Nativist Nationalism and the Specter of Fascism in Italy


Lombard League, Northern League, League: in recent years the regionalist formation, which had emerged in Lombardy in the 1980s as the vocal representative of autonomist and anti-southern sentiment in the rich northern region, has converted into a nativist Italian nationalist party and solidified an alliance with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France (recently renamed Rassemblement National to shed the antisemitic baggage linked to its founder).[1] The full transformation of the League from a regional to a national party was sanctioned by the elections of March 2018 when it obtained its best results in a national election (17 percent). Since June of last year, the League has been in power in a coalition government with the populist Five Star Movement. A most troubling feature of the League is the way in which it has made racism acceptable and mainstream by campaigning with the slogan “Italians first.” Another concerning feature is the way its leader, the ruthless demagogue Matteo Salvini, poses as strongman, further legitimizing authoritarian impulses that seem to be latent in the birthplace of fascism.  In what follows, I will offer some reflections on these recent political developments in light of their relation, on the one hand, to the dominant conception of Italian identity, enshrined in a citizenship law strongly based on ius sanguinis, and, on the other, to the legacy of the fascist past, a past some seem eager to resurrect.

The League’s abandonment of the reference to the North of Italy (which the League called “Padania”) expresses the new identity of the party, which wants to appeal to the population of the entire Peninsula. In spite of its still relatively meager result in the South (where the Five Star Movement dominated the 2018 elections), the League has acquired even more popularity after it entered the coalition government formed in June 2018.  In this government, the League’s leader Matteo Salvini occupies the post of Minister of Interior as well as that of Vice-Prime Minister (sharing the latter post with the leader of the Five Stars Movement, Luigi Di Maio). Recent polls claim that the League is now favored by about 31 percent of the electorate (in contrast, the party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, which until the previous elections of 2013 used to be the main party of the center-right, has shrunk to 9 percent).[2]

This growth in popularity has a lot to do with its harsh stance against migrants and refugees.  Immediately after becoming Minister of the Interior, Salvini blocked the entry into Italian ports of the NGOs’ boats that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. Then, in October 2018, the government passed a law devoted to matters of immigration and security.  The combination of the two was not, of course, casual since it served to strengthen the perception of migration in terms of a crime/law-and-order issue. Enacted with the support of almost all the deputies of the League’s coalition partner, this law includes drastic limitations to the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, the reduction of funding for their subsistence and integration, and the abolition of humanitarian protection for those not eligible for refugee status.[3] The law also doubles the time that the public administration can take to respond to an application for citizenship (from two to four years), increasing what was already a pretty lengthy time for a person to wait in a legal limbo for the decision of an often very slow bureaucracy.

The League wants to put the “Italians first.” But who are the Italians? Until recently, race was not mentioned explicitly when speaking of Italian identity. But these days even this post-Holocaust taboo seems to be on its way out, as the paranoid representation of immigration as an attempt at “ethnic substitution” and other language of this kind is spreading. Originally peddled by the lunatic fringe of the extreme right, this kind of talk is now insinuating itself into the mainstream. Race, however, does not need to be mentioned, it is implicit in the way historically the Italian people and “Italianness” have been constructed, and this is the “unsaid” of much Italian talk about identity. Due to a citizenship law mainly based on ius sanguinis and to a very low rate of naturalization,[4] there are many residents of Italy who are not Italian citizens, even if they were born and have always lived in the country. Often, they happen to have  dark skin.  “Non ci sono Italiani negri” – there are no black Italians – is a slogan that has often been seen or heard in stadiums, at soccer games, among the racist fans of various Italian clubs.  “Whites first:” that’s what most people hear when Salvini shouts “Italians first.”

For a long time in the past, the reference to race in the discourse on Italian identity was explicit, and I am referring not only to the fascist period, when racism was institutionalized, but also to the pre-fascist past, the period of the liberal state, and even earlier, during the Risorgimento, the nineteenth-century struggle for national independence and unification. To the question “who are the Italians?” the answer was: they are a people, but also a race, a European race, and thus a white race. It may have been a white of a different shade, a Mediterranean white, but still white it was. Later, colonialism and fascism asserted the whiteness of the Italians with a vengeance. Following the occupation of Ethiopia, laws against interracial unions were introduced in the colonies in 1937, and three years later another piece of racist legislation banned the granting of Italian citizenship to mixed-race children. In 1938 fascism also declared the Italians to be an “Aryan” race, while excluding from the Italian people the tiny Jewish minority (one tenth of one percent of the population) and stripping them of all their rights as Italian citizens.[5]

The “somatic norm” of the nation continued to exist in the minds of most Italians, even after the abrogation of the fascist racist legislation. In spite of a democratic constitution that rejects any discrimination based on nationality or race, the persisting racial conception of the Italianness became particularly salient in the context of the transformation of Italy since the 1980s from an emigrant-sending to an immigrant-receiving country.  Its reluctance to come to terms with this change is remarkable. In 1992, a new citizenship law strengthened the principle of ius sanguinis by granting descendants of Italians living abroad the possibility of obtaining citizenship, while making the same option more difficult for non-EU immigrants to Italy.  As a result, Italy today has a considerable number of residents without citizenship and one of the lowest rates of naturalization in Europe. While motivated by several factors, the law of 1992 already reflected a growing hostility to immigration from non-European countries that had become visible in the previous decade, when tensions and worse between, for example, Italians shopkeepers and immigrant street vendors became the order of the day.

The League was among the parties that in the past few years vehemently opposed any reform of the citizenship law intended to make it easier for children of immigrant parents born in Italy to obtain citizenship on the basis of an expansion of ius soli in combination with ius culturae (namely the possession of an Italian school degree).  Its hostility to this reform (eagerly awaited by about 800,000 possible beneficiaries)[6] combined with its “law and order” profile have gained the party of Salvini the support of extreme right and neo-fascist formations. One of these is Forza Nuova, a group that incites paranoia about the so-called “ethnic substitution” that is supposedly taking place in Italy, not to mention the “Islamicization” of the country.  In a recent interview, one of the League’s supporters in Rome boasted that the League is fascist in all but its name, and that that was the reason he was voting for it.[7]

Whether the League is or not fascist is of course debatable, but in the current circumstance this is a purely academic discussion. The fact is that under Salvini’s leadership the party has gained a vast consensus from the extreme right of the electorate.  Moreover, the leader of the League knows how to entice fascist sympathizers all over the country by donning police (or firefighter) uniforms as he travels the whole Peninsula in his role of Minister of Interior. The message to uniform lovers of all kinds is clear, even though he likes to peddle also a “softer” national-popular side on Twitter and other social media by posting his favorite foods. As other political actors on the right have shrunk, Salvini is bound to become the new prime minister in case the current government falls and is replaced, as is most likely, by a purely right-wing coalition.

Unfortunately, in the face of these troubling developments, the opposition is a spectacle of weakness and ineptitude. Internal divisions in the center-left/center right coalition – in power from 2013 to 2018 – already prevented the passage of a new citizenship law. The moderate/centrist parties share a great deal of responsibility for this failure, but it is the weakness of the left in general that is the most worrisome feature in the current political moment. The government coalition in power includes the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which claims to be post-ideological, namely beyond the traditional opposition between left and right.  Its platform contains policies that one associates with both the left (such as a “reddito di cittadinanza,” a social income for the unemployed) and the right (such as opposition to immigration).[8]  Its behavior in power has inevitably been opportunistic.

Appropriating what used to be the anti-establishment sentiment of the left, the Five Star Movement has been able to attract some support from people who used to vote for leftist parties and the center-left Democratic Party. The latter, having espoused neo-liberal economic policies as well as a tougher stance on immigration, has thrown away most of its residual left identity and credibility, and the small formations to the left have not been able to offer a credible alternative either. The latter has now a negligible representation in national institutions.

In this desolate scenario, aside from the opposition that emerges from civil society, the only resistance at the institutional level seems to be offered by the judiciary branch, which has criticized various aspects of the securitarian legislation introduced by the new government for being at odds with the Italian Constitution.  A Sicilian court recently charged Salvini with kidnapping in connection with last summer’s events concerning the Diciotti, an Italian coastal guard cutter which for a week was not allowed to disembark some 180 migrants it had rescued in the Mediterranean.[9]  Opposition has also been voiced by the leftist mayors of some major cities who have raised objections to – if not completely rejected – the application of the new securitarian legislation which would “invisibilize” many migrants and refugees, depriving them of access to basic health and other services.  But this is not enough – and the courts are not always on the side of a humanitarian approach, as is shown by the case of Domenico Lucano, the mayor of Riace, the Calabrian village that rose to international fame in recent years for its welcoming initiatives towards migrants. Last October Lucano was indicted for allegedly abetting clandestine immigration and was obliged to leave town.[10]

These political developments in a country that has never really come to terms with its fascist and colonial past should be a cause of great concern for all people who care about democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.  Last year Italy marked the eightieth anniversary of Mussolini’s laws that institutionalized antisemitic racism, introducing a vast series of discriminations against the tiny Jewish minority.  Those laws were introduced amid general indifference in the country.  This infamous past is not very far away in time.  Italy is drifting in a dangerous direction and Italians who remember and are ashamed of that past need to muster all their forces to oppose this drifting.  More than ever, historians and other scholars who are sensitive to the urgent questions of the present have a lot of work to do to make the public reflect critically about the racist and discriminatory nature of the slogan which has brought the League to power: “Italians first.”


Silvana Patriarca is a Professor of History at Fordham University. She is the author of Numbers and Nationhood: Writing Statistics in Nineteenth-Century Italy and of Italian Vices: Nation and Character from the Risorgimento to the Republic (both published by Cambridge University Press), and co-editor of The Risorgimento Revisited: Nationalism and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Italy (Palgrave Macmillan). She is currently at work on a book on race and the boundaries of the nation in post-fascist Italy and has recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Modern Italy devoted to “Nation, ‘Race’, and Racisms in Twentieth-Century Italy.”


[1] D. Albertazzi, A. Giovannini, and A. Seddone, “‘No Regionalism, please, we are /Leghisti/!’ The Transfomation of the Italian Lega Nord under the Leadership of Matteo Salvini,” /Regional and Federal Studies/, 28:5 (2018), and S. Patriarca, “A Crisis of Italian Identity? The Northern League and Italy’s Renationalization Since the 1990s,” in R. Kaiser and J. Edelmann, eds. /Crisis as a Permanent Condition? The Italian Political Syste between Transition and Reform Resistance/ (Baden-Baden, Nomos, 2016).

[2] The data on polls come from (last access on 26 January, 2019).

[3] See Steve Sherer, “Salvini gets win with new asylum and security rules,” accessible at (last access 29 January 2019).

[4] See G. Zincone, ed., Familismo legale. Come (non) diventare italiani (Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2006).

[5] See M. Sarfatti, The Jews in Mussolini’s Italy. From Equality to Persecution (Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 2006). For an historical overview of the racial identity of the Italians see G. Giuliani and C. Lombard-Diop, Bianco e nero. Storia dell’identità razziale degli italiani (Florence, Le Monnier, 2013).

[6] See “I ‘nuovi italiani nella riforma della cittadinanza: l’impatto dello ius soli in Italia,” available at (last access 29 January 2019).

[7] See “Manifestazione Lega, in piazza con i simboli del fascismo: ‘Cambia il nome, le idee sono le stesse’,” available at (last access 29 January 2019).

[8] The position of the movement on the issue of immigration can be seen on its website (last access 28 January 2019).  For an analysis of the movement and its voters see P. Corbetta, ed., M5s. Come cambia iI partito di Grillo (Bologna, Il Mulino, 2017).

[9] See “Court in Italy rules Matteo Salvini should be tried for kidnapping” available at (last access 26 January 2019).

[10] See “Mimmo Lucano, Italy’s migrant-friendly mayor, banned from Riace,” available at (last access 29 January 2019).


Photo: ITALY – CIRCA 1941: mail stamp printed in Italy showing Hitler and Mussolini
Published on February 5, 2018.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email