Opinion |

Black Is Back: How Fascism Is Fashionable in Italy (Again)

Neo-fascism and a populist glorification of Mussolini's WWII regime is contaminating Italy's culture and politics, from street gangs to intellectual salons to the highest levels of government. And weak, divided liberal democrats are struggling to respond

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Militants from the neo-fascist CasaPound group giving the fascist salute at a rally in Rome. January 2018
Militants from the neo-fascist CasaPound group giving the fascist salute at a rally in Rome. January 2018Credit: YouTube
Ariel David
Ariel David

The latest chapter in Italy’s culture wars played out last week at the Turin Book Fair, one of the country’s major cultural events and one of the largest book fairs in Europe.

A publisher linked to the neo-fascist party CasaPound had rented a stand. Altaforte Edizioni was planning to showcase its latest publishing coup: Matteo Salvini, the firebrand anti-immigration interior minister and driving force behind Italy’s populist government, had chosen them to produce a book-length interview with him.

Altaforte also publishes a far-right magazine called "Il Primato Nazionale" ("The National Imperative"), whose covers have included a photo of American Jewish billionaire George Soros headlined "The Puppet Master" and another billing Pope Francis a "subversive" for his relatively liberal views.

Francesco Polacchi, founder of the Altaforte publishing house, who defines himself openly as a fascist, holds up Matteo Salvini's book outside the Turin Book Fair. Italy, May 9, 2019Credit: AFP

The publisher’s catalogue includes a heavy selection of titles glorifying Italy’s fascist past, including a graphic novel based on Benito Mussolini’s diary as a soldier in WWI, and revisionist history books such as 'Para Bellum," which claims that World War II was started not by Hitler and his allies but by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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The news of the publisher’s participation sparked outrage amongst Italian and European literati. Several top names and organizations threatened to boycott the fair, including the Auschwitz Museum, which was scheduled to hold an event there with Holocaust survivor and writer Halina Birenbaum.

Altaforte’s owner, Francesco Polacchi, had a field day giving interviews to the media, denouncing what he called an attempt to silence free speech.

"Yes, I am a fascist, and Mussolini was Italy’s best statesman," he said in one interview. "The true evil in this country is anti-fascism."

After initially saying that they couldn’t prevent Altaforte from renting a stand, the Turin Book Fair organizers backtracked and banned the publisher from taking part.

Chiara Giannini, the journalist who authored Altaforte's book on Salvini, compared herself to Holocaust survivors: "I have the greatest respect for those who survived the concentration camps," she told Italian media. "They suffered a restriction of their freedom, just like I am now suffering a restriction of my freedom."

So all’s well that ends well? Hardly.

The Turin affair is only the tip of the iceberg in a broad offensive by Italy’s extreme right, aiming to normalize fascist ideas and bring them back into the political mainstream and intellectual discourse.

After Mussolini’s fall, fascism still continued to enjoy support in the dark corners of Italy’s ideological spectrum. It survived amongst military veterans and ultra-conservatives nostalgic for a past era, the same crowds who regularly congregate at Mussolini’s tomb to mark important dates in his biography. It has spread as a folkloristic subculture of souvenirs and gadgets bearing the Duce’s effigy, from wine bottles to sugar packets.

But it especially thrived as a counter-cultural alternative for disaffected youths, finding a particularly strong base amongst the groups of racist far-right soccer fans for whom fascist salutes and violent, paramilitary-style clashes with police or rivals are a regular feature of their behavior in and out of the stadiums.

It is in this environment that some of the most virulent anti-Semitism is also found, to the point that "Jew" has become the most offensive insult fans of rival teams can sling at each other. This form of bigotry is almost routine in Italian stadiums but made international headlines when fans of the Lazio team distributed stickers - intended to insult their rivals - bearing an image of Anne Frank wearing the Roma team jersey.

Unlike Germany’s denazification, Italy, as a republican and democratic country, has never fully taken stock of its fascist past and unequivocally distanced itself from Mussolini’s regime.

At least since the 1990s, it has been common practice for even mainstream conservative politicians to peddle the narrative that Il Duce "made a mistake" in allying with Hitler and passing anti-Jewish laws, but that the rest of his two-decade authoritarian rule was largely benign. This fantasy, handily debunked by historians, was repeatedly promoted by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who famously claimed that "Mussolini never killed anyone."

Its most recent amplifier is Antonio Tajani, the president of the EU Parliament and a longtime Berlusconi ally, who in the runup to the upcoming European elections chose to remind the world that Mussolini "did positive things."

The dictator’s very own granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, has had a long and storied career as member of parliament for various right-wing parties, and stated proudly in a 1992 interview that: "I’m a Mussolini. I believe in [my grandfather] and what he did for Italy."

And now more descendants of the Duce are joining the political fray, including a bombastically named great-grandson: Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, who’s running for an EU parliament seat with the far-right Brothers of Italy party.

He's described Italy's wartime fascist regime as "a very complicated, complex period…You can't define it in terms of right or wrong, good or bad," and asked if the fascist salute was banned then why the communists' clenched fist should not equally be outlawed.

But Italy’s neo-fascists have no greater ally than Matteo Salvini: interior minister, deputy premier and leader of the xenophobic and Eurosceptic League party. Currently the country’s most popular politician his ideological roots are not connected to fascism: the League started out as a separatist movement advocating for the independence of Italy’s rich north from the underdeveloped south.

But Salvini has successfully courted the far-right vote and has done more than any of his predecessors to bring fascist ideas back from beyond the pale.

He likes to quote Mussolini’s sayings and has backed divisive policies such as the idea of making a census of Roma people, also known as Gypsies, and expelling those who don’t have Italian citizenship.

Much like U.S. President Donald Trump has done for white supremacists with his reiterated fine-people-on-both-sides remarks, Salvini has also promoted the moral equivalence between fascism and anti-fascism. He did so recently by refusing to take part in celebrations marking Italy’s liberation from Nazi occupation, claiming he had "no interest in a fascist-communist derby."

So it is no wonder that, as in other countries, the neo-fascists of Italy see this as a moment pregnant with potential to bring their ideas out of the soccer stadiums and the impoverished peripheries and back into the cultural and political mainstream.

Leading the charge is CasaPound, a neo-fascist party; one of its high-ranking militants is Polacchi, owner of the Altaforte publishing house. CasaPound means "House of Pound" - a homage to the pro-fascist American poet and anti-Semitic propagandist Ezra Pound. It was founded in 2003 in Rome as a grassroots far-right organization that supported illegal house squats as a response to the city’s housing crisis.

According to Italian police, over the last decade, hundreds of its militants have been arrested or placed under investigation for crimes including violent attacks on immigrants, minorities, political opponents and journalists who had exposed their ties to the criminal underworld.

On one hand, CasaPound displays the militaristic pageantry beloved of neo-fascist movements: at its demonstrations, burly skinheads wearing black shirts and bomber jackets march through the streets sporting nationalist symbols and flashing the fascist salute.

CasaPound supporters giving the fascist salute in 2018

But it also shows a savvy versatility by fielding slick, soft-spoken candidates at elections and gaining popular support through its social programs such as free food distributions to the needy and other forms of aid.

The party failed to win any parliamentary seats in the last elections - largely because many of its potential votes were ably drained by Salvini’s League - but lately it has attempted to rebrand itself with a veneer of intellectualism.

Alongside projects like Altaforte, an increasing social media presence and its own radio station (Radio Bandiera Nera, or Black Flag Radio), it has been hosting a series of high-profile political debates at its headquarters in Rome, inviting major mainstream politicians and media personalities to discuss the issues of the day.

This has caused a split within the moderate intelligentsia (as no doubt CasaPound intended) between those who feel that participating in such events promotes the normalization of a violent and anti-democratic party and those who feel that boycotting them leaves their extreme views unanswered.

Francesco Polacchi (C), Altaforte publisher head, with CasaPound skinheads

The controversy over CasaPound’s cultural offensive is particularly robust given that the movement won’t renounce the use of violence as a political tool. Just last week, there were reports that some of its militants physically threatened a Roma family that had moved into a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital: their only 'crime,' in the eyes of CasaPound’s thugs, was that they had been assigned council housing that should have gone to ‘real’ Italians.

CasaPound is not the only far-right movement using the current political climate to push their normalization. Another example is the recent World Congress of Families, which took place in Verona and which gathered anti-LGBT, anti-abortion and anti-feminist activists from around the world.

The event was backed by local authorities, controlled by the League, and included Salvini among the speakers. Members of CasaPound and other neo-fascist movements had a strong presence, in what to many observers looked like the founding meeting of a joint ideological platform between the League, neo-fascists and Catholic fundamentalists.

This alliance clearly feels so solid and well supported that just this week, a group of militants from Forza Nuova – another neo-fascist movement – rallied in St. Peter’s Square during the pope’s Sunday prayer service to protest Francis’ views on immigration, which many on the far right consider too liberal. The police were reluctant to intervene.

Meanwhile, the opposition to this fascist renaissance has been divided and scarce. Progressives and moderates are busy discussing whether to engage with an emboldened neo-fascism. Some have called to ban movements like CasaPound and Forza Nuova under laws that prohibit the reconstitution of the WWII fascist party as well as outlawing fascist propaganda.

But those laws have always been extremely hard to uphold in court, and any attempt to do so offers the targets a chance to grab the spotlight and bemoan the hypocrisy of the liberal order that promotes free speech but attempts to silence its critics.

Boycotting or ignoring these forces seems equally dangerous, while engaging in actual debate with them can only be interpreted as a sign of their increasing legitimation.

So, what to do about the fascists?

Far right CasaPound rally, Trieste, Italy. November 3, 2018Credit: Erin Johnson/Flickr

In Italy, as in other western countries, racists, bigots and assorted extremists already achieved a critical level of normalization the moment that new leaders, backed by largescale popular support, tolerate or even support fascist ideas and actions for their own personal gain - irrespective of whether they don’t completely agree with them.

And the neo-fascists are committed to the long haul, and to incremental, if escalating, achievements: as the Altaforte publishers declared, after their expulsion from the Turin book fair: it "will not stop us, but will fuel our fire for ideas and culture. You can't bend books to your will. #IoStoConAltaforte." The hashtag #IStandWithAltaforte trended for days in Italy.

This leaves progressives, liberals and defenders of democracy fighting a losing, rearguard action to protect, at this stage at least, what are relatively elite cultural spaces. They may win a battle or two, as they did in Turin, but they are still losing the war, because they’re not weakening the grassroots support of the country’s new populist masters.

Only by offering a viable political alternative and addressing Italy’s economic malaise, high unemployment, job insecurity, growing inequality and the other deep-seated factors that pushed voters into the arms of the far right in the first place can there be any hope of reversing this rising tide of hate and bigotry.

Unless a strong liberal, pro-democracy movement can win back the hearts and minds of Italians, fascism will continue to contaminate ever wider spheres of public life until its hold on power and society will become, once again, irreversible.

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