Fascist Afterlives: Thoughts on Dictators, Dead Bodies, and Bodies Politic

CSSH recently dedicated an entire issue to the exemplarity (positive and negative) of fascist leaders, a quality that lives on, variously contested and defended, long after these leaders die. Their dead bodies become bodies politic; their graves become battlefields. Fascist big men, outsized figures in life, remain so in death, and their legacies are very much alive across Europe.

Below, three contributors to CSSH 64/1 tell us more about this vexed dynamic, giving special attention to the afterlives of the Fascist Trinity: Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. The original essays are Open Access, and we encourage you to read them. 

Francisco Ferrándiz. (2022). Francisco Franco Is Back: The Contested Reemergence of a Fascist Moral Exemplar. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 64(1), 208-237.

Paolo Heywood. (2022). Ordinary Exemplars: Cultivating “the Everyday” in the Birthplace of Fascism. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 64(1), 91-121.

Nitzan Shoshan. (2022). Hitler, for Example: Registers of National Socialist Exemplarity in Contemporary Germany. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 64(1), 179-207.

Franco’s relatives carry his coffin from the Valley of the Fallen, October 24, 2019

CSSH: Your papers deal with fascist leaders who – because of their national influence, their crimes, and the destruction they left behind – could not die simple deaths. They are undead, subject to a politics of veneration and desecration, revival and reburial. A fascinating theme in your papers is the critical role “the ordinary” plays in managing the posthumous careers of fascist Big Men. The residents of Mussolini’s hometown take their famous son down a peg by juxtaposing him to a local partisan hero who functions as a kind of mundane antimatter to Il Duce, who rests now in a family crypt like everyone else. In Spain, activists and politicians literally evicted Franco from his monumental tomb, moved him to a family plot, and prohibited nationalist fanfare while doing so. In Germany, neo-fascist agendas are scaled down, rendered almost ordinary, by comparing them to the extremity of Nazism in its grandiose, Hitlerian manifestations. Still, the graves of prominent Nazis can evolve into shrines.

Having looked at the evidence you provide, we wonder how attempts to undo the exemplarity of fascist dictators actually work. Doesn’t the effort itself redefine the target, keeping it available for future renovations, galvanizing right and left? A kind of moral power remains. The Spanish and Italian cases show that the ideological and identitarian terrain claimed by fascists is still there, as are the issues that tend to motivate them (immigration, perceived threats to the nation, populist sentiment, conservative models of family, gender, and patriotism). In Germany, memorializing the horrors of Nazism, its negative energies and failed policies, serves almost as a primer on how to organize more effective far-right political movements.  

What your papers demonstrate so vividly is that Fascist exemplarity takes on different meanings at different scales of analysis and experience, as do its extra/ordinary dimensions. In fact, reading your papers side by side creates a fascinating array of scalar images. Fascism, in memory and in the moment, plays out differently in families, in villages and towns, in individual lives, in spaces that cannot be easily equated with, or experienced as, national politics. The most effective reassessments of fascism involve scalar shifts. Very often, these moral reckonings are anchored in gravesites; they concern how the bodies of dead kin, enemies, allies, and leaders are treated.

Let’s start with you, Paco. You’ve read the papers by Paolo (Heywood) and Nitzan (Shoshan). What do you make of their material as it relates to your own work in Spain? 

Francisco (“Paco”) Ferrandiz: Thanks for this great opportunity to think alongside Nitzan and Paolo. Our cases unfold in different historical and political contexts, but they have obvious likenesses that help us think in more categorical terms. 

The first thought that comes to mind, perhaps in a scary way, is the (surprising?) resilience of the moral universes created in the mid-20th century to legitimize and make sense of totalitarian, largely criminal regimes. We see these universes mutating, transforming, and reemerging in diverse ways across contemporary political milieus. Why is this so? What is the nature of their continued appeal? The utopian promises of fascist regimes run against the transnational human rights discourses widely accepted today as the moral yardstick of liberal, cosmopolitan democracies. Not only do fascist ideologies persist, decades after their demise as ruling systems in Spain, Italy, and Germany, they continue, in fragmented and refashioned forms, to serve as blueprints for political action in substantial sectors of the population.

Also fascinating are the different configurations these comebacks and lingering presences take in response to historical particularities – e.g., if the leader was defeated in an international conflict and died tragically, as Hitler and Mussolini did, or won an internal war, remained in power for decades, and died in bed, like Franco. These separate scenarios have influenced the plots and devices deployed in memory politics at different levels, from the institutional to the everyday. Nitzan and Paolo carefully spell out these variations for Germany and Italy. 

In Spain, I analyze how Franco’s victory in the Civil War led to the building of a legend around his deeds; he became the “savior” of the country against the “anti-Spain.” His charisma was associated with a constellation of moral exemplars drawn from medieval and imperial Spain. If Franco’s memory dwindled and was pushed into increasingly marginal political spaces after his death, it reemerged in the 21st century as that of a war criminal. The Civil War and the dictatorship were reinterpreted by an influential grassroots memory movement that sought “truth, justice, and reparations” for those defeated in the war, particularly the tens of thousands of civilians who were executed and abandoned in mass graves, not only during the dictatorship but also during the transition to democracy. 

Although not its main trigger, this memory movement set in motion a kind of backlash. Franco’s negative exemplarity was countered by the reactivation of Francoist nostalgia, which was promoted by right wing political leaders and journalists as a memory without complexes. Franco’s “excesses,” in this view, were justified by the achievement of a superior good. Paradoxically, this revival focuses less on the dictator himself and more on selected and reinterpreted elements of the “classic” moral constellation built around him during the war and the early dictatorship. I call this proxy exemplarity; it might also be called uncomfortable or deflected exemplarity

CSSH: The return is portrayed as partial, based on lessons learned. There’s also the admission that the old leader was flawed, but that his definition of the threat, of the enemy, was less so. Revisionism meets apologetics.

Entrance to the basilica, Valley of the Fallen (Francisco Ferrandiz)

Ferrandiz: The papers by Nitzan and Paolo are illuminating in this respect. I believe we may reach the shared conclusion that this indirect process of refashioning outdated, stigmatized moral universes – by way of substitutionand equivalence, to use Nitzan’s apt terms – is a common feature of neofascisms in Europe, and that fine-grained analysis is necessary to avoid overlooking the contextual nuances. As they brilliantly demonstrate, the contemporary reappearance of eclipsed fascist leaders is not straightforward. According to Nitzan, Hitler remains a negative exemplar for most supporters of right wing politics in Germany, but the moral universe of Nazism can reemerge in a focus on other Nazi leaders (such as Rudolf Hess), in family memories of the Reich, the commemoration of ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers, and in the cultural realms of rock music and fashion. Similarly, in Mussolini’s hometown of Predappio, Paolo explores how the unfolding trope of “ordinary exemplarity” – arguably a defense mechanism for locals – sets Mussolini’s image off balance in the city rebuilt to glorify his fascist regime, “Predappio Nuova.” It does so through interlocked mediations: the renewed memory of Mussolini’s socialist father, references to Il Duce’s own socialist past – the “young Mussolini” – and alternative commemorations of Giuseppe Ferlini, Predappio’s first postwar mayor, whose character and politics provide a local contrast to Mussolini’s. 

Another crucial theme that runs through our papers is necro-exemplarity; that is, the tendency of corpses (both high-powered and ordinary) to become crucial sites of struggle in contested moral universes. I analyze in detail the events surrounding the controversial exhumation of Franco’s remains and their removal from the Valley of the Fallen in late 2019. Paolo’s account of the neo-fascist commemorations that take place around Mussolini’s tomb in Predappio is fascinating when compared to Franco’s case. The body of the leader attracts a political cult in both settings, but conditions in the Predappio cemetery (and the tortured history of Mussolini’s corpse) differ markedly from the Valley of the Fallen and the trajectory of Franco’s body. Ironically, Franco’s relocation to a family crypt in El Pardo, the town on the outskirts of Madrid he lived in and ruled from during the dictatorship, has brought him to a resting place that more closely resembles Mussolini’s mortuary venue. 

In the absence of a burial place for Hitler’s remains, Nitzan introduces us to alternative gravesites that have special magnetic power for neo-Nazi groups in Germany. I was glad to see his discussion of the former burial site of Rudolf Hess, which is often posed as an example of how to deal with dangerous bodies in debates on memory politics in Spain, where the cowardice of authorities has prevented the removal, once and for all, of the tombs of some of the leaders of the 1936 military coup that led to the Civil War. These men are still buried in priority sites. After Hess’s grave became a site for neo-fascist parades, its lease was revoked and his body was cremated by his family in order to deactivate the emerging cult.

CSSH: Fascinating. The shrine is destroyed by preventing access to both the gravesite and the body. Link and location.

Ferrandiz: In another context, the disposal of Bin Laden’s body – which was dumped in an unknown location at sea – prevented the establishment of a concrete (and possibly unmanageable) burial site. The corpses of exemplars crystallize and preserve the moral universes they created in life, and the ones attributed to them after they die. 

Nitzan’s discussion of the Waldfriedhof war cemetery in Brandenburg, where around 30,000 WWII bodies are buried, is illuminating as well. It resembles (at least in scale) the Valley of the Fallen, where 33,000 victims of the Spanish Civil War are buried. I hope to study mass burials in future work. It’s difficult to analyze the afterlives of moral exemplars without considering their necropolitical ramifications.

CSSH: The threat of uncontrollable forces at a gravesite, the concentration of powers associated with the body or memory of the leader – this is an old, geographically widespread idea. It’s interesting that the mass grave is frequently posed as a counterweight to it; literally, it is the massing effect of so many lives taken that demolishes the moral universe of the leader. The many killed against the murderous One. This kind of discontinuity is a scalar shift. 

Paolo, you look at several types of scalar shifts in your analysis of pilgrimages to Mussolini’s grave. What patterns stand out?

Paolo Heywood: I agree that scale is a really crucial concept here, given the polyvalency of the signs and images with which all our papers deal. So many of us feel what some philosophers would call ‘moral certainty’ about fascism as a phenomenon; yet, as we’ve already noted, its ideological terrain remains inhabited, and its ghosts continue to exert fascination in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. Scale is a way to get a handle on how fascism’s power both persists and transforms as it moves across contexts. It’s also, I think, crucial to understand how fascism itself often plays on notions of scale.

I’ll start by picking up on the theme of dead bodies, which was actually the focus of a workshop we ran, in collaboration with Robert Gordon and the Italian Department at Cambridge, alongside the workshop on exemplarity that produced several of the papers in CSSH 64/1.

Of fascism’s many varieties, Italian Fascism was particularly wrapped up in what Paco calls necro-exemplarity in the form of the body of the Duce (also the title of a fantastic book on the subject by historian Sergio Luzzatto). The regime was famously determined to portray Mussolini as the embodiment of virile manhood throughout his life, and went to great lengths to cover up any suggestion that he might age. After his death, his body also famously became the object upon which ordinary Italians could vent their rage against his regime. It was hung upside down from the roof of a petrol station in Piazzale Loreto in Milan, an image that would become iconic of the defeat of Fascism in Italy.

Il Duce’s tomb, in the Mussolini family crypt (Sailko).

That was only the beginning of Mussolini’s posthumous misadventures. After being buried in secret in a Milanese cemetery – during which ritual partisans danced on his grave – he almost immediately rose again when his body was dug up and stolen by a young neo-Fascist on Easter Monday. For three hundred days it was the subject of an intense manhunt by the Italian police, eventually turning up in a monastery outside Pavia, before being reburied, again in secret, in a convent. Only later, after playing a role as a political football, did it reappear in Predappio, as I describe in my paper. 

CSSH: One could almost do a “Stations of the Cross” charting the progress of Il Duce’s body toward Predappio. It’s hard to miss the correlations with the Christian year – Easter, of all holidays; he is risen indeed! – and a monastery is involved as well. The symbolism is almost too rich. How does it relate to your argument about scale?

Heywood: There are several different scalar shifts in those posthumous misadventures. There’s the initial shift that occurs when Mussolini appears in a public square not, for once, far above the crowds on a balcony, the object of distant veneration, but among them, and upside down, vulnerable and weak, but still somehow the epitome of his regime, and a legitimate target for political grievance. The secret burial is of course an attempt to take him off the board entirely, and remove him to an unreachable scale, as Nitzan describes in Hitler’s case, beyond past and present; but it backfires when he disappears into the wrong hands, and in a manner that suggests he will somehow one day return, perhaps on another Easter Monday. 

CSSH: Mussolini as the Occulted Imam. For a moment at least.

Heywood: The return of the body to Predappio brings us to the scale of the ordinary. I would want to resist the idea that the ordinary is in and of itself an antidote to fascism. That’s both because fascism is perfectly capable of permeating the domain of the quotidian, as historians like Luisa Passerini, and, more recently, Joshua Arthurs have shown. But it’s also because I think something all our papers show is that fascism had its own politics of scale. 

Often, of course, fascist scale was superlative – biggest, best, fastest, and grandest, as in Italian futurism or the Valley of the Fallen in Spain. But the final scalar transformation of Mussolini’s remains – to the domestic, the family tomb in his hometown – shows that fascism can be perfectly at home on a smaller scale (a point Nitzan makes in his paper too), that there is nothing in and of itself ‘un’ (let alone ‘anti’) fascist about Mussolini’s body lying in the family crypt in Predappio.

CSSH: Which is why all the fascist pilgrims show up! 

Neo-Fascist marchers visit Musollini’s grave outside Predappio (Paolo Heywood)

Heywood: Indeed, as Paco notes, it will be interesting to observe how contemporary Francoists respond to the relocation of their exemplar to his family tomb – if Predappio is anything to go by, my guess is that, unfortunately, they will find ways to incorporate the smaller scale into their politics without much trouble.  

I really like the way this sort of scalar trajectory comes through in Nitzan’s paper, where the kind-hearted SS grandfather or the ‘ordinary’ Wehrmacht infantry soldier become ‘domestic’ icons of nationalist moral values in place of the superlative negativity of Hitler. I’ll conclude with a question for him on this point, one that might also link to Hannah Malone’s paper (CSSH 64/1: 34-62): how far if at all is this ‘ordinary Nazism’ anticipated in the history or ideology of the National Socialist movement, or in the German context more broadly? Italian Fascism, for instance, loved the ordinary almost as much as it loved the superlative, and, as I describe, Predappio’s status as exemplary of the ordinary was built into it long before Mussolini’s body arrived. Are there similar traditions of valorising the everyday or the mundane/domestic in the history of the German Far Right?

Nitzan Shoshan: We’ve identified four problematics that cut through our articles and pose key questions for thinking about fascist exemplarity: the ordinary, the production and resilience of fascist exemplarity, scalar shifts, and dead bodies. Reading Paco’s and Paolo’s responses, I am struck by how insightfully they capture the depth and extent of these intertextual dialogues, the historical questions they raise, and the fruitfulness of the comparative perspective that we aimed to offer. I am grateful to CSSH for making this conversation possible and cannot imagine a better venue for holding it.

CSSH: Many thanks.

Shoshan: Paolo ends his reflections by raising questions about possible historical precedents of fascist exemplarity in Germany. I would like to take up his invitation as a starting point here, even if my response will remain partial and tentative at best. Historians of Germany and scholars of German Letters will no doubt be able to offer fuller, better-informed accounts than – and perhaps also rightly take issue with – those an ethnographer of contemporary Germany might provide. Nevertheless, it seems to me relevant to begin with the broad perception of German nationalism as in- or anti-ordinary, as rather Wagnerian in form. This is presumably a nationalism beholden to a Riefenstahlian aesthetics of heroism and the sublime, which in turn finds deeper historical roots in German Romanticism. Caspar David Friedrich immediately comes to mind as presaging – while also contrasting in important ways with – Riefenstahl.

At the same time, German nationalism has always accommodated other imaginaries. This is evident in its avid passion for imagining and representing the local. As historians have shown, 19th century German nationalism projected notions of local belonging – captured by the term Heimat – onto a broader scale of German nation-building. Heimat has persisted as an organizing trope of nationalism, at once specifically related to small social and spatial scales as well as a nationally shared form of attachment that signals the unique ordinariness of home, of Heimlichkeit. Therefore, German nationalism has entailed an ethnologically-inflected infatuation with the locally authentic and the folkloric, with the everyday of allegedly ordinary Germans. Illustrative in this regard, as a contemporary contrast to Riefenstahl’s epic heroism, is the aesthetic of August Sander’s work, especially his celebrated photographic study of ordinary German people, Face of our Time.

Of course, such exemplary depictions of German ordinariness were complicit as well in the fabrication of an imagined national community. Yet they troubled National Socialism not only because of Sanders’ progressive political inclinations but also, I think, because of the mundane realism with which they represented the nation, which resisted simple appropriations in the service of an exemplary moral framework.

Much in the same way that we inquire about the historical foreshadows of ordinary exemplarity, we might also consider the possible genealogies of necro-exemplarity, to borrow Paco’s term: of the consecrated place that dead bodies, as all three contributions show and as Paco and Paolo underline in their responses, occupy in (neo-)fascist moral exemplarity. I wonder whether, even while religion played a key, explicit moral role only in the case of Spanish fascism, the fact that all three leaders hailed from contexts where places have long been consecrated with dead bodies (often tortured, dismembered, disfigured) of exemplary religious figures might be relevant in this regard, as offering a familiar chronotopic binding of moral imperatives, physical locations, and corpses. What could the relics of Catholic saints tell us about the history of necro-exemplarity in these three cases?

CSSH: A lot! We’re dealing with a process of shrine formation. The precedents, in Christian Europe, provide irresistible (probably unavoidable) choreography. The treatment of Franco’s body, and Mussolini’s, is shaped by a strong sense of the sacred, with veneration as an outcome that people support or oppose. The destruction, or theft, of the leader’s body – burning it; dismembering it – plays into religious notions of good and evil that permeate even the most secular politics.

Shoshan: And how might the moral significance of exemplary dead bodies appear different in contexts where other relations to corpses have been historically dominant?

CSSH: Anya Bernstein’s article on the afterlives of Buryat lamas (CSSH 53/3: 623-653) is an example drawn from Buddhist traditions. For Muslim contexts, Azfar Moin’s study of saints’ shrines in Central and South Asia (CSSH 57/2: 467-496) is an excellent guide. There are many ways to compare across these systems. But the fascist examples have internal variations that are just as distinctive, so back to them.

Anti-Fascist banner, 2005. (Nitzan Shoshan)

Shoshan: Yes. Two other interesting questions about necro-exemplarity emerge from the Spanish, Italian, and German cases. The first concerns how to make sense of modalities of presence and absence of the dead. How do the vanished body of Hitler, the cremated remains of Hess, the exhumation and removal of Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, and Mussolini’s seemingly uncontroversial resting place at his family’s mausoleum differentially inflect their contemporary moral significance for their followers and detractors? One might imagine, for example, that the orphaned Valley of the Fallen, while less attractive for the staging of massive performances of Francoist loyalties, will maintain its association with the fascist dictatorship that built it and remain haunted by the figure of the Generalisimo. Meanwhile, German neo-Nazis, even as they cease to menace the small town of Wunsiedel, will nevertheless elaborate alternative ways of commemorating the Vice-Führer’s moral legacy. What effects might such abrupt changes in the presencing of the fascist leader’s body have on the afterlives of fascist exemplarity?

The second question that seems important to me takes us back to the realm of the ordinary, in this case of ordinary corpses. At the Halbe Waldfriedhof, in the Valley of the Fallen, and across many other war cemeteries throughout post-fascist Europe, the memory of the deceased is wrapped up with anxieties about post-mortem contamination. Victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains, fascists and anti-fascists lie side by side in overdetermined landscapes whose soil is at once hallowed and desecrated by their co-presence. Such locations, while offering a mise-en-scène for staging rituals of fascist (or, for that matter, anti-fascist) exemplarity, at the same time raise fears of impurity and defilement. The remains of ordinary bodies, of rank-and-file casualties, often remain deeply entangled in a lifeless embrace of organic decomposition with those of their enemies. 

CSSH: That’s a powerful image. Poisoned, sacred ground.

Shoshan: It seems to me like the comparative perspective that the three articles develop invites us as well to reflect on the dialectic of the apparent intimacy of (fascist) exemplarity one the one hand and its careful production and management on the other. The meticulous and extensive fabrication of the exemplary image of the leader during the fascist period is well documented in historical studies on fascist propaganda and personality cults. Yet, whether as positive or negative exemplarity, the moral afterlives of fascist leaders remain at the crossroads of diverse forces and investments, from souvenir shop owners in Predappio to national governments intent on reshaping historical narratives or protecting them from revisionist agendas. At the same time, as Paolo in particular insists in his response, fascist exemplarity operates as well on very intimate scales, often inscribed, in all three cases, in family genealogies and the biographies of beloved kin. How might we conceptualize the relationships that constitute these seemingly contrasting scales is a theoretical and analytical problem that, in my opinion, could be mined fruitfully for insights about the persevering moral significance of fascism in today’s Europe and beyond it.

CSSH: It’s a complex problem. Your image of a graveyard in which enemies are entangled with friends, rotting together, polluting each other, conjures up ideas of wrongful death, which in turn calls for correction. Themes of purification run through your papers, and through the politics they describe. It seems, too, that restoration, or justice, at one scale can produce impurities and new damage at another. The transition from life to death is a scalar shift in itself. The stakes are profound, and you’ve suggested new ways of seeing and analyzing them. 

Your future work on these topics, we’re sure, will be amazing. Please share some of it with CSSH!

Francisco Ferrándiz, of the Institute for Language, Literature and Anthropology (ILLA), Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), earned his Ph.D. in social and cultural anthropology from University of California, Berkeley in 1996. His research focuses on the anthropology of the body, violence, and social memory. Since 2002, he has conducted research on the politics of memory in contemporary Spain, analyzing the exhumations of mass graves from the Civil War (1936‒1939). He is presently Principal Investigator of the research project The Politics of Memory: Exhumations in Contemporary Spain, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation. His books on this topic include El pasado bajo tierra: Exhumaciones contemporáneas de la Guerra Civil (2014), Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights (edited with Antonius C.G.M. Robben, 2015), and Memory Worlds: Reframing Time and the Past (a special issue Memory Studies, 2020, edited with Marije Hristova and Johanna Vollmeyer).

Paolo Heywood is Assistant Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Durham. Before this he was an Affiliated Lecturer and a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, where he received his Ph.D. in 2015. He specializes in contemporary Italian politics and the intersection of the anthropology of ethics and political life. He has written widely on anthropological theory, particularly the so-called “ontological turn.” He is the author of After Difference: Queer Activism in Italy and Anthropological Theory (2018) and is currently preparing his second monograph on life in contemporary Predappio, the birthplace and burial site of Benito Mussolini.

Nitzan Shoshan is a political anthropologist whose research has focused on the politics of affect, nationalism, and the far right, especially in Germany and Europe. His prize-winning book The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-Wing Extremism in Germany (2016), a path-breaking ethnography of young right-wing extremists in East Berlin, is a study of contemporary German nationalism and affective governance. He has published on post-Fordism, urban space, post-socialist memory and nostalgia, the ethics of ethnographic research, and urban marginality in Mexico City, among other topics. He received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago and is a Professor in the Centro de Estudios Sociológicos at El Colegio de México, Mexico City.

By ltwstu

Lecturer of Anthropology University of Michigan Associate Managing Editor Comparative Studies in Society and History