Against insidious populism –

Against insidious populism –

Mario Neri is 96 and was a partisan. Mattia Santori is 35 and one of the leaders of the sardine movement. What do you think of Italy’s new government, of resistance and freedom?

From Bologna Judith Eisinger

Mario Neri’s resistance began in 1944. He lives with his family in a suburb of Bologna, has just come of age and has recently been drafted into the military. A local resistance fighter gathers the young people who have been called up and explains to them: You are at a crossroads – conscription or Resistenza, armed resistance.

The young Neri joins the resistance against the Italian fascists and the German occupation, the old Neri, who talks about it, shakes his head at his own recklessness. “What were the partisans for us? We were uneducated, without any culture. We worked from an early age.” From then on he lived hidden in the fields, adopted an alias, and smuggled weapons. He is taken prisoner by the Germans, sees many of his fellow combatants die, is imprisoned – but he survives.

Mattia Santori’s resistance begins in autumn 2019, with a click on Facebook. The Bolognese invites three friends to a flash mob called “6,000 sardines against Salvini” and organizes a demonstration against the election campaign appearance of the right-wing populist leader of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, in Bologna.

The idea is simple: on the evening of the Lega rally, Santori wants to fill the city’s central piazza with people who oppose Salvini’s hate speech, hate speech against refugees and exclusion. Almost 6,000 participants have been announced for Salvini’s event, so the goal is: 6,000 people against Salvini on the piazza, crowded like sardines.

There are over 10,000 coming. They hold self-made colorful fish in the air. Among them was Elly Schlein, then just in the election campaign for a progressive left movement, today the newly elected chair of the Partito Democratico. In the months that followed, the sardine movement spread across the country, and peaceful demonstrations took place in dozens of cities.

More than three years have passed since then. Salvini’s Lega is in power alongside Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. As soon as the government is formed, a number of personal details cause a stir – in particular the appointment of Ignazio La Russa as Senate President. In 2018, Prime Minister Meloni’s party friend presented his collection of Italian fascist memorabilia, including a statue of Mussolini, in a home story. Shortly before the parliamentary elections, he said of the Italians: “We are all children of the Duce”. And in late December, La Russa commemorated the anniversary of the founding of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the successor party to Mussolini’s fascist party, in an Instagram post.

Meloni defends him: she was a member of the MSI herself until the party dissolved in 1995. The green, white and red flame that was once featured in the MSI logo is now found in the Fratelli d’Italia signet.

“The government is a child of the democratic crisis”

Mattia Santori, Sardine Movement

Meloni’s partners Salvini and Berlusconi also bring a legacy with them. Both have scandals behind them, and lawsuits are pending against both. But Mattia Santori is certain: “Salvini no longer plays a role at all. Meloni is very good at keeping both him and Berlusconi in check, two very unwieldy personalities.”

After the personnel debate, the next scandal follows. The reason for this is the so-called rave decree, with which the new government bans “dangerous gatherings” of more than 50 people at the end of October. The trigger is an illegal rave with around a thousand participants in Modena, but the decree is very broad: Any kind of gathering of more than 50 people in public or private spaces can be affected “if it poses a danger to the public order or public safety or public health”. Fines of up to 10,000 euros and imprisonment of up to six years are threatened. The newspaper La Republica calls the decree “liberation-destroying”, others call it fascist. As a result, the government is forced to adjust the wording of the decree, eventually turning it into an anti-rave law at the end of December.

After the initial uproar, Meloni’s government has calmed down. She is sometimes attested to as being characterized by intelligent populism. If Giorgia Meloni with questions about fascism When confronted, she calls the Italian racial laws of 1938 the “low point of Italian history”, but avoids condemning fascism in its entirety – and emphasizes that she wants to talk about the current millennium. She says the issues her party champions are freedom struggles: “freedom of choice, freedom of enterprise, freedom of speech, freedom to work.”

“Today they also talk about freedom,” Mario Neri comments sadly. Mattia Santori calls Meloni’s populism “sneaky” and cites the example of dealing with refugees who are rescued from the sea by private rescue ships: In 2020 Salvini had Italy’s ports closed for these ships and raged against the German captain Carola Rackete when she opposed the ban. Meloni follows a different strategy. It allows the private rescue ships to dock – but in distant ports in northern Italy. So the sea rescuers lose a lot of time and money, but Meloni can counter the accusation of inhumanity. Criticism of the refugee policy grew louder at the end of February when 72 refugees died in a boat accident off the coast of Calabria. In response, Meloni announces long prison sentences for people smugglers.

The partisan Neri has few words for the current government. “Let’s put it this way, I’m not exactly enthusiastic,” he says curtly. But also: “It has to work, we are indeed bound to them.” Resistance to this government is difficult in Italy. The opposition is too caught up in a fratricidal struggle to act as one. “The opposition groups are all fighting for second place behind the right, but nobody is fighting for first place.” Santori shakes his head. “As early as October, before the Meloni government took office, there were anti-government demonstrations.” He smiles sceptically. “At least wait until they make a mistake.”

As for the government’s ethos, Santori chooses his words very carefully. “I wouldn’t call this government neo-fascist because words change over time and every era needs its own terminology. This government is a child of the democratic crisis we are experiencing. It is not representative of the country because one in three did not go to the polls.” Nevertheless, he describes it as “very right-wing” and emphasizes that the sardines would under no circumstances support it.

Homemade fish as a trademark, here at a demo in Rome at the end of 2019: the sardine movement formed against right-wing populism. She has now fallen asleep Photo: Caimi & Piccinni/Redux/laif

“The sardines are avowedly anti-fascist,” says the movement’s manifesto. Visits to the sites of remembrance of the Second World War and April 25th, which commemorates the liberation of Italy in 1945, are significant for them. Santori has often heard comparisons of the movement with the resistance of the partisans. “What we have in common is the moment when people think: now or never! In the 1940s, they picked up a gun because they had no alternative. In 2019, people took to the streets because they no longer wanted to sit on the sofa at home.” Shortly after the start of the sardine movement, the partisan association Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia, founded in 1944, took it on. Carla Nespolo, the late president, and Gianfranco Pagliarulo, the current president of the association, are “like a mother and father” for the sardines, says Santori.

There is more than half a century between him and Neri, but sometimes they speak with one voice – for example when it comes to the importance of the Resistenza. Then Mario Neri is silent for a moment, leans back. His voice is suddenly very clear, the old man’s fragility gone from it. “Resistenza means liberation. My Resistenza was a matter of the highest imaginable values.”

When asked the same question, Mattia Santori momentarily sheds the reluctance that has accompanied him throughout the conversation. He laughs and his eyes light up. “Resistenza is a sacred word for me. It stands for the highest gesture that can be made in life, namely putting the freedom and rights of others above one’s own life.”

“Resistenza”, adds Neri quietly at the end, “this is Ukraine. They too are partisans.”

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