Richard Bosworth on the rise of Giorgia Meloni | “It makes plain the strange way a dictator has retained a positive image in many sectors of Italian society”
The election of Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s first female prime minister is evidence that fond memories of dictator Benito Mussolini persist, writes Richard Bosworth. Why has it been possible for some to discount the horrors that took place under Italy’s Fascist past?
Tourists in Italy may be too busy seeking a Michelangelo or a Botticelli, or a (real) espresso to notice. But the streetscape of every Italian town teaches a history lesson. It is a rare site that does not have a piazza or street named after Garibaldi, the hero of heroes in the making of Italy, often supplemented by his colleagues, Cavour, Mazzini and Victor Emmanuel II.
The anti-Fascist public nature of the Italian Republic, 1946–90, and (until 2022) in most senses since, means that Antonio Gramsci (the communist), Giacomo Matteotti (the socialist), and Giovanni Amendola (the liberal democrat) are almost as likely to be recalled in such naming. But Fascists, whether Benito Mussolini or his ministers and officials, who dominated the country through the ventennio (20 years of dictatorship) 1922–45 are absent. Italy has now acquired in Giorgia Meloni a Prime Minister who, until very recently, was a convinced admirer of Mussolini and Fascism (Italian-style). As a teenager she stated that “Mussolini was a good politician, in that everything he did, he did for Italy”. Will that situation now change as we see what such flirtation now means?
We shall have to see. What the rise does make plain is the strange way a dictator, who sent a million men, women, and children early to their graves, has retained a positive memory image in many sectors of Italian society, particularly among those with less formal education, some of whom will enter the parliament as deputies among the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy). Two Mussolini granddaughters (Alessandra and Rachele) and a great-grandson (Caio Giulio Cesare) are FdI activists. How can this be?
The memory of Mussolini
As historian Paul Corner has authoritatively shown in Mussolini in Myth and Memory (OUP, 2022), the actual history of the Italian dictatorship was based on violence, corruption, and calamitous inadequacy in fighting Italy’s Second World War (as the “ignoble second” of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis). During the ventennio, the national economy stuttered. Fascism did offer a welfare state of a kind (for the obedient and those with contacts) but it was corrupt, bureaucratised and inefficient. The regime promised a militarisation of everyone into ‘new’ men and women, ready to ‘believe, fight and obey’ for Italy and Fascism, these two meant to have become identical in meaning. The message was reinforced by ubiquitous propaganda, often purveyed with originality and panache, where the key slogan became Il Duce ha sempre ragione (the Duce is always right). Even if it was easy to see that Fascist bosses brimmed over with self, not public, interest, Italians were told that their leader’s charisma covered all and he was as infallible, as blessed and as able to bless the people as (or more than) was the Pope across the Tiber.
In 1945 Italy stood defeated and humiliated. Ever since the Risorgimento [the 19th-century unification of Italy], its leaders had proclaimed that it was a ‘Great Power’ (even if the least of these). Its destiny, like that of Britain or France (or Germany), was to be imperial; in Rome, it was impossible not to recall the First Roman Empire. But, in abject defeat, it had surrendered every title to greatness. Its empire, however, ‘tatterdemalion’, was stripped away. In 1947, its anti-Fascist, Christian Democrat Prime Minister, Alcide De Gasperi, suggested that many citizens, locked in seeming permanent miseria (desperate poverty) notably in the country’s south, should “learn a language and go abroad”. So, for the next decade and a half, they did, whether, as before 1914, to the wider world or to such rapidly prospering European countries as Germany and Belgium.
On the podcast | Richard Bosworth answers listener questions on the authoritarian ideology that emerged in Italy a century ago:
At home, Italian politics settled into an idiosyncratic system whereby, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, governments were uneasy coalitions, always headed by Christian Democrats. The opposition was always led by the Italian Communist Party, with its increasing emphasis that it did not blindly follow Stalin but favoured an “Italian road to socialism”. Culturally, the coalition brought together the parties of government and opposition in declaration that the Italian democratic republic, at its birth in 1946, was, and must remain, the product of anti-Fascism, inferring that, in fact, the dictatorship had not won the real consent of the great majority of Italians. And it was true that even though the regime was the first to call itself Fascist, it had not interfered much with property ownership and the functioning of the Italian family. To the seemingly all-powerful anti-Fascist hegemony, the only opposition were the neo-fascists of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, in some places getting up to 8% of the vote. The MSI is the ancestor of Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia.
Berlusconi shamelessly asserted that 'Mussolini never killed anyone'
But, in 1989–90 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, much changed. The rise of Silvio Berlusconi to preside over his version of centre-right governments (with neo-fascist support) was based on the fact that, in a globalising world, anti-Fascism no longer made much sense as an ideology or political practice. Berlusconi shamelessly asserted that “Mussolini never killed anyone”, adding that the prison system run by Fascism’s secret police was like a “holiday camp” for the regime’s victims.
There are further reasons why Italian memory remained vulnerable to an ‘anti-anti-Fascist’ version of their dictatorship. Mussolini does bear blame for a million premature deaths. But it can be argued that they were not Italians or not his fault. More than 3,000 died during the Fascist rise to power between 1920 and 1925, more than two thirds being Mussolini’s Marxist, Catholic or liberal opponents. But there were Fascist casualties too, and all over post-war Europe – in Ireland for example – political and social instability fretted societies, often with a per capita death count greater than in Italy. In power, the dictator regularly endorsed curative Fascist violence, but the murder rate fell. Mussolini re-introduced capital punishment but only a handful were executed before 1940 (and they were often Slovene or other ‘ethnic’ Anti-Fascists and not ‘Italians’). Under harsh policing, hundreds of anti-Fascist deaths stained the “holiday camps”. But their number did not compare with killings by Franco in Spain, Kemal Atatürk in Turkey or Hitler in Germany, let alone Stalin.
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Horrors under Mussolini
Where did the million die? The first answer is that half perished in Fascism’s wars, from the attack on Ethiopia in 1935, following one after another. Italy’s final death tally of soldiers and civilians in the Second World War was 450,000 and more, much the same as the UK but less than a tenth of Germans who perished under Nazism. Half died between 1943–45, when the peninsula endured Allied (and German) invasion, accompanied by something approaching a civil war between Fascists and anti-Fascists. Maybe the latter carried some blame for the killing of that time. In any case, public opinion often persuaded itself that Hitler and the Germans caused the war, and were responsible for its body count. The powerful ‘myth of Auschwitz’, the widespread conclusion that the Holocaust embodied the essence of the Second World War and so of Nazism’s (and Fascism’s evil), thereby offered an excuse for Italian nostalgia. It could even be argued that more than 7,000 patriotic Italian Jews went to their deaths after 1943 because of the Germans and only the Germans.
We are still missing another 500,000 dead. Who were they? The answer is that they perished in Libya and Ethiopia when Italy ruled or warred in Africa. After 1945, the abrupt cancelling of empire ensured that the Republic did not have to go through the crises of decolonisation that afflicted Britain and France (and augmented their own colonialist murders). For Italians, it was easy to forget empire, instead recalling the cosy ‘little Italies of Italian emigration in New York or Buenos Aires where the pizzas were almost real. And had not Mussolini, rather than urging genocide in a Hitlerian manner, talked about enrolling a black army of 500,000, once Ethiopia was properly ruled (it never was)?
The Duce is back in our story. Perhaps the greatest influence in fond Italian memory of Fascism is Mussolini’s own legend. Hitler was such a funny little man and a mad fanatic. But Mussolini had a wife and five children, all of whom survived the war except one (a second son, Bruno, who died not fighting the enemy but as a test pilot). The Duce had many lovers, and careful historians have been able to tally eight of these, who bore nine children to the dictator. Each had a romantic story, well recounted in popular histories or on TV. All reinforced memory that Mussolini was an Italian boy, ‘one of us’.
Doubtless, Mussolini was irredeemably sexist. In 1932 he told German-Jewish journalist, Emil Ludwig, that women were permanently incapable of bringing things together in their minds; it was impossible to imagine a female architect, for example. How ironical that Italy is presently acquiring a sometime Fascist woman as its leader (but then she does rule through a party called the ‘Brothers of Italy’, blatantly sexist words taken from the opening of the national anthem), suggesting that feminists still have work to do in Rome.
Meloni has piously suggested that now Fascism (and Mussolini) should be confined to history. Maybe that will prove correct, and she will manage to lead a conservative government, committed in an entirely un-Fascist manner to reduce the state. Since its unification, Italy has never had such an administration. Vediamo (let’s see), therefore, as Italian are wont to say philosophically, and wonder if our next hotel in a trip to Italy will be set on the Via Mussolini.
Richard Bosworth is an Emeritus Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. His most recent book was Mussolini and the eclipse of Fascism: from dictatorship to populism (Yale UP, 2021). His next work, Politics, Murder and Love in an Italian Family: the Amendolas in the age of totalitarianisms is due out with Cambridge University Press at the end of this year
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