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Il Duce's flame burns bright again

Doug Saunders opens his six-part series by venturing into the heartland of the fascist revival

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

LATINA, ITALY — If you walk through the slightly dishevelled streets of Latina, a modern city of 100,000 located amid the fields and marshes south of Rome, you might fail to notice its connection to the sweep of European history. Its public buildings have a faded art deco charm, its cafés are sparse and lonely, and its people are mostly struggling workers in agriculture and light industry.

But there, in a little park, you will spy a strange old monument, in the shape of an eagle, that has only recently been pulled from the bushes and returned to its place of pride in front of the city hall.

Its chipped inscription, cleared of the dirt of 60 years in hiding, reads, mysteriously: "To Littoria: The memory of the strength of our race will bring us to victory now as then through a war for peace."

As you stroll away, puzzled, into a large urban park full of dog-walkers and children playing on swings and jungle gyms, you can't miss an even larger memorial, 10 metres high and topped with a more menacing eagle. It was put there by Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who built this town as an experiment in utopian fascist urban planning. So it might not surprise you to see that this expanse of playgrounds and paths is called "Arnaldo Mussolini Park," after Il Duce's brother.

But it should surprise you. For the park, which has been here from the beginning, was named after Mussolini only 10 years ago, by a mayor who proudly called himself a fascist. And if you return to the eagle-festooned city hall, and climb its stairs to the mayor's office, you will find a team of assistants hard at work on another such project: A giant mosaic, to be placed at the centre of the town square this year, which has at its centre a large and heroic portrait of Benito Mussolini.

In the 60 years since the Second World War ended on May 8, 1945, Europeans have devoted themselves to putting that deadly conflict in the past. Yet today's Europe is shaped, in dramatic and surprising ways, by the dynamics and conflicts established in the war and its immediate aftermath. It is a continent of 450 million people that was built, by North Americans and Europeans, on the ashes of the war. And Europeans are only now beginning to admit that they still live in the shadow of the war.

Nowhere is that hidden dynamic more evident than in a city like Latina.

When this place was built on cleared swamps in 1932, it was known as Littoria, the City of Fascism, its original name taken from the Roman centurions who marched ahead of the emperor carrying the shields, known as fascia, that gave the violent ultranationalist movement its name. This was the model city for the fascist movement that swept Europe and attempted to take over the world. After fascism was defeated in the long struggle of the Second World War, this city was given the more innocent name of Latina, and its residents and leaders struggled to move beyond its ominous past.

But the new mayor of Latina, like hundreds of other local, regional and parliamentary leaders in Europe today, is eager to embrace the legacy of fascism.

"For too many years, the real history of Latina has been darkened," said Vincenzo Zaccheo, an elegantly dressed man who has a lifelong politician's ability to focus on three things at once, as he took calls and answered questions while surrounded by aides and hangers-on in his ultramodern office.

"Littoria has had to pay for its original sin -- the City of Fascism -- so that when fascism left, they changed all the names and erased everything. There were even some crazy people who wanted to destroy it. But now we need to respect the great intentions, the man, the centre of the city."

Mr. Zaccheo and his colleagues are not skinhead thugs or camouflage-wearing militarists, but modern European politicians -- proud members of one of Europe's more puzzling and alarming movements. As one of the most powerful municipal officials in Italy, he is a close associate of Gianfranco Fini, who as the founder of the National Alliance, the most far-right member of Italy's governing coalition, serves as Foreign Minister.

These men and their like-minded colleagues across Europe are often known as neo-fascists. Leaders of parties such as the AN or France's National Front, both of which have sizable numbers of seats in the European Union Parliament, say they have abandoned their fascist roots, that they are not racial supremacists but merely proud patriots with a deep dislike of immigration, and that they are not totalitarians-in-waiting but merely right-wing nationalists who have some admiration for the glory days of the 1930s.

"Those who say I am a neo-fascist, they are only trying to offend," Mr. Zaccheo says. "I'm not an authoritarian neo-fascist -- I'm very tolerant and accept the rules of democracy."

But the mayor, who began his career in the overtly fascist Movement Sociale in the 1960s, proudly says his key mission is to restore the town's founding era, and its founder, to their former glory. "If Mussolini were to live now, he wouldn't be necessarily known as a fascist. The 20 years he was in power were characterized by a great period of expansion and growth -- the development, the infrastructure, the growth, the laws that caused us to achieve the social benefits.

"Until a decade ago, he was unmentionable -- people forgot that Mussolini governed with a full consensus. And when that consensus was not here any more, we entered the most embarrassing page in the history of Italy. To hang a man with his head down in a square -- no decent society would do this to anybody."

A key goal, Mr. Zaccheo says, is to return the city its original, fascist name -- either by persuading Rome to change the name, or simply to paint "Littoria" under "Latina" on all the signs. In a town that has elected fascists and their ilk repeatedly over the past 15 years, this will not be an unpopular move.

The postwar generations in Latina, as almost everywhere in Europe, have struggled to create a new world that replaces, or at least papers over, the old dynamics of fascism. But people born here under his leadership, Mr. Zaccheo says, should be proud of their fascist roots.

"The new generation has to love everything about the city, because its origins are a source of pride. I am not judging fascism -- we just want to judge what fascism did in this city. What it did elsewhere is another story. I am only 58, so don't ask me about those things."

Sixty years ago, when the war ended, Europe began to be rebuilt in dramatic ways. Both the survivors and the occupiers wanted to build a new continent where fascism -- and its root cause, extreme nationalism -- could never again take hold.

In Italy and Germany, constitutions were rewritten and newspapers founded by the Allied occupiers in ways that would prevent fascist extremism from emerging again.

Economists, led by John Maynard Keynes, helped to create today's international monetary institutions, so that the most important pillar of fascism, the economy, would never again be merely a national force.

And finally, thinkers led by French diplomat Jean Monnet began to eliminate national governments and boundaries entirely, creating the roots of today's European Union -- a project specifically designed to stop fascism, and related forms of ultra-nationalism, from emerging again.

Today, though, there are hundreds of "black villages" in Italy, and similar towns in Spain and France, that are ruled by men who either consider themselves fascists or do not complain about being described that way. There are provinces in numerous countries that are controlled by ultranationalist parties, and fascist-linked parties have taken part in governing coalitions in Austria, Italy and elsewhere.

On a few occasions over the past 15 years, it has seemed as if these movements were on the verge of coalescing into something like the fascist tidal wave of the 1930s, such as when Austrian Freedom Party leader Jorg Haider became a leader in his country's coalition government in 2000, or when French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen won 17 per cent of the national vote in 2002.

But they have failed to gain that kind of traction -- in part because Europe's economies have remained strong.

What is most alarming to many observers is not that fascist-like movements once again exist in Europe, but that the very system designed to prevent their viability -- the European Union -- seems to have given them a new viability. Fascism isn't threatening to take over Europe, but it does seem poised to become a permanent part of the continent's political bedrock -- in part, ironically enough, because of the EU's pan-national force.

"Incredibly, the supra-nationalism of the EU, which was supposed to cause everyone to rise above nationalism, has created a field where these fascist groups can operate with a new kind of authority," says Douglas R. Holmes, an American anthropologist who has spent time with neo-fascist and far-right leaders in France and Italy.

One thing he has observed is that the EU has actually created a space where these parties can step above their nationalism (without abandoning it, of course) and play to an international audience. He calls these movements "integralist," since they believe that nations, regions, ethnic groups and linguistic communities should be kept intact and unchanged, and he notes that they are beginning to speak across their natural boundaries into faraway nations.

"Back in 1989, when Jean-Marie Le Pen came onto the scene, he thought of himself simply as a French nationalist. Ten years later, thanks to the EU, he realizes that his movement can develop this European quality. . . . In Budapest, he gives a speech where he talks about France and everyone applauds all his lines, because they completely get his message -- it now has an appeal across Europe."

Of course, fascism also became an international, pan-European movement in the 1930s. For a time, places like Littoria were seen as examples for the world. The architects of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal looked to the utopian policies of Mussolini, and also to his elegant architecture, for inspiration.

But nobody is pretending that such a thing can happen now -- not with reasonable levels of economic prosperity across the Western world. Even in Austria and Italy, which have had extreme-right parties in their governing coalitions, there have been none of the monumental, imperial projects that came to define fascism in its golden age. Rather, the ultranationalists have devoted themselves singly to an issue that barely existed in the thirties: mass immigration from outside Europe.

And mass immigration is the issue that is likely to keep the neo-fascists from fading into history. Europe's bulletproof anti-fascist government system was designed to withstand the pressures of authoritarianism and intolerance, but not to cope with today's pressures.

The extremists stand to gain either way: If European countries decide to reduce or stop immigration, their extremely low birth rates will force their populations down and their average ages up -- a process that creates mass unemployment, reduced powers of governments to spend and dramatically higher poverty rates. Those are the seeds of fascism.

In order to resist the pressures of depopulation, European countries will need hundreds of thousands of immigrants over the next few years. And the countries with the very lowest birth rates, and therefore the most risk of economic trauma, are precisely the countries with the strongest histories of fascism: Italy, Germany, Spain.

But if the EU has helped to send this message, whose audience in any nation is limited, to a far larger pan-European constituency, it has also become a chief target of the extreme right.

"There's no question that the supra-nationalism has created a nationalist backlash in many places," Mr. Holmes said. "What I find surprising is that it is speaking with a similar voice from the far right and from the left."

English fascists in the British National Party have been known to say: "We prefer to be poor and English rather than wealthy and multicultural."

That slogan, with its rejection of borderless capitalist materialism and its embrace of humble cultural authenticity, sounds strikingly like some of the slogans uttered by people on the left-wing fringes of another important European force, the anti-globalization movement.

This is perhaps the most surprising development -- and another echo of the 1930s, when the communist left and the fascist right became almost indistinguishable in their policies and views.

It has sprung to life most dramatically this month in France, where the nation is embroiled in a debate over whether to accept the EU's 474-page constitution in a referendum vote on May 29.

A No vote, which polls show is highly possible, will kill the constitution, and therefore the expansion of the de-nationalization of economies, for all of Europe.

But most critics had expected the opposition to come from Mr. Le Pen's right. Instead, it has emerged from a left that has embraced "neo-nationalism," a movement that has taken off in France, Germany and Italy.

Europe's most eloquent neo-nationalists, such as German-born British writer Ralf Dahrendorf, argue that because "democracy and the nation-state are tied to each other," the "weakening of the nation-state by a process of internationalization is by the same token a weakening of democracy." By raising powers above the merely national level, these thinkers argue, ordinary people lose control over their services and specific cultures, such as the French practice of short working weeks and long vacations.

This argument does not sound very similar to fascism, and is certainly couched in a far more sophisticated voice. But it has caused deep concern among other European observers, who fear that it is precisely the sort of argument that will be taken up by the extreme right and used to break up Europe into feuding ethno-nations again.

"Europe needs critique, without doubt," German sociologist Ulrich Beck warned on Wednesday, addressing a French audience in an attempt by German intellectuals to push France to the Yes side.

"But not blind, nostalgic critique, based on grand delusions," he continued, making a clear reference to fascism. "Common solutions are more fruitful than unilateral actions on the part of nations. The 'Europe of differences' does not represent a danger. It will renew, transform and open up the nations and states of Europe to the global era. Such a Europe may even become a beacon of freedom in a turbulent world."

Ironically, people such as Mr. Holmes argue that it is this kind of argument that produces an ultraright backlash. So in Europe today, it is possible to argue that both the EU and its left-wing opposition are possible triggers of fascism.

On the streets of Latina, where people are concerned about the flood of foreign workers who are brought in to harvest the crops starting around this time of year, and about the rising prices caused by the euro, some of these arguments have some resonance.

But there is a far greater sense of quiet patience, as if everyone is just waiting for the right moment for the good old days to return.

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau.

***

Reading the ashes

Tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the most devastating military conflict in human history -- and of its most lasting aftermath, the creation of a new European society from the war's ashes.

Today and for the next five Saturdays in Focus, European bureau chief Doug Saunders will explore the shadows of the war and how they continue to influence Europeans' daily life even as they engage in the world's most ambitious experiment in social change.

As the series takes him from Italy through stops in Germany, France, Poland, Britain and finally Belgium, Mr. Saunders will examine a continent that is poised precariously between erasing its horrific past -- and repeating it.

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