The shops that line the main street of Predappio, a small town in Italy’s Sangiovese countryside, seem innocent enough—the biggest one is simply called “Predappio Souvenirs.” But it’s what’s inside that makes them remarkable: a vast collection of fascist memorabilia, including statuettes, towels, books, posters, and postcards covered in fascist symbols; and images and busts of fascism’s founder, former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The window displays feature batons bearing Mussolini’s name or quotes, while pink and pale blue baby rompers are adorned with the dictator’s portrait and most famous slogans (“I don’t care!” and “We shall march forward!”), casually arranged as if they were any other kind of merchandise.
Predappio, population 6,400, is the birthplace of Mussolini, who was killed in 1945 by anti-fascist Partisan fighters as he fled to Germany in a Luftwaffe uniform. Under his rule, from 1922 to 1943, Italy’s democratic liberties were revoked, opponents were persecuted and executed, discriminatory racial laws were drafted, and the country was led into a disastrous role in World War II and two years of Nazi occupation. For most of his time in power, Mussolini enjoyed strong popular support among the majority of Italians.
It is hard to overstate the shock that these shops can cause visiting Italians to feel: the Scelba Law has made apologia del fascismo (“apology of fascism”) a crime in Italy since 1952, which means that the open display of fascist symbols and such public support for fascism itself are not a common sight. I decided to visit Predappio for the first time to learn about the Museum of Fascism that the town’s mayor, Giorgio Frassineti, of the left majority party Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) wants to build here, to counter the strain of nostalgia for fascism he feels has infested his town. Before setting off, I had been warned about the shops. I thought I was prepared. But I wasn’t. I never expected to see something so blatant, so aggressive, and so openly nostalgic for the fascist past. The very existence of these shocking shops represents, in a nutshell, all the ambiguity of Predappio, and of Italy’s relationship with its fascist past. It is hard to see how they could be considered legal, given the above mentioned Scelba law, and yet, law enforcers let them exist as if they were unable to see them, in spite of the outrage they have caused.
The choice of the birthplace of Mussolini as the site for Italy’s only Museum of Fascism to date has caused a storm of controversy. Many fear the museum could turn the town into even more of a shrine to fascism.
“Predappio and Mussolini’s tomb have become the holy site of nostalgia” for neofascists, one of the museum’s critics, the Alfred Lewin Association, said in a statement issued in March last year. The nonprofit research center and library, based in nearby Forlì, honors a German Jew who sought refuge (link in Italian) in Italy only to be executed in 1944, together with 16 others, by Nazi soldiers. It feels that locating the museum in Predappio “fits in the fascist narrative of a ‘destiny man.’”
“We are not just against it, we are indignant,” says Tamer Favali, head of a local chapter of the National Association of Italian Partisans. “If they can build a museum that also gives prominence to the resistance against fascism, to those who lost their lives, then maybe it can become a vaccine, an anti-dictator vaccine, and we will not oppose it. But how do we make sure there is a strong, constant control of what is being displayed?”
Carlo Ginzburg, one of Italy’s most prominent historians, wrote (link in Italian) that the museum “would further identify fascism individually with Mussolini,” and once again absolve the whole country from its support and participation in the establishment of fascism.
“Italy cannot be asked to shoulder Predappio’s problems in this context,” says Albanese, the historian. “What there should be is a nation-wide, or at least region-wide historical trail that shows what fascism was and did, to counter the Italian tendency towards historical denial.”
Proponents of the museum, on the other hand, believe it will help Italy confront its past without making excuses for it. “We must become capable of talking about fascism as if it were any other historical time, without feeling compelled to add… things like ‘Oh, but it became truly bad only after Nazism entered the fray,’” says Marcello Flores, professor of History and Human Rights History at Siena University, who has been coordinating the preliminary plans for the museum. “We must become secular enough to be able to talk about fascism in all its aspects, without fear and without political expediency,” he argues. “Our democracy was born out of that disaster.”
Despite the criticisms, the project is moving forward. Funds for the estimated €6.5 million project will be raised by the government, and the EU announced at the end of last year that it would contribute €2 million towards the endeavor.