The construction boom in Rome and the surrounding Agro Pontino slowed and then came to a halt after Italy’s entrance into the war on June 10, 1940. Italy had signed its Pact of Steel with Germany in May 1939, which completed the diplomatic and military alliance of the Axis powers. Mussolini had boasted throughout the 1930s of Italy’s growing military strength and the “eight million bayonets” that represented the armed strength of the nation. In fact, Italy had nowhere near that number of men in the armed services, and the military rhetoric of the Duce far exceeded his limited military resources.1 In an unusual admission, Mussolini told Hitler in 1939 that he would need three years to prepare Italy for war. Hitler had other plans and would not wait for his Italian partner. Following his August agreement with Stalin, Hitler had a free hand to invade Poland on September 1, 1939. Mussolini remained on the sidelines and declared Italy a “non-belligerent.”

The German blitzkrieg in May and June of 1940 ended the “phony war” and brought France a humiliating defeat. Mussolini decided that it was worth a few thousand Italian casualties to join Hitler’s conquest of France. From his balcony overlooking the Piazza Venezia, he announced the declaration of war on June 10. Newsreels showed the cheering throng’s response, although one American resident of Rome later wrote that the crowd was sullen and silent. He reported that the original soundtrack “was so devoid of sound when the populace should have been cheering that a friend of mine, in that business, told me personally that he dubbed in the sound of cheering from the recent Olympic try-outs and used those cheers to make the proper sounds on the newsreel of the Duce’s declaration of war.”2 On the outer edges of the piazza, where it was difficult to hear the Duce, a New York Times reporter found “a surprisingly light-hearted attitude, in some cases, toward the grave news [Mussolini] was going to impart. Those who heard him well, however, responded with enthusiasm.”3 President Roosevelt denounced Italy’s move: “[T]he hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.”

The regime claimed that fascism had prepared the nation for this fateful hour. Indeed, war would somehow fulfill fascist Italy’s destiny. “We will win because twenty years of Fascism has prepared us magnificently in spirit and in arms, because of our past glories and greatness, from Rome to the Risorgimento,” and because Mussolini has endowed Italians with the impulse to win though his daily example.4

Italy’s entry into the war did not stop the work on transforming Rome. Efforts continued for the next two years. Some new housing reached completion, and such projects as the Via della Conciliazione and the Termini Station continued. Plans also included additional bridges to span the Tiber, both at its northern and southern ends. The Ponte Principe Amedeo Savoia Aosta replaced the Bridge of the Florentines, the Ponte dei Fiorentini. It spanned the river at the end of the Via Giulia at the church of the Florentines, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, connecting to the new tunnel, the Galleria Amedeo Savoia Aosta, which carried traffic underneath the Janiculum Hill. The work on these projects began in 1939 and was completed in 1942.5 The next bridge planned at the farthest point on the river would “create a monumental access to Rome of the North,” in accordance with the Piano Regolatore of 1931. This bridge, dedicated to the March on Rome, the Ponte XXVIII Ottobre, had a greater capacity than the ancient Milvian Bridge nearby. Thus it could carry traffic from the Flaminio and Parioli neighborhood across to the area of the Foro Mussolini and the ancient Via Cassia, an important artery traveling northeast out of the city. Completed after the war, this last fascist bridge is today the Ponte Flaminio.6

The grandest project under way was, of course, the EUR section. Even though the regime had to set aside plans for the 1942 exposition, the construction site remained active in keeping with the plan to create a permanent new city for Rome. Planning for EUR included two new bridges in the southern portion of the Tiber. The first would cross the river from the Via Galvani in Testaccio. The Via Galvani linked directly to the Viale Aventino, renamed by the regime the Viale Africa, and thus to the historic center. The new bridge, the Ponte Africa, would thus allow a flow of traffic to cross the Tiber into the Portuense neighborhood and continue down to EUR. Farther down the river, a second bridge, the Ponte San Paolo, would cross near St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and also provide access to EUR. Construction on a final bridge crossing from EUR to the Magliana district had already begun and was completed after the war.7

7.1 Mussolini reviews antiaircraft forces, Colosseum, 1939


Work on EUR inspired a new version of the master plan for the city. The 1931 Piano Regolatore did not include plans for EUR, and this new zone constituted a radical shift away from it. The de facto revision of Rome’s development called forth the revised plan of 1942, the Variante Generale del Piano Regolatore.8

Marcello Piacentini led the new commission appointed in 1941. Gustavo Giovannoni and Cipriano Efisio Oppo were also appointed, and several others subsequently joined the group. The result of the commission’s work the next year laid out for the first time a definitive direction for Rome’s development. The city’s orientation would now point south toward the new EUR and the sea. What had previously been only one of the directions of fascist Rome’s development now became its main direction.

The Variante called for the further development of the area between the historic center and the sea. Garbatella, Magliana, and Ardeatinia all became zones for expansion. More facilities and more infrastructure would be required. For example, an airport at Magliana, the metropolitan railway, and the Via Imperiale would provide for various modes of transportation. The Via Imperiale would also have hotels, tourist facilities, new housing, and various public buildings.9 The plan forecast a doubling of Rome’s population from 1.5 to 3 million, with 800,000 concentrated in the area from EUR to the sea.10

These grandiose plans soon ran into the realities unfolding in the war. The Italian military failures of World War II are well known: The invasion of Greece in October 1940 soon turned into a disaster saved only by German intervention. The initial advances of Italian troops into Egypt invited a devastating counterattack from a smaller British army that prompted Hitler to send Rommel and his Afrika Korps to the scene. Mussolini insisted on sending an Italian army to fight alongside the Germans after the invasion of Russia in June 1941. Fascist propaganda and German-Italian successes kept alive the hope of eventual victory well into 1942, but then the battles of El Alamein and Stalingrad turned the tide. The Italian Eighth Army of 250,000 men disintegrated in the bitter Russian winter of 1942-43. In North Africa, the Italian and German armies surrendered to British and American forces in May 1943.

In the first phase of the war, Rome had to tighten its belt and slow down construction projects. Even so, Mussolini continued to use the city and especially its new sites for speeches, parades, and ceremonies as part of the war effort. For nearly three years of war the emerging fascist city provided sites to support the war effort and the regime’s message of ultimate victory: “Vinceremo”—“We Will Win.” For example, on March 28, 1942, the Via del Mare hosted a parade with the awarding of medals as part of the regime’s annual Air Force Day. The temporary rostrum where Mussolini presided over the ceremonies stood directly in front of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, facing the two ancient temples on the Piazza Bocca della Verità. The new street, now lined with fascist office buildings on both sides, made it an appropriately fascist site for the occasion.11

Work on the Casa Littoria at the Foro Mussolini had completely stopped by 1942, but the Stadio dei Marmi adjacent to it continued to find use for rallies and sports exhibitions. On April 21, a major gymnastic competition took place before a standing-room-only crowd. The empty spaces at theforo provided soils to grow wheat as a new battle for grain to feed Italy during the war. In June, Balilla members harvested the precious grain.12

Building of the new Rome now came to a complete halt as military reverses brought the regime to the brink of crisis. Work sites closed, the demolitions for the Via della Conciliazione stopped, and the vast site of EUR grew silent. The Variante of 1942 never got beyond the planning stage, a stage properly summed up as follows: “A considerable amount of time was used for the construction of a grandiose model representing the future Rome. The model was then destroyed in the events of 1943. Thus today very little today remains of the project given that the report was never published.”13

For Rome, the second phase of the war began with the Allied invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. War had come to the Italian homeland. At the same time, Allied planes began bombing Italian cities, including Rome. The historic center was spared, but the first raid caused heavy damage in the San Lorenzo district surrounding the basilica of San Lorenzo and adjacent to the university. The war had come to Mussolini’s Rome. Pope Pius XII, not Mussolini, visited the damaged neighborhood and its stunned residents.

The crisis of Mussolini’s regime was at hand. Mussolini convened the Fascist Grand Council for the first time in several years for what turned out to be its last meeting. Its members gathered in the Palazzo Venezia on the night of July 24-25. They took hours and did not finish until dawn. The resolution approved by Mussolini’s fascist colleagues amounted to a vote of no confidence in the Duce, although it is not clear that he realized how perilous his position was. Even his son-in-law Ciano voted against him, an act that would lead to his execution as a traitor in January 1944. Only when Mussolini went to his weekly meeting with King Victor Emmanuel III on the morning of July 25 did he learn that the king was dismissing him as head of government. Military police placed Mussolini under arrest. The king appointed the military conqueror of Ethiopia, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, as the new prime minister. Badoglio announced rather ambiguously, “The war continues.”

The new government undertook secret negotiations with the Allies and reached agreement for an armistice. When the public announcement came on September 8, Romans took to the streets to celebrate what they thought was the end of the war. The climactic scene of Bernardo Bertolucci’s filmThe Conformist portrays vividly the nighttime parade through the streets culminating in a scene at one of the ancient monuments “liberated” by the Duce: the Theater of Marcellus. Mussolini was now the object of scorn as the crowds pulled down his statues and pictures while destroying other symbols of the fascist regime. These Romans did not realize that the worst phase of the war for them would now begin. Soon Mussolini’s Rome would become Hitler’s Rome for nine agonizing months.

The Germans had feared an Italian attempt to exit from the war. When armistice was announced, German troops moved toward key positions and thousands more descended on the Italian peninsula. Hitler could not let fascism collapse and thus allow Italy to fall unopposed to the Allies. On September 12, a small German force of gliders, led by Otto Skorzeny, rescued Mussolini from his mountain resort prison in the Abruzzi region and flew him to Germany.

Mussolini immediately became the leader of the newly constituted Italian Social Republic, or Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), nicknamed the “Salò Republic” because of its headquarters in the small town of Salò on Lake Garda in northern Italy. The king and Badoglio fled to the Allies, who had invaded the southern mainland. Winston Churchill had argued for the invasion of Italy as a way to hit Germany in the “soft underbelly” of Axis Europe. To the contrary, the Italian campaign turned into a slow and difficult one, as the Allies fought up the mountainous peninsula that provided the Germans with ideal defensive positions. The Romans had looked forward to a quick Allied entrance into their city, but suffered instead a harsh German occupation for nine months.

The American General Maxwell Taylor parachuted into Rome the night of September 7-8, 1943, to make advance preparations for Allied paratroops to land and seize Rome’s airports. He found Badoglio and the Italian generals he met quite unprepared to offer clear and decisive support. Taylor canceled the operation only hours before it was to begin. This daring plan carried great risks even if circumstances had been favorable, but it also might have caught the Germans by surprise and forced them to withdraw north of Rome.14

As German troops moved into the city in the days immediately following the armistice announcement of September 8, 1943, no clear orders went to the Italian army units as to what they should do next. Fear, uncertainty, and lack of direction ruled the day. Fascism had collapsed. Now it seemed that the Italian nation had also collapsed. Rome stood open and vulnerable to the advancing German columns.

The Italian armed resistance to the German occupation began in an area striking for its juxtaposition of ancient Rome with Mussolini’s Rome. Civilians joined Italian troops at the third-century Porta San Paolo and first-century B.C. pyramid of Caius Cestius to face the Germans. The nineteenth-century Protestant Cemetery was there, adjacent to the pyramid. Libera’s Aventine post office, which had opened in 1935, stood across the street. In fact, the streets and park just beyond, the Parco Cestio, were all developed during the fascist period. “The battle at Porta San Paolo, which initiated the last stand for the defense of Rome, began the next morning, September 10, and would continue all day. The fierce combat and the heroism of an improbable band of patriots around the pyramid would recast the image of that first-century B.C. Egyptianate tomb into the birthplace of the resistance, but most of the rest of Rome awoke in ignorance of what was taking place inside and around their city.”15

An American nun, Mother Mary Saint Luke, published her diary of occupied Rome at the end of the war under the pseudonym Jane Scrivener. She gave a vivid account of the bloodshed and chaos of that day. Italian troops struggled to oppose the Germans without leadership from their officers and with shortages of equipment and ammunition. Beyond the Porta San Paolo, conflicts between Germans and Italians took place at sites throughout the city. “A ferocious encounter took place near the Ministry of the Interior in Via Agostino Depretis, with Fascists and Germans inside, Italians attacking from the street. Near the Circus Maximus a platoon of Germans took advantage of the newly constructed tunnel for the underground railway, dived into it and emerged at the Coliseum [sic], only to find resolute Italians at the other end, awaiting them with hand grenades and revolvers.”16

The inevitability of the German occupation was never in doubt. German troops gained the upper hand throughout the city, and columns of troops continued to enter the city. Some of them “in rather straggling formation, marched down the Via dei Trionfi, past the Arch of Constantine and down the Via del Impero to Piazza Venezia, where machine guns had been barking all afternoon.” 17 Ironically, German troops had taken the same parade route as the Italian military and youth formations on that “special day” in May 1938 when Mussolini welcomed Hitler to Rome.

Mussolini’s Rome was now Hitler’s Rome. Many Italians fell in those fateful September days, but their valiant efforts were no match for German armed might. Nevertheless, the fighting represented the first attempt of some Italians to redeem their honor by resistance, and that resistance would continue until Rome’s liberation on June 4, 1944. Today the area of the Porta San Paolo, which includes the pyramid and the post office, is a shrine to the resistance. Numerous plaques commemorate those who fell. The fascist park behind the post office is now the Parco della Resistenza del 8 Settembre. Flanking it on the north side is the Largo Manlio Gelsomini, named for a doctor and Italian army officer who fought in the resistance until captured and then executed at the Fosse Ardeatine in March 1944. Plaques on the Aurelian Wall by the pyramid are dedicated to the city’s liberation on June 4, 1944. The British war cemetery down the street from the pyramid and the Protestant Cemetery is the final resting place for several hundred troops who died in the Italian campaign. This piece of fascist Rome now bears the stamp of war, resistance and antifascism imposed after the war.

The nine months from armistice and resistance to liberation formed the most bitter and difficult time of the war for the Romans. They had to live under constant surveillance by German and Italian fascist forces, food was scarce, and the longed-for liberation by Allied forces became stalled during the long winter months. The Germans maintained their defensive line at Monte Cassino. The Allied attempt to outflank them by the landing at Anzio on January 22 met a determined German attempt to push the Americans back into the sea. Bitter fighting continued at Anzio and in the Agro Pontino. The effort failed to bring the quick conquest of Rome.

Rome’s synagogue overlooks the Tiber just a short distance from the Piazza Venezia and the Victor Emmanuel Monument. The Jews of Rome had felt a profound gratitude toward Victor Emmanuel II for seizing Rome from the pope and making it the capital of the newly unified Italy in 1870. The new kingdom of Italy made Jews citizens with the same legal status as all other Italian citizens and abolished the papal ghetto. The ghetto survived as a Jewish neighborhood, but it was voluntary, not compulsory. The Jews built their synagogue there and opened it in 1904. Not surprisingly, Jews supported the new Italy and took pride in their role as citizens of the nation. Subsequently, many had supported the fascist regime, and some joined the Fascist Party.18

Italian fascism fostered an extreme nationalism that promised to unite Italians and make the nation a strong and respected power. Unlike Hitler’s National Socialism, it initially harbored no racial or anti-Semitic teaching and policies. When Hitler first came to power in 1933, Mussolini scoffed at the racial theories of the Nazis, but five years later he changed his policy. Hoping to curry German favor and to strengthen the sense of Italian identity, he introduced racial laws that severely curtailed the rights of Italian Jews in every aspect of life.19 The treatment of Jews from 1938 to 1943 was severe and caused considerable hardship. German occupation in 1943 brought to Rome the brutal policies of the Nazis, now bent on exterminating European Jewry.

The new reality came home in the brutal and tragic roundup in the ghetto on October 16, 1943. The raid was preceded by the extortion of fifty kilograms of gold from the Jewish community by Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, head of the German SS in Rome. Having made the payment within the two-day deadline, the residents of the ghetto justifiably believed that they would now enjoy a measure of security. Kappler himself favored using Jews as laborers, but orders from on high demanded the roundup of Rome’s Jews and their deportation to Auschwitz.20

The German raid on the ghetto began in the early hours of the Sabbath on October 16. Mother Mary Saint Luke wrote, “The S.S. are doing exactly what one expected, and at 4:30 A.M. began to round up the Jews in their own houses. The Rabbi did not destroy his registers, and they know where every Jew lives. And this, after the promise made when they produced the ransom. . . . Some Jews escaped, others were herded into open lorries in the rain, and we know nothing about their destination. It is a nameless horror.”21

The raid netted more than twelve hundred people, including nine hundred women and children. Some two hundred non-Jews arrested by mistake gained release. Two days later the Jews “were crammed into freight cars and transported to Auschwitz. Within a week, all but 149 men and 47 women had been gassed and burned in the camp’s crematoria. Of the 196 admitted to the camp, seventeen returned after the war. They included sixteen men and one woman.”22

During the occupation the German High Command established its headquarters in the Hotel Excelsior on the Via Veneto. Their Italian fascist allies moved their headquarters into the Ministry of Corporations across the street. A curfew was imposed. German and Italian police patrolled the city day and night. Roman citizens and religious houses hid Jews and escaped Allied prisoners. Romans continued to hope for liberation, but the months dragged through the winter, with little change in the fighting to the south.

The most dramatic incident during this period came on March 23, 1944, when the resistance planted a bomb in a trashcan on the Via Rasella, just down the street from the Palazzo Barberini and just a block away from the Piazza Barberini, at the foot of the Via Veneto. The clandestine forces of the resistance chose the Via Rasella as the perfect place to attack the SS police battalion that marched up the street on patrol every afternoon. They hoped that such a bold attack might spark general resistance to the German and fascist forces, but tragically, it only resulted in the brutal massacre of Italian citizens in reprisal.

German-speaking Italians from the South Tyrol made up the SS police battalion. Hitler had purposely avoided incorporating these Germans into his greater Reich after the Austrian Anschluss. He gladly paid that price for the alliance with Mussolini. With Italy now out of the war, he acted quickly to incorporate the area into Germany and bring its men into the German armed forces.

The Via Rasella provided the place. The date March 23 provided the occasion, for it was the fascists’ day to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of their movement, nearby in the party headquarters on the Via Veneto. The resistance operatives knew that the police patrol would march up the Via Rasella toward the Palazzo Barberini on the Via delle Quattro Fontane at 2:00 P.M. They packed forty pounds of dynamite into a municipal trashcan. Rosario Bentivegna, medical student and future historian of the resistance, donned the uniform of a Roman sanitation worker and with his broom pushed the can to its assigned place at number 156, the Palazzo Tittoni. Perhaps the fact that Mussolini had lived in a small apartment in the palazzo in the 1920s before moving to the Villa Torlonia with his family gave the resistance added reason to choose this place.

The members of the Eleventh Company of the Bozen SS Regiment inexplicably failed to show up at the appointed time. An hour passed and still no patrol appeared. Bentivegna and his colleagues in the area grew nervous and thought of aborting the operation. Then at 3:45 the troops appeared, marching up the Via Rasella singing. Bentivegna ignited the fuse and headed up the street to meet his partner in the operation, Carla Capponi. The celebrating fascists in the Ministry of Corporations six hundred feet away felt the tremendous explosion that tore into the police.23

The rigid shaft of German troops snapped like a breaking walking stick. Two dozen men were blown apart. They fell in puddles of blood. The rubbish cart and the steel case inside it disappeared. Shrapnel whistled through the street. It pinged on German helmets and sliced and chopped through human flesh. Dying and wounded men fell to the ground. They lay groaning among parts of arms and legs, in many cases their own. They were immediately drenched in a rain of slivers and sheets of glass. Hunks of concrete were chopped from as high as thirty feet out of the façades of the buildings across the street from Palazzo Tittoni. An armored truck that had been escorting the column was demolished. A hole of about thirty cubic feet was blown out of a stone wall. Water began to gush from it, washing down the graded street, mixing dust with steel and blood.24

Thirty-three soldiers died on the spot or within the next day. The only remnant today of what took place are the bullet holes in the building at the corner of the Via Rasella and the Via Boccaccio. SS Commander Herbert Kappler received orders from Berlin to retaliate by executing ten Italians for every dead German. The SS rounded up hostages, many already in prison, and took them to the southern outskirts of the city near several of Rome’s most important catacombs. There in the Ardeatine caves, the Fosse Ardeatine, they shot 335 men of all backgrounds and ages, the youngest being fifteen-year-old Michele Di Veroli, a resident of the ghetto and one of 77 Jews executed that day. When the Germans finished, they blew up the entrances to the caves to bury their victims and cover up their work.

Some of the victims of the Fosse Ardeatina massacre came from the Gestapo prison at 145-155 Via Tasso, around the corner from the tram line on the Viale Manzoni and not far from the Colosseum. The building belonged to Prince Francesco Ruspoli, who rented it to the German embassy. Eventually, it came under Kappler’s command and became notorious as a prison and interrogation center.25 The Germans partitioned the apartments into small cells, especially for those prisoners suspected of resistance activities. The graffiti messages left by the prisoners bear eloquent testimony to their desire to redeem Italian honor and patriotism by resisting the Germans and their Italian fascist allies.26

After the war, the infamous site became the Museum of the Liberation of Rome, the Museo della Liberazione di Roma. It remains open today as a shrine to the resistance. One of the prisoners was Arrigo Paladini. He had served in the Italian army on the Russian front, where he witnessed Nazi atrocities and recorded his experiences in his war diary. Paladini was among the few thousand Italian troops to survive the bitter defeats of 1942-43. He returned home and finished his university degree. After the armistice of September 8, he refused the call to fight for Mussolini’s new Salò Republic and entered the resistance. During his subsequent imprisonment in the Via Tasso, he scratched into the wall, “È facile saper vivere, Grande saper morire (“It is easy to know how to live, Heroic to know how to die”).27

A variant of that classical message found a larger audience in the film Roma Città Aperta (Rome Open City), Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 neo-realist film honoring Rome’s people and their resistance to the Nazi-fascist tyranny. The film established a new view of Rome and her ordinary citizens. Mussolini’s Rome, with its images of Romans packed into the Piazza Venezia to cheer the Duce, now became the gritty Rome of survival and resistance. Rossellini’s masterpiece forged on a popular level the postwar historiographical stance that Mussolini’s brutal dictatorship had never won the hearts and minds of Italians and that when given the opportunity, ordinary, working-class people like the Romans in the film found ways to resist their oppressors.

Set in the working-class Prenestino neighborhood and using many of its residents in the cast, Rome Open City starred Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi in a powerful, if somewhat romanticized, account of Rome’s darkest days. The story took place during a seventy-two-hour period and portrayed the collaboration of an underground communist resistance leader and a parish priest, thus depicting the cooperation of former enemies in the common fight against fascism and Nazism. Their deaths and that of the working class woman played by Magnani at the hands of the Germans illustrated the moral courage of those who actively or passively resisted. These events also symbolized the hope that Italians of all political and ideological persuasions, as well as ordinary citizens, had joined against the common enemy to establish a new and just society after the war. At the conclusion of the film, as he is led to his execution by a firing squad, the priest, played by Fabrizi, says to the chaplain at his side, “It is easy to die well, but it is difficult to know how to live well.” The film, produced and released in 1945, played a role in the transition from Mussolini’s Rome to the Rome of resistance and antifascism that came to dominate the postwar historical memory of the Nazi occupation.

The final use of Mussolini’s Rome as a stage for fascism was the parading of Allied prisoners through its streets. The long lines of American and British prisoners shuffling past the Colosseum and down the Via dell’Impero in the early months of 1944 showed Romans that the war might still bring victory. These weary, defeated soldiers captured at Monte Cassino and Anzio reinforced the image of the American and British incapacity for military prowess depicted in the Cinema Room of the final version of the Exhibit of the Fascist Revolution.28

By May 1944, such propaganda could no longer mask the reality of the military campaign that would liberate Rome. Allied troops finally broke through the Germans’ defenses at Monte Cassino and burst out of the pocket at Anzio. Seeing the opportunity to enter Rome as its liberator, General Mark Clark pushed straight for the city. The Germans evacuated Rome, sparing its monuments the destruction of street-by-street, house-by-house combat. Rome, like Paris and unlike Berlin, survived the war largely intact. On June 4, 1944, the Allies arrived and the Romans rejoiced that at last the war really was over for them. They could now forget Mussolini’s Rome.

7.2 Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Porta S. Paolo, with memorials to the resistance and the liberation of Rome, 1997



The work of erasing and defacing the symbols of Mussolini and fascism began almost immediately, but the results were only partial. Even in places where the fasces symbols were removed, the stained outline remains today. In some cases, such as the Foro Mussolini, renamed the Foro Italico, the removal of the fascist imprint would have required the wholesale destruction of the site. American and British forces occupied the area, and the Foro Mussolini took on a new role as a U.S. Army Rest Center. The occupying forces did block a threat to pull down the Mussolini obelisk.29 The sports complex remains intact today, and some restoration of the mosaics took place at the time of the 1990 World Cup soccer matches.

Today in Rome, for every place one finds Mussolini’s name chiseled out of a plaque or column, there is another where it remains. More obvious are the streets and buildings that survived and are today a part of Rome’s urban landscape, even though obviously fascist names were changed. Throughout the city, the fascist imprint remains clear and pervasive.

The end of fascism and the triumph of antifascism did result in a thorough purging of streets and sites bearing fascist names.30 The Foro Mussolini became the Foro Italico. The Via dell’Impero became the Via dei Fori Imperiali. In some cases, the name changes imposed clearly antifascist labels to formerly fascist locations. The large piazza in front of the Ostiense train station built for Hitler’s 1938 visit became the Piazza dei Partigiani to commemorate the partisans of the resistance. The street running from the station to the Porta San Paolo would no longer be the Viale Adolfo Hitler but the Viale delle Cave Ardeatine, to commemorate the victims of the Via Rasella action.

Throughout postwar Rome there appeared memorials to those who had opposed Mussolini, his movement and his regime. The monument for Giacomo Matteotti on the Tiber honors the parliamentary deputy who paid with his life for his vocal opposition to Mussolini’s new government. Its dedication in 1974 marked the fiftieth anniversary of his abduction and assassination. Nearby, the first fascist-constructed bridge with the very fascist name of Ponte Littorio became the Ponte Matteotti. Across town, the lovely park near the Porta San Paolo, built by the fascist regime, now bears the name Parco della Resistenza 8 Settembre. The area around the Porta San Paolo and the Pyramide has many plaques and memorials to remember those who began the armed resistance in 1943.

7.3 Memorial to Giacomo Matteotti, 2003


Today in Rome visitors will look in vain for war memorials recalling the battles fought by the Italian Army in World War II.31 There is no equivalent of Washington’s monument to the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Instead, there are plaques throughout the city commemorating individuals and groups who fought and died in the resistance. Many of these are relatively small and are placed on buildings where the martyred person lived or the site where he or she died.

The largest and most impressive monument to the victims of the Nazi occupation stands just south of the city in the area of several of Rome’s major catacombs. The place where the SS shot the 335 men and boys rounded up the day after the Via Rasella explosion is now their resting place and their memorial. On March 24, 1950, the sixth anniversary of the atrocity, the monument opened. A larger-than-life sculpture has three victims bound together, awaiting their fate. Beyond them is a large slab that covers the 335 tombs. Only a few are not identified. Most have the victim’s name, age, occupation and a picture. At the time of construction in 1949-1950, the major theme of the monument was to honor “these holy Martyrs of our Fatherland.” An additional theme in accounts at the time portrayed the war as one never wanted by the Italian people.32

The Termini train station offers yet another example of a partially covered fascist artifact. A substantial portion of the building went up during the fascist regime, but the dramatic, cantilevered entrance was designed and built after the war. The clearly postwar design masks the fascist design behind it.33

7.4 Memorial at the Fosse Ardeatine, 1988


The construction of Mussolini’s Africa building came to a halt in 1942, and its completion also took place after the war. In this case, the final result accords with the original plan approved by the regime. Since 1954, it has housed the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, known popularly as FAO. In this case, a fascist monument to nationalism, conquest, and empire now houses the international agency dedicated to improving the world’s food supply through agricultural development.

A major legacy of Mussolini’s Rome resides in the new city, within the city known as EUR. The buildings begun by the regime remain today as a very visible embodiment of the period’s architecture and urban planning. The wide streets and their axial layout offer a sharp contrast to Rome’s historic center. By establishing this new area as the first step in channeling the city’s development to the south and the sea, the regime paved the way for the tremendous growth of EUR after the war. Corporate builders found both land and permission to construct skyscrapers. The Palazzo dello Sport opened for the 1960 Olympics. The area quickly became a desirable place to live, offering the opportunity to move into that very rare Italian residence, a free-standing single family house.

The major political and institutional change following the war was the elimination of the monarchy. Victor Emmanuel III had, after all, appointed Mussolini prime minister in 1922 over the objections of advisers and politicians who had urged him to declare martial law and put down the March on Rome. The relationship of king and Duce, monarchy and fascist regime, varied during the next twenty-one years. Sometimes it appeared collaborative and cooperative, while at other times it seemed strained and uncertain. Mussolini asserted his own infallibility with such slogans as “Mussolini is always right,” and claimed he was creating a totalitarian regime. In reality, as head of government, he had to coexist with the king as head of state. As we have seen, when Hitler, head of both government and state, arrived at the Ostiense station, protocol required the king, not Mussolini, to greet him first with the handshake and salute. Although Victor Emmanuel III dismissed Mussolini in 1943 and formed a new government, he then fled south to the safety of the Allied lines without any clear orders to the armed forces, thus abandoning the Romans. To many Italians, the monarchy had compromised itself through collaboration with fascism and thus should have no place in a postwar, antifascist Italy.

Victor Emmanuel abdicated in May 1946, and his son assumed the throne for the month before the national referendum of June 2 on the “Institutional Question.” The vote went against the monarchy. King Umberto left for exile in Portugal. The coalition of parties agreed on electing a Constituent Assembly that then wrote a new constitution for the Republic of Italy that went in effect on January 1, 1948.

The Italian Republic held antifascism as a fundamental principle, embodied in a constitution that made the Fascist Party illegal. That did not prevent the emergence of a neofascist party with a new name, the Italian Social Movement or Movimento Sociale Italiano. The party initials, MSI, suggested Mussolini’s name, and the organization managed to keep alive a semblance of fascism, although it never gained a mass following. The Christian Democratic Party, backed both by the United States and the Vatican, became the largest party; its main job during the Cold War was to keep the second largest party, the Italian Communist Party, out of the national government. Thus, the antifascist alliance of the war years fractured under the pressure of Cold War politics, but all the parties, with the exception of the MSI, continued to pay lip service to antifascism.

The Christian Democrats may have dominated Italian politics as a centrist, anticommunist party that led a series of coalition governments and kept the communists in the opposition, but the influence of the left, Marxism, and antifascism pervaded cultural and intellectual life. The rejection of anything that smacked of fascism was clear. In this view, the fascist transformation of Rome was best either forgotten or ritually denounced. This attitude, however, could not destroy the city that Mussolini had tried to re-create in his own image. It could remove his name and the fascist symbols from some locations, and it could change the fascist names of streets, sites, and buildings, but those streets, sites, and buildings of Mussolini’s Rome remain to this day. For that reason, the only way to understand fully the shape of Rome today and the way we see its history and its historical monuments is to open our eyes to the reality of Mussolini’s Rome.

The legacy of Mussolini’s Rome will continue to generate disagreement on just what that legacy should be. In 1995, Francesco Rutelli, the left-of-center mayor of Rome, sought to honor a native of the city from the fascist era, Giuseppe Bottai, by naming a large piazza, or largo, after him. The projected Largo Bottai occupied the large space in front of the National Gallery of Modern Art in the Villa Borghese. The controversy over naming the largo after such a prominent member of the Fascist regime caused a political storm, and Mayor Rutelli quickly abandoned the idea.

The fate of the Obelisk of Axum, brought to Rome and erected in 1937, next to the site of the projected Africa building, caused an international struggle between Ethiopia and Italy that lasted from 1947 to 2004. In its peace treaty with Ethiopia in 1947, Italy promised to return the obelisk to its original site. The Italian government did not follow up, and when pressed by the Ethiopians, the Italians came up with various excuses for delay. In the 1990s, the controversy revived, and by then many Italians favored its return. When the government of socialist Prime Minister Lamberto Dini made plans to send it to its homeland in 1995, the right wing Alleanza Nazionale, heirs to the neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, protested, arguing that the monument now belonged to Rome and deserved to remain as part of its urban landscape. In 1996, Italy’s president, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, assured Ethiopia’s visiting head of state that the obelisk would soon be on its way, but there was no immediate follow-up. In 2001, lightning hit the monument and the Italians had to decide to repair it, at considerable political and financial cost, or return it. The right-of-center Berlusconi government, which included the Alleanza Nazionale, opted to send it back.34 The dismantling of the obelisk took place in the fall of 2003, with plans to send it to Ethiopia early the next year. By the summer of 2004 the three pieces of the dismantled obelisk sat in storage near Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, as talks continued on how to transport them back to their home country. Delivery to Ethiopia is scheduled for April 2005.

One other recent revision of Mussolini’s Rome came in early 2001. The sculptured relief over the entrance to the headquarters building at EUR depicted the history of Rome from Romulus and Remus to Mussolini, as discussed in chapter 6. This dramatic piece survived the war intact except for one act of vandalism, which defaced the Duce. Mussolini remained without his face until early 2001, when it was suddenly restored. No doubt the future will see further revisions to the legacy of Mussolini’s Rome.


Mussolini’s Rome remains evident throughout today’s city. The fascist layer of the Roman palimpsest shapes the urban landscape of ancient and papal Rome. Beyond the historic core, defined by the third-century Aurelian Wall, lie the new neighborhoods and the new cities (Foro Italico, University City, EUR, Cinecittà) that Mussolini erected in the effort to create both a fascist city and a Rome capable of absorbing the thousands of migrants flocking to the capital.

As told here, the story of Mussolini’s Rome is an integral part of the regime’s twenty-year history. Mussolini poured huge resources into his transformation of Rome, and he used the city as his stage to project himself and his fascist revolution to Italy and to the world. In this case, fascism presented not only rhetoric and propaganda, but the concrete, bricks-and-mortar reality of a city undergoing constant construction and expansion. Rome was to become the symbol and the reality of a unified and strong Italian nation, capable of creating a new Italy and new Italians in fulfillment of the fascist revolution. Evidence suggests that Mussolini succeeded in getting the attention he wanted and that even critics of his regime found the transformation of Rome impressive.

7.5 Obelisk of Axum about to be dismantled, 2003


7.6 Mussolini as the culmination of Rome’s history, EUR, 2001


In particular, Mussolini’s Rome demonstrated the bonifica integrale, the reclamation of land and people, trumpeted by the Duce. The bonifica played a key role in the national struggle to transform Italy and Italians. It represented change as significant for fascism as the military strength Mussolini claimed his regime was amassing.

When Mussolini stood before a cheering crowd on December 18, 1934, to inaugurate the new town of Littorio, built on the once uninhabitable Agro Pontino, he declared: “This is the war we prefer.” That statement found a place as a theme of fascist reclamation and building. It hinted that fascism might find its justification and fulfillment in this peaceful struggle to change Italy. After all, the Duce had waged battles for a stable lira, for population growth, for sufficient wheat to feed the nation, and for a self-sufficient economy, autarchia. He told Italians that he won or was winning those battles. Now they might also believe his words that “this is the war we prefer.”

A painting submitted to the 1940 Cremona Prize competition sponsored by the militant fascist boss of Cremona, Roberto Farinacci, bore the title: “The War that we prefer,” “La Guerra che noi preferiamo.”35 Artist Luigi Stracciari showed resolute and smiling peasants harvesting wheat on the left half of the canvas while workers on the right half toiled to eradicate the marshes, aided by a large mechanical dredger. “The war that we prefer” also appeared on posters as a widely used slogan championing the regime’s efforts at construction and redemption of land and people. As it soon turned out, Mussolini was not content to stick to this war of reclamation and transformation. When Hitler conquered Norway in April 1940 and began the blitzkrieg campaign that would overwhelm France in May, he decided Italy must enter the war as Nazi Germany’s ally, and so declared war on June 10.

If Mussolini had chosen to stay out of the war, historians have speculated that he might have survived as Franco survived in Spain. He was still popular among Italians, and no doubt a decision for peace would have made him more popular. The enthusiasm with which his return to Italy from the Munich conference in 1938 was met demonstrated the widespread yearning for peace. In 1940, however, Mussolini had no choice. The reasons to enter this war as Hitler’s ally were compelling.

The German victories created a new Europe dominated by Nazi power. Mussolini understood that Italy must accommodate itself to this situation in the hope that Hitler would agree to an Italian sphere of influence in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Military victories at the side of Germany would allow the realization of the fascist revolution. This war, like the previous world war, opened the way for revolutionary change, the chance to create a truly fascist Italy. Mussolini had compromised the fascist revolution during the 1930s by politically expedient agreements with the church, the monarchy, big business, and the army. Alexander De Grand summed up the dilemma facing Mussolini in 1940 this way: “Mussolini could set goals but had no way to command execution of his orders. When he wanted to strengthen the totalitarian dimension of his regime, his diplomatic and military policies forced him into greater dependence on the traditional conservative (non-totalitarian) establishment which questioned many of the new policy directives.”36

Robert Paxton’s recent study of generic fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism, reaches a similar conclusion on Mussolini’s dilemma in 1940: “The final outcome was that the Italian and German fascist regimes drove themselves off a cliff in their quest for ever headier successes. Mussolini had to take his final step into war in June 1940 because Fascist absence from Hitler’s victory over France might fatally loosen his grip on his people.”37

The way out for the Duce was war. He gambled on a victorious war, and in June 1940 it appeared to be a good bet, but of course it was not. His dreams for Italian victory, imperial glory and for Rome, romanità, and revolution dissolved into the nightmare of defeat.

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