There is no historical marker at the McDonald’s on the Corso Buenos Aires where it intersects with the Piazza Loreto in Milan, but there should be. It was in this most unexpected spot 74 years ago that a crowd of angry Italians kicked, mutilated and spat upon the corpses of fascist leader Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, on April 29, 1945.
As nationalism resurges around the world, and in Italy, Il Duce’s ignominious end and Italians’ understanding of their country’s role in World War II have gained renewed importance. Since 1945, Italians have grappled with how to remember their nation’s role in the war and, in particular, how to include the millions of their fellow countrymen who supported Mussolini in their commemoration of the era. These questions of historical memory and political legitimacy are increasingly important because societies with authoritarian-leaning leaders could soon be called upon again to choose whether to act in honorable duty to their nation or in righteous defiance against an unjust government.
During World War II, Italy aligned with the Nazis from June 1940 until September 1943, and then with the Allies. The nation’s changed alliance draws a bright line marking the moment when support for Mussolini went from civic duty to a cult of personality. By July 1943, the Fascist Grand Council pushed Mussolini out of power and placed him under house arrest. Less than two months later, on Sept. 8, Italy changed sides and officially fought the rest of the war in support of the Allies.
From that point, Mussolini and the loyalists who followed him into a puppet state in the north were no longer valid political actors, according to the narrative largely crafted by Italy’s dominant political parties after 1945. Craving legitimacy in the emerging postwar order, newly democratic Italy needed to marginalize its fascist past so the country could move forward economically and politically, by accepting Marshall Plan funding and membership in NATO and the European Common Market.
Yet, it wasn’t so easy to just eliminate loyalty to Mussolini and fascism. Tens of thousands of Italians had remained dedicated to the fascist cause throughout conflict, believing they were simply displaying loyalty to country.
Those divisions that persisted after September 1943 continue to shape how Italians commemorate the war. April 25, which marked the final push of the Allies, remains an important national holiday in Italy. Stores and schools are closed, and many towns hold parades and ceremonies in their main piazzas. The day is a recognition of how difficult the final months of the war were. The large industrial centers of northern Italy (Bologna, Milan, Turin and Genoa) were liberated from the Nazis and Mussolini’s fascist loyalists only in the last days of the war. Fierce fighting, destruction and death continued throughout the spring of 1945, even though the end result was little in doubt.
Almost immediately after the victory of the Allies and the partisans, liberated Italians started renaming buildings, piazzas and squares in an effort to distance themselves from their recent past. In Cremona, a city of just more than 70,000, about an hour south of Milan, the city renamed its main galleria, which had originally honored the day Mussolini first articulated his vision for fascism. Along with a number of streets and parks, Cremona’s mayor and city leaders passed a resolution to “remove titles and names that came from the tragic and terrible period imposed on Italy and our city by the fascist dictatorship.” In Milan’s central train station, from where thousands of Italian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, a plaque was unveiled in the late 1990s that honored victims of the Holocaust. It included a quote from the author Primo Levi, a survivor of a concentration camp.
But the Italian landscape is also dotted with memorials to those who fought with the fascists and against the Allies until the day the country switched sides and joined the Allies. Beginning in June 1940, Italy had fought on the side of the Axis powers, usually with limited successes, in places such as North Africa, Greece and Russia, often taking heavy casualties. Only after the Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943 did Italy’s spineless King Victor Emmanuel III finally dismiss Mussolini and place him under house arrest.
But even then, 200,000 Italian troops remained faithful to the fascist cause, fighting to protect Sicily alongside their Nazi partners, resisting the landing force led by Gen. George Patton and the Seventh United States Army. More than 4,500 Italians died unsuccessfully defending the island before retreating across the Strait of Messina.
Here is where the official switching of sides remains a dividing line. As historian Andrea Sangiovanni explained, “The only legitimate memory after September 8, 1943 was that of the resistance.” But hundreds of thousands of Italians existed outside that official memory, supporting Mussolini in the northern part of the country, where he headed the Republic of Salò, a Nazi puppet state. Thousands of his most loyal supporters stayed with him for a year and half, right until the end, when the partisans killed Il Duce as he was trying to flee across the border to Switzerland.
With Mussolini’s death came a battle over history. A triumphal narrative emerged around the Catholic antifascists and the political left who worked to defeat Mussolini and the Nazis. That history carefully reshaped Italy’s wartime account in a way that did away with the story of right-wing nationalism. In the process, it restored most of those citizens who had served as Mussolini’s foot soldiers when he held legitimate state power, presenting them not as supporters of a dangerous fascist, but as honorable citizens showing loyalty to their nation.
Last week, a small group of Italian soccer fans unfurled a banner that read “To the honor of Benito Mussolini” and gave stiff-armed Roman salutes in the same Piazza Loreto in Milan where Il Duce’s body was defiled. The fans were arrested and charged under a 1952 law forbidding public demonstrations of the dissolved fascist party. Only a few steps away from where they were apprehended stands a memorial honoring 15 anti-fascist partisans who were gunned down in 1944. While Italy rightly celebrates those who stood against fascism during the war, it must also do the hard work of understanding the hundreds of thousands of Italians who did not, lest the cult of Mussolini return to the nation.