Fascism is back in Italy. Books about Italy’s dictator in the 1920s and 1930s, Benito Mussolini, are selling fast, and everywhere there are discussions about a ‘return to fascism’. Anniversaries of the rise to power of fascism – which began in Italy in 1919 and gave the movement its name – are contributing to this revival of interest. But this is also about contemporary politics, brought to prominence by the former - now disgraced - deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who built his rise to power on anti-immigrant rhetoric. He was fond of using phrases once made popular by Mussolini himself, such as ‘me ne frego’ – ‘I don’t care’!
So, what is going on here, what was Italian fascism and why is it back in the news?
Italy entered World War One against the wishes of the majority of its citizens in May 1915. In November 1918, the country emerged victorious from a long and difficult conflict. 571,000 Italians never made it home. There was a lot of anger and violence around in 1919-1922, and many historians have described that period as one of ‘civil war’. Socialists and trade unionists took control in many areas, and there was intense fear of revolution.
In response, young men began to organise into armed groups – squads – who used violence to crush the socialist and union movement with clubs, cudgels and guns. This was fascism, born in 1919 in Milan, and it rapidly became a national movement. In October 1922 the movement’s leader – Benito Mussolini - was appointed Prime Minister after threatening a coup. He would stay in power for the next twenty years, abolishing democracy in the process and locking up or silencing all opposition. Mussolini’s regime collapsed after a disastrous series of military campaigns in World War Two and the dictator was killed by partisans in April 1945. Italy passed a strong anti-fascist constitution, and an anti-fascist consensus held until the 1990s.
In that decade, with the end of the Cold War, neo-fascists (some of whom stil supported Mussolini, others of whom had ‘modernised’ their ideas) began to come back into the political fold. Silvio Berlusconi, then prime minister, created an alliance with ex or post-fascists in 1994 and governed together with these groups – who had often changed name to appear more acceptable – for much of the next twenty years. Many were shocked by this development and appealed to anti-fascist values, but there were fewer and fewer people who had been around under the dictatorship and the living memory of fascism was fading. For many, fascism was as distant as Italy’s 19th Century unification process – the Risorgimento.
Memory wars saw battles over how to remember the fascist past – with debates over monuments, slogans, and plaques. Historians were also a key part of these debates. In particular there was a wide-ranging debate over whether the regime had been popular. Had Mussolini ruled through violence, or had he achieved ‘consensus’? Berlusconi himself waded into these debates, stating that Mussolini had been a benign dictator, who ‘didn’t kill anyone’ and had ‘sent his opponents on holiday’. Italians were depicted as victims, not aggressors, during World War Two. Historical revisionism took place on a wide scale.
Meanwhile, new kinds of neo-fascist organisation were forming over Italy, with a strong appeal to young generations and – for example – football fans. The most important of these groups is called Casa Pound and has premises across Italy, which attract a wide range of supporters. These groups are careful to use modern language and avoid obvious connections to any kind of fascist past. They present themselves as democratic and are savvy in their use of social media. At the same time, there has been a revival of interest in aspects of Mussolinian symbolism and slogans. Many Italians visit Mussolini’s birthplace and grave in the small town of Predappio every year, paying their respects to the leader. Mussolini calendars can be purchased at newsstands. Fascist ring tones are common.
The rise of foreign immigration to Italy, meanwhile, has often been met with racism and hostility at a local and national level. Matteo Salvini led this with his ‘Party of fear’ which exploited discontent with migration of its own populist and political ends. Salvini courted Casa Pound and repeats fascist phrases, although he has always dismissed any claims that he is a fascist. Salvini’s rise to power in 2018 has led to much discussion amongst historians about a ‘return to fascism’. Some have argued that this historical category is outdated and that we need to analyse today’s political trends within their own specific social and cultural context. Meanwhile, others have seen strong parallels between the fascism of the past and the populism of the present. Leading writer Michela Murgia has even written a book called Instructions for becoming a Fascist where she exposes how everyday racism and anti-democratic narratives are linked to an outlook which she sees as ‘fascist’.
As Italy moves towards the 100th anniversary of the 1919-1922 which first brought fascism to power, it is engaged in topical and fascinating debates about its past, its present and – above all – its future.
Professor John Foot is author of Archipelago: Italy since 1945 (Bloomsbury, 2018), and is an internationally-recognised authority and commentator on Italian history and contemporary culture. He has written best-selling books on post-war Italy, as well as Italian football and cycling.