As Prime Minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni is proving to be a wily political operator. In the European Parliament elections on 9 June, the party she leads secured 29 per cent of the Italian vote, the highest party vote and a higher percentage than her party gained in the general election that brought her into national government. 

In the European election in Italy, Meloni has helped to redefine the Italian centre-right. The left of centre Democratic Party won 24 per cent of the vote (up one per cent), the right of centre Brotherhood of Italy (Meloni’s party) 29 per cent (up 22 per cent) and the extreme right Lega party (led by Matteo Salvini) only nine per cent (down 25 per cent). Meloni has marginalised the most extreme right and helped establish a newly configured centre right.

And unlike a number of other leaders on the right elsewhere in Europe, she has remained robust in support for Ukraine. Overall, under Meloni, Italian politics has not only produced surprises but also shown greater resilience than foreign critics sometimes allow. But the party she leads, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) or Brothers of Italy, didn’t come out of nowhere; it arrived with heavy political baggage stretching back to the early postwar period and the foundation of the Italian Republic. 

In the years since the Second World War, Italy has served as a byword for political instability, with jokes – often coined by Brits – about the country’s frequent changes of governments and prime ministers. For those of us from a country which has managed since 2016 to have four prime ministers only one of whom was appointed following a general election, we should perhaps be less patronising about the track record of Italian politicians and governments. Certainly we should not underestimate Meloni though neither should we ignore that political baggage. 

One of the particular strengths of Mark Gilbert’s deeply researched new book, “Italy Reborn: From Fascism to Democracy”, is its detailed account of the signal success of the country’s transition from Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship into a well-founded democracy in less than a decade. The challenges were immense and success far from assured. A distressed Italy was divided between an industrial and comparatively prosperous north and an agricultural and impoverished south. It was riven by political differences under a contested monarchy and with Allied forces still operational and intent on influencing post-war developments. Gilbert delineates all these various factors and aspects with great skill. 

He recognises that the divisions among Italians didn’t readily heal and he doesn’t diminish the potential threat to the nascent republic’s survival from the extreme left. Nor does he disregard the “siren voices” of the remaining fascists in his analysis of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the far-right party from which Meloni’s FdI takes its indirect descent and which carried the leftovers of Mussolini’s fascism from 1946 until as late as 1995. These origins stalk the FdI and Meloni to this day.

The key villain in Gilbert’s narrative is of course Benito Mussolini; but he was not alone. He and other political opportunists needed opportunities to draw upon and Italy’s disastrous involvement in the First World War provided the key one. So too did a floundering pre-war political elite and system of government and a temporising monarchy. An Italy that had unified itself only a few decades earlier in a Risorgimento, which attracted admiration and applause from liberal Europe, had produced a politically fragile new state which was unstable almost from its inception. 

The story of Mussolini’s Italy is well known. A weak political establishment led by King Victor Emmanuel legitimised Mussolini’s gangster politics with his appointment as prime minister in 1922. Thereafter supported by fawning acolytes, he developed a corporatist and authoritarian state, invented an ahistorical link between his bombastic regime and the glories of ancient Rome and implemented an imperial fantasy in north and east Africa and along the borders of the Adriatic.

Initially admired by Hitler as a fascist mentor, Mussolini joined the Axis powers and declared war. Then everything turned sour and tragic for the Italian people. Ill-equipped militarily, Mussolini overreached catastrophically. As a consequence, he slipped in Hitler’s estimation and became a dependent client of Nazism. After his dismissal from office by the King in 1943 and retreat behind German lines in the north of the country, he was forced by Hitler to head the infamous “Salo Republic” headquartered on Lake Como where he oversaw notoriously vicious efforts to destroy the Italian partisans assisting the Allied advance up the Italian peninsular. The partisans in turn showed no mercy and executed Mussolini and many of those who had supported him in the last two years of the war.

What Mussolini’s fascism left in its wake was a disabled and fractious Italy – economically, politically, externally. It is this post-fascist Italy and its achievements that is insufficiently known and which Gilbert seeks to correct. Mired in recrimination and poverty at home, and dependent on the triumphant Allies for the recovery of national independence (and resolution of territorial disputes in and around Trieste), an almost impossible set of recovery tasks fell on political parties themselves struggling and jockeying for primacy. On the left were the Communists, with leaders recently returned from exile in Moscow and deeply distrusted by the western Allies and the powerful Catholic Church, and alongside them a Socialist party which moved between assertive independence and opportunistic alignment. On the right, the emerging grouping of Christian Democrats grew to play a key, eventually, dominant role. Notwithstanding their differences, the leaders of these three parties, the Communist, Palmiro Togliatti, the Socialist, Pietro Nenni and the Christian Democrat, Alcide De Gasperi, are the heroes of Gilbert’s account and most especially the latter. De Gasperi, the key convenor of the Christian Democrats, was a shrewd and capable democrat whose values and integrity and support from the Vatican were crucial to the establishment of a democratic postwar Italy. 

Together, these very different politicians from strikingly different political perspectives co-operated as members of the Committee of National Liberation (CLN) from 1943 and were united on certain key points: in their resolute anti-fascism, their agreement on the need for a new democratic constitution (including for the first time votes for women) and, related to that, on the future of the monarchy which they put to a referendum which more narrowly than they had expected favoured a republican state. Via an “emergency government of national necessity” and a Constituent Assembly elected on party lines in 1946, these politicians of right and left fenced their way to a peace treaty with the Allies in 1947 and a new constitution under the First Republic.

What is striking in all this is how, immediately after the war, compromise was seen by the Communists as necessary if they were to be able to play a political role and by the Christian Democrats as necessary if they were eventually to win and retain power. The left held its ultras in check and the right realised that it had to avoid veering too far to the right in policy terms and too close to the Catholic Church. Each major party effectively – in the Communists’ case quite cynically – occupied a broad centre ground politically and the formation of the republic was facilitated by this. 

But it was the Christian Democrats who set the pattern after 1946 by breaking with the Communists and Socialists in early 1947 and decisively winning the 1948 general election under De Gasperi. As Gilbert observes, De Gasperi made two key political judgements at this time: that the Communists could not be trusted to adhere to true democracy given what was happening with the “Peoples Democracies” in central and Eastern Europe, and that Italy could not survive economically without American financial support and investment. 

These conclusions pointed him and the Christian Democrats towards engagement with an emerging European Community and a defensive NATO alliance. It is remarkable that in so few years Italy moved from fascism to founding member of NATO and the EU. It was a country transformed though there would be further political challenges ahead from left and right and from violent terrorism, too. The First Republic would give way to the Second in 1994 and to the right-leaning and corrupt influences of Berlusconi’s time in office as prime minister but the foundations of the post-war Italian Republic established in 1948 proved remarkably solid.

But Gilbert’s account doesn’t take us that far and effectively ends with De Gasperi’s death in 1954. He is not uncritical of his hero but is unstinting in his praise of what he achieved. And there is an implicit lesson from those earlier years which may not have been lost on Meloni. This is that pushing too hard to the right runs risks to stability. Meloni is a social conservative and a nationalist but she is showing how to expand the centre and push more extreme right-wingers to the margins. Whether that is her goal or not, it may prove to be her best route to securing domestic political support for her often controversial policies.

Italy Reborn: From Fascism to Democracy by Mark Gilbert is published by Allen Lane (£35)