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.