Mussolini's ghost clings to Rome, 100 years after power grab

  • Fascist symbols, Mussolini monuments still dot Rome
  • His photo hangs in PM's official residence
  • Romans seen as "forgiving" towards fascism
  • Senate speaker warns against "cancel culture"

ROME, Oct 26 (Reuters) - One hundred years after Benito Mussolini grabbed power in Rome, his photograph still hangs in the prime minister's official residence, striking evidence that Italy has yet to shake off its fascist legacy.

While Germany systematically scrubbed clean any symbols of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime after World War Two, Italians took a much less rigorous approach to removing traces of their dictator's 21-year rule.

Monuments glorifying Mussolini's command dot Rome, emblems of his fascist party adorn pot-hole covers, and carvings of his square-jawed troops embellish public spaces.

"Germany has a past that can never pass. They can never forget the Holocaust or Hitler," said British historian Paul Corner, who last month published a book, "Mussolini in Myth and Memory", that delves into Italy's persistent nostalgia for fascism.

"Italy has a past that just doesn't present a problem. No-one is asking that these monuments to fascism be destroyed. They just blend in," he told Reuters.

The country this week marks 100 years since Mussolini's blackshirt supporters' marched on Rome to seize power. To avoid bloodshed, the king simply handed him government.

The anniversary has coincided with the swearing in of Italy's most right-wing administration since World War Two, led by Giorgia Meloni, whose own party, the Brothers of Italy, has post-fascist roots.

Meloni praised Mussolini in her youth but has since changed her stance, telling parliament on Tuesday that she had "never felt any sympathy for fascism" and denouncing the racist, anti-Jewish laws of 1938 as "the lowest point of Italian history".


Unlike Germany's devastated capital Berlin, Rome and its fascist ornaments emerged relatively unscathed from World War Two.

When Allied forces took charge in 1944, many photographs and symbols glorifying "Il Duce" were removed. But some larger monuments were left untouched.

They include an imposing obelisk outside Rome's Olympic stadium that bears his name, and a bas-relief of Mussolini in the modernist Eur district that the fascists built to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their march.

Tens of thousands of Romans worked for the fascist administration and took little or no part in the resistance. After the war, they saw no need to rub out their past.

"Rome is a forgiving city," said Aldo Cazzullo, whose book "Mussolini, the Gang Leader", published in August, shines a light on the crimes of fascism, which he argues have been sanitised, downplayed or simply forgotten over the decades.

"We Italians have a false, distorted idea of Mussolini. We have absolved ourselves of any guilt over fascism. We have told ourselves a fictional story of what happened," he told Reuters.

British historian Corner estimates that as many as 500,000 Italians died as a result of Mussolini's catastrophic decision to fight alongside Hitler in World War Two - including some 7,700 Italian Jews sent to Nazi death camps.

"After the war, Italy presented itself as an innocent victim of fascism, but dictatorship cannot survive for 20 years without the consensus and complicity of its people," Corner said.

While there are small memorials around Rome for some of fascism's victims, there are none for those who killed by Italy's disastrous efforts to carve out a new empire, including hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians.

Street names still commemorate those colonial exploits, including Via Amba Aradam, which marks a 1936 battle when fascist troops illegally bombarded Ethiopian soldiers with mustard gas, murdering thousands.

In recent years, demonstrators in Britain have pulled down symbols of their country's racist colonial past, while in the United States, many municipalities removed Confederate monuments, denouncing them as expressions of white supremacy.

No such historical revision is expected in Italy.

"The anti-fascists have lost the cultural battle," said Cazzullo, arguing that it is viewed almost exclusively as a left-wing cause, making it unattractive to many.

Going against the grain, Italy's Industry Minister this month took down a photograph of Mussolini from an exhibition following complaints, but newly-elected Senate speaker Ignazio La Russa criticised the decision.

He said a photo of Mussolini was also hanging in the Defence Ministry.

"Are we going to join the cancel culture too?" asked La Russa, a veteran right-winger who collects fascist memorabilia.

"If a photo has been hanging somewhere for years, I don't understand why it has to go now. What has changed with regards to last year?"

Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by John Stonestreet

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