Myths about Fascism debunked
Updated: Mar 28
Friday night we went to ANPI through a tiny green metal door. Inside: lime yellow tiles, red fabric lights and salmon plastic sofas. NO alle navi, NO al Nazismo, NO al Fascismo. Two snooker tables, glass steins and pink side-room. One wall: Archive of the Resistance, the other: video tapes of flying pigs. Dance floor. Piano, man playing recorder through his nose 'for hygienic reasons': Celine Dion Titanic theme tune.
ANPI stands for Associazione Nazionali Partigiani Italiani, the political resistance force which formed after Italy's Fascist dictator Mussolini was made to resign (1943) and became "prime minister" of a new Social Republic. This new state was created within Northern Italy and was occupied and defended by Nazi troops until 1945. During those two years the ANPI fought alongside a mixture of armed forces to liberate Italy as a whole from authoritarianism and fascist power in a civil war which continued until Mussolini was executed and strung up in Milan. Meanwhile Germany adopted a scorched earth policy by bombing strategic points like Naples to the ground. Neapolitans fought off the Nazis in Guerilla warfare from inside their ancient aqueduct.
In Ispra the ANPI is now a cultural centre which upholds 'the values of the Resistance' and aims to 'remember and above all valorise its memory'. They do this through events celebrating the past, by retelling true stories, as well as raising awareness of present economic injustices, police brutality and contesting anti-rave actions, for example.
The remembering of fascism is an important subject for scholars studying the ways in which this past is perceived in Italy. Studies of memory argue that our understanding of the past is mutable and manipulated by processes of retelling, from references made in speeches to history writing and the destruction of material heritage during cultural shifts, for example. Often in the process of remembering we understand the past through the lens of the present and recast its image in ways which are more palatable and less painful. Paul Corner describes this as 'engineered amnesia'.
As Corner problematises, the Fascist past is increasingly given 'silver linings'. The image of brutal dictators is 'improving'. 75% of Russians now view Stalin - responsible for the death of 9 million people through mass murder, ethnic cleansing, forced labor, and famine - as 'the Greatest time'. You can buy Stalin and Putin mugs.
The problem is present and future. Our understanding of the Fascist past is altered and becomes 'a new version': 'our memory', which can go on to leverage political scenarios.
What follows: 5 myths about what is 'good' about Fascism, and why they are wrong, because the present political climate, within which it is advantageous and easier to think of totalitarianism in positive ways, is using and abusing the past to make right-wing futures conceivable and aspirational.
5 myths about the 'good' in Fascism and how to contest them because
otherwise we are in trouble.
1. Authoritarian rule is good for infrastructure.
I have had conversations with people who claim that "It is undeniable that centralised rule was good for Italian infrastructure." Italy before Mussolini was marshes and donkeys; it became a land of aqueducts, radio and trains which ran on time. This is often expressed, "QUANDO C'ERA LUI": When he was here, the trains ran on time.
Of course an economy gearing up for war to transport troops, colonise and kill millions of people will build roads and train tracks. These are the necessary infrastructures for a new nation preparing for conflict and seeking to be recognised as a modern colonial power. Tracks and bridges will be built between strategic cultural and economic points to symbolise modernity. Timetables will give the impression of order imposed over chaotic territories.
Tracks were made possible through the exploitation of cheap labour. These infrastructures and timetables indicate neither efficacy nor access. New high speed infrastructures, the direttissimi, favoured business and tourism whilst sidelining local mobility requirements and expropriating workers from their own homes. The same tracks were able to provide for only 1/4 of Italian needs when it became necessary to bring coal by land. And quite obviously all trains ran on time if the records say they did. After the Law for Public Security (1931) even saying a train was late was an 'antifascist act'.
Rail strikes and poor maintenance today are symptoms of public spending cuts and an economic system which devalues workers and public infrastructure whilst privileging technology heavy megaprojects and providing tax breaks for other types of transport which are profitable. The problems with our infrastructure and its governance provides a context for the belief that under right-wing regimes 'trains ran on time'.
2. Employment and jobs. Or, Fascism was 'good for Italy' because 'it created jobs for the farmers and the women and lifted them out of poverty'.
My grandpa Luigi Alzetta (left, no shoes), Gianni and Nicolino. Grizzo, Italy, 1940. Family of 6 brothers
Last week I had a conversation with somebody who was taught that Italians benefited from job creation and agricultural production under Fascism.
You can definitely create a 'job' if you seize somebody's land and pay them a small wage to produce food on it, mostly for you. Agricultural production starts looking great if you exploit the labour of landless workers in competition with one another and behead their union leaders. Support reaches record heights when the choice is between fascism and starvation because party membership determines your work permit. Employment figures are also nice, even if wages in 1938 are 20% lower in real terms than in 1923, working hours are up, food is scarce, mortality rates are high, and there is no coffee.
My grandma (far right), with her grandma Rosina, brother, pig, kitten and hay. Montereale Valcellina, 1941.
This photo was sent to Rosina's son, who was fighting in the war. The pig and hay signify food and that the family was okay. She writes, "adesso ti aspetiamo tu che verai atrovarmi". We are waiting for you to come and visit. Rosina's husband Grazioso was killed in the war, 1915, when she was 29.
Female employment did increase after the first world war. Much of that labour was mobilised towards agricultural production where women worked ten hours a day in the rice fields to support agricultural autarchy and did not have time to read or lobby for their working rights, in The League for the Promotion of Female Interests, for example.
Simultaneously, from 1925 to 1938 the Fascist regime introduced pronatalist campaigns. In a political context fearing declining economic productivity, women were a social priority because they could perform reproductive labour. Therefore welfare and tax breaks were established for the working class if they adopted the nuclear family model, and women were pushed out of education and work. In 1923 university fees for women were raised to double those of men. Girls were prevented from studying history or philosophy at school. By 1938 the proportion of women in the private and public sector workforce was capped at 10%. Those with waged jobs earnt a fraction of the male wage.
Meanwhile abortion and contraception were banned as 'crimes against the race' (1930). If a woman was raped and agreed to marry her violator in a 'marriage of reparations', the crime would be annulled. Medals were publicly awarded to women with more than five children. In 1937 marriage and number of children became criteria for job selection and academic careers.
Unmarried and childless women were educated with propaganda films like Alle Madri D'Italia (1935), which covered "Taylorist breast feeding": the scientific management of their reproductive work according to economic theories of "national efficiency". A woman was to weigh her baby before and after feeding to determine exactly how much milk was being consumed (doppia pesata), and to feed at rational regular times (orario). As Diana Garvin has written, the regime "expanded the traditional definition of the factory to include women's biological labour".
Women are angels or demons, born to take care of the household, bear children, and to make cuckolds. Benito Mussolini
The seeing of fascism as a ‘golden age’ for female empowerment is a symptom of Italy's ongoing machismo, writes Mirella Serri. Giorgia Meloni's own conceptualisations of women and their productive role within an ageing national demographic exemplifies this reality. Meloni describes herself as a "right-wing woman who proudly supports women's issues." She is however a homophobe against feminism, same sex marriage, abortion and has used instances of rape to justify her anti-migrant policies. Giorgia Meloni casts feminism as an ideological tool attacking the portion of society upholding the 'true values' of the 'Italian' and 'the woman'. Meloni: be white, have babies, be a Christian. This is, as Sara Farris has described, 'femonationalism'.
I saw it in a forest in Ispra, on the "Day of the Woman" recently. Conscious or unconscious?
3. Mussolini was not as bad as Hitler. Italian fascism was 'the milder version'.
Hitler: bad bad man. Mussolini made the 'small mistake' of seeking alliance with Hitler. Then everything went wrong dopo il 36. Hitler: the Holocaust. "Mussolini did not murder anyone. Mussolini sent people into confinement to have vacations.” (Silvio Berlusconi).
Mussolini was the first totalitarian dictator and responsible for the deaths of millions of people via a regime which naturalised brutal public violence and the occupation and colonisation of Ethiopia, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as interventions in Greece and the Spanish Civil War. His decision to forge direct alliance with Hitler was totally in line with his foreign policy and cannot be deemed a 'turning point'. His decision to 'look the other way' as the Blackshirts publicly beat and killed citizens in the streets does not exempt him from responsibility, rather it represents a calculated move to style himself as a legitimate ruler. Defining exile without trial to a remote location for five years as 'vacation camp' is a stretch. The Holocaust is not the benchmark for how 'bad' anti-Semitism can be; "Auschwitz is not the inescapable albeit extreme outcome of any form of anti-Semitism", as Liliana Picciotto has written.
Italy had its own state-sponsored anti-semitism, a Department for Demography and Race, which systematically implemented anti-Semitic policies; it had its own anti-semitic laws, bureaucratic structures, its own publication, Difesa della Razza (Defence of the Race), which foregrounded the whiteness of classical statues as an ideal in contrast to the barbarism of impure bodies. Italian racism predated Hitler; it is visible in attitudes to the Veneto and the "Slavic threat" in Trieste at the time of the first world war. Later, 1940-1942 Italian forces also conducted brutal exterminations in former Yugoslavia. One third of the population of Montenegro was sent to Italian concentration camps. After 1943, Italian Jews were also subject to German extermination policies: discovery meant deportation to death camps.
"If necessary don't shy away from using cruelty. It must be a complete cleansing. We need to intern all the inhabitants and put Italian families in their place." General Mario Rotta, Italian invasion of Yugoslavia, 1942
Mussolini was 'not milder than Hitler', he ran his own Fascist regime.
4. Mussolini beat the mafia. "Everyone in Italy knows about it: if there is a good thing done by Fascism, it's to blow up the mafia". "He made the streets safe. A person could go out at night".
Mussolini toured Sicily to wage war on the mafia in 1924, the same year as the 'elections'. He promised to liberate Sicily from cattle robbery, extortion and an oppression exerted by criminals. His prefect Cesare Mori captured thousands of mafiosi as part of a broader and effective crack down on all organisations operating outside of state control.
"Sicily is Fascist to the bone marrow"
Mussolini declared victory on the mafia in 1927. But in the 1930s the mafia rose again. Having been so optimistic it was difficult to admit failure. A silent and ineffective war was waged. With the fall of Fascism the mafia took hold again, in no small part because the British liberation of the island also freed Italian mafiosi from prison as if they were 'victims' of Fascism.
Italians, mafiosi, and/or fascists?
In part the resurgence of the mafia occurred because Mussolini did not introduce a genuine program of social and economic reform in Sicily, where government neglect - infrastructure, health, malaria, education - had created a situation within which the mafia was possible. Only one aqueduct was constructed in Sicily. 400 were constructed across Italy as a whole. Meanwhile, Mussolini was busy colonising Africa and turning Sicily into a militarised island in case of Allied invasion.
Replacing one brutal and violent form of criminality and surveillance with another does not 'make the streets safe' because authoritarian control over public space and behaviour does not equal justice, especially when justice is executed by force, terror, blackmail and without punishment. But the replacement of the mafia with fascist troops is often remembered as a victory for law and order.
"Blowing up" a Pizza restaurant closed in 2019 when bombed by Camorra, Naples.
5. Italians were never Fascist really. They are good people (brava gente)
In contrast to Germany, in Italy it is asked whether Italians were ever really fascist at all. The resistance is upheld as being "the real Italy" and the proof that nobody really was ‘fascist’ at heart. Italians were "Italians" not "fascists" - two distinct identities.
My grandma was a fascist and not a fascist. She remembered attending fascist gymnastics, the black and white uniform, and opportunities to do sport as a member of the Fascist Youth (Balilla, mandatory).
The Fascist youth, made to swear oath of allegiance to the Duce, were increasingly militarised during the regime. In the photo above girls stand in front of a section of Mussolini's speech given to his Blackshirts, the violent party militia, in 1933: "Young troops rise up strong in spirit and muscles, with our certainty in their hearts and ready to be called to any sacrifice."
I found, in an archive, a song sheet for the official anthem "Girls of Italy" sung by "Piccole Italiane": an organisation with compulsory attendance for all girls aged 8-14. My grandma would have sung this song.
Bimbe D'Italia, Giuseppe Blanc.
We are the dawn of gold
We grow in the air and sun
We are the girls of Italy
Desiring to make Italy even greater!
Our little hearts
Small but burning with love
Like little flying birds
Pray to god, “Save the Duce’s honour!”
We will grow up good (buone)
Strong and sweet together
Bestow upon us the Littorio (Fascist symbol)
So that its light may spread through the whole world.
And make it so, women
That we can become sisters
Ready for your fight, Duce, yes
For Italy and the king
Beautiful Italy, our homeland
Shout the girls, we love you
And we will give you
The flower of our youth!
For you, our homes (hearths, the stove)
Nests of peace, joy
We will work over [the stove] with faith and love
In the honour of eternal Rome!
My grandma did not remember her lessons celebrating Mussolini, nationalism, colonialism and racism, which she must have studied because after 1923 the regime "demands that the school at all levels and in all its instruction train the Italian youth to understand Fascism (Gentile, 1923)".
She did remember how she was made to carry munitions up the mountains for the Nazis on her donkey when she was 10. Meanwhile her family hid Italian partisans in the hayloft and helped stranded British airpilots.
Were the Italians fascist? Yes and no. Identity and consensus are complicated. My grandma cared more about the Madonna than Fascism - but these were not separable things. And it is very hard to gauge consensus when it becomes obligatory to turn up at rallies celebrating fascism.
ANPI recently scored a victory over a right-wing politics of the past. They appeared in the newspapers on Thursday criticising Meloni. She had spoken at an ANPI event - 24th March 2023 commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the 'Massacre of the Fosse Ardeatine' - when German troops occupying Rome ordered 10 Italian civilians be executed for every 1 German soldier killed by a partisan offensive.
335 citizens were killed in total. Meloni described how they were "barbarously killed by the Nazi occupying troops".
Meloni: "Uccisi perchè italiani"
"They were killed for being Italian" Anpi: "No, perchè antifascisti"
"No, because they were antifascist"
ANPI made this distinction because the civilians executed were a mixture of Jews, political opponents, resistance fighters and antifascists. By remembering these citizens as 'Italians' killed by Germans, Meloni was using the event to further her nationalist cause - because events remembering "deaths to liberate Italy" are opportunities to boost your own characterisation of Italy as something which needs 'protecting' from invading forces and bodies.
ANPI specified therefore, that the list of civilians 'barbarously killed' was drawn up by Italians, "Pietro Caruso, Guido Buffarini Guidi and Pietro Koch, all fascists", who cracked down upon political opposition. Retaining this element of the memory of the event - that some Italians were Fascists - prevents the minister from aligning herself with the Resistance to fascism and 'coopting' its message.
In the ANPI Ispra, the next night, a man is performing resistance by playing the recorder through his nose to Celine Dion to an all Neapolitan fan crowd next to an archive of anti-fascism, a dance floor, bar and video collection including "Andy, Jarod Nico and Griff in another Gay Box Set".
It is important not to romanticise the Resistance either. See Varriale, Andrea. “The Myth of the Italian Resistance Movement (1943–1945): The Case of Naples.” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 27, no. 2 (2014): 383–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24329837.
Numerous studies have sought to show that the trains did not run on time. There are good parodies of this idea in Italian culture, often titled "When he was here" (Quando c'era lui). See, for example: https://oblivion.fandom.com/it/wiki/Quando_c%27era_lui
Agricultural labourers did live in deep poverty. There was competition for work and wages were kept low. Unions were formed and strikes occurred, not without violence but within 'within the logic of contractual conflict' (Corner, 2022, 31). From 1919 - 1920 Socialist and agricultural unions drove up wages for workers which threatened landowners, who in the elections of 1920 responded by financing the fasci - groups of nationalists who used extreme violence to control and execute agricultural opposition. Industrial and agricultural workers who did not enrol in fascist syndicates would be left jobless and unemployable. July 1921 - October 1921 real wages fell 21% due to the Fascist takeover and were cut several times over the following decade due to inflation and the revaluation of the lira. Corner records that by 1938 industrial workers were earning 20% less in real terms than 1923.
Paul Corner gives an excellent discussion of these dynamics in his Mussolini in Myth and Memory. 2022. pp. 31-34, from which I have drawn these arguments. See also Corner, P. 'L'economia Italiana fra le due guerre', G. Sabattucci and V. Vidotto (eds), Storia d'Italia, vol. 4, Guerre e Fascismo, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 1997.
For Women, see Perry R. Willson, The Clockwork Factory: Women and Work in Fascist Italy (1994), and
Garvin, Diana. “Taylorist Breastfeeding in Rationalist Clinics: Constructing Industrial Motherhood in Fascist Italy.” Critical Inquiry 41, no. 3 (2015): 655–74. https://doi.org/10.1086/680196.
See also the work of Silvia Binenti who discusses the politics of Salvini's tshirts, and how Meloni has gradually transitioned from black shades to white pastel as if to reflect hope, rebirth and her role as the pure Christian mother of Italy. Binenti, “Mundane objects of popular geopolitics: an ethnography of activist t-shirts”.
Ben-Ghiat, R. (23 September 2022). "The Return of Fascism in Italy". The Atlantic.
Italy adopted the same policies as Nazi Germany in 1942-3. A document exists detailing how in October 1943 the chief of German police in Rome gave the order to "capture all Jews in a lightning operation and to dispatch them all to Germany.". He specified that Roman Jews should go to Germany, not Poland - and that this 'lightning strike' would not work in Naples. Naples was 'the intended setting for the first anti-Jewish operation'.
See Picciotti in Zimmerman, J. D., & Press, C. U. (2005). Jews in Italy Under Fascist and Nazi Rule, 1922-1945. Cambridge University Press. https://books.google.it/books?id=8WGZ0MWIgUwC, esp. pages 209 ff.
See Hametz, M. (2001). The carabinieri stood by: The Italian state and the “slavic threat” in Trieste, 1919‐1922. Nationalities Papers, 29(4), 559–574. https://doi.org/10.1080/00905990120102093
Ben Ghiat, R. 'A lesser evil? Italian Fascism in/and the totalitarian equation', in H. Dubiel and G. Motzkin (eds), The Lesser Evil. Moral Approaches to Genocide Practices, New York, Routledge, 2004.
For internment, see also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tBRABx_2mU
Organised crime predated Fascism. It had posed a succession of Italian governments problems pre/post unification (1860).
LUCONI, STEFANO. “Italian Americans and the Invasion of Sicily in World War II.” Italian Americana 25, no. 1 (2007): 5–22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41330565.
Reece, Jack E. “Fascism, the Mafia, and the Emergence of Sicilian Separatism (1919-43).” The Journal of Modern History 45, no. 2 (1973): 261–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1875676.
The term mafia does not apply to organised crime in Naples, where the Camorra is active.
The quote regarding street safety is taken from a newspaper seller in Reece, (1973) 269.