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Is fascism back on the rise in Italy?

How Italy's far right became mainstream — and what it means for the United States

Forza Italia party (PDL) leader Silvio Berlusconi speaks during a Northern League rally in Bologna, central Italy, on Nov. 8, 2015. The far-right anti-Islam Northern League is a key part of Berlusconi’s “center-right” coalition. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
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January 27 marks the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the victims of anti-Semitism. In Italy, this year’s commemoration comes with a wider relevance: It coincides with the 80th anniversary of the fascist racial laws that represented the “official” starting point of the Italian state’s discrimination against Jews. If in popular memory Germans were (and still are) considered the “bad guys” of the two world wars, from the moment it implemented its anti-Semitic laws, Italians institutionally contributed to one of the greatest tragedies in world history.

Today, Italy’s public opinion and media are not focused on this anniversary but on the coming national elections of early March. But the two are not so far apart: Italy is experiencing a resurgence of xenophobia and contemporary (neo) fascism, ideas that are shaping the coming election and that threaten both any real integration of immigrants and Italy’s continued relationship with the European Union.

The center-right coalition is extremely well-positioned in the upcoming elections. This coalition is still heavily influenced by convicted former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The “eternal return” of the 81-year-old media tycoon is only partially surprising, given that he has monopolized this center-right-wing galaxy since the 1990s, creating and merging parties and reshaping alliances that include both liberals and extremists.

The moderate-sounding label — “center-right” — disguises that the coalition includes the far-right anti-Islam Northern League and the right-wing nationalist Brothers of Italy. The former is one of the major allies of France’s National Front, and has a long history of policy proposals to “Stop the Euro” and an immigrant “invasion.” Brothers of Italy, following the example of the League and other like-minded parties, is likewise campaigning strongly against Islam and for a pure national identity.

These forces don’t exist only on the fringes. Some days ago, Attilio Fontana, the coalition’s gubernatorial candidate in the regional election (which is happening at the same time as the national ballot), in the important wealthy Lombardy region, argued for the need to defend the “white race.” The center-right coalition chose to defend or downplay his argument.

That such racist propaganda has a wider appeal is evident in the contemporary anti-elite climate affecting much of the western world. However, there is also something very peculiar about Italy, a nation that, despite inventing the word fascism after World War I and experiencing the first fascist right-wing dictatorship, is fundamentally unable to come to terms with its own authoritarian and racist past. Unlike other nations, Italy did not carry out a national and symbolic “trial” against leading fascists or their violence, which surely contributed to allowing the nation to accept parties still grounded in this ideological galaxy.

Brothers of Italy is an evident example of this trend. Established mostly by people who previously belonged to one of Berlusconi’s parties, Brothers of Italy put itself in line with the tradition of the now-disappeared Italian Social Movement (MSI). For about 40 years, the MSI, which emerged in 1946 from the ashes of Mussolini’s fascism, was the largest and leading neo-fascist party in Western Europe. Its initials, MSI, also acted as a code for many militants, who considered them to also stand for Mussolini Sei Immortale (Mussolini, you are immortal). Their symbol, a tricolor flame above a base, now borrowed by Brothers of Italy, signified the capability to radiate fascist ideals for eternity.

In early January, another fascist group called CasaPound marched in Rome, flashing Roman salutes like their Blackshirt fellows in the interwar years. In November, in the Roman coastal suburban area of Ostia, one of their supporters beat a journalist who was inquiring about the group’s favorable electoral performance in the town. One unashamed voter defended the group, arguing opponents of CasaPound “call them fascists because they think of Italians and not the foreigners.”

Some of these hard-line movements have been in contact with Berlusconi’s allies, bringing them into the center-right coalition. That means that Italy is not simply experiencing the resurgence of a xenophobic nationalism, which is now common in much of the West. Rather, like in the United States today, in Italy extremism has gone mainstream, often accepted by media and a good part of the public.

But unlike in America, there is nothing really new here. All these extremist forces have been allied with Berlusconi since the beginning of his political adventure in the early 1990s. Berlusconi’s successful propaganda efforts made sure his alliance was publicly considered, by much of the media and the public, the coalition of the “moderates.”  Yet his actions post-victory show how untrue that characterization was.

Soon after taking office, Berlusconi and his allies attempted to rehabilitate Mussolini. In a famous interview in 2003 with the British magazine Spectator’s right-wing journalist Nicholas Farrell and his editor, Boris Johnson, Berlusconi famously argued that fascism was a much more “benign dictatorship,” while antifascists were sent “on holiday to confine them.”

This historical revisionism not only pleased some politicians but some of the Italian mainstream media as well. In 2005, influential TV journalist Bruno Vespa, for example, claimed that there was actually only one “anti-Semite among Fascists.” As the reality of fascism was underplayed or even presented as (more) respectable, it seemed that nothing controversial had happened in Italian history. This has slowly led to the legitimization of much of the discourse and ideals still used by far right-wing parties today.

But such politically motivated historical revisionism has been also helped by unexpected factors. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Italian Communist Party became much more moderate, changing its ideological profile and abandoning anti-fascism as an obsolete remnant of the past. The decline of the anti-fascism movement has made possible the acceptance of neo-fascists and racist forces in government, including the presence of Alessandra Mussolini, proud granddaughter of Il Duce, in Berlusconi’s party.

The paradox is that the European Union and its prominent and moderate European People’s Party have always turned a blind eye to this situation. Modern extremists, often unchallenged by a somnolent media and a quarreling center left, are now leading surveys for the Italian elections under the guise of false moderation. This should worry the E.U. As the powerful Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, suggested, “the Italian vote could represent the beginning of a new Europe” — a nationalist one.

But this story should also teach something about American politics and culture. Depicting fascism and xenophobia as relatively harmless, as well as minimizing the impact of any form of provocative right-wing radicalism, may bolster the influence of a demagogic leader and his related bunch of anti-liberal extremists — exactly as it has in Italy.