Learning to live with Il Duce: When the leader of Italy's National Alliance lauds Mussolini, what is going on? Michael Sheridan reports

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SMOOTH, sedate and impeccably turned out, Gianfranco Fini, the leader of Italy's National Alliance, is ready to assume his responsibilities as a powerful figure of the right wing in the next Italian government. He favours firm economic policies, a stern police force and an efficient bureaucracy. Only when Mr Fini speaks of the past does it become clear that something other than a Latin Thatcherism is on offer from the National Alliance, a body until recently known as the Movimento Sociale Italiano, or the neo-fascists.

Benito Mussolini, says Mr Fini, 'was the greatest Italian statesman of the century'. His adherents go further. The Duce, Italians are now regularly informed, was a much maligned figure. He brought prosperity, order and honour to the country.

The MSI was the direct heir of the fascist regime, which dissolved amid a partisan uprising in Italy after allied troops invaded the peninsula in 1943. Between the establishment of the Italian Republic after 1945 and the collapse of its ruling parties in the corruption scandals of 1992-1994, the neo-fascists functioned as a curiosity. Their rallies were folkloric occasions, attended by elderly veterans in the grip of nostalgia and crop- haired youths with an excess of testosterone. For years they were headed by a courtly gentleman named Giorgio Almirante, who died in the late 1980s.

Now the extreme right is respectably installed once more in the mainstream of Italian politics, after its victory alongside the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. At the same time - and by no coincidence - a public reassessment of the past is in progress. 'I remember no horrors or terror under Mussolini,' stated Mr Almirante's widow, Assunta, last week. 'Let's think instead of all the positive things Mussolini did - hospitals, new towns, draining the marshland. There was law and order and you walked the streets without fear.'

The Partisans' National Association, which represents men and women who fought in the resistance, warns of 'an offensive distortion of history and a coarse attempt to rehabilitate fascism and its crimes.' Left-wing parties have called for massive demonstrations in Italian cities on 25 April to mark the day in 1945 when Genoa, Milan and Turin rose against the Nazis and fascists, while the allied armies were still fighting a campaign in central Italy.

Last week the controversy drew in the state-owned television network, RAI, after it broadcast Combat Film, a harrowing documentary culled from the film archives of the American Fifth Army. Viewers saw the battered corpses of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, spat and urinated upon by a mob, arranged arm in arm in a macabre posture of affection, then strung up by their heels in a Milanese piazza. Next the programme showed the awful scenes at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome, as relatives identified the rotting bodies of their loved ones, killed by the Gestapo in reprisal for an attack on German troops. Then, in perhaps the starkest episode, an American firing squad was seen executing three young Italians sent as fascist spies behind allied lines. Every gruesome aspect was shown: the final cigarette, the doctor's stethoscope applied to a bloody chest, the bare coffins.

Shocking though these black and white images were, many watching were even more disconcerted by the way in which the programme seemed to place all the grim deeds shown on the same moral level. In a studio discussion after the film, a neo-fascist commentator, Giano Accame, said the three executed spies were 'heroes of the Italian Social Republic' - a reference to Mussolini's last puppet regime, set up under German orders and hideously evoked in Pasolini's film Salo.

A student invited to the programme said it was better to forget the past altogether. She had never heard of Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who signed the Italian armistice with the Allies. For most Italian schoolchildren, the history books conveniently stop at 1918.

That student's plea is unlikely to attract much support. In the same week that Schindler's List played to packed cinemas throughout Italy and Pope John Paul II received the Chief Rabbi of Rome and the Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro for a historic joint commemoration of the Holocaust, the ghosts of half a century past seemed to haunt Italian politics. And more than recollection, there is reassessment, in a manner unthinkable for decades.

The undercurrents of this reassessment have been evident for some time both in popular culture and academia. A best-selling book of a few years ago, Mille Lire al Mese took its title from the 1930s song 'If only I had a thousand lire a month'. Its author evoked an era when that sum (less than 50p today) was a princely monthly wage and allowed Mussolini's new middle class to rent an apartment, keep a domestic servant, dress well, eat plentifully and depart on subsidised seaside holidays carried by the ever-punctual trains. The 1992 film Mediterraneo, with its tale of Italian soldiers stranded on a Greek island, summed up the national mood of rueful irony about the war. Ten years ago the historian Renzo de Felice produced a weighty biography of the Duce which attempts to view him without prejudice. If not quite a work of revisionist history on the lines of David Irving's book about Hitler, it nonetheless invites foreigners to consider the truth of their own relations with Italian fascism.

It is true that Mussolini is a figure ripe for re-examination. 'Imagine if Mussolini had been born an Englishman,' wrote the fascist minister Giuseppe Bottai after the war. 'English society would have restrained him with its moderation, its composure and its fair play. So what is Churchill but a Mussolini restrained by English society?'

When Italy was unified in 1870, three-quarters of her people were illiterate. By the 1930s Italy was still a mainly rural nation but in the big cities people were gaining ever higher living standards. Although Mussolini started out as a revolutionary he made his peace with the Italian royal family, the Vatican and international finance. At first determined to raise the lira to unprecedented heights, he later agreed to devaluation and a debt settlement which attracted American investment. Fascist powers to intervene in the economy were credited with easing the great depression and relieving unemployment.

Mussolini's enduring political achievement was the Concordat with the Vatican in 1929. It finally settled the dispute between the modern Italian state and the old papal realm, and, in the words of the Vatican newspaper, 'Italy was given back to God and God was given back to Italy.'

It was typical of Italian fascism that its excesses were almost always tempered by Catholic tradition and the pragmatic and humanist elements in Italian political culture. In fact, Mussolini instituted racial laws much later than Hitler - in 1938 - and they were applied only half- heartedly, while brave Italian officers saved thousands of Jews in Croatia, Greece and southern France.

Indeed, the regime had many foreign admirers. The poet Robert Graves, in The Long Weekend (1940) his study, written with Alan Hodge, of Britain between the wars, recalled that 'the Conservative press saw Mussolini as an energetic saviour of Italy from red revolution, loyal to his monarchy; and travellers came back from Rome and Florence with enthusiastic praises for the new Italian spirit . . . that fascism could grow into a menace to the British Empire was considered fantastic.'

In the 1920s, The Spectator described the fascists as 'ultra patriots . . . we do not like their fury but we cannot believe that they really have light enough hearts to upset the peace.' The Daily Mail gave Mussolini its blessing. Some clung to their delusions even after Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, supported Franco in Spain and allied himself with Hitler. A document prepared in 1939 by the Southern Department of the Foreign Office observed, 'In point of fact . . . there are many aspects of the fascist system in Italy which it would be useful to preserve.'

That same year the new British Ambassador to Rome, Sir Percy Loraine, laid a wreath at the shrine to the 'martyrs' of the fascist revolution. He told Marshal Italo Balbo, one of Mussolini's henchmen, that he thought far too much stress was laid on the contrast between fascism and democracy. 'It was, I thought, a superficial antithesis,' Sir Percy recorded in a telegram to the Foreign Office.

Fascism, in contrast to Bolshevism, shared the belief of democracy, that the people were paramount and the state their servant; therefore, the ambassador concluded, 'if I was right fascism and democracy were pursuing the same end by different means.'

Last week the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio said: 'When Gianfranco Fini says Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman of the century, he is expressing a fascist judgement.' The cultural historian Eugenio Garin put it this way: 'We can regret what happened. But heaven help us if we blur the distinction between who was right and who was wrong.'

British ministers and officials will soon sit down to deal with their Italian opposite numbers from Mr Fini's National Alliance in the institutions of the European Union. They might dust off a memorandum prepared by George Martelli of the Foreign Office Political Intelligence department in 1939, perhaps the last official British advice on how to deal with people of Mr Fini's persuasion.

'As you know,' Martelli wrote, 'the fascists completely reject the traditional conception of Anglo- Italian friendship which they say was founded on British patronage of a picturesque but weak country. It is necessary to avoid any appeal to the sentimental associations of the past.'

(Photographs omitted)