The Casa del fascio
The news that the mayor of the small town of Predappio, the birthplace of Benito Mussolini, was planning to turn a large, abandoned building – the Casa del Fascio e dell’Accoglienza – into a center for the study, narration, and dissemination of history of Italy during fascism sparked a strange dispute throughout Italy, which is perhaps symptomatic of our persisting difficulty of discussing fascism “in public”.
Rather than discuss how to establish a museum on fascism in Italy – the restauration of the old building also included a project for a museum –, the debate focused on (and never moved past) the problem of the legitimacy, utility, moral and political admissibility of such a choice by a center-left mayor (Predappio has been governed, for decades, by administrations of the left or the center left) and by the group of scholars and experts, who were solicited to help him prepare some “guidelines”.
Information on the project was available on the City of Predappio’s website as early as fall 2015. However, the controversy did not begin until later, when some newspapers (La Stampa and La Repubblica, especially) asked the opinion of a handful of historians, unaware of the long journey leading to these “guidelines for the project of the historical museum as part of the re-utilization of the former Casa del Fascio in Predappio.” Well-known and less-known historians expressed then the conviction that such a museum could not be located in Predappio, a place which, in the post-war period, was marked by a “fascist” (or rather a “neo-fascist” or “post-fascist”) identity, because of pilgrimages to Mussolini’s tomb that occurred at least three times a year, on the anniversaries of his birth, death, and March on Rome. The city also contained three shops selling fascist souvenirs, which were always defended by the police and the court against accusations of apology of fascism and incitement to racial hatred, that the same administrators had often levied. Carlo Ginzburg, one of our greatest historians, condemned this project as an expression of the “Nation’s Party” urged by the Council President Matteo Renzi, believing that it would nourish manifestations of fascism nostalgia in Predappio. Another great historian, Enzo Collotti, spoke of the initiative as hasty and haphazard, and stressed that its location in Predappio would have conveyed an evocative, symbolic, and celebratory response to fascism. After remembering that “historical museums have never represented moments of excellence in the cultural policy of our country1”, he then suggested that this kind of museum could rather be founded in Rome or Milan (but under the direction of which institution? With which resources?).
Historians in Italy have always been disinterested in museums and the necessity to make history more accessible to a wider audience through various forms of disclosure: from documentaries to television broadcasts; from museums to exhibitions. In this case, they forgot that a museum – even a historical museum – is not a question that only concerns historians, but anyone who is interested in finding the tools and the vocabularies best-suited to approach the histories with which – voluntarily or involuntarily – they are unfamiliar.
The guidelines for this museum stipulate that “fascism, and Italy during fascism, must today become something more than a simple history of the fascist regime. They must become the object of an illustrative and educational journey that goes beyond the necessary, obvious, and deserving condemnation of a totalitarianism that destroyed democracy and negated human rights, which condemnation has already occurred and is, by now, shared by the overwhelming majority.” For Italy, the difficulty here is this need to “go beyond,” and thus succeed at fully recounting the history of Italy during the fascist era without giving a demonizing account of that regime, without reaffirming in every moment the “anti-fascist” birth of our republic, or imposing a moral reading that overshadows and summarizes historical narration. Even many historians forget, on the subject of fascism, that their job is to understand and make understood, not to judge. If a historical reading uniformly focused on the negative values inherent to fascism made sense in the past, such an attitude is by now inconceivable, backwards, and incapable of assisting teachers and students of younger generations in the comprehension of Italian history between the two world wars (and beyond).
That Predappio has been (and is still, although in small and increasingly less relevant ways) a site of fascist nostalgia should encourage us to reverse – as was the intention of Predappio’s mayor and administration – this now threadbare paradigm, inviting even the children and grandchildren of fascists, who often gather there for stories and family memories, to try to come to terms with history in all its complexity. The idea that the birthplace of Mussolini is destined to forever remain – almost by natural necessity – a place for the celebration of fascism and not for reflection on its history through the mechanisms and tools that are now available for making its narration complete, articulate, and even interesting and exciting, is to abdicate the responsibility of education. This task is of greatest importance, as it concerns a historical period and moment in which principles and values of liberty and humanity were challenged.
To think that, more than seventy years after Fascism’s fall, its revival – even if merely cultural or historiographical – still poses a threat is to ignore the changes that have taken place in how we speak of the past – not only in Italian society, but in all of Europe and the world. It means to align one’s self with minority positions who believe that the continuation of “militant” anti-fascism (which prevents neo-fascists from gathering and speaking, which criticizes – and would prohibit – every form of historical revisionism) is the only way to be coherent and useful to new generations.
The museum proposal in Predappio was taken by many as a pretext to affirm what should have been done in the past seventy years of the Republic’s history (as if their simple enunciations of these “should have’s” rendered them possible), without asking themselves why, since the end of the war, Italy has not only failed to establish a museum of fascism in Rome or Milan, but also to sustain a real debate on the fascist figures that, in our country, have continued to hold prominent public positions in the Republican decades. For instance, writer Igiaba Scebo, commendably at the forefront of the battle to not forget the colonial crimes committed by fascism, was fiercely opposed to the Predappio museum, arguing that it would be better to instead construct hundreds of mausoleums or plaques for the victims of colonialism. But in this way she seems to attribute responsibility for the silence on its colonial crimes to the willingness to talk about the history of fascism.
Silence on the history of fascism – not so much in the dimension of historical research or the historiographical results, but in public history and its dissemination – has indeed complicated widespread awareness of renewed historiographies’ extraordinary results, preventing them from becoming common historical knowledge. The long battle throughout the 1980’s and 90’s led by many historians against the positions of Renzo De Felice and his school on fascism was unable to produce a singular, sufficiently general or accessible text that could counter the interpretation they contested in small publications and specialized conferences. Today the results of a more mature historiography of fascism, be it that of Emilio Gentile or Paul Corner or that of younger historians – there is a healthy and fierce array from which to choose – have largely surpassed the characters of that older dispute, facilitating an understanding of the history of fascism uninhibited by those ideological interferences that had previously made a full recounting of events difficult.
Final judgement on the debate that accompanied the proposal of the Predappio museum must be extremely negative, as it has lost the opportunity to explore what historical museums can and should do in the present day, what approach should be taken when historical events encapsulate strong moments of moral and political reflection, and what it means to inform the public – especially young people –, without neglecting the pursuit of information, interpretation and narration of the complexity of history. The museum project, however, constitutes an important challenge for all historians – luckily the majority – who still believe it is possible to courageously face the difficult terrain of public history on an issue that has long been a taboo of public discourse (as evidenced by teachers who are afraid of speaking too extensively on fascism in their classes and ask to be informed).
It is no coincidence, perhaps, that this project arises simultaneously with the institution, in Italy, of an association for public history that is supported by organizations and individuals interested in better defining the tasks of those who want to speak of history in the public arena, without triggering constant controversy and summary judgement.
The elements that have emerged in this first phase are primarily methodological: a museum cannot ignore the necessity to transmit historical knowledge, but must at the same time be able to illicit emotions in and hold the attention of its visitors. Comprehension of the past can be achieved through the interweaving of both individual and collective, public and private, events, but its narration must find a unique own style that at once encompasses a variety of elements: overall context; political events; awareness and identity of those who lived at the time; adaptation to the regime and struggle against it; transformation and modernization of society; changes in rural and urban landscapes; violence; lack of freedom; persecution; war; regimentation; and the suffocating role of ideology.
Inside the Casa del fascio
How to construct – or better, how to imagine and conceptualize – this museum is the next step that must be completed. The City of Predappio has entrusted the Parri Institute (Emilia Romagna) with the scientific and museological design, which will be consulted by a still-forming international, scientific committee. As the leading coordinator of this committee, I believe that the challenge is fascinating and difficult, and that it will find great help not only in the historian community, but also in the world of teachers, museum experts and curators, and communicators. Involving the public in the presentation of history is a primary objective that must guide this entire project – without, of course, compromising the coherence and seriousness of the historiographical framework. It is on this plane – historical narrative, content display, and the active participation of visitors – that the public utility of this and similar initiatives will be decided. We cannot forget that, alongside the museum – or what we could more realistically call a permanent exhibition on the history of fascism – and in the same building, it will be placed a center of study with an adjoining library, archive, and auditorium for meetings and temporary exhibitions. This will respond to the integrated plan of addressing the broader public and involving younger scholars from all over Europe to create, together, a new way of connecting with history and distilling it throughout society.
Although the narrative must be uniform, we will need to overlap and interweave different interpretations to favor a critical approach that will not take place on the basis of a standardized canon, as it happens in many European countries when important historical events must be taught. The teaching of history, of its application in different educational segments, may find in this experience a context for improvement, experimentation of new methods, and validation. Perhaps the too long public silence on fascism that occurred in Italy will find in this an opportunity to overturn a prolonged and negative tradition, and to create an avant-garde experience and new standard for both museums and education. The museum will put new historiographies of fascism to the test: its clarity and richness; its results and the possibility of their narration to a vast public; its suggestions for hierarchies of information, that must necessarily guide the choice and selection of events; its points of view; its new fields of history that are worth bringing to light and knowledge, to reflection and interest.
The greatest enemy of this museum will be the still strong fear of discussing fascism in its full meaning: its objectives and successes, its results and failures have to be confronted on every ground. We must not forget the violence and discrimination, the lack of liberty and the perpetual menace, inherent to the foundation of fascism’s basic character. But we cannot either oversimplify the daily lives of millions of citizens, who for twenty years (through a more or less extorted consent, a more or less perceived manipulation, a more or less explicit blackmail) coexisted with a regime that they both praised and hated, against which they rebelled or to which they submitted, with which they identified or against which they fought. It is this varied and composite picture that must be reconstructed, together with a larger European and worldly context that is too often forgotten in the history of fascism, which thus becomes either a mere parenthesis in our history or an autobiography of the nation – according to the contemporary interpretations of Croce and Gobetti. In summary, this might be an opportunity to make fascism definitively enter the historical consciousness of Italians, and not just their political and ideological imaginations.
As this text goes to print, the Parri Institute of Emilia-Romagna has handed over to the mayor of Predappio the project of a “permanent exhibition” entitled “Totalitarian Italy: State and Society in the Fascist Era”. In summary, the most ambitious aim of the project is to deliver fascism to history, based on the recognition of the actual historical dimension of a phenomenon that, along with communism, has profoundly and dramatically marked the entire history of the twentieth century, but that has ended and that, as such, cannot return.
The project identified in the war the founding event of a “new” revolution, one that lies outside the ideal perimeter defined by the ideas of progress and emancipation, but that cannot be dismissed, for the Italian case, as a simple counter-revolution. It must be clear that the aim of this “journey in Italy” is not to sweeten the ruthless hardness of the dictatorship – colonial domination provides a clear example – in a kind of positive re-evocation of a common “as we were”. Rather, it seeks to penetrate the deep mechanisms of the fascism of Italian society, which must not go unnoticed nor underestimated, and in particular to understand how far they would survive the regime that had taken them into account.
In June the City of Predappio will launch an appeal for bids to begin the work that will lead to the realization of this project. It is to be hoped that from this moment, the discussion about the legitimacy and usefulness of the museum will be consigned to the same level as the contents of the permanent exhibition. It no longer makes sense to have this debate about a museum whose construction is already underway.