Like many Italian cities, Latina, forty miles south of Rome, has a small park nestled in the center of town near the main piazza. There’s a swing set, a roller-skating rink and tennis courts, and most days one can find the usual collection of mothers chatting as their children play, while old men sit on benches, read newspapers and squabble about politics.

Two things, however, make this park distinctive. One is the large gray obelisk in the center topped by an eagle’s head, a clear echo of Latina’s Fascist roots (the city was planned and constructed under Mussolini in 1932). The second is the name: “Arnaldo Mussolini Park,” a reference to the brother of Italy’s infamous Il Duce. Visitors generally assume that the name, like the obelisk, is a holdover from the 1930s. In fact, “Mussolini Park” has been called that only since 1995, in the wake of Latina’s 1993 election of Italy’s first postwar neo-Fascist mayor. That result, and the rehabilitation of the city’s Fascist history that followed, was among the first clear signals that the tide of historical opinion was shifting in this country.

Fascism–ostracized after World War II as the ideology that dared not speak its name–is presentable in Italy again, under the impact of a revisionist impulse that is rewriting the country’s recent history. No longer are the Fascists the principal villains. Those who fought with Mussolini are seen as long-neglected patriots, while the architects of the resistance, above all the Communists, are colored as failed social revolutionaries.

The kind of Fascism politically viable today, “neo-Fascism,” is of a different, less sweeping and brutal vintage than its 1930s-era predecessor. The neo-Fascists are generally Thatcherite in their opposition to state intervention in the economy, and the lure of prosperity in the European Union moderates their nationalism. There are no torchlight rallies, no talk of a police state. Yet Fascism of a broadly cultural sort–a fondness for order, hostility to outsiders, a socially conservative reading of the country’s Catholic identity, little patience for political dissent–is clearly on the ascendant. How this happened, and what it might mean, speak volumes about the relationship between politics and memory.

Indications are that in national elections on May 13, Italians will opt for the center-right, led by Silvio Berlusconi, whose “House of Liberty” coalition includes the National Alliance of Gianfranco Fini. The alliance is heir to the Fascist legacy (and vote) despite Fini’s largely successful effort to transform it into a “modern, open, right-wing party.” While Fini is no threat to march on Rome, he remains the politician who in 1994 called Mussolini “the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.” His party’s delegation in Parliament includes Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra. Berlusconi’s government would also include the xenophobic Northern League, whose pugnacious leader, Umberto Bossi, not long ago was urging northern Italy to secede. Many Italian observers consider the league, and its often-unruly backers, the most dangerous element in Berlusconi’s electoral cocktail. The same coalition came to power briefly in 1994, then fell when Bossi deserted after six months. By most accounts, the coalition is likely to win bigger and stay in control longer this time.

As it turns out, the neo-Fascists were the biggest beneficiary of two political revolutions that rocked Italy in the early 1990s. The fall of the Berlin wall discredited the Italian Communist Party, which had been the strongest in the West. The most politically astute (or opportunistic, depending on one’s point of view) leftists joined the new Left Democrats. Meanwhile, the centrist Christian Democrats, who’d won every election from 1948 through 1992, imploded under the weight of a massive bribery scandal known as tangentopoli (“bribe city”). The wave of prosecutions that followed also devastated their coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Bettino Craxi, who fled to Tunisia to escape arrest and died in exile.

The chaos set the stage for Berlusconi, a media tycoon and soccer impresario. Even when his first coalition collapsed, most observers believed he would handily pass another electoral test. Instead, a center-left grouping led by economics professor Romano Prodi narrowly won in 1996, leading some to proclaim the rebirth of the old “moderate leftist” governing consensus of the Christian Democrats. Most Italians now feel the center-left has badly squandered its chance. Prodi’s government fell in October 1998, when one wing of the old Communist Party, Rifondazione Comunista, withdrew in protest over the annual budget. Former Communist Massimo D’Alema, now of the Left Democrats, took over, never quite escaping the impression of illegitimacy. (Prodi lost a vote of confidence by one vote, although it seemed he had more than enough support, and D’Alema has not shaken off dark rumors about his role in the outcome.) D’Alema in turn had to resign in 2000 when the center-left badly lost regional elections. Old Craxi aide Giuliano Amato took the reins.

The impression created is of a center-left with no political project other than clinging to power, much like the discredited Christian Democratic regime it was supposed to replace. D’Alema’s defining moment was his support of the NATO war against Serbia, a stance that shocked many leftists. The Prodi/D’Alema/
Amato governments also embraced the pro-globalization “third way” agenda pioneered by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, disillusioning many of its most committed voters.

Meanwhile, the left neglected its social base, according to Riccardo Barenghi, editor of Il Manifesto, the country’s leading leftist daily. “We have a left that’s sick,” Barenghi said in an interview. “The left has closed itself in a palace and allowed others to take its place.” Barenghi said that in certain traditional leftist strongholds, such as the La Borgata neighborhood in Rome, or the mezzogiorno, Italy’s south-central region, the neo-Fascists have taken over as the voice of the poorest classes. Too many leftists abandoned street-level organizing, Barenghi said, in exchange for desk jobs in the government, and they are now paying the price.

The left may be sick, but it’s not dead. Some cities, for example, continue to elect mayors with a Communist heritage (Berlusconi’s opponent this spring is the former Communist mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, now running as a man of the center). Yet most of these restyled leftists are virtually postideological; the intellectual energy seems to be bubbling mostly on the right. That energy is generating, among other things, a revisionist reconsideration of Fascism, signs of which are quasi ubiquitous. Case in point: The National Alliance governor of Lazio, the central Italian region that includes Rome, recently pushed through an initiative to “review” school textbooks. The governor, Francesco Storace, believes the schoolbooks are too uncritical of the partigiani, the anti-Fascist rebels of World War II (among whom were many Communists), and too critical of those who sided with Mussolini. Several other regions under the control of the right picked up the idea, creating commissions whose mandate is to purge school materials of “factional” bias.

Neo-Fascist forces at the street level are also clearly feeling their oats. On December 22, a bomb exploded at the Rome offices of Il Manifesto. The bomber, 41-year-old Andrea Insabato, detonated the ordnance prematurely, leaving him the only person injured. Insabato is a longtime associate of the neo-Fascist movement New Force and the ultraconservative Catholic group Militia Christi. Leaders of both groups acknowledged knowing Insabato, but they denied involvement in or approval of his act. An investigation is continuing. In February the offices of Il Manifesto were still swathed in yellow police tape, with plastic sheeting taped up where doors once stood. A secretary smiled while her boss explained that had Insabato not made a mistake with the bomb’s fuse–had he managed to toss it into the main reception area–she would be dead. Barenghi, who spoke from his office a few feet away from where the blast occurred, said he believes the bomb was a signal of new self-confidence on the far right. “This attack was by Fascists speaking to other Fascists,” he said.

Though officially Fini and his National Alliance frown upon the likes of New Force, below the surface certain lines of sympathy are clear. When the two founders of New Force recently returned from exile in London (they had been under indictment in Italy), Storace welcomed them at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Even soccer stadiums are flashpoints for these political currents. Lazio fans, long associated with the political right, unfurled a banner in 1998 reading: Auschwitz Is Your Country, the Ovens Are Your Homes. While ostensibly directed at supporters of Roma (the rivalry between the two squads is bitter), the banner gave voice to the anti-Semitism and antiminority feeling that forms the crudest edge of the Fascist resurgence. Most right-wing leaders distance themselves from such outbursts, and it’s unlikely they represent majority opinion. Yet as the fortunes of the right wax, this “coming out” of xenophobia is indicative of the temper of the times.

Returning to Latina helps provide a sense of the historical scores being settled. The mayor, Ajmone Finestra, is a member of the National Alliance. During the Second World War, Finestra fought for the short-lived Republic of Salò, created by the Germans to legitimize their occupation after September 8, 1943. The country split between the partigiani and those who remained faithful to Mussolini. Finestra was by most accounts a brave officer, saving Italian lives (including Jews) from Tito’s partisans in the region near the Balkans. After the war he was condemned to death by the Allied-installed judiciary, but testimony to his valor won a reprieve. There were no parades, however, in postwar Italy for men such as Finestra. They were forced to renounce their political heritage to survive. Fascists of Finestra’s generation, and younger Italians who identify with him, have waited more than fifty years for a day of reckoning.

Moreover, the rehabilitation of Fascism serves an obvious political end. The right is running in part on an anti-immigrant platform based on defense of Italian culture. Such rhetoric bears comparison to 1930s-era Fascist appeals to blood and soil, and one obvious way to take the sting out of such parallels is to argue that the original Fascists weren’t so bad after all.

If the right does come to power, it will be with the quiet support of elements within the Vatican. During regional elections last spring the Pope’s vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, quietly encouraged nuns and priests in Lazio to vote for Storace. More recently Ruini has appeared with the National Alliance candidate for mayor of Rome, while discouraging church activists from supporting the center-left’s nominee, Walter Veltroni. Ruini and other members of the hierarchy regard the right as more likely to deliver funding for Catholic schools and more sympathetic to the church’s conservative stands on social issues like the morning-after birth-control pill.

What might a victory of the center-right coalition mean? Barenghi says he sees two dangers. The first is that extreme elements on the Italian right, already fortified, will feel more legitimization. “I can imagine certain neighborhoods feeling authorized to terrorize immigrants or the poor,” Barenghi said, “in the name of cleaning up the city.” The second is that revisionism will advance. With the right in control of both the education system and the national media networks, Italians will be hearing much more about the crimes of Communism. Meanwhile, the virtues of the ragazzi of Salò, those youthful “idealists” such as Finestra, will be extolled. Obvious blights on the Fascist record–the racial laws of 1938, the roundup of Jews in October 1943–will be minimized or passed over in silence.

A sense of how this is likely to work was offered in late January. By law Italy celebrates January 27 as a “day of memory” dedicated to Holocaust education. Most regions, often with the cooperation of the church, held events to mark the occasion. A reporter for Il Manifesto called Storace’s office to ask what plans Lazio had. After having to explain to three officials in a row what the day was about, the reporter reached a fourth who assured her that Lazio would sponsor activity because “groups of Jews” had asked, but could not be specific. Some time passed, and the reporter tried again. This time a fifth official said that Lazio would not be doing anything after all. Why? “Sorrow can either be manifested or kept within,” he said enigmatically. So it goes in Italy’s brave new world, where the past has rarely seemed more like prologue.