Was Mussolini really that bad?

Walking through Griante, on the eastern shore of Lake Como.

Walking through Griante, on the western shore of Lake Como, near where Mussolini was executed.

Benito Mussolini helped lead Europe into one of the darkest chapters of its violent history. We already know this. But is there more to the story than that? Finding myself on the shores of Lake Como, where he met his end, I went looking for Mussolini and his Italy. (Part one here)

In the early 20th century, Italy was a newly minted country with little sense of unity or identity, and a barely functional economy. Having been united for barely a generation after millennia of competition and war, the new regions of the young country didn’t really trade, cooperate, or even speak the same language, and there was no one around who seemed able to make much progress. Picture morning delivery traffic in Venice’s canals, truck parking in the warrens of Rome, or crossing the street in the gladiatorial arena that is Naples. All shouting mouths and no ears, not a lot of progress going on. In chaos like that, sometimes a proverbial strongman is necessary to get anything done.

Milan train station

Milan train station

After years of political inefficacy in a country lagging behind the modern age and brutalized by World War I, the king of Italy made the popular young leader who had taken over the Po River Valley his Prime Minister. As with Hitler in the north, the angry upcoming leader was thought too extreme, but the powers that be were sure they could control him. By the time they realized their mistake, he’d outlawed or murdered most of the opposition. Then he got to work.

Looking at widespread unemployment, he established industrial zones around the country to create jobs. (The area around Mestre, opposite Venice, is a prime example. It’s still a heavy employer in the region, contributing to both the local economy and the rate at which Venice was sinking.)

Realizing a nation that can’t talk among itself can’t function very well, he imposed a standardized Italian language, and local dialects began receding to a mutually intelligible Italian language. WWI hit Italy hard, despite its peripheral position, because it was an underdeveloped nation; Mussolini developed it. He built roads and rail lines, creating jobs for a desperate populace and paving the way (yes, pun intended) for Italy’s current role as an important transportation corridor for the EU.

Varenna, Como's eastern shore

Varenna, Como’s eastern shore

A chugging diesel piece of that transportation equipment came around the bend in Mezzegra, above the sparkle of Lake Como, and forced me to step back into a bland little parking lot. When it had passed, I looked across the unremarkable street and saw the unassuming wooden cross that marks where Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were executed after being caught trying to sneak into Switzerland. It’s basically a driveway. Fancy house, gorgeous area, but still, a driveway.

Italian politics are murky these days, when refugees and immigration are putting a strain on a continent already pushed, and this country already stretched thin. In these times it’s easy for the less courageous, less compassionate sides of ourselves to say “This is ‘Their’ problem. ‘They’ are different. ‘We’ need a strong leader to resist ‘Them.’” So it’s not entirely surprising that the more racist elements of the Italian political establishment have begun invoking Mussolini.

Cemetery near Mezzegra, no Mussolini here

Cemetery near Mezzegra, no Mussolini here

He got stuff done and guided the nation during a time of crisis. He was also a murdering thug, from boyhood when he stabbed classmates and girlfriends, to adulthood, when he ordered the murder of an untold number. It’s tempting to call for a leader to make things go away, and let their soul pay the price, but to do so would be a grave injustice to our own humanity, and a surefire way to create a monster.

Not the sort of thing that can be solved with a simple….Mi scusi.

(And now the painful part, that makes me proud that I am not in jail right now after throwing a Hulk-sized fit this morning. I somehow erased a large section of my photos from this trip without saving them. It’s the sort of thing that drives a photographer, a writer, a blogger, and a tour guide crazy, so I’m fourfold pissed about it. Also, I can’t show you the photos I carefully composed of Mussolini’s cross, but believe me, it’s not much. About waist-high, tacked onto a garden wall, with a little info sign and one photo each of him and Clara Petacci. Not a memorial, not a monument, not a place of much remembrance, just the sort of marker you park next to and barely notice.)