Sorry, guys, but there’s nothing fluffy about this one. But I hope you’ll read on. One of the benefits of travel, especially travel in a foreign culture, is that it forces us to re-examine our presuppositions and prejudices. And there is a presence lurking here in Southern Italy which few Americans think about, a presence lurking in the distant background but always here, like some eminence grise. And his name is Benito Mussolini. The legacy of Mussolini here in the south is profound, it’s ubiquitous... and it’s mostly good.
Please don’t misunderstand, practically everything bad you’ve heard about Il Duce is true, and even his ardent supporters here are perfectly aware of that. But there is a reason Mussolini gained and kept power for 21 years. Part of the reason was sheer hokum, but part was absolutely comprehensible.
A little background. Benito Mussolini was born in a small town in Emiglia-Romagna, the area of Italy north of Tuscany which includes the city of Bologna. Mussolini was the son of a blacksmith who dabbled in radical politics at a time when, basically, the feudal world in Europe, including Russsia (Bolshevism), was giving way to the modern world. That was certainly true in many parts of Italy where families were still bound, for example, to landlords in a custom that practically reduced them to the status of Medieval serfs. The young Mussolini, intelligent and ambitious, completed a high school education and began teaching, at the same time dabbling in socialist politics.
He moved to Switzerland to work on a socialist journal, was arrested for stirring up trouble, jailed for several weeks, deported to Italy, returned and stirred up even more trouble, and was finally deported for good under threat of instant arrest if he returned. By this time he had gained a reputation as a socialist firebrand, but began leaning more and more toward a nationalist form of socialism at a time when most socialists deplored this devotion to a particular country.
Mussolini served in the First World War and became convinced that it was the socialists themselves through their idealistic folly who had led Italy into a disastrous position. He turned violently against his former allies and formed the National Fascist party, deliberately evoking the nationalist fervor of the Roman Empire. The symbol of fascism, for example, the bundle of rods bound around the ax, was the symbol of political sovereignty and martial powers of a Roman dictator, an elected office which gave the holder unlimited powers of martial law for a limited time during national crisis. Julius Caesar had been elected dictator several years in succession, then for five years, and finally for life.
Mussolini was elected prime minister of Italy in 1922 and began to cultivate a cult of personality as a focus for extreme nationalism. In 1925 he adopted the title of ‘Il Duce’, ‘the leader’, an obvious reference to Julius Caesar and the revolutionary change that Roman leader had effected. At a time when radical change was desperately needed in Rome, it must be said. Rome at the time of Caesar had basically the government of a city state when she controlled most of the Mediterranean basin. I think of it as a model-T Ford supercharged on jet fuel (the vast sums of money pouring into Rome from her provinces), careening down a mountain road at breakneck speed while a half-dozen men fight for control of the wheel and the poor kids in the back seat are about to die. By 1936 Mussolini styled himself emperor and espoused nationalism, corporatism, anti-socialism, and social progressivism.
It was this last element that earned Mussolini the lasting devotion of millions of Italians. We’ve all heard the old saw about how Il Duce “made the trains run on time.” Mussolini not only made them run on time, he practically invented a modern transport system in Italy. He poured money into public education, public health, and most importantly public infrastructure. For example, many coastal areas of Italy had been abandoned because bradyseism (the volcanically induced rising and falling of land masses) and neglect had made them swampy and malarial. Mussolini devised schemes for draining, channelizing, and irrigating these areas and thus opened up literally thousands of square miles for settlement and agriculture. For example, the Pomptine marshes in southern Lazio had been drained and channelized by the Romans in the first century BCE, but neglect had returned this land to swamp. Mussolini reinstituted a drainage scheme that put some 300 square miles back in production, not to speak of the health benefits to the local inhabitants who persisted there. If you look on the map of Italy in the vicinity of Terracina, you’ll see a grid system of roads, improbably straight, that he built to service the farms.
And the same thing was done here in the Cilento. The Paestum Plain just north of Agropoli was another malarial backwater after the fall of the Roman empire. Today as you drive through the countryside you see everywhere irrigation channels, levees, dykes along the river Sele. All Mussolini. And today the Paestum Plain is one of Europe’s premier produce baskets, due to this incredibly rich land and the temperate climate for which Campania has been famous since antiquity. The town of Battipaglia where our friend Rita lives was practically built from scratch by Mussolini, in that unmistakable art deco Fascist style that you see everywhere in this area. Rita’s mother is a public school teacher who until recently, when it became too decrepit to repair, taught in a school that Mussolini built.
Mussolini also solved the ‘Roman Question’ at long last. For 80 years the status of the Pope and the former Papal states was an intractable problem. Before the Risorgimento, the church had owned huge parts of Italy, but the revolutionists were virulently anticlerical and all those lands were arrogated to the Italian state. Such was the rancor, according to our tour guide Oshri, that the state tore down anything remotely connected to the church across the Tiber River in the vicinity of St. Peter’s, and deliberated oriented new streets so that it is impossible to see this huge basilica from any distance. Mussolini strong-armed a final resolution which recognized the Vatican as a sovereign nation and made token restitution for the loss of papal property.
Mussolini’s role in archaeology is incalculable, if ambivalent. Millions of dollars were poured into Roman archaeology at a time when most archaeologists went begging. The Roman Forum was excavated, the imperial fora, the Roman port town of Ostia Antica, the beautiful Ara Pacis along the banks of the Tiber River was excavated and brilliantly restored. All so that Mussolini could evoke ‘Romanitas’, the glory of the Roman Empire which he claimed to have restored as well. But, at the same time, if scholarly considerations interfered with his grandiose schemes, he was relentless. One of his most heinous crimes against human knowledge, for example, was the construction of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, The Street of the Imperial Fora, from the Colosseum to the Capitoline Hill so that Il Duce could celebrate a real Roman triumphus, not a victory as the name would suggest, but a victory parade voted to successful Roman generals. Most ironically named, as one scholar has wryly pointed out, since, in the process, Mussolini destroyed huge parts of the Forum of Julius, of Augustus, and of Vespasian. La Via dei Fori Distrutti, as it were.
About Il Duce’s final years in power, there is no ambivalence at all among my southern Italian friends. His antisemitism in collaboration with Hitler's 'Final Solution' is universally reviled, not to speak of his brutality, indeed murderous impulse, in eliminating anyone who stood in his way. Mussolini even had murdered his first-born son and namesake.
So it was with relief and anticipation that Southern Italians greeted the Allied forces during the invasions of 1943. For one thing, many families here had relatives in the states, including sons of brothers, sisters and cousins who served in the invasion itself. For another, the Germans, especially after Il Duce was formally deposed in 1943 and they had propped him up with a puppet government in the North, imposed a brutal regime which was deeply resented here. But perhaps most important was simply the conviction that the Allies would inevitably win the war, and the sooner they gained victory in this area, the sooner the shooting war would be over for these long-suffering people.
People who feel politically powerless have always turned to forceful leaders. You can't understand Berlusconi until you understand Mussolini, and ultimately Julius Caesar. I suppose many older Italians look back to those times with a combination of nostalgia and embarassment. Especially since Italian democracy is, if possible, even more dysfunctional than our own.