History Lesson

Inside the Mussolini Museum

As the 70th anniversary of Il Duce’s death approaches, Italians struggle with his place in their country’s history.

04.26.15 4:01 AM ET

ROME — Every year around Italy’s April 25 liberation day festivities, a group of unapologetic Italians hold a commemoration of their own—they mark the death of Benito Mussolini, who was killed on April 28, 1945, in Giulina di Mezzegra in northern Italy. But it is not to celebrate the event. In what is becoming a trend in Mussolini nostalgia, a growing number of Italians are finding the bright side of a very dark chapter in Italian history.

Commemorating Mussolini is not entirely new in Italy. For years, hundreds of skinheads and self-proclaimed fascists have made pilgrimages to Mussolini’s hometown of Predappio three times a year (at his birth, his death and the October anniversary of his 1922 march on Rome). They visit his old stomping grounds. They flock at the villa where he was born and lay flowers at the mausoleum where he was buried.

In Rome, patrons of the Sireno restaurant, not far from the lavish Villa Torlonia that Mussolini rented for one Italian lire a month when he lived there, have long come to eat the dictator’s favorite dishes and drink wine from bottles with labels adorned with photos of him. The restaurant’s owner, Andreina Carucci, keeps a shrine to Il Duce in the form of tattered black-and-white framed photos and Mussolini memorabilia from an era many Italians would like to forget. “I am not apologizing for him,” she told The Daily Beast. “I just want people to know that he did a lot for this country.”

What is new to the Mussolini mania is Italy’s approach to what has long been officially ignored as a forgettable moment in history. Even in Mussolini’s hometown, there will soon be a museum to the dark horrors of Fascism. The town’s mayor, Giorgio Frassineti, says the museum will provide a healthy dose of the reality of the former dictator’s crimes and help counter the onslaught of Mussolini worshippers. “Predappio could become a place for reflection,” he said when he announced the museum last year. “Hopefully this separates the town from the hands of those who want to misuse it.”

In Italy’s Apennine mountains, visitors can now sleep in the same bed (and mattress) at the Hotel Campo Imperatore where Mussolini was kept as a prisoner for 12 days in 1943. The owner says this is to help preserve history, and is not an homage.

More than 5,000 visitors, including scores of schoolchildren and scholars, have taken the tour of Mussolini’s private air-raid bunker under the Villa Torlonia in Rome since it was restored and opened to the public in October 2014.

For years, Italian children learned history only up to the end of the First World War. In recent years, texts have been updated to include the Second World War to include Italy’s dark history.

The move to put Mussolini in his place has been slow. Just last year, the northern city of Turin voted to strip the former leader of his honorary citizenship, which was granted in 1924. He was also granted such an honor in Florence and Bologna, but both cities have since rescinded the honor. In Turin, though, the measure did not pass unanimously. Three lawmakers voted against it, all from Italy’s extreme right party, the Northern League. “There are more urgent issues that require our attention,” they argued.

Ambivalence about Mussolini’s place in his country’s history is likely to remain for the time being, reflecting a very Italian tendency to see things in an “on the other hand” manner. There is a common saying when things seem particularly chaotic that, at the very least, “Mussolini made the trains run on time.” And in 2013, even then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi praised Mussolini for his contributions to the country. “The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader,” Berlusconi said at a Holocaust Memorial Day address, “who in so many other ways did well.”