Historia magistra vitae – but not for Italy: the return of fascism after 100 years

20 October 2022 /

8 min

More than two thousand years ago, Cicero wrote his famous sentence: “Historia magistra vitae” – history is a teacher of life, to emphasise the importance of its study in order to live consciously. In Italy, many students learn Latin for years; everyone, on the other hand, studies history since primary school: dinosaurs, the Middle Ages, Columbus’ voyages, the Unification of Italy, the First World War, etc. Subsequently comes the heavy chapter that we have to confront: the rise of Mussolini, Fascism and dictatorship in Italy, as well as the Second World War. It is an important chapter that, unfortunately, in some schools is left out, studied at the last minute without paying due attention – and the consequences can be dangerous.

A practical example is the drift to the extreme-right, increasingly radical, that Italy has taken in recent years, culminating in the 25 September elections won by Giorgia Meloni’s far-right party “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy – FdI). In the previous elections, it had obtained just 4,33%. The causes behind this growth and victory are diverse; it is not a sudden change neither in politics nor in the Italian mentality. However, this victory already has major effects happening fast: 100 years after the March on Rome, which allowed Mussolini to take power, the highest State Offices of the Italian Republic are once again held by – more or less openly declared – fascist personalities.

Elections: a head-to-head between the far right and abstentionism

The results were not unexpected. Ever since the first polls for this early election – due to the fall of the Draghi government – Fratelli d’Italia, led by Meloni, always appeared to be in the lead; the only “surprise” comes from the vote percentages. This was partly the case. The winner is the “centre-right” coalition – as it is called in Italy, although it is rather a right-wing coalition. This result is mainly due to FdI leading the entire coalition, taking more votes than Lega (8,8%) and Forza Italia (8,2%) combined. Compared to previous elections, a big fall was suffered by Matteo Salvini’s party; in fact, Lega practically lost half of its votes, which had reached 17,36% in 2018.

The big loser, however, is Enrico Letta’s Partito Democratico (Democratic Party, PD), which had the – unachieved – target of at least 20%. Although it is still the second party with the highest votes, this election marked an internal crisis in the party. The PD has in various ways sinned in consistency between its visions and proposals and its concrete actions undertaken during the election campaign. Right from the start, problems arose regarding alliances; firstly, one was envisaged with the leader of the centre party Azione (Action), Carlo Calenda; he has, however, veered towards Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva, forming then the so-called “Terzo Polo” (Third Pole). A third pole that, in reality, already existed given the 5 Star Movement’s exclusion – more or less of its own decision – from both right and left coalitions. The problems continued, also, when the nominative lists were presented. The PD is a progressive party, which supports categories such as young people and women. However, it is one of the parties with the highest average ages (52 years old, like Fratelli d’Italia) and with one of the lowest percentages of women elected (31%, once again same as Fratelli d’Italia). This continuous inconsistency between visions and actions, a campaign developed more against the “enemy” than in favour of oneself, and a growing discontent and distrust towards political institutions have favoured the one who has always remained true to her visions and played an excellent role in the opposition for years, namely Giorgia Meloni.

Nevertheless, the real and big winner of this election was abstentionism: Fratelli d’Italia got 26% of the vote, the entire right-wing coalition 44%, winning the lead. But is Italy really represented by these numbers? Perhaps not. In fact, the percentage of people who turned up to the polls is the lowest in the history of the Italian Republic: only 63,8% of those entitled to vote went to the polls. Almost 40% of the electorate did not vote. This is certainly a worrying result, because it not only demonstrates a marked lack of interest in and distrust of institutions but also shows how all parties have failed to provide representation for a large section of the Italian population.

However, this figure should also be read bearing in mind the long-lasting problem of voting for “fuorisede” students – people who study in a city other than their residence. In Italy, there is no law that allows them to vote by post or by delegation: they have to return to their city of residence. This obviously requires economic resources and time, which not everyone has. This year, an estimated five million people (around 10% of the electorate) encountered difficulties or impossibility to vote, seeing their right (and duty) restricted by out-dated laws. For example, since this year, people temporarily abroad (e.g. Erasmus students) have been able to vote by mail – a modality not considered for those simply living in another city within the national borders. Interesting figures show that the highest abstention rates occurred in regions where there are larger numbers of people who moved for study reasons. Therefore, it is true that an undoubtedly large proportion of people voluntarily chose not to vote – either out of mistrust, feeling of non-representation or as a gesture of protest; though, we certainly cannot forget the wide part who, even willingly, could not exercise their right to take part in this fundamental choice for the country.

The first steps of the far-right: the new Presidents of the Chamber and Senate

The victory of Fratelli d’Italia gave the party and the right-wing coalition a wide scope to elect the most important State Offices. While the ministers and in particular, the Prime Minister are still being discussed among the right-wing coalition before appointment, both the President of the Chamber of Deputies and the one of the Senate have already been elected.

On 13 October 2022, the election of the Senate’s President was held. The sitting was opened by a brilliant and touching speech by Senator for Life, Liliana Segre – survivor of Auschwitz and a tireless witness to the darkest years of Italian and European history. Shortly afterwards, it was time for voting, which found a winner in the first round: Ignazio Benito Maria La Russa (Fratelli d’Italia). If his middle name sounds familiar, his political ideology also does not differ much from that of his namesake.

A few days before the elections, during a TV discussion with a political opponent, La Russa claimed that “we are all heirs of the Duce” (Mussolini); this was his answer when asked if he, along with Meloni, would ever disown the father of their movement – referring precisely to Mussolini. Even long before his election to the second most important office of Italy, he had already caused controversy several times. One example was his famous “proposal” at the beginning of the pandemic to avoid handshake for hygienic reasons, preferring instead the fascist salute. In 2017, during the discussion on the law on apology for Fascism, La Russa criticised this proposal and performed the fascist salute in disapproval. Moreover, he has often shown dissent towards same-sex couples, also often expressing strong homophobic, discriminatory and misogynistic comments.

The new President of the Chamber of Deputies, Lorenzo Fontana (Lega), does not seem of too different views. During the vote, some PD deputies – including Alessandro Zan, editor of the bill against homophobia that failed to pass last year – displayed a large banner reading “No to a pro-Putin homophobic president”, referring precisely to Fontana. Indeed, his extreme positions on several issues are well known. In 2018, shortly after his election as Minister for Family and Disabilities he claimed that gay families “do not exist; now more children and fewer abortions”.When speaking about same-sex civil unions he also stated how the “natural family is under attack”. Additionally, since entering politics, he has always held very conservative positions on family and civil rights: he helds strongly anti-abortion, anti-migrants and ultra-Catholic visions. Finally, he has often praised Putin’s Russia as a model to follow, opposing sanctions against the country since 2014 (upon the annexation of Crimea) up to the present days.

Europe – and not only – is already worried

The results of the 2022 elections have already created great debate at national and European level. Concerns about this drift towards the far right come from many European representatives. The most heated debate is certainly within the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), of which Forza Italia is a member. Its leader, Berlusconi, and the party are accused of favouring the far right: a group of German Members of the European Parliament has even written to Manfred Weber (EPP President) to demand the expulsion of the Italian party if Berlusconi does not give up his support for Meloni.

Concerns are also very much alive in Italy; especially for all those people who might be discriminated against by the ultra-conservative policies that might be developed in the near future.. These concerns were already echoed in the words of Liliana Segre, who opened the Senate session by stating: “In this month of October in which falls the centenary of the March on Rome, which initiated the fascist dictatorship, it falls to someone like me to temporarily assume the presidency of this temple of democracy that is the Senate of the Republic. And the symbolic value of this fortuitous circumstance is amplified in my mind because, you see, in my days school began in October; and it is impossible for me not to feel a sort of vertigo remembering that the same little girl who on a day like this in 1938, sad and lost, was forced by racist laws to leave her primary schools desk empty, now finds herself by a strange fate on the most prestigious desk in the Senate.”

Whether the teachings of Cicero, two thousand years ago, and Liliana Segre, a few days ago, on the importance of memory and the teaching of history will really be learnt we will only know with time. So far, it does not seem that Italy has done justice to either of them.

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