Tarrying With Fascism

Navigli market entrance. Milan, February 2010.

“Fascisti Carogne,” (Fascist Bastards) the graffiti read, in bold blood red. An anarchist A placed to its right, it wasn’t hard to surmise its source. Situated underneath four municipal billboards designated for political posters, the slogan is a denunciation of Italy’s political class. Left or right, they’re all the same, including Unione del Centro party chief Pier Ferdinando Casini, whose advert takes up three of the spaces. The fourth, occupied by incumbent Prime Minister Mario Monti (also running on the Centro ticket) sits most conveniently above the anarchism symbol.

As someone who walks past these billboards every day, the synchronization of the graffiti and the advertising is unavoidable. Even though I find it a little simplistic, given the context it was hard not to appreciate what was being communicated. Knowing all too well that the correspondence was not intentional (the graffiti is several months old,) I had to congratulate its authors on their ingenuity. No matter what kind of posters were being placed above it, they would all somehow be indicted. Even the flyer for leftwing British filmmaker Ken Loach, who, in Turin to lecture late last year, was also the subject of posters placed here. Never mind that he was being hosted by a labor union.

Fascism is all about excess, so far be it for its critics to restrain themselves in labeling everything as such. If imprecision is the order of the day, it’s simply a reflection of how overwhelming its brand of rightwing politics is. Considering what kind of havoc Italy’s own fascists wreaked upon the country in the first half of the twentieth century, leftists could be forgiven for indulging themselves in their rhetoric. Indeed, there is an inescapable touch of trauma about it, which, several generations removed from the Mussolini era, says a great deal about the impact of his regime’s violence. You can’t help but feel sympathy. Exactly, I would imagine, as the graffiti auteurs hope.

It goes deeper than that, though. As a Jew, whenever I encounter statements like “Fascisti…”, I’m reminded of the hysteria which the Holocaust continues to bring out in my community. Though it’s not about the same event, such denunciations are inextricably bound up with the same period in time as the Nazi genocide. The responsibility, of course, lying in the hands of the fascists – German, primarily, but of course, also Italian. Fascist equals Nazi equals anti-Semitism. It’s all about the synonym. And, ironically, about what we have in common. Italian, German, Israeli – we all trace our political identities back to the same catastrophe, one whose influence continues to reach us in a variety of ways, not to mention, contexts.

I don’t mean to downplay our differences. They are as vast as the history we obviously share. One must be careful to not conflate victims and persecutors, for example – Jews and Nazis on the one hand – and Israel with Italy and Germany on the other. Certainly today, considering Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, and the intense hostility they invoke amongst European leftists, precisely because of the Holocaust, the pressure is there.  Still, it’s equally impossible to avoid the idea that we are all victims of what transpired, and that we are all continuing to grapple with its legacy. That fascism and racism persist, in the Middle East, as well as Europe, is one such reminder.

Unfortunately, when Jews talk about transcending the heritage of fascism, we tend to focus, almost entirely, on Germany, as though the Nazis were the only responsible party for the problem. This is not to say that organizations dedicated to tracking down war criminals, and ensuring reparations to European Jewry, are unaware of how generalized anti-Semitism was across Europe during the fascist period. They most definitely understand that. But when it comes to moral reform, we nonetheless tend to focus on Berlin, at the expense of everyone else in Europe, who helped shoulder the burden for the Third Reich, not to mention their own regimes interests at the time.

Street mural, Venice. October 2009.
Street mural, Venice. October 2009.

Why should this matter, today? Because the politics that we associate with the Holocaust persisted long after the Nazis were defeated. This is what the language, and the denunciations, of leftwing graffiti like this, in Italy, (as well as in Germany,) signifies. That such talk remains the province of radicals, largely, of organizations like ANTIFA does little to change this. Press more conventional, mainstream progressives hard enough, in both countries, and they’ll confess that the distance between political conservatism and fascism is what concerns them. Particularly in Italy, which did not experience the same kind of purging, both personally, and ideologically, of fascist officials, and fascist politics, that took place in Germany after the war.

Hence, “Fascisti Carogne.” To anyone who followed Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to praise former dictator Benito Mussolini, at an event in Milan, commemorating the deportation of 700 Italian Jews, on Holocaust Memorial Day, last Sunday, such indictments remain relevant. Though Berlusconi attempted to choose his words carefully (the Holocaust was a “mistake,” he said) he had only kind words for Il Duce’s accomplishments. Whether it makes any difference to separate racism from making the trains run on time, is something only Berlusconi seems to understand. The outrage, which followed his declaration, amongst Italians of all political stripes (except, of course, the country’s extreme right) suggested something different. As it should have.

That a onetime Prime Minister (and, potentially, Italy’s next PM) would feel comfortable taking such risks is, in and of itself, telling. Despite the outrage that greeted Berlusconi’s statement, he has said equally outrageous, racist things before, including, nice things about Mussolini, and, to a lesser degree, fascism. Nonetheless, no European leader, past or present, has taken the discursive plunge quite like this. In one fell swoop, he broke nearly every taboo, prohibiting the rationalization of fascism, and its policies, that have held sway in leadership circles since the Second World War. Berlusconi’s achievement is that significant. Most certainly, it will happen again.

The point, at least as I see it, as a minority living in Europe, is to prevent such statements from being routinized. The more common it becomes amongst politicians of Berlusconi’s stature, the more generalized it will become in mainstream conservatism. Under current political circumstances, considering the depth of the economic crisis, such extremism finds obviously fertile ground. This is something that Berlusconi undoubtedly understood, and intentionally took advantage of, in order to reach out Italian right-wingers, who would, in another era, otherwise call themselves fascists. No doubt populists across the continent like Marine Le Pen, already experimenting with anti-Semitic rhetoric, were listening.

True to form, Berlusconi has spent the last week trying to repair the damage. Within twenty-four hours, Israeli newspapers were carrying stories of a stereotypically female, Jewish candidate, running for Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, from Israel. While criticizing Berlusconi’s choice of words, Sharon Nizza nonetheless appreciated his clarification, about what he really meant. A day and a half later, the Berlusconi-owned football club AC Milan, announced it was buying star footballer Mario Balotelli. A black Ghanian-Italian, raised by Milanese Jews, the gesture was unmistakeable. This was Berlusconi’s recovery.

The cost? Twenty million Euros. Not a bad price for a PR move designed to mollify the mogul’s critics. Why such gestures matter, when the ex-prime minister still finds himself in alliance with avowedly racist parties such as Italy’s Northern League, ought to be instructive. In the absence of a similar gesture, designed to deflect criticisms of his distaste for democracy, Berlusconi was still signaling his continuing admiration for fascism. No wonder Italian anarchists get apoplectic about the subject. In Italy, fascism remains a big problem.


Photographs courtesy of the author

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