After World War I, Italy was in a state of turmoil. Political groups such as communists and anarchists were vying for attention and sway, and King Victor Emmanuel III was losing control over his country. Angry, bitter soldiers had returned to a broken country. Without the direction they were accustomed to in the military, they were aimless. Benito Mussolini gave these soldiers direction. He organized them into the "Blackshirts," groups of armed peacekeepers ready to do his bidding. In this way, Mussolini cultivated martial strength and eventually overthrew the weak government of Italy in 1922. The Fascist party ruled Italy until its fall in 1943.
Under Mussolini's rule, anti-Semitism in Italy experienced a dramatic increase. On July 14, 1938, the Ministry of Popular Culture issued a manifesto della razza, or "manifesto of the race." This manifesto declared that there is a hierarchy of races and that the Jewish race is inferior to the Aryan race. In the wake of this publication, many Jews experienced persecution, lost their homes and jobs, and eventually were shipped to concentration camps. There was little outcry after the manifesto della razza or the resulting treatment of the Jews. This is not surprising, however, because Italy's history of persecuting Jews extends back before Mussolini and the Fascist party (as long ago as the early 1800s, Italian Jews were being placed in ghettos; recall also Shakespeare's play Merchant of Venice). Thus, the lack of national indignation at these new anti-Semitic laws is understandable. The people, though uncomfortable at the harshness of these laws, were not uncomfortable enough to do anything to stop them from being implemented.
Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany joined hands as the Axis Powers in World War II. They not only joined forces on the battlefield, but they also worked together to send Jews (as well as other "problematic" citizens) to concentration camps. Many prisoners died from malnutrition, disease, exhaustion, or execution. These camps were scattered throughout Germany and Poland, with some in Italy and elsewhere. A program of euthanasia called "The Final Solution" was created during the final years of the war. This program called for the annihilation of all "undesirables." Extermination camps were set up in Poland for the purpose of killing off Jews, gypsies, and whomever else the state had a political or personal animosity towards. The extermination camps, including Auschwitz and Treblinka, killed millions. Men and women were shipped from Poland, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere to these camps. A Jew living in Italy during this time was likely to be shipped to a concentration camp or even an extermination camp. The survival rate was very low, though some survivors of these horrific camps are still alive today.
Life is Beautiful seeks to convey, for one thing, the reality of life during this period, especially life in a camp for one family in particular. But it simultaneously injects a new spirit into a story that has been told many times. This story of some of the horrors of the Holocaust includes a unique, almost lighthearted element, something beyond the material reality that on its face is so horrible. Benigni's willingness to use comedy to underscore the evils of fascism is undoubtedly shocking, but it is extremely effective in conveying Benigni's firm belief that beauty and light can be found even in the most horrible of places.