of Education asked university chancellors to compile a list of foreign Jewish students enrolled in their institutions. Shortly thereafter he asked for lists of all Jewish students and professors, both foreign and Italian. Again, the chancellors’ responses were quick and dutiful. Following these encouraging results, in August 1938 the Ministry of the Interior made the first full census of the Jewish population in Italy, creating a database that enabled the subsequent persecution and roundups, including the 1943–’45 deportations to the extermination camps.

Meanwhile, in July 1938, the Central Demographic Office of the Ministry of the Interior had changed its name to Directorate General for Demography and Race, “the problem of race” now established enough to be given a dedicated office within the Ministry of Popular Culture. In a mere four years, the “Jewish question” had thus turned into a decisive problem, connected to “the problem of race” and requiring drastic persecutory policies.


Liliana Segre, an eight-year-old girl expelled from school in 1938 and an Auschwitz survivor, described the indifference that surrounded her and her family as being even more unbearable than the violence she endured. In her childhood memories, indifference took many forms: closed windows, awkward silences, and shifty eyes.

Specific historical conditions were, to be sure, part of what made such an attitude possible. Among those conditions, three stand out: age-old prejudices and stereotypes; the recent normalization of practices of racial segregation; and the sudden centrality of race in public discourse.

Regarding prejudices: While modern Italy did not experience pogroms and had not struggled with the question of Jewish emancipation, it was nonetheless an overwhelmingly Catholic country. As such, it harbored what might be termed “traditional” anti-Judaic sentiments. As late as 1928, the Catholic Church had rejected the suggestion, advanced by one of its progressive components, to amend a passage in the Good Friday prayer for the Jews that qualified them as “perfidious.”

Throughout the process of Italian unification, the Church had taken an anti-modern and anti-liberal stance, inviting Catholics to refrain from political life. In 1929, however, its attitude changed when Mussolini signed a treaty that recognized the full sovereignty of the Holy See in the newly created Vatican City. This appeasement had important effects on the 1930s debate on antisemitism, as it repositioned Catholicism as being at the core of an allegedly threatened Italian identity that now needed urgent protection. It also created an irresistible opening for Catholic scholars to contribute to the debate. While firmly rejecting all materialistic theories of race, some of them approved of policies that would limit the civil rights of the Jews as a means of defending “Christian civilization.” The writings of the founder of the Catholic University of Milan, the Franciscan Agostino Gemelli, are ripe with references to the deicide — indeed, he saluted the 1938 laws as its direct and inevitable consequence.

A second important condition contributing to accommodation and indifference was the normalization of racist violence in the colonies. Italy was a latecomer to colonialism, but by the 1920s the colonial discourse was pervasive, and intertwined with the ghost of Italian demographic decline. In a speech in 1927, Mussolini made it clear that Italy’s imperialistic ambitions were incompatible with population decline — hence the necessity of policies to support growth. He also argued that the “white race” was locked in a deadly demographic competition with “races of color,” whose numbers were growing much faster. “Is the white race dying?” Mussolini asked rhetorically in a 1934 newspaper article. Drastic measures, he claimed, were required to invert the trend.

The regime’s demographic obsession shaped colonial legislation in Eritrea and Somalia. Starting in 1933, when the term “white race” first appeared in an official document, it became increasingly difficult for mixed-race individuals (meticci) to obtain Italian citizenship, which was now conditional on an “anthropological diagnosis.” The occupation of Ethiopia in 1936 only heightened the regime’s anxiety: colonists reaching the shores of east Africa seemed disturbingly unconcerned with racial purity. Further legislative acts for “the defense of race” therefore aimed to create more effective segregation: the goal was “absolute separation between the two races.”

The mixed-race population, which had long been seen as a potential resource to be mobilized and exploited, had become, by 1936, a threat to the integrity of the “Italian nation.” The meticci, gradually stripped of their civil rights, first lost access to education and then to citizenship. By 1937, the Ministry of the Colonies had embraced the principle of “collaboration without promiscuity.” It was absolutely necessary, the minister argued, for Italians to acquire “the pride of their own race and the will to defend it.”

Part of the problem facing colonial authorities in enforcing racial boundaries was that the meaning of the term “race” was far from obvious to Italians, even though its use spikes vertiginously through the 1930s and peaks in 1939 — in parallel with the regime’s racist and antisemitic campaigns. This brings us to a third factor that helps account for accommodation and indifference.

Even though it had no defined meaning, “race” (razza) was increasingly used by numerous expert communities, such as historians, anthropologists, demographers, statisticians, physicians, jurists, and public health specialists, not to mention intellectuals, journalists, and policy-makers — all the way up to Mussolini. In mainstream Italian science, “Nordic” (Anglo-Saxon and German-Scandinavian) hereditary eugenic models were shunned as too deterministic and reductivist. By contrast, a “Latin” eugenics was elaborated that had a markedly qualitative and neo-Lamarckian character. The fascist “new man” was conceived as the outcome of the manipulation of plastic bodies (mainly through endocrinology) in a reorganized and sanitized environment — hence the regime’s emphasis on land reclamations and public health. This “regenerative” and “positive” eugenics aligned well with the regime’s demographic concerns and policies. Crucially, unlike Nazi racial hygiene, it also gained the support of the Catholic Church.

In this cultural and political context, a scientific concept of race emerged that was loose and flexible. The racial theory that had prevailed in Italian anthropology since the late 19th century was based on the identification of an alleged “Mediterranean race,” which originated in the horn of Africa, was closely related to the “Semitic people,” and had produced the great civilizations of the ancient world. The Aryans, in this reconstruction, played the unflattering role of “Euroasiatic barbarians.” Cultural traits were essential to this definition of race, and the term was used as a synonym of “ancestry” (stirpe).

Antisemitism and colonial racism could hardly be theoretically grounded on the Mediterranean theory and yet, in the 1930s, the concept of race proved flexible enough to support segregation and persecution. The concept of race used to segregate the black and meticcio population in the colonies was different from those theorized by anthropologists at the University of Rome, or by endocrinologists who were designing the new fascist man. And yet the variants overlapped just enough. Race, in other words, functioned as what historians of science call a boundary concept: a concept plastic enough to be used in different ways by different disciplinary communities, but robust enough to maintain a basic level of coherence that, in this case, allowed scientists and practitioners to engage meaningfully with one another. While flexible in its meaning, “race” acquired an inordinately potent cohesive power.

How the term “race” functioned in Italian society thus changed dramatically from 1930 to 1938. By obsessively repeating the word in its imperialistic claims, the regime managed to normalize a new language and a new set of associations. This discourse was supported by new juridical usages that equated “race” and “nation.” It was further enabled by a flexible scientific category of race, and applied to racist colonial policies.

To deploy this language and these associations against the Jewish population only took another small step.


The scientific community played a pivotal role in the normalization of this new racist language just as it did in implementing the persecution. As mentioned earlier, its rapport with the Fascist regime had long been transactional. Its accommodations regarding the question of race were no exception. In a prescient letter from his prison cell dated October 22, 1938, anti-fascist journalist and politician Ernesto Rossi showed he knew the drill. He did not expect much from Italian academics: “that’s a fair number of chairs that are being vacated all at once,” he remarked, which amounted to a boon, he added, for the crowd of candidates in waiting. He was spot on.

In the following months the academics did not question the antisemitic laws, but rather focused on how to divide up the newly available resources. In December 1938, the Italian Mathematical Union, representing a community that had been hit hard by the expulsions, voiced its concern. Instead of lamenting the devastating loss of talent, it demanded that none of the now vacant mathematical chairs be given to other disciplines.

Resistance to the antisemitic laws was limited only to a few lone voices. Massimo Bontempelli refused the prestigious Chair of Italian Literature at the University of Florence vacated by Attilio Momigliano. And a journal of legal studies, in a clear act of disobedience, invited a recently expelled professor to join its editorial board. These isolated episodes make it clear that it was possible to do something, at least symbolically.

The newly available positions were redistributed so swiftly that even a magazine aligned with the regime cautioned that it would have been wiser to offer temporary positions until the appropriate candidates could be identified. The suggestion fell on deaf ears. The reconfiguration of the academic landscape was in fact so profound that not even the catastrophe of the war could undo it. When some survivors returned to their universities in 1946, they discovered that the positions they had lost in 1938 were occupied. They were offered humiliating temporary contracts.

Still, they were the lucky ones. Enrica Calabresi, professor of entomology at the University of Pisa and former secretary of the Entomological Society of Italy, had made the choice to stay put. Suspended from service on December 14, 1938, she decided not to follow the rest of her family to Switzerland. Instead, between 1939 and 1943, she taught Jewish children who had been expelled from the state schools of Florence. In January 1944, she was arrested by Fascist authorities. She knew what was coming and she killed herself before boarding a train for Auschwitz.


The 1938 conversations about the antisemitic laws among academics, scientists, and intellectuals were thus quite clearly not characterized by fanaticism but its opposite: indifference. A manifest indifference — and indeed condescension and cynicism, too, as when Giovanni Gentile, from the height of his academic and political authority, offered support, in private, to some former Jewish colleagues, only to lament that these unfortunate academics seemed to have “lost their minds” after the promulgation of the laws. It was cynicism that enabled university chancellors to tell their Jewish faculty that they should step aside and be patient, and that it wasn’t really about them. It was cynicism that enabled scientists to deride the antisemitic laws as foolish in the privacy of their offices, but then not bother to publicly question them. On the contrary: These same people scrupulously implemented the laws once they realized they could get a share of the loot.

Emblematic of this attitude was a “manifesto of racist scientists,” published in the summer of 1938. Among the signatories was endocrinologist Nicola Pende, one of the most acclaimed Italian scientists of the interwar period. Pende had long been a champion of “positive eugenics” and the architect of Fascist Party racial policies. His approach, which emphasized the plasticity of living organisms, was inconsistent with the manifesto’s biological racism. But few noticed or cared.

In short, the persecution of Jews was so successful precisely because of the intellectual elites’ detached, calculating, and complacent cynicism. In a society in which “the Jewish question” did not stir the crowd, an antisemitic campaign had to be constructed through the gradual normalization of persecutory violence. As for the intellectual elites, by and large hostile to theories of Aryan superiority and racial purity, they needed not to care.

This widespread indifference was hardly a natural or normal condition. Disillusion had proved to be a fertile ground for fascism in the aftermath of World War I, and the regime had assiduously cultivated this very quality afterward. At the turn of the 1930s, many intellectuals and artists were in fact passively distancing themselves from the rituals and paraphernalia of fascist politics, but they did so without making an actual anti-fascist choice. Instead, they entered the grey zone.


Few portrayed life in the grey zone better than Dino Segre, a.k.a. Pitigrilli, one of the best-selling Italian authors of fiction between the wars. His work — and his own life — celebrated cynical detachment. A master of risqué comedy, Pitigrilli’s protagonists are abrasive men chasing stylish women while giving the impression of being supremely indifferent to the glamorous world around them. Inclined toward the truths or data points of science, they speak in aphorisms, and see clearly through the hypocrisy of social conventions. But they don’t care, because it’s all futile and irrelevant anyway. “When I think that the star Aldebaran is fifty-four light years from us,” ponders one of Pitigrilli’s loquacious heroes, “what do I care what will happen to me?”

One of Pitigrilli’s early books, Cocaine (1921), was condemned by the Church as morally corrupt, which naturally sealed its success with Italian audiences. By 1928, he was the most read Italian novelist. He was also a provocateur who seemed to loathe the normalization of the regime. His characters are frenetically debauched, their hallucinatory states short-lived distractions from the horrors of the real world, populated by power-hungry actors whose greed is barely disguised by a thin crust of bourgeois morality and patriotism. “Fatherland,” he wrote in another novel, “is a word that serves to send sheep to slaughter.”

In an age of suffocating public rhetoric, Pitigrilli’s heroes were a breath of fresh air. The blade of their skepticism was sharp. In the end, however, they had no solutions to offer, and no ideology they could subscribe to. Pitigrilli boasted that once Mussolini asked him why he was not a party member, and he replied: “I don’t do politics […] because I would always prefer an intelligent opponent to a fool of my own party.”

Pitigrilli, it turned out, had long been agent 373 of the Fascist secret service. Of Jewish heritage himself, he was instrumental to the arrest in 1934 of numerous Jewish anti-fascists whom he had frequented. These arrests inaugurated the regime’s antisemitic campaign. He remained an operative until September 1939, when it became clear that his cover was blown. Failing to be reclassified as “Aryan,” he fled to Switzerland in 1943 to avoid falling into German hands. He reached the border in a car made available by an entrepreneur to facilitate the escape of Turinese Jews.

To those who knew him well, Pitigrilli’s unmasking did not come as a big surprise. In fact, what are his sarcastic male protagonists if not ideal fascist intellectuals? They see clearly through the lies of power, but their nihilist cynicism prevents them from falling for any alternative political project. Theirs is, at once, a moral failure and a failure of the imagination.

Pitigrilli reserved his most withering cynicism for those who imagined they were acting out of principle, like the young anti-fascists he was spying on. “I’m afraid of incorruptible people,” proclaims one of his heroes, “they are the easiest to corrupt.” They don’t fall for money but for words — words like “justice and liberty,” the name of the group he helped to dismantle. Pitigrilli declared himself “nauseated by words.” His heroes know that it is essential never to tell the truth, but rather to lie continuously and use lies as weapons. Intelligent people don’t alter the facts, says one of his characters, but rather “transform their meaning.”

The title of one of Pitigrilli’s book is Dolichocephalic Blonde. It was a reference to the cephalic index, a measurement used in early 20th-century anthropology to model racial ancestry. Dolichocephaly — a long skull — was an alleged physical trait of the Aryan white race in Nordic theories. Pitigrilli was using this scientific terminology humorously: it was the way he referred to a tall and attractive blonde woman. The protagonist is an eccentric physician who fights vivisection and prefers the “temporary truths” of the positive sciences to the “eternal lies” of bourgeois morals. His nationality and race are left unspecified because, the author says, they are irrelevant.

The book was published in 1936 as the racial and antisemitic campaigns were building up. What Pitigrilli seems to be saying is something like: “I don’t really care. Do you?”


Italian scientists and intellectuals were in a position to oppose, or at least resist and obstruct, racial and antisemitic persecutions based on theories they did not endorse. To understand why events transpired as they did, we have considered the broader conditions that made the persecution acceptable: from Catholic anti-Judaic stereotypes, to the normalization of colonial violence, to the legal and scientific discourses that turned “race” into a loose but powerful “boundary concept.” Timing was also crucial: changes in colonial legislation mirrored the antisemitic campaign orchestrated by the regime in 1934–’38, and the final acceleration took the form of a rapid sequence of seemingly minor steps.

Under these conditions, scientists found ways to collaborate with the regime in persecuting Jews without abandoning their theoretical opposition to biological racial theories. This explains why, after the war, they were able to sail unscathed into the new democratic age even though they had been conscious participants in the racial and antisemitic persecutions. In the wake of the Shoah, any publication that questioned Aryan superiority turned automatically into an anti-fascism certificate, based on a binary logic that failed to capture subtler forms of collaboration.

I have characterized the academic world’s reaction to the antisemitic turn of the regime as indifferent and cynical, emphasizing strategic positioning and careerism. The everyday experience of most academics was quite obviously marked by moral ambiguity and contradictions. Of one of his protagonists Pitigrilli wrote that he contained “apparently irreconcilable antitheses.” “Was he sincere, or was he lying to himself and to the others? Maybe he was sincere. But when?” Scientists like Nicola Pende — who unfazedly held his university chair until retirement in 1955 — incarnated the ambiguity of scientific and political life in the grey zone.

Indifference and cynicism were not bugs but features of the fascist regime. They did not undermine its power but rather stabilized it, cementing alliances with key groups of scientific experts, technologists, and intellectuals. Rather than atemporal psychological traits, these attitudes are the outcome of historical processes, and can be intentionally crafted, very much like ignorance. They can be constructed, cultivated, mobilized, and exploited.

In contexts in which ideological motivations were tepid, if not absent, indifference and cynicism enabled the stretching of conceptual infrastructures to accommodate persecutory policies. These qualities also enabled the production of allegedly neutral technological infrastructures — like databases and information systems — that could then facilitate the persecution. The story of the implementation of the Italian antisemitic laws is thus less about fanaticism and more about conceptual fuzziness and what historians of science call “technological affordances.”

In our current climate, it can be instructive to reflect on how Italian science failed as a bulwark against fascist politics. Once again, almost a century later, technoscience is stretching concepts like race — not to mention concepts like democracy and free speech. The current reckoning with the unforeseen effects of the datafication of our social and political life resonates uncannily with the fascist era, when scientists and technologists were unable to see beyond what looked like unavoidable trajectories — both technological and political. In that era, they succumbed to indifference and cynicism, as did the majority of intellectual elites. They lost their capacity to imagine different futures. They enabled the persecution while protesting their theoretical distance from what they described as Nordic scientific barbarism. And, by the way, these people were so convincing that you probably had not heard of these Italian antisemitic laws before, nor of their tragic consequences.


Massimo Mazzotti teaches history of science in the Department of History at UC Berkeley, where he is the Director of the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society.

LARB Contributor

Massimo Mazzotti is a professor at UC Berkeley, where he holds the Thomas M. Siebel Presidential Chair in the History of Science. He is the co-editor of Algorithmic Modernity: Mechanizing Thought and Action, 1500–2000 (2023), and the author of Reactionary Mathematics: A Genealogy of Purity (2023).


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