Rick Steves: Visiting Europe’s 20th-century fascist sites

The fascist movements of 20th-century Europe had a sweeping impact around the world, in ways that still reverberate today. And travelers have an advantage when it comes to learning from this history: When we see its legacy in person, we better understand its lessons. Europe is dotted with fascinating monuments and powerful memorials that’ve been thoughtfully designed to bring those sobering lessons home. When we track the struggles of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic today, we can see that those intent on derailing democracy read from the same playbook.

You can trace fascism’s roots to the turbulent aftermath of World War I, where masses of angry people rose up, and their charismatic leaders manipulated that anger. Both Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany turned fringe movements claiming to be the champion of the oppressed into totalitarian fascist regimes.

Mussolini was the first, ruling with dictatorial power and — for a time — success. He pumped up the economy, created jobs and invested in infrastructure.

Two examples of that infrastructure that you can see today in Rome are the Foro Italico (the site of Rome’s huge Olympic Stadium, north of the Vatican City), and the sterile planned city called E.U.R., just south of the city center.

Part of a sports complex originally named Foro Mussolini, the Olympic Stadium (still in use today) was built with the stated intention of promoting Rome as a site for a future Olympic Games. But it was also built to promote physical prowess as a key element of fascist ideology. Athletes represented the “new fascist man”: willing to believe, obey and fight. You can see this in the 18 imposing statues of hulking men that circle the track of the Stadio di Marmi, just outside the main stadium, and the propaganda messages in the mosaics that pave the stadium’s entry.

In the late 1930s, Mussolini made plans for an international exhibition — the Exhibit Universal Rome (E.U.R.) — to show off the wonders of his fascist society. While the advent of World War II put that celebration on hold, the megaproject was completed in the 1950s. Today it houses apartment blocks, corporate and government offices, and big, rarely visited museums.

Despite its grim past, E.U.R. (a 10-minute Metro ride from central Rome) is now an upscale district with a mix of businessmen and women at work — and young people enjoying its trendy cafés. Because a few landmark buildings of Italian modernism are located here, E.U.R. is an important destination for architecture buffs. Hiking down the wide, pedestrian-mean boulevards, you’ll see patriotic murals and stern squares decorating the sterile office blocks, and patriotic quotes chiseled into walls. The uniform buildings and rigid grid-plan streets were meant to celebrate order and conformity, while echoing a powerful past and promising a glorious future. These buildings were also meant to intimidate — to make the average person feel small and powerless.

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