Every 25th of April, Italians mark the country’s liberation from Nazi occupation and the fall of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic in 1945.
This year, however, as commemorative marches and official ceremonies took place across the country, social media aides to far-right Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Italy’s dominant politician, were at pains to show he was not getting involved - and wouldn't be participating.
"We are in 2019, I have no interest for a fascist-communist derby. I care about the future of our country," Salvini had warned ahead of Liberation Day.
"There will be marches, partisans [the Italian armed resistance groups who fought the fascists during World War II] and those against the partisans," he said. "There will be the black [pro-fascist] and the red,[communist], the green and the yellow," he continued, sarcastically, listing colors at random as if describing a carnival.
Liberation Day - which still features veterans from the National Association of Italian Partisans who fought the WWII fascist regime - has traditionally been a moment to set aside political differences and celebrate consensus democratic values. Critics on the right assert that, over time, the left has monopolized the day's events.
His comments were enough to send critics in overdrive: how could Salvini, a minister and the leader of the country’s most popular party, dismiss Italy’s Liberation Day as a farce? How could he speak of a "derby," seemingly describing Mussolini's regime and the anti-fascist resistance as two equally legitimate clashing sides?
Then came Salvini’s announcement that he would spend April 25 visiting police forces in Sicily as a tribute to their efforts to "liberate Sicily and Italy from the mafia" - a visit he could have scheduled for any day of the year.
The prominent writer and mafia expert Roberto Saviano slammed him in the daily La Repubblica: "It’s a sneaky move [by Salvini], he is attacking the [anti-fascist] resistance while hiding behind the rule of law." Saviano went on: Salvini "is presenting the struggle against Nazism-fascism and the struggle against the mafia as if they were alternatives," to choose between. That point was reiterated by another Repubblica columnist, Ezio Mauro, who wrote that Salvini had framed opposing fascism and the mafia as "a contest rather than a double challenge."
Throughout the day, Salvini’s incessant flow of tweets showed him inaugurating a new police station in Sicily, unveiling a plaque dedicated to the anti-mafia struggle, and campaigning for the local elections in the southern island’s beautiful squares. One tweet attacked demonstrators in one of the April 25 marches for displaying a slogan analogizing the struggle against the "Lega," his party with the struggle against fascism: here are the "democrats" marching today, he wrote.
While his blatant disregard for a commemoration that has always been a subject of national consensus - apart from the far right - caused an uproar in Italy, to anyone who followed closely Salvini’s trip to Israel last December it should come as no surprise.
If there is one place where you'd expect Salvini to have been hard-pressed to explicitly distance himself from Italy’s fascist past, it's Israel.
After years of suffering from cruel and exclusionary racist laws under the Mussolini regime, around 8,879 Italian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, most after being transported to Nazi concentration camps following the German invasion in 1943 (that figure includes the Jewish community of Rhodes, which was under Italian rule at the time).
Yet, even in Israel, Salvini always kept his answers vague.
Invited by Haaretz during his visit to make a clear denunciation of fascism, Salvini answered he would "take it upon himself to fight all forms of anti-Semitism as minister," studiously avoiding the real point of the question.
At the Western Wall, Haaretz queried him again: "In 2003 [far-right] Italian politician Gianfranco Fini famously called fascism ‘the absolute evil,’ would you also define fascism the ‘absolute evil’?"
Salvini hesitated, smiled sneakily, and eventually replied: "All totalitarianisms are bad." One of his press officers called the question "insidious." When he has nowhere to go but concede, even partially, Salvini is careful to preserve some degree of ambiguity. It's a cheap, easy step to condemn "all forms of extremisms."
At another point during his Israel trip, Salvini was asked whether he was leveraging his Israel trip to quash criticism of his serial flirtations with neo-fascist movements and his record of xenophobic comments, he replied such criticism "just makes him smile."
Even at Yad Vashem, he barely managed a nod in recognition at an appeal by the Italian Jewish community's president, Noemi Di Segni, for all Italian politicians to recognize their responsibilities regarding Italy's fascist past, rather than downplaying them by transferring the blame to Germany.
Salvini’s steadfast ambiguity shows he cares far more about his far-right electorate than about preserving a clear historical memory of Italy’s dark years before and during WWII. Indeed, members of neo-fascist groups in Italy such as the openly fascist Casa Pound and militant Forza Nuova support him, and analysts say far-right voters were critical to his political ascent.
After local elections in Sicily, Salvini's League will face far more consequential European Parliament elections at the end of May, where polls indicate it will likely to become Italy’s largest party - and Europe’s second largest.
If Salvini wasn't even able to condemn Italy’s fascist past in Israel, it’s unlikely he ever will. No wonder he is so comfortable characterizing Italy's Liberation Day, April 25, as a meaningless charade.
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