Brethren from Italy and Meloni’s political rise, explained
The Brothers of Italy party, which won the most votes in Italian national elections, has its roots in the post-World War II neo-fascist Italian social movement.
Keeping the most powerful symbol of the movement, the tricolor flame, Giorgia Meloni transformed the Brothers of Italy from a far-right fringe group into Italy’s largest party.
A century after Benito Mussolini’s 1922 march on Rome brought the fascist dictator to power, Meloni is set to lead Italy’s first far-right government since World War II and become its first female prime minister. .
HOW DID POST-FASCISM START IN ITALY?
The Italian Social Movement, or MSI, was founded in 1946 by Giorgio Almirante, chief of staff in Mussolini’s last government. It attracted fascist sympathizers and officials to its ranks following Italy’s role in the war, when it allied with the Nazis and then liberated by the Allies.
Throughout the 1950s-1980s, the MSI remained a small right-wing party, voting in single digits. But historian Paul Ginsborg noted that its mere survival in the decades following the war « served as a constant reminder of the powerful appeal that authoritarianism and nationalism could still hold among students in the South, the poor in the cities and the lower middle classes ».
The 1990s marked a turning point under Gianfranco Fini, the protege of Almirante who nevertheless projected a new moderate face of the Italian right. When Fini ran for mayor of Rome in 1993, he won a surprising 46.9% of the vote – not enough to win but enough to establish him as a player. Within a year, Fini had renamed the MSI the National Alliance.
It was in those years that a young Meloni, raised by a single mother in a working-class district of Rome, first joined the youth branch of the MSI, then led the youth branch of the National Alliance of Fini .
DOES THIS MEAN MELONI IS NEO-FASCIST?
Fini was dogged by the movement’s neo-fascist roots and his own assessment that Mussolini was the « greatest statesman » of the 20th century. He disavowed this statement and in 2003 visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel. There he described Italy’s racial laws, which restricted the rights of Jews, as part of the « absolute evil » of the war.
Meloni, too, had praised Mussolini in her youth, but visited Yad Vashem in 2009 when she was a minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s last government. Writing in her 2021 memoir « I am Giorgia », she described the experience as evidence of how « genocide happens step by step, bit at a time ».
During the campaign, Meloni was forced to confront the issue head-on, after Democrats warned she posed a danger to democracy.
« The Italian right has been making history of fascism for decades, unequivocally condemning the suppression of democracy and ignominious anti-Jewish laws, » she said in a campaign video.
HOW DID THE BROTHERS IN ITALY EMERGE?
Meloni, who proudly touts her roots as an MSI activist, said the first spark for the creation of the Brothers of Italy came after Berlusconi resigned as prime minister in 2011, forced by a financial crisis linked to the Italy’s growing debt and its own legal troubles.
Meloni refused to support Mario Monti, asked by the Italian president to try to form a technocratic government in order to reassure the international financial markets. Meloni resented what she believed to be external pressure from European capitals to dictate Italian domestic policy.
Meloni co-founded the party in 2012, naming it after the opening words of the Italian national anthem. « A new party for an old tradition, » Meloni wrote.
Brothers of Italy would achieve single-digit results in its first decade. The European Parliament election in 2019 brought 6.4% to the Brothers in Italy – a figure which, according to Meloni, “changed everything”.
As leader of the only opposition party during Mario Draghi’s national unity government in 2021-2022, his popularity soared, with Sunday’s election bringing him back to 26%.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PARTY LOGO?
The party has in the center of its logo the red, white and green flame of the original MSI which remained when the movement became the National Alliance. Although less obvious than the bundle of sticks, or fasces, which was the prominent symbol of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, the tricolor flame is nonetheless a powerful image that links the current party to its past.
“Political logos are a form of branding, no different than consumer ones,” said Rutgers University professor T. Corey Brennan.
He recalled that when Almirante made his last MSI campaign speech to voters during the 1948 elections in Rome’s Spanish Steps, he placed the party’s flame symbol atop the obelisk and the illuminated with spotlights.
« You can do whatever you want with a flame, but everyone understood that Almirante was making a deeply emotional appeal to keep the spirit of fascism alive, » he said.
WHAT DO THE ITALIANS THINK?
In general, the party’s neo-fascist roots seem to be more of a concern abroad than at home. Some historians explain that by noting a certain historical amnesia here and the general comfort of Italians in living with the relics of fascism as evidence that Italy never truly repudiated the fascist party and Mussolini in the same way as Germany repudiated National Socialism and Hitler.
While Germany has gone through a long and painful process of coming to terms with its past, Italians have, in many ways, simply turned willful blindness to their own.
Brown University historian David Kertzer notes that there are 67 institutes for the study of resistance to fascism in Italy, and virtually no centers for the study of Italian fascism.
Plus, the architecture and symbols of Mussolini’s time are everywhere: from the EUR district in southern Rome to the Olympic training center on the Tiber, with its obelisk still bearing Mussolini’s name.
The Italian Constitution prohibits the reconstitution of the fascist party, but far-right groups still display the fascist salute and there continues to be an acceptance of fascist symbols in everyday life, said Brennan, Professor Rutgers.
« You don’t have to look very carefully for the signs, » Brennan said in a phone interview. « A quarter of all manhole covers in Rome still have the fascias on them. »
DOES THIS MEAN THAT ITALIANS SUPPORT FASCISM?
If history is any guide, a constant in recent Italian political elections is a vote for change, with a desire for something new seemingly overtaking traditional political ideology in big pendulum shifts, said Nathalie Tocci, director from the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs.
Tocci said the popularity of the Brothers of Italy in 2022 was evidence of this « violent » left-right shift that is more about Italian discontent than any surge of neo-fascist or far-right sentiment.
“I would say the biggest reason a lot of that – say 25-30% – will vote for this party is just because it’s the new kid on the block,” she said.
Meloni always speaks respectfully of MSI and Almirante, though his rhetoric may change depending on his audience.
This summer, speaking in perfect Spanish, she thundered at a rally of Spain’s far-right Vox party: « Yes to the natural family. No to the LGBT lobby. Yes to sexual identity. No to gender ideology.
Back home on the campaign trail, she projected a much more moderate tone and called for unity in her victory speech on Monday.
« Italy chose us, » she said. « We will not betray him, as we never have. »