Paul Corner is Emeritus Professor of European History at the University of Siena. His new book, Mussolini in Myth and Memory, has just been published by Oxford University Press.
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”.
By Thomas Fazi
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.
By Mary Harrington
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.
In what sense can Meloni be classified as far right? She has no thuggish black shirted supporters. What policies does she espouse that were espoused by Il Duce but not also supported by ordinary conservative politicians and ordinary people? Her policies seem entirely unlike that of the Fascist Party of Italy. Her description as far right is merely a rhetorical device to blacken her. It has no objective meaning and should be discarded by respectable allegedly unbiased journalists.
Members of the US Democratic Party are not described as far right simply because of the Jim Crow policies supported by the Democratic Party of that era and the refusal of Franklin D Roosevelt to meet with Jesse Owen after his triumph at the Olympics while meeting other white members of the team.
Was going to ask the same question.
That’s a fair point
Well, I lived in Italy, the Italians are very Italian – it is hard to see them as real fascists – they never were successful in WWII, Hitler had to save them every time, or they just lost. They just did not have the kill and be killed of the Germans. It is just not fair to lump the Italians of that time with the Germans.
Italian Fas*ism big draw was also about resurrection of the Roman Empire, to bring back the glories of Romanitas. ‘resurrezione dell’Impero Romano’ Mussolini rebuilt Circus Maximas – he used the fasc es, bundle of rods around the ax – symbol of Roman Law, as his Nations Party Symbol. That was one part of how he stirred up the people. Very Different from Hitle r, who’s Naz i party was out for the conquest – and subjugation of the world for the Super race to rule, where Italy was Patriotic Pride, about old glories revived, and jobs and prosperity.
Also he never handed over the Jews to Hitler – he told Hitler he would not, and did not, even though there were many in Italy. Even the horrid Petain who ran Vichy handed over a great many – even the British of the Channel Islands did, and the Dutch and Belgians and Poles and Czechs….But only Mussolini did not.
(the fasc es was carried before the Tax Collector – the rods to flog the late payer – the ax for the tax cheat – It was the symbolic Might of Roman Empire. (and the analogy of a bundle of sticks bound together cannot be broken, wile one can easily be snapped)(and the fasc es was on the back of the USA Mercury Dime from 1916 to 1945)
While Italian war crimes never reached the level of those committed by Germans and Japanese or even the Soviets there has undoubtedly been a concerted effort to suppress knowledge of those war crimes that were committed as outlined in this Guardian article:
The fact that the majority of the atrocities occurred in Italy’s colonial wars may have something to do with it as does the desire to keep Italy from falling into the Communist camp post war.
When you think of the mass deaths of the regimes in Ethiopia post Italian conquest, their departure must be regretted. Despite a rather short period of colonisation, they left behind them vineyards and cornfields.
Did you ever read Thesiger’s story of his time in Abysinia in WWII? Him and the Mad Orde Wingate (of the Chindits later), with a couple British troops and some Native troops, took captive, single handed, tens of thousands of Italians.
He told them he was with HMG Army – and if they would care to surrender to him he had the authority to accept their surrender, and eventually they would likely make it back to Italy alive –
Or, they could fight on and be destroyed – he led them down to captivity without a shot fired – because he gave them Protection from the Native Army by British POW rules – which the Ethiopians had treaties to honour… amazing..
If you have not read his autobiography – the last Great Edwardian Explorer, Gentleman, and Adventurer, passing away 1990s. A Fantastic book, Amazing.https://www.amazon.com/Life-My-Choice-Wilfred-Thesiger/dp/0393025136
If you have not already read it you might enjoy “A cure for serpents” by an Italian doctor Alberto Denti di Pirajno about his time in Tripoli.
The ‘fasces’ were NOT carried “before the Tax Collector” but rather before Roman Magistrates by men called Lictors.
A Dictator was entitled to 24, a Consul to 12, a Praetor to 6, (and the Senior Vestal Virgin to 1.)
Just simplifying it – the Right of a Government to Tax is the sign of their authority – and what the Lictor brought was the Taxman… sure, a lot more – the Magistrate, and so all the rules and rights, duties and benefits – but at the heart is the Taxman – that was why the Magistrate was there, how the Magistrate was possible….what all of the edifice rested on – and so was the intimate contact with the authority of government by the people.
I don’t dispute that but again to be technically correct the man responsible for taxes during the Pax Romana was a Procurator for an Imperial Province and a Quaestor for a Senatorial or Public Province.
“They just did not have the kill” – don’t say this in Slovenia.
The last paragraph really gives away the pitch, try and frame Ms. Meloni and her supporters as fascists. Not buying it!
“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””
What is illiberal democracy? In the States, censoring speech deemed inappropriate by our tech lords is liberal democracy at its finest, so we are told? Deep-sixing a vital story about some “important” guy’s laptop before a crucial election in order to protect another important guy is meant to save liberal Democracy? How about canceling speakers who do not preach the enlightened narrative, liberal Democracy? And let’s not forget four years of Russian collusion hysteria because our liberal Democracy was threatened, so we were told.
I don’t really know enough about Italy today or Italian fascism to be sure of much. But this evidence of the crimes of Mussolini’s fascism doesn’t look specifically Italian or fascist. Mussolini was undoubtably fascist but this isn’t necessarily evidence of it. Whereas in Hitler’s Germany there are many, many specific examples that are without doubt fascist, and are in fact the benchmark for fascism.
“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.”
These crimes seem to be common to many countries, I’d like to see more evidence of the rise of fascism in Italy, besides photos of males with raised arms and flags, and I’d like to think it wasn’t just media manipulation by the left to undermine Meloni.
It might have something to do with the fact that Mussolini invented fascism and even the word.
I don’t disagree with the common crimes argument but the origin of fascism as a political movement was post WW1 Italy and specifically Benito Mussolini. The word has since been applied to other similar repressive, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and now ever more loosely to anyone whose views we don’t agree with. But originally it applied to a hand in glove approach of government and corporate running a nation with strong nationalism, totalitarianism and in Mussolini’s case a desire to build an empire, hence the African wars in the 1930s.
Of course the government- corporate link and the authoritarian approach is what centrist or social democrat technocrat governments have been trying on us since covid.
Fascism was ghastly. Blackshirted nutters with clubs or worse, bashing people’s heads in. One positive about the regime was clamping down on Cosa Nostra, which was successful, as far as I recall.
Half a million casualties seems an awful lot for a war that ended in 1943,
Mussolini was a national socialist… note the word socialist?! His fascism still exists in Italy’s and Britain’s leftist woke politics, and Meloni’s opposition is freedom from that phenomena, all of which comes from the US via the internet.
Perhaps Mr Putin could take comfort from the thought that even if he ends up hanging from a lamppost he may be admired by a few stupid people.
He might want to steer clear of petrol station forecourts for the next while.
When the dust settled in France after WW2 it turned out that just about everyone had been in The Resistance but just hadn’t let on. As the years passed, this fiction became fait accompli leaving history to wonder who all those French were who collaborated with the boche. Nowadays, the far-left news media, which is nearly the whole, is finding white nationalists and the far right everywhere they look, including Italy, France, Britain and MAGA voters. You are a fascist by definition if you oppose borders and illegal immigration.
I suspect this entire article was constructed in an effort to associate Meloni with fascism in the final sentence. I see no evidence to support that whatever. This is a very lame article. Good comments though.
Not sure what the author suggests should happen. All “fascisti” are now long dead, so I am not clear who the reckoning should affect. Shall we tear down monuments and inscriptions? I should think not, if anything because architecture from the era is actually pleasing to the eye. Maybe a better understanding is needed, starting with schools who didn’t use to talk about anything past the first world war (it may have changed now), but making to big a fuss about it may only make the “nostalgic” more popular.
Anyway, are there more “neofascists” going to Predappio or “neobourbons” praying on the last king of Naples’ tomb? Or people who believe the earth is flat?
By this measure, they better take down all Roman monuments as they were built by “Ceasars” who were on many occasions more brutal and destructive to the population that Il Duce.
A “crowd” of 4,000? Scare me with something real.
…not just the Italians…there were vast numbers of fascists in most of Western Europe, and a very great many collaborators more than happy to sign up for the Third Reich, and take up arms in support of it…in June 1944 there were far more Frenchmen in German or Vichy uniforms opposing the allies, than donning FFI armbands and supporting them…
…and amongst the last men standing in the ruins of Berlin were the Frenchmen of SS Division “Charlemagne” and the Scandinavians of SS Division “Nordland”…
…however, post-war…it was presumably thought best to avoid the mistakes of the Versailles treaty, keep the lid on by not apportioning blame…and get ready to deal with the USSR…
…and that’s without even mentioning the sleight of hand whereby the Austrians repackaged Anschluss as making them “Hitler’s first victims..!”
If you are not personally affected by the dictates of an extreme political machine (left or right, fascist or communist, anarchist or utopian) then the comfort of a secure existence is seductive.
I suspect even long term control of local administrations provides enough comfort to offset the down sides of a political machine indifferent to the interests of the governed.
But too much comfort ends in tears.
Fascists didn’t create nationalism. They manipulated it to gain and retain power. They used “love of country” to launch expansionist adventures and to abuse the natural rights of Italian citizens. Many looked the “other way” as fascism’s totalitarian state marginalized their religion and suffocated them.
That’s a far cry from today’s rising right.
Did ‘we’ get round to hanging any Italian War Criminals after WW II, can anyone recall? And if not, why not?
See my response to Aaron James.
Many thanks and just as I thought, utterly despicable.
Some years ago whilst travelling in Libya I was struck by how the Italian Civil Cemetery in Tripoli had been completely trashed in contrast to the adjacent British/Commonwealth War Graves Commission which was in pristine condition. On enquiring why I was told that the Libyans regarded the Italians as “ the scum of the earth”.
A year or two later whilst wandering around Ethiopia I came across precisely the same sentiment.
Of course this all very satisfying when one considers Britain’s near immaculate colonial legacy against that of the Belgiums, French, Dutch, German, US, Japanese, Russians, Portuguese, Spanish and now even the wretched Italians.
As one might expect much of the denazification program concentrated on low level operatives culminating in the prosecution of concentration camp bookkeepers and the like in their dotage. In contrast the German scientists who assisted in providing the means to kill many of the allied populations received much more generous treatment. The treatment of the German scientists who contributed to the US development of intercontinental missiles is well known. Less well known is the contribution of German scientists to the Soviet missile advances in the post war years as outlined here:
I recall seeing Sputnik 1 in 1957 and my father referring to it as a “Hun V3”.
(Later he was to be outraged by that small dog being sent up in Sputnik 2.)
The man had (or has) a sense of humor, I will give him that.
Could it be some legacy money was left to fund the upkeep of the British Cemetery but not the Italian – and your guide was sucking up to a British visitor? But I suspect you are right.
Sadly no, and in fact I was probably the first Englishman to visit the Commonwealth Cemetery in 20 years, yet its Caretaker had maintained it without funds, for all that time, holding the firm belief that ONE day ‘we’ would return, and so we did.
We welcome applications to contribute to UnHerd – please fill out the form below including examples of your previously published work.
Please click here to submit your pitch.
Please click here to view our media pack for more information on advertising and partnership opportunities with UnHerd.
Paul Corner is Emeritus Professor of European History at the University of Siena. His new book, Mussolini in Myth and Memory, has just been published by Oxford University Press.