Italians and Fascism

Amos Elon, “A Shrine to Mussolini,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 53, N. 3.

Relevant personal background: I was born and raised in Italy but moved to the U.S. in 1996. Amos Elon is an Austrian Jew who immigrated to Palestine in 1933, became a major Israeli journalist and intellectual, and then moved to Italy after 1986. Independently of “A Shrine of Mussolini,” he has interesting things to say about Israel.

“A Shrine of Mussolini” is a review of the newly translated book The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy, by Italian historian Sergio Luzzatto. The review is an excuse for Elon to investigate the baffling nostalgia some Italians feel for Mussolini: “That [Mussolini] still finds a small number of admirers more than sixty years after his death is not easy to explain.” In fact, Elon offers no explanation.

Elon’s essay is insightful, stimulating, and mostly accurate. The main inaccuracy is revealing. Elon describes Gianfranco Fini, Italy’s current foreign minister and deputy prime minister, as someone who “announced his conversion to democracy in 1995.” This and other statements by Elon express a misunderstanding of Italian politics that is quite common among foreigners.

Fini is the leader of Alleanza Nazionale (AN). What actually happened in 1995 is that the members of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), led by Fini, dissolved MSI and founded AN instead. MSI, in turn, was the heir of Mussolini’s Fascist Party. In the face of this lineage, many non-Italians are suspicious of AN. I’ve heard Americans refer to AN as “fascists.” (Amos uses “neo-fascist” to describe MSI, though not AN.)

Fascism may be defined as “a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism”. None of this is advocated by AN. None of it was advocated by MSI. A partial exception is “stringent socioeconomic control,” provided that by this we mean “law and order.” But “law and order” is hardly synonymous with “fascism.”

By 1995, MSI had been a full-time participant in Italian democracy for decades. Although it was politically isolated and not welcome by other parties to participate in national governments, it participated in local administrations and had many representatives in parliament. It had no plan to overthrow Italian institutions or establish a dictatorship.

True, the founding of AN was accompanied by a new name, an emphatic public commitment to democracy, and the explicit rejection of dictatorship and racism. But this was mostly PR, intended to express values already held by members of MSI and convince (and lure) skeptics outside the party. Those MSI members who complained about the change were not proposing a return to fascism. They simply felt that the public display of good will was unnecessarily humiliating—as if they had anything to hide before.

Foreigners are not the only ones who have misconceptions about Italians and fascism. Italians have their own. There is a popular “myth of the resistance,” believed by many Italians, which goes something like this. Italians, for the most part, had nothing to do with fascism. Fascism was a movement of a few crazies who hijacked the country for a couple of decades. Since fascists imposed their rule with violence, others had little choice but to wait for a better time. Finally, during WWII, Italians took arms against fascism (and Nazism) and re-established democracy, with some help from their British and American allies. Thus the republic was born.

I, for one, came to believe something like this story when I was a kid. I probably got it from a mixture of public discourse and history textbooks.

But it turns out, as Elon correctly notes, that Mussolini was very popular during most of the twenty years he ruled the country. To be sure, Mussolini’s popularity had to do with the nationalist propaganda that he was so good at spreading. But it also had to do with the relative efficiency and stability of his government. As some Italians say, “trains arrived on time then.” Here we have a simple and straightforward explanation of the longing that a few still feel: compared with the unstable, inept, and corrupt governments that succeeded him, Mussolini seems to some Italians a strong, effective, and honest leader. But those who invoke his name—and I am certainly not one of them—are not yearning for tyranny—only for good government.

Other aspects of the myth of the resistance are incorrect. Resistance to fascism, before and during WWII, was limited to a small minority of Italians. Many of them were communists, who opposed democracy as much as they opposed Mussolini. The Italian resistance played a limited military role compared to that of the British and American armies. In 1943, with Italy partly occupied by British and American forces, the king officially fired Mussolini and Italy officially switched sides. Nevertheless, many Italians remained faithful to Mussolini and fought side by side with the Nazis. Italians repudiated fascism en masse only after Mussolini was killed in April 1945 and WWII was over. (Message to Iraqis: executing Saddam soon might help deal with the insurgency.)

People do not like to admit their mistakes. It is only natural that Italians do not like to admit they created fascism and generally supported it for twenty years. But if Italians could be more open about acknowledging their fascist past, they might see another legacy of fascism—a legacy that runs much deeper than the minute minority who still idolize Mussolini.

To control Italy, Mussolini eliminated the separation of powers. Every institution was an instrument of his rule. Besides controlling the militias, police, and army, the Fascist Party controlled the legislature, judiciary, media, schools, and professional organizations. There was even a fascist union-like organization to defend workers’ interests. Mussolini personally forged an alliance with the Catholic Church. All institutions were intertwined with the Fascist Party, and hence with each other.

After Italy returned to democracy in 1945, officially it restored a separation between executive, legislature, and judiciary. But in fact, Italy’s new leaders never created true checks and balances.

Part of the reason might have been that Italy’s democratic leaders inherited the political culture of their fascist predecessors. That was how the country worked.

Another part of the reason was a paradoxical effect of the recoil from fascism: the writers of the Italian constitution created a feeble executive with the explicit purpose of preventing a return to fascism. The president is appointed by the parliament and has virtually no power. The executive must be approved by the parliament and can be revoked by the parliament at any time. These and other clauses made the executive extremely weak, paving the way for the interminable series of short-lived administrations (average length: one year) that characterized Italy for the subsequent 50 years. It also ensured that there was little mutual control between executive and legislature, since the former had no legitimacy independent of the latter.

A related problem was the increasing strength of the Communist Party, which for decades was the second largest. Communists built an extensive political and social network, which included the largest Italian union, media, publishing houses, and many affiliated organizations reaching into every aspect of Italian society. The original aim was the communist revolution, though the Communist Party (like MSI)
progressively evolved to accept democracy. In response, other parties—most notably, the Christian Democrats—created their own counter-networks, aimed at keeping Italians in the Western (and Christian) block.

When I grew up, the deep reach of political parties was felt in every Italian institution: universities, media, unions, you name it. Even judges and prosecutors were organized into “correnti,” which were groups with political affiliations. The Corte Costituzionale (the equivalent of the Supreme Court) acted as the jealous defender of the interests of the powers that be.

Here is a simple example that I am familiar with. I was in high school in the late 1980s. Each year, my high school elected four student representatives. Traditionally, two reps belonged to the local Christian student group, which was loosely affiliated with the Christian Democrats. The other two reps belonged to the local Communist student group, which was explicitly affiliated with the Communist Party. Fostering student organizations was a way for national parties to recruit voters and future leaders among high school kids. I was so annoyed by this state of affairs that in my last year, I founded an independent student group. In 1988—the year before the Berlin wall fell—I was elected along with one Christian and two Communist students. As far as I know, during my high school years I was the only student rep who was not directly or indirectly affiliated with either the Christian Democrats or the Communist Party.

Christian Democrats, who were the main ruling party between 1948 and 1994, were in an especially bad position to move away from Mussolini’s embrace of the Church. In fact, they did just the opposite. They subsidized the Church with taxpayers’ money, they hired Catholic priests to teach religion in public schools, and they let the Church influence a wide range of policies. The Church reciprocated by becoming an active propaganda machine. As a result, Italy has not enjoyed a true separation of Church and State since the days before Mussolini. Even after the fall of the Christian Democrats in the 1990s, the influence of the Church on Italian affairs has not decreased. When I left Italy in 1996, it looked like most political parties were racing to obtain the Church’s approval.

After 1989, some things began to change. The old Communist Party collapsed along with the Soviet Union, eliminating the greatest anomaly in Italian politics. The Christian Democrats collapsed under the weight of corruption investigations. Meanwhile, a grass-roots coalition proposed to reform the system for electing members of congress to make it closer to the British and American, winner-take-all system. The proposal, strongly opposed by the ruling elite, became a ballot measure that won overwhelmingly. The resulting institutional change forced Italian parties old and new to form two broad coalitions, one on the right and one on the left. This clarified the messy political scene somewhat, and helped make administrations more durable.

Still, as far as I can tell, Italy remains miles away from a liberal democracy in the sense of the term that Americans understand. Checks and balances are shaky at best. Political parties reach deep into society, especially the media. (The current prime minister owns the largest Italian private media conglomerate.) Prosecutors use the judiciary to engage in political battles. And the Church is engrained in politics.

I came to the U.S. thinking I was coming to a true liberal democracy. Since 2000, though, I’m worried that the U.S. is turning into an unwitting Italy copycat.

Acknowledgement: The above remarks are influenced by conversations I had in the early 1990s with Marco Pannella, an Italian leader who played a critical role in most of the positive institutional changes that occurred in Italy over the last several decades.


  1. Anonymous

    This last post of yours was fascinating. If you could, would you explain the propoganda machine the Church used from Mussolini’s time to present. When I read your post I figured that the Church used subtle but effective messages for or against it’s political enemies and allies respectively. Any light you could shed on this would be appreciated.

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    Italy was unified in the late 19th Century against the will of the Church. Although Catholicism was Italy’s religion by law, The Church had its own state, which was orders of magnitude larger than the current Vatican. The State of the Church was conquered by Italy through military action. As a result, the Church couldn’t stand Italy’s early rulers. There was a significant conflict between the two, and as a consequence, a significant separation of Church and state.

    Mussolini changed that. He gave the Church the Vatican State and a prominent role within Italian institutions in the “Patti Lateranensi.” The pope reciprocated by embracing Mussolini as “the man of Providence.”

    Mussolini’s Patti Lateranensi were later enshrined in Italy’s 1948 democratic constitution and were not revised until 1984, when Catholicism ceased to be the official religion of Italy.

    In 1948, there was a huge electoral battle between the left, guided by the Communist Party, and the right, guided by the Christian Democrats. The future of Italy, liberal democracy vs. communism, was at stake. Since communists were officially atheists, at least at the time, the future of the Church was at stake.

    The Church became an active part in the campaign. Priests depicted communists to their parishioners as evil baby eaters, and the Christian Democrats narrowly won. After that, the Church remained a direct and indirect supporter of the Christian Democrats. Its support could be felt within churches, but perhaps more importantly, through the miriad Chatholic organizations that permeate Italy. They promoted the Christian Democrats, maligned its political opponents, and recruited political leaders.

    The Christian Democrats dissolved in the early 1990 due to their corruption. They splintered into several Catholic parties. Some became part of the right wing coaltion while others became part of the left wing coalition. Meanwhile, other political parties, including the heirs of the Communist Party, embraced the Church as an influential moral leader whose blessing was actively seeked. As a result, as far as I can tell now both of Italy’s political coalitions are in love with the Church, and have no desire to separate it from the state.

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you. From what you have said I take it that the catholic organizations were things like charity orgs pro-life orgs and organizations similar to the ones that we have here. In my mind I think of a poor man going to a catholic soup kitchen and along with his soup he gets a healthy serving of anti-communist propoganda. I would think that if the Church was interested in political power, why would they not groom a politician from within in order to guarantee political loyalty. I am ignorant to the distinction by law or otherwise that was made between church and state at that time. Could there have been a cardinal prime minister?

  4. Anonymous

    The last commenter makes the mistake of thinking that “one of their own” would automatically mean the clergy. In fact, several of the leading Christian Democrat politicians, including many Prime Ministers, were groomed by the Church in precisely that way. Some of the clergy are able to exercise much more independence from the Vatican than some of these politicians.

    And haven’t you heard? The winner-take-all system was abolished a few months ago! Next month’s elections will be decided by a proportional system very similar to the old one.

Comments are closed.

Back to Top