EVERY YEAR on November 21st, the members of the Italian political group La Foresta Che Avanza send trees to towns across Italy, from the Tyrolean Alps of the north to Sicily in the south. The act might seem anodyne, but the choice of date is decidedly less so. The celebration is an attempt to revive the Festa dell’Albero (Festival of the Tree), a holiday officially created in 1923 by Arnaldo Mussolini, brother of Il Duce and president of the National Forestry Committee under Fascist rule. Almost a century on, La Foresta militants are picking up where Arnaldo left off. At the group’s ceremonial plantings, they string up banners reading, “TREES ARE THE PILLARS OF THE NATION.” “It is precisely the firmness of the tree and the roots rooted in the homeland that must serve as an example if we do not want to lose our identity, unity and national cohesion,” said Alberto Mereu, La Foresta’s leader, explaining last year’s Festa dell’Albero celebrations. He contrasted the symbolism of the tree—“fixed, stable”—with “the figure of the migrant, the concept of uprooting and the fluid society that is so popular with globalists from the right and left.”
La Foresta is the eco-minded branch of CasaPound, a neo-fascist movement that embraces militarism and an extreme anti-immigration stance as a solution to the social and economic problems created by what the group calls “global oligarchs.” (CasaPound, which recently renounced its official status as a political party, takes its name from the fascist poet Ezra Pound, who lived in Italy during World War II.) The movement first rose to prominence in 2003 when members began a 15-year occupation of a building in a Roman street populated by businesses owned by Asian immigrants; CasaPound’s founder, Gianluca Iannone, snidely dubbed their stronghold “the Italian embassy.” As the group’s squatter origins attest, CasaPound distinguishes itself from other far-right groups by its willingness to co-opt leftist tactics and symbols for its own purposes (they recently organized a conference dedicated to Che Guevara, whose militancy and conviction they purported to admire). And while CasaPound nominally advocates the Terza Posizione, or Third Position—that is, it claims affiliation with neither the left nor the right—and often uses language that is most closely associated with labor movements (such as “solidarity”), the group is vocally critical of leftism, and there have been cases of members physically assaulting those espousing leftist or antifascist views. Despite its claims to the contrary, the group can therefore be understood as part of Italy’s far right.
Italy, like many other countries in the West, has witnessed a surge in popular support for nativist rightism in recent years. Matteo Salvini—who, until the change of cabinet that occurred earlier this month, was both the deputy prime minister and the minister of the interior—came to power after his Lega Nord Party formed a coalition with the Five Star Movement. Salvini, like Trump, is known for his Twitter tirades, which often feature anti-immigrant and anti-gay messaging. CasaPound, which has had success in local elections (most notably in Roman suburbs), is an ideological little sibling of sorts to Lega Nord (with whom it had a brief formal partnership), and it is far more open in its embrace of fascism. Despite the group’s strategic attempts to cultivate an approachable image, CasaPound’s growth has been accompanied by intimidation, terror, and bloodshed. In Ostia, where CasaPound has representation on the municipal council, fascists have assaulted journalists and political enemies, including one antifascist activist who was beaten in broad daylight after being forcibly barred from attending a city council meeting. Anti-Roma vitriol is a CasaPound staple: group members threatened to rape a Roma woman who had been given public housing and, earlier this year, they terrorized a group of 70 Roma seeking temporary housing so viciously that the government was forced to resettle them elsewhere. In 2011, a CasaPound supporter murdered two Senegalese merchants and wounded another three. CasaPound’s subsequent efforts to dissociate itself from the killer fail to align with the movement’s extreme position on immigration: members organize anti-migrant neighborhood “patrols” and paint migrants as dangerous criminal elements in need of deportation.
Yet media reports glamorizing the group’s leaders have helped to distract from its hateful politics and make its ideology seem more like a form of fun, punky rebelliousness. openDemocracy reported that media attention has focused particularly on the role of women in the group, with publications like Affari Italiani and Italia Oggi admiring members’ appearance and their ability to balance political ambitions with domestic roles, while neglecting to dig into members’ pasts, which sometimes include criminal records for anti-leftist violence. (The media focus on the role of women in the movement obscures the fact that, as anthropologist Maddalena Gretel Cammelli has noted, women have always been a minority in CasaPound. A look through images posted of La Foresta outings reveals that most of the people in the photos are men, and all are white.)
In 2017, for instance, the Italian edition of Marie Claire published a profile, subsequently taken offline, entitled “What Do You Really Know about the Women of CasaPound?”. The article overlooks unsavory policy points, focusing instead on tattoos and blue hair dye. CasaPound, it argues, is really all about the freedom of personal choice, something “it is not easy to make the media understand.” Though the article never mentions race or immigration, it lists veganism and animal welfare as two “divisive” issues supported by supposedly freethinking CasaPounders. Viewed in this light, the embrace of ecological concerns by ultra-rightists can be understood as part of a dangerous move to make their militant ideology more palatable to the mainstream by effectively defanging them.
AS PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS of the existential threat posed by climate change has grown, so too has the rise of a green right wing, which blends fascist political thought with environmental awareness. While ecofascists profess concern for environmental issues, they do so in the service of deeply repressive policy proposals. Ecofascists fear rising sea levels not because of the destruction and suffering they will cause but because displaced people from the global south might “pollute” white nations; they pin the blame for climate change on overpopulation to advocate for forced sterilization. Such ideas have recently received a broad public airing after they appeared in the manifestos left by the shooters in Christchurch and El Paso.
La Foresta, however, distinguishes itself from other strains of ecofascist ideology in that its social media and publicity are almost entirely devoid of any reference to climate change, melting polar ice caps, or carbon emissions. In fact, the group expends virtually no effort addressing anything going on outside Italy’s borders. Instead, they focus narrowly on animal rights and habitat preservation—which may help them recruit people who care about animals and forest health but are unaware of the group’s broader ideological framework. A scroll through La Foresta’s Facebook page turns up posts against fur farms and circuses, posts promoting the construction of new hiking paths, and posts decrying oil drilling in natural parks. There’s even a news piece about the group’s opposition to an ordinance requiring dog walkers to clean up their pets’ diarrhea. A closer look is needed to detect anything more noxious. One seemingly benign image calling for the protection of nature on the group’s Facebook page features pictures of an ibex, a bear, and a wolf—all species with deep historic roots in Italian nationalism, which two of Mussolini’s national parks were designed to protect. The group’s logo itself, which might at first appear to depict verdant mountains or a stand of fir trees, is in fact a series of arrow tips, recalling the insignias of the Spanish Falange, the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, and other dangerous far-right movements.
CasaPound is not alone among rightist parties that cloak their ideology in more palatable pro-animal sentiments. Movimento Animalista, founded by former Berlusconi cabinet member Michela Brambilla, is considered for all intents and purposes a branch of Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia Party. Berlusconi himself is a member, and in 2017 he declared that the broad appeal of such a party could capture as much as 20% of the electorate for the right. Nor are such groups limited to Italy. While it claims to be apolitical, the Swiss organization Offensiva Animalista has been widely criticized for tolerating pro-Nazi members. In Spain, movements like Patriotas Animalistas and Aryan Defense of Animals are part of a growing number of parties that use the conflation of homeland with nature to marry ecological concerns and rightism.
Despite the media’s trepidation around the word “fascist,” the link between these groups’ animal rights rhetoric and their embrace of racist ideology often becomes clear in interviews. “I do not tear my clothes when there is an earthquake in China because seeing how they treat not only animals, but also minorities, from Tibetans to Xinjiang Muslims . . . [it’s] a beautiful pruning,” said Corrado Galimberti, Offensiva Animalista’s leader, in a 2013 interview. In the same interview, he added, “On my priority scale, animals and individuals are at the same level, even though some peoples have proven throughout history that they live to subjugate others, and here I am referring to the Jews . . . I wonder if it is not worth saying that the animals are better than them.” In this, we can see clear parallels to the rhetoric of Herman Göring and other Nazis, who likewise used the issue of animal rights to construct moral in-groups and out-groups—divisions that coincide with ethnic ones.
Indeed, there is a long history of fascist interest in animal welfare issues. Animal rights initiatives enacted under Nazism included bans on vivisections, force-feeding, and the live boiling of lobsters. Some of these laws—such as a ban on kosher butchering—were explicitly racialized. So too was the construction of Germans as uniquely humane: Göring stated in a 1933 radio address that “the German people have always shown their great love of animals,” blaming the earlier legality of various cruel acts on “people alien to the nation.” In Italy, support for the preservation of natural landscapes was often injected with jingoistic and even racialized discourse. Benito Mussolini promised to “remake the face of the Fatherland both spiritually and materially . . . from the mountains, which we will have covered with a green coat, to the fields, which will be completely reclaimed.” Italy’s first natural parks were created during the Fascist era (though the groundwork had been laid prior to Mussolini’s ascendance), with sites often being selected for specifically nationalistic reasons. Stelvio, for instance, was chosen for its proximity to the battle lines of World War I. Others were chosen, as previously mentioned, because they housed species that had become national symbols. Conservation projects undertaken during Fascist rule—many of which, paradoxically, had a deleterious effect on the landscape—were deeply political, motivated by a desire to turn nature into a productive force useful for crafting ideal Fascist citizens.
Understood as part of this lineage, La Foresta’s animal rights activism and forest conservation works should not be seen as cute side projects, as the group itself would prefer. Rather, they are fundamentally of a piece with the fascists’ nationalism and their belief in an innate connection between people and land, which is directly related to their violent xenophobia. La Foresta’s cover photo shows the slopes of Monte Giano, where, in the 1930s, forestry students from nearby Cittaducale planted tens of thousands of pine trees to spell out “DUX”—Latin for “Il Duce”—in massive letters. In 2017, La Foresta volunteers were dispatched to Monte Giano after the lettering was damaged in a fire allegedly caused by a pot of boiling tomato sauce. “That writing has survived 70 years of militant antifascism,” said Iannone. “We will not allow it to be canceled by the imprudent gesture of a fool.” This kind of language is not uncommon in La Foresta’s public statements, which often feature blustering condemnations and outright insults against its enemies: litterers, for instance, are disparaged for their “uncivilized lifestyle.” Long rants appear on the group’s Facebook page—jagged outbursts that stand out against the backdrop of idyllic imagery. In comments, members frame their movement as a military struggle, similar to the way that earlier fascists understood land reclamation projects and other environmental work. Posts explicitly frame new nature clean-ups as “battlefronts” and refer to those who poison animals as “assassins.”
La Foresta’s attempts to marry animal rights activism with right-wing ideology are beset by contradictions. The movement’s embrace of veganism fails to account for the ways in which the division between human and subhuman is wielded against animals and minorities alike under white supremacy. Moreover, the fascistic conflation of race, moral purity, and the humane treatment of animals amounts to a profound denial of the nature of biological systems, which rely on far more than the charismatic megafauna of nationalist wildlife conservation in order to survive. La Foresta’s intense interest in the Monte Giano forest flies in the face of the fact that single-species forests of that kind are more susceptible to fires in the first place, and that the slopes’ limestone soil is a less than ideal location for such a plantation. The group construes environmentalism not as a global struggle that recognizes the planetary interconnectedness of air, animals, water, and warming, but as a way of staking a claim on nationhood and putting forward a fundamentally small-minded notion of the world.
Yet the Italian media has largely failed to point out the internal incoherence of La Foresta’s platform in any meaningful way—or to bring to CasaPound the level of scrutiny it deserves more generally. Association with neo-fascist groups has largely been depicted as a lifestyle choice, rather than an endorsement of terror—a representation that benefits groups like CasaPound immensely. This is compounded by the Italian media’s reluctance to use the term “fascist,” even when groups like CasaPound wear that label openly.
In the seemingly innocent rhetoric of animal rights, the right has found yet another cudgel with which to attack the marginalized. For those who would seek to position environmentalism as apolitical in order to construct as broad a tent as possible, the ascension of groups like La Foresta serves as a dangerous counter-lesson: if the left won’t politicize ecological issues, there are plenty of others who will.
Erica X Eisen is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, The Baffler, Current Affairs, the Guardian, the BBC, and elsewhere. She currently lives and works in Kyrgyzstan.