The Unquiet Dead
Europe’s Fascists Are Back. But They Never Really Died.
Spain’s prime minister wants to exorcise the spirit of Franco. But the spirit of the dictators is not that easy to eradicate. Take a look at Germany and, more worryingly, Italy.
There’s enough of the whiff of fascism in the air without having to worry about the ghosts of its principal twentieth century practitioners. Or so you might reasonably think.
But in Europe those ghosts are unquiet.
Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s new socialist prime minister, feels the bones rattling. He’s so worried about the continued reverence shown for the country’s fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, that he has vowed to move Franco’s remains from the massive mausoleum in which they have rested since his death in 1975.
This is a bold step. Franco long outlasted his fascist companions, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He was the only one of them to die a natural death. The country still struggles to understand how it remained subjugated to his will for so long.
Even more uncomfortable to reckon with are the persisting stains of the Spanish Civil War that ended in 1939 leaving behind rivers of Spanish blood.
Announcing his intention to remove Franco’s corpse from the state-funded shrine, the Valle de los Caidos, Sanchez said, “Spain can’t allow symbols that divide Spaniards. Something that is unimaginable in Germany or Italy, countries that also suffered fascist dictatorships, should also not be imaginable in our country.”
But the civil war was not a simple Manichean conflict between the forces of lightness and darkness. Both sides committed atrocities, often helped by their foreign sponsors, Hitler and Mussolini for Franco and Stalin for the opposing Republicans.
Under the Republican banner Soviet commissars directed ruthless purges of anyone deemed to have exploited workers or of being too bourgeois. Anarchists were equally violent. They attacked the Catholic church, considered a bastion of conservativism, and thousands of priests were murdered.
Franco encouraged the Germans and Italians to use the war on his behalf as a testing ground for new methods of mass slaughter. They obliged with the carpet bombing of the northern city of Guernica and of Barcelona.
But Franco’s cold blooded readiness to kill shocked even the German ambassador who was having lunch with him when it was interrupted by a lieutenant reporting that four women had been caught with guns being suspected of belonging to a leftist militia. He asked what should be done with them. “Shoot them” said Franco, and carried on with the meal with no further comment.
With the civil war won, Franco kept out of World War II, technically claiming to be neutral but tacitly allowing the German military to use Spanish bases. Hitler found Franco enragingly turgid to deal with. After their first meeting he said he would rather have teeth extracted than negotiate with him again.
And in the final decades of Franco’s rule the country became a reflection of its leader: backward, repressive and irrelevant – almost as though to demonstrate that fascism had no place in the late twentieth century.
By wanting to exorcise Franco’s ghost, prime minister Sanchez is choosing the moment to reinforce his country’s striking transition from that lost age to a place where it is securely democratic. Even though it faces the stress of Catalonia’s bid for independence, there is no risk of Spain following the alarming regressions of Hungary and Poland as they succumb to xenophobic demagogues.
But, to use Sanchez’s word, how unimaginable is it that Germany and Italy could again feel the influence of those fascist ghosts?
Of course, there are no shrines to Hitler or Mussolini. But could there be something more elusive, subtler, that cannot be extinguished that retains traces of their presence – a surviving locus with an insidious influence of its own?
Hitler spent a large part of his 12 years as Fuhrer in Bavaria, in an Alpine retreat called the Berghof, sometimes up to six months at a time. Another name usually appears as the location, Berchtesgaden, the name of a nearby resort town. To further confuse matters, the Berghof was part of a 250-acre Nazi compound in a location known as Obersalzberg.
If any place can be said to be the spiritual locus of the Nazi creed, this was it. Across a valley from the Berghof is the Untersberg, a mountain said to contain the immortal soul of the emperor Charlemagne, who conquered most of Christian Europe in the ninth century, a role model often cited by Hitler.
The Bavarian Alps do seem to generate a peculiar fever of blood and mythology. The Augustian monks who first settled in Obersalzberg in 1102 described the region as “a vast solitude inhabited by wild beasts and dragons.” It also suggests Valhalla, the great mausoleum in the sky reserved for heroes and demigods.
The Berghof was obliterated by Allied bombers at the close of the war. There are, however, two unmarked rough paths leading into a flourishing growth of wild trees and shrubs. One is a remnant of a service road and the other of the grand driveway often seen in newsreels of world leaders arriving to pay their respects to the great dictator.
I have walked the streets in Berlin where Hitler’s chancellery used to be, where the Gestapo headquarters and its torture chambers once glowered over Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, and where Goering’s Luftwaffe headquarters remains nearby on Wilhemstrasse. I have never felt such a tangible sense of demons as I did at Obersalzberg. Physical beauty colludes with the human boot prints.
Well aware of the danger of Obersalzberg becoming a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, the free state of Bavaria opened the Dokumentation Obersalzberg in 1999. The purpose was to document and display the machinery of Nazi terror, the programs of extermination culminating in the Holocaust. It is a powerful antidote to the mystification and cult of the Fuhrer…and what might be called the dangerous rapture created by the surrounding topography.
As far as it is ever possible, Germany has kept Hitler’s ghost quiescent. The same cannot be said for Italy and Mussolini. And here he we come to the role of Gabriele D’Annunzio.
D’Annunzio was one of Mussolini’s earliest and by far the strangest of his supporters. He was a mass of seeming contradictions: a poet and a thug; physically slight (5 feet, 3 inches tall) but vocally dominating; a reckless military adventurer but an aesthete; ugly but an insatiable lecher irresistible to a string of elegant women.
Long before Mussolini seized absolute power D’Annunzio shaped the rites of fascist street theater – two of the fascists’ trademarks, the Roman salute and the incessant repetitive chanting of “Viva Il Duce!” were his idea.
D’Annunzio personally led a military adventure that foreshadowed later Italian aggression. In the 1919 peace talks at Versailles Italy was refused a claim to the port of Fiume, part of Yugoslavia. Angered by this D’Annunzio, leading a private army of a few hundred, stormed and captured the port and held it for 15 months.
Permanent control by Italy was avoided until Mussolini came to power, but the episode established D’Annunzio as a fascist hero. He decided to build a monument to his own defiant spirit – a grand villa on the shores of Lake Garda, Il Vittoriali.
It was, and remains, an edifice as bizarre as the man himself. The interior is a combination of a lavish love nest and salute to a man of action. A car D’Annunzio drove to lead his army into Fiume sits in a loggia; an airplane he flew hangs suspended over an auditorium. The remains of a battleship are buried in a garden, next to an amphitheater large enough for a Roman forum.
For the rest of his life, D’Annunzio was a constant scold to Mussolini, urging him into more foreign adventures, like the invasion of Ethiopia, while warning him not to get too close to Hitler. He died in 1938, at the age of 74.
Early in 1945 Mussolini, only months before his own death, went to Il Vittoriali and stood by D’Annunzio’s tomb and made a short speech: “You are not dead, my friend,” he said, “and you will not die so long as there remains, standing in the Mediterranean, an island called Italy. You are not dead and you will not die so long as in the center of Italy there is a city to which we shall return – a city called Rome.”
To some of the people there it seemed that Mussolini, by then aware of his own precarious position as the Allied armies rolled up northward toward the Italian lakes, was projecting not just D’Annunzio’s undead spirit and role but his own.
Even so, neither of them could have imagined how powerful a symbol of fascism the villa on the luminous shores of Garda would become. Quietly, without provoking any discernible alarm, Il Vittoriali became a shrine – officially to D’Annunzio the man a biographer described as “the embodied myth of the closing nineteenth century Nietzschean superman,” but implicitly to Mussolini.
When I visited in 2008 the villa was staffed with black-shirted guides who were politely rapturous in their reverence for D’Annunzio and the fascists. The outer walls of the villa were daubed with “Viva Il Duce” graffiti that nobody found offensive enough to remove.
But at the time the place seemed a relatively harmless curiosity amid a gorgeous landscape, no more than evidence of a lingering holdout cult. Few people believed that Italy would return to fascism. Silvio Berlusconi was then an entertaining diversion as prime minister, turning Italian government into a version of opera bouffe.
But Garda is in Lombardy, and Lombardy had history as the last redoubt of Italian fascism. And then, in 1991 Lombardy became the birthplace and breeding ground of a new political movement, the Northern League, demanding more regional power. Since then the League has turned hard right under the leadership of Italy’s current deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, the strong man of the new coalition government.
Salvini shamelessly echoes Trump’s zero tolerance policy toward asylum seekers – under his direction Italy has been turning away boats loaded with refugees from North Africa. Salvini is the ugly face of the extreme populism gripping Italy. He has proposed taking a census of the country’s Roma population, implying that those unable to prove citizenship should be expelled. Recently he has been as eager as Trump to build a relationship with Vladimir Putin.
This is the new Italian fascism, without the alarming trappings of Mussolini but, for sure, with a strong undercurrent of D’Annunzio’s rampant nativism.