The far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) evokes the national anthem, written in 1847 as a theme tune of Italy’s unification in the Risorgimento. In October 1946, it replaced the Royal March (Marcia reale) and Fascist anthem, Giovinezza (Youth), which had, until 1943, given the country two national songs during Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship. “Old Fascists never die and even their ghosts do not fade away.” Can this be the real theme tune of contemporary Italy? In quite a few ways, it is.
In the national poll conducted last month, the Brothers of Italy party won 18.1%, not far behind the Centre-Right Lega 21.9% and the Centre-Left Partito Democratico (Democrats), 19.3%. In a series of provincial and regional polls throughout 2020 and 2021, the party’s trajectory was up. Pundits are beginning to ask whether the Brothers’ leader, Giorgia Meloni, who campaigns against gay marriage, LGBTQ rights, and immigrants, will become the next Prime Minister of the country with the EU’s third biggest economy.
The Brothers of Italy coalesced in 2013, being the chief heir of Italian neo-fascism represented in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement, 1946-1995) and Alleanza nazionale (National Alliance, 1995-2009). Three members of the Mussolini family are well regarded Brothers of Italy members: Alessandra and Rachele, half-sisters, whose father was the jazz musician, Romano Mussolini; the Duce’s youngest son; and the wondrously named Caio Giulio Cesare, grandson of Mussolini’s eldest son, Vittorio. It is impossible to imagine the surname Hitler winning support in modern Germany. (And American readers, with their deep sensitivity to identity politics, may be especially troubled by a party with a blatantly sexist name, even if its leader is a woman.) But, in Italy, the appeal of the interwar dictator’s name-brand holds.
Given that the Fascist dictatorship drove one million men, women, and children prematurely to their graves, how can this be? Over the years, I have made a number of attempts to answer this question. In a manner that an Italian (leftist) friend has assured me is against the tide (controcorrente), I have raised three issues.
The first lies in the deeply problematic word “fascism” (spelled with a small f to separate it from the specific version of the Italian Fascist dictatorship). A huge amount of scholarly literature searches for the word’s precise meaning while an even greater popular usage applies it to any person or movement whom observers, usually of some sort of leftist allegiance, disdain. It was frequently used by critics of the Trump presidency. Moreover, on the bloodiest front of the Second World War, where some thirty million soldiers and civilians died, and where, not far away, the Holocaust was being perpetrated, Stalin’s U.S.S.R. contended that it fought against фашизм (fascism). We know, of course, that it was Nazism that actually fueled the fanatical racism and determination of the invaders to destroy Judeo-Bolshevism, root and branch. Maybe it is time to deploy the word “Nazi” to describe the crazier elements in our world who do not disdain the Führer. Then, maybe, it will be possible to separate Mussolinian Fascism from the ideology and policy of his German partner in the Axis.
We should also look harder at what the Italian dictatorship was like when it celebrated its tenth anniversary in office in 1932. It was a tyranny, no doubt. It had banned rival political parties, re-instituted the death penalty, eliminated free trade unions, heavily censored the press, distorted information, twisted law and justice, praised (but not really practiced) war and aggression, and elevated the Duce to all but godly status. But it had not yet really murdered with a will. Its toll of victims, more in Libya than anywhere else, may have reached ten thousand. But plenty of other politicians, including liberal democratic ones, are not so different in the cost their rule has exacted and exacts. It was therefore the second decade of Fascism, a decade after Hitler had reached the German Chancellery, when the toll of Mussolini’s rule spiraled upwards. The murders have been forgiven by many Italians since 1945 for two reasons. About five-hundred thousand Italians died in the battles of Ethiopia (1935-6), Spain (1936-9) and the multiple fronts of the Second World War after 1940, including the Italian one (1943-5). Each was an aggressive war. But so had been Italy’s First World War, where the soldier and civilians losses tallied 50 percent more than in the Second War. It was easy enough, too, to blame Hitler. When next on a tourist trip to Rome, go to the Ardeatine caves where Italian political prisoners and citizens were massacred by German occupation troops in 1944 to see how memory can obscure Italian responsibility for the Axis. If Austrians, after 1945, could label their country “Nazism’s first victim,” then Italians could ascribe the costs of Italy’s war (and its participation in the Holocaust) to the all-powerful Germans.
A second matter deserves greater reflection. Around half of the million victims of Mussolini’s dictatorship were peoples of the country’s empire, as expanded in Ethiopia after 1935. But, in 1945, Italy was permanently relegated from Great Power status and lost its empire, whether Fascist or Liberal, in a trice. Its thoughts about national history were thereby pushed into being all the more metropolitan (with a sub-theme of emigrants from “the Italies,” non-nationalized Italians suffering racial mistreatment in various New Worlds). It is true that precision about a death toll is impossible in Libya or Ethiopia, given that European powers’ rule in Africa never obtained full control over, or knowledge of, local people. But the obscured empire, and the forgetting of Italy’s bloody participation in European imperialism there, allows Brothers of Italy to parrot racist words about immigrants and “others” (somehow defined) in contemporary Italy.
One final word needs contemplation: populism. In 1931 the dictatorship announced that, henceforth, it would “go decisively towards the people.” The advocacy of populism in much of today’s world (and in the Brothers of Italy), back in the 1930s, signaled a dictatorship that was changing direction. Now it launched into imperial war in Ethiopia (1935-6), joined the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and, from June 1940, became Nazi Germany’s Axis partner in all of the Second World Wars. In 1938 it had already begun to implement Anti-Semitic laws against what had been, until then, the often-pro-Fascist and nationalist, Italian Jewish community. Its death toll from the 1920s multiplied towards the appalling tally of one million. Although tame intellectuals continued to assert the alleged universality of Fascism, now the regime drew most of its popular backing from the charisma of the dictator. In reality, the Italian dictatorship had become a tawdry mimic of Hitlerian Nazism. It is this past that is partially disguised by the confusions now expressed in the word “fascism,” all the more when coated by contemporary populism and its fake truth of going towards the people. It is this past which the Fratelli d’Italia want obscured.
R.J.B. Bosworth is Emeritus Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. He is a leading authority on Mussolini and is the author of more than two dozen books on fascism and Italy’s twentieth-century experience, including Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover. He lives in Oxford, UK.