Fascism and Anti-Fascism in Italian Historical Consciousness

by Alessandro Tarsia

Having completed my PhD in Indigenous history, I recently returned to my birth nation of Italy. It had been seven years since I visited the villages in my home region of Calabria. While I’d always been aware of the debates over the place of fascism in Italian historical consciousness, I couldn’t help but feel that something was different now. The place of the fascist regime and the anti-fascist Resistance in the historical consciousness is the contested subject at the centre of the harsh Italian contemporary political debate. As one strolls along the main streets and squares of the 8000 Italian municipalities, the intense discussions held in newspapers, on television channels, and at several benches and cafeterias become palpable. Additionally, the restoration or abandonment of historical artifacts—such as defensive bunkers and the walls of public and private buildings adorned with numerous signs of the fascist regime—serves as a stark visual reminder of this ambiguous climate.

Nazi-Fascist Bunker – Capo Colonna (Italy). Alessandro Tarsia, May 29, 2024.

Walking through Italian historical centers, I noticed faded fascist-era propaganda slogans such as “To stop is to retreat” and “You cannot exalt yesterday’s sacrifice if you are not ready for tomorrow’s.” Their preservation is overseen by the Superintendencies of the Italian Ministry of Culture, which have conservative policies focused on “preserving the past as it is.” Some Superintendents occasionally allow explanatory panels and counter-history to accompany the graffiti, but most 1930s-1940s-era fascist graffiti remains prominent and unchallenged. In addition, hundreds of Nazi-fascist bunkers (part of the Italian portion of the Organisation Todt of fortified defences) sit uninterpreted on the landscape. Many are slowly becoming buried, and some are filled with garbage or used as public restrooms. But others painted with fresh graffiti by a new generation of neo-fascists seek to revive a history they have romanticized and scrubbed clean of its cruelty and hatred. But these remnants of history are increasingly potent mnemonic devices in contemporary historical consciousness. They are stark visual reminders of Italy’s ambiguous fascist climate.

“To stop is to retreat.” San Fili (Italy). Alessandro Tarsia. May 18, 2024.

The Italian Democratic Party and the other four opposition parties asked Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and other government representatives to declare themselves anti-fascists. Unlike in the United States, in Italy, the term “antifa” is not commonly associated with extreme left-wing movements. The Italian constitution, written and signed in 1948, was supported by all the anti-fascist parties, such as socialists, communists, Christian democrats, republicans, populists, and others. The only party not part of this “constitutional arch” was the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI, Italian Social Movement), which gathered politicians and supporters of the former fascist regime who could not rally under the name and symbols of the banned National Fascist Party. The MSI adopted the ‘eternal’ flame on Benito Mussolini’s tomb in Predappio as its symbol, which can still be seen in Meloni’s party symbol.

Cinema – Municipality Theatre, fascist symbol. San Fili (Italy). Alessandro Tarsia. May 18, 2024.

Premier Meloni’s political views align closely with the early Fascists. She holds anti-LGBTQIA2S+ beliefs, promotes anti-immigration conspiracy theories such as the Nazi “Great Replacement” theory, and rejects feminist ideas. Meloni is a member of the “Brothers of Italy” party, which espouses populist, nationalist, patriarchal, and male-chauvinist ideas. And despite this, or perhaps because of it, this party leads the government with support from Silvio Berlusconi’s former party (Forza Italia) and the anti-EU, pro-Putin Lega party. Recently, Senator Ignazio La Russa, the President of the Italian Senate, which is the second most crucial institutional position in the Italian Republic, admitted to owning a Mussolini bust and other fascist memorabilia. Additionally, he stated that the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, where German troops killed 335 civilians and political prisoners on March 24, 1944, was a reprisal for the Resistance’s attack on a retired German music band in Via Rasella the day before. In reality, they were part of “Bozen,” a Nazi SS Police Regiment.

Historians frequently reinterpret history, giving it new meanings, which is sometimes misunderstood by conservatives as “cancel culture.” However, the extreme political use of cancelling history by scholars is often influenced by the continuity with North European Puritan religious zeal and their use of sociology (cultural studies), as demonstrated by Ramsay Cook. This Protestant political approach to writing history is being challenged in Italy, a country with a history of being a colonial power (exploitative, extractive, and settler) in Africa and Asia, but also a place marked by over 3,000 years of diverse European, Asian, and African colonial dominations. Italy has been conquered by various cultures, such as the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Longobards, Normans, Byzantines, Saracens, Ottomans, French, Spanish, Austrians, and Germans. Therefore, proposing the outright cancellation of historical artifacts and last names is complicated. Many Italians who identify as left-wing and progressive have grandparents who supported the fascist regime. Historian Alessandro Barbero, for example, acknowledges that his grandfather was a fascist executed by the Italian Resistance.

But remembering the past is essential. Changing my last name would not alter my history, as it originated after the Spanish Alhambra Decree in 1492 and the subsequent Papal bull by Pope Paul IV, “Cum nimis absurdum,” in 1555. My Jewish ancestors changed their last name to “Tarsia” after leaving the town of Tarsia in Calabria to move to Cosenza and then Paola. Indeed, my own last name, Tarsia, is the same as the location of the first Italian fascist concentration camp where Jews, Romani, and Chinese people, along with communists and war prisoners, were detained from 1940 to 1945. My grandfather, Giuseppe Tarsia, served with the Italian Army in Russia, where he was provided minimal equipment. Lost, afraid, and cold following a battle, he was rescued by Ukrainians. Later he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp in Gdansk. There, he met my grandmother, Edwidge, a Polish cook forced to work in the camp.

In the 2022 elections, Fratelli d’Italia won 26% of the votes from 64% of eligible voters. Their supporters and a significant portion of the Lega voters (9%) view Italy’s fascist history in a positive light. They often propagate still potent but long-debunked historical claims, such as attributing modernization, the introduction of public schooling, and pension plans, punctual trains, and reduced criminality to the fascist regime. If they have negative assessments of Mussolini, they are generally restricted to blaming him for the alliance with Hitler, which they maintain led to Italy’s occupation by the Allies and thus to the downfall of the Italian colonial empire. Surprisingly, even some respected Italian scholars of organized crime endorse unfounded right-wing theories about Mussolini’s alleged termination of the Sicilian Mafia and the Allies’ involvement in revitalizing and empowering the crime organization in 1943.

Elena Ethel “Elly” Schlein is the first LGBTQIA2S+ secretary of the Italian Democratic Party. She is responsible for introducing the idea of intersectionality, as intended by African American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, to Italian political debate. Schlein criticized the far-right historical revisionism of Meloni and her allies in the Lega, particularly their attempts to diminish the fascist regime’s involvement in the political assassination of Italian socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. Matteotti had exposed the bribes the American company Sinclair Oil paid to Mussolini and the King of Italy. Schlein also objected to the commemoration by general Roberto Vannacci, who was recently elected to the European Parliament with the Lega, about the Xª Flottiglia MAS, an elite unit of the Italian army that collaborated with the fascists and Nazis during World War II.

Italy, like Canada, became a country in the1860s. And, like Canada, it consisted of people of different cultures and histories. When the Nazis invaded Italy, people saw it as yet another foreign conquest. Though many Italians today downplay the influence of fascism on the rise of the Nazi regime, remnants of fascist propaganda can still be seen in the country. Even though most of the graffiti with Mussolini’s face and fascist slogans were removed after the Allies conquered the country in 1943, some remain. The Italian experience testifies that history is more complicated, non-linear, and powerful than historical consciousness, which is often straightforward. After all, the present we live in is often conditioned by the resilient pieces of evidence of the past.


Alessandro Tarsia is an Italian immigrant who teaches Indigenous histories at the University of the Fraser Valley.

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