A Shrine to Mussolini

Predappio is a quiet little town of some 6,100 inhabitants in the rich Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, some 150 miles north of Rome. It is known today mostly for its annual fair of songbirds and as the place where Mussolini was born in 1883. Here, more than a decade after his violent death in 1945, Mussolini was finally laid to rest like an ancient tribal king, in a stately underground “crypt”—mausoleum might be a more appropriate word—and here his remaining fans still worship him three times a year. Two of Mussolini’s favorite architects, Florestano Di Fausto and Cesare Bassani, had built the crypt in 1930, a high point in the dictator’s career.

At that time he had been courted by both Winston Churchill (“If I were Italian I would don the Fascist Black Shirt”) and Adolf Hitler (in Mein Kampf). The Pope called him “a man of Providence.” Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, compared him to Cromwell, and Cardinal O’Connell of Boston said he was a “genius in the field of government given to Italy by God.” He is also said to have enjoyed wide popular support. In a fascinating new book, The Body of Il Duce, Sergio Luzzatto observes that “for twenty years after Mussolini’s march on Rome of October 1922…the majority of Italians passionately loved Il Duce.” There is evidence that his popularity was particularly strong in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the country was stable, there was little effective opposition, and Mussolini had not yet begun his disastrous military adventurism. But it is difficult to accurately measure the true extent of his following in a one-party state that had resorted to government terrorism and still seriously curtailed the freedom of the press.

The reasons for Mussolini’s rise to power were complex. Italy after World War I was a divided, crisis-ridden country and conservatives, socialists, and Catholics were unable to agree on a common program. Mussolini saw the instability as a chance to build up a base of supporters, some of them angry veterans, who were willing to use violence and intimidation to achieve power. The march on Rome itself was a show of force, even though there were far fewer Blackshirts supporting Mussolini than he later claimed, and most were poorly armed. “I could have turned this deaf and grey Chamber into a bivouac for my legions,” he said to the Chamber of Deputies after being nominated as prime minister by a panicking, dim-witted king. “I could have barred up parliament and formed a government only of Fascists. I could have, but I have not wanted to, at least not for the moment.”

It was the beginning of Mussolini’s emergence as a dictator, which in the absence of a clear Fascist majority was made possible by the intimidation and assassination of his main political opponents and, as Luzzatto suggests, by his ability to act out the role of a powerful …

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Letters

Il Duce’s Brain November 2, 2006