"Mussolini Did Great Things for Italy. He Only Harmed Subversives and Jews."
I came to Rome to study Il Duce. Then Berlusconi brought neo-Fascists into power.
Greetings from Rome! Being here has prompted me to reflect on a year that changed the direction of my work. Studying the normalization of extremism in Italy also prepared me many years later to recognize the signs when it started to happen in America.
“Fascism is like your grandmother’s furniture. You keep the good stuff and you throw the rest away.” I heard this astonishing remark at a 1994 rally held by a far-right politician in Rome. I don't remember his name, but the casual way he referred to the reinvention of Fascism for a new age stopped me in my tracks. What was the "good stuff" he intended to resuscitate?
I had come to the Italian capital a few months earlier on a Fulbright fellowship to study Benito Mussolini's regime, focusing on how and why intellectuals and creative people became its propagandists. Yet the Fascist past suddenly seemed very alive as Silvio Berlusconi formed a center-right alliance that brought neo-Fascists (who rebaptized their party in 1995 as the National Alliance, or AN) into the government for the first time in Europe since 1945.
From May to December 1994, this pathbreaking coalition of conservatives (Forza Italia), populists (Northern League) and neo-Fascists (AN) made Italy, the birthplace of Fascism, once again a laboratory of political extremism. I was there to witness it.
I had rented an apartment on Via Rasella, a street famous for being the site of a major German reprisal killing during World War II that ended in the Ardeatine Caves massacre. My first night there, I was jolted awake to the sounds of “Heil Hitler!" and “Viva il Duce!” I still remember crawling to the open window and seeing drunken young men exiting from a German beer garden across the street.
It happened over and over, but I never got used to it. I also found Italians' newfound habit of expressing positive feelings about the Duce in public disconcerting. Whenever I was in Rome, I would go to the same dry cleaner, who previously had remained silent when she heard I was studying Fascism. This time she asked me, "Are you still studying Fascism?" And when I said yes, she eagerly said, “Mussolini did great things for Italy. He only harmed subversives and Jews.”
In the meantime, the Fascists were cleaning themselves up, the better to normalize their extremism. The head of AN, Gianfranco Fini, took care to wear business suits and declared Il Duce “the greatest statesman of the century.”
In May 1994, a poll in Panorama (owned by Berlusconi) found that almost 60% of Italians didn’t see AN’s presence in government as a “danger for democracy,” even as Berlusconi decided that divisions between Fascists and anti-Fascists were a "piece of history" that could now be forgotten. April 25th, the holiday that celebrated the Resistance and Italy’s liberation from dictatorship, was now the festa di tutti --a holiday that both left and right could claim.
That first Berlusconi government resurrected some of what the neo-Fascist politician called "the good stuff," starting with a personality cult that supported adulation of a macho male leader.
A right-wing political coalition also needs what the anti-Fascist G. A. Borgese, writing in the 1930s, called "the scarlet phantom": the semblance of an active left-wing threat. Accordingly, Berlusconi styled himself as an anti-Communist crusader who would defend the nation. No matter that Communism had recently collapsed on the continent and the Italian Communist Party, previously the largest such party in Western Europe, had been dissolved.
When US Republicans seek to gain support for their extremist politics by railing against "radical leftists" supposedly taking over America, they are following a similar playbook.
From Fascism onward, authoritarianism has been about getting away with crime. Berlusconi sought to turn the public against "Communist" judges and prosecutors who threatened to expose his financial and other illegal actions. His defenders in Forza Italia labeled the prosecutors who charged him with bribery in November 1994 as criminals “who aim to subvert the democratic order” through “an institutional coup d’etat.”
Such tactics had traction because Berlusconi's Mediaset conglomerate owned the three largest private television networks: He controlled a large majority of the broadcast media audience and television ad revenues. No one since Mussolini had such power to shape public opinion. And yet those bribery charges led his skittish Northern League allies to withdraw from the government, ending his center-right experiment in December 1994. Later, the League would tolerate his corruption in order to stay in power.
That same month, my Fulbright ended, and I returned to the US. Being in Italy during this fateful time changed my work. It deepened my understanding of how authoritarianism can remain in a culture long after a regime has been vanquished. And it taught me how quickly extremism can take hold, in any country, if a charismatic demagogue comes into office.
While I made many other trips to Italy, including under subsequent Berlusconi governments, I will never forget that feeling I had in 1994 of the political climate palpably shifting and the sight of neo-Fascists, until recently fringe elements, sitting in Parliament.
I have only felt that shift one other time: in 2015-16, when Donald Trump started his candidacy. My experience in Italy is partly why I was able to see the signs of change in America so early, and why, a few days before his inauguration, I could forecast that Trump would govern as an authoritarian. Like Berlusconi before him, Trump has normalized extremism and corruption and exploited his personality cult to disseminate disinformation, giving Fascist tactics new life.
“Sondaggio su Fini,” Panorama, May 14, 1994.
Berlusconi, “25 aprile è festa di tutti(..)” La Repubblica, April 17, 1994.
Vittorio Sgarbi, July 14 and 16, 1994, in Paul Ginsborg, Berlusconi, 83, 67.
G.A. Borgese, Goliath: The March of Fascism (New York, 1935).