How Fascism Lingered in Post-War Italy

Two dates symbolising radical change and a new, long-awaited life are enshrined in the memory of Italian citizens: July 25th and September 8th, 1943. On the former, a no-confidence vote was passed at the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo against Mussolini, forcing a change in government with Marshal Pietro Badoglio taking the reins of the Italian Kingdom; on the latter, Badoglio announced via radio that an armistice with the Allied forces had been signed, and that any act of hostility against the Anglo-American forces had to cease.

Nevertheless, for the following two years, in the North the battle between the anti-fascist resistance and the Nazi occupiers continued to rage on. Even without Mussolini, fascism was still well and alive, especially in the South. Fascism, in the words of PCI (Italian Communist Party) leader Palmiro Togliatti, was far ‘too serious a thing […] to think you could rid yourself of it with a wave of your hand’ (cited in Crainz, 2009: 29). This article will demonstrate three types of continuity that characterised post-War Italy: the legal-bureaucratic apparatus, the cultural mindset, and the organisation of the so-called ‘State parties’.

Figure 1: The front page of Italy's biggest newspaper on September 8th, 1943, relaying the news of the armistice and the end of hostilities with the Anglo-Americans [Photo]. Wikipedia.

Legal and bureaucratic continuity

The continuity in the legal and bureaucratic system was undoubtedly the most overt of the three. Yet, at the same time, it was also the most resistant to change. This line of continuity was both physical and legal. It was physical in that the same people who had climbed the ladder of the judiciary and bureaucracy during the fascist regime kept their posts, even after the advent of the Republic. The absence of a generational change could be boiled down to the intersectionality between the political sphere of the State and its administrative system on the one hand, and the inefficacy of the epuration laws on the other. Such continuity was also legal due to the persistence of sets of rules and laws from the fascist period that prevented the new ruling elite from demarcating a clear boundary with the past.

In the summer of 1944, the High Commissioner for Sanctions against Fascism Carlo Sforza claimed that if every person who worked at the Ministry of Interior and who had had compromising relations with the previous regime were to be sacked, then the Ministry would go missing over two-thirds of its own employees. At the same time, these very same fascist-era bureaucrats and jurists were merely seeking a reassuring and secluded world where they could find patronage and security without any further political aspiration (Melis, 2001).

It is no wonder then that the various decrees aimed at removing fascists from the new civil services, such as Decree No. 159 of the Bonomi government, had very little effect. In fact, as Ponzani (2011: 122) notes, ‘the punishment of fascists was halted thanks to an amnesty, as the post-war State expressed its desire to return to conditions of “normalcy”.’ The accusations moved by the socialists and the communists against the tendency of the government to eschew exemplary punishments for fascist old-timers were not unreasonable. According to them, it was a missed opportunity for ‘the entire country to collectively examine its conscience in relation to the causes that had led to fascism’s success’ (Tarchi, 2010: 388). In other words: a failed attempt at discontinuity.

Figure 2: Photo of a tribunal under the fascist regime. [Photo] Il Blog dell'esca.

The desire for continuity within the administrative system generated two paradoxes. The first was the refusal of several judges to apply the decrees against fascism (Ponzani, 2011: 124). Why would they, after all, enact laws that harmed their own status? Secondly, despite a much-needed de-politicisation of the judiciary, the continuity in the magistracy allowed the same judges who had served under the fascist period to use trials as a political weapon to persecute or intimidate former partisans and communist supporters (on this topic, see Conti, 2017). The aim was to ‘create negative images in the public mind concerning the struggle for national liberation’ to justify the mounting fear of communism (Ponzani, 2011: 129).

A further element that helped the legal-bureaucratic apparatus survive was the reluctance of the new ruling elite to opt for a clean slate. After being excluded from political life for over twenty years, politicians did not feel ready to govern by themselves. As Maranini (1999: 323) stresses, those times were not ‘ripe for a profound revision of [some] concepts’ that would allow the Constituent Assembly to build a more modern form of democracy. However, it was not just the inadequacy of the new ruling class that hindered the process of renewal. The juridical order, writes Rodotà (2001), retained the whole corpus of the criminal code and public security regulations together with many more repressive laws, such as those stating the superiority of a man over his wife. But such legal absurdities were just the surface of a deeper malaise: the perpetuation of the cultural mindset from the fascist era.

Figure 3: Photo of a school classroom under the fascist regime. [Photo] Gardapost

The continuity of the cultural mind-set

Twenty years of ‘forced collectivism’ brought the Italian people to see individualism as a disvalue rather than an exaltation of their own personal worth. As such, the principle of individualism on which modern Western democracies are based failed to properly reach the masses. Three elements, in particular, hampered this transition: a scarce knowledge of Italian reality; the lack of a project of economic re-building; and the underestimation of the weight and force of the fascist legacy (cited in Crainz, 2009: 49). The following paragraphs will analyse the latter in particular.

The National Fascist Party (PNF) had acted as the ‘great pedagogue’ during the dictatorship, but forged Musilian ‘men without qualities’ unprepared for a democratic way of political life (Gentile, 2000). The values they had acquired during the regime had made them soldier-citizens, ready to fight for the fascist cause. Yet, there would be no harder task than to find meeker political men in the newly democratic country. There was a simple reason for this: as fascism evolved from mere movement to institutionalised regime, it became a middle-class phenomenon. The revolutionary drive of the early 1920s had lost its spark, and the anger against the corruption and inadequacy of the liberal regime of the first post-War was substituted by a life of bourgeoise complacency. As a commentator noted back in 1946, ‘the end of fascism left a society modelled after conformism and used to it’ (cited in Gentile, 2008: 60). A collective mindset, and a subservient one at that, was the necessary outcome of fascist indoctrination.

Even political parties were not exempt from the legacy of the fascist period. They were weak in that they had to regain the trust of the people, but they still enjoyed important external support, and retained features typical of the PNF. In particular, the Christian Democrats (Democrazia Cristiana, DC) and the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano, PCI) were the epitome of Partiti-chiesa, parties that had a huge apparatus behind them, but whose true strength lay in their dogmatism. The DC, much like the old liberal parties, gained its power from the simple fact of being in power. It was not strong, as its territorial diffusion was not widespread (Mattera, 2004), but it had two powerful allies: the USA and the Catholic Church. Thus, it was by virtue of being in power, rather than by employing grassroots activism, that the DC was able to permeate the strata of bureaucracy to appoint prefects and other local governmental bodies, and install a clientele network, much in the fashion of the PNF.

Figure 4: Poster from the 1948 general elections, where the DC uses the communism scare as an electoral tactic. [Drawing]. Il Corriere della Sera.

Conversely, the PCI had a capillary extensive network, but lacked the privileged power position of the DC (the PCI has never been a governing coalition party). Thanks to the help of the Soviet Union, the PCI undertook a massive campaign of re-education of its constituency, in order to promote the values of democracy, socialism, and equality. This required encompassing discipline, as well as strict pedagogy and dogmatism. It was then ironic that, while promoting anti-fascist values, the PCI ended up looking like a pseudo-fascist organisation, whose tenets were based on the ‘disvalue of individualism’, on ‘militancy as a lifestyle’, and on the ‘absolute primacy of politics’ (Crainz, 2009: 63-4).

Therefore, it is not far-fetched to think that even in the ruling elites, a collectivist, power-driven mentality to which politicians had grown wont during the previous regime still prevailed. A question, however, remains. In what way did political parties - particularly the DC - represent an element of continuity with the fascist period? As shall be seen, there was continuity both in their characteristics and in their mentality.

The continuity of the State-parties

In 1945, the Italian political elites agreed to support a government led by the leader of the small Partito d'Azione, Ferruccio Parri, who was one of the most ardent supporters of anti-fascist resistance. Some saw in his appointment the opportunity to put the past behind and promote a new 'government of the resistance' as a symbol of democratic transition (Conti, 2017). However, the Parri government failed to deliver any substantial reform on several counts. First, Parri had always been meant as a caretaker during the transition period to democracy rather than a harbinger of a new political order. Secondly, his appointment intended to avoid that one of the three big parties (Christian-Democrats, Socialists, and Communists) could steer the transition in their preferred direction. Finally, the fall of his short-lived term revealed all its underlying frailties: the parties preferred to listen to the old, conservative, liberal elite to which Parri had a strong aversion (Orsina, 2007).

Figure 5: Ferruccio Parri, second from the left, leading a march for liberation in 1945 in Milan. [Photo]. ANPC Nazionale

Thus, what the transition from fascism to democracy did was merely transform the political system from one characterised by a single-party rule to another in which ‘particracy’ (the rule of the parties) became the norm (cited in Crainz, 2009: 25). In fact, if the characteristics of these State-parties (mass politics, politics as career, collusion between State and party interests, and political affiliation as a guarantee of privileges) were to be analysed, the similarities with the old regime would be far too striking to be ignored. A State-party, however, is not simply a mass, catch-all party. Its purpose is to build careers around politics (Panebianco, 1993). The shrewdest may even reach the upper echelons of the party, using it as a tool for personal interests. The Mani Pulite scandal, which was the cusp of a series of scandals unveiled in the 1970s and 1980s, was perhaps the most exemplary case of such abuse of power deriving from holding a high-end rank within the party. This phenomenon was not born with the Republic, but endured well into it because of the prevailing mentality of the fascist regime: at the time, in fact, it was a common occurrence for party cadres to go unpunished for their abuse of office, unless the Duce took a disliking to them (Conti, 2017).

Another characteristic distinguishing State-parties lies in their very role. As the political scientist Angelo Panebianco (1993) wrote in an op-ed piece, the reason why parties created a political microcosm is to be found in the very absence of the State. As was noted earlier, after 1945 the bureaucratic apparatus was in disarray, but managed to carry on the fascist-era modus operandi. At the same time, however, it became extremely permeable to the advances of political parties, who were offering political patronage to ensure the very continuity bureaucrats were seeking. As Melis (2009: 223) notes, this created a political-administrative microcosm which did not necessarily entail overt adherence to certain party principles as was the case during the fascist regime, but which was nonetheless emblematic of the overarching nature of the new State-parties. This development was particularly clear in the structure of the DC, which coupled its Catholicism with the favourable international situation, promoting anti-communism and stability as ancillary values. In a situation of uncertainty, as are all democratic transitions, the DC managed to become, in the eyes of bureaucrats, the only sensible solution.

Figure 6: Caricature drawing of clientelism in politics. [Illustration] Collegio Cardenal Larraona

Thus, from the imperfect totalitarianism that was fascism, post-War Italy soon moved to imperfect bipartisanship, dominated by the DC and countervailed by its main political opponent, the PCI – neither of which managed to offer a bureaucratic, cultural or political break with the past. As such, in the guise of democratic stability, the legacy of the structure and mindset of the fascist regime managed to covertly live on.


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Image references

Author Photo

Marco Schito

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