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Dictator's hometown steeped in nostalgia

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

ARTENA, Italy -- To the uninitiated, Il Federale restaurant might seem the set for an Italian version of "The Producers."

Imperial eagles flank an imposing stone fireplace. Portraits of the dictator "Il Duce" adorn the walls. Old Fascist tunes waft over the tables as waiters bustle by.

But Il Federale isn't kidding. There's no trace of irony or self-mockery here. This place is Fascist and proud of it, steeped in nostalgia for Benito Mussolini's two decades of dictatorship -- an era patrons think of as the good old days, even though it ended in the ruin of World War II.

"Why should we be ashamed?" asks the proprietor, Adelaide d'Amici.

Sunday is the big day for the restaurant on the outskirts of Artena, a little town south of Rome. The place is packed. Everyone stands, facing the flag, and sings the old party songs. "It's like a Mass," d'Amici says with a laugh.

Il Federale has been around for 30 years, little known outside certain far-right circles, relying on word-of-mouth among those who take their Fascist "black shirt" nostalgia straight up and their wine with pictures of Mussolini on the label.

Planning a Web site

But the political atmosphere in Italy is changing. With the right in power, the Fascist subculture is becoming increasingly open. Il Federale is even planning a Web site.

Even franker in its sympathies is the town of Predappio in northern Italy, where Mussolini was born and buried. Merchants there openly hawk Fascist memorabilia, and young skinheads in black capes stand at grim attention at Il Duce's tomb.

Predappio has attracted its share of the curious or the convinced for years, but the honor guard is new -- a sign of how the political rise of the relatively mainstream right has emboldened the fringes. The stone-faced young men began standing vigil last spring, shortly after conservative media magnate Silvio Berlusconi won the national elections in partnership with the National Alliance, a party founded on the ashes of the Fascist Party.

Fading memory and Italy's failure to come to grips with the Fascist era are also factors, experts say.

"It was all a long time ago," says a Mussolini biographer, Dennis Mack Smith at Oxford University in England. "People have become more tolerant of the past, more separated from it."

Mussolini left Italy in ruins, but some now look back at his era as a time of order and modernization, a time when family values were paramount and cops cracked down on crime.

"We're looking at a very serious revision," says James Walston, a political science professor at American University in Rome. "What we have and what we'll continue to have is a rehabilitation of the period, of the man and of the ideology."

The vast majority of Italians find little to love in the Fascist era, which began when Mussolini and his black-shirted thugs bullied their way into power in 1922. Italy was an unabashed dictatorship, a model for an admiring Adolf Hitler.

Germans the bogeyman

Ironically, the thing that led to Il Duce's downfall -- a ruinous alliance with Nazi Germany -- is part of what makes today's Mussolini revival possible. Instead of coming to terms with 20 years of Fascism, Italians dwell on the damage inflicted by Mussolini's wartime partnership with Hitler.

"In Italian public debate, Germans are the bogeyman," says historian Lutz Klinkhammer, whose research has explored the German occupation of Italy and Italy's failure to prosecute its own war criminals.

Il Federale's owner certainly endorses that view. For her, Mussolini was a good guy with some bad friends. "I hate Hitler!" d'Amici says fervently.

Berlusconi's allies have since tried to soften their image, but it has done little to slow the momentum of the Mussolini revival.

The number of visitors to Predappio -- now at about 70,000 a year -- continues to grow. Business has never been better for the town's three Fascist memorabilia shops.

Mayor Ivo Marcelli says he's had no luck cracking down on the purveyors of memorabilia because Italy's laws against glorifying Fascism are so vague. But he insists many visitors are attracted to Predappio by its period architecture and fine food and wine.

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