A declaration by Giorgia Meloni, who could be Italy’s next prime minister, that her far-right party has consigned fascism to history has been greeted with scepticism.
In a video message issued on Wednesday, Meloni, who leads Brothers of Italy, a party with neofascist origins, said the Italian right had “handed fascism over to history for decades now” and “unambiguously condemns the suppression of democracy and the ignominious anti-Jewish laws”.
In the video, spoken in English, French and Spanish and directed at the foreign press, she said Brothers of Italy was nowadays more akin to “the British Tories, the US Republicans and the Israeli Likud”.
Brothers of Italy leads a coalition that includes Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which is forecast to win general elections on 25 September.
The video sparked a row with her rival Enrico Letta, the leader of the centre-left Democratic party, who implied her comments were merely cosmetic.
Meloni has worked hard to remould her party, pitching it as a conservative champion of patriotism. In her book, I Am Giorgia, she insisted she did not belong to “the cult of fascism”.
However, there are clear signs that Brothers of Italy, a descendant of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a party set up by a minister in Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship, has not completely severed ties with its past.
Meloni joined the youth wing of MSI at the age of 15. Among the first people she met was Marco Marsilio, the current president of the Abruzzo region.
MSI later morphed into the National Alliance, whose youth movement was led by Meloni before the party was dissolved and she went on to found Brothers of Italy.
Brothers of Italy has retained MSI’s tricoloured flame in its official logo and its headquarters is at the same address, on Via della Scrofa in central Rome, where MSI set up office in 1946.
Mussolini’s granddaughter Rachele, a member of Brothers of Italy, won the most votes in Rome’s council elections last October. Enrico Michetti, who was the party’s mayoral candidate, said during his campaign that the stiff-armed Roman salute, which has fascist connotations, ought to be revived as it was more hygienic in times of Covid-19.
A few days after the elections, Meloni told Corriere della Sera there were no “nostalgic fascists, racists or antisemites in the Brothers of Italy DNA” and that she had always got rid of “ambiguous people”.
More recently, Meloni, whose motto is “God, family and country”, travelled to Marbella where she expressed her hardline views on immigration and homosexuality during an aggressive speech at a rally held by her party’s Spanish far-right counterpart Vox.
“The video [on Wednesday] is so different from the speech she gave at Vox,” said Luciano Cheles, a professor emeritus of Italian studies at the University of Grenoble. “She’s cunning … obviously she adapts her appearance and attitude to the audience.”
Cheles’s research has found that fascist imagery was used in posters, brochures and anthems of the National Alliance youth wing and later Brothers of Italy, and that Meloni’s slogans frequently echo those of Mussolini.
In July, when Mario Draghi’s government collapsed, Meloni took to the stage in Piazza Vittorio, a square in a multicultural area of Rome, and told her supporters: “We’ve had three different governments, three different majorities [since the March 2018 general elections]. Have any worked? No. History has proved us right.”
Cheles said: “In an interview with a fascist journalist five days before his death, Mussolini said: ‘History will prove me right … a young person will rise, a leader who will inevitably agitate the ideas of fascism.’ I don’t think what Meloni said at Piazza Vittorio was purely accidental. The very phrase is so pompous, but in the far right when you mention ‘history’ you mean fascism.”
Other than Abruzzo, Brothers of Italy has led the Marche region since 2020. On 27 October 2019, Marche’s current president, Francesco Acquaroli, attended a commemorative dinner to mark the anniversary of Mussolini’s “march on Rome” along with several Brothers of Italy mayors.
Pietro Perini, the son of a second world war resistance fighter and president of a unit of ANPI, the anti-fascism organisation, in the Marche town of Ascoli Piceno, said: “If she really wants to take a distance from fascism, then why did she go to Spain to speak at the Vox rally?
“It’s only words, she’s just campaigning for the elections,” he said. “And after 25 September, I’m pretty sure the Mussolini commemorative dinners will return.”