In September 2022, Italy elected its most right wing government since 1945. The Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), leaders of the successful right-wing coalition, has a history which leads back to Mussolini’s fascist regime. Colin Wilson reviews Mussolini’s Grandchildren by David Broder, an invaluable guide to the history and current policies of the Italian far right.
20th century roots
To understand the present in Italy, we need to understand the history of Italian fascism, which goes back over a hundred years. The years after the First World War saw momentous workers’ struggles across Europe. In Russia 1917, the autocratic Tsar was deposed and a regime based on workers’ councils took power. In Germany, a revolution beginning with a sailors’ revolt deposed the Kaiser – in effect, the Emperor – and established a republic. And in Italy, the Bienni Rosso – the “two red years” – of 1919 and 1920 saw major strikes, huge demonstrations and occupations of factories and land.
By 1921 the strikes had declined, but a nervous Italian ruling class looked to the fascists – who had been organising since 1919 – to put a decisive end to the workers’ revolt, and the king asked Mussolini to become Prime Minister in October 1922. The British Prime Minister sent him a ‘friendly message’, and only six weeks later Mussolini was dining with King George V in Buckingham Palace. By the mid-20s Italy had become a dictatorship, where fascist ‘blackshirts’ used violence against any opposition.
Antisemitism had not, initially, been a key element in Italian fascism – the founders of Mussolini’s fascist party even included a small number of Jews. Fascism was, however, deeply racist – from its beginnings, Mussolini expressed concern about low (white) Italian birth rates. In 1935, as part of an attempt to create an ‘Imperial Italy’ stretching into Yugoslavia and through north Africa, the Italian army invaded Ethiopia, where they used mustard gas in contravention of international agreements. In 1938, new ‘Racial Laws’ restricted the rights of ‘non-Aryan’ people: Jews were banned from professions including banking, government and education, and sex between Italians and ‘non-Aryan’ groups such as Jews and Africans was made illegal.
In 1940 Italy entered World War Two (WW2), and at once saw its African colonies attacked by Britain, beginning with Libya. By the summer of 1943, British and American troops were victorious in Africa, and invaded Sicily and then the south Italian mainland. By now Mussolini had been deposed and imprisoned, but the German regime quickly invaded northern Italy and established a puppet regime (the Salò Republic), released Mussolini and pressured him into becoming its ruler. In April 1945, Allied troops advanced into northern Italy. Mussolini was arrested by Communist partisans while trying to flee to Switzerland, and was summarily shot the next day.
From anti-fascism to anti-communism
These events continue to resonate in Italy today. Italian politics after WW2 were based ideologically on a rejection of fascism, even though many who had held power under Mussolini continued to do so. Two parties were central to political organising, the centre-right Christian Democrats, who won every election between 1948 and 1987, and the Communists, who in every case came second. In the 1990s all this changed. In 1991 – after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just before the collapse of the Soviet Union – the Communist Party dissolved itself. The Christian Democrats, meanwhile, were implicated in a major corruption scandal which had destroyed their party by 1994.
Broder describes debates about the history of WW2 – specifically, struggles in north eastern Italy between Italians and Communist-led Yugoslav partisans, after the Italian invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 led to the killing of around a million Yugoslav people. For their part, Yugoslav partisans killed hundreds or possibly thousands of Italians, many of them members of fascist military or police forces. Some were thrown alive into the deep sinkholes, in Italian foibe, which exist in the region.
In the 1990s, Yugoslavia broke apart into five states (now seven) in wars characterised by “ethnic cleansing”, a new term at the time. The Italian far right now began to claim that Italian deaths in the foibe could also be described as ethnic cleansing. This was an example of anti-Italian racism, they claimed, which they associated with communism, internationalism and multiculturalism. More than that, they typically now claim an equivalence between deaths in the foibe and those of the Holocaust, and have tried to amend laws against Holocaust denial to also criminalise anyone who denies that Italians were victims of genocide during WW2. That supposed genocide is also associated by the Italian far right with the racist myth of the “Great Replacement” – the myth that a global conspiracy seeks to exterminate white Italians and fill Europe with people of colour.
The MSI – the Italian Social Movement, the party Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni joined in 1992 – was founded in 1946, and Broder traces its history since then. Politically, it defended the heritage of the Salò Republic, the Nazi puppet state in northern Italy, with its members including Salò veterans and a senior Salò official, who in 1944 had suppressed strikes in Genoa by deporting some 1,400 randomly-chosen local inhabitants to Germany. The MSI stood in elections and from 1953 always won at least 20 seats in parliament. They positioned themselves as hardline anti-communists, first in the context of the 1950s Cold War, and then in opposition to the major strikes and student revolts of the late 1960s and early 70s. The MSI was linked in this period to right-wing terrorist acts such as the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in 1969, which killed 17 people, and former MSI members carried out a bombing in Bologna train station in 1980 which killed 85 people. While it was part of neofascist networks which initiated such attacks, the MSI did not organise them – indeed, publicly it presented itself as a party of law and order.
21st century resurgence and Fratelli d’Italia
The collapse of the post-war settlement has been followed by a more volatile kind of parliamentary politics, and has presented major opportunities for the Italian far right. The main organisation on the centre left is now the Democratic Party, with roots in the Communist Party but much declined. The populist 5 Star Movement, which emerged in 2005-8, claims it is neither on the left nor the right. On the right, a key player was for many years the wealthy and corrupt media tycoon Sylvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia. The Lega was initially a regionalist party which at times called for the break-up of Italy, in which it represented the more prosperous and industrial north, but which has in the last ten years reinvented itself as a right-wing populist party with links to figures like Marine Le Pen. Finally on the right there existed what has become the Fratelli d’Italia, until 1995 in the form of the MSI, then until 2009 as the National Alliance and since 2012 in its current form.
In 1993, MSI leader Gianfranco Fini gained second place in the election for Mayor of Rome, winning 47% of votes in a run-off against a Green candidate, while Mussolini’s granddaughter Allessandra (then an MSI member, now a Forza Italia MEP) also made it into the run-off in Naples, where she gained 44%. These votes showed that voters were prepared to support the MSI against the left, and Fini won the endorsement of Berlusconi on that basis. Berlusconi argued that the MSI could ‘no longer be considered a far-right party’ and formed an alliance with them in 1994 elections, from which the MSI emerged with 110 members of parliament, up from 45 two years before, and took a junior role in a Berlusconi-led government. The following year, the MSI explicitly committed itself to democracy and dissolved itself into a new organisation, the National Alliance, together with some former Christian Democrats. The party became less openly fascist and more electorally successful. Fini condemned the Racial Laws, and in 2003, having become in 2001 deputy premier as part of a Berlusconi-led coalition, he distanced himself further from aspects of the fascist past by visiting Israel and the Yad Vashem memorial to victims of the Holocaust. In 2004 he became Foreign Minister.
However, Fini also stated in a 1994 interview that Mussolini was Italy’s ‘greatest twentieth-century statesman’, and commented that ‘up until 1938, a minute before the signing of the Racial Laws, I think it would be very difficult to pass a negative overall judgement on fascism.’ A survey at a 1998 National Alliance conference found 61 percent of attendees agreeing with the view that Mussolini had led ‘a good regime despite some dubious choices.’ Interviewed in 1996 by French TV, the 19-year old Georgia Meloni commented that ‘I think Mussolini was a good politician. He did what he did for Italy. There haven’t been other politicians like him these last fifty years.’ If anything changed in the 1990s, the change was summed up by Fini when he commented in 1993 that ‘we are not neofascists but postfascists.’ The MSI had not examined and rejected its former beliefs. Rather, it argued that with the collapse of a post-war settlement based on the rejection of fascism, the difference between fascism and anti-fascism had become irrelevant – and since both positions were equally worthy, criticism of fascism was divisive and inappropriate.
This kind of argument leaves members of the Fratelli d’Italia free to identify themselves as the heirs of Mussolini while cynically claiming that doing so does not mean they should be condemned as fascists. Daniela Santanchè, now tourism minister after joining the party in 2017, previously commented that she had a ‘beautiful wooden bust’ of Mussolini on her nightstand, but denied that this constituted a ‘tribute to fascism’. Speaking at an election rally in 2008, Santanchè declared that she was ‘proud to identify as fascist, if fascist means being against the cultural hegemony of the Left, if it means kicking illegals and irregulars out on their arses…’ However, the words beginning ‘if fascist means’ were almost drowned out by cheering and shouts of ‘Duce’, the Italian equivalent of ‘Führer’ and Mussolini’s title as dictator.
These, then, are the politics embraced by the Fratelli d’Italia since it was established in 2012, its logo including the tricolour flame of the neofascist MSI. If someone with these politics is currently a government minister, are we seeing a return to the policies of Mussolini? Deeply alarming though the situation is, Broder makes clear that there is no sign that the Meloni government plans to abolish parliamentary democracy. Fratelli d’Italia has in fact retreated in some areas to orthodox right-wing positions from more radical ones – they have abandoned earlier calls for the dismantling of the euro and the return of the lira, and they have stressed their conformity with NATO policies such as support for Ukraine. The fact that the government’s policies represented neoliberal business as usual became clear in May, when pasta prices rose by 14 per cent year on year despite a sharp drop in wheat prices – facing calls for a price cap, the government argued that the market would soon correct itself.
Where the Meloni government has broken from previous right-wing administrations is its approach to race, gender and sexuality. Fratelli d’Italia aligns itself with far-right forces such as Orbán’s government in Hungary, the US Republicans under Trump and growing numbers of British Tories. It promotes the homophobic and transphobic ideas which have been common currency of the far right for some years now – in June, for example, officials threatened to remove the names of mothers from birth certificates if they were part of a lesbian couple but had not given birth themselves. The party condemns what it calls the ‘LGBT dictatorship’, portraying homophobes as the victims of a powerful orthodoxy. Such claims link up with anti-migrant racism – in this view, what Italy needs are families with a mother and father raising many white children, so that immigration becomes unnecessary, despite the efforts of powerful international forces to promote it. What some on the left foolishly dismiss as ‘identity politics’ are thus a key political battleground.
What success can we expect the Meloni government to have in pursuing its racist, bigoted policies? On the one hand, there are reasons for cautious optimism. It’s not the case that the Fratelli d’Italia’s 2022 election victory marked a major popular shift towards the far right. We’ve seen that the MSI/National Alliance has played a role in government since 1994, and the turnout in the 2022 election hit a historic low. Around the world we see discontent with all kinds of politicians of all kinds, and the election of those who can describe themselves, often quite falsely, as outsiders to the system – as the Fratelli were able to do as the only significant party to play no part at any time in technocratic Draghi government of 2021-22, led by the former president of the European Central Bank. But the very electoral volatility which brings ‘outsiders’ to power can bring them down again once they are themselves the government. Trade unionists and left groups, for example, have been able to organise protests in the last week against welfare cuts aimed to coerce the Italian unemployed into work, cuts which so far affect some 160,000 people.
On the other hand, what is disturbing as you read about the contemporary Italian far right is how far many of its arguments are already part of mainstream political debate in Britain. Arguments cited by Italian fascists since the 1990s now appear every day in the Mail and the Telegraph. The obsessive attacks on migrants and trans people are all too familiar. If attempts to rehabilitate Mussolini are absurd and disgusting, attempts to reclaim the British Empire are no less so. Broder’s book makes absolutely clear that, far from these issues being peripheral to contemporary politics, they are central to it, and the left needs to respond on that basis.