Mussolini's hometown aims to deter far-right supporters with Museum of Fascism

The small Italian town where Benito Mussolini was born has became a destination for neo-fascists who descend upon it to celebrate the Fascist ruler. Now the town aims to change that with a controversial Museum of Fascism it hopes will attract a different kind of visitor who wants to learn more about this dark period in Italian history.

Predappio hopes to attract a different kind of visitor with a museum that shows dark period for what it was

Giorgio Frassineti, mayor of Predappio, Italy, which has found itself the focus of unwanted visits by neo-Nazis, hopes the former Fascist headquarters will become The Museum of Fascism and help attract new kinds of pilgrims who want to learn the truth about this dark period in Italian history. (CBC)

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but as a tiny town in northern Italy has discovered, so too can the road to neo-fascism.

Two decades ago, the former mayor of Predappio, birthplace of Benito Mussolini, decided to allow the sale of Fascist and Nazi trinkets in small shops in town. The idea was to control their sale by limiting them to the a handful of stores on the sleepy town's main street.

Mussolini admirers leave the objects – miniature busts, T-shirts, and framed photos – on the grave of the Fascist dictator who in 1922 ushered Italians into their darkest period. That chapter lasted until 1943, when Mussolini was arrested and, two years later, executed.

"It was our downfall," says current Mayor of Predappio Giorgio Frassineti of the trinket decision, "the biggest mistake this town has ever made."

Fascist trinkets are sold in one of three shops in Predappio's downtown. (CBC)

Instead of keeping the expressions of extremist sympathy under wraps, the three shops proved to be magnets for far-right supporters who began organizing marches in town on the anniversary of Mussolini's rise to power — known as the March on Rome — as well as his birth and death. These visitors posted videos on YouTube, enticing even more fascist supporters to flock to Predappio.

'The Chernobyl of Italy'

"We're treated like we're the Chernobyl of Italy, like we're contaminated," says Frassineti, a member of the centre-left Democratic party.

Now the town is hoping a long abandoned Fascist centre can provide salvation.

Standing outside the towering curved edifice that, when built in 1937 was called The House of Fascism and Hospitality, Frassineti explains his plan to foil efforts to make the town a Fascist pilgrimage site by transforming the building into Italy's first Museum of Fascism.

The monument would not be to celebrate the political regime that murdered thousands and cooperated in the deportation of Italy's Jews to death camps, but to educate Italians about radical authoritarian nationalism at a moment when many fear it's on the rise again.

National elections held on March 4 were inconclusive, and negotiations among parties have so far failed to produce a new government.

But the far-right, anti-immigrant La Lega (The League) party emerged as the powerhouse among the right-wing parties, securing almost 18 per cent of votes, and outstripping former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. Since then, support for La Lega has risen to 23 per cent and elections in the northern Italian region confirmed the party's base is only growing.

Meanwhile, the town of Predappio has been wrestling with the question of what should become of the former House of Fascism, says Carlo Giunchi, cultural consultant on the museum initiative. "It's both a space and a symbol, so we realized it made sense to use it to trigger an international debate on memory."

A fallen Fascist flagpole inside the abandoned Fascist headquarters in Predappio. (CBC)

Inside, broken windows, dead pigeons and fallen flagpoles do little to diminish the beauty of the sleek, oversized brick-and-marble architecture. 

Wide corridors and soaring staircases lead visitors through rooms that once served as a restaurant, hotel, party room and propaganda centre — all part of Mussolini's effort to turn the town into a fascist showcase.

On the top floor, down the hall from a light-filled ballroom where Black Shirts once waltzed, is a signature tower.

"Every Fascist-era centre like this one had one," Giunchi explains. "They had no practical use, but were really just a symbol of masculine power."

Setting up 'places of memory'

Giunchi explains the rooms will be transformed into a spiralling exhibit modelled on Dante's Circle of Hell to educate visitors about the loss of rights — and thousands of lives — under fascism, though the organizers still need to raise $8 million if it is to open by 2019.

"Our plan is similar to what Germans have done with their Nazi past," he says. "Instead of destroying buildings that represented their Nazi past, they kept them and used them to challenge those symbols and that past, by setting up places of memory right there."

Patrizia Fabrone, who runs the Library of Resistance in Sansopolcro, says Italy has never fully grappled with its fascist past. (CBC)

Patrizia Fabrone, a teacher and the head of the Library of Resistance in the town Sansepolcro, the site of fascist concentration camps that imprisoned Yugoslavians during WWII, says Italy has never fully grappled with its fascist past.

"The memories of this dark time are fragmented and often lost among young people today," she says.

She cites the 2017 incident in which Lazio soccer team fans left stickers featuring Anne Frank wearing the opposing team's colours to insult them as an example of something that could only happen in a country that has not faced its active collusion in the Holocaust.

"We have to respond to this kind of forgetting by not just merely commemorating anniversaries of events as we do now, but by actively building a collective memory."

Some say plan may backfire

But many historians and members of Italy's Jewish communities have expressed great hesitation, if not opposition, to a Museum of Fascism, arguing it risks committing the same mistake of good intentions that allowing the small stores to hawk Fascist and Nazi paraphernalia did and fuel far-right support.

Renowned historian Carlo Ginzburg, whose Resistance-member father was tortured to death by the Nazis, expressed concern that a museum in Predappio would further conflate fascism with Mussolini and in doing so let off the hook the millions of Italians who actively supported the regime.

"The historical references need to be clear and unequivocal," he wrote about the proposition. "Also because it would mean Italy has a National Museum of Fascism without a National Museum of Resistance."

But for Mayor Frassineti, the completion of the museum cannot come soon enough.

Once people visit a museum that tells the whole story of fascism, they won't be so inclined to buy a bust of Mussolini down the street,-  Giorgio Frassineti, mayor of Predappio

"We're tired," he says. "Tired of seeing people who have nothing to do with our town who show up to parade here."

Yet, despite the fatigue of attracting a movement it wants nothing to do with, Frassineti and townspeople are working hard to find funding and finish museum plans in hopes of attracting a new kind of pilgrim — school groups, history buffs, and those who want to learn more about this dark period in Italian history, not to support it, but to better resist it.

"Because once people visit a museum that tells the whole story of fascism," he says, "they won't be so inclined to buy a bust of Mussolini down the street."