“The Italian Constitution doesn’t contain the word ‘anti-fascism.’” So claimed Senate president Ignazio La Russa last Friday, explaining that in the constitutional debates that followed the defeat of Benito Mussolini’s regime, “the moderate parties didn’t want to offer such a gift to the [Communists] and the USSR.” Today holding the second-highest post in the Italian Republic, La Russa has long claimed that postwar “anti-fascism” was a Soviet-inspired ideology designed to silence right-wingers like himself. Ahead of today’s public holiday commemorating the Italian resistance against fascism, La Russa announced he would spend the day paying tribute to Jan Palach — the Czech student who self-immolated in protest of the Soviet invasion of his country in 1968 — as well as the victims of Nazism at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
This attempt to “both-sides” Liberation Day was surely controversial, not least because the Senate president is meant to be a neutral umpire of the Constitution. Many insisted that the document is anti-fascist in spirit throughout; that it specifically forbids the recreation of the Fascist Party; and that even Christian Democratic framers of this document did specify its anti-fascist, rather than just “non-fascist,” character.
Yet La Russa’s comments were also unsurprising, coming from a veteran neofascist well known for his efforts to relativize “both sides” of Italian history. As Silvio Berlusconi’s defense minister in 2008, he insisted at one memorial event that not only those who resisted Hitler’s invasion of Italy, but also fighters for the Nazi-collaborationist Salò Republic, should be seen “in objective terms,” as men who “subjectively, from their point of view, fought believing in the defense of the Fatherland.” Even in recent weeks, La Russa has trivialized the World War II–era resistance, falsely claiming that the 1944 partisan action at Rome’s Via Rasella targeted a “musical band of semi-pensioners,” when in fact it attacked a military police unit under SS command.
Surely, his party has a certain division of labor in this regard: La Russa, whom Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has called “guarantor of a bloodline of sure faith,” often serves red meat to Fratelli d’Italia’s militant base in the form of media provocations, while Meloni acts as the stateswoman. Yet while less given to “nostalgic” outbursts, having joined the political fray only in 1992, Meloni plays just as vital a role in her party’s rewriting of Italian history and national identity. The aim is not so much to celebrate fascist heroism or Mussolinian dreams of empire, as to turn the focus on victims — including Italians killed by anti-fascists.
Meloni routinely advocates what she calls a “pacification” of Italian history, in which all victims are honored, no matter which side they fought on. In a column for today’s Corriere della Sera, marking the anniversary of liberation from fascism, Meloni said that the regime had trampled on democratic freedoms, but that the divides of the war have for too long weighed over public life. By this, she did not mean that her party will agree to identify itself as “anti-fascist,” in order to close this chapter in the past. Rather, she advocates that Italians as a whole transcend this divide, even replacing the resistance holiday with a generic “Festival of Freedom.” The agenda, here, is not just about the past, but the future: to tear down what remains of institutional anti-fascism and to mold a new national identity.
Republic Born of the Resistance
To get a better sense of this, it’s worth turning back to 1992, when a teenage Meloni joined the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI). Liberation Day that year fell upon a watershed moment in postwar Italian history: the USSR had just collapsed, the Italian Communist Party had dissolved, and a corruption scandal known as Bribesville had begun to engulf the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties, major parties of the resistance that had been key pillars of the postwar republic. Hence, meeting in Naples on Liberation Day 1992, the neofascists of the MSI could celebrate the demise of the long-dominant anti-fascist parties.
La Russa, who chaired the Naples rally, introduced the MSI parliamentary leader Franco Servello, whom he presented as a longtime fighter against the “party-ocracy” that had ruled Italy since 1945. Servello noted that April 25 was a “significant date, negative for us.” Yet now the MSI could celebrate a liberation of its own — the “end of the republic born of the resistance,” the confirmation of the “long and solitary battle we fought” ever since the MSI’s foundation in 1946. The collapse of the resistance-era parties offered the chance to replace the postwar order with “the new republic we fought for all these years” — one in which his party could finally return to government.
The supposedly undue biases of this postwar Italy, rather than the fascist era itself, are the key focus of Meloni’s references to the past. Upon taking office six months ago, she once again dismissed her party’s connection to the Mussolinian dictatorship: she had — she told the lower house ahead of an October 25 confidence vote — “never felt sympathies for totalitarian regimes, the fascist one included.” Yet, she followed this up with a quite different way of reading Italy’s twentieth-century history, insisting that fascists had been victims, too.
In her address to the Chamber of Deputies, she cited the case of Sergio Ramelli, an eighteen-year-old member of the MSI, who was targeted by militants from the far-left Avanguardia Operaia and assaulted outside his Milan home on March 13, 1975. Ramelli went into a coma for seven weeks, dying on April 29 that year. For Meloni, the lesson was that “the Italian democratic right has always acted out in the open, fully part of our republican institutions even in the darkest years of criminalization and political violence, when in the name of militant anti-fascism innocent kids were beaten to death with metal tools.” Never mind the hundreds killed by neofascist bombs, bullets, and stabbings in these same years: the innocence of this young militant stood for the innocence of the MSI itself.
Again, in her comments in today’s Corriere della Sera, Meloni cast postwar Italy as a society in which her political side had been victimized. In her words, “Those excluded from the constitutional process for obvious historical reasons, strove to guide millions of Italians into the new parliamentary republic, giving form to the democratic right.” Yet despite this strong democracy, and even the MSI’s efforts to integrate non-fascists into its ranks, the term “fascism” had persisted as “a tool to delegitimize any political adversary, as a sort of weapon of mass exclusion . . . that for decades made it possible to keep individuals, associations, and parties from any field of engagement, discussion, and even simply getting a hearing.”
Remarkable, in this framing, is how it casts the postwar search to pacify social conflict — the 1946 amnesty by Communist justice minister Palmiro Togliatti, which saved many regime figures from prosecution, or the postwar decisions to allow the MSI to run in elections — as a kind of mutual recognition between the fascist and anti-fascist sides, in which each played its own role in leaving the past in the past and building a strong democracy. The disappointed promise of the republic, then, was not so much that it failed properly to crush fascism — its violent conspiracies, its roots in the state apparatus — but rather that the defeated side was not properly integrated due to a residual prejudice against it. In this way, Meloni claims, those who insist on warning against “fascism” “undermined the values that they claim to defend,” by keeping democracy only for some.
In reality, in postwar decades the MSI often referred to itself as a party of fascists, including but not only through nostalgia for Mussolini. Even in the 1980s, leader Giorgio Almirante explicitly claimed that fascism was a tradition of values to be kept alive and renewed in the present. He did so during a moment of institutional coddling of his MSI party, part of the republic’s efforts at “pacification” following the political violence of the previous decade. While in 1986 Almirante was himself formally placed under investigation for involvement in covering up a car-bomb attack that killed three policemen in 1972, he benefited from an amnesty to avoid prosecution. He died in 1988, and the years following his death would see the MSI finally able to find a way into the mainstream right, with Silvio Berlusconi welcoming it into his government coalition in 1994.
In this sense, it is remarkable how much Italy’s neo- and post-fascists have benefited from the indulgence of others outside their tradition — with Meloni’s Corriere piece able to cite various such calls to overcome past wounds. There was the ex-Communist Luciano Violante, the late-1990s parliamentary speaker who called for an understanding of “the motives of the lads who fought for [the Salò Republic].” There was the 2019 European Parliament resolution that, in condemning “all the totalitarianisms” of the twentieth century, was cited to show that the communists who helped found Italian democracy were the same as the neofascists who tried to overthrow it. Most important was Silvio Berlusconi — the man who boasted of having “constitutionalized the fascists” and in 2009, Meloni reminded us, called for an “overcoming of the lacerations of the past” by turning Liberation Day into a “Festival of Freedom.”
Thus, in the name of “pacifying” historical memory, the republic would have an official Remembrance Day (already introduced in 2004) to honor Italians killed by Yugoslav partisans, but not one specifically to celebrate the resistance against fascism. This does, after all, make sense from a party that routinely insists that the Communists — the largest or even majority force in the partisan struggle — wanted to impose an even worse dictatorship than fascism itself. But there is also a difference even with regard to the 1990s and 2000s post-fascist leader Gianfranco Fini, who sought to identify his party with right-wing parts of the resistance. Where he reckoned that anti-fascism had been “necessary in a given historical moment,” or even that some anti-fascist values were timeless, Fratelli d’Italia avoids all identification with this term, in favor of a more generic language of “freedom.”
Fratelli d’Italia has surely hybridized some historic fascist ideas and reference points with a more modern identity politics: the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory has in recent years provided a connection with other right-wing forces not from a specifically Mussolinian tradition. Still, insofar as it uses historical falsifications to build up its victim narrative, a specifically “anti-fascist” response is, indeed, necessary. Fascism’s crimes were not some by-product of a mistaken alliance with Nazi Germany; they went beyond its shameful collaboration in the Holocaust. The call to honor Italian victims on “both sides,” whether killed by Nazis or Communists, is also a way of ignoring the many other fronts of fascist criminality, from Ethiopia to Libya and from Greece to Yugoslavia, lands whose dead are all but absent from mainstream Italian public debate.
Yet while the Italian government is attempting to destroy the residues of Italian institutional anti-fascism, it must be recognized that such values could never persist through force of inertia alone, or even the necessary work of upholding the historical record against its falsifiers. The legacy of the resistance was not, as Meloni claims, some sort of Red hegemony that crushed patriots, but rather an active and mobilized popular politics, a mass democracy galvanized by the memory of the resistance but also by the social conquests of the present and the vision of the better future society to come. It is this resistance legacy — more than just a reactive opposition to the far right — that is really missing in today’s Italy. The political heirs to Mussolini take power in a context not of rising social conflict but of the desertification of Italian democracy. Recent regional elections in Lazio and Lombardy each saw turnout at just 40 percent, compared to over 90 percent just three decades ago.
In the 1980s historian Renzo de Felice predicted that anti-fascism would become ever less a defining trait of Italian national identity, as the generation that directly experienced the war began to die away. Yet today we see that this history is indeed still fought over — frequently making front-page news —but without the bases in mass democracy that gave meaning to the parties of the postwar decades. The political legacy of the resistance is not only attacked from the government and from the far right, for it is also undermined by a longer-term collapse of faith in political action per se. The first Liberation Day under a post-fascist premier also comes after three decades in which political decisions have been ever-more handed to technocrats, the optimism of the “end of history” has fallen away, and Italians have been left without wage rises, economic growth, or even the hope of a turnaround. If in 1992 MSI cadre Servello proclaimed the end of the “republic born of the resistance,” this, too, is the result of the change in the times.
Upon her election, Meloni said that a whole part of Italian society “could raise its head again”: it seemed quite clear that she meant those on her political side. It cannot be expected that her far-right party will ever feel the need to conform to the institutional anti-fascist codes; rather, it positively revels in transgressing them. Their political project is one that literally replaces the word “republic” with “nation”; a vision of Italy based not on the republican community of equals, but ethnic homogeneity and social Darwinism. To make anti-fascism alive in the present demands not just a fight against Meloni, but the rebuilding of the inclusive, mass, democratic politics that stood as the resistance’s most important legacy.