Italians are not sheep. Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

March 25, 2024   6 mins

On a warm night in January, Romans staged a revival of their fascist past. At an event in the southern suburb of Acca Larentia, commemorating three fascist youths killed in 1978, hundreds of men in dark shirts were photographed doing a Nazi salute. The incident was immediately condemned by liberals. Elly Schlein, an opposition leader, said it reminded her of 1924, the year Mussolini tightened his grip on power. But the prime minister herself stayed quiet — as well she might. As recently as 2021, Giorgia Meloni actually praised the victims of the 1978 killings, calling their deaths “a tragedy where no culprit has ever been found” and “a wound that has never healed”.

To understand Meloni’s ambivalence, and indeed the brazenness of the new blackshirts, you must do more than understand the turmoil of the Years of Lead in the Seventies and Eighties, or even the bloody legacy of the Second World War. Rather, you must instead grasp an idea: Italiani brava gente; Italians are good folk. It is one of the founding principles of the modern nation, expressed in books, films and even street signs, and is now burrowed deep into the popular consciousness. And there it still lingers, excusing the crimes of the past, and justifying the politics of the present.

It has its origins in the 19th century: even then Italian politicians saw themselves as different from their European rivals. Not for them the gore-soaked victories of the French in Algeria or the Germans in Namibia. In 1885, the country’s foreign minister justified its conquests in East Africa by claiming that Italy couldn’t remain on the sidelines “in the battle between civilisation and barbarism”. Encouraged, perhaps, by the cultural glories of earlier centuries, or else by a national reputation for conviviality, these ideas soon trickled downstream. In one 1902 story, for instance, the popular adventure writer Emilio Salgari introduced his readers to a character freed from pirates by Italian sailors. “Me love Italians,” the “Little Moor” stammers in pidgin. “Italians good people.” The truth, it hardly needs saying, was rather less simple. Italy may have been late to the colonisation game, but they got stuck in by the late-19th century, and in much the manner of their European rivals. In 1911, for example, their troops butchered at least 1,000 people in Libya, revenge for an earlier massacre during the Italo-Turkish War. They may have gifted the world Boccaccio and Brunelleschi — but Italians could be vicious.

“They may have gifted the world Boccaccio and Brunelleschi — but Italians could be vicious.”

Even so, a sense of national mildness endured through the foundational experience of modern Italy: fascism. He may have proclaimed that it’s better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep, but in practice Benito Mussolini saw his compatriots as rather less ferocious. “The Italian race is a race of sheep,” he admitted on the eve of Italy’s entry into the Second World War. “Eighteen years aren’t enough to transform it: you need 180 years, or maybe 180 centuries.” This self-conscious moderation is reflected elsewhere, particularly if you examine fascist propaganda. After Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, one cartoon shows a group of baby-soldiers light-heartedly singing. Elsewhere, cartoonists gently mocked the infatuation of the conquerors with local girls. The Ethiopians themselves were drawn as crude racist stereotypes — but it’s hard to imagine Goebbels tolerating similar banter in the General Government.

But the best explanation for the persistence of Italiani brava gente is the way Italians could compare themselves to Nazi Germany. As the Holocaust became the axial moral crime of Western civilisation, it helped that Italian fascism was not intrinsically antisemitic. Through the Twenties, some enthusiastic fascists were themselves Jews, while Mussolini dismissed Hitler’s obsessions as late as 1932. And while his regime eventually aligned itself with Nazi racial theories, the Duce never organised industrial slaughter on the scale of Treblinka or Auschwitz. Until Italy’s surrender in 1943, Italian officers generally refused to back the genocidal instincts of their allies — at least when it came to Jews. This was especially notable in Yugoslavia. In the portion of the country occupied by Italy, Jews found a refuge from Nazi and Ustashe destruction, and could apparently even celebrate Yom Kippur.

None of this washes away the fields of blood undoubtedly spilt by Mussolini’s regime. Spurred by anti-Slavic bigotry, and irredentist claims in Slovenia and Dalmatia, the Italians deported some 18% of Ljubljana’s population to concentration camps. At one site, on the Croatian island of Rab, the death rate may have been worse than Buchenwald. Italian behaviour in Abyssinia was just as dreadful, with the use of mustard gas the most infamous crime among many. Nor were Italians free from blame when it came to the Holocaust: at least 200 Roman Jews were denounced or arrested by their gentile neighbours.

Despite this barbarism, events would intervene to give Italiani brava gente new strength. After Italy capitulated in September 1943, the Wehrmacht invaded. Hitler established a puppet state in the north, commonly known as the Republic of Salò, and Italians thereafter fought a vicious civil war, with the pro-German rump battling a mix of Allied troops, antifascist Italian soldiers and Leftist partisans. When the bloodletting ceased two years later, the country was shattered. As an Allied officer remarked in July 1945, Italians wished to be freed “from the war, fascism, and themselves”. Local politicians agreed, and Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Communist Party and minister of justice after the war, declared an amnesty for the vast majority of former fascist officials in June 1946.

Soon enough, these legal machinations blended into a wider principle: Italian officials, and Italians generally, were the unwitting and unwilling dupes of Nazi totalitarianism. As a government spokesman told a Belgian journalist shortly after the war ended, the authorities tasked with enforcing antisemitic laws actually worked to “sabotage” them. And with much of Italy lately and brutally occupied by the Nazis, claims to victimhood enjoyed some plausibility. The amnesty law may have been passed by a communist, meanwhile, but the post-war dominance of Christian Democrats meant that vengeful Leftist partisans were marginalised. Cold War logic played a role too. With Trieste the southern end of the Iron Curtain, the West had little appetite to interrogate Italy’s dubious past.

As in earlier periods of Italian history, this new iteration of Italiani brava gente would mark the country’s culture. Memoirs such as The Sergeant in the Snow are important here — but the phenomenon is clearest in Italian cinema. As early as 1945, Rome, Open City shows courageous partisans tortured by the Gestapo. Films like The Monastery of Santa Chiara (1949) told similar tales, and scripts that dared tell more complex stories were stymied by self-censorship. Italiani Brava Gente, a 1964 film, crystalised these attitudes. Starring apolitical conscripts on the Eastern Front, they’re appalled by German cruelty. By the late-20th century, the theme had echoed abroad: in the 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and the 2001 adaptation with Nicolas Cage, the Italian occupation of Greece is painted in distinctly mellow tones. For her part, Hannah Arendt claimed that just 10% of Italian Jews died in the Holocaust. We now know the figure was closer to 20%.

Every country mythologises its past: nationhood would probably be impossible without it. Nor, to reiterate, are the stories Italians tell themselves entirely false. Like the fictional Corelli on Kefalonia, many really did fight the Germans, and others acted decently, from France to the Russian Steppe. But a failure to reflect frankly on history, both the bad and the good, has afflicted the bel paese for far longer than its neighbours. Where Germany was roused by the Eichmann trial, and France began to reconsider Vichy from the Seventies, Italy has been remarkably reluctant to follow suit. As one 1986 documentary stated — and many since have continued to claim — “Italians behaved better than everyone else in Europe.” Countless towns boast plaques commemorating “martyrs for freedom” executed in the civil war. Learning who killed them, however, is often much harder.

Beyond robbing Italians of historical nuance, these ideas continue to have a deep impact on the country’s politics. With Italiani brava gente at their back, leaders can paint their country as the victims of Nazism — while dismissing their own authoritarianism as half-baked or harmless. As Silvio Berlusconi (wrongly) claimed in 2003: “Mussolini never killed anyone.” Beyond gaffes like that, Italians far to Berlusconi’s Right have been able to embrace neo-fascism wholesale, knowing it doesn’t enjoy the opprobrium Hitlerism did in Germany. That goes for violent paramilitaries like Ordine Nuovo, but also more respectable politicians. He later moderated his position, but in 1994 Gianfranco Fini, leader of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), publicly stated that Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the century.

Even today, Giorgia Meloni, another MSI alumna, is not exempt. Quite apart from her sympathy for the dead at Acca Larentia, she’s suggested that the victims of a notorious 1944 massacre, perpetrated by the SS outside Rome, were killed simply for being Italian. Contrary to the Italiani brava gente myth, that wasn’t really true. For one thing, many of the dead were specifically resistance fighters or Jews. For another, the Gestapo chose their victims with the help of the Republic of Salò’s interior minister and Rome’s police chief — Italians and fascists both. A similar thread of ideas has seeped into Meloni’s government. Defending the so-called “Mattei Plan” — aimed at controlling migration from Africa — a minister in Meloni’s government has argued that Italy could be trusted on the continent because its colonial history proved it had a “civilising culture”.

At the same time, the ambivalence of many Italians towards their fascist heritage has allowed extremists to prod the limits of legal standards of behaviour. And this is why the display of fascist salutes at Acca Larentia in January are still possible: though it was implicitly founded as an anti-fascist state, the Italian Republic takes a far milder approach to far-Right symbolism than Germany or Austria. In the aftermath of the commemoration, an Italian court decreed that the Nazi salute was only illegal if it threatened public order, or risked reviving the outlawed National Fascist Party. “Of course”, cheered a spokesman for the militant CasaPound group, “we will continue making the Roman salute”. For some Italians, it seems, the dark symbolism — and darker ideologies — of the short 20th century have lasted well into the 21st.

Andrea Valentino is a freelance journalist based in New York.