Winds of Right-wing Wars

Xenophobic, anti-Semitic and neo-fascist movements are flexing their muscles these days in Italy, fueled by economic woes and attracting people of varying ages and backgrounds

Milan is renowned the world over as a lively center of fashion and design, and as the home of La Scala opera house. In Italy, however, it is better known as the city of the cinque giornate ("five days" ), which marked the start of the battle for the unification of Italy in 1848; as the locale that marked both the beginning and end of the road for fascist leader Benito Mussolini; and, in recent years, as the heart of Padania, the region that the Northern League political party hopes to separate from the rest of the country.

This separatist party may belong to Silvio Berlusconi's government, but that doesn't hinder it from pursuing its goal. In advance of next year's celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification, one of its ministers went so far as to declare that the Northern League may not take part in the national festivities.

Adherents of this small party from Italy's affluent north say they are unwilling to continue to shoulder the economic burden of the entire country and are fed up with the corruption and ineffectualness of what they call Roma ladrona ("thieving Rome" ). They have their own flag, sing their own national anthem, speak their own dialect, want to keep Europe Christian and are vehemently anti-immigration.

"Italy for the Italians: Africans and Jews out!" a young party supporter proclaimed on television not long ago.

In today's political climate, rightists are apparently no longer ashamed to express racist views. Even Milan mayor Letizia Moratti, a member of the governing center-right party and the daughter of a member of the Italian resistance during World War II, felt free to remark recently that illegal immigrants with no regular work "normally commit crimes."

Amid growing fears over immigration, the weakening of the left, the deep economic crisis and the scandals that continually befall the governing party, the secessionist party has gradually become a serious political alternative for many in the north.

This trend became evident in parliamentary elections two years ago, in which the Northern League doubled its strength from 4 to 8 percent, followed by the European elections a year later, in which it soared to 10.2 percent. Furthermore, in regional elections two months ago, it won two important regions: Veneto and Piedmont . Unofficial statistics indicate that more than a quarter of the population of the northern regions supports the party.

But meanwhile, beyond its separatist fringes, elements from xenophobic, neo-fascist and anti-Semitic groups are also springing up. They don't necessarily share the Northern League's separatist goals, but they draw legitimation from it to express their loathing for the country's four million immigrants (out of a total population of 60 million ), and sometimes for Italy's 25,000 Jews as well.

Filling the void

Political and cultural trends in Italy are slowly shifting toward the far right, which in the latter part of the 1990s altered its operating strategy and began filling the territory vacated by the traditional left, which has been mired in a crisis of values. For this reason, many incidents (of varying degrees of significance ) which, until not long ago, would have evoked outrage and protest are now met with silence and indifference.

Thus, for example, the report that an official in the extreme-right Forza Nuova party celebrated his birthday with a birthday cake decorated with the image of Hitler against the backdrop of a photograph of the Fuehrer was buried in a local paper. So, too, were pronouncements (denied the next day ) by mayors identified with the Northern League that immigrants from outside European Union countries should be "sent packing on camels."

The rightward shift actually began after a convention of the neo-fascist MSI-DN party in the mid-1990s, where the majority, under the leadership of Gianfranco Fini, the current speaker of the Lower House, decided to disavow the party's past and to adopt a conservative policy in keeping with the classic European center-right. This move brought the party, rechristened as Alleanza Nazionale, out of the political wilderness and into partnership with Berlusconi and the government.

A relatively small movement of young people refused to repudiate the party's neo-fascist past, and resolved to stick to its positions within new frameworks, with the aim of occupying "spaces" in society. Their profile closely resembles that of their far-right counterparts in other European countries: They are generally 20-30 years old; act in groups; gather at heavy-metal rock concerts and movement rallies; use Twitter and Facebook as a regular means of communication; actively participate in blogs that praise Nazi ideology; deny the Holocaust and popularize songs with anti-Semitic content.

One of the most prominent and well-established of these groups is certainly the Forza Nuova, a party that has radical Catholic underpinnings, and is headed by EU parliament member Roberto Fiore, who won 0.3 percent support in the last European election in 2008. Among other things, FN is calling for revocation of legislation prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination; nullification of the law permitting abortion; and closing the country to immigrants from outside the EU and expelling those already in Italy, even down to the second and third generation. The party's website is filled with anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic content.

Besides FN, there is also the skinhead movement, concentrated mostly in Italy's northeast, and the Casa Pound, a far-right organization headquartered in Rome.

Bolstered by the xenophobic and racist winds that are blowing more strongly in Italy these days, neo-fascist circles have been trying to effect displays of power in various places throughout the country. Despite the law prohibiting rallies involving fascist content or symbols, at the beginning of the month, 10 far-right organizations in Milan held a joint sporting event in memory of Sergio Ramelli, a neo-fascist youth who was murdered 35 years ago by far-left activists.

The event provoked an uproar among the left, especially after posters were distributed around town announcing that it was sponsored and funded by the city. Mayor Moratti issued a hasty denial, expressed her regret and said assistance for the event was given by the region "without her knowledge."

"Either the mayor is lying or these organizations are making improper use of the municipal symbols, or someone gave them unofficial consent," wrote leftist city council members in a letter to the mayor.

Despite the left's protests, the event was still held, under heavy police protection, much to the organizers' satisfaction. On the basis of that success, two of the organizations, FN and Hammerskin, decided to put Milan to another test, and announced two more, all-European events, prompting a local edition of the Corriere della Sera newspaper to dub Milan capitale Naziskin (the "skinhead capital" ).

Last Saturday, Milan was the site of an FN rally against "the megapower of the banks." Also participating were several far-right European movements, including Hungary's Jobbik (which made a strong showing in the elections in that country a month ago ), Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front from France, Germany's National Democratic Party and representation from nearly every other European country. And tomorrow, Hammerskin has scheduled a big concert in Milan to mark "20 years of European brotherhood" (meaning the anniversary of its founding ).

The leftist movements promise they will bring thousands of activists to the streets in protest.

"The far right is still marginal and we need to make sure it stays that way," one of the organizers of the counter-demonstration told Haaretz. "This isn't harmless folklore - it's time to take this seriously," proclaimed one pamphlet distributed at that demonstration. "We are facing a dangerous political phenomenon reminiscent of the Weimar Republic and what followed it, and we do not wish to see that again," wrote the organizers, who also warned against attempts by the far right to exploit the economic crisis that has hit the Continent as a means of recruiting supporters.

The left called these events, in a pamphlet issued collectively by several movements, "a grave insult to the city that in the aftermath of World War II was awarded a Gold Medal of Valor for its resistance to the Nazis," while a right-wing paper noted that FN is "a political party like any other and it has the right to demonstrate in any city plaza."

But even the right knows that one square remains off-limits: Piazzale Loreto, where Mussolini's men killed 15 partisans in 1944, and where, a year later, the body of the fascist dictator, already mutilated by a mob, was strung up by the feet for all to see. Il Duce's granddaughter, EU Parliament member Alessandra Mussolini, has proposed that the name of the plaza be changed to Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia ("Italian Unity Plaza" ) in honor of the country's 150th anniversary celebrations. Ironically, if the Northern League, which is currently eyeing the mayor's office, wins next year's local election, the chances of that happening are exceedingly slim.