Fascism has been ‘consigned to history’, according to Italy’s PM. Not everyone is as convinced


They form a military-style formation, a thousand strong, with the majority clad in black and some with tattoos on shaved heads.

A leader calls his battalion of loyalists to attention near the spot in Milan where Sergio Ramelli, a far-right student, was killed by anti-fascists nearly 50 years ago. He shouts “camerata,” or “brother-in-arms,” followed by Ramelli’s name, as if making a roll call. And then it comes: rigid right arms outstretched and lifted, palms facing down, the fascist salute in the heart of Italy’s second city, and the throng roars in support of the dead man: “Present! Present! Present!”

It’s 2024, but this has chilling echoes of a century past. While it may appear strange to an outsider – and it was shocking to me when I saw it up close – it is not uncommon in Italy, where such commemorations are held every year.

The Brothers of Italy party, with its roots in postwar fascism, currently leads Italy’s government. Its leader, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, has stated that her movement has transformed totally, and it is apparent that her politics do not align with those who are raising their arms in Milan. However, some believe she and her party have not gone far enough away from their political origins, and that what was formerly deemed extremist is becoming mainstream.

“Fascism did not die in 1945; it was militarily defeated, but it still exists in the minds of many Italians,” says Paolo Berizzi, a journalist for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica. He has been under 24-hour police security for the past five years, following threats from extremist groups. “Italy has never truly come to terms with its past,” he asserts.

It’s been more than a century since Benito Mussolini, the country’s fascist dictator known as Il Duce or The Leader, rose to power. His authoritarian administration was characterized by violent repression of all opponents, detention camps, and foreign invasions. Antisemitic laws oppressed Jews, and once Mussolini joined with Hitler’s Germany, many were executed during the Holocaust. Italy surrendered to the Allies, devolving into civil strife, and Il Duce was eventually caught and slain.

Mussolini’s fascist party was prohibited by the country’s postwar constitution, but it was allowed to continue under several guises. The Movimento Sociale Italiano, or MSI, was founded by the dictator’s supporters with the goal of revitalizing fascism and combating communism. Officials from Mussolini’s dictatorship worked in state organizations. No Italians were brought before war crimes tribunals.

The Scelba Law, a 1952 constitutional amendment, barred groups from pursuing anti-democratic goals, glorifying fascist doctrines or leaders, or employing violence in their service. However, it has rarely been invoked. In Germany, the law clearly states that making the Nazi salute is criminal by up to three years in prison. In Italy, however, judges must decide whether the gesture constitutes a criminal offense, creating a gray area in which its use has continued.

For decades, neo-fascist politicians were virtually ignored. However, the decision by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to include them in his coalition in 1994 marked the beginning of their gaining legitimacy in public opinion.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who began his political career in the MSI youth wing and later became national leader of its successor movement, once described Mussolini as “a good politician” who “did everything for Italy.” Berlusconi named her as a government minister in 2008.

Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party uses the same three-colored flame insignia as neo-fascist groups after the war, but she has gradually changed her focus away from the far right.

Her past stance against “ethnic substitution” of Italians by migrants and an alleged “LGBT lobby” has eased with her election as Prime Minister in 2022. She now uses rhetoric more in line with the mainstream European right, such as talking about border security and increasing Italy’s birth rate.

She has stopped her criticism of the Eurozone, built good relationships with officials from Washington to Brussels, and expressed open support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion. However, her critics claim she remains true to her political background.

And, some argue, this makes her even less inclined to support a crackdown on extremist groups. Many believe the Scelba law should have been implemented in 2021, after the headquarters of Italy’s major labor union, CGIL, was viciously attacked during a protest against Covid limits by a crowd that included members of Forza Nuova, a fringe far-right group. Demonstrators smashed windows and attempted to force their way inside the building in a gesture reminiscent of Mussolini’s era, when unions were attacked by his blackshirts.

Forza Nuova, which has been established for over a quarter of a century, is far further to the right than Ms Meloni’s party, seeking a complete ban on immigration and leaving NATO and the EU. Its members speak highly of Vladimir Putin.

The party has never received enough votes to elect MPs to parliament, but its presence in protests and the activities of its members, which include violence against immigrants, make it and other extremist groups a thorn in Italian politics. During a recent funeral, a member’s coffin was draped in a Swazi flag. Another official’s birthday was marked by a cake painted with a swastika and the Nazi motto “Sieg Heil”.

Forza Nuova’s founder, Roberto Fiore, tells me the party targeted CGIL because the union supported required Covid immunization certificates for all workers. “Everyone thought of us as real freedom fighters, not fascists attacking a trade union,” he says.

I confront him directly: Is he a fascist? “If you questioned me like that, I probably would say yes,” he responds, “but I have to finish the sentence and say I’m a revolutionary. Italy lacks the intellect and fortitude to acknowledge that fascism had advantages and disadvantages in certain areas. I embrace and do not reject the term fascist.”

During our conversation, I pressed Mr Fiore on the criminal nature of Mussolini’s administration. He disputes that it was violent and maintains that fascist internment camps were “things that happen with war”. He goes on to argue that Ukraine should be a part of Russia. When I tell him that his party would be banned in nations like Germany, he responds, “Freedom is freedom.”

The walls of Forza Nuova’s local headquarters in the northern city of Verona are adorned with racist and extremist symbols, ranging from the US Confederate flag to those of the self-proclaimed pro-Russian Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, as well as scarves bearing the words “White Power” and “We are fascists – a call to arms”. Luca Castellini, the party’s deputy leader, proudly presents me a Mussolini calendar, claiming it is the best-selling calendar in Italy.

He also leads Verona’s “Ultras” – die-hard football enthusiasts. Italian stadiums have always been hotbeds for political radicalism. When Hellas Verona was promoted six years ago, Mr Castellini was caught jubilantly telling supporters that the guy who had paid for their achievement and given them triumph had a name: “Adolf Hitler!” The crowd rejoiced and began their own chant: “We’re a fantastic team in the shape of a swastika.” “How wonderful it is to be trained by Rudolf Hess,” says Hitler’s deputy. Mr Castellini was barred from entering the stadium after declaring that a black athlete could never be “truly Italian”.

When I challenge him about all of this, he claims he would gladly repeat the same Hitler chant because it was judged not a crime. How would a descendant of Italian Jews deported to the Holocaust feel, I wonder? “I don’t know – but wars have always existed and there have always been deaths,” he responds. “It can’t be my problem.”

Ms Meloni’s party has distanced itself from Forza Nuova. The prime minister criticized the sacking of the trade union building, while Forza Nuova leaders publicly criticize her for several of her policies, such as her unwavering support for Ukraine.

Before the election, she attempted to assuage opponents by issuing a video message in which she stated that the Italian right had “consigned fascism to history” and strongly criticized the suppression of democracy and “ignominious anti-Jewish laws”.

Ms Meloni, on the other hand, has not completely abandoned her past; for example, she still uses the fascist-era motto “God, homeland, family”.

“Brothers of Italy is not a fascist party, but rather an ideological heir to the post-fascist tradition,” writes journalist Paolo Berizzi. This gives extreme organizations a sense of legitimacy, according to Mr Berizzi.

Brothers of Italy leads all Italian parties in opinion polls ahead of the 2018 European elections. If her coalition of European right-wingers wins resoundingly in the election, she will cement her political supremacy in Italy and serve as a figurehead for other right-wing and far-right leaders seeking to run their respective countries.

Her detractors point out that she has never referred to herself as a “anti-fascist”. However, Nicola Procaccini, a Member of the European Parliament for Brothers of Italy and one of Ms Meloni’s oldest political supporters, insists there is a legitimate explanation for this.

“Being anti-fascist during fascism was a courageous act for freedom and democracy. However, being anti-fascist under democracy has occasionally resulted in violence, with many young students dead,” he continues, referring to often bloody conflicts between extremist organizations and murders committed in Italy’s postwar decades.

He argues she has always rejected fascism, but criticizes what he terms “an obsession” with the phrase, which he claims is used by the left to intimidate voters ahead of elections.

Opponents in areas like Bologna, which has historically been at the heart of anti-fascism, strongly deny this. The black and white images and names of those who perished defending Bologna against fascism during the civil war of 1943-45 are displayed on the city hall’s wall. Another memorial stands beside it, honoring the 85 victims of Italy’s greatest terror incident, the neo-fascist bombing of Bologna’s train station in 1980.

Emily Clancy, the city’s deputy mayor, believes the battle against fascism is deeply relevant today. “The far right, not only in Italy, but also around the world, is trying to find a scapegoat for people’s difficulties by attacking the stranger or the migrant,” she claims. She cites “attacks on the freedom of the press, censorship, freedom for the LGBT community, and attacks on the liberty of women to determine what they can do on their own bodies” as examples of similarities with the early days of fascism.

I question if she and her party are losing ground to the far right, which is making gains around the world. “I think it’s a struggle – we haven’t lost, but definitely we have to unite and not take for granted what is happening,” she responds.

What about the fascist salutes that continue to appear at demonstrations? “It’s remarkable that this happens,” she continues, “and that what should be recognized as a crime of apologizing for fascism is dismissed as simply nostalgic or a tribute. We are not dealing with these incidents as seriously as we should.”

However, MEP Nicola Procaccini believes that outlawing the gesture would be “crazy,” adding that it is not a call to reintroduce fascism, but rather a historical gesture originated from Ancient Rome, which was later adopted by the fascist state. “This is cancel culture that we do not share.”

So the symbols linger on, as does some people’s notion that the existing narrative needs to be rewritten. Every year on the anniversary of Benito Mussolini’s death, volunteers dressed in military berets and bearing red flowers visit his mausoleum in Predappio, his birthplace.

Susanna Cortinovis, one of the mourners, praised Mussolini for establishing social security and maternity benefits. “If you’re telling me that being a mother, a Christian, paying my taxes – does that mean I’m a fascist, then yes, I’m a fascist,” she replies. “And I salute, in my Roman way, my one and only head of state.”

Many countries have nostalgists, revisionists, and conspiracy theorists, and Italy is no different. There may not be many Duce devotees. However, there is overlap between Mussolini propagandists and present neo-fascists. In a culture that still tolerates such ideas, images, and attitudes, the question is how much of this is being normalized, especially as right-wing parties across Europe look to Italy as an example.

“Fascists have always nurtured a desire for revenge,” argues journalist Paolo Berizzi. “And they say, ‘Very well, we return to power, we are not dead, we have not disappeared.'” “They seek vengeance on history.”