In ‘Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy,’ David Broder provides an incisive account of how the Italian far-right reconstructed itself following its defeat in World War II and paved the way for Il Duce’s political heirs to take power.
Giorgia Meloni, prime minister of Italy and leader of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)
The Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement Party or ‘MSI’) was founded in 1946 on ‘the assumption that fascism was not a parenthesis in Italian history, a twenty-year aberration, but a movement, a set of ideas and values, that survived military defeat,’ according to its founder Giorgio Almirante.
Like Almirante, most of MSI’s leaders were veterans of the Salo Republic, the short-lived collaborationist government set up in northern Italy in 1943 with Mussolini as titular head but firmly controlled in Berlin by Adolf Hitler.
In Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy, historian and Jacobin’s Europe editor, David Broder, dissects the complex history of prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s political party Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) from the 1940s to present-day Italy. Broder succeeds in the Herculean task of understanding the canny and tough-minded Meloni and her strategically dizzying politics within Italy’s historical context.
As Broder demonstrates, there is no doubt of the strong fascist links between the original Salo group and the party which now leads the Italian government. The author, who has lived and worked in Rome for over a decade, provides a provocative and chilling account of Meloni’s convenient rewriting of the Mussolini era, in which she omits references to his grisly (and often unreported) history of torture, arson, imprisonments and murder. In its place, Meloni provides a generalised narrative of patriots of the political right protecting Italy against its enemies.
In the 2022 Italian general election, Meloni benefited from representing the only conservative party that declined to support former Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s coalition government. Yet once in power, she supported Draghi’s neoliberal, technocratic approach. Courting Eurosceptics, Meloni attacks the European Union and offers vague pledges of reform, but at the same time, provides reassurance that she will not attempt an Italian exit.
In contrast to her contradictory stances towards the EU, Meloni’s position on immigration is emphatically and unambiguously hostile. Her goal is to rid traditional white Christian Italy of foreign influences, mainly African and Middle Eastern, ignoring that the DNA of southern Italians includes these groups. And while the Italian birthdate is at an all-time low, Meloni is adamant that as many fleeing refugees as possible are turned away from Italy’s shores, with many facing imminent death as a result. Those involved in the LGBT movement are also excoriated. Instead, traditional Italian motherhood is held up as essential to revitalising the country—a policy Mussolini repeatedly emphasised. Yet Broder is crystal clear that Meloni’s party is different than the original fascist party—there are no Blackshirts.
Italy’s contemporary far-right shares much with its counterparts in other Western democracies: a sense of permanent national decline and economic crisis; the collapse of the mass, class-based political parties that earlier attracted huge numbers of voters; and the rise of populist leaders who furiously denounce ‘globalist’ conspiracies even as they integrate themselves into international organisations like NATO.
Cold War Politics
In the post-war period, MSI profited greatly from its ardent anti-communism, in synch with Washington’s policy to roll back Soviet power in Italy—an especially challenging task given the critical role played by communist partisans in WWII.
MSI enjoyed limited public support, but its fervent anti-communism dovetailed neatly with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s goal of destroying the Communist Party (PCI). Faced with the prospect of the election of the leftist Popular Democratic Front (which consisted of the PCI and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI)), the CIA ran one of its earliest covert operations. To prevent a free and fair election, its agents carried bags of cash around Rome to pay off well-placed leaders. Thanks in large part to American interference, the Christian Democrats won the national election in 1948.
By 1953, Eisenhower pressured his U.S. ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, to withhold much-needed reconstruction funds in return for the sacking of many PCI union leaders in northern Italy. While celebrated by the American press for her whirlwind entertaining of Hollywood celebrities, she undertook Eisenhower’s mission with relish, leaving PCI chief Palmiro Togliatti in a constant rage.
The MSI, although it remained in the shadows for many years, was never outlawed. Togliatti, working hard to get along with the Americans, had pardoned a large swathe of war crimes, including ‘collaboration’, during his short-lived role as Justice Minister. The pardoning of collaborators and the failure to conduct a Nuremberg-style trial in Italy meant that many fascists continued as police chiefs, army officers and intelligence agents.
‘Yet the Resistance had changed Italy’s political culture in important ways,’ writes Broder. ‘Not only had antifascist leaders authored a Republican Constitution which proclaimed far-reaching freedoms and social rights, but there was a deeper democratisation, with the rise of mass parties organising millions of members that pressured officials into respecting the new charter. The MSI respected a different kind of code: its cadres defended their role in Salo, insisting that they had kept their oath to Mussolini, stood by their Nazi German ally and defended Italy’s territory even when faced with overwhelming Allied force… The men of the MSI were able to organise politically but in a country that massively rejected them.’
The End of Mass Politics
Forty years later, in 1994, the influence of mass political parties came to a cataclysmic end—and MSI party leaders moved to take full advantage of the chaos. The PCI had imploded following the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years earlier. The Christian Democrats were mired in corruption, but the higher profile ‘Bribesville’—a nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption—involving former Italian Socialist Party (PSI) premier Bettino Craxi was even more breath-taking in its scope.
The centre-left newspaper, La Repubblica, wrote that ‘April 30, 1993, was the gravest day in our Republican history since the kidnapping of Aldo Moro’ after the compromised Chamber of Deputies voted to absolve Craxi of four of the six bribery charges of which he had been accused.
With the collapse of Italy’s so-called First Republic, the MSI changed its name to Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) and would soon join forces with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Forward Italy). In 2008, Meloni, once a MSI youth leader, joined Berlusconi’s cabinet as Minister of Youth.
In 2012, during the European debt crisis, European Central Bank (ECB) chiefs Jean-Claude Trichet and Mario Draghi sent Berlusconi’s government an ultimatum: enact wide-scale privatisations and labour market reforms or the ECB would no longer guarantee Italy its credit supply—a threat that angered MSI members among others.
Berlusconi’s ordered his government to accede to the ECB’s demands. Three months later, Meloni and her colleagues announced the creation of a new party: Fratelli d’Italia. The following year, it was given sole claim to the MSI’s historic logo depicting its famous tricolour flame.
‘Meloni marched towards power,’ writes Broder, ‘not with Blackshirts and salutes but to the laughter of men in suits and ties.’ After she sneeringly called out a reporter who linked her to fascists, businessmen in the audience joked along with Meloni as she provocatively attacked the journalist.
Yet her party’s constant mixed messaging is an important political ploy. Meloni derides those who insist on calling her current party ‘fascist’, yet it continues to celebrate fascist heroes such as the aviator and brutal colonial governor of Libya, Italy Balbo, and Giuseppe Bottai, who removed Jewish children from Italian classrooms in the 1930s.
In the 2013 election, the Fratelli d’Italia elected a modest nine MPs. Over the next few years, Meloni embraced ‘the great replacement theory’ while launching aggressive attacks on pro-migrant NGOs. In 2017, Meloni told reporters, ‘100,000 Italians were driven abroad last year, whereas 500,000 asylum seekers were brought into Italy in the last three years. I think there is a plan for ethnic substitution.’
Meloni has repeatedly attacked George Soros as ‘the financier who supports and finances mass immigration… a usurer allied to the Left against the Italian people.’ Recently, Donald Trump called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg a ‘Soros-backed animal’ and described the judiciary as ‘thugs and radical left monsters’, appealing to January 6 diehards to ‘take back their country’. Given Meloni’s heated rhetoric, one has to wonder if Italy, too, will soon face its own January 6.
In the far-right world of 2023, escapism is part of Meloni’s appeal. J.R.R. Tolkien became an object of neofascist fascination in the 1970s for those looking for ‘deep roots’. Today, Meloni will often refer to the Tolkenite spectre of Numenor, a once great Middle-earth civilisation that fell into godlessness. Recently, Broder has reported on CasaPound, a movement born from a Rome-based network of squats and far-right social centres, described by some as ‘hipster fascists’, known for their white-only membership.
The increasing network of European far-right parties, linked in so many ‘global ways’ that Meloni professes to despise, makes the prospect of a 2023-4 economic trough a real worry. ‘Italy’s most right-wing government since 1945 was not the recreation of Mussolini’s regime, or the dawn of a new one, but the image of the modern right,’ concludes Broder. It is made up of parties that are radical in their attacks on their domestic opponents, conspiracy theorists in their understanding of the relations between so-called ‘global elites’ and the ‘radical left’, and willing to wage war on migrants in defence of national identity.
‘Yet it is quite plausible that this alliance will not hold; that Meloni’s partners will chafe against her leadership, or that they will all find themselves faced with unmanageable crises,’ Broder argues. ‘More radical plans for tax cuts and the removal of welfare benefits may not survive contact with reality.’
An ongoing theme of Meloni’s is that the far-right has been demonised and undermined by a destructive Left, leaving them as underdogs—a difficult image to maintain for a party in power. Today, Italy is known for its indebtedness and unemployment. Italians are poorer than in the late 1990s with lower wages, while working-age Italians are less likely to have jobs. In the 1980s, voter turnout topped 90 percent; in 2022, it slumped to under 64 percent. Significantly, the conservative vote did not grow in the last election, only moving from other parties to Fratelli d’Italia.
One shortcoming of Broder’s book is its economic analysis. A deep dive on what is driving Italy’s economic malaise would provide valuable insight into to Meloni’s prospects, as would an exploration of the role that the country’s once-powerful trade union movement can play in the coming years. The question of how long Italians will buy into her government’s maligning of ‘others’ while doing little to bring about change will also go a long way in determining her fate and deserves further consideration. Nonetheless, Mussolini’s Grandchildren delivers ground-breaking analysis that illuminates the confounding and apparently contradictory Italian far-right.Original post