November 2, 2022

One hundred years after seizing power, Benito Mussolini still has his admirers. As many as 4,000 black-clad fascist sympathisers marched to the Italian dictator’s crypt on Sunday to mark the centenary of his March on Rome. Cries of “Duce, Duce, Duce,” filled the air in the northern Italian town of Predappio; arms were raised in a fascist salute. Mussolini’s great-granddaughter, Orsola addressed the crowd: “After 100 years, we are still here to pay homage to the man this state needed and whom we will never stop admiring.”

Not all Italians are making the pilgrimage to Predappio, of course. The “true believers” who do are an exiguous minority, even if groups such as Casa Pound and Forza nuova register a growing popularity. More numerous are those “post-fascists”, many of whom undoubtedly helped Giorgia Meloni to become Italy’s first female Prime Minister. But to ascribe Meloni’s victory to a widespread revival of fascism would be mistaken; there are many factors that have pushed voters to support the extreme Right, not least the current economic crisis. Even so, the spectre of fascism continues to haunt Italian politics. It is a reminder that, unlike Germany, Italy has never really come to terms with its fascist past. Whereas in Germany, Nazi monuments were torn down and Holocaust memorials constructed to remind people of their crimes, in Italy monuments glorifying the Duce — such as the Dux obelisk in Rome — are still there for all to see. There is no suggestion that they should be removed.

Monuments, in themselves, may not be a problem; it is how people interpret them that is important. When the comparison with German denazification is made, the stock Italian reply is: “But Mussolini was not Hitler.” While undoubtedly true, the implications of this statement are far-reaching. The “lesser evil” argument has been manipulated by those such as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who insisted that “Mussolini never killed anybody”, and the former vice-President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, who claimed that “Mussolini did many good things” — this last a common phrase, referring usually to the draining of the Pontine marshes south of Rome or the extension of the welfare system. From being the lesser evil, Mussolini has become no evil at all.

This rose-tinted view of Mussolini has several causes, but much can be explained by the way in which the Second World War ended for Italy. After the Armistice with the Allies in 1943 and the subsequent German invasion of the peninsula, the Italian Resistance movement played a great part in the liberation of the country. In order to obtain the best possible post-war settlement, the role of the Resistance was emphasised in the peace negotiations; Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler was played down as much as possible. It was as if Italy had always been a nation of anti-fascists; as if the Italians had been victims of fascism. Although it was not at all clear who exactly the fascists had been, as victims of fascism it was evident that Italians had no need to come to terms with the past. The responsibility belonged to others. We had, essentially, anti-fascism without fascism.

One consequence of this interpretation of Italy’s past was that many fascists were never tried or imprisoned, much less executed for their crimes. There was no Italian equivalent of the Nuremberg trials; on the contrary, there was an amnesty declared for many fascist crimes. At the administrative level, continuity rather than change was common. Many former fascists simply blended into the woodwork and got on with the job, covered by the rhetoric of anti-fascism and Italian “victimhood”.

For several decades this reading of the past held. The Italian Republic, explicitly founded on the values of the Resistance, made anti-fascism its official discourse. Positions were forced to change in the Seventies when the victim paradigm was challenged by an Italian historian, Renzo De Felice, who said in his massive biography of Mussolini that there had been a “mass consensus” among Italians for fascism. Italians had been complicit with the regime — perpetrators, not victims. Here, surely, was the moment for Italy to come to terms with its past. Strangely though, it didn’t happen. What happened instead was that mass consensus for fascism was seen as legitimising the regime. The argument went: “If we were all fascists, and if, as we know, Italians are ‘good people’, then fascism cannot have been so bad.” Again Italians were off the hook. If, as victims of fascism, they bore no responsibility, as supporters of what was now cast as a benign dictatorship, they had nothing to explain. Germans had a past that could never pass; Italians a past that presented no problems.

The historical roots of today’s indulgence, sometimes even nostalgia, towards Mussolini lie in the belief that, at the end of the day, he did “many good things”. It is a view often purveyed — perhaps unintentionally and possibly because of the lack of other materials — by the media, which continues to show images of the regime that are drawn from fascist propaganda and are, therefore, very obviously, favourable to the regime. The self-representation of fascism remains very much the lens through which the regime is viewed. It is, of course, a world of one success after another: of marshlands drained, trains on time, healthy babies, and smiling faces. It all looks very convincing. The violence of the regime has been airbrushed out of the picture. The constant police repression is glossed over. We rarely see signs of the half-a-million Italian casualties whose deaths in the course of the Second World War were directly attributable to fascist policies, even less so of the tens of thousands of Africans killed in the colonial massacres of the Thirties. In these circumstances, psychological removal becomes easy.

The centenary of the March on Rome took place against this backdrop. Some may ask why it was commemorated at all, but the real question is: what is the significance of the March today? Here, the answer is less clear-cut than one might expect. Italian attitudes to fascism are often ambivalent: collective memory of Mussolini’s regime reflects what many people would like to believe rather than the harsh reality. It is a distortion which seems to run in parallel with the current drift to the Right in both European and American politics. Many of those factors that have helped the French, Hungarian, and Polish Right (all friends of Meloni) to preach and, where possible, practice an “illiberal democracy” are present in Italy. Dissatisfaction with what all too often looks like political drift, the mounting problems of representative democracy, economic instability accompanied by constant cuts in social services, immigration — these are all factors that serve to fuel a “memory” of a dictator who, as the slogan went, “was always right”.

It is a surprising destiny for a man who, in 1945, was execrated and reviled by Italians, but not so surprising in the history of dictators. Stalin, Ceaușescu, Franco all have their supporters nowadays. It suggests that, even though Meloni may denounce (unconvincingly) Italy’s fascist past, the admirers of Mussolini are likely to flock in ever greater numbers to Predappio.