Italian Voters Appear Ready to Turn a Page for Europe

ROME —Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s hard-right leader, resents having to talk about Fascism. She has publicly, and in multiple languages, said that the Italian right has “handed Fascism over to history for decades now.” She argued that “the problem with Fascism in Italy always begins with the electoral campaign,” when the Italian left, she said, wheels out “the black wave” to smear its opponents.

But none of that matters now, she insisted in an interview this month, because Italians do not care. “Italians don’t believe anymore in this garbage,” she said with a shrug.

Ms. Meloni may be proved right on Sunday, when she is expected to be the top vote-getter in Italian elections, a breakthrough far-right parties in Europe have anticipated for decades.

More than 70 years after Nazis and Fascists nearly destroyed Europe, formerly taboo parties with Nazi or Fascist heritages that were long marginalized have elbowed their way into the mainstream. Some are even winning. A page of European history seems to be turning.

Last week, a hard-right group founded by neo-Nazis and skinheads became the largest party in Sweden’s likely governing coalition. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen — for a second consecutive time — reached the final round of French presidential elections this year.

But it is Italy, the birthplace of Fascism, that looks likely to be led not only by its first female prime minister in Ms. Meloni but the first Italian leader whose party can trace its roots back to the wreckage of Italian Fascism.

“People have become used to them,” said John Foot, a historian of Fascism and the author of a new book, “Blood and Power: The Rise and Fall of Italian Fascism.” “The taboo is long gone.”

A supporter of the Brothers of Italy party, which Ms. Meloni leads, this month in Cagliari, Sardinia.Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

The indifference of Italian voters to the past, however, may have less to do with Ms. Meloni’s own personal appeal or policies than with Italy’s perennial hunger for change. But there is another force at work: Italy’s long postwar process — even policy — of deliberate amnesia to unify the nation that began essentially as soon as World War II ended.

Today that process has culminated in Ms. Meloni’s arrival on the precipice of power, after several decades in which hard-right elements were gradually brought into the political fold, legitimized and made familiar to Italian voters.

“The country has not moved to the right at all,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, who said that voters had little sense or interest in Ms. Meloni’s history and simply saw her as the new face of the center right. “They don’t see her as a threat.”

But in having long preferred to forget their past are Italians setting themselves up to repeat it? The concern is not academic at a moment when war again rages in Europe and democracy appears embattled in many nations around the globe.

Unlike Germany, which was clearly on the wrong side of history and made facing and remembering its Nazi past a national project woven inextricably into the postwar fabric of its institutions and society, Italy had one foot on each side, and so had a claim to victimization by Fascism, having switched allegiances during the war.

After Rome fell to the Allies, a civil war raged between the resistance and a Nazi puppet state of Mussolini loyalists in the north. When the war ended, Italy adopted an explicitly antifascist Constitution, but the political emphasis was on ensuring national cohesion in a country that had succeeded in unifying only a century earlier.

There was a belief, the Italian writer Umberto Eco wrote in his classic 1995 essay “Ur Fascism,” or “Eternal Fascism,” that the “memory of those terrible years should be repressed.” But repression “causes neurosis,” he argued, and even if real reconciliation took place, “to forgive does not mean to forget.”

Italian civilians lined the streets as Allied soldiers entered Rome in June 1944. In the years that followed, Italy adopted an antifascist Constitution.Credit…FPG/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Italy had ignored much of that advice during its postwar amnesty program that soughtto incorporate post-Fascist elements. But it also kept the party established by the former Fascists, the Italian Social Movement — which pushed for a strong state, tough on crime and opposed to abortion and divorce — away from power in the following decades.

Meanwhile, Italy’s left, dominated by the largest Communist Party in Western Europe, had the advantage of being anti-Fascist, which allowed its leaders to have institutional roles, political influence and cultural dominance, which they used to wield the “Fascist” label against any range of political enemies until the term was drained of much of its meaning.

That wobbly status quo came crashing down after a sprawling bribery scandal in the early 1990s toppled Italy’s power structure — and with it the barriers that had kept the post-Fascists out of power.

It was around that time that Ms. Meloni entered politics, becoming active in the Youth Front of the Italian Social Movement, the heirs to Italy’s post-Fascist legacy.

She sought new symbols and heroes to distance the party from its unapologetically Fascist forbearers, but also to correct what she considered politicized history.

Memory was a political priority.

In her memoir, Ms. Meloni proudly tells of going into bookstores and stamping pages of books that she considered “biased” with left-wing propaganda: “Fake. Do not buy.” She helped persuade the party’s members of Parliament to buy out of circulation all of the books they had stamped, but insisted that they never “burned those books.”

“I could never stand those who use history for political purposes,” Ms. Meloni wrote in her memoir.

But it was not until 1994, when the conservative media mogul Silvio Berlusconi entered politics, that Ms. Meloni and her fellows in the post-Fascist milieu got their real breakthrough.

Silvio Berlusconi voting in Italy’s general elections in 1994. He would go on to be the country’s prime minister for four governments. Credit…Massimo Sambucetti/Associated Press

An early innovator of the now-common practice of center-right parties forming politically convenient alliances with the far right, Mr. Berlusconi turned to the support of the marginalized parties.

He formed a governing coalition with the secessionist Northern League, now led by the populist firebrand Matteo Salvini, and the National Alliance, which eventually made Ms. Meloni the vice president of the Lower House of Parliament and then the country’s youngest government minister. The party eventually collapsed and was reborn in 2012 as the Brothers of Italy, with Ms. Meloni as its leader.

“We let them in,” Mr. Berlusconi explained during a political rally in 2019. “We legitimized them.”

Nearly 30 years later, Ms. Meloni is poised to take charge.

Her proposals, characterized by protectionism, tough-on-crime measures and protecting the traditional family, have a continuity with the post-Fascist parties, though updated to excoriate L.G.B.T. “lobbies” and migrants.

Many liberals are now worried that she will erode the country’s norms, and that if she and her coalition partners win with a sufficient enough of landslide, they would have the ability to change the Constitution to increase government powers. On Sunday, during one of Ms. Meloni’s final rallies before the election, she exclaimed that “if the Italians give us the numbers to do it, we will.”

“The Constitution was born of resistance and anti-Fascism,” the leader of the left, Enrico Letta, responded, saying that Ms. Meloni had revealed her true face, and that the Constitution “must not be touched.”

The left sees in her crescendoing rhetoric, cult of personality style and hard-right positions many of the hallmarks of an ideology that Eco famously sought to pin down despite Fascism’s “fuzziness.”

She evinces what Eco called an “obsession with a plot, possibly an international one” against Italians, which she expresses in fears of international bankers using mass migration to replace native Italians and weaken Italian workers.

She is bathed in the current of traditionalism that traces at least back to Catholic revulsion of the French Revolution. And her use of social media fulfilled Eco’s prediction of an “internet populism” to replace Mussolini’s speeches from the balcony of Piazza Venezia in Rome.

Ms. Meloni appeared at a rally on Thursday in Rome with her right-wing coalition partners Matteo Salvini, left, Mr. Berlusconi and Maurizio Lupi.Credit…Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse, via Associated Press

Just this week, one of the party’s top leaders was caught giving a fascist salute and one of its candidates was suspended for flatteringly comparing Ms. Meloni with Hitler. In the past, members have held a dinner celebrating the March on Rome that brought Mussolini to power 100 years ago.

Ms. Meloni has tried to distance herself from what she calls those “nostalgic” elements of her party, and chalks the fears up to the usual electoral scaremongering. “I’ve sworn on the Constitution,” she said, and she has consistently called for elections, saying technocrats had hijacked Italian democracy.

Ms. Meloni has also apparently shed a deep suspicion of the United States, rampant in post-Fascism, and staunchly aligned herself with the West against Russia in support of Ukraine.

Whereas she used to admire Vladimir V. Putin’s defense of Christian values, she now calls Mr. Putin, Russia’s president, an anti-Western aggressor and, in contrast with her coalition allies, who are Putin apologists, said she would “totally” continue as prime minister to send offensive arms to Ukraine.

To reassure Europe that she was no extremist, she has also distanced herself from her previous fawning over Viktor Orban of Hungary, Ms. Le Pen of France and the illiberal democracies in Eastern Europe.

The Italian establishment is in fact more worried about her party’s lack of competence than an authoritarian takeover.

They are confident that a system built with numerous checks to stop another Mussolini — even at the cost of paralysis — will constrain Ms. Meloni, as will the realities of governing, especially when backsliding could cost Italy hundreds of billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds from the European Union.

Ms. Meloni’s biggest imprint may be in a less concrete battlefield, what Mr. Foot, the historian, called Italy’s “long-term memory war.”

She has refused to remove as her party symbol the tricolor flame that many historians say evokes the torch over the tomb of Mussolini, and historians wonder if she, as prime minister, would condemn the anniversary of the March on Rome on Oct. 28, or if she would on April 25 celebrate Liberation Day, which commemorates the victory of the resistance against the Nazis and its Italian Social Republic puppet state. Italian democracy might be safe, but what about the past?

“A historical judgment,” of Mussolini and Fascism, Ms. Meloni said in an interview last month, could be done only by “putting everything on the table — and then you decide.”

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