Blood in the Soil: Fascist Ideology and Italian Nature Conservation
If, driving through the Apennine Mountains near Rieti or Cittaducale or Antrodoco, one should catch a glimpse of the green slopes of Monte Giano, one would be greeted by the strange sight of tens of thousands of pine trees deliberately planted to spell out the word DUX—the Latin equivalent of “il Duce,” Mussolini’s honorific title—in menacingly blade-like capitals. When the air is clear, the letters can be seen from Rome with which the pine trees have long held a symbolic association.
This and similar works were the doing of the Milizia Forestale, the fascist forestry corps nominally in charge of conservation but in reality so enmeshed with the blinding logic of state ideology that it saw no contradiction in destroying what it was supposed to preserve. From its founding in 1926 until its replacement by the State Forestry Corps after the defeat of the fascists, the Milizia Forestale drained wetlands; supported the plantation of monocultures; and opened national parks that failed to provide such basic safeguards as bans on hunting. In the process, they overlaid the landscape with their ideology of misogyny, agrarian essentialism, and violence.
“We have the duty to remake the face of the Fatherland both spiritually and materially,” Mussolini said in a speech given at Emilia Reggia in 1926, four years after he wrested power away from the elected government in his March on Rome. “In ten years, comrades, Italy will be unrecognizable! This is because we will have transformed it, we will have made a new one, from the mountains which we will have covered with a green coat, to the fields which will be completely reclaimed.”
Mussolini’s Emilia Reggia speech positioned the magnificent reinvigoration of Italy’slandscape, which, according to him, had been left to seed in the decades of pre-fascist rule, as symbolic of the triumphant rebirth of the Italian people. Mussolini, whose brother Arnaldo served as president of the National Forest Committee, would later engage in a ceremonial tree planting at the opening of Circeo National Park, where a plaque describes the newly created forest as “defense and support for agriculture and an element of health, decorum, and beauty in the redeemed Pontine countryside.” Here, as well as in projects like the so-called Battle for Grain (an effort to achieve independence from food imports that involved turning “unproductive” land into cereal fields), transforming the countryside was not merely a patriotic activity but explicitly a military one in which the enemy was nature itself.
Such an understanding of the relationship between humans and the non-human natural world formed the contradictory heart of the Milizia Forestale’s ideology. Many conservation theorists today attempt to move away from a utilitarian understanding of nature that pins the value of an environment upon its usefulness to humans. For the Italian fascists, however, nature was not an inherent good. Quite the opposite: uncultivated landscapes, devoid of productive value for humans, were seen as negative forces that had to be eliminated or redeemed. In the worst instances, such landscapes were not seen as merely fallow but as actively hostile, breeding grounds for destructive forces such as disease-carrying mosquitoes. One of the Milizia Forestale’s signature projects was the draining of the Pontine Marshes in a bid to rid the Italian peninsula of malaria, which was once so common in the region that it was known as “Roman fever.” While a sliver of the marshes would later become Circeo National Park, the attendant destruction of habitats and biodiversity has led later ecological historians to label the conservation record of the project “appalling.” In the words of journalist and environmental advocate Antonio Cederna, the park was “born dead.”
The environmental despoliation that occurred with the establishment of Circeo Park was not the only example of failed natural stewardship under the Milizia Forestale. Stelvio Park, another of the parks established under Mussolini’s rule, did not even put a ban on hunting, leaving its wildlife completely unprotected. A proposal for Gran Paradiso, which was never enacted, would have turned the reserve into something more resembling a petting zoo. Moreover, the parks run by the Fascists often owed their existence to nationalistic or militaristic motivations rather than concerns such as preserving biodiversity or threatened habitats. Stelvio, for instance, was situated on land that had been recently annexed from Austria and was considered a kind of “‘‘natural’ war monument,” while the presence of certain symbolically important animal species, such as the bear and the ibex, was used to justify the creation of Abruzzo and Gran Paradiso.
The work of the Milizia Forestale was underpinned by a highly gendered and racialized conception of conservation. In this line of thinking, untrammelled landscapes were feminine spaces that needed to be conquered and dominated by the militant, masculine force of “civilization.” The geography and topography of Italy, meanwhile, were interpreted by fascists as being intimately connected with their notions of the ideal man. The Alps were thought to have brought forth a race of perfect soldiers, strong and hardy stock capable of loyally defending the nation. A 1938 article in the magazine Il Bosco (The Forest), the anonymous author writes, “The Semitic invasion…goes hand in hand with the commercial movement because it is linked to the activities of these nomadic people. But it is right on top of the mountains that the merchants have never arrived and therefore the ancient Aryan civilization has typically been untainted.” Such claims that the mountains of Italy were a breeding ground for “racially pure” super-citizens were eagerly propped up by the racial scientists of the day.
The imposition of right-wing ideology upon nature was not limited to the fascists’ national parks projects: gardens also became a place to play out the Italian fascists’ fantasies of conquest. Unlike the “feminine” wilderness, gardens were understood as masculine spaces exemplifying rationality and control. What’s more, as with other spheres of intellectual and cultural inquiry, discussions of national garden styles as spaces that made visible the hierarchy of the races became discourses on supposed flaws in national character. French gardens were criticized as being too rigid, while English gardens were seen as unruly and lacking logic. The supreme style, of course, was the Italian garden, which writer and propagandist Ugo Ojetti called the “garden of intelligence” for its ability to put order upon nature and subjugate it to the human will. The fabrication of a single unified national Italian garden style looked to the Roman and Renaissance models so idolized by the right wing. Such gardens participated in a broader effort to paper over regional differences in a country that until its 19th-century reunification had long existed as a checkerboard of separate entities, uniting the nation around a single cultural identity with fascism at its center.
The conservation initiatives of the fascists were never able to escape anthropocentrism: everything had to be tied back to a human use, a human value. Are more familiar attempts at nature conservation also in their own way embedded in a utilitarian view of nature, or a worldview that sees humans as separate and superior to non-human life? In interrogating the extreme example of the Fascist Forestry Corps’ obvious failures, we might also reflect upon the ways in which the conservation projects of today bear traces of the same inability to part with a human framing.
The activities of the Milizia Forestale have a strange afterlife in the modern world. A 2017 wildfire that damaged part of the DUX forest led Antrodoco citizens to debate whether or not to replant the woods—and with them the slogan—or turn their backs on the past. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg and Marco Armiero, two scholars who have written extensively on the history of nature conservancy under fascist rule, both point out that monocultures like the Dux plantation are more prone to burn anyway. An eerie reincarnation of Mussolini’s forestry corps can be seen in La Foresta Che Avanza, the green wing of the neo-fascist party CasaPound. In 2018, hundreds of volunteers with the group trekked to Antrodoco to tend the woods there. Italy’s landscape, it seems, continues to be a palimpsest upon which messages may be written and rewritten—and the question remains only who next will do the writing.
Marco Armiero and Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, “Green Rhetoric in Blackshirts: Italian Fascism and the Environment.” Environment and History 19, no. 3 (2013): 283-311.
Claudia Lazzaro and Roger J. Crum, Donatello among the Blackshirts: History and Modernity in the Visual Culture of Fascist Italy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005).
Image credit: Scorcio duna litoranea del Circeo (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)