PREDAPPIO, Italy (Jun. 12)
This sleepy little town in the wooded hills of northeast Italy has been called “a pilgrimage place for creeps.”
It is here that Italy’s wartime fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was born and buried.
Over the past few years Predappio has become the focus of a right-wing nostalgia cult and a tourist industry centered on Mussolini, who came to power in 1922 and was executed by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.
Tens of thousands of nostalgic old fascists, young skinheads and other Mussolini followers converge on Predappio and parade through the streets on the anniversaries of Mussolini’s birth and death, and on the anniversary of his 1922 fascist march on Rome.
The humble house where he was born is now a museum.
At his tomb in a marble crypt in the local cemetery, solemn-faced young honor guards in long black cloaks stand vigil. A guest book has page after page of signatures — more than 500 in the first week of June alone.
As many as 100,000 or more visitors — including foreign tourists, curious Italians and die-hard fascist believers — came to Predappio in 2000.
“On the anniversaries and so forth, buses are lined up from one end of town to the other,” says a local woman who did not give her name. “On days like that, a lot of townspeople close themselves inside their houses or even leave town. They can’t stand it.”
Catering to the crowds, glass-fronted souvenir shops scattered along Predappio’s one main street fly huge Italian flags and cash in with garish displays of memorabilia featuring Mussolini’s bald pate and jutting jaw, as well as other fascist imagery.
There are Mussolini T-shirts, baseball caps, pens, calendars, portrait busts, playing cards, clocks, ash trays, key chains and a host of other keepsakes, along with right-wing books, pamphlets and posters.
“Our customers are fascists,” says a saleswoman at one of the shops, which sells swastika necklaces, busts of Hitler and copies of “Mein Kampf” in addition to the Mussolini mementos.
In a sense, Predappio owes its existence to Mussolini.
Its present-day center was built in the 1920s like a shrine around the farmhouse in which Mussolini was born, and some of its most prominent buildings are examples of neo-Roman-style fascist architecture.
For most of the postwar period, however, Predappio, like much of the rest of Italy, tried to forget its fascist past. Most of the town’s 6,000 people consider themselves leftists and have consistently voted for a left-wing mayor.
Ivo Marcelli, a former Communist who has served as mayor since 1990, sees the pilgrimages, the honor guards and the schlocky souvenirs as the kitschy face of a potentially dangerous trend: a creeping nostalgia for the fascist past that flirts with rehabilitation.
“There is an attempt at revisionism on the part of some historians, an attempt at rewriting the history of the phenomenon of fascism and of the consequences of fascism in Italy, such as the war, repression and the anti-Semitic racist laws,” he told JTA. “It worries me.”
In addition to the kitsch, there have been recent cases up and down Italy of towns naming or seeking to name streets and squares after leading fascist figures. Newspapers and bookstores are full of articles and books on the issue.
Some observers say the trend reflects an attempt to re-evaluate the bedrock ideals of Italy’s postwar history.
“This present rehabilitation of the man who allied himself politically and militarily with the Nazis, who persecuted Italian Jews without prompting from Hitler, who dragged Italy into a disastrous war, is not surprising,” James Walston, a historian at the American University in Rome, wrote last year in the Italy Daily newspaper. “It is a reflection of serious changes in Italian society and politics.”
The nostalgia and the fascination with the fascist era is not brand new, nor is the effort to re-examine and reinterpret Italy’s history. In large part, they are products of the fall of communism more than a decade ago, which touched off a process of historical re-examination across Europe.
In Italy, these shifts helped trigger the so-called “Clean Hands” political corruption investigations, begun in 1992, which shattered old political parties, swept away many veteran politicians and opened the door to a reassessment of the past.
Postwar Italian democracy was built on a foundation of anti-fascism that exalted the wartime Resistance, while minimizing the extent to which many Italians had supported and fought for Mussolini’s regime.
For decades, nostalgic fascist sympathizers, grouped around a small neo-fascist party, the Italian Social Movement, were relegated to the far fringes of mainstream politics.
Through the 1990s, as firsthand memory of the fascist period faded, new debates about the “true” nature of Italian fascism and its legacy arose.
At the same time, some Italians clearly chose “different” ways of remembering.
One of these equates both fascists and partisans as patriots, each side fighting for its own legitimate vision of Italy.
Another finds its voice in more dramatic attempts to rehabilitate Mussolini and his regime.
What has reinforced such efforts recently and brought them to the fore of public discussion is the country’s sharp political shift to the right, following the victory last year of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right “Freedom House” coalition.
Berlusconi’s coalition partners include the National Alliance, which has its roots in neo-fascism, and the Northern League, which once aimed at separating northern Italy from the rest of the country and is known for its overt anti-immigrant policies.
Berlusconi’s deputy prime minister is National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini, who in 1994 forged his party out of the Italian Social Movement.
Since then, Fini has sought to shed the jackboot image and transform the National Alliance into a mainstream rightist force.
Among other things, he has become one of Italy’s strongest supporters of Israel.
Marcelli, the mayor of Predappio, says the pilgrimages and other Mussolini nostalgia at Predappio have increased sharply since the Berlusconi government took power.
“The people who come seem to exhibit a manner that is more overbearing, and this causes me concern,” he says. “They seem to feel somehow legitimized by a center-right government.”
Marcelli says it is important for Italians to understand fascism and to learn about the history of the fascist period.
To this end, he would like to capitalize on Predappio’s status as a magnet to create a think tank or study center in town, which would host conferences and house archives and other materials to foster serious study of fascism.
Ideally, he says, he would like to locate the center in the now-empty building that once housed the local headquarters of the fascist party.
He also wants to explore the possibility of linking Predappio with other European towns that have given birth to 20th-century dictators.
“This would be an opportunity to establish museums, documentation and study centers and exhibits in these towns, to educate people so that such things will never happen again,” he says.