The resurrection of Il Duce: Mussolini belonged to Italy's unwanted past. For some, it is time to rehabilitate him, says Michael Sheridan

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LAST WEEK in the prestigious Milanese newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, readers were treated to 'Benito and Claretta. Tales of passion and espionage.' The story? An obscure tale of Benito Mussolini's mistress, Clara Petacci, copies of his indiscreet letters to her, German SS spies and a lovers' tiff not long before their deaths at the hands of Italian partisans.

It was the latest example of a reawakened fascination with Mussolini. For almost half a century the Duce and all his works receded into an unwanted past for Italians, hurrying to build a new consumer miracle and a successful democracy among the seven leading industrial nations. As Italy rose from the ruins bequeathed by Mussolini's adventures, he seemed irrelevant. When the Republic ran into trouble in the Seventies, the banners at demonstrations were red, not black. The talk was of proletarian armed struggle and the political terrain extended from a languid and venal establishment to the engaging far left-wingers of Lotta Continua, a group whose title proposed 'continuous struggle', much of it in the bedroom. The neo-Fascist movement was a reliquary. Sometimes in the South one could find souvenir shops where plastic busts of Mussolini stood on the shelves next to gilt-framed portraits of the late Padre Pio. But the Duce had vanished from mass consciousness as completely as he had once dominated it.

One economic boom, one recession and one judicial revolution later, the unmistakable silhouette of Mussolini once again recurs in newspapers, magazines and television programmes. Members of the neo-Fascist movement last week attained ministerial office for the first time since 1945 in the right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi. The politically impermissible has become normal and it is acceptable once again to talk about Mussolini's achievements. The effect is not to whitewash Mussolini: nothing with the clarity of whitewash is available in Italian politics. Nor has it provoked national self-examination in the way that Germany agonises about guilt or French society occasionally ruffles the veil drawn over Vichy. Post-war Italy felt it had purged itself. Mussolini was deposed by his own Fascist Grand Council. Marshal Pietro Badoglio signed an armistice and joined the allies. A popular uprising against the Germans and a staunch anti-Fascist partisan movement redeemed the country's self-respect.

It was this very heritage that prompted an uproar when the state television network recently transmitted harrowing footage discovered in the US army archives: the battered cadavers of Mussolini and Clara Petacci spat and urinated upon by a Milanese mob, then strung up; victims of Gestapo executions, and a grisly sequence in which an American firing squad dispatched three Fascist spies. Many viewers felt that these bloody scenes were treated as if they were all on the same moral level, an impression reinforced by a prominent neo-Fascist describing the spies as 'national heroes' and other participants voicing the humane, if politically nave, sentiment that all were equal in death. School students interviewed on the programme knew about Mussolini, but had no idea who Marshal Badoglio was. The Italian school syllabus provides for detailed study of the Fascist period, but few young people seem as well grounded in their country's modern history as in the 19th-century Risorgimento.

It was about the same time that Gianfranco Fini, leader of the neo- Fascists, publicly described Mussolini as 'the greatest Italian statesman of the century'. Fini subsequently met the British ambassador to Italy, Sir Patrick Fairweather, the first European Union member to entertain him to lunch. It is not difficult to imagine the polite reassessments that may have been offered over their Roman repast. A Fini-approved revisionist biographical sketch of the Duce would perhaps go as follows:

Benito Mussolini held Italy in his grip for the two decades to 25 July 1943. In that sense he is literally qualified for Mr Fini's accolade. He took power at the age of 39 and explained his secret of political success by one maxim: 'Keep your heart a desert.'

Mussolini came from the village of Predappio in the Romagna. His father was a blacksmith of revolutionary ideals. The son at first became a Socialist and a brilliant editor of that party's newspaper, Avanti] But he saw the errors of socialism, founded the Fascist movement and marched on Rome to save Italy from the peril of a workers' revolution.

A halcyon interlude followed his consolidaiton of power. Fascism provided stability and the state intervened to protect the poor from the viciousness of the economic cycle. Crime was sternly dealt with and the Sicilian Mafia was more effectively repressed than under any Italian government before or since.

Mussolini, though himself a militant atheist, respected the piety of his subjects. He was a sentimental family man and awarded medals to particularly fecund mothers. He concluded a concordat with the Vatican in 1929 and bishops lauded his wisdom; the future Pope John XXIII blessed the ranks of Italian soldiers off to Spain and Abyssinia.

The Duce's fleets and aeroplanes made Fascist Italy into the prime power in the Mediterranean. Italian colonists settled in North and West Africa, missionaries came in their wake and Mussolini commissioned stonemasons to carve giant maps showing the spread of civilisation through the new Italian empire. At the futile inter-war conferences, from Lausanne to Munich, he commanded ever greater prestige.

'He raised the Italian people from the Bolshevism into which they might have sunk in 1919 to a position in Europe such as Italy had never held before,' wrote Winston Churchill in 1951. Mr Fini and his friends would argue that, in Mussolini's own words to Churchill, he only sought for Italy a small place in the sun. Spurned by a jealous Britain, he turned to Germany but was wickedly deceived. Hitler dragged Italy into war too early for her factories and armed forces, then treated his ally with contempt.

If there is a positive aspect to the new nostalgia, it is that historians can provide a less ideological, more rigorous examination of the Fascist period, a task attempted by Renzo de Felice's monumental biography. But accepting the premise that Mussolini can be judged without prejudice from the pinnacle of academic inquiry is already controversial; some realities remain impervious to propaganda.

The Duce's political philosophy was incoherent. The March on Rome was a farcical coup d'etat and the 'years of consensus' were ushered in by a period of gang violence and the murder of the opposition's Giacomo Matteotti. Fascist economics created the bloated and patronage-ridden state sector which remains today the greatest hindrance to Italy's progress. The regime itself reeked of corruption. He made his son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister at the age of 36 and tolerated self- enrichment by all around him.

He was wildly popular because he pandered to common esteem. Bare-chested, he would stride along windswept beaches, gallop through the Borghese gardens at dawn and conduct parade inspections, clad in fine uniform, at a brisk run. Women adored him, a sentiment he freely reciprocated on every available occasion.

He placed his faith in Hitler, ignoring the decent instincts of most of his fellow-countrymen. He forgot the observation of the 16th- century Florentine Francesco Guicciardini, who wrote that 'nobody knows his servants as badly as their master' and led himself and Italy to ruin, a fate postponed only temporarily by fearsome brutality.

Mr Fini is right to argue that Italy must recognise its right-wing tradition, for it has unshakeable roots grounded in poverty redeemed by hard work, education and single-minded advancement. The question for the new coalition government is how this will blend with Berlusconi's Italian Thatcherism and the robust anti- Fascism of the Northern League.

Count Galeazzo Ciano's son announced this week that he is returning to Italy after 30 years in Latin America and he may resume the neo-Fascist politics which he abandoned in the Fifties. Yes terday, Italian papers quoted him as saying: 'I have many ideas in common with Mr Berlusconi.'

The writer's 'Romans' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

(Photographs omitted)