There’s a resurgence of far-right groups in Italy and they’re inspired by Putin

"The Italian right is passing from mobilization to techniques of public intimidation."

Italy's neo-fascist Forza Nuova leader Roberto Fiore speaks during a press conference, in Como, Italy, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Italy's neo-fascist Forza Nuova leader Roberto Fiore speaks during a press conference, in Como, Italy, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

MILAN, ITALY — A dozen masked men in Rome attacked Italian daily La Republicca earlier this month, in a show of renewed confidence by a neofascist element that Italy has long struggled to suppress. The faceless men threw flares at the media outlet’s office — which also houses the publisher L’Espresso Group and a magazine by the same name — and declared “war” on the paper’s publisher.

The attack is just the latest in a stream of fascist actions that often target society’s most vulnerable. The incidents harken back to the dark day’s of Italian fascism.

“The Italian right is passing from mobilization to techniques of public intimidation. The recent attacks on the important media outlets La Repubblica and L’Espresso mimic those of the original squadrists who assaulted socialist, liberal, and Catholic newspaper headquarters and their printers,” Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, told ThinkProgress. “The fragmented left and a public that does not want to come to terms with the crimes of Italian Fascism are a recipe for the right’s further growth.”

Shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump took the oath of office, a slew of characters emerged from the far-right fringe of Europe’s political spectrum and stood for national elections. Some expected Trump’s election to bolster a global wave of far right-wing populism. This was shortly after the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, after all. Election defeats in the Netherlands, France, and Germany returned a sense of normality to the fragility of the European Union — at least temporarily.

The threat of far-right fringe groups, though, was not to win elections to lead European nations, but to push their agendas into the mainstream and make their parties widely accepted.

Germany, in particular, has seen rising popularity for the far-right and anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party. Austria avoided electing a president from a party founded by former Nazis, but then proceeded to form the only government in western Europe with a far-right presence.

And in Italy, a country in which fascism never really went away, the far right is not only politically active but attempting to smash the political norms of liberal democracy.

Ben Ghiat realized this firsthand when a piece she wrote in The New Yorker about Italy’s standing fascist monuments was met with days of social media trolling.

“I woke up to find myself trending in Italy and not in a good way … every newspaper published sarcastic and highly critical articles about me and the piece, and I was besieged by hundreds of trolls on every platform,” she said. “It was crazy, the volume of trolls was so high that my Facebook Messenger would not load for days.”

The spectrum of Italy’s right wing is vast. Closest to the center is the Forza Italia party of former premier Silvio Berlusconi. The 81-year-old’s past governments included members of avowedly neofascist parties. He’s also seeking to overturn a ban on running for the premiership in order to retake power over the peninsula.

Further to the right is the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Lega Nord, led by Matteo Salvini. The Lega Nord enjoys more support in Italy’s north and once advocated for a separate state, but is now trying to make inroads in Italy’s southern regions by targeting immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.

“Extreme right-wing and xenophobic tendencies have been for decades a constant and broadly accepted element of Italian political life,” Matteo Garavoglia, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, told ThinkProgress.

The latest attack on the media offices garnered widespread condemnation from the political mainstream, including from Salvini. More surprisingly, though, another neofascist group called Casa Pound also condemned the attack. Casa Pound, a nativist group named after the fascist American poet Ezra Pound, caused concern after winning a municipal election seat in the Roman suburb of Ostia last month. Following the election victory, the group’s partisans sometimes made brazen displays of support for the fascist party and leadership of Benito Mussolini.

Local media in Italy claims that the far right behind such attacks are funded by Russia and other like-minded movements in Europe. Reports that neofascist groups are forming a European network, with Russian President Vladimir Putin pulling the strings, are often suggestive and hard to substantiate. But there are definite links between anti-immigrant and nativist right-wing groups around the continent.

The attack on La Republicca was accredited to the Forza Nuova (FN), a small, avowedly fascist group. The FN’s leader is Roberto Fiore, who self identifies as an anti-capitalist, anti-communist, Catholic fascist with 11 children. Fiore derives much of his ideology from Julius Evola — a fascist whose ideology has been cited by Steve Bannon. In the 1980s, Fiore fled Italy to the United Kingdom after police found explosives and weapons at an FN office. While in exile, Fiore built connections to Nick Griffin, then leader of the xenophobic British National Party — a group whose leaders allegedly have connections to the Kremlin.

“What is certain is that the Italian extreme right is strongly fascinated by the figure of Putin and his way of managing power in Russia, as well as by other radical right leaders in eastern Europe,” Pietro Castelli Gattinara, author of the book The Politics of Migration in Italy: Perspectives on Local Debates and Party, told ThinkProgress via email.

“There is also evidence that some neofascist militants have participated in riots and violence at the time of the Ukrainian crisis, in cooperation with Russian and Ukrainian extremists and militias. Besides that, the extreme right is currently embedded in a dense transnational network, so that actors in Italy are often taking part in joint events with their Greek (e.g. Golden Dawn) or French counterparts (e.g. Les Identitaires),” Castelli Gattinara said.

Italy’s far right continues to cause alarm with targeted attacks like the one on La Repubblica, but they do not enjoy widespread support in the peninsula. Experts aren’t convinced they’ll be storming their way back into power any time soon.

“We have mainly witnessed a re-mobilization by small social movement actors and parties that have long been present in the Italian political scene,” Castelli Gattinara said. “Both actors do not appear to be enjoying much growth in terms of militancy, mobilization potential or electoral success. In the municipality of Ostia, where CasaPound got 10 [percent] of the votes, the turnout was so low that the actual votes in support for CasaPound are no more than [5,000].”

The main concern for the future, then, is the continental and global seeds being planted by these far-right groups. The groups in Europe and the United States are coagulating around similar issues — particularly when it comes to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platforms. A lot of what emerges from the far right is reactionary in nature, but the objective is clear and dangerous.

“Axis 2.0 has been shaping up for some time in Europe,” Ben Ghiat said, “with Putin in the place of Hitler as funder and instigator and United States President Donald Trump helping him and the right achieve their aim of undoing liberal democracy.”