Where Mussolini's corpse was hung
Milano Centrale, Track 21,
and the Death of Italian FascismBy RICHARD CARREÑO
[WC News Service]
MILAN -- Rome, some 650 kilometres south of here, is usually associated with Benito Mussolini, Italy's bloody mid-20th century strongman whose Fascist reign spanned 22 years, from 1922 to his downfall in 1944. No wonder. As one of the capitals of the of three World War II Axis powers, along with Berlin and Tokyo, Rome was almost a made-for-TV movie set for the blustering, jaw-jutting, barrel-chested dictator. Amid the splendour of Roman artefacts -- and, prophetically, many of the ancient empire's ruins as well -- Mussolini perfected his strutting, cock-of-walk style. Overlooking the Piazza Venezia from a palazzo of the same name, Mussolini would harangue adoring, even rapturous crowds for hours with bombast, vitriol, and nativist racism.
Adoring? Rapturous? Lest we forget.
As in the case with Austria, many 21st century observers like to portray the populace of Italy -- like that of Nazi-Austria -- as the unwilling dupes of their Fascist regimes and tyrant 'leaders', the Fuhrer in Germany and Il Duce in this country. Germany was conquered by the Allies; Italy, liberated, goes the narrative.
Yes, segments of Italian populace, in the wake of an advancing Allied thrust, did rise up against him. And, yes, never was such the case among Germans, who retained their loyalty -- if not exactly their faith -- in Adolf Hitler to the very end.
For Italian Fascist Black Shirts, Milan was a hold-out. It was also the principal site in the north where the rise of Italian Fascism was incubated, its terror enforced, and, where, at long last, it perished. Even literally. Mussolini himself and his mistress Clara Petacci, who had fled together to loyalist Milan in the war's waning days, were both finally executed by a Communist partisan in Mezzegra, a town nearby here.
But perhaps no better metaphor for Mussolini's once-thriving reign of terror is also located here, embodied architecturally -- innocently enough even -- in the city's main rail station known Milano Centrale. The brutalism-styled station showcases many of features of Fascist art -- monumental, mammoth, overwhelming, imperial. And just a little bit ugly.
And it can't be missed.
Centrale dominates the Piazza Duca d'Aosta, overlooking Via Pisani, one of Milan's few lengthy boulevards.
Each day about 320,000 passengers utilize the station. Thousands, in addition, use its non-rail facilities. Undoubtedly, few pause to think of its history, its, significance, its architecture.
This last point, perhaps, has the most meaning for Americans. Architecturally, the early 'bones' of the building, originally designed in 1912, were modelled after Union Station in Washington. That 'American' version slowly disappeared after architect after architect and design after design followed. Mussolini finally fast-tracked construction, approved enlargements, and who assigned his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, to preside over its official debut on 1 July 1931.
The place is huge. (More than twice the size of 30th Street/Penn Station in Philadelphia, I even hazard to guess). It also features 24 tracks, with direct trains, among destinations, to Rome, Bologna, Turin, and Venice. Plus the underground Track No. 21. That's where, today, the destination is not a city -- but a reminder of a terrible place and period, Italian participation in the Jewish Holocaust.
There's in little in guide books, tourist literature, and the like to direct visitors the Track 21, opened in 2011 as the Memoriale Shoah Milano. I encountered it by accident. Just wandering around Centrale.
The memorial is a chilling slice of history. About 8,000 of Italy's 45,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps, most after 1943 and most from Track 21.
The underground track and the cattle cars that carried their human cargo to the death camps are preserved. One can walk into the cars (like the Jews who entered) and one can walk out (unlike the Jews who entered). Horrific stuff.
Not far away from Centrale and Memoriale Shoah is Piazzale Loreto. Later, knowing its role in history, I also wandered there. But not certain what to expect.
On 29 April 1944, the corpses of Mussolini and Clara Petacci, transported from Mezzegra, were hung from the girders of abandoned gas station in the in piazzale. Fittingly, there is no reminder of this act.