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Prayers for a deceased dictator? As a teenage seminarian in Bavaria,
Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was coerced into joining
the Hitler Youth, an experience that made him a lifelong anti-Nazi --and
equally anti-Fascist. In such an age, how is it possible that a Catholic
priest at one of the largest churches in the Archdiocese of Palermo would
celebrate an annual mass for the fallen Italian dictator Benito Mussolini?
To save the dictator's soul, perhaps? In fact, the annual mass (formerly
celebrated at San Matteo on Corso Vittorio Emanuele and, more recently,
at the Basilica of San Domenico a few blocks away) is sponsored by Neo-Fascists.
Neo-Fascists? They're an eccentric group, to be sure, representing perhaps
less than one percent of Sicily's population, but their ideas reflect a
widespread Italian ignorance about Italy's Fascist past --a piece of history that older Italians (and their large "diaspora"
of descendants in places like the United Kingdom, Argentina, Canada, Australia
and the United States) would prefer to forget, or at least "revise"
in the public mind by painting Italy as a "victim." Sadly, the
New Fascism rears its ugly head every once in a while, supported by young
people who don't know better and a few older citizens who should. Fascism
was a terrible movement which hurt a lot of innocent people and brought the Second World War to Italy's doorstep, beginning with Sicily.
The revival finds favour with several movements, a few minor political
parties and the extremist fringe of the center-right National Alliance.
In the spiritual sphere, the Neo-Fascists are usually Roman Catholic and
intolerant of the presence of Protestants, Evangelicals and Orthodox (and non-Christians such
as Muslims and Jews) in "Catholic Italy." This hardly reflects
directly on the Catholic Church per se, though in Italy its stand against historical
Fascism (in the 1930s and 1940s) was rarely very vocal; Italy has no official state religion
today. However inappropriate or misdirected one considers the actions of a few priests,
the Catholic Church is not the real culprit. As an institution, the Roman Catholic
Church in Italy does not support Neo-Fascism.
The roots of the problem may be found in the fact that Italy's schools
and media have always given mixed signals --if any-- regarding Fascism and
the war that Italy lost. Such ambivalence often breeds misunderstanding.
Apart from broad political and social consequences, the effects of Mussolini's
war were terrible and in some cases bizarre. Old King Vittorio Emanuele
III changed sides in September 1943 following the Allied conquest of Sicily
and the removal of Mussolini as Prime Minister, but the Soviet Union did
not release its last German and Italian prisoners of war until 1955. Italy
became the first nation to acknowledge having committed crimes against humanity
(in the Ethiopian campaign). In northern Italy after 1943, partisans who
had agreed to collaborate with the advancing Allied forces often took the
law into their own hands, even murdering priests and other civilians. From
1946, the king's descendants were exiled for a half-century and only allowed
to re-enter Italy a few years ago. Despite national holidays celebrating
Italy's liberation and the referendum establishing the Italian Republic,
the topics of Fascism and the Second World War were verboten or at least highly
politicised (violently pitting conservatives against leftists).
The whole complicated socio-political mess was something that most post-war Italians
simply chose to avoid. And they failed to tell their children much about it. In Italian
schools, history ends in 1920, though new curricula are finally beginning to extend it.
In Sicily, more immediate social problems, like unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and organised
crime, supplanted the collective assessment of Fascism. Only in the late
1990s were extensive studies published in Italy on the subject in the form
of bestselling books, and documentaries aired on television.
What is the agenda of the Neo-Fascists? It's primarily domestic rather than
international, except for loose association with kindred movements in France,
Austria and Germany. The favorable portrayal of Mr. Mussolini is, of course,
important in their scheme. In practice, this means things like naming streets
and squares in his honour, efforts thus far blocked in Sicily. Typically,
Neo-Fascists also desire the expulsion of most foreigners from Italy. In
Sicily, they want the United States Naval Air Station at Sigonella closed,
even though it provides employment to thousands of Sicilians. (The presence
of the Sigonella base also annoys extreme leftists, such as Communists.)
Foreign trade and tourism are not openly discouraged but economic protectionism
is preferred, and Italy's membership in the European Union is often questioned.
Ideally, they would like to see more Italianist nationalism, with freedom
of the press curtailed somewhat. Historical revisionism is encouraged; a
clever strategy is to cite a few semi-successful social programs of historical
Italian Fascism (pensions, public housing, the public school network, certain
labour laws, domestic price controls) while ignoring fundamental human rights
violations and atrocities in Italy and its ill-won foreign lands (places
like Libya, Ethiopia, Albania and Greece). In the minds of Neo-Fascists,
justifications abound, and being a "good" Italian means being a Fascist sympathiser.
These aren't too different from some of old Benito's ideas in the 1930s,
though today's lady Neo-Fascists wear shorter skirts than their older sisters
of yore. (Well, in those days Italian women weren't even allowed to vote.)
What's old is new. Observers are quick to note that some Neo-Fascist ideas
are simply extreme reactions to the politically-correct leftism that has
infiltrated Italian society, as well as other countries, in recent decades.
As the actual "Fascist" party is outlawed by the Italian constitution,
Neo-Fascists use new names to identify their organisations, things like "Tricolore" (referring to the Italian tricolour flag). "Forza Nuova" (New Force) is another Neo-Fascist "mini-party." The Neo-Fascists themselves usually act anonymously, rarely revealing their names. Of course, that's difficult when they run for political office.
Benito Mussolini's granddaughter, Alessandra, is just one member of parliament
who embraces the bizarre movement. Her own views, however, are rarely as extremist as those of her more vocal supporters.
(Born in 1962, Alessandra never knew the "Duce.") Its "official"
membership may be small, but is Neo-Fascism's "implicit" following
a serious political force? More often than not, its apologists are simply misinformed or narrow-minded. Their interpretation of history is based on selective memory rather
than a balanced analysis of the facts, and Neo-Fascism's unwitting allies include
various revisionists. Clearly, not every Italian nationalist movement is
actually Neo-Fascist. Few Sicilians born after the second World War are racists, but many of the Neo-Fascists clearly are. Moreover, their opinions (ironically) ignore Sicily's multicultural history, that of a unique society of peoples from different lands. There's something ironic about a young Sicilian resenting Arabs when it was Saracen architects who designed many of the greatest medieval monuments of Norman-Arab-Byzantine Sicily, or insisting that Italians be Roman Catholic when so many medieval Sicilian churches were built in the Byzantine (and Eastern Orthodox) tradition.
The movement often draws inspiration from nostalgic older folks who
were actually connected with historical Fascism in one way or another. The
most prominent is Mirko Tremaglia, colourful and controversial Minister
for Italians Abroad. Born in 1926, he defended Mussolini's Italian Social
Republic (Salò) as a young man and later joined the MSI (democratic
Italy's successor to the constitutionally outlawed Fascist party). The complexity
here is that in 1945 Italy (like her allies Germany and Japan) found herself
with literally millions of "patriots" morally compromised by participation
in the misdeeds of a bad regime --everybody from generals responsible for
war crimes in Ethiopia, Greece and Albania, to judges, mail censors and
local Fascist bureaucrats. Even abroad, Fascist-oriented --or at least ultra-nationalist--
organisations, such as New York's Figli d'Italia or "Sons of Italy"
(a name used redundantly by numerous unconnected groups) had flourished
in the 1930s. Obviously, most of these people "normalised" their
lives following the war.
It is a war that Italians are reminded of once a year. Ironically, Neo-Fascists commemorate their hero just days after most Italians celebrate our nation's liberation by American and British forces. Benito Mussolini was killed by
partisans on 28 April 1945, just days after the
last Germans were pushed out of Italy and the last Fascists of the north defeated.
Italian Liberation Day is observed on 25 April. Neo-Fascists oppose observance of
Liberation Day. Though Fascist Italy was a monarchy, few Neo-Fascists are
monarchists, instead preferring to identify with Mussolini's short-lived
Italian Social Republic (a Nazi puppet state). While hardcore Neo-Fascists
are a tiny minority of Italians, their revisionist views are advocated
by a number of center-right politicians who would like to rewrite Italian
history to portray the Fascists as misdirected but patriotic "boys."
Such perspectives, overlooking the lessons taught by real history, could
negatively influence public policy.
The language of hatred is unpleasant, but is there really any reason to worry about a few social misfits? No, at least not
until they begin to substitute (in public institutions) their misinformation for accurate information
regarding the historical Fascist movement which influenced Italian life from
1922 until 1945, in the process nearly destroying our country. Unfortunately, while the Nazi movement has never been
forgotten, either in Germany or elsewhere, several generations of Italians have been raised with little
or no knowledge of Fascism, and such a void opens the door to opportunistic political movements such as Neo-Fascism.
Nowadays, it seems that every country has its eccentric right wing, but
in Italy and Germany the eccentrics have the advantage of tangible, if defeated,
historical models, namely Mussolini and Hitler. Ideas can be harmful, though
for now the Neo-Fascists are more dangerous to themselves than to anybody
else. Keep them in your prayers.
About the Author: Roberto Paglia has written several articles for this publication relating to social topics.