ROME—As moments of silence, prayers, and condemnation spread around the world Sunday for the 11 victims of the worst attack on Jewish people in American history, a very different scene was playing out in Predappio, Italy, where Benito Mussolini was born.
As they do every year to mark the anniversary of Mussolini’s 1926 March on Rome, which led to the official creation of Italy’s fascist state, those who still support such ideology met to honor Il Duce and his horrific legacy.
But this year was different, and at a time when people know that words matter, it’s quite clear that actions matter even more. The Predappio revival group was larger than ever, with more than 2,000 people gathering to march with their right arms extended in what’s called the Roman (read fascist) salute. They wore vintage uniforms, sang Mussolini’s anthem, and chanted support for Italy’s right-wing Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who they believe shares their ideals.
Many wore black shirts, and several, including Selene Ticchi, wore theirs emblazoned with “Auschwitzland” in a Disneyland-style script, as if to say the most notorious network of concentration camps during the Holocaust was somehow like an amusement park. When an Italian reporter asked her what she intended to convey with the shirt, she said simply, “black humor.”
But nothing is funny at all about what is seen by many as a return to one of Italy’s darkest periods. The fact that the march was allowed to be held at all, especially on a day where many people gathered in remembrance for the Pennsylvania victims, is especially poignant. Forza Nuova, the political party under which Ticchi once unsuccessfully ran for mayor, immediately suspended her party membership after video of her with the Auschwitzland shirt went viral, but a similar poster was laid at Mussolini’s tomb with roses and other flowers at the end of the march.
Creating or belonging to a fascist party is against the law in Italy, and has been since Mussolini was killed and strung up in Piazzale Loreto in Milan in 1943. But it is common to find homages to both Mussolini and Hitler. A Mussolini Museum in the town of Giulina di Mezzegra is a popular stop for neo-Nazis and neo-fascists who visit the country. The two evil leaders’ faces are on wine bottles and their statues can easily be found in stores across the country. Restaurants like the Osteria Sireno in Rome serve Il Duce’s favorite dishes.
Last year, Italy’s parliament tried to outlaw such fascist and Nazi propaganda, but the measure stalled and the law was never passed and it likely won’t be under the current government, which has clear links to Italy’s dark past. The current government has promised to rid the country of nomadic Rom people based on their ethnicity alone, and they continue to oppress religious groups. Late week, Salvini’s League party intervened when a hospital was sold on auction to a registered Muslim group to use as a mosque.
Italy is not the only country grappling with far-right ideology, which has, so far, not extended to blatant anti-Semitic acts; it tends to be contained to graffiti in Rome’s Jewish ghetto and on plaques marking where Jews were rounded up to send to places like Auschwitz.
But the hate speech is worrying and ever-present in recent rhetoric, driven by like-minded leaders who support each other. Salvini tweeted his support of the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, wishing him good luck. “The friendship between our people and our governments will be even stronger,” he said, which begs the question what that means.
Bolsonaro, like Salvini, is often referred to as a “Donald Trump” figure. Both were bolstered by foreign help, namely former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Bolsonaro’s lawmaker son, Eduardo, tweeted a photo from inside Bannon’s New York office last August, thanking him for supporting him.
“We had a great conversation and we share the same worldview,” Bolsonaro tweeted. “We are certainly in touch to join forces.”
Back in Predappio, the dust may have settled on another sickening anniversary of the March on Rome, but the winds of disastrous change across the world are still blowing strong.