A charred corpse lying unrecognizable in an underground bunker in Berlin, a body hanging all too recognizably upside down from the gantry of a petrol station in Milan: if single images can be worth pages of historical analysis then the fates of Hitler and Mussolini in April 1945 certainly point to a dramatic watershed in the history of the radical right. The Duce's prophecies that his regime inaugurated a 'century of the Right, a Fascist century', and the Führer's claims to have founded a thousand-year Reich had proved catastrophic misreadings of unfolding political realities. The increasingly geriatric personal dictatorships of Franco and Salazar soon seemed grotesque anachronisms. In 1994 the oldest and most successful neo-fascist movement, the Movimento Sociale Italiano, became a 'right-wing party', declaring at its first congress held in Fiuggi that the collapse of actually existing socialism five years earlier had meant the end of an era characterized by the struggle between anti-fascism and fascism, and that parliamentary democracy now remained 'the only solution without negative side effects to the problem of competition between political forces for the conquest of consensus'. 1 In the run up to the congress in December 1993 the MSI's leader, Gianfranco Fini, had asserted that 'Fascism was now irreversibly consigned to history and its judgement . . . Like all Italians we are not neo-Fascists, but post-Fascists'. 2 Symbolically at least, Fiuggi was the Bad Godesberg of the European radical right. Liberal democracy had triumphed.
With its Faustian urge to probe beneath the surface of human phenomena to find 'what holds together the world at its inmost level', 3 political science clearly cannot be content with such punchy story-lines and cinematographic dénouements. However, once it is asked to recount how things 'actually have been' for the radical right since 1945 a number of factors come into play which make it hazardous to offer any sort of script at all, even if only in the form of a rough treatment. For one thing, even if the scope of the question is restricted to Europe, the failure of the radical right to achieve hegemony has a different story in every country. 4 Moreover, the conceptual problems involved compound those raised by the sheer quantity of empirical material. Apart from the increasingly contested nature of the fundamental term 'the right', 5 the concept 'radical right' can be defined and delimited in several conflicting ways, 6 and in each case