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Last Updated: Monday, 14 June, 2004, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
Menacing Mussolini memorabilia
By Martin Buckley
BBC correspondent, Italy

Benito Mussolini in 1942
Mussolini's march on Rome in 1922 led to his appointment as premier

Tourists in Italy are flocking to a most unlikely attraction. It is the town of Predappio, home to the country's late fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

They eat in fascist-themed restaurants and spend their money on Mussolini memorabilia.

If they had a league table of weird European towns, Predappio would surely be in the top ten.

It is an overgrown village really, set in a green valley in northern Italy, with serpentine roads and steep-sloping vineyards.

There are a few picturesque old cottages, but also a great number of buildings constructed, as signboards proclaim: Anno IV (1926) Year Four of the Fascist Era.

Even bottles of local wine have the dictator's face on the labels

There are buildings that strut and swell with progressive pride. Buildings with rusty bolt-holes where they tore off the embarrassing bronze "fasces" and axe-heads after World War II.

Welcome to Predappio, an ideal spot for a short stay in the leafy Appennines. Welcome to Predappio, birthplace and shrine of Benito Mussolini.

Paying homage

Theoretically you could stumble on the place by accident, getting lost trying to find the miniature republic of San Marino. Or winding down the mountains from neighbouring Tuscany, you might stop for an ice cream.

Mussolini with his family in 1930
Mussolini pictured with his wife and five children in 1930

Taking a stroll, you would find the atmosphere a little artificial, a bit like a seaside resort.

However, the shops that would be selling seaside buckets and spades, are bizarrely stuffed with busts of Benito Mussolini, key chains with fascist insignia.

Even bottles of local wine have the dictator's face on the labels.

There are postcards printed, not with beach scenes, but anti-Semitic propaganda.

And the coach-loads of tourists who arrive in Predappio, from as far afield as northern Germany, are not coming to improve their sun-tans.

They are here to pay homage to the man who invented fascism.

Town planning

Mussolini became Italy's prime minister in 1922, aged just 39.

Two years later he imposed a dictatorship that would last for 22 years and architects were quickly given the task of transforming the humble, largely medieval hamlet where he had been born.

First came an imposing new main street, the Corso Benito Mussolini.

Mussolini with other members of the Fascist Party
Mussolini's Fascist Party formed an alliance with Hitler's Nazi Party in 1936

Along this artery were strung, in muscular "realist" style, a town hall, a huge fascist headquarters, and model homes in neat red brick.

At a central crossroads, the architects raised a colonnade, with a central gap that lovingly framed the Duce's birthplace.

It is a modest but pretty little stone house. On a summer morning I joined tourists wandering in and out.

That is one of the things that is so weird about Predappio. Would we stroll round the garden of Hitler's birthplace in Braunau-am-Inn licking an ice cream?

But as early as the 1950s, fascist enthusiasts - or "nostalgics" as they are forgivingly known in today's Italy - were visiting Predappio just as they had done in the heyday of fascism, albeit in smaller numbers.

Only, now there was a new reason: the Duce had come home.

T-shirts and truncheons

In 1957 Mussolini's remains were interred in his family vault on the edge of town.

It was ironic that he ended up in a rural backwater. He would have expected a monumental sepulchre, like Alexander or Napoleon, in his imperial capital of Rome.

Returning to Predappio - even as a corpse - was without doubt a personal come-down.

Today, anyone can visit Mussolini's tomb.

I ran my eyes over T-shirts with slogans of white supremacism and anti-Semitism

The fat visitor books gets so stuffed with signatures they have to be changed every few months. There is a permanent honour guard.

In one of the souvenir shops, I overheard a conversation between the proprietor and a bunch of skinhead visitors from southern Italy, who were admiring some vicious-looking wooden truncheons decorated with a fascist slogan.

The proprietor told them he would like to use one of the truncheons on Bertinotti - a prominent contemporary communist politician. The visitors laughed.

I ran my eyes over T-shirts with slogans of white supremacism and anti-Semitism, and suddenly I began to find Predappio not just a weird curiosity, but very sinister.

At a local café, I asked the barman how locals felt about this fascist heritage industry.

Neo-Nazi skinheads at a rally in Germany in 1999
Many skinheads visit Predappio

He flicked his eyes around the bar to see who was standing close by, then chose his words carefully: "Most young people don't give a damn about any of it", he told me.

"But there's a segment of the older generation who don't think Mussolini was altogether a bad thing. And let's face it, thousands of tourists come here and use the shops and restaurants. Mussolini is good for business."

By an irony of history, Predappio lies in Reggio Emilia, an industrial and agricultural region of great prosperity, which is the heart of Italian socialism.

At the local cemetery I met an old man leaning against a sunny wall. He remembered Mussolini well. He had often seen him in the village, and had been an altar boy when the dictator took mass.

I asked him if he thought the hordes of hero-worshippers who flock to Mussolini's shrine today were dangerous in any way.

"No, I think they are pathetic", he said. "In Predappio we vote for the left", he went on. "We have done for most of the century, except for when he was running things", and he jerked his head towards where, 20ft away, the body of Benito Mussolini lies.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 June, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.




Compiled by BBC Monitoring

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