May 26, 2019 05:19:47
Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini is the namesake for two of the Italian peninsula’s most famous rulers.
- The great-grandson of Benito Mussolini is set to run for office in EU elections
- Surge in far-right popularity as politicians use Mussolini to court far-right votes
- Italy has become a vanguard for political experimentation
One is the ancient Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, the other is fascism’s ideological architect.
While laying no claim to Caesar’s lineage, he is the great-grandson of Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy as a brutal dictator from 1925 until he was killed by partisans in the final days of World War II.
Today, Caio Mussolini is jostling for a seat in the European Parliament as a member of the far-right Brothers of Italy party.
He describes himself as “a post-fascist who refers to those values in a non-ideological way” and he’s asking Italians to “look forward”.
But in Italy, politics is imbued with history — was Caio Mussolini chosen to run for office because of his name, or in spite of it?
Benito Mussolini still looms large in Italian life — two of his granddaughters are already politicians.
Alessandra Mussolini is a prominent member of Parliament and her half-sister Rachele is a Rome councillor.
But now arguably the nation’s most powerful politician, the charismatic Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, is helping resurrect Mussolini’s image and ideology to court far-right voters.
Although Italian fascism inspired Adolf Hitler’s own violent brand of nationalism, and despite Italy’s disastrous entry into World War II, Mussolini’s legacy is polarising.
To an outsider that may be surprising, but for many Italians, Mussolini and fascism are not just palatable — experts say they’re fast becoming “fashionable”.
How then does a nation once left in complete ruin by a fascist dictatorship now find itself a vanguard for far-right populism in Western Europe?
Italy never had a ‘denazification’ of public life
Everywhere you look in Italy, you’re confronted by history.
Roman amphitheatres sit alongside renaissance cathedrals, medieval castles dot the countryside.
But no piece of history stands as jarring as the thousands of fascist-era buildings and monuments scattered across the peninsula, many still adorned with fascist insignia.
While the end of Nazism in Germany brought with it a process of vigorous self-examination, Italy never underwent a period of post-war introspection.
Tobias Jones is an Italy-based journalist and author of The Dark Heart of Italy, a book about the nation’s far-right politics.
“Italy never had, like Nazi Germany, a ‘denazification’ of public life,” he said.
“Instead of a process of education and reflection, everything was really swept under the carpet for 50 years.”
Barely a year after the war ended in 1946, Mussolini’s supporters skirted around anti-fascist laws and formed a new far-right party, the Italian Social Movement.
While it no longer exists, Caio Mussolini’s party, the Brothers of Italy, is its heir.
“Italians have a narrative whereby they say ‘Mussolini did lots of good things’,” Mr Jones said.
“They say ‘Hitler was the baddy, our chap was good’.”
Mussolini originally resisted Hitler’s anti-Semitism, labelling it a “German vice” — but eventually he acquiesced to the Nazis’ demand to hand over Italy’s Jews.
He also enforced a regime of terror and violence against political opponents over his two-decade rule.
“Italians forget they had 20 years of brutal dictatorship,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, told the ABC.
“Ignorance is helpful to the right … [Mussolini] promised Italians modernity but instead they lived in caves because of bombs. People don’t remember that.”
‘Salvini and Mussolini have much in common’
Anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic parties are riding a wave of anti-liberal sentiment across Europe and could hold as many as 35 per cent of seats in the EU’s Parliament after today.
At the helm of Europe’s lurch to the right is Italy’s energetic, social media savvy Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, known to his followers as ‘the Captain’.
Mr Salvini markets himself as the antidote to Europe’s failed liberalism and is now the most powerful exponent of far-right populism on the continent.
In the space of only a couple of years, his Northern League Party has transformed from a northern secessionist party into an anti-immigrant, pan-European nationalist movement.
And while far from outright extolling the virtues of fascism, his seductive brand of far-right politics is tapping into Italy’s rich vein of Mussolini nostalgia.
“Salvini is very good at winking at hardcore fascists. He’ll put Mussolini slogans on Twitter and Facebook, he’ll wear clothing that’s identified with the far right,” Mr Jones said.
When earlier this month Mr Salvini addressed a crowd from a balcony where Mussolini once stood and watched the execution of four partisans in 1944, the symbolism was glaring.
“Salvini has been able to channel Mussolini and they have much in common,” Dr Ben-Ghiat said.
“[He] uses social media like Mussolini did newsreels, he builds emotional bonds at rallies … he neutralises his enemies through humour.”
‘There’s almost a sort of fascist hipster now’
For Mr Salvini and his reformed separatist party, Italy has no greater enemy than illegal immigration.
Europe’s 2015 migration crisis and Italy’s position as a key entry point have fuelled a wave of xenophobic angst only worsened by Mr Salvini’s anti-migrant rhetoric.
“The constant through Salvini’s political life has been finding scapegoats — where it used to be the poorer south, now it’s immigrants; where it used to be Rome, it’s now Brussels,” Mr Jones said.
Italy’s plethora of neo-fascist groups have been emboldened by Mr Salvini’s platform of ‘Italy for Italians’, a mantra with echoes of Mussolini’s nationalism.
So pervasive and normalised has fascist symbolism in Italy become, Mr Jones even suggests “it’s become very fashionable”.
“If you want to be radical, unorthodox, there’s almost sort of a hipster fascist now.”
“It’s not just political, it’s cultural … they have clothing lines, barbers, tattoo shops, parachute clubs, football clubs — there’s a whole sort of movement to it.”
‘Silvio Berlusconi brought fascism to power’
As a slew of far-right parties anticipate strong gains in the EU’s parliamentary elections, Europe’s centrist parties have been left wondering where it all went wrong.
Some point to Italy’s political crises of the 1990s as the genesis for the resurgence of European neo-fascism.
Prior to 1994, fascism had remained largely dormant in Italy as a political force.
But in the early 90s, political paralysis, endemic corruption and economic stagnation gave rise to a new force in Italian politics that still reverberates today.
Media magnate and three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party emerged from the chaos to dominate Italian politics for the next two decades.
Mr Berlusconi formed a coalition that included far-right parties, paving the way for their revival in mainstream politics.
“Silvio Berlusconi is so important for the contemporary right all over Europe — he brought neo-fascism to power. Importantly, he broke a taboo of shunning fascism in mainstream politics,” Dr Ben-Ghiat said.
“I was living in Italy in 1994 as a student, I saw these figures on the far-right fringe soon sitting in parliament.”
‘Italy is constantly reinventing the political wheel’
It might be tempting to look at Italy as nothing more than a schismatic and dysfunctional state, but that may be naive.
New York Times columnist Roger Cohen last week described Italy as a “political laboratory” — it’s long been a pioneer in political experimentation.
Italy had Mussolini before Hitler — Mr Berlusconi’s brash, scandal-ridden tenure preceded Donald Trump’s America.
Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo formed the 5-Star political movement that now governs alongside Mr Salvini’s Northern League — all before Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won his country’s presidency.
And now, it’s pioneering European far-right populism.
As Mr Jones explains — “Italy is a country of extremes, of idealism as well as Machiavellian rule of politics”.
“That’s why it’s fascinating — it’s constantly reinventing the political wheel, for better or for worse.”
The ABC approached Mr Salvini for comment but he did not respond by publication time.