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Fascism Past and Present: What lessons can we learn from Italy’s history?

13th November 2020 14:00-15:30
Talk/Webinar, High profile

Event Evaluation

About this event

Journalist and filmmaker Barbara Serra joins the University of Birmingham's Scott Lucas and Daniele Albertazzi to discuss her documentary, "Fascism in the Family", about her personal and journalistic perspectives on fascism and the far right in Italy, and how looking at the country that invented the word Fascism could help the rest of the world tackle rising authoritarianism. Barbara Serra is Italian/British and has been a presenter and correspondent with Al Jazeera English since 2006, having previously worked for the BBC and Sky News. Her documentary is based upon her grandfather's role in the Mussolini regime between the two world wars. Through her personal and journalistic journey investigating his life and activities, Barbara questions how Italy has dealt with its fascist past to assess the allure of authoritarianism then and now. Using Italy as the starting point, the conversation will draw parallels with other countries and cultures, at a time when fascism seems to be resurfacing around the world.

Fascism in the Family

In this film, Italian-born journalist and Al Jazeera senior presenter, Barbara Serra, examines her own family’s links to Benito Mussolini’s regime to see if Fascism really is resurfacing in Italy today.

Video transcript

[Music] [Music] [Applause] foreign [Applause] they oh him the captain and even though they've been cheering for everyone that's been speaking here obviously as soon as matteo sardini went on stage they just went wild and now of course a bit of opera to get the mood going but it really is you can feel they adore him [Music] [Applause] but not everyone adores matteo salvini the far-right leader dominating italian politics some believe his actions and slogans are reminiscent of the country's most notorious export fascism it was born here a hundred years ago could it be coming back to understand what's happening today i first need to explore this violent chapter from italy's past [Music] like the country of my birth i too have fascism in my past on the italian island of sardinia my grandfather was a senior figure in the fascist party this was his home so my grandfather was actually a pilot in world war one it's quite dashing i don't really know much about my grandfather because he died when i was just a few months old and the family never hid his fascist past quite the opposite but i still don't feel like i actually know enough about what happened in those years what living under fascism was like and crucially what he did what his role was [Music] there's a place nearby called carbonia a mining town created in 1938 here in southern sardinia as a showcase for fascism carved out of barren fields the town was built in a remarkable 18 months [Music] carbonia was the brainchild of benito mussolini the man who ruled italy for 20 years and coined the term fascism to describe his brand of dictatorship [Music] my grandfather vitali piga was chosen by his regime to be carbonia's mayor it's not just my family's past but it's future that makes this story so poignant for me i'm bacino my three-year-old son is half jewish and would likely have been a victim of the fascists to whom my grandfather pledged his allegiance [Music] it's quiet in this small corner of sardinia where generations of my family lived but across the country and beyond fascism seems to be stirring once more [Music] i want to understand why it first took root in italy a century ago [Music] is a historian at the university of calgary in sardinia he sees in the story of my grandfather how fascism inspired a generation [Music] [Music] a [Music] [Music] um mussolini's vision of modernity autonomy and power for italy was embodied in his new town he was so proud of his creation of carbonia that he came with much fanfare to inaugurate the city in december of 1938 [Music] there's a witness to this event from more than 80 years ago the writer paolo fadda was here in this crowd he was nine years old [Applause] this new town was founded on coal its very name derived from carbone the italian word for coal so of course the mine was the center of life here but fascism demanded more from people than just their labor as the workers entered the mine they'd be welcomed by this sign and you can see it's actually signed by mussolini and it says i prefer my workers to work obediently hard and possibly in silence and it really encapsulates that fascist ideal that you're a cog in a machine you're not a thinking being you're part of a bigger project i mean interesting possibly in silence i'm not sure they really had a choice because actually when the regime fell it was the miners that erased this sign in defiance [Music] [Applause] the archives in calgary offer some valuable clues about why my grandfather was picked to be podesta the fascist title for mayor okay my grandfather knows exactly the situation in carbonia and because he had been you know within the fascist trade union he would understand from the word go what the challenges faced by the workers and presumably the miners would be so that's why um they choose him the archives also provide a picture of how fascism was being enforced throughout the country this includes the notorious racial laws that stripped italian jews of their jobs and rights and outlawed their books and films and these are the documents relating to the racial laws that were passed in 1938 to the podesta so to the mayors coming from the central fascist party in rome and it's just an outline basically of what they are all the articles provisions for the defense of the italian race is how they uh they phrased it and here is the census because a census was held across italy and here in sardinia as well of as it says here the israelites resident in the province and there's about four in carbonia for example one of them was actually the president of the italian association of carbon akai which means he was effectively must have played a key role in putting carbonate together and and and then this you know edict comes saying that effectively all these people have to be relieved of their jobs my grandfather must have known commendatory segre here she must have i also wonder what he [Music] would have thought knowing that then his great grandchild might have fallen foul of the racial [Music] laws jews were discriminated against throughout italy and fascism imposed strict controls on the lives of all citizens the miners in carbonia were no exception [Music] francesca figus's father was a minor here during the time that my grandfather was mayor but he was an anti-fascist i'm not certain how welcoming francesca will be created [Music] [Music] [Music] [Music] on [Music] all the work down here was dangerous and grueling but some of the seams in this maze of tunnels had a more sinister purpose [Music] this was one of the hardest places to work in in the mine and often political dissidents or gay people were often sent here as punishment and the director of the mine a little earlier told me the story of when he was taking some people around showing some people around on a tour and on this tour was an old miner someone who actually worked here back in those days and a teenage boy asked him in an offensive way and and said what was it like working with gay people and the old miners snapped back at the boy and said they were wretches just like i was this place of wretches became a byword for hardship carbona's reputation was immortalized in a film featuring two of the world's greatest actors in a special day marcelo mastroianni tells sophia loren how his lover has been punished for being gay in fascist italy [Music] um hard labor in carbonia will also be the fate of mastroianni's character the scenes between mastroianni and lauren are interwoven with the real events of this special day may 3rd 1938 this is the date adolf hitler was welcomed in rome by mussolini and thousands of adoring fascists the uneasy alliance between these two dictators eventually resulted in italy joining world war ii in 1940 the war would make carbonia not only a place of exile but a camp for italy's prisoners of war the geneva convention bans prisoners from working in dangerous conditions in carbonia they were forced to dig coal my grandfather vitali piga was still mayor this chapter of sardinia's history has been the focus for researcher nicola perez there are tangible signs not only in documents and photographs of my grandfather's role in carbonius story the one hundred thousand holes that he ordered be dug by prisoners were for planting trees that have grown into these woods on the edge of town the picture that emerges of my grandfather is of a faithful follower and efficient administrator of the fascist party here in sardinia back at the house though i find a clue that his loyalty to the regime led him beyond italy to the third reich [Music] while looking through the pictures i found this which is the copy of a letter from nazi germany addressed to my grandfather berlin the date 16th of may 1938 so that's just a few months before italy passes racial laws it's in german i don't understand it i want it translated i want to know what it means and i want to know its significance but it's definitely a punch in the stomach to find a letter with swastika and heil hitler in the signature among old family photos the buildings erected by the fascists here in carbonia are still standing the town has done a thorough job preserving the old architecture but has had less success securing new jobs the coal mine is closed the industrial plant deserted it's a place as francesca told me that is asleep a town built for work where now there is none what i learned about my grandfather is that he believed in the fascist ideals yes building a new italy but doing so by suppressing personal freedoms and using violence against anyone who didn't fit in with those ideals he knew about dissidents and gay people being sent to crobonious punishment he implemented the racial laws by banning books and films by jewish authors and he knew about the dismissal of jewish workers and if you're within a system that does that and you don't speak out you are responsible you are complicit so [Music] [Music] is one of italy's strongest political forces its rise has been propelled by a weakening economy italians are scared about their future but has reviving old hatreds from the country's fascist past also played a role i'm still looking for details of my family's fascist history but i wonder what appeal could this repressive ideology really have for italians today it's possible that i might uncover some of the answers buried here at mussolini's tomb [Music] trump germany has banned the burial site for hitler but italy allows the crypt of mussolini to be preserved it's become a place of pilgrimage for his followers this note has been left here to mark the anniversary of the 8th of september 1943 now that's the day that italy announced the armistice with the allies effectively the day that italy changed sides in the war with the allies and now against germany a day that on this note they call a vile betrayal and they say that actually it's the people that stayed with mussolini uh that brought honor and loyalty to the nation to the point of giving their blood for it and that's exactly how they sign it they say honor and glory to you our beloved duche the comrades of italy in this note along with these flowers left here about 10 days ago [Music] this man turned out to be a member of neo-fascist party forza nova he wanted to talk but refused to show his face to the camera [Music] mussolini is but in the absence of a modern-day mussolini the man told me that many members of his party were voting for salvini's lega while i've been here more mussolini fans have come to pay their respects and the few it seems have been busy canvassing for their hero outside the cemetery so while we were filming at the crypt someone left this flyer on the windshield of the car little note coming out saying duche you are always in my heart and then the address of the shop and inside they've got badges they've got pins key chains flags and it's not just fascism because look here the flags swastikas i mean look at this there is anything you might want this isn't the only shop selling fascist and nazi memorabilia here in pradapio there are two more it seems that 75 years after the end of world war ii some italians are still drawn to mussolini and fascism but there is a narrative closer to the truth than the one preferred by devotees of il duce a best-selling 800-page historical novel about mussolini entitled m details the brutal reality of life under fascism it's the work of antonius kurati too many people even in italy still believe that faisal was evil at the end with racial laws and with the relationship with the nazi with hitler the alliance but in the beginning mussolini was done a lot of good things and it was a good statement well it's not true it's not true so what do you think is the essence of fascism violence was the essence of fashion since the beginning the formula okay of mussolini was you're scared you know you live by fear you eat fear you you smell fear you sleep fear i will free you from fear you know i will change fear in hate don't be afraid you used to tell okay hate someone the main problem is in the huge masses of family men of good people of workers who are ready to support a populist leader who speaks with words of benito mussolini but what if some of those people are emboldened by the hateful words of a populist leader to do more than merely follow women's rights activist amina al-zir has first-hand experience of what can happen foreign [Music] foreign in italy acts of intimidation have evolved into acts of terror in the town of machurata in 2018 luca traini opened fire on african migrants six were injured none fatally but a year later a gunman inspired by trainee killed 51 people in two mosques in new zealand [Music] an unsuccessful candidate for matteo salvini's lega party trainee was found guilty of multiple counts of attempted murder aggravated by racial hatred more than 20 000 party faithful have made the pilgrimage to the annual lega rally the crowd is energized anticipating the appearance of their leader matteo salvini but the feel-good energy turns to hate as my fellow journalist gad lerner a critic of salvini's anti-immigrant rhetoric makes his way through the crowd [Applause] we spent weeks trying to get a formal interview with salvini we never got a reply especially [Music] [Music] [Music] [Applause] foreign [Applause] [Applause] foreign uh [Music] the migrants who pick the nation's crops are often reviled by the far right these workers in italy southwest are exploited by both farmers and politicians but they have a champion in ivan sagne immigrant problems [Music] [Music] [Music] there are signs of fascism everywhere in italy in rome the memory of mussolini lives on in the buildings and monuments on which he inscribed his name and the streets where he carved his slogans mussolini's formula as antonio scurati described it to exploit fear and turn it into hatred is being echoed by populist politicians to ignite their followers these are the brothers of italy the country's second largest far-right party giorgio maloney is the leader today she's issuing a clarion call for europe to get behind the brothers extreme nationalist agenda this is the main day of this gathering and we've heard from politicians from across europe the czech republic the netherlands spain or from the far right parties in those various countries and all of them pretty much pushing the same very strong anti-immigration message mentioning that it's actually up to them to save the european identity i suspect when melanie says our identity she doesn't include the farm workers i met in puglia and where is the country's fascist history to be found in her notion of what defines us i sense that dark passages from the past are being reimagined to create new enemies new scapegoats [Applause] milan's imposing central station is one of the busiest in europe more than 300 000 people each day depart from 24 train tracks to the cities of italy [Music] but there is one track hidden beneath the side of this huge building that was used to transport people to their death on platform 21 between 1943 and 1945 italian jews were herded into train carriages meant for animals to be sent to the extermination camps the platform is now a memorial to this chapter of the holocaust [Music] more than 8 000 italian jews were sent to the extermination camps 776 children were sent to auschwitz only 25 of them survived one of those few surviving children is now 89 years old she is liliana segre she's been made a senator for life in italy's parliament strategy in an attempt to fight the rising tide of hatred in italy senator segre proposed a government commission to combat racism and anti-semitism the motion passed but lalega and brothers of italy abstained [Applause] since then senator segre has received numerous death threats and now lives under police protection [Music] this exceptional woman has known danger since she was a child at 13 liliana segre and her father were fleeing to switzerland when they were arrested and sent to auschwitz her father was murdered there as i'm sat with senator segre i'm haunted by a terrible thought that my grandfather may have had something to do with her father's fate and that of thousands of others i've enlisted the help of rebecca nounheimer in germany to translate the nazi letter sent to my grandfather and to discover why it was written you must have been part of um like sort of a italian delegation visiting germany the germans seem to have been been really interested in cambodia it's like a an important coal harbor they definitely knew and recognized that your grandfather would have been an important figure in sodium the thank you letter from his hosts strikes a friendly tone obviously wanting to build on the link between the nazis and the carbonia finding out my grandfather actually traveled to germany in 1938 as part of a trade delegation is upsetting okay so it was about coal and it was about the germans being interested in carbonia as a source of coal so trade and obviously it's it's a massive relief because it could have been so much worse but still it makes me sick this letter from the moment i found it has just always just made me sick and i think the way i feel goes to the heart of the relationship that many perhaps most italians tend to have with their history i think there's definitely a sort of separation between italian fascism and then what fascism became when it allied itself to nazi germany and i think a lot of people just separate the two and the conclusion almost seems to be where you know italian fascism wasn't as bad but then i look at this letter and it's got my grandfather's name and the swastika and heil hitler and and you just you can't separate the two because what starts as a trade deal ends in genocide and it makes me sick the story of that genocide is literally written on the streets in rome [Music] jews were sent to extermination camps starting in 1943 when central and northern italy was under german occupation these brass memorial plaques known as stumbling stones are laid outside the homes of jews seized and murdered by the nazis with the help of italian fascists [Music] i found out what my grandfather did during the fascist era but increasingly i've been thinking about what i would have done and what i'm doing now history teaches us that things happen gradually it's all about recognizing that tipping point when we need to take action decades from now we will be judged by our grandchildren they will judge us on both what we did and what we didn't do in the face of intolerance fear and [Music] indifference you

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