Marcello Flores, Historian, professor at the Università degli Studi di Siena, and Carlo Giunchi, cultural manager
Cover picture: Souvenir shop in Predappio main street | EUROM
It was recently announced that the mayor of the town of Predappio had decided to use a large disused building, the former Casa del Fascio e dell’Ospitalitá, as a site for the study, dissemination and narration of Italian history under Fascism. The news sparked a debate and a controversy that is still alive and bears witness to the difficulty that surrounds any public discussion of Fascism. Instead of exploring how a museum on Fascism in Italy might have to be designed, the debate focused – exclusively – on the problem of the political and moral expediency of this choice. The main problem, in fact, seemed to be in the site selected for the museum, the town of Predappio. The events that helped to build the myth of Mussolini during the twenty years of Fascism in Italy (and in the post-war years as well, up until the most recent times) are closely linked to this small town. It is not simply the town near where, in a small village called Dovìa, Benito Mussolini was born on 29 July, 1883; nor is it just a town of houses leaning against a medieval fortress, similar to many others scattered in the hills of Romagna, a bustling region in the heart of Italy. Today Predappio’s fame has spread beyond the country’s borders. It is a new town that was built in twenty years, completely obliterating the preexisting one. So, if it was the old Predappio that gave birth to Mussolini, it was Mussolini himself that gave birth to the new Predappio.
The first stone of the new town was laid on 15 April, 1925, in the presence of the main authorities of the regime. From the beginning it was clear that the function of Predappio was to celebrate the myth of the origins of the founder of Fascism. These origins had to be rooted in the people, and so the need for sobriety was repeatedly stressed; indeed, Mussolini himself intervened on several occasions to tone down some aspects he considered excessively luxurious, even removing tombstones that were too ornate or demolishing the sumptuous staircase that had been built to approach his place of birth. Predappio Nuova can therefore be considered as the first of those one hundred or so cities and large districts built in Italy, mainly in the 1930s, to represent the regime’s aspirations for modernity, from Littoria (now Latina) to Tresigallo, from the beautiful Sabaudia to the villages of Tuscany. But Predappio, unlike almost all the “new cities”, was not built in a short time, but over a process that lasted almost twenty years; here there congregated a large number of architects, some of them of considerable renown, and an intersection of styles and architectural visions is still present today. Here Florestano Di Fausto, Cesare Valle, Cesare Bazzani, Arnaldo Fuzzi and others left traces of undoubted quality.
The town was destined to be a fundamental propaganda vehicle for the regime, designed to represent a kind of “Bethlehem of Italy”, as Antonio Beltramelli defined it, and attracted waves of “pilgrims” during the twenty years of Fascism. Materially, the main destinations for pilgrimages were the birthplace of the Duce, the Palazzo Varano (which still houses the town hall today) the cemetery of San Cassiano with the family crypt and the vast Casa del Fascio. Military groups, professional associations and party organizations from all over Italy crowded into the streets of the city on several occasions, to mark anniversaries and to revere the leader. In essence, it was the construction of a “contemporary” memory which, more than anything else, demonstrates the particular nature of the town and which is vital to an understanding of both the postwar years and the events of more recent times. Many buildings, and the urban structure itself, were conceived as a “theatrical backdrop” for the masses of visitors. The Casa del Fascio added to its classic name the suffix of “e dell’Ospitalitá… (and hospitality)”, the only building to bear such a name in the whole of Italy. It was far too large for the needs of the local population, and added functions explicitly intended for short pilgrimages, including a restaurant-bar and a day hotel. Few dictators’ birthplaces have attracted as many celebrations as did Predappio during Mussolini’s lifetime. Unlike many birthplaces, Predappio was also well known to the opponents of Fascism, a fact that indirectly strengthened its image – so much so that when, on 28 October 1944, it was liberated by Polish soldiers who had waited two days to make their entry coincide with the date of the launch of the “march on Rome”, the New York Times announced the event in large letters on its front page.
In the immediate post-war period, when the cultural and political legacy of the Resistance was still predominant, Predappio could hardly serve as a destination for those nostalgic for the Fascist past. All this changed in 1957, when Mussolini’s body became a political bargaining chip for the constitution of a government under the Christian Democrat Adone Zoli. Zoli was also a friend of Rachele Guidi, the widow of the Duce, who had lived in his home. In his essay Il corpo del duce, Sergio Luzzatto describes in detail the political circumstances that led the government to authorize the transfer of Mussolini’s body to the family tomb of the San Cassiano cemetery in Predappio, after obtaining parliamentary support from the notoriously pro-Fascist Italian Social Movement. And it was precisely the transfer of the body that reinstated Predappio as the symbol for which it had been built, opening up a period of mobilizations and clashes between supporters and opponents, and revitalizing the memory of the regime. Obviously, those who made the decision or who shared it, like the then Communist mayor Egidio Proli, underestimated the impact that the burial of Mussolini’s body would have had on the world of his sympathizers – and also miscalculated the size of that world. The measures of public order designed to rein in the external effects of their presence were of little use. Throughout the 1960s, Predappio became a place of opposing memories which often ended in violent confrontations; the administrative and political hegemony of the left was not enough to discourage the presence of neo-Fascists. The tomb of the Mussolini family became a shrine for an unwanted “tourism” that caused considerable tension. The Fascist sympathizers knew they were not welcome; sometimes stones were thrown at their cars and restaurants were not always willing to serve them because of the risk of fighting. The year when this conflict came to a head was 1971, when the anti-Fascists joined together to form a large-scale popular mobilization. For a week, at the end of April, Predappio and Forlì were the scene of clashes, assaults, bomb attacks, and street demonstrations which were dispersed by the police. Shortly afterwards, a bomb was placed in the cemetery of San Cassiano. Checkpoints were organized to prevent unwanted visitors from accessing Predappio, passing cars were searched, and an “active surveillance” policy was implemented that often bypassed the official law enforcement agencies. This tension discouraged pilgrimages for several years, at least until 1983, the centenary of the birth of Mussolini, when thousands of nostalgici invaded Predappio.
Another fundamental step regarding the dictator’s memory was the decision in the early 1990s of the left-wing town council to authorize the opening of three souvenir shops, perhaps in an attempt to defuse the situation and to impose some legal control. But the move backfired: these stores soon became not just points of sale of the worst Fascist garbage, but they also turned into organizational centres for the revival of pilgrimages and for the attempt to build up a small tourist economy providing board and lodging for the nostalgici and allowing them to feel that they were the “majority” – at least on the three recurring dates of Mussolini’s birth, his death, and the seizure of power on 28 October. All these events have left Predappio with the troubling legacy of a horrific commercialization: busts of the leader, uniforms with unrepeatable writings, pro-Fascist publications of all kinds, knives and clubs, and mementos of Hitler and the Nazis. The creation of a kind of ideological, if not directly political, “tourism”, is concentrated on 28 October, the anniversary of both the march on Rome in 1922 and the liberation of Romagna in 1944. For some years this coincidence has transformed into a kind of conflict between Fascists and anti-Fascists. The opposition has not led to violent clashes and it expresses itself essentially in the field of singing and eating and drinking wine; nevertheless, more than a tourist phenomenon, it resembles a military invasion by small or large numbers of troops while the local population looks on in almost total indifference.
In the following years, a new campaign led by democrats was launched to rescue the image of the town, which had become a kind of “free port” of neo-Fascism. In the late 1990s, the municipal authorities acquired the house where Mussolini was born with the fundamental aim of preventing its use as a shrine and of transforming it into a place of historical reflection, with the organization of exhibitions focused on understanding the past. The exhibition dedicated to the Young Mussolini was particularly important, curated by a qualified group of historians and enriched with a considerable amount of new material. But the most important measure over the last decade was the decision to restore the Casa del Fascio e dell’Ospitalitá and put it to new uses. This large building was the only one left derelict in the town centre, despite its undoubted architectural interest and the wealth of historical evidence it contained. It was also a building of great symbolic value due to the function it performed in the final years of the regime, that is to say, of a welcome centre for pilgrims, and as a social centre where party propaganda was created and disseminated. The first step was to approve a programme of assessment and promotion which allowed the transfer of properties by the State and laid out a precise strategy for its new functions, focused on the creation of a research and documentation centre on the history of Fascism, with a permanent historical exhibition – that is, a modern museum created with advanced multimedia technologies that would act as a kind of “counterweight” with respect to the original functions of the building. The programme involved a re-focusing of the building’s symbolic value (rather than its elimination), and reaffirmed the importance of cultural projects in the dissemination of historical knowledge. The methodology implemented explicitly drew its inspiration from other situations in Italy and abroad, such as the restoration of the Victory Monument in Bolzano and the Obersalzberg exhibition in the Bavarian Alps – where Nazi sympathizers once visited Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, but where the new museum on Nazism promotes cultural tourism and is currently visited by almost 200,000 people a year. Meanwhile, in Predappio, the presence of Fascist nostalgia persists, linked to the extreme right. Its sympathizers are disoriented by the legal wrangling between the various currents of neo-Fascism (some of which explicitly despise the “carnival” of Predappio, where black uniforms and shirts are still displayed today) or disappointed by the conflicts within the Mussolini family which led to the closure of the tomb for almost two years, except for the most significant days.
In terms of its content, the project of the conversion of the Casa del Fascio is unique throughout Italy, since no other institution in the country has set out to present a general history of Fascism. Numerous museums had restricted their focus to the last years of the regime, the war and the resistance, but not its genesis or its historical setting in the context of the twentieth century. The project prepared by the scientific committee has several cultural and historiographic strengths. It begins by depicting what was happening in other European countries and, in particular, in Germany: totalitarianism – and Fascism, which is an integral part of it – is a historical phenomenon of contemporary Italy and Europe, which can and should be described above all to the younger generations, now separated from those tragic events by almost a century. Documentation and exhibition centres are the cornerstone of all memorialization processes. The more controversial the past, the more necessary they are, especially if, as is the case of all the important events in the twentieth century it has generated divided memories.
We have the historiographic knowledge needed to restore the complexity of that twenty-year period of totalitarian dictatorship, to penetrate its power mechanisms and the reasons for its mass acceptance without risking a confusion between the historical and ethical-political judgment or falling into an allegedly neutral objectivity. Today, the anti-Fascist perspective, that of democratic and constitutional values, is no longer an obstacle to the need to make the history of Fascism comprehensible to young generations; in fact, it represents the only possible way to understand it, as evidenced by similar experiences that are multiplying in countries that have had totalitarian dictatorships in their recent history. Telling the story of Fascism today is possible because we understand it much more than we did: we can answer questions about its meaning from people who want to know not only what the historical period was really like, but also why the totalitarian regime prevailed in Italy and why it had the strength to spread internationally as an alternative to democracy and Bolshevik totalitarianism. We live in a stable democratic society that has the strength to confront its past freely and consciously, even if its past is tragic – not just to know where we come from, but also to produce the cultural antibodies necessary to prevent that past from repeating itself. Certainly, in reflecting on the debate that has been opened among historians and intellectuals regarding the project of the “Museum of Fascism”, we cannot deny that Fascism remains alive in the collective European consciousness, and in the Italian consciousness in particular. This is not due so much to the fact that the return of a “Fascist solution” is looming on the horizon of European politics but rather the fact that “dealing” with Fascism, both in terms of its historical interpretation and public recollections, has turned out to be a more complex operation than expected, due to the weight of the divided and opposing memories. By helping to creation of a shared and mature approach to the past, our project aims to consign it to the pages of history. The scientific committee knew that in designing a centre for the study of Fascism it would have to state explicitly the perspective it would apply, especially with regard to the exhibition. No narrative is neutral, not just in terms of the point of view of the values to which it refers, but also, and above all, in terms of its historiography. Our centre wants to propose a vision of Fascism that goes beyond the “anti-Fascist paradigm”, a framework created by anti-Fascist militants during the fierce years of repression and exile, but whose flaws and conceptual doubts are now plain to see; but also beyond “revisionism”, which after achieving notable innovations at the scientific level, lost its way in the meanderings of a supposed “Fascist” historiography and in the effort to reduce Fascism to “Mussolinism”, a personal dictatorship that oversaw an inoffensive, kind-hearted police state, without the slightest connection with Nazism.
Beyond the heated discussions of recent years, this project is hardly original: in Germany, Russia, Poland, Portugal, to mention just a few countries, a similar path is being followed in which the construction of sites of interpretation and research is helping to activate a conscious memory, as an antidote to the temptations of nostalgia and any uncertainty about the judgment that a democratic community should issue on that past. In fact, in many aspects, the Predappio project fills a gap, highlighting an area in which Italian culture and institutions are lagging behind. It focuses our attention on the relationship between Italian democracy and its Fascist past, standing on the frontier between the two and serving as an outpost where the weight of the divided memories can be measured.
In defining the purposes and uses of the Casa del Fascio, the local authorities were supported by research groups and an international scientific committee. Today a preliminary project dealing with both structural and museographic aspects has been approved, and the task of definitive planning is underway. The hope of the democratic sector of Italian society is that this great project can fill the gap in knowledge, especially among the younger generations, about a twenty-year period that was crucial to the life of the country, and at the same time can transform the perception of the cultural vestiges and symbols of the dictatorship into an opportunity for the reaffirmation of universal rights. In this way Predappio can undergo a profound transformation, from a place of celebration of a dictatorial regime to an international context of reaffirmation of the values of democracy.