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Fascism of the past still casts a shadow on Italy’s politics and anti-immigration rhetoric, Northeastern researcher says

Attitudes toward migrants in Italy are influenced by its colonial past, but politicians refuse to admit it, Marianna Griffini writes in her book, “The Politics of Memory in the Italian Populist Radical Right.”

Cover of the book "The Politics of Memory in the Italian Populist Radical Right"
“The Politics of Memory in the Italian Populist Radical Right,” written by Northeastern professor Marianna Griffini. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

LONDON — Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing Brothers of Italy party won just 4% of the vote in the 2018 general election.

But during a national poll just four years later, she was swept to power when a quarter of the electorate backed her organization — which can trace its roots to Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — in a result that crowned her Italy’s first female prime minister.

The rise of this traditionalist pro-life and pro-family politician took some Western commentators by surprise, but a Northeastern University researcher says she saw it coming after interviewing elected members of Meloni’s and other populist right-wing parties in Italy.

Marianna Griffini, a London-based assistant professor in international relations and anthropology, spent time between 2017 and 2021 interviewing elected politicians at both a local and national level representing the parties Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) and Lega about their views on immigration and Italy’s colonial past.

“In the interviews, I could already sense her rise,” Griffini says. “She is very charismatic. Her disciples … they were all in awe of Meloni and they were all quite confident about her rise to power.”

Griffini made the comments while speaking at an event held last month on Northeastern’s London campus to promote her book, “The Politics of Memory in the Italian Populist Radical Right,” which was published by Routledge.

The book argues that the anti-immigration stance of the radical right — the label Griffini attaches to these populist parties — is heavily influenced by Italy’s colonial history.

Marianna Griffini. Courtesy photo

But her thesis is that these politicians refuse to acknowledge the colonial link due to reasons ranging from associating the memory of empire-building with the country’s 20th-century fascist era, to a public perception in Italy that their countrymen were well-behaved abroad during the days of colonialism

Whereas the Mediterranean Sea was seen by Mussolini, the dictator who ruled between 1922 and 1943, as a route to delivering Italy’s imperial ambitions, Griffini concludes that, for right-wing politicians today, the sea instead invokes a sense of danger associated with the fear of “the other” and the perceived threat that immigration represents to Italy’s traditional way of life.

The way in which migrants are spoken about by members of the Brothers of Italy and Lega, whose leader Matteo Salvini serves as Meloni’s deputy in a three-way coalition government of the right, stands out when compared to the accepted public narrative in other Western European countries.

In interviews that she has anonymized in her book, Griffini says some of the politicians used “inferiorizing language” and “slurs” about migrants living in Italy, suggesting they were “odd people” who were involved in criminal behavior, helped to spread illnesses or did not wash regularly.

“Many times my interviewees were alluding to the alleged poor hygiene practice of migrants,” Griffini says.

The politicians did not regard their views as racist, she says, but instead a way of pointing out that such people have “different culture, different habits and traditions, different ways of life” to native Italians.

These politicians see themselves as giving a voice to the people, arguing that they amplify what the common Italian is thinking, Griffini says, and would be appalled at being labeled “racist” — a term that is linked to fascism. 

Griffini, who hails from northern Italy, proposes that it is possible to “trace connections between the discourse on the colonized and the discourse on immigrants nowadays” among right-wing politicians.

She says nationalists during Italy’s colonial period saw people they ruled over abroad as “inherently inferior — illogical, superstitious, uncivilized and without manners.”

“There were even some rules on how to keep the colonized separate from the colonizers,” according to Griffini, in a move designed to prevent Italian men from having relations with women from the colonies.

But during her interviews with radical right politicians, Griffini found they did not want to engage with the memory of Italy’s former empire, during which it controlled the African countries of Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, because it is connected to the fascist past and a period of history now regarded with national “shame.”

Griffini makes the case that Meloni, who has previously been on record praising Mussolini because “everything he did, he did for Italy,” but has since looked to distance herself from fascist rule, is among those keen to dispel the memory of colonialism. 

In April 2023, the prime minister visited Ethiopia, where pictures shared by the Italian government showed her embracing young local children.

Despite the east African country being a former colony, Meloni shot down questions about whether her trip was an acknowledgement of the past.

But, even if it is “unconsciously,” Griffini argues the rhetoric of the radical right is “imbued with colonial themes” because of its “anti-immigrant attitude.”

Speaking to Northeastern Global News after her book promotion event, Griffini said: “In Italy, we don’t talk about racism. But these anti-immigrant attitudes are very predominant with radical right politicians.”

They do not refrain themselves from going down this path, she says.

“However, they would never tell you anything about colonialism. They use very similar language — not the same, of course, but very similar. It is recontextualized for modern times,” Griffini says.

“Yet if you ask them something about colonialism, they would brush it off. For instance, in that example of Meloni in Ethiopia last year hugging children, a journalist asked her ‘Does the colonial past have any role in this visit?’

“She brushed it off and said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to talk anymore about colonialism.’”

Griffini says Meloni’s attitude is indicative of the national mood when it comes to remembering the colonial past, adding that “Italians have always absolved themselves from any possible misbehavior abroad.” 

While in Ethiopia, Meloni used the trip to promote Italy’s so-called Mattei Plan — named after influential Italian post-war administrator Enrico Mattei who brokered oil deals with African and Middle Eastern nations — that focuses on co-operation on energy and curbing migration flows from Africa.

It is Griffini’s view that the government’s development plan is not about rebranding colonization but, instead, it looks to ignore it entirely. 

“I do not think Meloni is making any sort of association with colonization,” she says. “I don’t think she is trying to rescue the Italian poor record in the past, the record of subjugation. 

“In her diplomatic visits, she was saying, ‘We are bringing a good kind of development, a new one; we are bringing new jobs.’ She is creating a sugar-coated image of development, conscious of the fact there is a lot of criticism of development projects.

“The fact she hasn’t engaged with the question of the past with the countries that have post-colonial links with Italy is a telltale sign of how this past has been removed.”