Decked out in army fatigues, his hand raised in fascist salute, he emblazons newsstands, lies ready in bookshops and is splashed across countless websites: Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator and founder of fascism known simply as "Il Duce", enjoys massive popularity in Italy as a calendar pin-up. One month he's in a steel helmet, his chin jutting sharply forward, the next he's clutching a Roman short sword, the famous chin still at attention. His valiant, steel-helmeted soldiers also march on annually, in color or black and white, accompanied by fascist symbols like the swastika.
Foreign tourists, especially Germans, are shocked when they see these openly flaunted calendars. Yet even in 2013, the former Italian dictator has a loyal fan base at home. And they're not just buying calendars.
The full extent of the Mussolini cult -- a phenomenon many foreigners find difficult to understand -- can be seen in Predappio, a small town in the Emilia-Romagna region with barely 7,000 inhabitants. As a tourist destination, Predappio is not really worth the trip. But it was here on July 29, 1883 that Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, the son of a blacksmith and a village school teacher, began a life that would lead to his coronation as "Il Duce," the architect of fascism who was the precursor and in many respects a model for Adolf Hitler.
Back then, the dreary village was still called Dovia. But its most famous son used it as a model settlement for fascist city planning, rebuilding the town and renaming it Predappio. Later, after he had been captured in 1945 by Italian partisans, executed and hung upside down on public display at a Milan gas station, the former dictator was buried with his father, mother, wife, daughter, sister and brother in Predappio.
'The Only God'
Today, young men with shaved heads in long black capes regularly pose for photos at the Mussolini family tomb. The condolence book is filled with sentences like "You are the only God," and some visitors stretch their right arms forward in the so-called "Roman salute," not dissimilar to the Nazi salute.
Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Predappio, filling its bars, restaurants, and especially the "Il Duce" devotional shops that line the main road. There you can buy letter-openers, ashtrays, coins, shirts, pants, coffee cans, wine, beer mugs and lighters brandishing slogans are like "Believe, Obey, Fight" or "Damned be he who gives up." Of course, all bear images of Mussolini, replete with famous chin and fascist salute. There are flags with swastikas and SS insignia and 38-centimeter-tall bronze busts of "Il Duce" that go for €45.
There's even a bust of Hitler, markedly smaller of course at 16 centimeters, for the bargain price of €15. Objects like these attract some German neo-Nazis, who seize the opportunity, as well as the bottle -- in this case filled with beer and bearing Adolf 's image under the heading "The Comrade" for the price of €3.
Italians, for the most part, shun the Nazi nostalgia items, which disturb the country's mainstream historical narrative. The most successful of the Mussolini souvenir sellers in Predappio, Pierluigi Pompignoli, puts it this way: "Hitler was a criminal, but Mussolini was a man of honor."
Collectively Repressing the Past
This is not to say that large numbers of Italians would welcome the return of fascism. Most, including the "Il Duce" fans that travel to Predappio or buy Mussolini calendars, do not vote for far-right parties. They check the box for Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PdL), for the Christian Democrats or center-left parties. The mayor of Predappio, for instance, has for many years come from the ranks of the left.
Many Italians do glorify Mussolini: under his leadership post offices were opened in every Italian city, he had the swamps of the Maremma in southeastern Tuscany dried out and paved over with roads. And of course, as is often mentioned, the trains ran on time when Mussolini was in power.
The glorification of "Il Duce" is one thing above all else: a lot of talk. The general Italian public knows relatively little about this chapter of Italian history, trading mostly in myths and half-truths. In contrast to Germany, where the postwar denazification period was followed by a decades-long process of historical reckoning that continues to play a significant role in public discourse, true confrontation with fascism never happened here. Soon after the war the Italian fascists found themselves accepted by society once again. They were useful voices in global and national struggles between capitalism and communism. Even Mussolini, in his early years, had been financed and supported by French and British intelligence agencies.
Rather than working through their past, the Italians have collectively repressed it. Mustard gas attacks on Ethiopian civilians? Never heard of or forgotten. Assaults on Albania and Greece? Unknown. What else could explain the rise of "the myth of the good Italian soldier," analyzed several years ago by Lutz Klinkhammer of the German Historical Institute in Rome.
Mussolini's racial laws of 1938, Italy's involvement in the Spanish Civil War on the side of Francisco Franco and Hitler, deportations, executions of hostages; many aspects of Italy's fascist history tend to be minimized. While German culpability for the worst of World War II is obviously incomparably greater, Italian transgressions are often viewed in the country as having been rather harmless. Like exiling dissenting intellectuals to remote villages, for instance. As then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi put it in 2003, they were merely sent on a "vacation in internal exile."
A Healthier Country, Thanks to the Right
Burlusconi successfully perpetuated the collective repression of the postwar period. When he entered the political arena in the early 1990s, he needed the leftover fascists in order to pull in majorities. So he made them socially acceptable, formed a coalition with them and brought them into his cabinet.
Mirko Tremaglia, a former minister for Italians living abroad, boasted about having fought for the Republic of Salò (1943-1945), a puppet state of Nazi Germany that eventually merged with Mussolini's Republican Fascist Party. When he was minister for communications, current PdL leader Maurizio Gasparri proclaimed it his goal to promote "cultural talent on the right" in order to end the dominance of the left in schools and on Italy's public broadcaster RAI. At Gasparri's behest, the catalogue for RAI's exhibition "Rome 1948 - 1959" was accompanied by phrases such as: "It is thanks to the culture of the right that Italy remains today a healthier country than the democracies that are going in the direction of nihilism."
But Berlusconi & Co. have not managed to turn Italy into a right-wing country. The post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party is hopelessly fragmented and virtually meaningless politically. Even the smallest parties on the right-wing margins are in short supply. What the Berlusconi years did leave in their wake, however, is a momentous trivialization of fascism.
It's this trivialization that has given extreme right-wing fringe groups the courage to show themselves openly -- and often violently. When self-proclaimed fascists beat up visiting British football fans while shouting "Jews" -- as happened before the November Europa League match in Rome between Lazio and Tottenham Hotspur -- or when neo-fascists show up at schools to protest education cuts wielding smoke bombs and yelling, "Long live 'Il Duce'", then that too is a legacy of Berlusconi's reign.