ROME — An Italian government official resigned on Thursday after coming under fierce criticism for his proposal to rename a park in his hometown after the fascist brother of Italy’s former dictator, Benito Mussolini.
The proposal to rename the park after Arnaldo Mussolini was made earlier this month by the official, Claudio Durigon, an under secretary in the economy ministry who is a member of the right-wing League party.
It reignited a debate over the memory of Benito Mussolini in a nation still struggling to reconcile its fascist past. Unlike other countries that agreed long ago on a blanket condemnation of their authoritarian rulers, debates still flare frequently in Italy over whether a distinction should be made between what Mussolini’s supporters view as the good he did during his 1922-1943 rule and the atrocities he ordered.
“The case is a clear example of how history can be revised in Italy these days,” said Andrea Mammone, an Italian historian at Royal Holloway University of London. “Fascist ideology and culture are present again not just in smaller, extremist movements, but also in major national parties.”
In recent years, Italy’s far-right parties have gained support. One of them, Brothers of Italy, once fielded Mussolini’s great-grandson as a candidate for the European Parliament and is now the most popular party in Italy, according to recent polls. It is followed close behind by Mr. Durigon’s anti-immigrant League party.
In an open letter of apology in which he announced his resignation, Mr. Durigon denied that he was ever a fascist. But he said he wanted to pay tribute to the “great work” done by the Mussolini regime to reclaim the area around Latina, the city near Rome where the park is located, and to eradicate malaria there. The name of Arnaldo Mussolini “is part of the memory of the city,” he wrote.
“I was attacked for proposing to save the historical memory,” he added.
The park was once named for Arnaldo Mussolini but in 2017, the City Council renamed it Falcone and Borsellino Park to honor two slain anti-mafia prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were killed by the mafia in 1992.
Mr. Durigon, speaking at a rally in Latina this month, said he wanted to revert back to the prior name of the park to honor Arnaldo Mussolini, who wrote for a fascist newspaper and was considered his brother’s mouthpiece.
“It must return to being the Mussolini park it had always been,” Mr. Durigon said to applause from the crowd.
Giuseppe Conte, the former prime minister who leads the populist Five Star Movement, dubbed the proposal “serious and disconcerting” and called for the resignation of Mr. Durigon. Left-leaning parties, anti-mafia associations and groups of antifascist fighters expressed outrage.
Gianfranco Pagliarulo, the president of the left-leaning National Association of Italian Partisans, wrote in the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano this month that the proposal was alarming and the latest in a series of instances in which politicians expressed fascist sympathies — including regional officials who sang fascist songs on the radio or sponsored festivals by neo-fascist fringe groups.
“The resignation of Under Secretary Claudio Durigon is excellent news for democracy and antifascism,” Mr. Pagliarulo said in a statement on Friday.
Right-wing newspapers criticized the accusations against Mr. Durigon, alluding to a “cancel culture of political correctness” in Italy.
Matteo Salvini, the head of the League party, dismissed the debate, saying that there was no nostalgia for fascism in his party or anywhere in Italy.
But the flatlands south of Rome, where Latina is located, are known as being a reservoir of fascist sentiment. In the late 1920s, the regime reclaimed the land from the malaria-rife Pontine swamps, both to gain fields for cultivation and to prove it could make the area habitable.
Workers drained swamps and built roads and infrastructure, while architects designed entire cities where the regime relocated families from northern Italy. When it was inaugurated in 1932, the city of Latina was called Littoria, a reference to the “lictors” or Roman troops who carried bundles of rods, or fasces, a symbol of authority and order that gave the Fascist party its name.
Mr. Mammone, the historian, said that Arnaldo Mussolini had no direct connection with Latina, but his name simply represented a tribute to fascism. Many people still equate the monumental work conducted in the area as a symbol of fascist achievement.
In his apology, Mr. Durigon wrote that his own grandparents were colonists from the north who participated in the draining of the Pontine swamps.
“I only cared about remembering such an intense and particular history,” he wrote, admitting that his proposal was “badly formulated.”