MILAN — “A banner is a banner, nothing more” wrote Giovanni Bianconi on the front page of Corriere della Sera, the leading Italian daily. “But also nothing less.”
His piece flanked a photograph of a crowd in central Milan holding aloft with one arm a banner saying, “Honor to Benito Mussolini,” their other arms outstretched in a Fascist salute. The gathering this week took place not far from Piazzale Loreto, where the Fascist dictator was hung upside down at a gas station after being executed by Italy’s partisan liberators on April 28, 1945.
Lazio fans hang Mussolini banner. Sing Fascist songs, make Roman salutes – ANPI http://www.ansa.it/english/news/politics/2019/04/24/lazio-fans-hang-mussolini-banner_3356361c-3d2a-40e8-b366-be1ad04d341f.html …
Lazio fans hang Mussolini banner – English
Far-right hardcore Lazio ultra fans on Wednesday hung up a banner saying «Honour to Mussolini» near the square in Milan where the Fascist dictator’s body was strung up upside down after his execution…
The crowd was composed mainly of supporters of the Lazio soccer club, whose so-called “ultras” form an extreme-rightist stronghold. It was not a large crowd. Their display of Fascist allegiance will have little practical effect beyond demonstrating again that the unsayable has become legitimate discourse in the age of Trump, and that a white supremacist message has renewed global resonance.
Still, on the eve of Italy’s April 25 national holiday marking the country’s liberation, those raised right arms were shocking. “Honor to Benito Mussolini” is not quite “Honor to Adolf Hitler,” but it is not a million miles from it either.
“Indifference” is the word engraved at the entrance to Milan’s Holocaust Memorial, housed beneath the central railway station where, between 1943 and 1945, Jews were deported to their deaths in Nazi camps. Indifference, in any age, is all it takes for a child to be ripped from its parents.
On the national holiday itself, Matteo Salvini, Italy’s rightist anti-immigrant deputy prime minister and interior minister, chose not to participate in the commemoration, dismissing it as a “Fascist-Communist derby,” a meaningless confrontation of the right and left. He opted instead to go to Corleone in Sicilyto open a new police station, declaring that the important thing today is Italy’s “liberation” from the Mafia.
Liberation is a poor word to devalue, especially when hundreds of thousands have died for it.
Salvini, the leader of the League party and a central figure in the pan-European rightist resurgence, did a disservice to history and honor that will delight his followers. Italy’s liberation by the Allies and partisan resistance forces was not some debatable “derby” devoid of moral significance, but a victory that laid the foundation for Italy’s postwar re-emergence as a decent, democratic country.
All that, however, took place in the faraway 20th century. Words that marked that century’s course — Fascism, Communism, totalitarianism, Holocaust — have become weightless in the 21st century, fungible elements in a furious fake-news theater.
In Israel, “Fascism”becomes a perfume for a rightist minister’s election-campaign ads. In the United States, the “Jews will not replace us” cry of white supremacists does not, for President Trump, constitute unequivocal moral iniquity. In Italy, liberation from Fascism becomes a squalid “derby” for the most powerful figure in the government. Ideas that were solemn, or even sacred, become dog whistles.
Italy abandoned running the world, or a wide swath of it, a long time ago. It’s an exhausting business, as a United States that willhand the mantle to China some time in the second half of the 21st century has found. When you get out of that line of work, the need to maximize efficiency, rationalize effort, raise productivity, modernize relentlessly, is diminished. Other pursuits, like that of beauty or pleasure, tend to take their place, or at least assume greater importance.
Perhaps in such a context, a Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s showman precursor to Trump, or a Matteo Salvini, should be viewed more as theatrical sideshow than anything else. The world needs a country where relief from modernity is still at hand. In Italy, the human gesture, the consoling word, remain everyday currency, whatever Salvini’s machinations.
Yet it is not harmless to raise a banner to Mussolini or dismiss the Liberation. Salvini has emerged in a different context to Berlusconi, one where anti-democratic, illiberal, racist forces are on the rise in Europe and beyond, encouraged by the moral abdication of Trump’s United States.
The ground has become fertile again for different iterations of 20th-century scourges. This month,Salvini announced the formation of a new European alliance of rightist parties, backed by the French politician Marine Le Pen’s National Gathering (formerly the National Front) and including the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD. Their immediate goal is victory in European Parliament elections next month.
Seeing that banner in Milan, I could not help thinking of my late uncle Bert Cohen — “plain-routine, rut-living Bertie Cohen of Johannesburg,” as he put it in his war diary — who, as a young man came all the way from South Africa to join the Allied war effort in Europe, fighting his way across the length of Italy, south to north, and risking his life for Salvini’s “derby.” He would have been incredulous at those Fascist salutes and the minister’s choice of words. He would have been disgusted.
The risk is that a weightless world is indifferent.