Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.
By Ruth Ben-Ghiat
It's a chilling sight. At least 150 Italian men, dressed in black shirts, raise their arms in the Fascist salute in a public place in Rome. Some shout "present" as they salute, following Fascist tradition, as if Benito Mussolini were still alive and it was 1924 rather than 2024. The Fascist ritual took place during a Jan. 7 commemoration of the Acca Larentia massacre, as neo-Fascists refer to the 1978 killings of three of their militants in Rome. Left-wing militants were suspected in two of the deaths, and a police officer in the third, but no charges were ever filed.
The video of the mass Fascist salute has gone viral in Italy, provoking outrage among many Italians and debate in the Italian press about whether performing such salutes constitutes a criminal act. There is legislation on the matter: the 1952 Scelba law criminalized acts judged as intending to resurrect the Fascist Party, and the 1993 Mancini law forbade the dissemination of Fascist propaganda, the public display of Fascist flags and symbols, and the incitement of discrimination and hate. Surely Fascist salutes would be covered by this latter law?
Apparently not. Press coverage notes that judicial outcomes have been mixed. Some who hail Il Duce in this manner have been convicted, while others have paid no penalty. Some of the men on the video are known far-right extremists with multiple previous Fascist-related criminal charges against them. "The Roman Salute is a Crime Only If the Goal is a Return of Fascism. It Cannot be Prosecuted in Cases of Commemoration," concluded the Catholic newspaper Avvenire.
All of this matters because Italy, a country that has been a laboratory of right-wing politics for a century, now has a neo-Fascist Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, and what happens in Italy can set the tone for other countries with a newly empowered far right and/or right-wing dictatorships in their past. After Mussolini (creator of Fascism) and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (who broke taboos in 1994 by bringing neo-Fascists into government as part of a center-right coalition), there is Meloni, Italy’s first female prime minister.
Meloni markets herself abroad as a conservative and has supported Ukraine in its fight to resist Russian occupation. But at home she has been unwilling to denounce those who pledge allegiance to Fascism, in keeping with her background as a hard-core neo-Fascist militant full of praise for Mussolini.
Rather than condemn the mass Fascist salute at Acca Larentia, Meloni has fired back at proposals to ban neo-Fascist groups in Italy by opposition leaders such as Democratic Party head Elly Schlein, dismissing any concerns about the public display of sympathies for Fascism as "gratuitous attacks and exploitative controversies."
It was Meloni who insisted that her Brothers of Italy party, which was founded in 2012, retain the tricolor flame of the Italian Social Movement (MSI) in its logo. The MSI was the original neo-Fascist movement formed in 1946 to keep Mussolini's legacy alive, and the flame stands for continuity with Il Duce's values. The Brothers of Italy slogan, "God, Fatherhood, Family,” dates back to the years of the dictatorship.
Meloni's version of Great Replacement theory, which she calls "ethnic substitution," leverages hatred and fear for non-White immigrants and antisemitic conspiracy theories that date back to historic Fascism. "I think there is a deliberate plan to erase everything that identifies us: culture, Nation, family are under attack," she stated in March 2019, often identifying George Soros and the European Union as masterminds of this plot. And Il Duce would have recognized her opposition to “LGBT lobbies” and her promotion of White motherhood.
"We are all heirs of the Duce," declared fellow Brothers of Italy founder Ignazio La Russa, now President of the Italian Senate, in 2022, summing up the party's indebtedness to and sympathy for historic Fascism.
For those familiar with Germany's strictness about the public display of Nazi symbols and salutes, the Italian situation may be surprising. Yet, as I observed in a 2017 New Yorker essay about the prevalence of Fascist monuments in Italy, the Fascist heritage has been amply normalized. A new project has catalogued over 1,400 Fascist monuments still standing in the country. The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in Rome, built between 1938 and 1943 to honor Italian imperialist expansion, is considered a modernist icon and has been lovingly restored using public and private funds.