David Broder, Mussolini's Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy (Pluto 2023), 240pp. David Broder, Mussolini's Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy (Pluto 2023), 240pp.

David Broder’s account of the origins and trajectory of post-war Italian fascism is a warning of the dangerous reconfiguration of the right, finds Chris Bambery

On holiday on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples, I recall visiting the castle overlooking the harbour. Inside I discovered something of a shrine to two men held prisoner there shortly after the Second World War. One was Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, the man who ordered poison gas to be used on a mass scale during fascist Italy’s invasion and conquest of Ethiopia in 1935. Graziani would command Italian troops in North Africa during the Second World War, then served as the defence minister of the so-called Saló republic.

This was formed after Benito Mussolini was ousted as the Italian dictator in July 1943, imprisoned, then rescued by the Germans, and installed as the head of the Nazi puppet regime, the Italian Social Republic (widely known as the Saló Republic after the town where Mussolini was based), in German occupied northern and central Italy. Graziani waged war under the Germans against the Allies and the Italian Resistance. He ordered young men who escaped conscription to be executed.

Graziani’s comrade in jail was Valerio Borghese, a fascist war hero commanding miniature submarines against the British. When Mussolini fell in 1943, he offered his men to the Germans and they were deployed against the resistance, earning a savage reputation. At the end of the war, the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, smuggled him south to Allied occupied Rome to ensure the resistance did not execute him.

Both men were war criminals. Both would eventually go on trial in 1948, not for war crimes, but for collaboration with the Nazi occupation. Graziani was sentenced to 19 years. Borghese got twelve years, immediately reduced to three. The castle on Procida was a very comfortable prison, but they did not enjoy their stay there long. Both were released after just four months. Both would then campaign for the fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), led by former leaders of the Saló Republic. Borghese attempted a military coup in 1970, aimed at establishing a dictatorship.

The post-war failure

My visit to Procida came back to me as I read David Broder’s excellent book, Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy, along with the shock I get everytime I stop at an Italian motorway service station to find wine bottles and cigarette lighters adorned with Mussolini’s profile (you could get ones too with Hitler or Stalin if that was your bag!).

Many Italians shrug this off, arguing Mussolini could not be compared to Hitler. Leaving aside the fact that the dictatorship he established in the 1920s was rooted in the mass violence of fascist squads waging a one-sided civil war on the left and the unions, and that it established a one-party state where freedom of speech, freedom of association and democracy were banned, this regime was responsible for 750,000 deaths in Ethiopia, committed massacres in occupied Yugoslavia, and passed Race Laws of its own volition, removing citizenship from Italian Jews and banning them from work and education. The Italian security forces of the Saló Republic rounded up Jews and sent them on trains to the death camps.

There was a central paradox in the new Italian Republic which emerged after 1945. It was formally based on anti-fascism and on the tradition of the biggest and most effective resistance movement in western Europe. But its attempts to deal with fascist executioners and mass murderers fell far, far short of even West Germany’s de-Nazification programme.

In June 1946, the Justice Minister, Palmiro Togliatti, also General Secretary of the powerful Italian Communist Party (PCI), granted an amnesty for wartime crimes, including collaboration, serving the Saló Republic or the German authorities. Fascists walked free, but former resistance fighters, including those who executed Mussolini, faced prosecution.

David Broder traces the roots of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, taken from the first line of the Italian national anthem), led by the current Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni. Italy’s post-war failure to deal with the legacy of the dictatorship’s war crimes is a good starting point because Fratelli d’Italia is rooted in the tradition established by the MSI. What the book does is trace Fratelli d’Italia’s genealogy from the MSI and its evolution into its current position leading a right-wing coalition stretching from open fascists, through Meloni (who always claims to know nothing of those of her supporters who still give the Roman salute), through the viciously racist La Lega to the octogenarian Silvio Berlusconi.

These are forces which Broder demonstrates seized opportunities created in the early 1990s when the three main parties of the post-war Republic imploded. For four decades, Italy had been ruled by the centre-right Christian Democrats, sometimes in alliance with the Socialists, after the latter broke their alliance with the Communists as the Cold War gathered pace.

The Communist Party, the largest in the world outside Russia and China, was frozen out of office after 1947 and the onset of the Cold War. Nevertheless, it respected the post-war constitution which rested on the supposed anti-fascism of the three major parties during the wartime resistance (there were Christian Democrat and royalist partisans, but they were few compared to those identifying with the left). The MSI were largely frozen out, but in 1960, a Christian Democrat premier needed their votes to get a majority. There was an uproar and in the middle of this the MSI announced it was holding a congress in Genoa, a city liberated by a partisan insurrection in April 1945. The city erupted once more and there were demonstrations across Italy with eleven protesters killed by police, but they stopped the MSI from getting anywhere near office once more.

Permutations of neo-fascism

The party had a base, particularly in Rome, among the swollen civil service, and in central and southern Italy. From 1953 onwards, it polled between 1.5 million and 2.5 million votes. Its leaders until 1991 were veterans of the Saló Republic, old Blackshirts. The party formally distanced itself from Mussolini and his regime, but it always included hardcore fascists. In the 1970s during the ‘Years of Lead’, when the Red Brigades killed the Christian Democrat leader, Aldo Moro, and fascists set off deadly bombs. MSI members were involved in those fascist terror groups trying to create a ‘strategy of tension’, whereby the army would be forced to step in to restore order.

The MSI was ‘neo-fascist’ in the sense it did not aim to establish a fascist dictatorship and looked to elections rather than unleashing fighting squads, but it existed within a wider milieu of open fascists, included the terror groups. It was, as one of its central leaders, said, a party of ‘fascists in a democracy’ (p.48).

Then in the early 1990s, the established parliamentary system was blown apart. First, in 1991, the Communist Party voted to dissolve itself following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, into the Democratic Socialists (now simply the Democrats, rather akin to their American namesakes). It left a tremendous vacuum in working-class communities, particularly in Northern Italy. In 1992-3, both the ruling Christian Democrats and Socialists were blown away by a huge outpouring of anger over a massive corruption case in Milan involving the Socialist prime minister and others. That left another vacuum on the centre right.

Broder charts how into these vacuums, forces on the right able were to insert themselves, including the MSI, now rebranded as the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale (AN) under a new, younger leader with less baggage, Gianfranco Fini. In northern cities, the Lega Nord (now simply La Lega), which then wanted autonomy or independence for the region, and attacked southerners for sponging off the state (the south and islands were traditionally much poorer with much greater unemployment). Both parties grew, but the real winner was the billionaire media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, who established Forza Italia (after the football chant, Come on Italy) not as a mass party, but more as an extension of his private TV channels.

Berlusconi was prepared to open the door to Fini and the Lega (and a number of hardline fascist groups) by bringing them into a right-wing alliance. Speaking 25 years later, Berslusconi said this: ‘In 1994 we decided to enter the field with the Right that is with the Lega and with the fascists … We brought them in: it was us who legitimised them, who “constitutionalised them”.’

Commenting on this, Broder points out: ‘the MSI had long sought a place for itself within the “area of government” and used this moment to emphasis its credentials as part of a broader right; yet it also benefitted from the fact that other forces within this camp, and Berlusconi in particular, were willing to normalise the old neo-fascist party. The mainstreaming of the MSI was thus not a one-sided process of it choosing to abandon its identity or change its positions; rather, it was able to find a different place for itself, in a context marked by the collapse of the previous party system’ (p.86).

Giorgia Meloni and the Fratelli d’Italia

Giorgia Meloni was a teenage recruit to the MSI in Rome, in the red district of Garbatella. In 1996 French TV spotlighted the nineteen year old, who told them: ‘I think Mussolini was a good politician. He did what he did for Italy. There haven’t been other politicians like him these last fifty years’ (p.101).

As her political career developed, she began to learn to avoid praise for Il Duce. In 1998, she was elected a city councillor in Rome. By 2006, she was an AN parliamentary deputy, part of the Berlusconi-led coalition which took office, becoming vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies. Two years later, Berlusconi appointed her youth minister.

It’s important to point out, as Broder does, that not just the FN but the Lega and Berlusconi supporters were allying themselves with openly fascist groups such as CasaPound. The Lega under Matteo Salvini also led the way in attacking migrants ‘invading’ Italy, and Muslims in particular. Fascism had been legitimised but now, on the right, there was a competition as to who was the most racist. Both tendencies were part of a process underway since the early 1990s.

Meloni and her comrades learnt to deploy certain arguments to deal with accusations of fascism. One was to say that Mussolini was now in the past and there was no point in talking about him because no one was talking about recreating his dictatorship. Second, with the end of the Cold War, anti-fascism had no validity, and was Communism not the greatest evil? Third, that those who fought against Mussolini and those that fought for him were all Italian patriots, except communists who were loyal only to Russia.

Lastly, there was a portrayal of Italians as victims of the Second World War. So in Istria, the area of Croatia annexed by Italy in 1918, the victorious Yugoslav Communists killed some 2000 Italians in 1945, mostly fascist officials, police and so on, but including some innocents as old scores were settled. This was held up as crime supposedly comparable to Auschwitz, a comparison which is obscene and undermines the particular horror of the Holocaust.

In 2012, Fini went too far for many former comrades by dissolving the AN into a Berlusconi-led party of the right. Wily Silvio chewed Fini up and spat him out, his old comrades turned on him gleefully because he had gone too far for them in distancing himself from fascism.

The creation of Fratelli d’Italia stemmed from the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crash and the recession which affected southern Europe in its aftermath. The European Union demanded more and more cuts and ‘reforms’ which Berlusconi ignored, concentrating on avoiding being tried on various counts of corruption. The EU and the European Central Bank manoeuvred him out and succeeded in getting a new government appointed of non-elected technocrats, led by a banker, Mario Monti.

In 2012, Meloni, together with an old ally of Berlusconi, Guido Crosetto, launched Fratelli d’Italia. Unlike Silvio and the Lega, it refused to support Monti, the only party to do so. That is what would boost its steady rise in electoral support, culminating in it becoming the largest party of the right in 2022 and Meloni becoming premier.

The continuity of the new party with the old was emphasised by the incorporation of the MSI’s badge, the green, white and red flame, into its emblem. When Meloni took over the old MSI’s headquarters in Rome she said this: ‘I remain silent, and suddenly I realise the enormous responsibility I have taken on. I picked up the baton of a seventy-year-long history, I carried on my shoulders the dreams and hopes of a people who found themselves without a party, who had risked going astray. It’s as if those millions of people are still here, all those fighting with me today and those who are no longer here. As if they were looking at me, silently asking, “are you up to the task”’ (p.48).

International connections

What Fratelli d’Italia has done is to insert a party from the fascist tradition into the mainstream conservative movement both at home and abroad, for instance linking up with supporters of Donald Trump as well as buddying up with a party with similar roots, the Francoite Vox in Spain. Its central themes chime with its new friends; the clash of civilisations, the decline of the West as a result of uncontrolled immigration, and the dangers of globalisation. At home Meloni warns of the ‘extinction’ of the Italian people because of a falling birth rate and mass immigration. But she links this to familiar fascist pitches, such as supposed victimhood of the Italian people in World War II.

In October 2021, she addressed a Vox rally in Marbella warning the audience, in Spanish, of creeping Islamisation and growing ‘ethnic violence’ against Italians. She ended thus: ‘Yes to safe borders, no to mass immigration, yes to jobs for our people, no to international high finance, yes to people’s sovereignty, not to the Brussels bureaucrats, yes to our civilisation – and no to those who want to destroy it’ (p.159).

Like Vox, Meloni’s party projects itself as defending Christian ‘civilisation’, key to an Italian and European identity, against LGBT lobbies, ‘globalists’ and international finance. Fratelli d’Italia and Vox share the need to defend the family, opposing abortion, and wanting to encourage motherhood. These are themes both Mussolini and Franco championed. References to ‘international finance’ echo the fascist code for Jews in the 1930s (p.155).

If Fratelli d’Italia does not aim to unleash fascist squads on the streets, it hasn’t just made neo-fascism respectable, it has brought traditional fascist themes and personnel into the mainstream of the new Conservatism. It’s adaptable too. Before taking office, Meloni dropped any notion of leaving the European Union. After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, she denied any links with the Russian leader and began shouting about the need to stop Russian aggression (Fratelli d’Italia has much in common with Putin in fact, while Berlusconi did not drop his praise for the Russian).

As Broder points out: ‘Fratelli d’Italia aims not to rehabilitate Mussolini but the men and women who died in fascist uniforms, and those who kept the fascist movement alive even after the war’ (p.173). Men like Graziani and the vicious leader of Blackshirt squads, Italo Balbo, who have museums honouring them and streets, squares and parks named after them.

Earlier in the book he argues: ‘Fratelli d’Italia often derives its language … from US and French sources, notably when it sees former colonised people taking over the West. Yet it still bears unmistakable fascist influences; a legacy apparent in its victim narrative of World War II history, its celebration of post-war neo-fascist leaders and its re-casting of regime-era ideologues as generic Italian patriots’ (p.6).

Since the early 1990s, the Italian right has undergone a series of changes, with first Berlusconi, then the Lega, and now Meloni in the leadership of the right-wing alliance. That alliance has persevered, but it has also become more virulent as its component parts compete as to which is toughest on an issue like immigration. It has faced little of any challenge from the left. The once mighty Communist Party, with some two million members at its peak, and a revolutionary left of the 1970s with tens of thousands of members have disappeared.

Fratelli d’Italia and Meloni continue to be part of a wider right-wing milieu which includes hardline fascists, with an overlap between the two. Even if she does not retain command of the right-wing alliance, she can prepare the ground for something worse to emerge, something more openly fascist.

David ends this excellent book with this warning: ‘The far right is in power in new times, writing new history for the bearers of the tricolore flame’ (p.176). We have been warned.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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