Letter From Italy
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.