Georgia Meloni and the Fascist Past: How Does It Matter?

On October 25, 2022,  Giorgia Meloni  became Prime Minister of the 68th Italian government since 1945.  In the revolving door world of Italian politics, Meloni is the first Italian Prime Minister whose Fratelli d’Italia party could claim an institutional link to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party.  Italy’s fascist past weighs lightly on many of its citizens, making it possible for Meloni to sail to victory.  The newly appointed speaker of the Senate, Ignazio La Russa, collects Mussolini memorabilia.  Although whatever threats to democracy Meloni might pose lie distinctly in the present and not in a replication of the fascist past, history matters.  Understanding current fault lines and future instabilities requires situating Meloni in the Italian, European and global context. 

Three days after Meloni’s swearing in,  October 28th marked the 100th Anniversary of the March on Rome that brought Mussolini and his Fascist Party to power.  There was no national commemoration of this event.  Some 2000 or so assorted members of the Italian hard right and fellow travelers gathered at Mussolini’s birthplace and burial site in Predappio, a small town in Emilia-Romagna, to stage their own commemoration.  The Italian government did not support this gathering and made sure that it happened on October 31—not on the actual anniversary of the March.  In Meloni’s inaugural speech, she disavowed, as she had in previous campaign speeches, any contemporary connections between herself and the fascist past.  She described the Racial Laws of 1938 which paved the way for the persecution of the Jews in Italy as the “worst moment in Italian history” and said that she has no sympathy or interest in “anti-democratic regimes, including fascism.”  She vowed to fight “racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination.”  

In the run up to the September 25 election, the “return of fascism” in Italy made gripping global copy—although not uniformly.  Economic media such as the Financial Times, to give one example, reported on Meloni’s programs with a kind of yawn as it became clear that her economic policy would more or less follow that of her predecessor Mario Draghi.  NATO allies became somewhat reassured as she emphasized Italy’s commitment to Ukraine.  The Italian media and an array of public intellectuals criticized Enrico Letta, the candidate from the technocratic left who ran against Meloni, for running a weak campaign whose main point was to attack Meloni’s reputed fascism.

Italians did not care or did not care enough about fascism to vote against Meloni or for her opponents.  Meloni and the Brothers of Italy won 26% of the vote, and the combined center right 46%,  leaving the center left in the electoral dust.    Three months after the election, Meloni has had a relatively smooth transition to governing and has made relatively few mistakes.  Whenever Meloni comments on global politics from the Ukraine to Brazil, she talks about the necessity of preserving democratic institutions.  On New Year’s Eve, Sergio Mattarella, President of the Italian Republic, gave his traditional speech.  He noted that for the first time Italy has a woman as Prime Minister and viewed it as a social and cultural advance.   He praised the election as showcasing Italy as having a “mature accomplished democracy” that  complies “with rules that cannot be ignored.”  Mattarella concluded with praise for the Italian Constitution that marked its 75th anniversary on January 1.  Meloni ended 2022 with a 48% approval rating, way ahead of her European colleagues.   Fratelli d’Italia polled as the leading party in Italy.  

To academics and pundits familiar with post-war Italian politics, the collective nonchalance towards the fascist past should not be surprising.  The 1948 Italian constitution made it illegal to “reorganize” in any way the “dissolved fascist party,” but fascism, illegitimate or legitimate, never made it into Italian collective memory.  The generation for whom fascism was lived experience is quickly dying off.  Unlike Germany, Italy never developed an official national narrative around the twenty years of the regime and the time of Nazi occupation.  The closest to a public narrative is a recurring debate as to whether the Resistance was a civil war or a heroic battle to rid the country of Nazis.  Claudio Pavone’s 1991 history of the Resistance A Civil War [Una Guerra Civile] fueled the flames of this debate. 

Meloni’s political ascendance is more remarkable for her social class origin than  her gender or her links to fascist politics. Unlike most other Italian, and indeed European, politicians Meloni has no university degree.  France’s Marine Le Pen, to whom she is frequently compared, has a law degree.  Meloni’s autobiography, I Am Giorgia [ Io Sono Giorgia], tells her story.  While all political biographies are as self-serving as they are obligatory, some facts of Meloni’s life stand out.  Abandoned by her father as a child, she grew up in a single parent household in a working-class district on the periphery of Rome with her nose pressed against the glass of the material goods that Italy has to offer.  Her early life reads like an outtake form Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, devoid of the heroics that informed her favorite author Tolkein and his Lord of the Rings cycle.  Until Meloni became Prime Minister and upgraded her wardrobe to include Italian designers, she wore the clothes of ordinary Italian working middle class women.   She speaks with a strong Roman accent.  The harshness that she exhibits when she gets excited may be more attributable to her upbringing than to fascist posturing.  She speaks more than passable English, French and Spanish– a linguistic facility she displayed in a video broadcast in which she explained that she is a democrat and not a fascist, and she emphatically proclaimed that fascism, for the Italian right, had been “handed over to history for decades.”  

Meloni’s political success is a product of her political generation as well as her personal biography.   Failures in Italian society and politics provided the opportunities that made her career possible.  She was born in 1977,  after the first Gulf Oil Crisis began to chip away at post war affluence and corporativist political consensus.  She was 14 years old in 1991, when the Italian Communist Party dissolved.  During the same period, the corruption investigation known as mani pulite (“clean hands”) toppled the centrist Christian Democratic party.  During this period of political disintegration, when Meloni was 15 years old, she joined the youth wing of the Movimento Sociale Italiano [MSI].   Founded in 1946,  the MSI’s name was clearly meant to evoke Mussolini while evading the legal ban on recreating the Fascist Party.   The MSI occupied a steady if small position in Italian post-war politics.  Right wing party membership and activism was Meloni’s university.  By the time she was 17 years old in 1994 the entire Italian post-war party structure had collapsed.  This collapse changed the political fortunes of the MSI.  In 1994, Silvio Berlusconi became Prime Minister and asked Gianfranco Fini, the youthful head of the MSI, to join his governing coalition.   Fini told a La Stampa reporter that Mussolini was “the greatest statesman of the century.″  Fini’s comments coupled with his position in the MSI led academics and pundits to argue that Berlusconi, by inviting a fascist into his government, had normalized the fascist period.

Once in the government, Fini who had broad political ambitions, took steps to break with the fascist past.   On Liberation Day 1994, Fini attended a Roman Catholic Mass in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome.  He called it a “feast of reconciliation” and declared “We think of the future—enough of the fences and hatreds of the past.”  From that point on, Fini began to recalibrate the MSI as a centrist conservative party. In 1995, he changed its name to National Alliance [Alleanza Nazionale], which he labelled a post-fascist party.  Atonement for Italy’s participation in the holocaust and anti-semitism were at the top of Fini’s list.  In 2002, he apologized for fascism’s 1938 Racial Law.  By 2003, Fini was Minister of Foreign Affairs.  He travelled to Israel and declared anti-Semitism to be the greatest evil of the 20th century.  Meloni has followed Fini’s playbook with respect to this aspect of Italy’s past.

Fini’s plans to mainstream himself and his party into a secular center right version of the defunct Christian Democrats were derailed in 2010 when he got into a row with Berlusconi, whom he had served through multiple governments. Fini retired from politics in 2013.    Fratelli d’Italia was born of Fini’s failures. Meloni spent the mid 1990s through the early 2000s rising through the ranks of  the Alleanza Nazionale.   In 2012, three years after the Alleanza Nazionale collapsed,  Meloni who, by that point had held several government offices, co-founded the Fratelli d’Italia .  She was only 35 years old. 

To talk about Meloni’s connection to fascism is to talk about Italian post-war history.   No one disputes the institutional thread that connects Mussolini’s Fascist Party to the Fratelli d’Italia.   But what does that thread mean for Italian democracy today?  Italian politics has a chaotic quality to it that makes it difficult for outsiders, and even insiders, to pin down.  Violence and extremism are no strangers to Italian politics on both sides of the political spectrum.  The 68 governments since World War Two are no accident.  But Italy’s 1948 Constitution has a firm commitment to democracy built into it.  Beneath the perception of instability, there is an underlying stability to Italian democracy that persists even without a strong institutional core.  Percy Allum’s 1973 classic,  Italy: Republic Without Government not to mention Robert Putnam’s 1994 classic Making Democracy Work suggest precisely that point.

Just as one cannot understand Meloni apart from her political generation and national context, one cannot understand her outside of the trans-European context.   Twenty twenty-two was a banner year for the European nationalist right.  Before the Italian election on September 25th, the European nationalist right exceeded its past electoral performance in Hungary, France and Sweden.  Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban are the usual suspects when analysts and journalists speak of challenges to European democracy.  However, Orban does not fit with either Meloni or Le Pen.  He came to power in a newly democratic state and is picking apart its institutions through what Kim Lane Scheppele describes as “autocratic legalism.”  Meloni and Le Pen operate in states that have long-standing traditions of democracy. Although France is immune to the political chaos that regularly grips Italian politics but there are similarities in this recent rightward swing.  Both countries lack center right parties and even the technocratic left is in difficulty.  None of the leading candidates in the 2022 French Presidential election, with the exception of Le Pen, represented political parties that even existed before 2012.   In 2022, Le Pen was only 17 points behind Emmanuel Macron in the second round as opposed to 2017 when she lost by 33 percentage points.   To Le Pen’s surprise, her party, the National Rally [Rassemblement National], managed to attain 89 seats in the National Assembly.  The April election wiped out what remained of the left and right centrist parties in France.

In contrast to France, Italy has lacked a traditional center right since 1994.  Governing coalitions rotated between Berlusconi’s somewhat unclassifiable Forza Italia and various independent and left technocratic parties that never seemed to be able to hold on to power once elected.   Until 2018, when Matteo Salvini, head of the conservative right League Party [Lega] became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, Italy seemed to be holding out against the right-wing electoral surge that began in Europe in the early aughts and accelerated until the Covid pandemic put a temporary brake on it.  Salvini’s Lega and his sometime political allies from the 5 Star Movement were hardly mainstream, making Italy look much like the rest of Europe.  Meloni was shrewd enough to stay out of the political squabbles that ensued in the four short years between the Lega’s ascendance and Draghi’s resignation.   Although no one seemed to be paying attention—most importantly her opponents–her party kept gaining in the polls.   By the time the September election came around, Meloni was the sole candidate who had never been part of a  governing coalition and thus had never failed to keep her promises to the electorate.  She swept to victory in September. 

With the exception of Orban,  who as I argued is a poor comparison,  Meloni is the only right nationalist who is running a European government.  Her policy aspirations are in tune with her nationalist compatriots across the continent.  She is mildly Euroskeptic.  Since the disaster of Brexit, not even the most committed nationalist wants to exit the European Union. Italy, like many other European countries, is in need of EU rescue funds, and anti-EU rhetoric is toned down across Europe.   Meloni is President of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping in the EU parliament.  She recently met in Rome with Manfred Weber, who is the leader of the European People’s Party (EPP).  Her goal is to solidify a conservative alliance in the European parliament. Immigration remains a salient issue for Meloni.  Not surprisingly, she wants a plan to control immigration to Italy, which absorbed 56% of the overall flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean during the first half of 2022.  

In the past, she has hedged on Putin. The Russian invasion of Ukraine united European politicians in a rejection of Russian aggression. Three months after taking office, Meloni is following her predecessors on economic and international issues.  Her economic and international actions are in line with a kind of regression towards the mean which is going on across Europe.  She has not acted on her one constitutional reform issue: to make Italy a Presidential system like France. Constitutional change would probably require a referendum. If recent history in Italy and across Europe is any guide, calling referenda does not work out well for incumbents.   

If Meloni’s political actions are in line with European politics more generally, where does the threat to democracy lie?  If the Italian fascist past, and Meloni’s engagement with it, is prologue, we have to ask–prologue to what?  Meloni’s social and cultural policy aspirations, not her economic programs, reflect her illiberal tendencies. Article 1 of her campaign platform to “lift up Italy” aims to support birth rates and the family.  She is against gay adoption and against the neutralizing of gender in schools, where parents of small children must identify themselves as parent 1 or 2.   She claims to support Law 194, which inscribes the right to abortion in the Italian constitution.   In her autobiography where she describes her “roots” and “ideas,” she opens with ‘I am Giorgia.  I am a woman. I am a mother. I am an Italian.  I am a Christian.”  Meloni has her contradictions.  She is not married to the father of her daughter.  She was not raised in a traditional family and there is no evidence that she is a practicing Catholic.  Yet, she has resurrected a cultural theme that was constitutive of the social dimensions of Italian fascism that links the family to the nation and the church.  

Giuseppe Mazzini, leader of the Italian Risorgimento, famously argued that “God and People” should be the core of a unified Italy.   Borrowing from Mazzini, a Fascist school textbook proclaimed, “The family is the Fatherland of the heart.”  In 1927, in his “Speech of the Ascension,” Mussolini laid out the relation between the family and the nation.  In 1929, after the Concordat with the Catholic Church, he added religion to the mix.  This theme was not unique to Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, or even to the right.    For example, Alva Myrdal made similar connections, absent the Church, in her 1941 book, Nation and Family: The Swedish Experiment in Democratic Family and Population Policy.   Themes that unite family and religion are particularly resonant in Italy, where there is a popular culture of Roman Catholicism that is not doctrinal but available for conservative politicians to exploit.  Articles 29 through 31 of the 1948 Italian Constitution affirm the family as a social unit and support its right to exist.  The affirmation of the family as an inviolable social unit was typical of post-war Western European constitutions.  Article 16 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights also take up the inviolability of the family. 

Meloni’s danger lies in the future.  In contrast to some of the unsavory Italian political actors that she has interacted with in the past, she is currently developing alliances with the National Conservatives–a trans-national group situated within the Edmund Burke Society.  Run by Yoram Hazony, a political scientist based in Israel, the group has global aspirations.  Since 2019, it has  convened regular meetings since 2019 in major cities in the United States and Europe.  Meloni’s speech to the National Conservatives in Rome in 2020 is pivotal to understanding her social and political commitments.  Her speech, delivered in halting English  before the Fratelli d’Italia was rising in the polls and at a time when the idea of her running for Prime Minister was in the distant future, should not be dismissed as a neo-fascist rant.  Meloni fiercely defended democracy but claimed that “democracy without values becomes demagoguery.”  She quoted her philosophical hero Roger Scruton who defines a conservative as someone “attached to the things they love.”  The conference theme was “God, Freedom, and Nation.”  Meloni said that she was “very attached” to or “loves” the “Italian formula” which is “God, Homeland, and Family.”    She speaks of the value of community and national sovereignty.  In her vision, the family is the social pillar of the community, and the nation-state is its political pillar.  Globalization, the EU, and transnational organizations chip away at national sovereignty and destroy the values of the political community.  

Meloni’s formulation is not unique to her.  It has become a mantra of the European nationalist right.  Marine Le Pen, after losing the 2017 French Presidential election, declared that the European political divide of the 21st century would be between the globalists and the patriots, the placeless and the placed, those for whom movement is essential and those who remain in place by choice or necessity.  The former group includes refugees as well as global elites and mobile professionals; the latter includes non-urban dwellers, small family businesses and state functionaries.  The “placed” feel threatened in a subliminal or not so subliminal way. As Meloni suggests, the “placed” will “love” their homeland and defending its values will be constitutive of their vision of democracy.  In this framework, exclusion, borders, and economic and cultural protectionism is central.  Difference of all sorts—racial, gender, religious, linguistic—are intrinsically threatening and must be constrained.  The National Conservative agenda that Meloni champions is fundamentally at odds with the rights of refugees, women, racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ persons.

Any governing politician, and Meloni will be no exception, faces a challenge between what they want to do and what they can do.  Italy is not Hungary and Meloni is not Orban.  The biggest threats to Italy in the present continue to be economic—youth unemployment, pensions, the price of gasoline.   If Meloni fails to ameliorate some of those issues or if she cannot keep her governing coalition together, there is likely to be a 69th Italian government sooner rather than later.  But she will walk out of the Chigi Palace and not be shot and her body hung up in the public piazza as Mussolini’s was, nor is she likely to end her political career.  If she follows in the steps of her predecessors, she would be back to fight another day.  A hundred years have passed since 1922 and they matter.

Mabel Berezin is Professor of Sociology at Cornell University. Her books include Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy and Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security, and Populism in the New Europe.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1