Italy’s Right Still Hasn’t Broken Its Ties to Fascism

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni insists her Fratelli d’Italia party has “consigned fascism to the past.” But a study of her party’s vision of Italian history shows a demonization of anti-fascism, not its own Mussolinian ancestors.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni at a press conference on March 8, 2023 in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello / Getty Images)

Before irate heroin dealers knocked out his front teeth, Chet Baker was the boy wonder of West Coast “cool jazz.” Tact, however, was not among the gifts that made him a star. Addressing a young musician while touring Italy in the early 1960s, Baker was heard to introduce himself with a clunking icebreaker for the ages: “Gee, it’s a drag about your old man.” The jazz pianist in question, then going by the name Romano Full, was by birth the youngest son of ex-dictator Benito Mussolini. The “drag,” as Baker delicately put it, involved Romano’s father being shot and strung up from a petrol station on Milan’s Piazzale Loreto in April 1945.

But if the ensuing US occupation put paid to official restrictions on jazz, Mussolini’s death did not signal the end of fascism in the land of its birth. For although the postwar constitution forbade the reformation of the National Fascist Party (PNF), it took barely a year for diehards of the ancien régime to found a successor: the Italian Social Movement (MSI).

The reconstitution of the Fascist party thus went forever unchecked. On top of that, there would be no reckoning, no Nuremberg trials, no “defascistization” process of the kind seen in Germany. Indeed, the birth of the MSI on Boxing Day 1946 made Italy a unique case among the defeated nations; in no other was a party founded in continuity with the fascist regime permitted to contest elections.

So began Italy’s ambivalent relationship with its legacy of fascism. In the following decades, the MSI, an out-and-proud neofascist party, would become a fixture of everyday politics. There are 416 fascist monuments still standing in Italy. Streets dubbed after fascists retain their maiden names. And, as the political careers of Mussolini’s granddaughters Alessandra and Rachele demonstrate, having that surname on a poster can be more of a help than a hindrance when it comes to getting elected.

The relative “normalcy” with which fascism is treated in Italy made global headlines with the 2022 election victory for Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, Fd’I). A direct descendant of the neofascist MSI, liberal and left-wing commentators viewed the rise of Giorgia Meloni’s party with both fear and confusion. Could it be that fascism was making a comeback in Italy, almost a hundred years to the day after Mussolini’s Blackshirts marched on Rome? If so, how on earth did we get to this point?

The afterlife of Italian fascism — and the political success its descendants enjoy in our time — is the subject of David Broder’s incisive new history of the Italian far right, Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy. Setting out to explain the parlous state of contemporary politics in Italy, Broder (an editor at this magazine) expertly reconstructs the genealogy of fascism in Italy from the ground up. In doing so, he pieces together the jagged route by which the inheritors of fascism went from political pariahs in 1946 to the corridors of power in present-day Rome.

Fascist Loyalists

Broder’s history focuses heavily on political developments relating to the MSI — the progenitor of the Fd’I and the focal point around which fascism reconstituted itself after 1945. The MSI was founded to represent the losers of the Italian civil war, which from 1943 pitted a largely Communist-led partisan movement against Fascist loyalists and the Wehrmacht. All civil wars leave deep scars and simmering resentments in the societies that suffer them, and Italy emerged from the war a profoundly divided nation. As a gesture toward national reconciliation, Communist leader and justice minister Palmiro Togliatti announced a general amnesty in June 1946. The prisons subsequently unleashed twenty thousand of the thirty thousand Fascists detained during the war, and with them, the cadres who would form the nucleus of Italian neofascism.

Though legal, and somewhat willing to play by the rules of the democratic game, the MSI were shunned at first by their fellow parliamentarians. After all, anti-fascism was the foundational myth of the “First Republic.” It was a shared commitment to anti-fascist principles that had enabled Catholics, liberals, socialists, communists, and royalists to fight on the same side in the months prior to Mussolini’s downfall. The parties disagreed on the fundamentals when it came to politics and economics, but they could at least agree that the new Italy ought not be fascist.

In contrast, the MSI took its personnel, name, and ideas straight from the puppet government set up by Adolf Hitler in Italy’s north in 1943. Though prompted by the King’s defection to the advancing Allies, the foundation of the Italian Social Republic (RSI) was hailed by Mussolini as an opportunity to return to fascism’s “radical” roots, a chance to free the Fascist state from the compromises with the monarchy and big business, which for twenty years had restrained his (national) socialist inclinations. Confined to his residence by the SS, with little sway over the country he ached to rule with an iron hand, he finished his days as a figurehead for a Nazi colony, or in his own words, “the Gauleiter of Lombardy,” the region around Milan.

And yet, Mussolini’s vision continued to inspire more than a few Italians. The MSI won six seats in the first postwar parliamentary elections of 1948, with 2 percent of the national vote. Not enough for a March on Rome, but a start. Long-term, the MSI was in the business of restoring that vision to power. But their first duty was defensive, not offensive: to keep the fascist torch aglow during the long, dark political winter to which Mussolini’s fall had consigned them. Hence their logo, a tricolor flame in the Italian national colors.

A Fascist for 2000

For fifty years, the MSI thrashed around for a strategy befitting what leader Giorgio Almirante called “a party of fascists in democracy.” Anti-communism alone would not cut it, and decades in the wilderness eventually forced forward-thinking elements in the party toward a break with the most toxic aspects of Fascism’s legacy. Grudgingly, the party leadership began to criticize Mussolini’s antisemitic racial laws, as well as his hatred for democracy. Central to Broder’s story in this regard is the personage of Gianfranco Fini — a self-styled “fascist for the year 2000” — who in his efforts to drag the MSI toward the “European center-right,” comes to resemble something like the Tony Blair of Italian neofascism.

Despite Fini’s efforts to detoxify the MSI, changing its name and a few of its stripes along the way, it would not be until September 2022 that a party whose logo bears that tricolor flame would rule Italy as the largest party in a governing coalition. But that party was not to be the MSI. Not exactly, anyway. Prime Minister Meloni was, admittedly, an MSI member and then post-fascist youth leader. Still today, she glows when speaking of the neofascist party’s founder, Almirante, chief of staff at the Ministry of Popular Culture during the last months of Mussolini’s reign. Moreover, the Fd’I claim both the MSI’s paternity and heraldry for themselves. But though they take pride in their neofascist roots, they also insist that the MSI was simply a “normal” party of the “democratic postwar right.”

Broder demolishes the Fd’I’s ambiguous claims that fascism is no longer relevant, that it has been “consigned to history” in Italy, by revealing just how deeply the governing party draws upon the fascist tradition. Fd’I representatives routinely celebrate Fascist-era figures like the aviator Italo Balbo, the colonial governor who interned a hundred thousand Libyans, and Fascist education minister Giuseppe Bottai, who excluded Jewish children from Italy’s classrooms.

Electorally minded Meloni has repeatedly had to step in to castigate overexcited party officials — so-called “pantomime nostalgists” — who like to play dress-up in regime uniforms or celebrate Fascist anniversaries, like the centenary of Mussolini’s coup. Moreover, Fd’I has consistently acted as a “conveyor belt” of militants from the neo-Nazi fringes to the “mainstream right.” Neofascist trainspotters will get a great deal out of Broder’s dissection of Italy’s thriving radical right subcultures, the most well-known example being the so-called “hipster fascists” of CasaPound, a Rome-based squat and “social center” infamous for their whites-only outreach programs.

Mussolini’s Disgruntled Uncles

Nevertheless, Broder makes it clear that Meloni is no Mussolini 2.0. After all, he remarks, epigraphs in her autobiography are lifted neither from the writings of esoteric “superfascist” Julius Evola or theorist of “proletarian nationalism” Enrico Corradini, but from the lyrics of Ed Sheeran songs written for a Hobbit movie or Maroon 5.

But where postfascists depart from the style, methods, and tics of historical fascism, Broder asks that we not interpret this as a retreat from the core convictions that animated those movements. For although its spokesmen reject many of the features associated with classical fascism — violence, paramilitarism, military expansionism, racial antisemitism, the cult of the charismatic leader — the ineliminable core of the fascist worldview is shown to be present in the party’s drive for the purification and preservation of a homogeneous national community.

Rather, Broder argues, postfascist divergence is inevitable in the absence of the ambient factors that conditioned fascism’s initial rise. The interwar era was a period in which well-drilled men, broken and brutalized by the experience of World War I, were a decisive element in politics. Today, the social climate is no longer characterized either by mass mobilizations or normalized political violence. Moreover, at the level of ideas, politics has witnessed the “ebbing of grand projects for reorganizing society” on right and left alike. If at all, political engagement today takes place via touch screen. Consequently, Fd’I mobilizing myths and conspiracies — like the so-called “Great Replacement” theory which claims “elites” are out to replace indigenous Europeans with pliable migrants, the better to exploit them — are more likely to spread via your estranged uncle’s Facebook feed than the chants of monochrome street movements.

In an era marked by generalized lack of faith in transformative politics, the far right has moderated its ambitions accordingly. Meloni accepts the political-economic orthodoxies about how a “normal” society ought to be run, which is to say on the basis of neoliberal dogma and in line with US foreign policy. She has no intent of trying to recreate the Roman Empire, as some of the more excitable fascist ideologues in Mussolini’s day had hoped to do. Postfascists are happy to see Libyan refugees drown in the Mediterranean if it means they do not make it to Sicily. But they are unlikely to invade the country as Mussolini did, unless asked by NATO to do so.

The postfascist acceptance of external constraints on budgetary and foreign policy means the wiggle room for real political change is very slight indeed. This, Broder explains, is one reason why domestic discourse on immigrants and refugees has become so poisonous. Aside from ramping up identitarian hatreds to appeal to their base, there is little else postfascists in power can actually do.

Memory Politics

But if the conditions that generated twentieth-century fascism are no longer with us, how did this generation of fascism’s descendants make it into power? Moreover, why Italy? Which, despite fascism’s deep roots there, long boasted an even stronger tradition of militant and institutional anti-fascism?

For this to occur, Broder argues, the politics of memory surrounding Fascism and World War II in Italy first had to undergo a radical shift. Anti-fascism needed to lose its status as the key principle upon which mainstream Italian political parties staked their legitimacy, and the crimes of Fascism had to be relativized or simply forgotten.

To illustrate how this happened, Broder examines how the Italian far right distorts the historical record to present Fascist Italy as a victim, not a perpetrator, of World War II. Broder writes of the battle over the memory of the “foibe” massacres. Between 1943–45, Yugoslav partisans killed several thousand Italians, throwing their bodies into the foibe, a word for natural sinkholes, which lends the massacre its name. A human tragedy, but one comprehensible only in the context of a Nazi-Fascist invasion responsible for the deaths of an estimated one million Yugoslavs. The foibe killings had varied motives and cannot be seen as a straightforward reprisal against Fascist atrocities in Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, historians have demonstrated that Fascist officials and collaborators — as well as their relatives — were overrepresented among the dead.

Unsurprisingly, this is not how the Italian far right retell this sad episode. For politicians like Meloni, the foibe massacres were the product of an anti-Italian genocide, comparable to the Holocaust. Typical of the “holocaustization” of the foibe massacres are the statements of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who argues on the Remembrance Day created for the occasion that from the foiba at “Basovizza to Auschwitz, there are no Serie A and Serie B martyrs.” As Broder writes, “Though such a claim is outwardly about honouring all victims, regardless of their sides in the political conflict [it is] the result of a false equivalence between groups — the Italians killed in the foibe and Jews murdered at Auschwitz.”

Beyond the offensiveness of any suggestion that Fascist Italy — a regime that participated in the Holocaust — can be considered a victim comparable to the murdered Jews of Europe, the aim of this campaign is not an academic-historiographical one. Rather, the purpose of this crude rewriting of history is to drag the name of anti-fascism through the mud by drawing a moral equivalence between those who fought against Hitler and those who fought for him.

In doing so, the far right argues that the anti-fascist partisans were not patriots, but Joseph Stalin’s henchmen. Not champions of freedom and democracy, but turncoats who supported a fratricidal campaign against their fellow Italians on behalf of world communism. Moreover, they claim this war never stopped: “Today like yesterday,” claims Fratelli d’Italia cofounder Ignazio La Russa, “the worst racism is the ideological racism against Italians. Yesterday it was in favour of Stalin and Tito, today against the Italians who ask for controls on immigration and the Islamic threat.”

Anti-fascism is thus portrayed not as the common reference point for democratic politics in Italy, but a stick with which the “gendarmes of memory” use to beat down ordinary Italians. It is increasingly forgotten that, as Alberto Asor Rosa put it, “behind the most honest, good-faith, idealistic” fighter in a Fascist militia were “the roundups, the torture chambers, deportations, the Holocaust; behind the most ignorant, thieving, cut-throat partisan was the struggle for a peaceful and democratic society.” And it is only in the context of such distortions that the election of a postfascist party in Italy became first thinkable, and then reality.

Bleak History

Reflecting our historical moment, Mussolini’s Grandchildren is a bleak history at times. Broder brooks no easy answers as to how we might combat the rise of postfascism in Europe. What this timely and penetrating work of contemporary history does give us is a blow-by-blow account of the process by which the cordon sanitaire between traditional conservatism and the neofascist right breaks down. One hopes in vain that its relevance will remain limited to Italy in the coming years.

It is not all bad news coming out of Italy. Alessandra Mussolini — Romano the jazz pianist’s daughter and Il Duce’s granddaughter — was for many years the most vociferous defender of the Fascist legacy. Indeed, she quit the party when Fini’s attempt to detoxify it went too far in its criticisms of her grandad’s dictatorship. A politician, model, and one-time The Simpsons voice actor, Alessandra takes a rather less nuanced view of fascism’s moral balance sheet than comparatively apologetic postfascists like Meloni.

Responding to Muammar Gaddafi’s call for Italians to pay reparations for their conquest of Libya, Alessandra responded, “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather, they would still be riding camels with turbans on their heads. They are the ones who should be paying us compensation, because it was a positive colonization. Fascism exported democracy, as well as roads, houses and schools.” As for her stance on LGBTQ issues, she once remarked that “it is better to be a fascist than a f****t.”

In recent months, Alessandra appears to have reconsidered her position. Shockingly, the former MSI MP publicly backed the so-called Zan bill, which aimed to criminalize acts of discrimination against LGBTQ and disabled people. In an interview explaining her change of heart, she explained, “The most important thing is that you can give love.” “People can change,” she added. And if a Mussolini can change for the better, why not Italy, too?