Nationalism, Italian-Style

Sourcing the Crisis

Chaos reigned on the road between Musso and Dongo, two small towns north of Lake Como.

Salvini means border in Italian. Turin, August 2019.
Salvini means border in Italian. Turin, August 2019. [Joel Schalit]

Italian Squadristi (Blackshirts) in Como having surrendered, the partisans had agreed to let retreating Nazis through to the Austrian border but only after searching the convoy for Italians attempting to flee.

The Nazis had abandoned the Salò Republic puppet state from which Mussolini had attempted to control the Allied advance from the south since 1943.

The battle to regain northern Italy had been brutal, protracted and tumultuous. On 27 April 1945, the situation was again shifting.

After firing on an unmarked armoured car full of Squadristi that had attempted an awkward about-face, the partisans returned to searching the convoy.

Although a German officer had given “his word of honour as a soldier” and the lorry appeared to be full of uniformed Nazi troops, a young partisan climbed in to examine it.

He then exited slowly, returning moments later with Urbano Lazzaro, the deputy political commissioner of the brigade.

Lazzaro bent down over the figure squatting in the front in a corporal’s overcoat.

“Aren’t you an Italian?”

“Yes, I am an Italian.”

And with that, the jig was up. The covering figure disguised as a Nazi was Benito Mussolini. He was, of course, the man the partisans were most eager to capture.

No once since Garibaldi had sought to embody, promote and define the idea of Italian nationalism more than Mussolini.

Fittingly, when he might have lied to force his Nazi allies to continue to protect him, Il Duce chose to seal his fate with a declaration of his national identity.

Nationalism or Patriotism

As Lega chief Matteo Salvini now attempts to assert himself as the new champion of nationalism, repeatedly invoking Mussolini, defining Italian identity is once again central to the country’s politics. 

Few far-right politicians strike as much fear into the heart of Europe’s political establishment as Salvini, precisely because of how much he conjures up Italy’s fascist past. His Italy is Il Duce’s Italy, albeit in populist, Moscow-hugging clothing.

Il Capitano, as he is affectionately called, in reference to Mussolini’s nickname, is often treated as Italy’s premier-in-waiting, the Facebook-enabled voice of the people, racking up one regional electoral victory after another, on his great march to Palazzo Chigi.

In the opposing camp, assertions of a progressive Italianness are represented by the likes of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Senator Liliana Segre, and longstanding liberals such as Senator Emma Bonino and, for the last two months, the grassroots  Le Sardine demonstrations, which have swept into the piazzas of cities and towns across the country.

The Italy they represent is, unsurprisingly welcoming of migrants and refugees, and pro-European Union (Bonino’s party sports the unambiguous +Europa handle).

Segre’s recent persecution, at the hands of Lega and Forza Italia politicians, for having established a parliamentary commission on racism (see my colleague Joel Schalit’s article) and the unanticipated surge of Sardine protests – 100,000 attended their Rome demonstration earlier this month, and 35,000 in Turin a week before – suggest a slowing of progress.

Who will win? It’s hard to say. The last time Italy defeated nationalism, it had to go to war. This is the first time since WWII that a genuinely authoritarian regime might find itself in power again.

As the old adage goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. In order to understand what’s driving mass movements like the Sardines, the history behind Italy’s far-right is worth reprising.

It’s about a lot more than Brussels and Putin. And it goes a lot further back than Mussolini.


Any discussion of Italian nationalism inevitably begins with the relative recentness of national unification and Italian attachment to dialect and regional identity.

While today’s Italy goes back to 1870, the country’s founding was driven by a desire to expel occupying foreign powers going back to the Renaissance, and the writings of 14th-century philosopher Niccolò  Machiavelli.

In The Prince, Machiavelli devotes the final chapter to an impassioned plea to Italians to “seize Italy and free her from the Barbarians”. The emotional appeal to something as broad and populist as nationalism seems strange both as uncharacteristic of Machiavelli and within the context of that historical moment.

Indeed, the rest of The Prince is entirely composed of a nuanced, cold and realistic analysis of political forces, so what accounts for this unlikely call for national unity? As 20th century Machiavelli scholars are wont to point, his vision is vague.

According to Felix Gilbert, “it is not clear whether he envisaged a transitory military alliance, a permanent federal constitution, or a unified national state”.

By the mid-19th century, for Italy’s founding fathers,  Giuseppe Mazzini, Cavour and Garibaldi, the main object of Machiavelli’s call to nationalism, ridding all Italy of foreign control (the French and the Austrians), still pertained but other objectives were of equal import. The formation of the new nation had become much more defined. 

By 1834, Mazzini’s Giovine Italia (Young Italy) sought nothing less than a revolution which would achieve national liberty and unite Italy under one liberal republican government. Albeit, with a proto-EU twist.

Mazzini asserted that such a revolution would inspire other European states and hoped that in the future, they might combine to form a unified Europe with some kind of federal assembly.

Giuseppe Mazzini had socialist leanings and participated in the First International in 1864. But he rejected communism, believing that class collaboration, rather than class struggle, was the way forward.

Marx loathed him and branded Mazzini a reactionary. 

Throughout the next two decades, uprisings in the name of republicanism and/or national unity were launched from most corners of Italy. Mazzini’s comrade in republicanism, Giuseppe Garibaldi,  would prove to be the vastly more successful military strategist.

Garibaldi would also prove to be more politically malleable. Eventually, although a republican, Garibaldi would lead his infamous Expedition of the Thousand on behalf of the head of the house of Savoy, Victor Emmanuel II.

One of the defining moments of the Risorgimento (Italian unification), the military operation conquered southern Italy and Sicily, leading to Italy’s unification.

When the new Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861, Mazzini was bitterly disappointed with how it was achieved. A unified Italy under the rule of Savoy was not what he had in mind.

With a form of unity achieved, the question became how to bring cohesion and a sense of purpose to this ragtag conglomeration of territories all of which had their own fiercely protected, centuries-old cultural customs and perhaps even more divisively, dialects.

The long struggle to convince enough occupants of the peninsula to accept at least a dual identity – not just regional allegiance but also to see themselves as Italian – had passed an official rubicon.

But would it hold and what would it mean in practice?  At the time of unification, only 2.5% of the population spoke Standard Italian. In 1861 the literacy rate was 25%.

By 1951, urbanisation, and internal migration were surging, two phenomena which would not have occurred at all if Italy had not unified and brought literacy rates to 78%.

87% of Italians were speaking the same language.

The Rise of Mussolini

Forty years after the Risorgimento, a new political force emerged which sought to redefine Italian identity in the mould of authoritarianism.

Although periodically denied by some leaders of the today’s right, contemporary Italian nationalism owes much to the still-contested legacy of Benito Mussolini.

Born to a socialist father who was also heavily influenced by Mazzini’s nationalism and Garibaldi’s authoritarianism, the young Mussolini was a committed and active socialist.

After initially holding the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) line against Italian entry into the First World War, Mussolini changed his mind and, decided to support Italian intervention in WWI. This prompted his expulsion from the PSI.

Having fled to Switzerland to avoid military service a decade before, by 1916 Mussolini had joined up. 

While in self-imposed exile, he had come under the influence of a number of thinkers including French philosopher Georges Sorel. Mussolini was taken by Sorel’s belief that liberal democracy and capitalism should be overthrown, using, direct action, general strikes and appeals to emotion.

Mussolini’s support for the war eventually led him to assert that nationalism and cultural identity were more important than class. His replacements were tradition, language, culture and race.

Most famously, Mussolini adopted the term “fasci” from the Italian term for a band which secures a chaff of wheat. It was intended to signify that banding together provides inviolate strength.

Almost immediately, the fledgeling fascist movement faced harassment from the authorities and violent physical attacks from orthodox socialists’ groups. They would soon return.

Wounded whilst serving in the trenches and nearly killed by typhoid, Mussolini returned from the war in 1917. He formed the Fasci in Milan having by now completely rejected socialism.

Mussolini sought to promote the concept of “spazio vitale” (space for the population) to assert its sphere of influence.

This notion of an ethnic, historical entitlement to a specific geographical region would later influence Hitler’s promotion of a Lebensraum (‘Living space’, the Nazi colonial empire) for his purified Germanic peoples.

This was an attractive notion in a traumatised post-war Italy, having suffered a humiliating military defeat at Caporetto in 1917 at the hands of Austro-Hungarian and German forces. 10,000 troops had been killed, 30,000 were wounded, and 265,000 taken prisoner in that battle alone.

Less intently focused on biological racism, Mussolini’s nationalism nevertheless incorporated explicit notions of superior and inferior races which would later underpin his ill-fated imperial exploits in Africa.

While there was no building of race-based extermination camps on the Italian mainland, Mussolini was virulently anti-black and anti-Slavic (Slavs were labelled “barbarians”.) His bigotry would be used to justify assertions of racial and cultural superiority and myriad attacks on those labelled “other” such as the rolling back of civil liberties for Libyans and the horrific abuses of the Ethiopian campaigns and occupation.

The creation of a cult of personality, employing an Italian version of Hitler’s übermensch, or Aryan man, led Mussolini to control multiple government ministries and portray himself as an intellectual giant, sportsman and guarantor of Italian culture.

This eventually included a pact with the Catholic Church to honour the role of Christianity in Italy and protect the pope.

In a climate of post-war instability, Mussolini’s fascist gangs proved themselves effective at restoring order through violence and intimidation.

When Mussolini’s fascists finally staged the March on Rome in 1922, King Victor Emmanuel II, who held supreme military power, was forced to decide whether to accede to the prime minister’s request to declare martial law or throw his lot in with the fascists.

The king chose to accept the premier’s resignation and handed over governmental power to Mussolini.

The 20th century’s first Italian strongman did not hesitate to introduce measures designed to create a police state.

Salvini and Beyond

Following the disaster of two decades of financial mismanagement under Silvio Berlusconi-led coalitions with the Lega (then under the leadership of Umberto Bossi), which included a rough transition to the euro, Italy now finds itself with a chronically sluggish economy, and high youth unemployment and under-employment.

To say that Italians are frustrated is an understatement. Egged on by populist politicians, primarily current Lega chief Matteo Salvini, the blame is usually directed at the European Union.

Resentment of the EU focuses primarily on two factors; one explicitly economic, the other social.

Economic resentment focuses on the fact that monetary union has been particularly hard on Italy.

An export-driven economy, before the adoption of the euro, Italy relied heavily on its ability to manipulate the Lira as and when required, which turned out to be often, to keep exports within a desirable band.

Social grievance centres on the perception that Italy, because of its geographical position, has taken more than its share of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa.

This allegation has some validity in that since the early 00s’, Italian naval and coastguard ships have come to the rescue of large numbers migrants off the coast of Libya.

Frequent requests made to the EU for funds and resources to share the burden fell on deaf ears.

Laying the blame for Italy’s woes on Brussels, Salvini succeeded in finding a perfect explanation for the loss of Italy’s post-war economic power and cultural prestige.

Who better to embody this powerlessness than the waves of Muslims and African migrants washing up on Italy’s shores.

Salvini’s rhetoric and those of his fellow travellers in Fratelli d’Italia includes another staple of Mussolini’s social conservatism – the exhortation to loyalty to “Dio, Patria and Famiglia “with all the patriarchial, anti-LGBTQ, anti-free thinking implications contained therein.

At the moment, the reluctance of President Sergio Matterella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to allow Salvini to force a general election has sidelined him.

But the declaration of a Lega assault on the left stronghold of Emilia-Romagna and recent gains in Umbria set the spark for the Sardines’ popular anti-Salvini demonstrations.

Whether this will signal enough of a change in tide to keep Italy’s current neo-fascist strongman from sweeping to power remains to be seen.

The key will be a proper tie-up between Italy’s new left and a political party. Whether that’s the governing Partito Democratico, led by the ex-Communist Nicola Zingaretti, or a new party, remains to be seen.

A relationship with the PD seems the easiest route, particularly following the departure of its centrist members, to Matteo Renzi’s new Italia Viva party.

Watch this space, and the second instalment of this article, at the start of next year.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.