The controversy which has engulfed Paolo Di Canio, the new Sunderland manager, has taken many Italians by surprise. In extreme cases, some have even attempted to turn the accusation of ‘intolerance’ on to his critics. His views are his private concern, they argue. Others wonder why it has taken the British so long to work him out. After all, his views on fascism have been clear for a while, he wears a Mussolini tattoo and has given the Roman salute at games: why all the fuss now? In reality, the Di Canio episode is part of a wider history battle central to the Berlusconi era, in which the notion of a ‘good’ fascism – in contrast with ‘bad’ fascism – has been allowed to regain credibility.
Silvio Berlusconi has dominated Italian politics for the past 20 years. Even when he was not in office, many accepted that he was still in ‘power’. We know much about his wealth, his TV ownership, alleged Mafia connections and uncanny longevity which extends to the current political impasse. However, a crucial factor in his rise was his ability to construct unusual alliances. It was his agreement with the initially ‘neo-fascist’ National Alliance, effectively the inheritor of Mussolini’s blackshirts, which helped get him elected in the first place. This party, led by Gianfranco Fini, his long-time political ally, subsequently evolved into a ‘post-fascist’ organisation which sought – though never ultimately realised – acceptance by the European conservative mainstream.
This was not, however, merely about one political party moving from the margins to the mainstream. Indeed Fini himself eventually split and ended up in the small Monti coalition which failed so spectacularly in the recent election, while the bulk of his former post-fascist allies have been absorbed into Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. Rather, the Berlusconi era represented a significant shift away from the anti-fascist consensus of post-war Italy, in a political culture that had long been dominated by Christian Democrats (DC) and Communists (PCI): namely, the parties which owed much of their mass support to anti-fascism. They were, after all, co-authors of the post-war democratic constitution, even if the DC became entrenched as the party of power. The Tangentopoli ‘Bribesville’ corruption scandal and the fall of the Berlin Wall in their different ways effectively created a vacuum which, as we know, was filled by Berlusconi. De-legitimising the anti-fascist consensus was always a core part of the Berlusconi agenda.
Though the PCI has now metamorphosed into the ideologically ambiguous Democratic Party, the Italian left still draws on its proud role in the resistance movement. This is evident in the annual Liberation Day celebrations on 25 April, and in many Italian cities, notably in the traditionally ‘red’ regions of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria. Little surprise, then, that 25 April has moved from being a day of national celebration to a politically contested event where Berlusconi and his supporters have frequently sought to challenge the tenets of the post-war Italian constitution.
Even Bologna, the stronghold of the PCI and its successors, was not immune from this revisionism, as I found when writing about nearby Monte Sole, a former mountain community in the district of Marzabotto, and the scene of the worst Nazi atrocity in Italy during the Second World War, in which 955 Italians (including women and children) were killed by the SS, with the cooperation of Italian fascists. In order to preserve the memory of what took place there between 29 September and 1 October 1944, a ‘Foundation School for Peace’ was established. In 2003, during the first and only non-left administration elected in Bologna since the war, and to the consternations of victims’ families and ordinary citizens, the City Council delegated as its representative on the school body Enzo Raisi, a member of the National Alliance. Raisi told me in an interview that there was no evidence to show that Italian fascists were involved in the atrocity, that the victims’ families had been manipulated by the left and that ‘anti-fascism was in the business for votes’. There are many other examples in Italy of the history of fascism being rewritten, normally by a populist and authoritarian movement that is habitually xenophobic on immigration and that bizarrely still attracts the label of ‘centre-right’.
Their arguments are often not explicitly pro-Mussolini, or normally as nostalgic, for example, as the the arch-revisionist British historian Nicholas Farrell, resident of Mussolini’s former hometown of Predappio. (It was Farrell, along with the Spectator’s then editor, Boris Johnson, who in 2003 extracted from Berlusconi the claim that ‘Mussolini didn’t kill anyone’). Normally they either suggest that fascists and communists were as bad as each other – thereby conveniently removing the role of the Communist Party in the reconstruction of post-war Italy – or that Mussolini, that ‘complex figure’, was led astray by Hitler. Fascism until 1935, or 1938, or some other date, was fairly benign, it is argued, and certainly ‘not racist’. He was much ‘misunderstood’, as Di Canio and others reiterate. Even Roberta Lombardi, one of the leaders of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, has praised Italian fascism’s ‘sense of community’, respect for family and the state. The criticism of her comments came as much of a surprise to her as Di Canio’s critics did to him.
Anti-fascism in Italy, as elsewhere, did not end with the Cold War. There are thousands of Italians in rallies, conversations and personal memories who remind us that Italian fascism was a brutal regime, responsible for the murder and suppression of many political opponents, together with the transportation of Jewish people to concentration camps. Moreover, as we see on the streets of Greece and elsewhere, fascist organisations are exploiting the current economic and social crisis. For these reasons we need to learn from the history of fascism and, until we get a satisfactory answer, to keep asking Paolo Di Canio to clarify his political allegiances.