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Assault on Europe from an Italian monastery

Megan Williams Collepardo, Italy
March 15, 2019

To general consternation, educational courses are to be held at a secluded monastery to create a populist political vanguard capable of "launching an assault on Europe." Megan Williams reports from Collepardo.

A monastery on a hill
Image: DW/M. Williams

For many, the decision to live in an all-but-abandoned 13th-century monastery atop a mountain in a foreign country with no cellphone reception and only a groundskeeper, an octogenarian monk and 19 feral cats for company would not be an obvious lifestyle choice.

Add to that the second protest in three months planned for Saturday of locals and other activists wanting you gone, and you just might have a few regrets.

But not Benjamin Harnwell, the 43-year-old former British parliamentary assistant and Catholic convert who last year moved into the crumbling Trisulti Charterhouse perched above the town of Collepardo, a two-hour drive southeast of Rome.

Harnwell is the Steve Bannon-anointed head of a future "gladiator school for cultural warriors" of the far-right, a man who says he has landed his dream job. "This sounds really cheesy, but I say God's given me something to do here and I've got to do it," he tells DW.

A man standing in a room in a monastery
Harnwell thinks Bannon is "one of the great human beings walking on the face of the planet today."Image: DW/M. Williams

Last year, backed by Bannon [Donald Trump's ex-chief strategist and former Breitbart executive — the ed.], Harnwell's ultra-conservative Institute for Human Dignity (DHI) won a public tender to occupy the monastery for 19 years at an annual rent of €100,000 ($113,000).

Read moreOpinion: Steve Bannon attacking the EU from the right

An unequal bromance

"Steve is constantly saying that the thing you have to understand about the class of people who run the West is that they are grossly incompetent," Harnwell says, sitting in a sparsely furnished, dimly lit, frigid room in a far corner on the vast monastery complex. "We assume because they dress smartly and comb their hair well and use all the officially approved language that these people are great statesmen."

Harnwell himself, as many have pointed out, combs his hair and dresses much like Bannon.

Brought together by conservative Catholicism, hostility to the EU, and support for nationalist movements, the two men enjoy a fulsome, if not exactly equal bromance. Harnwell calls Bannon "one of the great human beings walking on the face of the planet today." Bannon, who does not speak Italian, gives Harnwell the dubious distinction of being "the smartest guy in Rome."

Karte Italien Collepardo EN

Read moreWill populists unite to blight the EU?

When asked about DHI's values, Harnwell cites the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible, "that man is made in the image and likes of God and every single person without exception… is of infinite value."

What about capital punishment? "Look, the DHI doesn't have a view on capital punishment. I personally am not opposed to capital punishment."

Marriage? "Between a man and a woman."

Divorce? "Not a concept which is compatible with the concept of sacramental marriage."

What about Bannon's three divorces? "Technically that's not true," he says with a chuckle. "As far as I am aware… his first marriage was annulled, his second ended in divorce and I don't know the state of his third one."

Numbers don't add up

But isn't it important that such a vocal defender of conservative Christian values be living those values? "None of us is perfect," counters Harnwell, adding that while he thinks Bannon is currently living a life in conformity with the teachings of the church, he "hasn't had that conversation with him."

Along with defending the Judeo-Christian tradition, Harnwell's other main cause is opposing what he calls the EU's "militantly, ideological sense of a borderless system."

He cites a Pew Research Center study which he says shows that a catastrophic scenario in which two-thirds of Africans, 800 million people, are planning to move to Europe or the US in coming years.

(Later, when this reporter can't find the study and emails Harnwell for it, he sends a link to a Breitbart News article that includes a link to a Pew study showing one million Africans moved to the EU from 2010 to 2017 and 400,000 to the USA from 2010 to 2016. After an exchange of emails, Harnwell downgrades his estimate to 400 million).

A room in a monastery
Educational courses are to be held here to create a populist political vanguard capable of "launching an assault on Europe" Image: DW/M. Williams

He walks DW through the stunning monastery grounds, the light-filled refectory, then to the jewel of a cloister modeled on another in Rome designed by Michelangelo.

Out of one window, he spots a group of older pilgrims winding their way along a mountain path. To date, visitors to the monastery have consisted mostly of the retired pilgrims who make the trip here from the nearby Castelli Romani communes on the eighth of each month to visit the small shrine of Madonna delle Cese.

He says he loves hiking, but hasn't had any time.

"What have you been doing,?" DW asks. "Now you're starting to sound like Steve," he jokes.

We move through a hallway lined with former monks' cells, beautiful in their simplicity, but that need to be upgraded to accommodate future students.

Where's the plan?

Despite the ambitions for a vanguard training center, one cannot help but notice that the plans seem vague, the monastery rather sleepy, and connections to real political parties negligible.

Read more: Eastern Europe: Steve Bannon's absent partner

Courses will be "revealed to grand acclaim" at a later date. He's never met and doesn't need to meet Italy's far-right leader Matteo Salvinibecause he "can support him in the mountains," Harnwell says.

A room in a monastery
The rooms are ready, but details of the courses and participants remain sketchyImage: DW/M. Williams

Apart from the older pilgrims, the only other guest present is a soft-spoken organist from the UK who shadows us throughout the interview. She is on her last day of a two-week stay here for "religious purposes." She says that after watching videos on YouTube purported to show gangs of Muslim men raping women in Germany and Sweden, she's deeply worried about all the single, male migrants that have arrived in Europe and terrified for her two adult daughters. She likes what Bannon has to say.

Our tour wraps up with a look inside the exquisite pharmacy where monks once made hundreds of herbal remedies, including the first Sambuca. Outside the front foyer the chatty grounds keeper tells DW he’s puzzled by all the attention the monastery, for so long ignored, is now attracting.

"When they announced the tender, no one was interested," he says. "The only other person who visited the place was Massimiliano Muzzi, who came here dressed as a monk and said he was a bishop. He turned out to be a fake and was arrested for millions of euros of fraud."

Harnwell has to leave. He has emails waiting and dozens of interview requests to deal with.

"This is nothing to do with me, I just happen to be attached to the man of the moment," he says, bemused. "Before, I couldn't even attract the attention of the local press. Now, the international press comes out here to hang on my every word."

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