ROME (JTA) — Over the past few days I’ve been watching online videos of "Il Duce," Italy’s World War II fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
There are hundreds on YouTube, and some of the clips have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Most are taken from the fascist-era newsreels that were part of Mussolini’s powerful propaganda machine. They show military parades and motorcades, or Il Duce, with his jackboots and jutting chin, orating before enormous adoring crowds. Quite a few are pro-fascist tributes posted by admirers who even today regard Mussolini as their ideological guide.
What prompted my interest was the recent flap over iMussolini, an iPhone application that collated the texts of more than 120 of Mussolini’s speeches, plus audio and video clips of the dictator in action.
iMussolini went up on the Italian iTunes store on Jan. 21, and with more than 1,000 downloads a day was the site’s best-selling app until it was yanked two weeks later because of possible copyright violation of material in the state archives. A revised version, which added text but deleted audio, went back on sale Feb. 9.
iMussolini has caused a stir in a country where Il Duce and his legacy remain a divisive issue.
Comments left on the YouTube clips run the gamut from passionate affirmations of "Viva il Duce!" to utter condemnation.
"It’s disgusting," reads one of the more than 6,000 responses to a clip of Mussolini’s speech declaring war in 1940. "Our fathers and grandfathers were completely crazy, robbed of their brains, reduced to being shameful assassins."
Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, when he and his fascist forces marched on Rome. Under his iron-fisted regime, Italy took many steps toward modernization. But he led the country into ruin with his disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany and instituted harsh anti-Semitic laws in 1938.
Partisans executed Mussolini and his mistress in 1945, and their bodies were strung up by their heels in a Milan piazza.
Fascism is outlawed in Italy today, but some Italians now equate both fascists and partisans as patriots, and a visible segment of the political far-right regards Mussolini as a hero.
His tomb in the northeast town of Predappio is a place of pilgrimage, where souvenir shops sell all sorts of fascist memorabilia. Skinheads give the fascist salute in his honor, and there are flourishing Mussolini groups on Facebook — one boasts more than 6,000 fans.
The iMussolini app’s developer, 25-year-old Luigi Marino, denies wanting to cash in on fascist nostalgia. He said he created his app simply by collating historical material that is freely available in bookstores, in libraries and online.
Presenting it without comment, he says on the iTunes site, enables an "unconditioned analysis of what took place in those years."
Others see it quite differently.
One leftist group called iMussolini a "hymn to fascism." And a Holocaust survivor association branded it "an insult to the memory of all victims of Nazism and fascism" and an "offense to decency and conscience."
In fact, there is a complex dilemma involved.
Mussolini’s rule — and the power he exercised over his countrymen — formed an epoch of Italian history whose impact is still being felt today.
Postwar Italian democracy was built on a foundation of anti-fascism that exalted the wartime anti-fascist resistance while it minimized the extent to which many Italians had supported Mussolini’s regime — indeed, before 1938, Fascist Party ranks had included thousands of Jews.
In recent years, new debates over the "true" nature of Italian fascism and its legacy have arisen, along with a less ideological examination of history that seeks to separate myth from fact.
The speeches on the iMussolini app, "like them or not, form part of history," said Il Duce’s granddaughter, Alessandra Mussolini, a longtime right-wing member of the Italian parliament. "But if you want to wipe out history with censorship, help yourself."
With the iMussolini app, however, the issue is not censorship. It is, instead, where the line gets drawn between history and opinion, facts and propaganda.
"This is an ugly side of Italian history and is not something to be sold on iTunes, out of context, like a video game or song," said Angelo Pontecorboli, a Florence-based artist and publisher.
"For thousands of Italian Jews like me," he added, "it was part of our suffering."
I didn’t buy iMussolini when the app first came out. But when the revised version went on line, I decided to invest $2 and take a look.
It’s a little creepy.
For one thing, most of the user comments on the iTunes site come from nostalgic pro-fascists who, as one put it, found it "great to have il Duce always with me."
Then on the app itself, a disclaimer that it "does not intend to celebrate Fascism but exclusively contains historical documents" is misleading.
The app’s biography of Mussolini clearly was written from the standpoint of an admirer. And the "historical documents" it contains provide a sanitized picture of his regime that is far from complete.
The app’s list of laws, public works and other measures taken under fascism, for example, notes how under Mussolini the Italian railways became "the best outfitted and most efficient in Europe."
But it fails to mention the regime’s sexism, militarism and harsh suppression of dissent. Or even the 1938 racial laws that made anti-Semitic persecution a fundamental part of fascism’s guiding principles.
(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," and "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe." She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)