David Broder, author of newly published “Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy”, joins Cross-Border Talks to discuss the phenomenon of Italian far right and historical roots of its rise.
The entire transcription of the video is available below.
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome everybody listening to another episode of Cross Border talks. In today’s issue, we will be discussing the rise of the far right and the roots of its rise in one important country in southern Europe – Italy.
The electoral victory of Fratelli d’Italia scared some people, surprised others, and made us all ask questions. How a neo-fascist party with direct roots in the pre-war authoritarian regime can actually grasp power with a great support of a big extent of the population? We will ask these questions to David Broder, who is the author of a new book entitled Mussolini’s Grandchildren. In this book, he is looking at the genealogy of the Fratelli d’Italia or the Italian brothers, and he explains how the far right in Italy reinvented its politics, its strategies, how the parliamentary democracy actually became the fertile ground for the far right to rise and win the Italians’ trust. Welcome, David!
Hello. Thanks for having me on.
You claim that the Italian far right did not undergo a defascization or, more precisely, Italy did not undergo a real defascization. The Italian far right was actually allowed to regroup, to reinvent itself and to continue being a significant political force. How was it possible?
The story of Fratelli d’Italia begins really with the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the MSI, a fascist party created at the end of 1946. The contradiction to which you refer in your question is that Italy has an explicitly anti-fascist constitution written by the parties of the World War II resistance. In fact, a more explicitly anti-fascist constitution than countries such as West Germany or France after World War II. Yet it’s also the only Western democracy that allows an explicitly fascist party to organize.
We should make no mistake. The MSI called itself a fascist party. Today, Giorgia Meloni and her ministers often say they come from the 70 year tradition of the Italian right in democracy. This party that did indeed take part in electoral politics, run for election, had candidates, had MPs – as a small party, always as the fourth or fifth. They never got more than 10% of the vote.
After World War Two, when the resistance parties formed a new constitution, the MSI was excluded from this process not just because of some sort of ban on fascism or because fascism had fallen into discredit, but also because the early electoral results of the MSI were extremely poor. It didn’t run in the Constituent Assembly elections in 1946. In 1948, 1953 elections it was gaining no more than 5%. Pretty marginal. The other parties allowed the MSI to continue to organize either out of kind of opportunism or out of the idea of kind of pacifying this part of Italian society that hadn’t accepted the defeat in 1945.
Some of the members of groups that gave rise to the MSI tried to carry out small scale terrorist attacks. They tried to maintain an armed resistance against the new authorities. I think among the constitutional parties, there was some sort of idea that the MSI can actually help to integrate these forces into the institutions. Probably also for the Communist Party, it was useful to have the MSI there as a reminder of what they were fighting against and to make anti-fascism real in the present. Also for the Christian Democrats, who is the dominant party in post-war Italy, having this party, I think, was important in maintaining the overall equilibrium of the political system. The Christian Democrats are a big tent Catholic Party from center left to center right. They wanted to dominate the Italian political system by being the kind of rear guard the defense against both the communists and against the fascist MSI.
The post-war constitution does ban the recreation of the fascist party through the so-called transitional and final dispositions, but this ban has only ever really been used against groups that actually planned organized violence. Within the MSI, we certainly can find violent individuals linked to coup d’état attempts, conspiracies and so on. But the MSI as a party didn’t try to seize power by force. I think that’s an important reason why it continued to be tolerated, albeit as a very minor force in post in the first years of the MSI.
The MSI explicitly harked back to the so-called Salo Republic, the final Nazi collaboration, that stage of Mussolini’s regime. And often militants would think this was a kind of purer version of fascism once it had broken with the monarchy and the church. They had this idea that Salo, the final stage of fascism, was the defeated revolution upheld by those who fought to the last. In fact, they even excluded from membership those who had not gone with Mussolini all the way to the end, those who had abandoned him in summer 1943.
Right up until the 80s, in fact, until 1991, the leaders of the MSI were mainly men who had lived through and had participated in the Republic. In a sense, we can talk of a generational change, but the MSI is very much a party of men who fought for the Republic and wanted to uphold its tradition.
I’d like to ask you another question related to this. You use both the term fascism and neofascism, and then there is another one: post-fascism. And I think it’s important to keep some kind of terminology or notion clarity, because very often in the public space, you hear all these terms together and people are confused. I know it’s a difficult question specifically for the podcast, but will you somehow explain to us the differences between these terms, for example, related to Fratelli d’Italia? What is post-fascism actually, what is neofascism and what is historical fascism? How do they differentiate?
In fact, one of the reasons I wrote the book is because there’s a lot of debate, obviously, over these terms. And they’ve come back, obviously into force in recent years because people ask questions: is Donald Trump or Bolsonaro or Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orban a fascist or neofascist or post-fascist? Obviously, there are some definitions. For example, those by the Hungarian late philosopher Tamas, who identified postfascism in terms of these kinds of figures like Orban and Le Pen. Or, it we look at Enzo Traverso, the figures that explicitly invoke or seek to legitimize themselves in terms of the past. But we see a kind of postmodern recreation of some of the same political effects and so on in the present.
My approach is different actually, because precisely what I’m saying and how I’m responding to this debate is that if we look at the Italian example, then we don’t have to proceed by way of analogy or by finding commonalities between the 30s and now. These debates can get very bogged down in discussing new forms of the far right, or the fact that they don’t have mass mobilization, or whether they have a cult of violence certainly not in the same way as the 30s. They adapt to parliamentary democracy and are quite enduring and so on.
What’s different with the Italian case is also because the MSI continued to exist after 1945. What’s different with the Italian case is that actually an organizational continuity. The same political culture persists over the decades. So actually looking at this party, we can see how it doesn’t abandon the old cords. It doesn’t renege on itself. It uses the slogan very common in the MSI: neither restore nor renege on the regime. Yes, they’re innovating. Yes, they’re changing. Yes, they’re adapting to the times. But it is still the same political culture, even the same individuals, even quite literally, Mussolini’s grandchildren.
Generations don’t have fixed boundaries, but forms of politics, attitudes, experiences are different depending on the context. The experience of someone who lived through the fascist republic or indeed fought for it is different from someone like Giorgia Meloni, who joined politics in 1992 as a teenager when the Soviet Union had gone and Italy was in the EU. What about the terms then? Quite schematically, a neofascist force would be one that explicitly claims continuity with fascism that actually calls itself fascist, but just continues after the military defeat in 1945? I would say that Fratelli d’Italia is post-fascist in the sense that it claims to have transcended the fascist past, that it rejects the allegation of being fascism, but has in fact simply integrated the neofascist culture into a wider kind of right-wing or conservative politics. It integrates individual fascist leaders, fascist ideas into a newer conservative politics that claims to transcend the neofascist tradition. That is a kind of continuity, a genealogy.
You can’t understand Fratelli d’Italia without saying: it comes from fascism. It is post-fascist in the sense that it has that origin, but it’s also developed into something new, a hybridization of fascism with other political thoughts. Of course, we could say that it’s quite typical of fascism to conduct this kind of hybridization. But then again, I do think that the abandonment of the self-description of fascism itself does matter.
You mentioned the issue of violence. You also said that in post-war Italy, the most aggressive far right groups were banned. But for the MSI, it did not happen because apart from certain violent individuals, the party never attempted to take power by force. I would like to find out more about the relation between the party existing in the democratic system and the more militant far right groups. Until today, this connection is there. Even though Fratelli d’Italia pretends to be a standard parliamentary party when interplaying with other democratic forces.
Although the MSI did not have a strategy of seizing power by force or at least didn’t pursue that consistently, it certainly was a party of violent members. Beyond the literal sort of plots for military coups and so on, which certainly did involve many MSI members, we could point to thousands of examples of violent incidents of people being beaten up, for instance, street attacks on communists. We are not speaking of single actual murders and terrorist attacks, but of terrorism as a strategy, something what was famously known as the strategy of tension, the idea of carrying out terrorist attacks, which will create a climate of chaos, polarization, create a demand for an authoritarian intervention. The material executors of such attacks more generally came from groups such as Avanguardia Nazionale, Ordine Nuovo and others, but in general these groups come from within the same kind of spaces as MSI and are often created by the ex-members, by people disaffected by their parliamentary strategy.
In the 1950s, to put it very schematically, the MSI followed a so-called strategy of insertion into the parliamentary system, where it sought to become a right-wing ally to the Christian Democrats. In 1960, a government, dependent on MSI support, was created, but it lasted very briefly, created a huge backlash, strikes, rioting, demonstrations from the left that were violently suppressed. That government fell in barely three months.
From the 1960 onwards, the MSI had a real kind of strategic impasse. The left was on the rise. And at this point emerged some neofascist groups, sort of armed struggle strategy. Of course, it’s not just an Italian story. They were also inspired by things like the Organisation de l’Armée secrete – the French officers in Algeria who tried to prevent a peace deal, including by conducting false flag attacks against French troops. This idea of an anti-communist war, so-called revolutionary war, became part of the sort of stock in trade of the international far right in the 1960s. The MSI attitude towards all this was rather ambiguous. Historians like Franco Ferraresi explain well that on the one hand, the MSI didn’t follow a strategy of terrorism as a party, but much of its understanding the world was very similar to the violent groups. They both believed they needed to be a rear guard against a communist takeover.
Moreover, the MSI identified with regimes elsewhere in the world who totally embodied this perspective and actually carried it through. The MSI, for example, strongly and unconditionally supported the 1973 military coup in Chile. It supported the Spanish, Portuguese and Greek dictatorships, which should also be added, was a very unpopular perspective in Italian society at the time. It ought an authoritarian reordering of the Italian state in order to suppress communists.
So the MSI was a party that stood in elections and broadly didn’t pursue a concerted, violent strategy. Yet at the same time, we can say that democracy was not part of its political culture. It did not identify with the Democratic Republic. It, for example, proposed to replace the party system with a strong presidency, often said to be inspired by de Gaulle in France. The MSI seeked to destroy the anti-fascist legacy of the resistance and also promoted non-democratic ideas. Even in the 1970s, Giorgio Morandi, the party leader, for example, supported the idea of a qualitative democracy. Quality, not quantity. Not one person, one vote, but rather a group representation of different professions and elements of Italian society in a parliament without parties ruled over by a strong presidency. Drawing on a classically fascist idea of collective representation, but without democracy.
At the end of the Cold War, the MSI proclaimed that it took up liberal democratic values as its own, that it believed in democracy as a general value. Historians like Roger Griffin, though, have pointed to the big contradiction. The MSI basically combined and Fratelli d’Italia today continues to combine the language of democracy or more often, in fact, of freedom with an explicitly ethnic conception of citizenship rather than a Republican one. We get a kind of strange melange of ideas drawn from very different intellectual traditions where it claims to uphold, for example, human rights or liberal democratic values, but also has a, as I say, an exclusivist conception of citizenship, which seeks ethnic homogeneity as its aim in politics. So Griffin talks about the two contradictory genealogies of liberalism and fascism which coexist in this party.
I think if we look at Fratelli d’Italia today in a climate of much less social conflict or violence than in the 60s and 70s, one can wonder: are they going to create a Chile-style regime? Well, no, but the idea of the Presidentialist system, that’s something they’re pursuing now. They’re planning to or hoping to change the Constitution to create a strong executive, to weaken parliament. In this sense I think we can actually also see a convergence also with what we can see going on in countries like Hungary or to some extent even in Poland.
Yes, I would develop on what you said actually. You mentioned violence. Violence is a very important element of fascism. However, I would like to question something more about program of Fratelli d’Italia in the recent context . Meloni and the party very often use the term ‘conservative’. Meanwhile, fascism is, among others, characterized by offering a kind of huge vision for the nation, some some, you know, holistic program or something like this. But if you look at the elements, what they are offering these days, I have the feeling it’s really conservative in the way that it’s not nothing new. There is no vision of some different future. It’s like looking backwards. Am I right? In the case of the Italian, what does it say about the current neofascism, actually?
I think that’s an important point. Even conservatism as a political culture is not necessarily marked by the desire to keep things as they are, against different threats. I was at the National Conservative Conference in London the other day, and I heard all the standard complaints about cultural Marxism and progressive ideologues who are planning to destroy the traditional family and so on. In Italy, that actually particularly takes on the contours of the threat of ethnic replacement, the planned ethnic destruction of Italians or of replacing white Christians by Africans and Muslims. Today’s Fratelli d’Italia lacks the kind of utopian horizon of historical fascism. In the book I write how Fratelli d’Italia aren’t talking like Mussolini of restoring the Roman Empire.
There is this discourse of perennial past, how our people have always been and that has to be preserved, but it lacks modernist world-making thrust that historical fascism had. I think this is actually connected to the question of violence, because fascism as a political movement is a product of World War One. Not just a reaction against the left, but as a movement that deals with similar phenomena to the left of that era. Not just the revolutionary threat of the kind of Bolshevik revolution, but also a moment of mass democratization, a moment of mass mobilization for war in which the cult of violence has also existed, built by the states of the liberal states of the time.
Fratelli d’Italia obviously operates in a completely different world where no one across the political spectrum has grand utopian horizons for change. Instead, we have a political conflict very much framed in terms of national decline, in terms of a kind of withering away of Italians. Not like “Italy is being left behind the other rising world powers”. No one is dreaming of Italy becoming one of the leading states in the world. They’ve already also accepted, of course, the role of a very junior partner of Washington.
I think they lack that kind of utopian thrust. But then at the same time, they also promote certain causes which show that they do have a very ambitious and indeed unrealistic idea of what they can do. For instance, the obsession with boosting birth rates – Meloni often says the Italian people are on the brink of extinction, threatened by the kind of conspiracy theory of the great replacement theory. But sometimes it’s just said like, well, you know, we’re dying out because we’re not having enough kids. So there’s this kind of exhortation on Italian women to have children, talk of things like tax breaks, which all seems drastically unrealistic if you look at other countries. Nevertheless, this idea of this kind of national salvation is certainly still there. However, I think it’s true that they don’t seek a radical transformation.
Still, they can secure important victories in terms of redeeming their political forefathers. That’s partly on the train of memory politics and sort of relitigating World War two. They are having great success in pushing forward the claim that fascists and anti-fascists both committed crimes. They are going forward with the idea of reordering of the Italian political system to strengthen the presidentialist executive heavy and basically overcome the institutional legacy of 1945. Rather than a return to the past, what they’re actually trying to do is to create a new Italy in which fascism never happened. They intend to remove the stain of their own forefathers’ past, but also remove the successes of antifascism and the historic achievements of the left.
In the end, I wanted to ask about the international perception of Giorgia Melonis’ government. We have the impression here in Central and Eastern Europe that our authoritarian regimes like Poland, which you mentioned, or like Hungary, get much more criticism from the European Union than the government in Rome, which is actually led by somebody who refers directly to fascist heritage of Italy. Do you think that what are the reasons for this disproportion, if it is really a disproportion, is it because of Fratelli d’Italia, very pro-EU policy currently? Is it about the rhetoric? Is it about the lack of this revolutionary and counter-revolutionary vision that we have just discussed?
Well, that’s a big question. I wrote some articles before the election of Giorgio Milani in which I talked about this convergence between forces of a specifically neofascist tradition and another right wing movements in Europe. I mentioned the nationalist right-wing parties in former communist countries, but also parties like the British conservatives. And sometimes people say that these articles I wrote were alarmist because if you evoke the word fascism, it sounds like you’re talking about chaos and destruction. But what I’m actually saying is that there’s a quite smooth convergence of these different forces. They’re overcoming their historic divides to create a quite broad right-wing camp.
You may remember how Mateusz Morawiecki organized a meeting in Warsaw, in 2021, where he invited both Meloni, Le Pen and Salvini. He basically wanted to bring together the two big far-right groups in Europe. You have people like Donald Tusk saying, Well, how can Morawiecki invite Le Pen to Warsaw when she’s the ally of Putin? This was also a time when Law and Justice were particularly, I think we could say, criticised by the European Union for the attacks on the judiciary. But, I think, since the war in Ukraine began, there’s been a big shift in the perception of Poland in the EU. Meloni, of course, is the same group as Law and Justice, the European Conservatives and Reformists. The whole political camp has become much more legitimized and normalized.
When Meloni was about to win the parliamentary elections, Hillary Clinton came to Venice for a film festival. When she was interviewed and asked what she thought about it, she said something like, oh, well, I don’t want to judge her politically, but it’s a good thing for a woman to come to power. I don’t think that Hillary Clinton would have said the same thing about Marine Le Pen. I think the French far right is seen as much more destabilizing and dangerous to the EU as a whole and its foreign policy and its alignment with Washington.
Another element of comparison. In 2018, when Lega and Five Stars won the election and then formed a government, there was a lot more concern that this would be a kind of continuation of the trend of Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro victories. Meloni is relatively isolated in terms of being like the leader of a major country with a far right government. Meloni has been judged much more from the perspective of foreign policy alignment towards the EU and NATO rather than in terms of what she’s actually doing domestically. This is kind of creating an analytical distinction between this kind of celebration of Meloni internationally as kind of surprisingly moderate, not causing chaos and so on, showing herself a strong ally for Ukraine, although we could say that Italy’s contribution isn’t actually very important. And then on the other hand, what’s happening in Italy is just exactly what you’d expect Fratelli d’Italia to do in power: constant attacks on immigrants, on NGOs, on LGBT people, plans to change the constitution, making the public broadcaster full of party appointees and this kind of thing. So I think there’s a kind of difference of perspective in the sense that I think Italy is being treated and Meloni is being treated as a kind of a potentially explosive situation, but which the sort of center of gravity in the EU can kind of keep on board and stabilize. And I think that’s what they’re trying to do.
I do not wish to risk myself too much in commenting on Polish affairs, of which I know nothing, but it seems to me that there’s a certain convergence between the European People’s Party and the ECR, the party that includes both like Meloni, Law and Justice, and Vox in Spain, who will probably be in the next government, looking at the recent election results. In Sweden or Finland, this political group is being very normalized. We have German Christian Democrats saying that the Meloni government should stop talking about great replacement theory if they want to be allied with us. But they’re not shutting the door entirely. They’re still treating them as a potential interlocutor and someone with whom a kind of alliance might be possible. I think that the war in Ukraine has really helped Meloni in pursuing her strategy ofnormalizing the party at international level. Of course her party had already been in government before in the 90s and 2000, as a junior partner for Berlusconi. Nevertheless, as the leader of the government, it still has a certain need to sort of prove itself in the international arena. And that’s what we’ve actually seen happening. The war in Ukraine probably hasn’t produced the sort of internal social crisis in Italy that might have been expected due to gas prices and so on.If you look at the commentary at the time of the election, it’s actually proven kind of easier than expected for Meloni to combine strong support for military support for Ukraine with keeping her own electorate reasonably happy, even though, broadly speaking, Fratelli d’Italia voters are quite hostile to supporting Ukraine.
This was the next episode of Cross-border Talks. Our guest was David Broder, historian and author of a new book called Mussolini’s Grandchildren, which is explaining the rise of Fratelli d’Italia in the Italian political context. Thank you, David, for your time. This was a very interesting interview, and I would like to remind everybody that we are present on YouTube and on SoundCloud. You can hear us. You can see us on several social media sites and also on our Web page where you can find new articles. Thank you very much for your time and have a nice day. Thanks a lot.