Letter From Italy
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.