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Racism and Malaria

Frank M. Snowden—

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the Fascist antimalarial campaign in the Pontine Marshes was its integration into an overarching scheme to transform Italy into a racial utopia as well as a sanitary one. The newly reclaimed Pontine Marshes became the testing ground for a program to breed an Italian superrace. Ignoring such intractable social problems as the Southern Question, poverty, unemployment, and the ongoing endemic of malaria in great swathes of the nation, racism enabled the regime to mobilize an upsurge of popular delirium by offering biological pseudosolutions. More aggressively, racism legitimized the appetite of the dictatorship for expansion and international violence—an appetite that it whetted in Littoria and attempted to satisfy first in Abyssinia and then in its larger quest for the new Roman Empire, which it promoted by launching Italy on a new round of world war.

To accomplish its purposes, the regime capitalized on a deep-seated current of racial anxiety. Many Italians feared that the poor performance of the military—both in Africa, as demonstrated in the humiliating defeat at Adowa in 1896, and in the First World War—and the relative economic backwardness of the nation in comparison with the more-developed industrial powers were due to an inferior genetic inheritance. Although there was nothing in the teachings of the Rome School or in the doctrine of Grassi and Celli to suggest that malaria led to a tainted heredity, there was a widespread belief that chronic afflictions such as malaria, tuberculosis, and alcoholism led—by biological mechanisms that were never clearly defined—to genetic deterioration and national decline. This idea had a long history in Italy. One of the early anxieties of the Rome municipal council after the city was annexed to the nation was the looming danger of racial degeneration caused by malaria. Fever, the council fretted in 1873, ‘‘causes the race to decline by favoring the production of weak and debilitated offspring,’’ who in turn ‘‘generate abortive seed for future generations.’’ Half a century later, in 1926, the Sicilian doctor F. Salpietra expressed the same idea—that one of the great perils of malaria is its tendency to produce ‘‘progressive deterioration in the development of a race.’’ At nearly the same time, the Red Cross malariologist Franco Genovese, writing in 1924 of his first trip to Calabria, uttered his ‘‘dismay’’ at the sight of ‘‘men belonging to a race that has been undermined.’’ Such fears were the essence of the Italian ‘‘race problem.’’ It was a sign of anxious times that a leading Fascist cultural journal adopted as its title La difesa della razza (The Defense of the Race).

Thus the national campaign against malaria held out the hope of yet another bonifica—the ‘‘reclamation of the race.’’ This plan involved two related components. The first was defensive: by reducing the burden of malaria through bonifica integrale, the Fascist regime claimed that it was halting the deterioration of the national gene pool. The second strategy was to improve the national inheritance through eugenics. In this light the regime regarded the Pontine Marshes as the breeding grounds for a great Italian race worthy of empire. The Rome newspaper Tribuna (Tribune) clearly understood this objective when its reporter Marco Franzetti toured Littoria and talked to settlers. He reported with pride that he had encountered children who were blond and ‘‘of sound race’’—‘‘each a future little soldier.’’ At the same time, he admired the adult men for ‘‘possessing a serene visage and a body with the strength of Hercules.’’

To comprehend Fascist eugenics, one needs to appreciate that the dominant racial doctrine in Italy rejected Aryan tenets of racial purity. In the racial cosmology of thinkers like Nicola Pende, Paolo Orano, and Giuseppe Sergi, the world was divided by color into the white, black, yellow, and red races. It was, in their view, a crime against nature to allow miscegenation across any of these color barriers, which also separated Jews from the white race. Only catastrophe and racial suicide could result from such crossings. By introducing laws to restrict interracial breeding, Mirko Ardemagni wrote in the Fascist theoretical journal Gerarchia (Hierarchy), the Fascist revolution would save the white race and European civilization. Mussolini explicitly endorsed this rescue mission.

From The Conquest of Malaria by Frank M. Snowden. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with Permission.

Frank M. Snowden is Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History and History of Medicine at Yale University.

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