A tragic story filled Italian newspapers earlier this week: a four-year-old girl from northern Italy died of malaria. Doctors had noted that the disease is rarely found in Italy, and the family had not traveled abroad. The next day a pair of conservative newspapers claimed they’d solved the mystery: “Immigrants” were responsible for the girl’s fatal illness. “After Poverty, They Bring Disease” the Milan-based daily Libero splashed in its front-page headline Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Rome-based Il Tempo’s lead story was titled “So Here Is The Malaria of Immigrants.”

The headlines are evidently what we all now have begun to call Fake News. But they also evoke racist tropes that trace back to Italy’s fascist past where Jews and other so-called “outsiders” were accused of lacking hygiene and bearing exotic disease.

Today, the target of far-right hatred is immigrants, as Italy faces a decade-long influx of arrivals crossing by sea from North Africa to arrive on European soil. Though often the ultimate destinations are points farther north, the number of immigrants in Italy has more than doubled since 2007, according to the Italian statistics bureau ISTAT.

The newspaper headlines are not the only throwback to the worst chapter of Italian history. Following a high-profile gang rape last month of a Polish tourist in the eastern city of Rimini, in which several immigrant teenagers were arrested, the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova began circulating a new 1920s vintage-style poster around Italy that featured a dark-skinned man attacking a white woman. “Defend her from the invaders,” the poster reads. “It could be your mother, wife, sister, daughter."

La Stampa reports that an anti-racism NGO called the poster a “blatant incitement to racial hatred.” Leftist member of Parliament Giuseppe Civati called it a “shameful” reference to the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Forza Nuova, a long-established but largely fringe party, does not seem deterred, and in fact is eager to capitalize on the rising worries about immigration. The weekly L’Espresso reported that the party this week announced plans for a rally in Rome on October 28 to mark the 95th anniversary of the Mussolini-led “March on Rome” that ushered in two decades of fascist rule. Italy again reminds us that even when the past is dead, it may not be buried.


See more from World Affairs here