The international press has worked hard to provide an antifascist narrative for the 100th anniversary of the fascist March on Rome, Oct. 28, 1922. Well-featured in these accounts has been an antifascist event in Mussolini’s birthplace of Predappio, attracting about 1,000 demonstrators, at which the participants pledged to resist fascist currents. These contemporary antifascists view as threats to our democratic well-being such villains as newly elected Italian premier, Giorgia Meloni, Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and (need we mention?) Vlad.
Significantly, however, the antifascist demonstrators were exceeded in number by a multitude of Mussolini fans, who also gathered in the Duce’s Northern Italian birthplace. Here, the former Italian leader and his deceased family members share a huge crypt that continues to attract visitors. Thousands of sympathizers, many of them dressed in black shirts (“Blackshirts,” as they were known, composed the paramilitary wing of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party), went to Mussolini’s burial site where, despite a law passed by the Italian left, they gave the Roman salute. The Duce’s great-granddaughter was on hand and delivered a speech praising her ancestor’s patriotism and efforts to restore “ancient Italian glory.”
Many Italians still associate the fascist era and its leader with an attempt to make the Italian nation count once again, internationally, in a way that it had not since the waning of the Roman Empire. The last period of Mussolini’s at-least-nominal rule, from the fall of 1943 until the Allied occupation of Italy six months later, took place under German Nazi control, and the crimes committed by the Nazis, with very limited Italian assistance, however shameful, may belong only minimally to Mussolini’s legacy, since he had become mainly a figurehead by then.
As a historian of fascism and antifascism, I would note that both the economic achievements and inhumanities of the fascist regime have been, at different times, exaggerated. Although Mussolini was a fervent Italian nationalist who earnestly supported Italian arts and architecture, his military and material accomplishments were quite limited. Two-thirds of Italian industrialization took place after World War II, and Mussolini’s Italy never approached economically the status of a first-world nation. But his regime was also not notably oppressive, and except for about a half-dozen dissenters who lost their lives under his rule (although not necessarily at his orders), most of the Duce’s more persistent adversaries were exiled or encouraged to leave the country.
Juxtaposing Mussolini’s picture with one of Hitler, as some websites have done, suggests a woefully stupid comparison. Until Mussolini unexpectedly went over to Hitler’s camp in the late 1930s, he was Europe’s most stalwart and outspoken anti-Nazi leader. He provided refuge for German Jews fleeing the Third Reich and was an early sponsor of Zionism, or this movement’s right wing, which idolized Mussolini as a great nationalist leader. Through most of the interwar years, Mussolini enjoyed a reputation of being the “Tops,” as in the Cole Porter song of that era, and was viewed (perhaps undeservedly) by FDR and his advisers in the early years of the New Deal as a model economic reformer.
How then should we interpret Mussolini’s continued support among patriotic Italians? Let me scandalize the left by saying that what Mussolini’s admirers brought forth in Predappio was not an entirely lamentable event. The show of support suggests that some members of Western society are rejecting antifascist wokeness, affirming Western national identities, and above all, scorning leftist historical narratives.
Most historical figures of note—even the great ones—have had negative sides, which authoritative interpreters of the past either stress or push into the background, depending on their own agendas. Although I admire Lincoln as an orator and as a leader of impressive stature, his avoidable invasion of the Southern states cost 700,000 lives and left about 40 percent of our country in ruin. Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell in England, Napoleon in France, and Peter the Great in Russia were all memorable nation-builders but also caused the deaths of multitudes. Can we not celebrate such national heroes for their accomplishments even as we also deplore their cruelty?
In the case of Mussolini, I am actually much less interested in what I think were his achievements than I am in what his present celebrants are cheering. They are defending a nation than has been around for thousands of years, one which has produced a towering national culture and which is now struggling against the globalists and wokesters, who wish to put an end to all European national identities. Mussolini may be a deeply flawed national hero, but he also stands for something necessary in this age: resistance to a socially and culturally destructive left.
Mussolini was also one of the few undisguisedly nationalist leaders that Italy has had since its unification in the 19th century. He was not a faceless bureaucrat in a musical-chair-like succession of premiers, nor was he like Alcide De Gasperi and the Italian Christian Democrats after World War II, who were merely subsidized stand-ins for the U.S. during the ensuing Cold War. In the present Italian administration, under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the Fratelli d’Italia (The “Brothers of Italy” party), we may be observing Italy’s return to a national populist government that will speak unashamedly for an Italian nation, just as Mussolini once also did.