ROME–The tattoo of a Nazi eagle above a swastika that spans the back of Francesca Rizzi leaves no doubt about her political ideology. The 36-year-old winner of an online beauty pageant in which she was crowned “Miss Hitler” was one of 19 people across Italy put under formal investigation this week for illegally forming a Nazi political party. Her co-collaborators include a 50-year-old female civil servant named Antonella Pavin from Padua who dubbed herself “Hitler’s Sergeant Major,” and a former mobster from the Calabria ‘Ndrangheta mafia who was allegedly in charge of militant training.
Italy’s anti-mafia and anti-terrorism forces spent two years investigating the group, which has ties to a number of other far-right clusters across Europe, including the U.K.’s Combat 18 and similar hate groups in Portugal, Spain and Greece.
Armed special forces carried out the sting operation dubbed “Black Shadows” in 16 cities from Palermo to Milan Thursday morning after someone alerted “Miss Hitler” that police were monitoring the group. Fearful she and others involved might destroy or hide evidence, they swooped in.
What they found was more than troubling. In 16 of the homes searched, they found similar caches of weapons including grenades and semi-automatic rifles and explosives. They also found Nazi and fascist memorabilia adorned with swastikas and the faces of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, alongside militant training texts designed to teach new members how to target Jewish people and gays. Their party motto, “Invisible, Silent and Lethal,” was scrawled on the material.
Prosecutors who led the investigation from Caltanissetta, Sicily, said Thursday that the suspects were creating “an openly pro-Nazi, xenophobic, anti-Semitic group called the Italian National Socialist Workers’ Party.” Pavin posted a notice with the group’s logo on her Facebook page in July 2018, saying the group would start “military training” in August.
Forming a Fascist or Nazi party is against the law in Italy under post-World War II legislation passed in 1952, when Italy was recovering from the destruction caused by Mussolini’s decision to follow Hitler’s ideology. More than 7,500 Italian Jews died during the Holocaust.
But the resurgence of such hate groups has become increasingly troubling in recent months. In November, 89-year-old Holocaust survivor and senator for life Liliana Segre, was put under armed police protection after receiving more than 200 anti-Semitic messages and death threats a day. Her name reportedly appeared in some of the hate messages found at the homes in Thursday’s raids. Last week, new street signs that had just been erected in Rome to honor persecuted Italian Jews were desecrated.
Last summer, police found a cache of weapons including a French-made air-to-air missile in the hands of two Nazi sympathizers in the northern town of Turin. It is not clear if they were part of this particular group.
In November, Segre called for a parliamentary committee to combat hate, which passed even though Italy’s far-right former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s Northern League party abstained from the vote.
The arrests this week have uncovered an intricate network of hate across the country, with group members communicating on a closed group called “Militia” on the Russian social networking service VK. Among the messages were calls for the “mass castration and extinction” of Jews and gays.
Police say they anticipate more arrests.