Airbrushing Italy’s Fascist Past Is Helping Today’s Far Right
For three decades, revisionists have systematically turned Italy’s discussion of World War II away from Fascist crimes and toward the Italians killed by anti-fascist partisans. The effect has been to trivialize the Fascist past — and legitimize a new far right.
- Interview by
- David Broder
Front-runner for September’s Italian general election, Giorgia Meloni, this month insisted that “fascism has been consigned to history.” Such a statement was hardly a fulsome condemnation of the past; and the fact that she even needed to say it also shows that it is not really true. Benito Mussolini’s regime is not coming back, but attitudes toward the Fascist past remain a defining feature of Italian politics.
Especially important, in this sense, is the political turn of the last three decades. In the Republic founded after the Resistance of 1943–45, anti-fascism long held sway. Yet the major parties of the Resistance collapsed in the early 1990s, and in more recent times an aggressive revisionism has challenged anti-fascism’s moral superiority — emphasizing that there were crimes and victims “on both sides.”
Yet even this attempt to put the sides on an equal footing is married with clearly indulgent claims about the Fascist past, from Italy’s colonial wars to the “victims of communism” in World War II. Center-right pundits openly claim that “Mussolini did good things, too” and that the Resistance was a totalitarian plot. Today, a country unable to critically confront its past looks increasingly prey to a resentful nationalism.
Yet, there are also Italians fighting to keep anti-fascism alive. One of them is historian Carlo Greppi, editor of Laterza’s “Fact-Checking” book series. It seeks to confront false claims about the Fascist era by setting out the historical realities, in a popularizing style. Greppi spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the decline of institutional anti-fascism, the rewriting of history to indulge Italian nationalism, and the forces resisting the current reactionary turn.
A striking element of Italian public memory culture is the way that non-historians — pundits like Bruno Vespa and Giampaolo Pansa — have topped best-seller charts with works claiming to reveal “hidden histories” of World War II. This includes wild claims, for instance Vespa wrote that up till 1991 there were no non-Communist books on the Resistance. Some of the works in your series respond to this sensationalist account of suppressed history. But why do you think it is so influential?
There are many reasons. Doubtless one of the most serious is that many academic historians are in an ivory tower and have overly abdicated their role in shaping public discussion. Clearly the results arrived at by professional historians, who use a historical method and research the facts, are at odds with what the self-proclaimed historians you mention say. But the problem is, these latter sell ten or a hundred times more books. And — to limit our focus to traditional media — they are constantly on TV.
But also fundamental has been the changing political situation, both internationally and in Italy itself. The old political bulwark of anti-fascism, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), dissolved in 1991, and so there is an onslaught of “anti-anti-fascist” memory culture focused on the “gray zone” (those Italians who supported neither Fascism nor the Resistance) and even the rising neofascist narration of the veterans of the Nazi-collaborationist Salò Republic.
What has changed is that there are no longer any fixed limits: and the common sense has swung around totally. With the eclipse of anti-fascism in politics, the so-called “memory of the defeated” (that is, fascists) has found a positive terrain, and so too the idea that fascism “wasn’t so bad” before it got dragged in the wrong direction by the Nazi ally.
This takes us to the new official day of memory for the Alpini mountain infantry, agreed earlier in 2022. It doesn’t just honor these units in general, but their role in the invasion of the USSR…
I had Alpini in my family, and at various points in history this corps distinguished itself with its noble actions: some Alpini were in the Resistance, though surely not all (if they had done, the Resistance would have won in two weeks). Yet the new celebration of the Alpini was not set, for instance, for September 8 (the day in 1943 when Nazi Germany invaded northern-central Italy, in turn giving rise to the armed resistance), but rather deliberately chosen for January 26, that is, the breakout at Nikolayevka in the final phases of the Battle of Stalingrad. But what is being celebrated, here? Every shot fired there helped the Nazi extermination camps remain open for longer: it was the Axis’s war.
This is a brazen attack on anti-fascism, though even the center-left did nothing to oppose it. Public memory has to make choices about what to celebrate, but increasingly Italian memory culture honors the Italian victims of a war of domination launched by Fascist Italy itself. This is not “history,” but its monumentalization in the manner of statues: a celebration of the past, erected in a given moment in order to stand in for memory.
Readers may be surprised by the intensity of the historical relativism: for instance, even mainstream politicians like Matteo Salvini saying that the Italians killed by Yugoslav partisans should be honored as equals to the victims at Auschwitz. And it seems that there are few limits on even open fascists speaking on TV. So, what remains of postwar Italy’s so-called “anti-fascist biases”?
There is a fragmentation of memory between political sides. The February 10 Day of Remembrance for victims of the foibe — Italians killed mainly by Yugoslav partisans, after the armistice — stands as a nationalist and de facto neofascist counterpoint to the Day of Memory, for victims of the Holocaust, which falls two weeks before.
This is also an interesting yardstick of the poor health of Italian democracy, now that the democratic-republican memory that emerged from the Resistance is so much on the defensive. Instead, there is this tendency to celebrate the victims “of all sides,” as per the 1996 call by one center-left president of the Chamber of Deputies to understand the motives of the “lads who fought for Salò” — that is, in Mussolini’s holdout regime, alongside Nazi Germany and against the Resistance and the civilian population. This was a typical “assist” by the center-left for the current right-wing rewriting of history.
Rather than claim that when we are dead we are all equal, a democratic institutional memory should make a choice for the democratic and anti-fascist side. Instead, the nationalist Lega and Fratelli d’Italia have partly succeeded in pushing the centenary of World War I and the three black years that led up to Fascism as the focus of national identity, rather than the Resistance.
It seems, though, that the founding myths of the postwar Republic are in decline, also because the Republic itself is no longer in a good state.
For decades, the Italian political class has had little credibility, also on the Left. Tangentopoli — the corruption cases that destroyed the major parties in the early 1990s — darkened the concept of “politics” and “parties.” Even if some of them still did uphold the values of anti-fascism, this created a kind of perfect storm, since in delegitimizing themselves they harmed the Resistance itself.
That said, for all the imperfections of the Italy of postwar decades, one can only admire a time when politics was done seriously by people who contributed their lives to serving the collective interest. This tendency soon fell apart, as had happened to “anti-fascist unity” in the immediate post-1945 period.
In fact, as Chiara Colombini notes in her book Anche i partigiani però…, it’s not true that in the postwar decades there was just one, official version of Resistance history. It is true that the Communists were the strongest force, but for twenty months there was a political miracle — Communists came together in the Resistance with Socialists, Christian Democrats, the Azionisti… That diversity of the forces who came together in the Resistance has been lost, along with their respective narratives.
Turning to your series, what do you think that this “Fact-Checking” can do to confront this kind of relativism?
The idea is to find a straightforward way to cleanse the public debate of the lies, the inaccuracies, the fake news — often circulated by right-wingers who chance their hand at history-writing. These are not original studies but bring together the results of existing research, with a solid, factual, and interpretative basis. The books are meant as a kind of “self-defense manual” for those who want to face history with intellectual honesty and for those who want to defend themselves against these revisionist narratives. The hope is that the arguments will be set in circulation even beyond the people who directly read the books.
We haven’t especially chosen to rely on academic or nonacademic historians (we do both), but the important thing is that we have chosen to take a stand, to take to the barricades of public debate. For some, such as Eric Gobetti — who questions the focusing of “eastern border” history during World War II on the foibe killings alone, a clearly nationalistic and neofascist point of view — this has meant receiving threats.
It is true, if you look for instance on Amazon’s “reviews,” you’ll see that books by pundits like Vespa sell far more copies. Yet books challenging revisionist claims have also been publishing successes. To take earlier examples we could look at Angelo Del Boca’s Italiani, brava gente? or Francesco Filippi’s work questioning whether “Mussolini did good things, too.” The point is to move these arguments away from a niche issue for experts, and take them into public debate, combining radicalism with professionalism. For that we can also be thankful to the publisher Laterza, probably the most important in Italy for historical essays, who certainly didn’t have to take on a challenge of this kind. But it did so with passion and conviction.
I was interested that you also have a forthcoming title that insists that even a country taken as a model of public memory — Germany — has problems of its own…
Comparisons are often made with Germany, as a positive counterpoint to Italy: the intention is noble, yet this is inaccurate in many ways. It is clear that post-1990 reunited Germany has done a lot of things institutionally to reflect on the Nazi past, whereas that is not true of Italy. But if you compare West Germany from 1949 to 1990, and Italy in those same decades, you would arrive at almost the opposite judgement. As Tommaso Speccher’s essay La Germania sì che ha fatto i conti con il nazismo shows, in Germany for decades there was no reckoning at all except at surface level, in much the same way as in Italy.
Anti-fascism is often accused of just being a last-ditch tactic pulled out by center-left parties every few years to demonize their opponents at election time. Your own book cites the “boy crying wolf” analogy. So, in what specific sense is this insistence on anti-fascism relevant in the present?
It is true that “wolf” has been cried on many occasions in the Republic’s past, but this does not mean that we are not in an unprecedented and very worrying situation: the far-right in Italy has never enjoyed such an upsurge before. And this time, not enough has been done. With few exceptions — notably la Repubblica’s Paolo Berizzi — Italian mainstream press have been indulgent of the far-right parties, which they usually call the “center-right.” But let’s look at the reality: Salvini makes obvious nod-and-wink appeals to a pro-fascist electorate, whereas Giorgia Meloni pulls a kind of three-card trick, where she says she is “not-fascist” but never calls herself anti-fascist nor condemns fascism in general, and indeed constantly praises figures like unrepentant fascist Giorgio Almirante, cofounder of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in 1946. Berizzi has shown how closely even leading figures in her Fratelli d’Italia party are to neofascist street groups.
A couple of weeks back, Meloni gave an address to international media that was read as an “abjuration” of fascism. But this is not the case: it was very timid even compared to the concessions the MSI made in the 1990s with the so-called “Fiuggi Turn” to distance itself from the fascist past. Fratelli d’Italia have taken fifty steps back compared to that. Telling, in this statement, was Meloni’s choice to narrowly focus her criticism of the regime on the “antisemitic laws” of 1938 — rather than its overall racism — allied to her comparison of Fratelli d’Italia to the Israeli right-wing party Likud. This leaves something for more fascist parts of her base: they can see such comments as just a clever game, in which she actually stops short of condemning fascism, while she also tells international media and a certain moderate-right electorate that she does not represent a criminal and subversive endeavor. And all this is accompanied by a constant criminalization of “the Left” (both historical and present-day).
Fratelli d’Italia don’t want to show their sharpest teeth. But if they win in September, it is hard to say how they will handle the centenary of the March on Rome the following month, which will be a litmus test of their relationship with the past and, of course, with the present. The risk to Italy is not an exact repeat of 1922, but rather a withering of democracy, an authoritarian turn, in the style of the much-admired Viktor Orbán. I have often criticized the Democratic Party, but I have also never feared what they’d do to make my life harder, what would happen to colleagues and friends’ positions, if they won an election. That’s the difference: we don’t know what an illiberal right would do.
One of the most notorious Italian pundits said at the end of July: let’s spend this campaign not talking about history. Those who wanted a liberal right — something that never came — are choosing not to talk about Fratelli d’Italia’s past, or to downplay the weight of this history. For sure, historians and pundits cannot move the masses. But if they did say something more often, it would probably shift the dial.
A case in point is the law remembering the victims of the foibe, which however “forgets” all the other victims killed by Fascist Italy itself. The law calls for renewed focus on the memory of this “most complex affair on the eastern border;” many historians cling to the adjective, “complex,” as a sign that they can work with it. But rather than hanging on to the shred of hope that this phrase offers, would it not be better to confront the operation that is underway and call it out for what it is? A nationalist and neofascist law.