HomeWorldItalian towns split over moves to end honorary citizenship of Mussolini

Italian towns split over moves to end honorary citizenship of Mussolini


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A simple vote last Friday was enough to strip Walt Disney of his honorary citizenship of Ustica, as the tiny Sicilian island of 1,300 people passed a law saying that only the living could be granted such recognition.

But the late American animator was mere collateral damage: the true target was Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, who eight decades after his death remains an honorary citizen of hundreds of Italian towns and cities, much to the disgust of many of their inhabitants.

Almost all of Italy’s nearly 8,000 municipalities proclaimed Mussolini an honorary citizen under orders from fascist authorities during the rise of his regime. It was not until 1944 that the first towns, such as Naples and Matera, freed themselves of this burden, followed by Arezzo in March 1945.

But for decades there was a standstill and, until 2015, Liliana Segre, 93, an Italian senator-for-life – the only one of her relatives to survive the Holocaust – shared the same honorary citizenship of Tricase, in Lecce, with the head of the regime who had deported her to Auschwitz.

In recent years, however, the National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI), an anti-fascist group, has reignited efforts to address the issue.

“Many municipalities are unaware of Mussolini’s presence among their honorary citizens due to lost archives during the war,” said Natalia Marino, a member of the ANPI’s national committee. “Some face opposition from political parties reluctant to revoke the honour, while others are hindered by laws preventing cancellation.”

Members of the leftist party Sinistra Italiana in 2017 called for a census to identify which municipalities had granted and later revoked Mussolini’s honorary citizenship.

Since then, many towns have discussed the issue. Adria, a town in the northern region of Veneto, in 2021 revoked Mussolini’s honorary citizenship and honoured Giacomo Matteotti instead, an Italian politician killed by the fascist regime in 1924.

Nonantola, in Modena, and Bovezzo, in Brescia, along with dozens of other towns including Troina, in Sicily, have also revoked Mussolini’s honorary citizenship in recent years.

“Many of these towns had granted honorary citizenship to the partisans who had fought against fascism and were buried in their local cemeteries,” said Marino. “The fact that Mussolini was listed as an honorary citizen in the same towns was a disgrace.”

But in other towns and cities, such as Bologna, historically a stronghold of the left, laws prevent the revocation of honorary citizenship from the deceased. It was for this reason that Ustica, where Antonio Gramsci, one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the 20th century was held as a political prisoner, passed a law to revoke honorary citizenship after death for all.

To target Mussolini all honorary citizens of Ustica who are no longer alive, including Disney, the US astronaut Malcolm Scott Carpenter, and French naval officer and oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, have lost the honour.

In some towns where the honorary citizenship of Mussolini was discovered, public debate on the historical merits was opened up.

In 2021 Edith Bruck, a Hungarian poet and writer who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, was offered honorary citizenship of Anzio, in Lazio, but she refused because the town listed Mussolini among its honorary citizens. The dictator still had “many followers in [that] territory and … also in Europe itself, which has a poor memory”, Bruck explained.

The mayor at the time, Candido De Angelis, supported by a coalition of rightwing parties, described himself as “disappointed” by Bruck’s decision and defended the town’s continuing honorary citizenship for Mussolini.

“History must be respected, not only for Mussolini,” De Angelis said. “If someone in Anzio granted honorary citizenship to Mussolini a century ago, it didn’t seem appropriate or useful to revisit this issue. It’s just a political game that serves no purpose. Also, because as far as I’m concerned, fascism no longer exists. The historical judgment on fascism has been made and it is a completely negative judgment.”

In the town of Jesolo, in Veneto, honorary citizenship for Mussolini (known as Il Duce) sparked a controversy last year after the mayor, Christofer De Zotti – who is in Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party – decided not to revoke it.

De Zotti claimed the honorary title was an historical act that should not be erased and could not be judged by today’s standards.

“The fact is that there is no municipal resolution from the time that granted honorary citizenship to Mussolini because it was a common practice back then,” he told the Guardian. “In the past, Jesolo was governed by leftwing parties and even they did not bother to revoke Mussolini’s citizenship. We prefer to respond to criticism with a series of initiatives that we are carrying out in the coming days to commemorate the figure of Matteotti, Mussolini’s fiercest opponent.”

Marino said she believed that revoking Mussolini’s honorary citizenship remained a necessity for Italian mayors and councils decades after his death in 1945. “Many municipalities choose to maintain honorary citizenship for a dictator who made violence, militarism, and racism pillars of the regime, citing historical reasons,” she said.

She added: “Cancelling an honour bestowed upon a dictator who enacted racial laws and led Italy into a disastrous war by aligning with the Nazi regime is not only a necessity but in itself a historic gesture.”

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