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Italy’s flirtation with fascism If we don't draw a distinction between the Right and the far-Right, we'll lose our ability to recognise which is which

Matteo Salvini at a rally earlier this year. Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images

Matteo Salvini at a rally earlier this year. Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images


March 27, 2020   7 mins

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 ‚ÄĒ the Sweden Democrats ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ among other reasons ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs permanently coalition governments)¬†said: “As an Italian I must accept responsibility, I must do so in the name of Italians‚Ķ The Italians bear responsibility for what happened after the legislation of the race laws in 1938 ‚ÄĒ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒamong other things ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ like Marine Le Pen in France ‚ÄĒ called for his country‚Äôs 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 ‚Äėfar-right‚Äô 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 ‚Äúintolerance, racism, anti-Semitism and hatred‚ÄĚ, 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄĒ among others ‚ÄĒ 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 ‚ÄĒ incidentally ‚ÄĒ almost certainly catch a number of ‘anti-racist‚Äô 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‚ÄôItalia, led by Giorgia Meloni, a former minister in Berlusconi‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď all popular things of course ‚Äď 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.

 


Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.

DouglasKMurray

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perrywidhalm
perrywidhalm
4 years ago

Always enjoy reading Douglas Murray essays but I disagree with him on the idea that Marxism is on the far-Left and Fascism represents the far-Right. Both Marxism and Fascism are on the Left. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (National Socialists) are contrasted as being polar opposites but that is false, they both represented authoritarianism, war-mongering (The Pact Of Steel) a centrally-planned economy and a deep hatred for the Jewish people. Where the two States differed was in their nationalist identity. Marxists are internationalists generally and the Nazi’s were jingoistic nationalists. But, nationalism is not an indicator of the Left / Right divide. Gandhi was a nationalist. FDR was a nationalist. Churchill was a nationalist. Mandela was a nationalist. Chavez was a nationalist. The proper distinction should be authoritarian State collectivists on the Left and Democratic Republic Individualists on the Right.

davidlcrs
davidlcrs
4 years ago
Reply to  perrywidhalm

Agreed. I think the Right is better exemplified by Popper, Friedman and Hayek; people who worked as philosophers, historians and economists and never set up a concentration camp.
They also had a sense of humour rather than being driven by hatred.

Simon Humphries
Simon Humphries
4 years ago
Reply to  davidlcrs

The trouble is that the left-right single scale is a very poor way of classifying political beliefs. Despite this, it has become the accepted scale, thereby causing endless problems, particularly as far as the extremes are concerned.

davidlcrs
davidlcrs
4 years ago

Agreed. It is more a horseshoe or a bird’s wing tips mid-flap.
The biaxial left right/ authoritarian libertarian square is better.

nickhuntster
nickhuntster
4 years ago
Reply to  perrywidhalm

Maybe the aging ‘left-right’ terminology Is the problem here. Like Trump, I’m totally opposed to leftism, but does that mean I’m primarily ‘on the right’, or primarily anti-leftist? I’d say the latter. I can negate leftist policy and dogma without offering alternatives, just as scientists can falsify current scientific theory without proposing greater truths. The term ‘non-leftist’ is also useful for describing all those free of said ideology, perhaps the silent majority. Other useful terms to frame and guide our thinking in these confusing times are globalist vs patriot and ‘somewhere vs anywhere people’.

lan0467
lan0467
4 years ago
Reply to  perrywidhalm

Thank you! @Perry Widhalm! You nailed it so well!!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Salvini can be a little brash or uncouth but I see no evidence of any fascistic beliefs. He simply wants Italy’s borders to be respected, and Italian traditions to be maintained. And it wasn’t he who took Italy into the euro, or who oversaw decades of corruption across Italian politics and industry.

lan0467
lan0467
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Not just political ideologies but religious ideologies too should be under the scanner!! When you kill or defraud others to convert/join some faith, it’s also fascism!! When you don’t allow other belief systems to exist just because they are different, that is fascism too and yet! underrated in public discourse!! Political correctness/fear of backlash and left wing hypocrisy are perhaps the major culprits of this malaise!!

tekyo.pantzov
tekyo.pantzov
4 years ago

Douglas Murray writes: “on top of the sheer weight of numbers, most [immigrants] came from culturally and religiously very different societies … Salvini addressed the issue, and his arguments resonated with the Italian public … his insistence that the new arrivals did not share the traditions or ways of life of the Italian people.”
Most immigrants to Europe come from nearby continents, because shorter travel routes are cheaper. As a result of this, immigrants to Europe tend to belong to cultures very different from European cultures.
Since immigration is necessary, Europe should encourage immigrants from compatible cultures, even though they may be further away than Algeria or Turkey. There is a large reservoir of potential immigrants with compatible cultures in Latin America, who speak Indo-European languages also spoken in Europe and whose religious beliefs are largely European in origin.
Europe should discourage immigration from the countries that currently provide the bulk of immigration to Europe and instead actively recruit and pay for immigration from Latin America.

nickhuntster
nickhuntster
4 years ago
Reply to  tekyo.pantzov

To adopt your wise advice, Europe will first need freedom from EU immigration policy, its progressive-globalist ideology, and its control over European nations’ political sovereignty.

lan0467
lan0467
4 years ago
Reply to  nickhuntster

@Nick Hunt: Every civilization & culture has the duty & right to protect itself!! However, you as most Europeans are confused about immigration & cultures!!

Muslim incompatibility with European & ANY other culture is a reality which west Europeans somehow refuse to acknowledge!!

LatinAmerica is source of immigration but non Muslim, Asia & India are significant pools of talent, Europe should definitely encourage!! Varied perspectives which are not brainwashed by ideology & religion are sure to offer greater opportunities for Europeans!!

Richard Gibbons
Richard Gibbons
4 years ago
Reply to  tekyo.pantzov

Why is immigration necessary ?

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

It isn’t, on the whole. To the extent that it is necessary in Italy it is because Italy has a very low birthrate. This is because Italy has been an economic, political and institutional basket case for many decades. Thus people see little future in the country, and many of its educated young leave the country. These problems will not be solved by importing people from places that are even more backwards than Italy.

lan0467
lan0467
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

WHY are these countries backward should be the question! which Europeans rarely, if ever answered honestly!!

Also, WHY are so many Italians/Europeans in social, economic, political, philosophical or spiritual malaise & backwardness are the other questions which need to haunt Europeans!!

lan0467
lan0467
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

@Fraser Bailey: You are confusing poor political & econonimic system backwardness with people!!

lan0467
lan0467
4 years ago
Reply to  tekyo.pantzov

@Tekyo Pantzov: What you say is only partially correct!! You as most Europeans are confused about immigration & cultures!! Muslim incompatibility with European & ANY other culture is a reality which west Europeans somehow refuse to acknowledge!!

Latin America is source of immigration but non Muslim, Asia & India are significant pools of talent, Europe should definitely encourage!! Varied perspectives which are not brainwashed by ideology & religion are sure to offer greater opportunities for Europeans!!

Will D. Mann
Will D. Mann
4 years ago

Any future malignant political movements are unlikely to look very much like the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. They will have to disguise themselves as western democracies have been inoculated to some degree and will resist overtly Nazi or Fascist anti Semitic movements.

Elements of Fascism are apparent in some of today’s political movements. Some political discourse attempts a conflation of “The People” and ” The Nation” into one entity. We have heard rather alarming calls to heed ” the will of the people”, with the implication that dissent or disagreement is somehow illegitimate. Alarm bells should ring when any would be leader makes exclusive claims to interpret the people’s will.

The other thing to watch out for are attempts to define citizenship along ethnic lines. Today’s Far Right movements have abandoned the crude genetic racism of the 20th century and usually talk about “different cultures”, this enables them to send out xenophobic messages while dodging accusations of crude racism. ( Foreign immigrants could be tolerated, so long as they become just like “us”)

The new Populist Right might well be different in many ways to the Nazi and Fascist movements of the past but they are exploiting the same insecurity and fears, it could all end just as badly as last time.