MILAN – Italy’s failure to come to terms with its fascist past has become evident as it prepares to mark the 100th anniversary Friday of the March on Rome that brought totalitarian dictator Benito Mussolini to power, a milestone that coincides with the country's first postwar government led by a party with a neo-fascist roots taking office.
The symbolism looks troubling: Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party retains the emblem of a flame used by the fascists; her party's co-founder, Ignazio La Russa, whose middle name is Benito and whose home office is awash in fascist memorabilia, was elected speaker of Parliament’s upper house.
Meloni has tried to distance Brothers of Italy from its neo-fascist roots. She made her clearest statement yet this week during a speech to Italy’s lower house ahead of confidence votes confirming her government.
“I have never felt sympathy or closeness to undemocratic regimes, fascism included, as I have always considered the racial laws of 1938 the lowest point in Italian history, a shame that will mark our people forever," Meloni told the lower house of parliament Wednesday, referring to Mussolini’s laws that persecuted Italy’s Jewish community.
The question remains, however, whether the moderate voice the premier recently adopted will persevere and if so, how the nostalgic wing of her party that represents a core 4% of her support will tolerate it.
The National Association of Italian Partisans, or ANPI, which preserves the memory of the wartime resistance against fascism, has noted some signs of an emboldened far-right.
The governor of the central Marche region, governed by Brothers of Italy, cut off funding to maintain brass-plated Stumbling Stones engraved with the names and dates of Holocaust victims outside their prewar homes, ANPI national president Gianfranco Pagliarulo said.
Social media attacks against his organization have grown more virulent than ever, he said.
“This is a disturbing signal,’’ Pagliarulo said. “It is evident that the victory of the nationalist right will lead to a resurgence of neo-fascist provocative attitudes. ... We are not worried because we will fight with political weapons, and if necessary, with legal weapons.”
Rome officials removed posters praising the March on Rome from locations throughout the city on Thursday.
On Friday, ANPI plans to hold a demonstration in Predappio, where Mussolini is buried, to mark the northern town’s liberation from fascism on Oct. 28, 1944. The partisan liberators chose the date to eclipse the memory of the March on Rome — a bloodless coup forced by the arrival of thousands of fascist demonstrators in the Italian capital with the tacit consent of Italy's king.
It also conveniently prevents fascist nostalgics from commemorating the March on Rome that day. Their event is scheduled for Sunday, and one of three commemorations held by neo-fascists in Predappio each year.
The others mark the day of Mussolini's birth, July 29, 1883, in a house not far from the cemetery with his crypt, and April 28, 1944, the day he was killed by partisans in Milan.
“The March on Rome is the founding myth of fascist Italy, and for us it is a negative myth, as the origin of a disaster that led Italy into many wars, most catastrophically World War II," Pagliarulo said. “We must combat the positive myth of the March on Rome and sustain this day as the start of the darkest period in modern Italian history.”
Francesco Minutillo, a 42-year-old lawyer in a small city near Predappio, has attended the commemorations at Mussolini's grave three times annually for years. He described them as moments of prayer in front of Mussolini's crypt, and expects the turnout for the centennial to be robust.
‘’It is not commemorate the March on Rome. It is to remember Benito Mussolini, who is buried there,'' Minutillo said.
A former Brothers of Italy local representative, Munitillo quit the party in 2020 as Meloni's message became more moderate.
"Right now, there is no alternative to the right of Brothers of Italy. Our community must wait for an authentically transparent political party with our catalog of values and our social structure,'' he said.
Asked if he was nostalgic for Mussolini or fascism, which he sees as a modernizing force for Italy in the 20th century, Munitillo relied, "I cannot respond to this question with the laws in place now,'' referring to the crime of fascism apology.
Italy never went through a process similar to Germany’s de-Nazification, and a neo-fascist party, the Italian Social Movement, was part of Italy’s first postwar government in 1946. The fascist legacy endures in architecture throughout the country, from school buildings in small towns to Milan’s stately train station and massive courthouse and Rome’s EUR district.
Popular notions persist that Italy’s two decades of fascism brought progress, exemplified by the era's timely train service, architectural boom and the draining of malaria-infested swamps.
It is still possible — though far from common — to spy a portrait of Mussolini hanging behind a bar or in a restaurant, in particular in Italy’s northern regions, or to come across fascist memorabilia or souvenirs in otherwise ordinary shops. Though the partisan association views such displays as apology for fascism, punishable by law, they are rarely, if ever, prosecuted.
Alessandro Luparini, a historian in Ravenna, said while historians have properly reevaluated Italy's fascist past, the awareness has not trickled down, allowing for misunderstandings to persist.
"Italy is a country that heals very slowly,'' he said, adding that the devastating impact of the racial laws outweigh any consideration for modernization.
“Historians rightly teach us that fascism ended in Italy in ’45. But not the fascists,’’ said historian Francesco Filippi, who has written a book analyzing popular misconceptions about fascism. “Millions of people who took part in that regime and continued to be part of the political life of the country, and even parties that directly referred to fascism, took part in the political life of the country from 1946, arriving to the present day very continuously.”
Filippi said the moderate voters who boosted Meloni from 4% of the vote in 2018 to 26% in last month's parliamentary elections indicated a fundamental expansion in the party’s base beyond those "who recognized the Brothers of Italy as the historical heir of the (postwar) Italian Social Movement, and therefore a certain type of fascist idea.”
Many of the new voters, he said, hope Meloni will construct a conservative right-wing government, "a normal right-wing, that is anti-fascist, tied to democratic values.”
The standard bearers of Italy’s wartime partisan movement said they were withholding judgment until Meloni’s government takes concrete actions.
“We hope that it becomes a right-wing conservative government, like in France or Britain,’’ said Miro Gori, the ANPI president in the Emilia Romagna province where Predappio is located. “We will see what happens.”
Paolo Santalucia contributed from Rome.