March 27, 2020

Nobody knows what will happen after the coronavirus, but just as the crisis has been unimaginable, so could its consequences be. And although in some ways the pandemic hovers above the realm of politics, still that politics, in particular party politics and the jostle between Left and Right, will not go away.

In America, questions about President Trump’s actions have become central to the debate, not least because of the proximity of an election and the extent to which a strong economy had been the President’s best argument for re-election. But it is in Europe that the consequences could be most profound, even if it still too early to tell which political factions will predominate.

Perhaps the extensions of state powers in every European country will make the populace more open to authoritarian impulses from the political fringes, or perhaps this experiment with them will make the public more resistant to the accumulation of power by the state.

Of all the points of political interest relating to this crisis, one relates particularly to the series I have been working on for UnHerd on the European Right and the borders which delineate it from the far-right. Last month I looked at Sweden and the way in which a party of the extremes — the Sweden Democrats — had in the course of two decades come towards the political centre. But it is in Italy, currently the worst afflicted country by the coronavirus, that a spotlight is currently needed.

Italian politics is not the same as politics in other western countries, and this is as true of the extreme as the centre. In Germany today there are movements that regard their country’s history in the 1930s and ’40s as a proud one, but they are kept to the very farthest margins of the politics and in many cases are illegal. Though there are exceptions, almost anybody in Germany who looks towards the country’s fascist era as a noble one is granted the opprobrium they deserve and kept far from the centre of polite society.

Other countries have a different settlement, most clearly, perhaps, Spain and Italy. Whereas after 1945 Hitler-ism was vanquished not only on the battlefield but in the field of ideas, the same cannot be said of Mussolini-ism. There are reasons for this, not least the claim that among the last century’s fascist dictators Mussolini was a lesser beast than Hitler (admittedly a low bar).

For this reason among others, post-war Italy consistently sustained a far-right movement (as it did a far-left movement) in a way that would have been utterly unimaginable, not to mention illegal, in post-war Germany. A view persisted on the Italian Right that their brand of Fascism would not have gone so badly if it had not been for Hitler dragging Mussolini in a bad direction.

Because of these historical differences, in Italy ‘fascism’ and ‘far-right’ are not such excommunicable offences as they are in the rest of western Europe. As recently as 2003 the then Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, made exculpating remarks about Italy’s wartime dictator and ten years later praised Mussolini as having been a good leader.

By this point, however, there was one element of Mussolini’s record which Berlusconi was wise enough to condemn without caveat, the passing of anti-Jewish laws. This was not an example of moral or political leadership on Berlusconi’s part, for by then even on the Italian far-right there had been some shift in attitude towards the past.

In the 2000s a figure who looked set to go all the way to the top in Italy, Gianfranco Fini, made one of the most interesting migrations in modern politics. During the 1990s Fini had been a member of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, a party formed immediately after the war by supporters of Mussolini. In the 1990s Fini became famous — among other reasons — for his overt support for the wartime dictator, including his assertion that Mussolini had been the greatest man of the 20th century.

But during the 2000s, as Fini rose through the political firmament (by then in the Alleanza Nazionale) he also changed, although as ever it is impossible to know what is opportunism and what is somebody’s political heart.

In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2002, Fini (by then Deputy Prime Minister in one of Italy’s permanently coalition governments) said: “As an Italian I must accept responsibility, I must do so in the name of Italians… The Italians bear responsibility for what happened after the legislation of the race laws in 1938 — and they must apologise.”

The statement caused an uproar in Italy, not least among supporters of Mussolini. But for a leader of a party seen as linked to Mussolini-ite politics the statement was crucial. A year later, on a visit to Israel, Fini cemented this shift, and also comprehensively disowned his previously laudatory statement about Il Duce.

Whatever Italian views about other aspects of Mussolini’s rule, Fini made clear that Mussolini had been wrong in several absolutely central things: in being an autocrat, in his alliance with Hitler and in his anti-Semitism. Although Fini’s career ended up dissolving within the decade in a blizzard of very Italian discoveries about a flat in Monaco, the fact that such a prominent figure from the far-right had made this move was a demonstration of a wider change in the country’s politics.

Nevertheless, Italian politics remains open to neo-fascism in a way which is unacceptable in almost every other western country, and few people have been accused of it more readily or more frequently than the most recent leader on the Italian right, Matteo Salvini.

Unlike Fini and others, Salvini did not originate on the far-right. Indeed. when he started off in Milanese politics in the 1990s he was involved in the communist faction of the Lega Nord. His success came about through his recognition that the party which campaigned for the separation of northern Italy from the south should become a national movement. More than anyone else it was Salvini who in recent decades pulled off the feat of making a separatist party into a national, and indeed nationalist, one.

However this success would not have been possible had Italy not been forced to deal with the consequences of migration surge from North Africa throughout the 2010s — and virtually alone.

While the European Union professes to hold to a policy by which all member- states take an equal share of the burden on migration, in reality Italy, like other frontline states, has been forced to cope alone. During the 2000s they did so —among other things — via a policy of dark and rarely acknowledged bribes to the Gaddafi regime in Libya. So long as Gaddafi held back the boats (and his regime certainly did not hold them all back) Italy could cope.

But in the wake of Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011 all of that changed, and soon boatloads of migrants were arriving every day on Italian islands like Lampedusa. Other European countries refused to pay for their share of this burden, and although the Italian population (spurred on not least by the Pope) were extraordinarily tolerant and sympathetic to the arrivals, nevertheless once the migrants got stuck on the islands or in major cities Italian public opinion began to shift.

Yet it was a major test of Italian tolerance; on top of the sheer weight of numbers, most came from culturally and religiously very different societies, as well as the criminality that the smuggling gangs brought into Italy. Salvini  addressed the issue, and his arguments resonated with the Italian public: not only the unfairness of Italy being forced to cope with this alone, but his insistence that the new arrivals did not share the traditions or ways of life of the Italian people.

And while it is true that the Lega (especially while it was a separatist movement) had ugly and neo-fascist elements, in many respects the party was not especially right-wing — it did not, for instance, have any especially austere attitude towards social welfare.  Yet it had an anti-intellectualism and instinctive nativism which made it easy to dismiss for a time.

Nevertheless, after the extraordinary events of 2015, when huge numbers surged into Europe, it was inevitable the party’s star would rise. After the election in 2018 the Lega formed part of an unlikely coalition government, with the Left populist Five Star Movement, and Salvini became Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister.

Although he is currently out of power (having attempted, unsuccessfully, to disband the coalition government last year) he remains the most dynamic force in Italian politics. Earlier this year, as the coronavirus began to enter Europe Salvini — like Marine Le Pen in France — called for his country’s borders to be closed. The rest of the political class called him a racist for suggesting such an unthinkable idea, and a few weeks later (after the severity of the crisis finally hit them) the same people who had condemned Salvini instituted the very policy.

Still he is regularly described in the foreign press as a ‘far-right’ politician, despite always having demonstrated a very un-Duce like respect for the democratic process (he quietly left office last September after his coalition broke apart). Partly this reflects the historical baggage of the Italian Right but much of it is misrepresentation by the press.

When last year the Italian Senator and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre called for a bill to be passed in the Senate setting up a commission to look into “intolerance, racism, anti-Semitism and hatred”, the Lega abstained from the vote, believing that it would be used to excoriate them on their immigration policy. Salvini himself currently faces prosecution in Italy for forbidding illegal landings while Interior Minister, so it is was not an irrational belief on the Lega’s part.

For abstaining in this vote Salvini and his party were accused of being anti-Semitic, yet he has been exceptionally outspoken on this issue. In January of this year I spoke alongside him on a panel in the Senate in Rome which called on the Italian government to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. It is the definition that the British Labour party — among others — has stumbled upon and it is the definition which among other things makes plain that hatred of the Jewish state is itself a demonstration of anti-Semitism.

If Salvini were a fascist or an anti-Semite it would seem an unusual thing for him to demand that the Italian government adopt a definition of anti-Semitism more stringent than they are currently willing to adopt. A definition which would — incidentally — almost certainly catch a number of ‘anti-racist’ but vociferously anti-Israel politicians on the Italian Left.

Fears of fascism in Italy are not unfounded, and the country does have parties and groupings whose attitudes towards the past and policies for the present should cause deep concern. Groups like Casa Pound, in this case named after the Mussolini-supporter and poet Ezra Pound, make no secret of their neo-fascism. To Salvini and the Lega’s Right there are parties which the rest of Europe would have a far bigger problem with.

Then there is Fratelli d’Italia, led by Giorgia Meloni, a former minister in Berlusconi’s last government. Meloni is a very Italian creation. Her public speeches and stances focus on her patriotism, her Catholicism and her support for the family – all popular things of course – but at heart her party is homesick for the fascist era.

When, a few years back, centre-left Jewish politician Emanuele Fiano (of the Partito Democratico) spoke in the Council of Deputies about an episode of anti-Semitism, Meloni and others objected to his speech by doing the saluto Romano (the fascist salute, with arm raised) in the chamber.

It was, and is, an action which it is almost impossible to imagine in any other European country, and a reminder that in Italy the past has not been fully or satisfactorily litigated, and that Italian politics remains as volatile as it ever was.