Homophobic and racist bestseller by Italian general opens chasm between Italy’s Meloni and Salvini

The leader of the Lega Nord defends the military officer who wrote the book, while the defense minister, who is a very close ally of the prime minister, condemns him

Giorgia Meloni
Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni in Rome on November 22.Gregorio Borgia (AP)

A book with homophobic, xenophobic, racist and sexist content written by Italian army general Roberto Vannacci has transformed into the political saga of the summer in Italy. It has also jeopardized the harmony between the right-wing coalition government, creating a rift between the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and the deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini.

The minister of defense, Guido Crosetto, one of the members of the government closest to Meloni, has expressed his criticism of the military man and has supported his dismissal as head of the Italian Military Geographic Institute. Meanwhile, Salvini has welcomed his ideas and has even invited him to join his party in the European elections next June, but Vannacci declined the offer to enter politics. “I appreciate it, but I will remain a soldier for now,” he said.

A few weeks ago, Vannacci, a decorated Italian army general and former head of the paratroopers of the Brigade Folgore, released his self-published book Il Mondo al contrario [The world upside down], in which he attacks the likes of homosexuals, feminists, immigrants and climate activists. The publication — which tops Amazon’s bestseller list, and thanks to its numerous offensive passages, has sparked considerable controversy in Italy and in the government — has resulted in the general’s dismissal as head of the Italian Military Geographic Institute, a state agency responsible for cartography.

The author argues that “minorities,” such as those in the LGBTQ+ community and Italians of foreign origin, force new rules on the majority that are not shared. He refers to contemporary debates on civil rights as “brainwashing by those who wish to favor the elimination of all differences, including those between ethnic groups, so as to avoid calling them races” and defends his opinions as “objective truths” resulting from “wisdom.” He also lashes out at some Black Italian sportswomen because “their features do not represent Italianness” and says that homosexuals “are not normal.” He also denounces the existence of an alleged “international gay lobby” that has concocted a plot to “normalize homosexuality.” And he laments the banning of terms “that until recently were in our dictionaries” such as “invert, faggot, pansy or little lady.”

The minister of defense — a very close ally of Meloni, with whom he founded Brothers of Italy — described Vannacci’s opinions as “personal outbursts” and explained that the army, which has distanced itself from the general’s opinions, will open disciplinary proceedings against him.

However, Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the Lega Nord, has clashed sharply with his allies in the government and has jumped to the military man’s defense on several occasions. “He must be judged by what he does while serving,” he has said, instead of by his opinions. Salvini telephoned Vannacci to express his “solidarity” and to assure him that he would buy his book. Andrea Crippa, deputy secretary of the Lega Nord, has publicly praised Vannacci, with whom he says he agrees on “80%” of his opinions and that the party’s doors are “wide open” to him.

Competition for the far-right vote

Since becoming prime minister, Meloni has considerably toned down her aggressive approach and has moderated her extreme positions, but she has not yet spoken about the issue. Her position is complicated, as, on the one hand, she does not want to lose support among far-right voters. But, on the other hand, she must ensure the political and institutional integrity her position demands and also avoid a clash with the presidency of the Republic. Those close to her assure that she is annoyed with Salvini’s actions, which have been interpreted by the opposition and among her own allies as a maneuver to undermine the minister of defense.

Meloni did not like the fact that while a state institution such as the army places one of its most reputable members under scrutiny, Salvini, the number two in the government, acted in such a way, without waiting for the outcome of the disciplinary process. The prime minister recently met privately with her deputy to discuss the issue and, according to media reports, the two leaders agreed to “avoid disloyal competition” on future occasions, especially in light of the negotiation of next year’s budget and the European elections.

The third branch of the government coalition, the conservative Forza Italia, has sided with the minister of defense.

In Italy, some perceive that there is “a Russian hand” behind the general’s book with the aim of destabilizing and splitting the right wing in the run-up to the upcoming European elections. This was denounced by former conservative senator Fabrizio Cicchitto: “Be careful, when it comes to foreign policy, things go from grotesque to serious. Behind the general there is a Russian hand out to divide the right.” In an interview with La Repubblica he went on to say: “The aim is to introduce elements opposed to Atlantic orthodoxy in the next European Parliament. Let’s not forget that Putin was the first world leader to grasp the ability to influence and destabilize liberal democracies through the unscrupulous use of the Internet.”

Bruno Vespa, the presenter of Italian public television channel, Rai, has suggested that Vannacci, a decorated commander and experienced in high-level international missions, was transferred to the Italian Military Geographic Institute because of his alleged sympathies toward the Kremlin, which developed during his time as military attaché at the Italian Embassy in Moscow. “A NATO nation as exposed as ours in favor of Ukraine cannot afford to have such ambiguities in a high military post,” the presenter said.

In an interview with Il Corriere della Sera, Vannacci rejected these accusations, though he defended, as he also does in his book, that “Moscow is an ultra-safe city” and that “in Russia there is work, life is rather good and there is no illegal immigration.”

Vannacci, 54, served as a commander in the Afghanistan war, as well as during the Iraq war, and has commanded the Italian Army’s main paratrooper brigade. He has been awarded numerous medals, including the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

His book contains an array of ideas that are widespread among extreme right-wing advocates, such as the denial of climate change, or the rejection of parenthood for homosexual couples. The author is aware that his incendiary writing could inspire violent or aggressive behavior, since in the first pages he states that he disassociates himself “from any type of illicit behavior” that could derive from the interpretation of his words. In addition, the general admits that his message is laden with hatred and contempt, which he claims as “rights.” “As execrable as it is, hatred is a feeling, an emotion that cannot be repressed in a courtroom.” “If we are in the age of rights, then, as Oriana Fallaci did, I too assert out loud the right to hate and contempt and to be able to express them freely in the appropriate tone and form,” he writes in his book.

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