This village in the rolling hills east of Rome is known for its fresh air, olive oil and wine — and its residual appreciation of Benito Mussolini, whose image adorns some wine bottles on prominent display in local bars.
This month, the town’s fascist sympathies became the subject of intense debate when its mayor unveiled a publicly financed memorial to one of its most controversial former citizens: Rodolfo Graziani, a general under Mussolini who was accused of war crimes at the end of World War II and earned the title of “the Butcher” in two campaigns during Italy’s colonization of North Africa in the 1920s and ’30s.
The monument, in a style reminiscent of fascist architecture, sits on the town’s highest hill, with the Italian flag flying from the top and inscriptions reading “Honor” and “Homeland.” Inside sits an austere marble bust of General Graziani, surrounded by original copies of the front pages of the newspapers from the day of his death in 1955, a plaque from a street once dedicated to him here and a list of his deeds and honors.
The dedication elicited harsh criticism from left-wing politicians and commentators in the pages of some Italian newspapers, and has raised deeper questions about whether Italy, which began the war on the side of the Axis powers and ended it with the Allies, has ever fully come to terms with its wartime past.
In an interview, Ettore Viri, the mayor of Affile, brushed off the criticism. “The head is a donation of a citizen,” he said, glancing proudly at the bust, before quickly acknowledging that he was the citizen. “Actually, I had it in my living room,” he said, adding that he had given large donations of his own money to maintain Mussolini’s grave in northern Italy.
Yet the mayor’s political opponents are aghast at the town’s honoring General Graziani — and using $160,000 in public money to do so. In a statement released the day before the dedication ceremony, Esterino Montino, a regional leader of the Democratic Party, said, referring to the Nazi leader Hermann Goering: “It’s as if some little village in some German province built a monument to Goering. The fact that such a scandal is planned in a small village outside of Rome does not downgrade the episode to provincial folklore.”
By and large, however, the memorial appears to have won acceptance in this mostly conservative town of 1,600. More than 100 people attended the dedication, some of them holding flags of far-right extremist groups and wearing black shirts in a nod to Mussolini’s Blackshirt squads, according to several people who attended.
For some, General Graziani’s crimes from World War II pale in comparison to what he did in Africa earlier, killing hundreds of thousands of people — sometimes with chemical weapons — and wiping out entire communities, especially in Eritrea.
In the 1930s, General Graziani commanded some of the Italian troops who invaded Ethiopia under the reported slogan “ ‘Il Duce’ will have Ethiopia, with or without the Ethiopians.” He later became the viceroy of Ethiopia, where he earned his second title as butcher — the first came in Libya — for a particularly brutal campaign in reprisal for an attempt on his life.
After the fall of Mussolini’s government in 1943, General Graziani remained loyal to him and became the minister of war of the Italian Social Republic, a rump government led by Mussolini in the parts of Italy not controlled by the Allies. General Graziani was never prosecuted for any war crimes in Africa, but in 1948 the United Nations War Crimes Commission said there were plausible charges against him and other Italians.
In 1948, an Italian court in Rome sentenced General Graziani to 19 years in prison for collaborating with the Nazis, but he received a suspended sentence that was later commuted.
But it was the African campaigns, which went entirely unpunished, that critics say are the greatest stain on his record, and the strongest argument against a memorial. “A monument to somebody who committed crimes against humanity in his fierce repression using gas against young Ethiopians is serious and unacceptable, regardless of where it happens,” Mr. Montino, the left-wing lawmaker, wrote.
Here in Affile, many regard General Graziani more as a local boy who made good than the perpetrator of some of the most heinous massacres in Mussolini’s bloody colonization campaigns.
“To me it’s a recognition of our fellow citizen who was the youngest colonel of the Italian Army,” said Alberto Viri, a 65-year-old retiree who lives in Milan but was vacationing on a recent afternoon in his native Affile. “He defended the homeland until the end, as he was loyal to our first allies, the Germans, even after Sept. 8,” Mr. Viri added, referring to the armistice when Italy shifted from the Axis to the Allies.
Some are more upset by the financing than by the monument itself. “I am not a fascist,” said Aldo Graziani, 72, a retiree (no relation) who joined in the conversation in a local bar. “I am not bothered by the monument to Graziani, per se. I am rather bothered by the fact that they should have built it with their own money, not with public money.”
Mr. Viri, the retiree, has childhood memories of General Graziani riding around the village on his white horse with a white dog to get the paper at the Viri family’s news kiosk. He remembers how soldiers attending the general’s funeral in 1955 distributed food to hungry local children.
Some scholars say that Italy’s failure to bring fascist officials to justice has caused a “selective memory” of the fascist era, where visions of the past fall along contemporary political lines.
“Antifascist culture has remained the privilege of the left, some liberals and Christian Democrats,” said Luca Alessandrini, the director of the Parri Institute in Bologna, referring to the centrist Catholic party that dominated in the postwar era. “The big weakness of Italian history is that these forces have failed to produce an historical judgment on fascism,” he added.
Much the same is true of the colonial era. Compared with Britain and France, Italy developed colonial aspirations rather late in the game, invading Libya in 1911 and Ethiopia, for the second time, in 1935. (The first Ethiopian invasion, in 1895, failed.) Even today, few Italians are particularly aware of the colonial episodes, which have not been central to national debate.
“Italy was so poor and destroyed after World War II that nobody really worried about the colonies, and the loss thereof, let alone people’s education on this,” said the historian Giorgio Rochat.
In Affile, many deny that General Graziani was a fascist tyrant, arguing that he just obeyed his superiors’ orders. But some are outraged by the monument.
“This has always been a center-right village,” said Donatella Meschini, 52, a teacher who served on the City Council from 2003 to 2008 under the only center-left mayor in Affile in 50 years. “But after this memorial, what can we expect? That they call us up on Saturday to do gymnastics in the main square like the fascist youth used to do?”
“April 25 has just never arrived here,” Ms. Meschini added, referring to the day of the Allied liberation of Italy in 1945.