As far-right leader Giorgia Meloni swept to victory in Italy’s election last September, almost exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts marched on Rome, many observers wondered if the country that founded fascism was returning to its authoritarian past.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party is rooted in the Italian post-fascist tradition—one of its co-founders proudly collects fascist memorabilia in his home—and has ties to violent neo-fascist organizations. As a member of a far-right party’s youth wing in the 1990s, Meloni said Mussolini had been “a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy.”
For much of her political career, however, Meloni has been at pains to reassure the public that she is no fascist. “I have never felt any sympathy or closeness toward anti-democratic regimes … including fascism,” she said after her appointment as prime minister. She defines herself, instead, as conservative: a Christian and a patriot who wants to rein in illegal immigration, defend the “natural” family, and keep taxes down.
Yet while Meloni claims Italian fascism has long been dead and buried, a new, insightful book by David Broder, Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy, argues just the opposite.
Broder, a historian and editor at Jacobin, convincingly argues that Meloni’s election marks the ultimate success of a decades-long struggle for relevance by Mussolini’s political heirs, who have managed to shape Italy’s political culture by, in his words, “redefining ‘conservatism’ in a way that can integrate fascist references and personnel.”
For half a century, the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the forerunner of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, was a political pariah. The post-fascist party, founded by defeated regime lieutenants after World War II, had been plunged into political isolation by the parties that had come out of the Italian resistance movement, both conservative and left leaning. The MSI paired a fiercely anti-communist stance with ultraconservative views on social issues, but it was its open nostalgia for the fascist regime that left it shunned by other parties.
Yet, as Broder recounts, after much of the Italian political system collapsed in the early 1990s under the double blow of the end of the Cold War and a sweeping corruption probe, the MSI finally broke into the mainstream thanks to Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the newly created Forza Italia party. Berlusconi forged what was labeled a center-right alliance with the post-fascists and the regionalist Northern League party, leading the coalition to victory in the 1994 general election. With 13.5 percent, the MSI almost tripled its share of the popular vote. “It was us who legitimized them, us who constitutionalized them,” Berlusconi would boast many years later.
Berlusconi’s first government lasted only a few months, but it broke a taboo. From then on, the MSI and the far-right parties that followed were a fixture of center-right coalitions.
This political shift was made possible by the MSI leadership’s efforts to loosen the party’s ties to its fascist past—the same playbook used in recent years by far-right French politician Marine Le Pen to “de-demonize” her National Rally party.
Between the 1990s and the early 2000s, MSI leader Gianfranco Fini sought, as he put it, to “finally take fascism off the Italian political horizon and consign it to the judgment of history.” Fini called for a “clear and irreversible shift,” Broder recounts, and in 1995, he rebranded the party as the National Alliance. He took steps to symbolize this shift, including a visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Although fascism had a “complex history,” the Mussolini regime’s role in deporting Jews could be described as “absolute evil,” he said in 2003.
The National Alliance would later merge with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Brothers of Italy was founded in 2012 in a split from that unified party, largely by former National Alliance members seeking to reclaim the MSI’s tradition—as well as its historic symbol, the tricolor flame.
For the far right, Broder writes, watering down its ideology and acknowledging past horrors were a small price to pay for larger political influence—and the ability to reshape the nation’s collective memory.
Around the turn of the century, right-wing reinterpretations of the dictatorship and World War II started gaining traction. Mainstream books, articles, and TV shows began to draw misleading comparisons between the atrocities perpetrated by the fascists and the Nazi occupation forces, who systematically tortured prisoners and massacred civilians during the 1943-45 Italian civil war, and the far fewer crimes committed by resistance fighters. This new narrative was an attempt to show that the brutal regime and its supporters weren’t actually that bad, or at least not worse than the other side.
Broder masterfully navigates the ongoing debate within Italy over the rights and wrongs of the resistance movement, though perhaps he could have stressed more just how divided Italians have always been over these issues—which is one reason the right’s efforts to challenge the country’s post-war narrative have proved so successful.
It’s true that by the end of World War II, the overwhelming majority of Italians had had enough with the fascist experiment, as shown by the MSI’s dismal electoral results until the 1990s. After 1945, streets were renamed all over Italy to pay tribute to resistance fighters and the regime’s victims, while official ceremonies were held every year to mark the anniversary of liberation.
But underneath the official patina, ambiguity about the past lingered well beyond a small fringe of extremists. Even after the country was left in ruins, many Italians continued to resist the new ruling parties’ anti-fascist rhetoric.
Two of my own great-grandfathers were staunch supporters of fascism. One was executed by resistance fighters in 1944; the other went into hiding for days, armed with a pistol, when liberation came a year later, ultimately getting out unscathed. Unsurprisingly, their children weren’t taught that fascism was an absolute evil, and that resistance fighters were all heroes.
Still, Broder is right to emphasize that Italian post-fascist parties have sought to undermine the resistance’s political heirs and boost their own support by blowing the resistance fighters’ abuses out of proportion and presenting themselves as beleaguered stalwarts of democracy that were silenced, sometimes violently, by the postwar anti-fascist front.
These conflicts over memory, Broder writes, are “about the present more than the past.” Indeed, Italian rightwing hardliners have repurposed their interpretations of history for their present causes: the defense of the white, Christian family and overtaxed small businesses against the threat of immigrants, what they call “LGBT lobbies,” and globalization, which supposedly jeopardizes jobs and national identity.
For example, the right-wing insistence on the purported “ethnic cleansing” of Italians by communist leader Josip Tito’s partisans in Italian-Yugoslav border areas at the end of World War II has bolstered xenophobic narratives about the Italian people once again being in danger of being wiped out, this time by mass immigration.
This kind of crusade resonates with millions of Italians—more than a quarter of voters supported Meloni’s party in the last election.
Meloni’s party also fits into the broader ultraconservative movement in Europe and the United States. It has managed to become a pillar of the international front battling what it considers “globalist ideology,” Broder writes, with its ties to a radicalizing U.S. Republican Party, Spain’s Vox party, and the hard-right leaders of Hungary and Poland.
Despite the movement’s success, there are limits to what a far-right Italian government can achieve. Broder’s account doesn’t go beyond Meloni’s election, but so far, he has been correct in his prediction that she will not challenge Italy’s position within NATO and will avoid direct confrontation with Brussels, despite her Eurosceptic tones of years past.
It’s on issues around identity and immigration, as Broder expected, that Meloni is seeking to leave her mark. Just weeks ago, her government instructed mayors to stop registering the children of same-sex parents, as some had been doing amid a legal vacuum. “It is a clear step backwards, politically and socially,” said Milan’s left-wing mayor, Giuseppe Sala, in his daily podcast Buongiorno Milano.
Questions about her party’s fascist roots tend to get under Meloni’s skin. “All the time that I spend talking about this, a subject no one cares about because people are struggling to make ends meet, is time in which I can’t talk about what I’d like to get done in this millennium,” she said during last year’s campaign.
But many Italians do care, including the younger generations. In a 2021 poll, more than 60 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 25 said anti-fascism is still relevant in today’s Italy.
The ghosts of the past are often stirred by new events. In late 2021, neofascist militants taking part in a rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Rome ransacked the headquarters of the Italian General Confederation of Labour, bringing back memories of the violence that accompanied the National Fascist Party’s rise to power a century earlier. A left-wing demonstration in response to the attack drew tens of thousands of people, with placards reading “Fascism: Never Again.” In February, far-right activists beat two left-wing students outside a Florence high school. Again, tens of thousands of Italians took to the streets in protest, chanting “we are all anti-fascists.”
These protests demonstrate that Italy’s tradition of anti-fascist politics is alive and kicking. However, it’s the far right that is in power now, “writing new history for the bearers of the tricolore flame,” as Broder writes. Italy’s future, as well as its past, is now in the hands of Mussolini’s “grandchildren.”
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