The trashing of a song – however illustrious its history – is a minor issue compared with the social divisions that a future government led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini’s League would foment. But the radical right’s targeting of the Italian liberation anthem Bella Ciao during the current election campaign is nevertheless instructive.
Over the years, this ballad of a young partisan who says goodbye to his lover and heads for the mountains to fight Hitler and Mussolini has become an international hymn to liberty. Yves Montand, whose family fled fascist Italy for France, enhanced its fame by recording it in 1964. The folk singer Mercedes Sosa, having escaped the clutches of Argentina’s military junta, gave a famous rendition in Milan in 1983. More recently, in the Middle East, Kurdish fighters adopted it as they fought Isis.
Each year on 25 April, as Italy commemorates its liberation from fascist dictatorship in 1945, Bella Ciao is sung at parties and gatherings across the country. But for obvious reasons – its celebration of the defeat of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, the rump fascist state established in northern Italy in 1943 – the song has never featured on the playlists of the Italian far right. Directly after the war, supporters of Mussolini founded the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which saw the dictator’s demise as something to mourn rather than celebrate. Throughout the postwar decades, such views were robustly relegated to the margins of national life, but lingered on in a twilight world of post-fascist nostalgia.
In recent years, however, Italy’s modern radical right has felt emboldened to wage a culture war against one of the world’s favourite freedom songs. In recent years, far-right politicians have questioned the use of Bella Ciao in schools and described it as a recruitment tool for the politically correct left. During the current election campaign, the sledging appeared to pay off when a well-known singer, Laura Pausini, refused to sing the song on the grounds that it was “too political”. This week, Mr Salvini hailed Ms Pausini’s decision as a victory against leftwing propaganda. “The left will be saying Bella Ciao to power after the election,” he said.
Bella Ciao is not a leftwing song; it is not leftwing to oppose fascism and insist on universal human rights and freedom from oppression. But it is a song that draws uncomfortable attention to past connections the modern far right wants to airbrush out of history. Brothers of Italy comes from the same political tradition as the MSI and its successor, the National Alliance. Its logo still carries the MSI’s tricolour flame.
A Brothers of Italy election candidate has just been suspended by the party, after a Facebook post was discovered in which he praised Hitler and described Ms Meloni as a “modern fascist”, a claim she denies. As the party seeks to enter the respectable mainstream, the true propaganda is coming from those who seek to undermine and confuse Italy’s collective memory of the horrors of fascism and the political forces that were responsible.