April 25 in Italy is Liberation Day, a sacred date in the secular calendar of the Italian Republic. But this April 25 will be different from all the others since the end of World War II: for the first time since then, the country has, in Giorgia Meloni, a prime minister whose party’s ideology is historically rooted in the Nazi-Fascist regime opposed to the Allies and the Italian resistance that liberated Italy.
True, Liberation Day in 1994, coming just a few weeks after Silvio Berlusconi won the election, was also something of a shock for Italians who believed that the coalition between Catholics, Socialist-Communists, and secular liberals that contributed to the liberation of Italy and governed for the half-century after 1945 had provided the country an immutable moral and political DNA. But Berlusconi did not come from fascism. He believed in the unregulated free market (albeit with special protections for his own businesses), and his government partners—including Meloni’s party, known then as Alleanza Nazionale—had to reckon with fascism. But in the end his attempt to make the Italian Right into a pro-Europe, pro-NATO, business-friendly liberal force failed. His era is coming to a close for age and health reasons; the remains of the party that he founded thirty years ago will soon be up for grabs.
Meloni’s government (a coalition between Fratelli d’Italia, which she leads, Matteo Salvini’s League, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) put on its best face in the first few months after taking power. But now it’s showing its true self, most visibly in cracking down even further on humanitarian organizations working to save the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Yet the more significant development is how the government is publicly interpreting the role of fascism in Italian history. In an interview last month, Ignazio La Russa, president of the Italian senate, spoke to one of the most controversial moments of the resistance against Nazi-Fascist occupation of Italy, the via Rasella attack of March 23, 1944. La Russa said that “those whom the partisans killed were not sinister SS Nazis, but a musical band of semi-retired people from South Tyrol (at that time half German, half Italian), knowing full well the risk of retaliation to which they exposed Roman citizens, anti-fascists and non-fascists alike.” He later issued a half-hearted apology. But his remarks had come soon after Meloni made a similarly contestable claim about the Nazis killing 335 people on March 24, 1944, at the the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome—a reprisal for the Rasella attack a day earlier—characterizing the victims as “innocent Italians slaughtered simply because they were Italian” and thus trying to nationalize the massacre while whitewashing the fact that the Nazis were in cahoots with Italian Fascists. These statements (and others by members of Fratelli d’Italia) are not just slips of the tongue or clumsy attempts to rewrite history. In misrepresenting the Nazi occupation of Italy, they are expressing views typical of those who grew up in Italy’s neo-Fascist culture, who were part of groups that did not shy away from political violence in the 1960s and ’70s, and whom Berlusconi in 1994 helped legitimize by providing them with undeserved democratic credentials. They know nothing of liberal democratic culture because they never had it.
It’s not just a matter of statements. There have also been legislative initiatives. A vice president of the House of Representatives who belongs to Meloni’s party recently introduced a bill banning the use of foreign words and calling for a nationalization of education under which high school students will focus on Italian food traditions, fashion, and art—but only for the purpose of marketing it to foreign buyers. For what it’s worth, Meloni didn’t go to college and her high-school degree is from an institute that trains students to work in the tourism industry. Anti-elitism is part of her appeal. In the meantime, more and more educated Italians are leaving the country.
Meloni is also a self-declared enemy of what she calls “gender ideology” and “the LGBT lobby” and recently further aligned herself with Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán. In April, Italy became the only founder of the European Union to side with Hungary—joining countries such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—in endorsing the Hungarian version of the law against so-called “homosexual propaganda” adopted in Russia in 2013. Meloni’s conservative majority also wants to legislate against gestational surrogacy (which is already outlawed on Italian soil but available to those who can afford to go abroad), drawing fire from critics who view the effort as mainly targeting gay couples.
As for Meloni and her allies’ preference for “traditional” families with opposite-sex parents, that generosity applies only to those who are ethnically Italian. Millions of people around the world with Italian ancestors (including my own kids) can claim Italian citizenship. But those born in Italy of non-Italian parents can’t, and the Right wants to keep it that way. It has strongly resisted proposals that would let minors born of non-Italian parents acquire citizenship if they have attended school or completed equivalent training courses there for a certain number of years. This should also be read in the context of the “demographic winter” Italy faces: according to data for 2022, for the first time since the unification of Italy in 1861, births fell below the threshold of 400,000, to 393,000. In 2011 Italy had 59 million inhabitants, and that could drop to 54 million in 2050. In 2049 the deaths could double the births. Already 8.5 million people live alone, and there could be more than 10 million in 2049. Not surprisingly, the Right’s politics of fear is an easy sell to an older, lonelier population.
On international affairs, Meloni is siding with NATO, but only because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Her support differs from the at-times conflicted, but always loyal, relationship that anti-Fascist Italy maintained with NATO from 1947 and 2022, part of a broad commitment to the international liberal order that even included Berlusconi. Meloni dismisses claims about an affinity for fascism. “I never felt sympathy or proximity to undemocratic regimes. For no regime, including fascism,” she said in a recent interview. But her brand of ethnic nationalism has far more to do with the resurgent rightist ideology of the last thirty years than with the kind that helped build Italy in the nineteenth century.
Meloni drew a distinction early on between herself and most notorious predecessor, the financier, media tycoon, and serial womanizer Berlusconi. “I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am Christian,” she proclaimed, and her party’s motto can be summed up as “God, Family, and Country.” The longstanding tendency of Italian Catholic politicians not to flaunt their religiosity and to keep their faith private helps Meloni conceal the fact that her relationship with the Church is more instrumental than personal. Visiting India in early March to help build a strategic partnership with that country, she did not appear troubled by Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu supremacism and what it means for India’s long-established Christian minorities. Her sympathy for the political and economic order in India is not a shock to those who have long known about what Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books called “Modi’s lifelong allegiance to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization that was explicitly inspired by European fascist movements and culpable in the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948.”
The Italian bishops and the Vatican are keeping an eye on Meloni, especially on immigration. But they’re wary of confronting her, given what’s on the other side of the aisle. In February, the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party, elected as its new leader thirty-seven-year-old Elly Schlein, a lesbian and former volunteer in Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns who was born in Switzerland of Italian and Jewish American parents. Schlein’s election does not represent, as she and her supporters contend, the takeover by a new generation of progressives. Rather, it was the result of moves by the old generation of political operatives in what was once the Communist and later Social-Democratic party—an attempt to gain new voters from the radical Left to help support its own aims. Schlein has nonetheless helped reshape the party and even attracted some from those outside of it as she works to rebuild a united Left, promoting an environmental- and economic-justice agenda but also putting culture-war issues at the center.
Yet the Democratic Party remains Italy’s lost democratic opposition. It can no longer count on the support of workers’ unions, which over the last thirty years have abandoned the “elitist” Left for the populist Right and are giving Meloni a pass on her Fascist roots. This lack of solid constituencies could make Schlein’s leadership short-lived, condemning the Left to further irrelevancy as it’s perceived as being out of touch with centrist-moderate voters who tend to decide elections in Italy. That women lead the two key parties coincides with the fact that Italy has become more polarized—ideologically, socially, and economically—and more divided between north and south.
This is also reshaping the political alignment of Italian Catholics. Some center- and left-wing Catholic politicians have been instrumentally co-opted by Schlein. Others are leaving the Democratic Party, but they really have nowhere to go. A decade after the conclave of 2013, there no longer are any “Pope Francis Catholics” in Italian politics. On the Right, “cultural Catholics” who use religion instrumentally and those who are part of the clerical hierarchies are united by opposition to the liberalism of the Left on family and marriage issues. The last discernible Catholic in Italian politics today is Sergio Mattarella, eighty-two years old and in his second term as president of the republic, who constantly reminds Italians of the need not to forget the crimes of Nazism and fascism. The Catholic center-left is now essentially a diaspora, a scattering of the descendants of those who made Italy a republic founded on anti-Fascist values.