This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.Predappio is a small town in central Italy cursed by two events: It’s the birthplace of Italy’s fascist former dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the site of his final resting place.
In theory, nobody was supposed to know the latter. After he was shot dead in 1945, Mussolini’s body was displayed in public at one of Milan’s largest squares and buried in an unmarked grave to keep his final resting place a secret. But, in April 1946, fascist militant and former politician Domenico Leccisi and two accomplices managed to steal the dictator’s remains and placed it in the custody of some sympathetic priests. After long and complicated negotiations, the body was finally buried in the Mussolini family crypt in 1957.From that moment on, Predappio became a site of worship for nostalgic fascists. It is still a pilgrimage spot to this day, particularly to commemorate Oct. 28th, 1922 – the day of the so-called March on Rome, which infamously began Mussolini’s takeover of the Italian government.
Exactly 100 years ago this year, about 20,000 members of Mussolini’s fascist paramilitary group invaded the Italian capital in an attempt to force a coup. The move came at a time of great turbulence for the country. After World War I, Italy was left heavily in debt and humiliated by its failure to receive the territories it had asked for in post-war negotiations.
At the time, socialism was also becoming increasingly popular with the Italian working class, leading to widespread protests demanding better working conditions in the factories and in the fields. Paramilitary groups led by Mussolini, known as the Fasci or the Blackshirts, rose to power by squashing these movements on behalf of the bourgeoisie. These vigilante activities also earned them favour with the country’s richest. Italy’s young parliamentary monarchy was also proving unstable, with successive governments collapsing shortly after obtaining power. Mussolini spotted an opening to establish his fascist revolution and began to remotely coordinate the March on Rome. Right as the fascists began parading through the streets of the capital, then-King Victor Emmanuel III decided to appoint Mussolini prime minister to avoid triggering a civil war.
“We have a moral obligation to commemorate the March on Rome,” said Mirco Santarelli from Arditi d’Italia, the neo-fascist organisation that organises the commemorative event every year. He added he was happy about Giorgia Meloni’s victory and suggested that attendees should refrain from doing the fascist salute to avoid getting in trouble with the law.
Displays of fascist sympathy are ostensibly banned in Italy, but the law is rarely applied due to its ambiguous formulation and its supposed contradiction with the right to free speech. Instead of the salute, Santarelli said, sympathisers should pay their respects by “putting a hand on their hearts”.Santarelli’s suggestion appeared to fell on deaf ears on the day of the event. Around 2,000 participants were heard chanting “Duce! Duce!” (the Italian equivalent of “Führer”) as they extended their right arms to the sky. The fascist symbolism was not-so-subtle. People – even children – were seen wearing all black, especially black shirts, which were part of the uniforms used by the Fasci. These paramilitary groups were later integrated in the regime, and remained a powerful force of intimidation wielded against political adversaries throughout the 20 years of Mussolini’s dictatorship. Predappio’s two souvenir shops were also crowded with fans buying mugs, swastika stickers, Mussolini statues and ashtrays featuring the fascist slogan, “God, Homeland, Family”. The motto has recently been adopted by contemporary far-right leaders, including Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Brazil’s newly-defeated president Jair Bolsonaro.
As a first-timer to Predappio, I was struck by how abnormally normal everything felt. It’s absolutely surreal that this stuff is still happening in the 21st century, and yet here we are. The worst part is: Nobody seems to care enough to do anything to stop this. Welcome to Italy in 2022.