What does the crisis of fascism consist of? To understand this, it is said that there is the need, in the first place, to define the essence of fascism, the truth is, however, that the essence of fascism does not exist in fascism itself. 

Anotnio Gramsci, Il popolo delle scimmie – scritti sul fascismo (in a publication with the title “The Italian Crisis” in “l’Ordine Nuovo”, 1924)

In September 2022, the center-right wing coalition composed of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), Lega, and Forza Italia won with great majority the leading position in the country. With 44% of the votes, the parties acquired the most seats in both chambers, a factor that would facilitate plausible constitutional reforms. Thus, the fear of the rise of a more and more conservative and discriminative climate, based on populistic rhetoric, soon became concrete. The days immediately after the elections, felt like they were permeated by the fury and disappointment of those who claimed the fascist nature of Giorgia Meloni, Fratelli d’Italia’s charismatic leader, and those who either supported the winning party or did not see the election’s result as a threat, claiming that fascism died decades ago, the 10th of august 1945, in Loreto Square, under thousands of incredulous eyes that saw the bodies of Mussolini, his lover, Clara Petacci, and other fascist hierarchs, hanging with their heads faced downwards. However, it was not merely material for some black humor jokes that was left from that date, no, the after-war era saw a turbulent season in Italian history, marked by political terrorism, lobbyism, kidnappings, and even attempts of putsch. Alongside grief, anger, and fear within a nation, ideologically far too torn apart, the silent shadow of fascism was seen wandering amongst the pieces of sheet metal and red bricks at the train station of Bologna, between burnt papers and overthrown chairs in the National Bank of Agriculture in Milan. Indeed, the so-called “Years of Lead”, deeply affected the nation for over 20 years, from the 1960s up until the 1980s: with the rise of left-wing paramilitary organizations such as the Red Brigades, born from the Sit-Siemens and Fiat factories in Milan and Turin, and composed prevalently by students and workers, fresh out of the 1968 insurgent experiences, also far-right movements organized themself. Especially the “Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari” (NAR for short) carried out deadly strikes and bloodbaths, such as the Bologna massacre in 1980. Although there was widespread use of violence from both factions, the communist militants managed to complete fewer sanguinary attacks and more underground activity, organizing themself in the so-called “Colonne” (columns) in every major industrial city of northern Italy. Being able to rely on sympathizers all over the country, who assisted and provided the Red Brigades with information and other forms of support, their efforts culminated in the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, exponent of the Cristian-Democrats, in 1978. This major event, covered in mist up until nowadays, characterized by political intrigues, conspiracy theories and (unironically) investigations based on a seance, sadly ended with the assassination of Moro and an agreement between the DC (Democazia Cristiana) and the Communist Party, which historically represented the main opposition. It goes without saying that the subsequent killing of Mino Pecorelli, in 1979, a journalist about to publish Moro’s complete memorial, which could have been incriminating for current prime minister Giulio Andreotti, involved some exponents of the far right-wing scene: Licio Gelli, Worshipful Master of Propaganda Due, the deep state masonic lodge, involved in the majority of the Italian scandals of the First Republic (this term defines the political set up of the country before the Tangentopoli scandal), and of course Andreotti himself. However, his role and the true dynamics of these events are still not clear, and in the end, one tends to believe Andreotti’s own words: “Apart from the Punic Wars, for which I was too young, I have been blamed for everything that’s happened in Italy.”

In response to the communist threat within the nation, the so-called “Operation Gladio” served as an undercover organization, established with a bilateral agreement between the SIFAR (the former denomination of the Italian intelligence system) and the CIA. Its existence remained a secret throughout the entire duration of the cold war and only in 1993 Giulio Andreotti revealed, in a speech to the parliament, that the Gladio agreement had been signed by Aldo Moro and that its legal basis was within the NATO Treaty. This “stay-behind” organization had the official function of preparing a military net, ready to support the national troops with guerrilla activities, in case of an invasion by the Red Army. In reality, it served as a contrasting force against communist movements in Italy and it had the aim of preventing the PCI (Italian Communist Party), and to some extent also the PSI (Italian Socialist Party), from taking the lead of the executive power. Similar bodies were found in almost all the other Western countries.

Inside the National Bank of Agriculture after the attack

The true extent of Gladio’s role in the “Years of Lead” and the “Strategy of Tension” will probably never be completely revealed. Those who hold crucial information about the matter will bring all their secrets to their graves, as time goes on. However, much must be rewarded to Guido Salvini, a now-retired magistrate who in 1988 started investigating the events of Piazza Fontana. An endless number of witness interrogations and documents revealed, 10 years later, the actual involvement of members of the CIA and the US Navy in the bombing of Piazza Fontana, in 1969.  

The link between Operation Gladio and neo-fascist movements became progressively clearer after further investigations into the failed putsch attempt, Golpe Borghese, in December 1970. Indeed, the final plan was drawn up by post-war fascist hero Junio Valerio Borgese who foresaw a fleet of US warships on alert in the Mediterranean Sea. Also, the newly established government would have been supported by the fellow Mediterranean fascist regimes of the Colonels, in Greece, and of Francisco Franco, in Spain. Up until nowadays, the reasons for Borghese to stop the Golpe in the middle of its execution remain unclear. In fact, the State Forestry Corps troops, which had already managed to seize control over the RAI (the National Public Broadcasting Service) headquarters in Rome, were suddenly withdrawn from their operation and the failed putsch would be publicly revealed only one year later. 

While such significant politically destabilizing events occurred on a deep state level and the country’s fate seemed contended among foreign powers that took advantage of deep-cutting tensions, characterizing the First Republic, the visceral anger and hate unfolded on the suburban streets of Rome, in the double-homicide called Acca-Larentia killings. This event produced two victims, members of the MSI (Italian Social Movement, the predecessor of Fratelli D’Italia), who were killed by young militants of a far-left organization.   

Among many other killings related to the “Years of Lead”, the ones of Acca Larentia provide a direct link to the present. Indeed, in January 2024, the images of hundreds of neo-fascists in total black clothes commemorating their two fallen “camerati” (comrades) with the Roman salute, spread over the web. The occurrence became internationally known (a RUG student might recall those images also from the Ukrant news) but the reactions by the government were non-existent: not only did the highest positions in the state fail to take the distances from this event, also the judiciary, in this case, the Court of Cassation, expressed its position in a judgment of the 18th January 2024, regarding a similar event in 2016, that a “roman salute might be a criminal offense only when it represents a concrete threat to the security of the state”. In the arms of such broad interpretations of art. 12 of the Final Dispositions of the Italian Constitution and the “Legge Scelba” on the apology of fascism, hundreds of nostalgics could freely gather in front of the old MSI headquarters, under the Celtic Cross. The latter is a symbol for FUAN, the extremist right-wing student association that formed many prominent politicians, such as today’s president of the Senate and proud owner of a living room Mussolini-bust, La Russa. Apparently, the state has to worry about more serious threats, like the one presented by a spectator of “The Nutcracker” premiere at La Scala, in Milan, who from the stands loudly exclaimed: “Viva l’Italia antifascista!” (Long live anti-fascist Italy!). While the authorities present at the ballet, like La Russa and Salvini, acted either in complete ignorance of the event or in complete outrage, the theatergoer was chased and identified by the DIGOS (the Italian Special Investigative Department for serious crimes and terrorism).

The entrance to the MSI headquarters where hundreds of neofascists commemorated the Acca Larentia Killings

As a matter of fact, according to point 4 of the 14-point essay by Umberto Eco, “Eternal Fascism, in a fascist regime, disagreement is treason, and this might be the motive also for the use of violence by the police, against students who protested the Meloni government in Turin, in October 2023 and in Venice, a few days ago, on the 16th of February 2024. Also, since during the San Remo song contest, politically influenced messages and statements, regarding the ongoing conflict in Gaza, made it through one song and the other, demonstrations and sit-ins in front of RAI studios, throughout the last weeks, in Naples, Florence and Milan, were not well received and often ended with beaten up activists and much resentment. 

An interesting analysis of the rise of fascism in the 1920s is provided by Antonio Gramsci, journalist, philosopher, and one of the founders of the PCI. In his articles, prevalently published in Ordine Nuovo, l’Unità, and in his Prison Notebooks, he describes how from a general social frustration, a result of the post-war misery and the huge wealth gap between North and South Italy, the fundaments of fascism can be found in the organization of  World War I veterans, who still armed and drowned in bitterness by a nation who left them behind, reversed all their anger and aggressivity in the beatings of socialist strikers in northern Italy’s factories. These unofficial, but more efficient, “police forces” soon unfolded as a “protection” for the frustrated middle class against the “evil specter of communism” that was haunting Europe already for a few decades. It sometimes appears more than a mere coincidence, how power dynamics perpetuate themselves throughout history. 

Another analogy can be found with the constant commemoration of the so-called “ventennio”, the 20 years of the fascist regime. The events regarding the Acca Larentia killings are not an isolated episode: for instance, neo-fascists from all over Italy gather unbothered every year in Predappio, Mussolini’s hometown, to commemorate him with a long parade, flowers, and garlands. Indeed, points 1 and 12, identify the cult of tradition, the recalling of a glorious past in which “the trains arrived on time when there still was Him”, as a defining characteristic of Ur-fascism. This need to go “back to the roots” is also reflected in the government’s attitude towards Christian catholic values and the LGBT community. The emphasis on protecting “traditional families” explains why the government has taken measures and made it nearly impossible for homosexual couples to adopt a child. The latter aspect can also be linked to point 12, which describes how machismo, “which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality”, can be a sign of Ur-fascism

Lastly, points 5 and 7 should be discussed, considering the repressive measures on migration adopted by the right-wing government. Point 5 identifies the fear of difference as an Ur-fascism characteristic and this fear is clearly reflected in the populist rhetoric used by right-wing exponents. A good example is the short extract from Meloni’s speech, which quickly went viral and was also remixed into a weird hit. During a manifestation in 2019, the political leader shouted to the masses: “Io Io sono Giorgia, sono una donna, sono una madre, sono italiana, sono cristiana” (“I am Girogia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian”). This unelaborated but impactful sentence perfectly displays what for right-wing populists is considered to be the “norm”: if you do not identify with your biological gender, which cannot be other than man or woman, you are different. If, especially as a woman, you deviate from the traditional standards of motherhood and family, you are different. If you are not Italian, or even worse, you are a migrant, you are different. If you are not Christian, or you do not value enough catholic traditions, you are different. And who is different does not deserve any regard from public authorities: bureaucratic acts, that in other European countries are easily changed or issued, are not available to transgender people or homosexual couples who want to have some legal protection for their children; women still perceive a lower salary than men and domestic violence within the highly praised “traditional families” often end up in over 106 femicides each year. Moreover, the prevailing fear of difference resulted in the creation of CPR (centers for Repatriation) which is on the limits of humanity but represents the “solution” in which the different can be isolated from society and locked in: videos and images leaked out from those prison-like institutions, in which migrants experience violence on a daily basis and inspections have ascertained that hygienic and sanitary conditions are strongly concerning.  

Trying to understand what was behind the “Years of Lead” and the political situation of the First Republic is indeed a challenging task. Arguing that fascism already saw its sunset on the Italian peninsula is even more challenging: right-wing populism is rising all over Europe, and in countries like Poland and Hungary it has already acquired concerning features. Still, in light of recent developments, the rather troubled past of Italy indicates that those tensions might be just around the corner. Without the intent to make too far-fetched links between the past and the present, it is still important to be aware of a country’s historical background and thus be able to recognize the features of hate, discrimination, and violence that threaten the true democratic spirit of our society. Beware: “History teaches, but has no pupils” (Antonio Gramsci).

Film and book recommendations:  

  • Umberto Eco, Eternal Fascism, free pdf version here -> Eco-urfascism.pdf 
  • Il Divo (2008), a film by Paolo Sorrentino, available on Netflix:  

The film presents the story of Giulio Andreotti, a seven-time Prime Minister of Italy notorious for his alleged ties to the Mafia. The narration covers Andreotti’s seventh election in 1992, his failed bid for the presidency of the Italian Republic, the bribe scandal Tangentopoli, and his trial in 1995. 

  • Romanzo Criminale (2005), a film by Michele Placido, available on Mubi:  

A highly acclaimed film that won 15 awards. It is based on Giancarlo De Cataldo’s 2002 novel, which is in turn inspired by the true story of the Banda della Magliana, one of the most powerful Italian criminal associations, dominating Rome’s drug, gambling and other kinds of crime activities from the early 1970s until 1992 and eventually started working with the Italian secret service, fascists, terrorists, the Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra, and many more.   

  • Porco Rosso (1992), a film  by Hayao Miyazaki, available on Netflix:

The plot revolves around an Italian World War I ex-fighter ace, now living as a freelance bounty hunter chasing “air pirates” in the Adriatic Sea. However, an unusual curse has transformed him into an anthropomorphic pig. Once called Marco Pagot he is now known to the world as “Porco Rosso”, Italian for “Red Pig”. 

  • Last but not least, a link to the Meloni – remix, in case you are curious: https://youtu.be/fhwUMDX4K8o

By Sophia Manni

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