The Mussolini fans selling flip flops with the slogan “Death to traitors”

The northern Italian town of Predappio is the birthplace of Il Duce (“the Leader”). 

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Father Giulio Tam places a hand on Fiamma’s pregnant belly and closes his eyes as he prepares for the blessing. “Dear Lord, make this baby strong enough so he can kick these bloody immigrants out of the country.” He then takes a look at the crowd around him. “And, please, don’t make him a faggot.”

There is laughter from the sea of shaved heads. The priest, a well-known figure in right-wing circles, raises a glass of wine and shouts, “A noi!” – “To us!” Straight arms whish in the air in a Roman salute. Even the children stop playing around the life-size statue of Benito Mussolini and repeat the fascist slogan: “A noi!

The northern Italian town of Predappio is the birthplace of Il Duce (“the Leader”), as Mussolini was known. For most of the year, its streets are silent and empty. But on the Italian dictator’s birthday on 29 July, thousands of tourists wearing leather boots and black shirts annually flock to Predappio from across the country to pay homage to him. They march from the main piazza to the Mussolini mausoleum, where they take selfies, force their puzzled pets into a Roman salute and make their kids kiss the imposing white bust of Il Duce, before returning to the town centre to shop.

The village has a thriving Mussolini-fuelled economy. Tourists peruse the shelves of the three double-window souvenir shops on the high street – a broad, sunlit avenue where a café, bank, pizzeria and ice-cream shop are the only alternatives to the Nazi-fascist boutiques. A matching pair of swastika mugs costs €25. Although Mussolini T-shirts are on sale in the kids’ section, this summer’s bestsellers are flip-flops with the slogan “Death to traitors”.

In Italian law, it is hard to tell if it is legal to sell these items to the public. The country has two bills aimed at curbing fascist propaganda – one of them the constitution – but the laws are rarely enforced. In September, the Italian parliament will vote on a third law that targets the fascist souvenir market, though the bill is unlikely to get beyond the Senate, where the ruling centre-left party has a weaker majority than in the Chamber of Deputies.

Many locals argue that it is a fuss over nothing. “I don’t see anything wrong with Predappio. Fascism is history; history is culture. And we have to talk about it,” Mayor Giorgio Frassineti says. He is a member of the centre-left Partito Democratico and a former communist. He strokes his long, black beard as he shows me the hate mail he has received in his eight years in office, most of it coming from his own coalition. “It’s ridiculous to ban cigarette lighters just because they have the face of Mussolini on it,” Frassineti says. “Instead of prohibiting the sale of souvenirs, we should be discussing what fascism represented to us.”

Frassineti wants to create a four-storey, €5m fascism documentation centre on Predappio’s main piazza, much like the one that Munich has on Nazism. The former prime minister and his fellow party member Matteo Renzi, who resigned in December, promised to contribute €2m, but after protests from inside and outside the party, he never delivered.

Phone calls from self-titled “historians” keep interrupting Frassineti mid-sentence. They inquire about wooden eagles, statuettes and furniture that belonged to Mussolini. “They’re not for sale,” he barks.

Yet the village welcomes admirers of fascism. Around 60,000 tourists come to Predappio each year – besides Mussolini’s birthday, the anniversaries of his death and ascent to power draw crowds. Those who visit the dictator’s country house Villa Carpena (also known as Villa Mussolini), now a museum, receive discounts at local bed and breakfasts. A list of fascist-friendly restaurants is provided on request. Frassineti sees no danger in this. “As I was telling you, Italians are very well vaccinated against the return of the infection,” he says.

Residents follow the annual Mussolini parade from their windows. A few hundred neo-fascists march waving Il Duce flags and carrying truncheons. They are quiet, clean up afterwards and treat people with deference. “They’re fascists, but they’re good people. They never caused any problem here in town,” says a man playing cards at a café.

Filippo Focardi, a history professor at the University of Padova and the author of a book explaining the country’s amnesia over fascist guilt, Il cattivo tedesco e il bravo italiano (“The Evil German and the Good Italian”), calls this “the normalisation of fascism”.

“It all started by the end of World War II,” Focardi says. “We shifted the blame to the ‘evil German’, and we elaborated the positive stereotype of the ‘good Italian’, an opponent of war and a saviour of the Jews.”

For decades after the war, the Italian ruling class talked of fascism as a “soft dictatorship” and mostly ridiculed Mussolini and his wars. They used Germans as an alibi to avoid an Italian Nuremberg and never came to terms with the violence of the dictatorship, causing a series of omissions in the country’s collective history.

“During his years in office, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi legitimised the post-fascists and welcomed them in his government,” Focardi says. “He even rewrote history, saying that Mussolini never killed anyone – he just sent dissenters abroad for a vacation. None of this is true, of course, but it gives you an idea of how popular Mussolini still is among Italians.”

Back at Villa Mussolini, it’s time for Il Duce’s birthday lunch under the thick wisteria planted by the dictator. The main course is pasta Bolognese. Bank clerks sit next to loud football hooligans; sunburned grape pickers share the table with neo-Nazis. Father Tam co-ordinates the fascist chorus between courses. “Do you know who’s behind this new bill that threatens to erase Mussolini from history?” says the priest, a follower of Marcel Lefebvre, the ultra-conservative French bishop who was excommunicated by the Vatican in the 1980s. “A communist Jew. And do you know what Mussolini would do to communist Jews?”

He’d send them abroad for a vacation.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire