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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Italians struggle with Mussolini legacy
A shop in predappio selling Mussolini memorabilia
Sales of Mussolini memorabilia are booming

A movement to rehabilitate the legacy of Benito Mussolini as an Italian hero is gathering momentum, breaking a 50-year taboo surrounding Italy's fascist leader.

The birthplace and final resting place of Benito Mussolini is becoming a Mecca for fascists from all over Europe.

Mussolini - key dates
1883, 29 July
Birth of Mussolini
1922, 28 Oct
Fascists march on Rome. Mussolini heads new government.
1938, 17 Nov
Racial laws decreed against Jews
1940, 10 June
Italy enters WWII as German ally
1943, 10 July
Allies land in Sicily
1945, 27 April
Mussolini executed
Thousands of black-shirted visitors descend on the small town of Predappio each year on the anniversaries of Il Duce's birth, death and rise to power.

Nationally, Mussolini's residences are being restored and opened to the public, exhibitions of military memorabilia and fascist art are being held, and recently in Rome, Italy's soldiers who fought against the British at El-Alamein were honoured with a military parade around the Colosseum.

Mussolini memorabilia

On Predappio's main street, a souvenir shop is enjoying a burgeoning trade in Mussolini paraphernalia, despite a law banning the public glorification of fascism.

"There's no longer a taboo about selling this kind of thing in Italy. I'm a fascist and proud of it," says the shop owner, Pierluigi Pompignioli.

The shop is crammed with black shirts, black sweat-shirts, black base-ball caps, and black t-shirts, all bearing fascist slogans. It sells Mussolini flags, badges, posters and calendars, CDs of fascist-era songs, and Nazi literature.

"I also have an internet site and ship my goods all over the world," added Mr Pompignioli.

Pierluigi Pompignioli with customers at his shop in Predappio
Mr Pompignioli makes a fascist salute
A group of young men, all dressed in black, enter the shop, looking pale and intense. One of them fingers a copy of Mein Kampf. He has travelled five hours from Florence to Predappio to pay homage to Mussolini.

Predappio was once a small farming village, but in 1925 Mussolini ordered it to be rebuilt as a modern fascist town.

On the main square are the five pillars of fascism: the hospital, the town hall, the military police, the party headquarters and the church - where you can clearly see above the door a stone relief of the bundle of rods - the fasci - adopted by Mussolini as the fascist party symbol.

Guard of Honour

Last year, a group of skinheads began a posthumous guard of honour for Il Duce, taking turns to stand vigil by his family tomb in Predappio.

In the darkness of the crypt, you can just make out the outline of a man with a shaved head, dressed completely in black, not moving at all.

An honour guard keeps watch
The guards of honour say they prevent damage to Mussolini's tomb
There are now about 400 guards, volunteers who come from all over Italy. They rarely talk, but one agreed to be interviewed, providing we did not use his name.

He stands guard for up to six hours a day, during which time he experiences "a great sense of pride and awe".

"It's an immense privilege. We're trying to recreate a sense of identity which is lacking among young people in Italy nowadays," he says.

"Debate was greatly suppressed after the war. Now there's more tolerance and people are beginning to study the many positive things this man did for the Italian peninsula."

However, the left-wing mayor of Predappio is furious.

"I'm very hostile towards the guard of honour and find it humiliating. Exalting a historic figure such as Mussolini - who created wars and was responsible for oppression - is intolerable," says Ivo Marcelli.

Mussolini's tomb
The mayor is trying to encourage an objective study of Predappio
He agrees that honest debate about Italy's fascist legacy has been suppressed - but he argues that it is precisely because of this that the former dictator is now viewed with nostalgia.

"My administration has now opened the house where Mussolini was born to tourists to try to explain what Italy's fascist years mean from a historic point of view, not just a nostalgic point of view.

"It is a centre where people can debate what 20 years of fascist rule meant. There are currently no places where people can debate and confront each other on that," he says.

Confronting the past

The emergence of the guard has provoked a controversy about how Italians should view their fascist period.

Unlike Germany, Italy has never faced up to its role in World War II, preferring to see itself in the role of victim, argues Filippo Focardi, a historian from Florence University.

"The national narrative omits the first part of the war, in which Italians fought alongside the Germans, and committed crimes in Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia," he says.

Today, a resurgent nationalism has continued to gloss over the more shameful parts of Italian history, while at the same time allowing fascist apologists to exalt Italy's most notorious 20th leader.

And with a coalition government that includes the anti-immigration Northern League and the reformed heir to the Fascist Party, the National Alliance, some argue that a more forgiving climate towards the extreme right has emerged.

"The right government has removed the taboo [about fascism]. Now you can see TV advertisements for videos of the speeches of Mussolini, for example, and this has never happened before," says Professor Focardi.

Il Duce revival:
Thursday 25 July 2002
on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST
repeated on Monday 29 July 2002
at 20.30 BST.

Reporter: Rosie Goldsmith
Producers: Kate Goldberg and Sue Ellis
Editor: Maria Balinska

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26 May 02 | Europe
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