What links Meloni, Mussolini and Mediterranean refugee deaths?

The answer: a fascination with fascism that shows in Italy’s politics, no matter what the PM says

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni speaks during a news conference, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte listen, in Tunis, Tunisia June 11, 2023 [Tunisian Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

Sometime in the mid-1990s, a half-Italian cousin of mine who resided in a real, live castle outside Florence took a break from majestic existence to visit Texas, where my family and I were then living.

I must have been about 14. My cousin was slightly younger, and had made the transatlantic crossing with a prized possession in tow: a book about former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who met his ignominious demise in 1945.

As I recall, my cousin’s American mother regarded the text as an embarrassing accessory that was not to be flaunted in public and especially not among non-Italian audiences.

Fast forward a few decades, and fascist nostalgia is going strong in Italy – where many Italians are not too embarrassed about it at all. Italian Senate Speaker Ignazio La Russa, for example, keeps a statuette of Mussolini in his home along with other items of fascist décor. Earlier this year, he took it upon himself to announce that “there is no mention of anti-Fascism” in Italy’s constitution.

La Russa belongs to the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), which he helped found in 2012 with Giorgia Meloni, the country’s current prime minister. Back in 1996, Meloni had her own Mussolini moment, declaring in an interview: “I think Mussolini was a good politician. Everything he did, he did for Italy.”

This, of course, was more than 25 years before Meloni would have her own chance to “do things” for Italy. In the 1990s, she was still a lowly member of the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement, or MSI), founded in 1946 to ensure that fascist ideology would always have a place in democracy.

Nowadays, Meloni makes an effort to distance herself from the F-word and that “good politician”. But as David Broder writes in his new book Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy, the politics of Fratelli d’Italia “remain entrenched in fascist mythology, ways of talking about the past and visions of national identity”.

To be sure, one reliable way of fostering a far-right national identity is through racism and xenophobia. After all, there is nothing like a good “Other” onto which to deflect blame for economic woes and assorted domestic flaws.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I used to spend a part of every summer with the mother of an Italian friend near a small seaside hamlet in the southern Italian region of Puglia, where it was in fact often possible to pretend one was still living in Mussolini’s Italy on account of the outdated local infrastructure and the hypernationalist discourse one was liable to encounter.

Each year, I would arrive for four or five weeks of the Ionian Sea, repellent-resistant mosquitos, cheap Primitivo wine, and nightly homicide TV shows – the preferred opiate of the Italian masses. And each year, my acquaintances would update me as to the latest transgressions of the invading refugee hordes, who were forever determined to occupy, rape, steal and kill.

Although my interlocutors were never able to provide concrete proof of such activities, reality unfortunately matters little when you have got right-wing media propaganda backing you up.

I returned to Puglia in June 2023 for the first time in four years to find that the pandemic had been safely added to the already extensive list of local conspiracy theories. And that Italy was still under siege by refuge seekers from across Africa and beyond, most of them now arriving on boats from Tunisia.

Not long into my stay, Puglia was graced with a visit from Meloni herself, who attended a forum in the town of Manduria, home of Primitivo wine. There, she declared that she was “working daily” on Tunisia — that is, manoeuvring to convert the North African country into a first line of defence against the encroaching refugee enemy.

Indeed, Meloni managed to descend upon Tunisia twice in less than one week in early June, once in the company of other European officials, for migration-related talks with Kais Saied, the Tunisian president.

Saied, for his part, happens to be currently presiding over an ugly crackdown on domestic dissent – speaking of reasons that make people migrate. He has also rendered loyal service to the global neo-fascist cause by demonising undocumented Black African migrants and signing off on the very same conspiracy theories cherished by Meloni & Co.

Meloni and her party subscribe to the so-called “great replacement” theory, a white supremacist concept positing a nefarious plot to fuel non-white immigration into white-dominated societies in order to “replace” white people.

In the Italian case, this sort of pathological worldview means that Italy’s “native” population gets to wrest the role of a victim from incoming refuge seekers who are often fleeing armed conflict and other calamities. Indeed, Meloni was elected last year partly on a pledge to keep refugees away from Italian shores.

Naturally, Italian government efforts to effectively criminalise migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean have only contributed to the lethality of the panorama and the re-victimisation of refugees. This past February dozens of refugees were killed, among them numerous children, when a boat sank off Italy’s southern coast.

And yet such anti-humanitarian machinations have predictably failed to stem irregular migration, which continues to rise. As does the national xenophobic furore.

It bears emphasising that Meloni’s quest to ethnically purify the patria is neither an anachronistic aberration nor a deviation from business as usual on a political scene that has witnessed a gradual mainstreaming of far-right ideology.

Considerable groundwork was laid to pave the way for Meloni’s extremism, including by the recently deceased Silvio Berlusconi, recurring Italian prime minister and intermittent convict. In 1994, he embraced the MSI’s inclusion in his government coalition, and subsequently bragged of having “constitutionalised the fascists”. In a later administration, he appointed Meloni as a youth minister.

In 2009, Berlusconi was quoted in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper as opining: “It is unacceptable that sometimes in certain parts of Milan there is such a presence of non-Italians that instead of thinking you are in an Italian or European city, you think you are in an African city.” He continued: “Some people want a multicoloured and multiethnic society. We do not share this opinion.”

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party is now part of Meloni’s governing coalition, as is the League party of Matteo Salvini, whose track record includes closing Italian ports to refugee rescue vessels during his double-duty stint as deputy prime minister and interior minister in 2018.

In addition to promising to deport half a million refugees and migrants in a “mass cleaning” of Italy that would be undertaken “street by street”, Salvini warned that the country was “under attack” from Muslims and proposed a Mussolini-esque census of Italy’s Roma community for the purpose of expelling non-Italian members.

Lost in Italy’s present xenophobic hypocrisy, of course, is the country’s history of literally invading and occupying places in Africa.

In 1930, under Mussolini, some 100,000 Libyans were interned in concentration camps; most are presumed to have died. And in Ethiopia, the Italian military occupation of 1936-41 was “underpinned by a policy of terror”, as Ian Campbell notes in The Addis Ababa Massacre.

Now, nearly eight decades after Mussolini’s death, the demonisation of the “Other” constitutes an ever-handy deterrent from national self-reflection and a distraction from actual problems – including, perhaps, the fact that fascism is being normalised again.

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