‘There is a Connection Between their Roots in Fascism and their Embrace of these Ideas’ Italy’s Drift to the Far-Right
Adrian Goldberg spoke to David Broder – author of Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism In Contemporary Italy – for the Byline Times Podcast about the historical roots of the country’s new far-right leadership
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AG: Giorgia Meloni looks set to become Italy’s first female Prime Minister and leader of its most right-wing Government since the days of Mussolini. Her Fratelli D’Italia (Brothers of Italy) Party secured 26% of the vote in the recent General Election, making it the likely leader of a new coalition. What can you tell us about Meloni?
DB: She has been a political activist since a very young age. She’s from a working-class district of Rome and joined the Italian Social Movement (MSI) in 1992. The MSI was a neo-fascist party founded by members of the defeated fascist regime in 1946… it has a long and often violent history.
In the post-war decades, it was always quite a small party, but Meloni joined at a time of great upheaval in Italian politics and she made her career in the MSI.
She was a councillor in Rome, then an MP, and became the youngest ever Deputy Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies when she was only 29. She was Youth Minister in the last of Silvio Berlusconi’s Governments at a time when her post-fascist party was welcomed into a broad right-wing coalition.
So, already in the 1990s, former fascists were in government as a junior partner to Berlusconi. But what we’ve seen in more recent decades is that the most right-wing parts of that coalition, including former fascists, have become the dominant force. This election result is really the culmination of that process.
Is Meloni’s party the same as the MSI which she originally joined?
Yes and no. In the 1990s, the MSI renamed itself the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) and then it directly merged with Berlusconi’s party (Forza Italia). In those years, its leader Gianfranco Fini made some efforts to distance it from fascism, with a commitment to taking part in electoral politics and rejecting violence and authoritarianism.
After Fini took the party into a merger with Berlusconi’s party, Fratelli D’Italia was created in 2012 by people who rejected that process and who reasserted the claim to the party tradition. They adopted the MSI’s logo, which is a tricolour flame, and Fratelli D’Italia’s flag even now has the flame of the MSI in it.
In the early years of the party, Meloni leant into a very severe denunciation of those who had earlier dissolved the neo-fascist tradition.
So Fratelli D’Italia wanted to reclaim the fascist tradition from which the MSI had grown?
Yes. Giorgia Meloni often cites as her political forefather Giorgio Almirante, who was the founding leader of the MSI and led it through most of its history until his death in 1988. Almirante had taken part in the [wartime fascist] regime; he had written for a journal called La Difesa della Razza (The Defence Of The Race) in which he advocated explicitly biological racist ideas.
At the time Meloni joined in 1992, many of the main leaders were still people who had directly participated in the Nazi collaborationist Social Republic [led by Mussolini].
Of course, over the decades, the way that they organised changed and it isn’t just the same as historical fascism. For instance, they showed commitment to the constitutional process, taking part in elections and have generally, over time, rejected terrorist groups who were within the orbit of the party.
But there is a genuine historical link between Mussolini and the party of the woman who is now set to be the leader of Italy?
Yes, absolutely. And often, we hear the kind of story which goes, ‘oh well, the party has broken with the past, that no longer applies and so on’. But when you look specifically at what her party is saying, it’s actually very indulgent and [only a] partial criticism of fascism.
For instance, Giorgia Meloni about a month ago issued a video where she sought to dismiss claims that her party is steeped in fascism. What was really interesting was the pedantic phrasing she used it in order to not condemn fascism in general. A typical way of doing this is to condemn Italy’s 1938 racial laws, which involved the segregation of Jews and other ethnic minorities from taking part in public life… and to say that participation in the Holocaust is to be condemned – but not to condemn the fascist experience in general. What this aims to do is suggest that Mussolini went astray when he was led along by Hitler.
So this party has a much more distinctly fascist tradition than other far-right parties, such as [Marine Le Pen’s National Rally] in France.
Has Meloni tried to make her appeal mainstream like Le Pen?
Yes, in part, but it’s also a very contradictory process.
Meloni insists that she won’t disturb Italy’s international position, emphasising that she supports Ukraine not Russia, that she’s committed to NATO, and that she wants to change the European Union rather than consider an exit.
At the same time, we have this very intense hostility directed against the ‘conspiracies of globalists’ like [billionaire US philanthropist] George Soros and the left, who are who are basically accused of a plot to destroy Italian society. Meloni has often resorted to the language of the ‘Great Replacement’ theory, which presents the idea of a shadowy plot to replace white Europeans with immigrants and Muslims.
So if you are from a minority background in Italy you might be feeling very uncomfortable?
Meloni has policies which are extremely hostile to immigrants and proposes very outlandish and harsh means of repression, including the call for a naval blockade in the Mediterranean to stop migrant boats. One of the key focuses of far-right agitation – including by Meloni – is that they’re opposed to the idea that the children of migrants should have the right to citizenship, even if they’re born in Italy. In some cases, in local councils run by the far-right parties, we’ve seen them denying free school meals to non-EU citizens, even though the children in question were born in the country and have no choice but to live there.
Is there an underlying dog whistle of antisemitism too?
Yes, and we see this in the prominence of George Soros in the party’s propaganda. There’s the claim that Soros is the figure behind ‘ethnic substitution’ and, in one of her posts, Meloni refers to him as a ‘usurer’ – a word with strong [antisemitic] connotations.
What about the LGBT community and women’s rights?
Meloni says she doesn’t want to get rid of the existing right to abortion. Yet, already in the regions control controlled by her party, we’ve seen that they actually act to make access harder, including imposing unrealistic limits. For instance, a seven-week limit on abortion with a compulsory one-week cooling-off period.
One of the typical themes of Fratelli D’Italia is the destruction of our identity by speculators, by online social networks, by the ‘International Republic Of Money’ as they call it, to create a formless mass of atomised citizens who have no loyalty or roots.
Against this, they pose the traditional, heterosexual family. Within that, there’s a very harsh idea of LGBT people who are portrayed as unnatural and rootless and not really belonging.
Victory for this party will be a boost to all manner of homophobes and reactionaries.
So is this the return of Italian fascism?
I’m not someone who has called every new right-wing phenomenon ‘the return of fascism’ but I think you’d have to be very blind to not see that there is a connection between their roots in fascism and their embrace of these ideas.
Beyond the actual policies pursued by the Italian Government, the example that Meloni sets and the fact that the state is controlled by people who hold these ideas, will unleash a very hostile climate in Italian society.
We’re not going to see the imposition of a fascist regime – but that’s a very low bar. I think what we can expect is the pursuit harsh identity politics and culture wars, and that will have a very negative effect on a lot of people’s lives.