Enzo Traverso: ‘If we wanted to find an ancestor for Giorgia Meloni, it would be the Vichy regime’

Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Italy’s far-right party, Fratelli d’Italia, spent years on the country’s political margins before she was elected Prime Minister last fall. In this interview, Enzo Traverso sheds light on the significance of her rise and what Fascism means in Italy today.

This interview appears on the Verso Books Blog and was originally published on September 28, 2022 by L’Obs.

Many questions are being asked about the nature of the formation that came out top in Italy’s right-wing coalition. Until four years ago, Fratelli d’Italia [Brothers of Italy], the party led by Giorgia Meloni, was marginal and attracted only those nostalgic for fascism. Italian historian Enzo Traverso is a specialist in totalitarianism, Nazism and anti-Semitism. His latest book, Revolution, An Intellectual History, was published by Verso in 2021.

What was your first reaction when the election results were announced?

To be indifferent would be irresponsible, I am very worried about what is happening in my country. But I can’t say that I am traumatised either. Like most Italians, I expected it. This result was anticipated months ago, it is the logical conclusion of a process whose beginnings go back a long way.

How long ago would you say?

More than twenty years. When Berlusconi came to power in 1994, the right-wing coalition government he established already included the heirs of the Italian Social Movement, a party that had been neo-fascist until that time and then became ‘post-fascist’. So, this result did not come out of the blue. Symbolically, of course, the turning point is significant and historic. For the first time in the history of republican Italy, we will have a head of government who claims the legacy of fascism, who proudly recognises that she belongs to this tradition, rather than to one of the political currents that created the Republic and the republican constitution at the end of the Second World War.

Giorgia Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia are said to be ‘post-fascist’. How would you define this term?

I use it for want of a better term because this concept tries to capture something unstable, transitory, which does not have a historically determined political and ideological profile like communism, fascism or liberalism. Nevertheless, post-fascism has, in my opinion, two characteristics. First, it is an extreme right that has taken shape and developed subsequent to the historical experience of classical fascism. Secondly, having fascist identity claims and cultural reflexes, but not aiming to restore it in its classical form – in short, not being neo-fascist. It may be argued that Mussolini and Hitler also came to power through elections, that they also created coalition governments in the first place, and that it took one of them three years and the other three months to overthrow the rule of law and democracy. But this is not what Giorgia Meloni seeks to do. Fascism in its classical form had a utopian dimension, it carried the myth of a New Man and proclaimed a new civilisation. Neither Giorgia Meloni, nor Marine Le Pen, nor even Viktor Orbán want to establish a new civilisation. If we wanted to find an ancestor for Meloni, rather than Mussolini’s fascism it would be the Vichy regime.

But in terms of the exercise of power, what is left of fascism if there is no longer the idea of establishing a new order?

We have to distinguish between the culture of Giorgia Meloni and the policies she will pursue as head of government. Italy is characterised by great political instability; the average duration of governments is one and a half years. If she wants to remain in government for a whole legislature, she must absolutely – and this is vital for her, given the situation in which Italy finds itself today – receive aid from the European Union. This aid is subject to a whole series of conditions, which she has complied with. She ran her campaign trying to reassure both the Italian economic and financial elites and Italy’s international allies, saying, over and over again, that she did not want to leave the euro, that she did not want to leave the European Union, that Italy would remain in NATO. She took much clearer positions on the war in Ukraine than her allies Berlusconi and Salvini, who had very good relations with Putin.

But having said that, you have to bear in mind that she leads a party which until four years ago was marginal, with a score of 4%, confined to those nostalgic for fascism, movements that were not so much post-fascist as neo-fascist, even neo-Nazi. All these people carry the memory of fascism, claim an identity that is not purely cultural, and would like to make this identity the basis of a new political practice.

How will she resolve what appears to be a contradiction?

It is quite possible that, in substance, the policies she pursues that will not be very different from those of previous governments. What worries me more is a liberation of speech, which leads on to acts. Over the last ten years or so in Italy, we have witnessed an upsurge in racism, racist murders, and significant homophobic violence. All these practices risk becoming more radical and more frequent, supported by the government and the authorities.

No doubt Giorgia Meloni will take spectacular measures, which will be highly publicised, such as deporting undocumented migrants, pushing migrant boats back into the Mediterranean, supporting anti-abortion associations and demonstrations against gay marriage. But Italy is a country which, for economic and demographic reasons, has a vital need for its immigrants – they represent 10% of the working population – and if she goes too far, other right-wing leaders will tell her to calm down because industry needs this workforce, particularly in regions where the Lega has a strong presence. In the same way, although she will not reform the citizenship law to naturalise the 1.5 million young people who were born or educated in Italy without ever having obtained citizenship, she will not expel the 5 million immigrants who live in the country.

You mean she is more pragmatic than fascist?

She’s cunning, she’s clever, she knows how to manoeuvre. For example, she is against homosexuality and abortion on principle and belief. But, as she said, she does not propose to abolish the right to abortion. She knows very well that in the event of a referendum on this, she would lose. Meloni can be very conservative on moral issues – on marriage, on the place of women in society, she can apologise to her family right after the election for not being present at home – but also defend women’s rights when they are threatened by Islamic obscurantism. This is the typical demagogy of these extreme and post-fascist right-wingers.

Do you think that Italians voted for her out of support for her ideas or out of a desire for change?

Even if she got 26% of the vote, it doesn’t mean that a quarter of Italians are post-fascist. Fratelli d’Italia’s rise is indisputable and striking, but it does not mean that the party is hegemonic in Italian society and culture. The abstention rate is very high and the landscape is more complex. For example, last Friday, young people demonstrated for the climate as part of Fridays for Future, mobilising in 70 Italian cities a number of people far greater than that mobilised by any party during the election campaign.

Giorgia Meloni got this score because she was the only politician who did not support the Draghi government. She was able to channel an opposition vote in a similar way to how the Five-Star Movement capitalised on a tide of discontent in the 2018 elections. The real change is that it no longer bothers many people to vote for a post-fascist party.

What happened that it doesn’t bother anyone anymore?

A lock has been broken. The anti-fascist safeguards have eroded. Not only because the post-fascists were able to destroy them, but because all the political forces that claimed to be anti-fascist abandoned this discourse. Luciano Violante, former president of the Chamber of Deputies and a member of the centre-left Democratic Party, for example, paid tribute to the ‘guys’ of Salò, the fascist militiamen of the ‘Italian Social Republic’ (1943-45), with the argument that they were young idealists ready to sacrifice themselves for the fatherland in the same way as the anti-fascists, that Italians should reconcile, that the fascist/anti-fascist divide was outdated, etc. Who broke this anti-fascist lock? Above all, it was the centre-left. And the surveys carried out during this campaign reveal deep trends at work in society: the Democratic Party gets the most votes in the most affluent layers of the population, while the right scores best among the working classes. This phenomenon is also observed in France. We should start from this terrible observation if we want to try to change the situation.

Translated by David Fernbach

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