Row over fascist-era statue reveals schism in how Italians deal with past

The statue 'Bigio', which has been in storage ever since being removed from a Brescia piazza in 1945,
In 1932, a 24ft marble statue of a young, muscular male athlete was unveiled in Brescia, northern Italy, and given the name Fascist Era. With its rippling torso and hand placed solemnly on hip, it was considered to symbolise the "rejuvenating ideals of the fascist regime", and, when Benito Mussolini came to visit, he was said to have praised it for its strength. Its sculptor, Arturo Dazzi, was reported to have remarked, "even if they want to tear it down, I don't care at all."

Some 13 years later, that is what happened when, with the second world war over and Italy's former dictator dead, the Brescia authorities took down the statue and consigned it to a warehouse. There it remained for nearly 70 years. But now, in a move condemned by critics as "overtly ideological", the city's centre-right mayor plans to reinstate the statue in its original position.

Andrea Paroli, of Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People party (PdL), rejects any accusation of revisionism or fascist nostalgia, insisting the Bigio – as the statue became known in Brescia – is a valid piece of heritage that can be appreciated, aside from its political links, for its artistic and cultural merits.

Others disagree. "The statue was taken down … at the end of the liberation struggle," said Giulio Ghidotti, branch chairman of the National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI). "The ANPI doesn't want to see it back where it stood because it brings back all the memories of the fascist regime and the oppression the country suffered." "It's strongly linked to the time it was made and it was made for propaganda reasons so it's hard for us to see it as purely a work of art."

In a week when Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio was criticised in Britain over his declaration that he was "a fascist not a racist", the row in Brescia is a different sign of divisions in Italy over how the Mussolini regime – and its symbols – should be treated.

To Marcello Pezzetti, an Italian Holocaust scholar, the Bigio's return would be an unacceptable example of "the bringing back to life of fascist symbols". He added: "It seems to me normal that symbols which give … a positive view of what happened [under fascism] will be fought,fought in a civil manner."

The ANPI said the move would be provocative and offensive. Near the square, it said, is a memorial plaque to Alberto Dalla Volta, Primo Levi's close friend in Auschwitz. Another chapter of Italy's troubled postwar history is told nearby in Piazza della Loggia, where eight people were killed and more than 90 wounded in 1974 by a bomb that exploded during an anti-fascist protest.

For others in Brescia, however, the authorities are justified in their attempts to restore a work of art to the public sphere. Mario Labolani, a spokesman for the administration, said the project to return the statue was part of a wider renovation of the piazza della Vittoria that aimed to improve facilities and restore its original aesthetic. "These is no ideological position on the matter, and all this has been invented for electoral reasons," he said. Brescia will hold local elections next month.

It is not the first time a row has broken out in Italy over a symbol linked to Mussolini. Last year, a memorial was opened in a town south of Rome to fascist military commander and war criminal Rodolfo Graziani. The row over the Bigio is less clear-cut. But the return of the statue has already caused offence, with over More than 2,000 people have signed a petition demanding the statue should not return. Their appeal was rejected by the city council. Critics said such a move would never happen in Germany, where any attempt to rehabilitate an object with links to Hitler and the Nazis would be taboo.

"The thing that hurts me the most is that I have contacts throughout the world – above all in Europe – who work on this subject, the Holocaust and the history of the Holocaust. And all my colleagues who come to Italy and protest, they say 'only in Italy would something of this nature be possible'," said Pezzetti, referring in particular to the large obelisk engraved with the words "Mussolini DUX" which still stands in Rome. "It's enormous. All my foreign colleagues – above all the Germans – say "how can it be possible?"

After Mussolini's execution by partisans in 1945, the deeply polarised country did not begin a systematic clampdown of fascism as Germany did following Hitler's defeat. Laws banning fascist parties and open support for the ideology were passed, but never properly enforced.

"There was never a purge after the second world war because Italy was on the frontline of the Cold War, essentially, so you couldn't hobble an Italian state facing the biggest communist party in western Europe," said John Dickie, professor of Italian studies at University College London. "A lot of things went unchallenged; a lot of truths went buried."

Fascism was on the sidelines as a real political force, however, until the early 1990s when Berlusconi came to power and, in the new landscape of the so-called second republic, started to detoxify the fascism label. To the outrage of many, the centre-right leader brought former fascists from the Italian Social Movement (MSI) into his government and helped contribute to what many say is a country in which fascism – while repugnant and unacceptable for most Italians – is regarded more ambiguously by a significant minority.

"In the last 20 years or so, fascism has become rehabilitated to a large extent. There has been an acceptance," said James Walston of the American University of Rome. The centre-right governments have "normalised fascism in a way which was not possible before 1994", he added.



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