Mussolini's heirs shake off their fascist mantle

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The Independent Online
IT WASN'T all that long ago - just a touch more than two years - that Italian neo-fascists in black shirts were parading in Piazza Venezia to mark the 70th anniversary of Mussolini's March on Rome, giving each other one-armed Roman salutes and si nging Fascist hymns.

In those days the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, or MSI, held congresses that were openly nostalgic for the days of Il Duce, with black flags and busts of the great Italian dictator adorning the conference hall, and even the odd hand-to-hand fight in fond tribute to the strong-arm thuggery of Mussolini's squadristi.

How times have moved on. The old political order has collapsed, the MSI has come in from the cold and, with a wave of a magic wand, officially buried its fascist past. Fresh from its experience as a coalition partner in Silvio Berlusconi's short-lived government, the party has, this week, taken the ultimate step towards respectability - declaring itself obsolete at its 17th and final congress in the central spa town of Fiuggi, and regrouping as the mainstream right-wing National Alliance. Such a volte-f ace may not seem very convincing, but it is working.

The architect of this miraculous transformation, party leader Gianfranco Fini, has seen his chance and taken it brilliantly. Less than a year after incautiously declaring Mussolini to be the greatest statesman of the century, he has become the shrewdest,most dynamic politician in the country, able to woo a large swathe of conservative voters while holding on to nearly all of his traditional supporters.

With his fresh face, impeccably neat appearance and fluid speaking style, he has built up a TIN-TIN-like image of sincerity mixed with a beguiling innocence. Having kept well away from scandals gnawing away at Mr Berlusconi, he could well take over the whole of the Italian right if he plays his cards carefully.

At Fiuggi he declared himself unambiguously wedded to parliamentary democracy, eradicating virtually all references to fascism and speaking instead of an unbroken right-wing Italian tradition stretching back to the 19th century. He spoke of his "pain" atwinding up the MSI, but firmly placed his faith in the future rather than the past.

The congress's working document cited Dante, Mazzini and even Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party, as intellectual inspirations, while referring only to the most respectable of fascist-tainted ideologues such as the literary critic Benedetto Croce.

The congress hall was decorated in the same red, white and blue of the French RPR party, the Gaullist movement that Mr Fini has often cited as a model. There was no hint of black drapery, and the fascist hymns were replaced with a brand new party anthem - a rousing, if rather facile, crowd-pleaser called Liberta. Senior party figures were awash with good intentions, from a motion to repudiate anti-Semitism to a condemnation of the death penalty. Delegates faithful to Mr Fini stressed the need to leave the past behind.

"When I was young, half the country was illiterate. Now everyone watches television and follows what's going on. You can't try to repeat history," said one retired teacher in his 70s.

Behind this appealing facade, however, the congress told a rather different story. As the MSI was formally wound up on Friday night, delegates were openly weeping into their order papers.

A founding member of the MSI, Francesco Giulio Baghino, declared himself a fascist through and through, and stuck up for the Roman salute - "if only on hygienic grounds; when you shake someone's hand you never know where it's been".

One small faction, led by the pugnacious hardliner Pino Rauti, decided enough was enough and refused to have anything to do with the new movement. "Fini is drunk on his success. I don't share one jot of what he is saying. He may have a majority in the congress, but outside there are people up in arms at what he is doing," Mr Rauti said.

While Mr Fini was busy persuading the outside world that he had repudiated fascism, many delegates at the congress seemed to be under exactly the opposite impression.

"Of course we are not rejecting fascism. The National Alliance would be nothing with the MSI, and the MSI would be nothing without fascism. You can't let go of that history," said Alessandro Veronese, a 20-year-old law student from Bologna who goes on pilgrimages to Mussolini's home town of Predappio and says prayers for his hero. He said he supported Mr Fini precisely because of his ability to hold contradictory views on such issues as state control of the economy.

"He says he is a liberal, while remaining a corporatist. It's like Mussolini, whose greatness was his ability to remain coherent even when he changed his mind," Mr Veronese said.

Mr Fini's core electorate at the congress did not exactly exude mainstream respectability. To be sure, there was a healthy showing of admirers aping Mr Fini's young fogey image, sporting waistcoats and keeping their hair conservatively short. But most ofthe crowd looked like the adoring, aggressively masculine, masses who follow Jean-Marie Le Pen on his rallies - half of them in naff Polyester suits and loud ties, their wives smeared with loud make-up and dripping in cheap jewellery; the others lookingmean with shaved heads, sharp suits and dark glasses, like a gaggle of nightclub bouncers on a boys' day out.

Everywhere were disconcerting signs of physical disfigurement - a squashed nose here, a missing limb there - suggesting a bruising history of bar brawls and street fights with uppity leftists.

The MSI has plenty to be ashamed of, from its lingering adulation of Mussolini to its suspect links with right-wing terrorist groups, but Mr Fini has managed to draw a veil over the past without in any way apologising for it.

"The right is not the progeny of fascism. The values of the right predate fascism, existed through it and have survived it," says the Congress's working document.

Mr Fini is not so much repudiating fascism as pretending he never had anything to do with it. As the National Alliance's popularity grows - polls credit it with about one-sixth of the electorate - it seems his efforts to make Italy forgive and forget thepast are, finally, paying off.

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