Migrants are hunted down and Roma persecuted - the new fascism in Italy
In Italy, La Lega is carrying the sepsis of the far right and renewed fascism to the heart of government
One April, when my children were small, we were invited to lunch at a diplomatic residence in Rome. It was a luminous 1930s villa, gardens terraced with bay, clematis, a stone memorial to a Roman girl who died before Christ. Lunch was simple and wonderful; the company even better. But despite the warmth of the day and the occasion, a coldness crept across the marble floors. Our host laughed. "Some night I might see Mussolini and Clara Petacci here. This house was bought for their affair". The diplomat was serious about the past. But was Il Duce still answering the fascist roll-call with the traditional 'Presente'?
On April 28, 1945, Mussolini and Petacci were shot by partisans near Lake Como. They were strung up, upside down, at an Esso station in Piazzale Loreto, Milan, for the delectation or horrification of shattered Italians.
In 1952, the year of Queen Elizabeth's accession, those same Italians passed the Scelba Law making the defence of fascism a crime. By 1993, their children and grandchildren were introducing the Mancino Law banning fascist slogans and gestures, enabling prosecution for incitement to violence, racism and hatred.
Unlike Germany with Nazism, the presence of the neo-fascist CasaPound, Forza Nuova and Fratelli d'Italia proves that Italy did not completely excise either the cancer or spectacle of its fascist past. Now that the rise of new European fascism coincides with the decline of history on Ireland's national curriculum, it is worth citing these laws, their genesis and flouting. We Europeans have a better chance of not repeating our history, if we know it.
Then, last month, as Italians packed their togs and dogs and headed al mare, the Lega minister for the family, Lorenzo Fontana, took to the government's preferred means of communication, Facebook, to argue that the anti-fascism Mancino Law should be removed. Why? It was a handy cover for "globalists" disguising their "anti-Italian racism" as "anti-fascism". From the top of Italy's plush thigh to the tip of its kick-ass toe, worried democrats, minorities and humanitarians shouted 'No!'. For them, the anti-fascism laws are the barrier against the sepsis of Othering, scapegoating, dehumanising, dividing, intimidating that has spread from the far-right political periphery to infect, even colonise, the Lega-M5S government.
Neofascist attitudes are not skulking in Italy's new government. In practice, they are strutting across the Lega wing. When the judiciary moots an investigation of Lega leader Matteo Salvini, a party official warns magistrates "touch our Captain and we will take you from your front door. Watch out". The magistrates call it "an act without precedence, unspeakably grave", vowing not to bend to threats or intimidation. For many Italians, the threat to magistrates from a government party official sparked the memory of the fascist squads intimidating, hunting and neutralising their opponents. Those same Italians know, instinctively, that it is one thing for neofascist groups to refer to migrants and the refugee issue as 'invaders and 'invasion', but something else entirely for a minister of the republic to do so, and in naked contradiction of the facts.
Despite Salvini's constant categorising of migration as an 'invasion' which must be stopped, his own ministry figures show net migration to Europe dramatically reduced, migrant arrivals to Italy down 84pc this year on last, the 'invaders' themselves comprising a tiny percentage of the Italian population.
In government, Salvini's Lega degrades and dehumanises migrants and refugees, constantly using the pejorative term 'clandestine'. While photos emerge of their torture in Libya, they are told 'keep away, your fun here is over'. Increasingly, this 'official' humiliation is giving cover to racists and xenophobes to have their say and their go. Taunting, insulting, attacking and pursuit of migrants is now common.
Recently in The Guardian, Lorenzo Tondo aptly described migrants to Italy as "the new Jews". We remember that the Shoah didn't begin with transports to Auschwitz, but with whispering, ridiculing, low-grade hate. Just this week a state-employed doctor in an emergency department in Spoleto posted to like-minds on social media that "migrants should be mass drowned", they were "niggers in Nikes". Her leave coincides with news of how some of the Diciotti migrants, housed now at Rocca di Papa, were imprisoned and sold "like slaves" up to five times. Sixteen of their babies suffered short lives and long deaths underground in Libya.
Though Italy has six national security forces, Lega vigilantes or Ronde in hi-vis vests head out like neofascist groups to 'secure' or 'liberate' neighbourhoods, beaches and Italians. Not from the threat of the Camorra but that of anxious, black men and women eking out a living by selling light-up toys, shawls or bracelets. This week in Puglia, people on the beach had enough of Lega Baywatch. They ran the Ronde denouncing them as "Fascists! Squadrists! Racists!" With his Ronde, however, Salvini is making history. He is the only minister in European post-war democracy to have a law-and-order force patrolling not in the name of the state but of the party.
But this actual 'invasion' of civil life by what are effectively far-right wannabe militia, extends also to the media. Writing in La Stampa, the journalist Federico Gervasoni, exposed the illegal weekly meetings of the outlawed Avanguardia Nazionale in Rome and Brescia. Immediately he was 'sentenced' by neofascists on social media and is living under threat. Gervasoni is being supported by journalist unions, La Stampa and ANPI (the National Partisans' Association). Equally, the magazine l'Espresso is highlighting the attempted stabbing outside his home of journalist and singer-songwriter Enrico Nascimbeni. He had already been targeted on social media for his anti-fascist, anti-racist writing. This should trouble Salvini, once registered as a journalist himself.
Though neither a president nor a prime minister, Salvini has invented himself as 'the strongman' of Italy and Europe. Like Mussolini, he swapped the left for the right. Critically, he has mastered the old, brutal political lesson of seizing on a socio-economic crisis, ignoring its genesis, scapegoating an innocent group and proposing his plans - or, more accurately, himself - as the patriotic, proper solution. Unfortunately, Italy has form on this, as does Germany. Last week, it put both countries in the headlines. In Milan, Salvini was stirring another memory, forming an anti-immigration pact with the man he calls his "hero and companion in destiny" Hungary's Viktor Orban. In Saxony, the far-right was back "hunting" foreigners through the streets with batons, flags and torches.
Up to the Diciotti crisis, where he is under formal investigation for the possible kidnapping and illegal detention of the 177 migrants, abuse of office and refusal to act in office, things have been pretty peachy for Salvini. Cometh the hour - where to quote Neil Postman we are "amusing ourselves to death" - cometh the man of the alpine jersey, the tweet, the rosary, the Facebook rant. In a relatively new republic, he uses strategies like Noi Con Salvini (Us with Salvini) to massage how Italians identify with 'family' but can sometimes, with good reason of the past, be indifferent to the idea of the state. It is perhaps his reflex-reaction 'guilt' and 'penalties' which saw him cheered at the state funerals for the Ponte Morandi victims. Whether between the funeral selfies, he heard the generous prayers of the Genovese Imam for Italy and Italians, is not known. What I do know is that a group of nuns voted Lega on the basis of Salvini's devotion to the Blessed Virgin and his strong Catholicism. 'I was hungry and you fed me. I was incarcerated and you visited me. I was a stranger and you invited me in'. Santo Subito.
Pre-election ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, conducting a census of Roma, have been tempered to naval blockades and pacts, protecting Europeans from a phantom invader. But like Trump in America, Salvini has been both goading and gauging Italians. How far can he push them in the stakes of hate and human misery? How much will they take, allow? Possibly not much more. Last Tuesday, the opposition to Salvini made a stand in Milan offering hope, at least, of a counter, popular movement. Organised by Giuseppe Civati's Possibile organisation of the left, and with a high-profile appearance by pro-migrant politician Laura Boldrini, 15,000 people rallied at the Salvini-Orban summit to say enough of hate, time for a Europe "without walls". It was an important day for Italian democracy, humanity and dignity. As was the arrival of the Diciotti migrants at Rocca di Papa. Locals stayed up to welcome them, bellowing the old anti-fascist song Bella Ciao, to drown out the loudhailer chants and insults of the neofascists. As one exasperated, hoarse welcomer told the media "they broke their balls to get here. Now they have to listen to those f***ing fascists?" Quite.
Mussolini described himself as "the last of the spectators". Perhaps, in Rome, he still keeps watch. But for those who fear what they see of the Italy he still inspires, it is time to make their stand. In the words of Primo Levi, if not now, when?