In a passionate letter, Alfio Bernabei argues that Italy’s president should mark the anniversary of Mussolini’s rise with an apology – and stand against the fascist resurgence
Dear President Sergio Mattarella,
Heads of state are often expected to respond to important anniversaries marking crucial episodes in the history of the countries they represent. They do so to give a lead, to set an example, to ensure that such significant events are not undermined by neglect or historical amnesia.
You are now facing what is arguably one of the most critical anniversaries in Italian history: the 100th anniversary of the birth of fascism. All I can hear from Italy about this centenary is a deafening silence. Why? Haven’t there been any preparations to mark this date? Is the country going to pretend that it isn’t in the calendar?
Well, it is. Most historians would agree that the date of the birth of fascism is 23 March 1919, when Benito Mussolini launched the fasci di combattimento, the fighting fasci, a movement that was meant to embrace everyone, “from the very, very intelligent to the ignorant and illiterate”, around the notion of … Italy first. “Today Italy is bigger and larger,” he said “We have in our blood elements of greatness.”
If the language sounds familiar it’s because alarm over nationalist sentiments, propelling a climate of aggressive behaviour and racism so reminiscent of the ingredients of fascism, is becoming more widespread by the day. Shouldn’t this centenary provide an opportunity for a major demonstration of what many observers describe as an urgent need to form a wall of resistance against this renewed fascist threat?
Haven’t you heard – in your own country – the worries expressed over the resurgence of fascist tendencies and the concern of many observers over some current government representatives who go as far as quoting Mussolini’s slogans to increase their popularity?
I believe you should mark this anniversary year with a series of appearances designed as reminders of the threat still posed by this awful invention – one that contributed to the escalation of events leading to the catastrophe of the Second World War, with the cost of over 50 million lives. This centenary could be used to enable the country that wanted to give a fascist lead to the world to instead send out a resounding signal of apology for having delivered such a monster – and show that it can curb what is now seen by many as a creeping legitimation of fascism in politics and society.
You must have heard the awful neologism circulating in Italy at the moment: democratura. It stands for a mixture of democracy and dictatorship (dittatura, in Italian) and alludes to the possibility that the country may slide willingly towards a form of authoritarianism, not enforced initially, but willed through ignorance of the past and expressed through the vote.
Among the events you could lead, I suggest that you should take the cameras into the unseen underground rooms of the Italian state archives in Rome and hold in your hands some of the thousands of files the fascist regime collected, helped by the vast army of spies employed in surveillance.
You could visit the concentration camps set up on Italian soil following the racial laws of 1938 and be seen touring the islands where anti-fascists were imprisoned or kept under house arrest, stopping to mark where the torture of opponents took place. And of course you could visit schools, to give encouragement to the teaching of history that is now under threat.
I would also suggest that it’s never too late to apologise to those countries that were attacked by the fascist regime.
I had the opportunity of meeting you a couple of years ago, and on that occasion I told you how much I had admired a speech in which you staunchly praised the Resistance, quoting a famous line by Piero Calamandrei, a founding father of the Italian Constitution, referring to the need to remain on the paths through the mountains that the partisans walked as they fought against nazifascism. I now beg you to take the opportunity of this anniversary to send a signal to the whole world that Italy has the courage to confront its past, and is ready to take a lead in the vigilance that is needed today.
(This letter was first published in Searchlight spring 2019)