Elections: Why fascism still has a hold on Italy

Italy’s tolerance for neofascist political leanings has to do with how World War II ended – and what suited the US and the UK then.

Journalist Barbara Serra, outside Benito Mussolini's crypt in Predappio, Italy, in 2019
Journalist Barbara Serra, outside Benito Mussolini's crypt in Predappio, Italy, in 2019 [Barbara Serra/Al Jazeera]

No documentary about Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism would be complete without a trip to the town of Predappio, the birthplace of the former dictator and the location of his tomb. The Mussolini crypt is a place of pilgrimage for so-called nostalgics of the darkest decades of Italy’s recent history.

So that is where my film crew and I found ourselves on a rainy September morning in 2019 while filming my documentary, titled Fascism in the Family. In it, I look at the story of my grandfather, who had been a fascist mayor in Mussolini’s regime. But it was not the past that brought us to Predappio. It was the present: Italy’s far right was on the rise, using some of the rhetoric and language borrowed from eight decades earlier.

On Sunday, millions of Italians are expected to cast their vote for Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party, which has roots in the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) formed by former members of Mussolini’s regime right after World War II. The MSI’s symbol – a flame in the green, white and red of the Italian flag – is the Brothers of Italy logo even today.

I might not have foreseen that day in Predappio that three years later, it would be Meloni who could become Italy’s prime minister – at the time, Matteo Salvini of the Lega was the rising star. However, the political sentiments I heard then are the same ones that have carried her this far.

In Predappio, we saw a small but steady trickle of people, mostly men, cross the vast and meticulously tended cemetery to wander up to the crypt. They loitered respectfully for a few minutes and left. Some brought offerings. A card had been left at the crypt’s door, with a bunch of now-withered flowers, expressing sorrow and anger at how Mussolini had been “betrayed” by Italians all those years ago.

We spoke to some of them. Why had they come? “To show our respect. He was a great leader who cared about Italy. His mistake was the alliance with Hitler and playing a part in the Holocaust. Before that, he also did a lot of good for Italy.”

“Mussolini also did a lot of good.” That is the phrase I have heard most often when talking to Italians about the nation’s fascist history, and not just from the “faithful” at the cemetery.

It is a phrase so emblematic of the way Italy relates to its past that historian Francesco Filippi chose it as the title of his book, in which he demolishes the myth of Mussolini’s regime also having been a force for good.

It begs the question: why do these myths exist in the first place?

Filippi told me that the answers, according to him, lie in how the war ended. “German Nazism and Italian Fascism ended in very different ways,” he said.

In Germany, the Nazis and Hitler were defeated by the Allies, who imposed denazification. That did not happen in Italy. “Mussolini is toppled from power by the Fascist Party itself in July 1943. That’s when he stops having control of the narrative, and of much of the country,” Filippi explained.

For the final two years of the war, Italy was split into three parts. The north was occupied by the Nazis, who propped up a puppet state led by Mussolini and had to face fierce anti-fascist resistance. Sicily was occupied by the Allies. The rest of the country was under a government made up of former fascists working with the Allies. “There was already a political structure made up of anti-fascist forces the Allies could hand the country’s sovereignty over to when the war ended,” Filippi said.

By then, the Cold War was brewing, and Italy had the largest communist party in the West. It was not in the interests of the United States and the United Kingdom to target conservative, ex-fascist forces who could work towards containing the so-called “Red Threat”, he told me “better to leave things as they were”.

That allowed Italians to build their own narrative about the past – so it is not surprising that many difficult questions around who had been a fascist and what it meant were not properly dealt with.

It is out of that post-war reality that the MSI emerged.

Back to Predappio, where just a short drive away from Mussolini’s grave we visited one of several shops displaying fascist memorabilia in the window – from a bronze life-size bust of Il Duce to faintly ridiculous pasta shaped like his head. The inside of the shop was far from ridiculous, though. A collection of Nazi badges, T-shirts, caps and pins were openly on sale, decorated with swastikas and SS signs. You could buy over the counter or order online. And yes, they posted internationally too.

How is this acceptable, or even legal? According to the Italian constitution, fascism is a crime. Yet the anti-fascist laws currently in place, which ban the reconstitution of the Fascist Party, are open to interpretation, whereby fascist salutes have on occasion been deemed “commemorative acts”.

Recent political attempts to strengthen legislation to outlaw fascist imagery did not pass a vote in parliament, because right-wing parties argued the changes might harm free speech.

When Italians vote for their new parliament on Sunday, some among those who will support Meloni might do so because of the party’s links to neofascism. Yet that will not be why so many others will likely vote for her. Instead, they might hope that she will lead a centre-right government, rather than a far-right administration. For others still, years of electoral disappointment mean she is simply the only option they have not tried already.

What they all have in common however is that Meloni’s party’s known links to fascism are not enough to put them off. That in itself is sobering.

Meloni, who praised Mussolini when she was much younger in the 1990s, may have since tried to distance herself, claiming that fascism had been consigned to history. Yet there are recent, documented examples of members of her party showing reverence for fascism – from making fascist salutes to supporting the construction of a monument in memory of a fascist war criminal, to commemorating key dates from Mussolini’s time in power.

Most Italians are too concerned about their economic struggles to worry about the past. Still, the expected success of Brothers of Italy shows what millions of Italians deem to be acceptable, both from the past and, crucially, for the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.