The Jewish Fascist Governor

Written by  Stefano Lolli
Interview with Ilaria Pavan, author of a study on the political and personal experiences of Renzo Ravenna
''An honest, capable man, endowed with an extraordinary concern for public affairs. And who never concealed his almost all-consuming love for Ferrara.'' This is how Ilaria Pavan, historical researcher at the Scuola Normale di Pisa, described Renzo Ravenna, the figure at the heart of her book Il Podestà ebreo, published by Laterza.
Your judgement seems to almost to set aside the historical and political context: the Thirties and Forties, Ravenna's Judaism, the racial persecutions, the war, the Holocaust.
In reality it is impossible to separate Ravenna's experiences from a study of the city, the background and the events, both societal and personal, which took place in those years. I had never heard anyone mention that there had been a Jewish fascist governor of Ferrara. I was working on my thesis when one day I received a phone call from Paolo Ravenna who suggested to me that I should study the experiences of his father. I was immediately struck by this man's story, so revealing of the Italy of his time.
Who was Renzo Ravenna?
I would define him first as an Italian, rather than as a Jew. He was part of a generation of Italians who honestly believed in fascism. Renzo Ravenna had also moved in revolutionary syndicalist circles, and like many, was a critic of the Giolittian system. During the First World War, he did not volunteer, but awaited his call-up. Once under arms, his war experiences strengthened his opinions and further developed his moral rigour and his skills in discussion. His support for fascism was a conscious commitment, not passively unthinking.
But, even in Ferrara, those years were marked by terrible events. Did Ravenna not realise what was going on?
He decided to take control of the party in the city during the Matteotti crisis and after the assassination of Don Giovanni Minzoni. He was certainly not naïve or unaware, nor did he ever try to evade his political responsibilities. That said he never played any active part in the more tragic events.
You have mentioned Balbo, with whom Ravenna shared a life-long friendship.
Yes, they were friends of exceptional closeness, even though my research hasn't turned up any letters which fully reveal the intensity of their relationship. In truth, the two men had grown up together, playing games together along with other friends of whom many were Jewish. The two of them stayed in close contact over the years, and shared many projects for the city of Ferrara.
Is Balbo's friendship with Ravenna a sign of his more moderate position with regard to anti-Semitism?
Balbo never made any clear or public statement in favour of the Jews. Perhaps he did not fully support the program of racial persecution, and certainly he was a loyal and supportive friend to Ravenna, but he never went so far as to put his career in jeopardy.
Your book is divided into two parts: the first focused on the figure of Ravenna, the second centring on the city.
Exploring the city of Ferrara and what it represented in those years made for an interesting starting point. As the cradle of agricultural fascism, the city represents an important case-study.
In what ways?
In the policies pursued with respect to urban redesign and political culture. The increasing unemployment among agricultural labourers risked an escalation into violent conflict. In response the idea of a series of public works was mooted, which became of great value. So far as political culture is concerned, for fascism, it was above all intended to create consensus. Within the city there was a need to repair the image of Ferrarese squadrismo (black-shirt violence). For this reason the restoration of the Este Court was begun, and deliberate parallels drawn between the Renaissance and the new regime.
What role did Ravenna and Balbo play in this scheme?
They were decisive. They developed a model based on a reimagining of the city's founding myths, of the Este family and their greatness: a sort of Ferrarese autarchy, very unlike the emphasis on Roman culture on which Italian fascism generally based itself.
Then came the racial laws, the war and in 1940 the sudden loss of his position.
Like many Jewish Italians who had grown up in the culture of Liberal emancipation, Renzo Ravenna saw no real contradictions in his double identity. Even when the situation grew more complicated after 1938, he felt safe. He was forced to leave his post in 1940 but declared himself still at the service of the State. Up until 1943 he did not really understand what was happening. Then the situation grew worse and along with his family he underwent the terrible experience of the Holocaust.
When he returned to Ferrara after the liberation of the camps, what sort of a man was he?
He was still young, but had been through deeply testing experiences. He understood the responsibilities he had had, and he chose not to pursue public life any further despite the respect in which he was held. He could never make amends for his role in events, but he suffered a great deal internally. Perhaps this in part was why he died aged only sixty, when he suffered an unexpected heart attack.

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