How can fascism be dealt with?

It is a noisy, colorful column, bristling with weapons, rolling towards the old port city on the Adriatic. At their head: a red Fiat 501, adorned with flowers, in it sits a not-too-tall man with a bald head. What's going on there, observers on the side of the road wonder, so many flowers, a funeral?

The man in the red Fiat loves flowers. He also loves women, he loves thundering performances and fighter planes, and he loves his Italy, the motherland, for which he lost sight on one side during the war.

Before he and his co-conspirators left the cemetery of Ronchi, a town near Trieste, the night before, he wrote a letter to his "dear comrade" Benito Mussolini: "The die has been cast. I'm leaving now. Tomorrow morning I will I take Fiume by force of arms. May the God of Italy help us. "

It is September 12, 1919, and Gabriele D'Annunzio, 56 years old, Italian poet and war hero, rolls into the city with 2000 "legionnaires", which until the end of the First World War was a rather multicultural outpost of the Habsburg monarchy Mediterranean formed; where people spoke Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, German.

Now, as the diplomats decided at the peace negotiations in Paris, it should fall to the newly established Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. For D'Annunzio and his colleagues it is clear: their young nation, the Kingdom of Italy, can never accept such a "mutilated victory".

"Long live the Italian Fiume" shouted the crowds who stood in line a hundred years ago when the invasion took place and waved laurel wreaths and flags. From the balcony of the governor's palace, the poet rolls out a meter-long green-white-red flag.

"Here I am", he calls out and lets the cheering reverberate for a long time before continuing: "I, the volunteer who fought in all branches of service, I who was wounded and maimed, I respond to the deep concern of my country by I announce that today Fiume has returned forever to Mother Italy. "

The city is henceforth "a lighthouse, shining in a sea of ​​wickedness". Fascism has found its first playing field.

The Führer cult anticipates much that Mussolini later elevated to the form of government

For the next 15 months, the poet and his stormtroopers will occupy the city and establish a cult of leadership that anticipates much of what Mussolini would elevate to the form of government with his march on Rome three years later. Torch marches in uniforms, whipping speeches from the "Duce" to the people, the right arm stretched out in "Roman salute". And orgiastic festivals.

The months of the "Italian reign on the Kvarner Bay" grow into a mass frenzy, in which a young generation, mentally damaged by war, seems to restlessly catch up with everything that was stolen from it in previous years. A thoroughly choreographed festival of youth and physicality, a kind of early fascist commune.

The "Carta del Carnaro", a kind of constitution that prominent trade unionists write down, contains some thoroughly progressive elements; it officially equates women and men, prescribes a minimum wage and freedom of the press. Some historians also see those 15 months as a prelude to the anti-bourgeois revolt of 1968.

Whereby: "In contrast to the hippies, the occupiers of Fiume not only wanted to make love, but also war," points out the British biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett, D'Annzunzio.

The old governor's palace, which D'Annunzio converted into his center of power, is now the maritime and history museum of the city, which belongs to Croatia and is called Rijeka. In 2020 it will be "European Capital of Culture".

Inside the palace, the historian Tea Perinčić leads through a room with white silk wallpaper and old Habsburg furniture, in which the self-proclaimed poeta soldato received its visitors at that time. From here he stepped through the double doors onto the balcony to talk himself and the masses into a rage.

"If you read through the popular works about D'Annunzio," says Tea Perinčić, "you get the impression that those days were above all great fun. That is of course only true for part of the population." She rubs her hand over a marble banister. Someone carved the word "Arditi" into it, "the bold ones". That was the name of the storm troops from the First World War, which then formed a substantial part of D'Annunzio's "legionnaires" in Fiume.

The letters are carved deep into the stone, probably with a dagger, the trademark of Arditi, and evidently with extreme strength and doggedness.

"I am no longer intoxicated by myself, but by my whole race", is how Gabriele D'Annunzio described his passion for playing with the emotions of the masses: "The crowd is like incandescent metal. All the mouths of the mold are open. A huge statue is being cast. "

This went on until the government in Rome reached an agreement with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in the Rapallo border treaty in November 1920 to declare Fiume an "independent free state". D'Annunzio refused to recognize the treaty, so Rome sent the battleship Andrea Doria, which fired from Fiumes harbor at the governor's palace on Christmas 1920, tore down a wall and drove D'Annunzio to flight.

A century later, the city is touching its prominent son, if you want to call him that, with very pointed fingers. While official Italy still remembers him as an exuberant, erotic-adventurous fin-de-siècle poet, many Croatian citizens and politicians see D'Annunzio primarily as the demagogue who paves the way for the fascist occupation of their country has leveled.

Tea Perinčić leads the visitor into her office on the ground floor. The city's mission is to provide the rest of the world with a reasonably fair picture in the cultural year 2020. In addition to a book, she is preparing an exhibition: "Fiume - D'Annunzio's Martyr".

In it, she concentrates on the role of women - after all, the bald poet with what his secretary noted at the time, "terrible teeth", was known throughout his life as a first-rate heartthrob. During his marches, women were seen in evening dresses and with rifles over their shoulders. "D'Annunzio treated the city as he treated women," says the historian. "He seduced her and used her for his own purposes."

The poet's seductive skills mainly appealed to the Italian part of the population - others saw the occupation as brutal. Tea Perinčić clicks on a scanned document on the screen, the diary of a woman named Zora Blačić, then 23 years old, who wrote in her desperation: "Everything is over."

Her fiancé could not come to her from Zagreb; Neither trains nor post would come from there to the city, "God knows how long it will go on". There is no longer any yeast to bake bread. And then the young woman describes how "the Italian soldiers are destroying the shops of Croatian owners", including her father's shop, who is a shoe retailer by trade.

The authorities destroy livelihoods in a row - for example through professional bans

The correspondent of New York Times writes on March 1, 1920: Gabriele D'Annunzio ordered "another deportation of Croats and other foreigners", whose presence is considered "harmful to the security of the city". Socialists are now also "caught up in the general cleansing of the city".

A few steps from the old governor's palace, in the Rijeka State Archives, one can immerse oneself in documents that make it possible to understand how the occupiers destroyed dozens of livelihoods. Almost without exception, people have Slavic or Hungarian-sounding surnames.

On December 16, 1919, when a hairdresser applied for the renewal of his operating license, the official noted that the man was "not trustworthy on a political and moral level" and that he harbored "anti-national feelings".

A blacksmith, for whom the authorities have also refused to renew his operating license, writes downright begging: "I've never dealt with politics, I'm neutral, I want to work again."

So it goes on. One complains "humbly" that the ban will "hurt" not only himself, but also his family, and in general he does not see himself in a position to understand why his application was rejected.

"So this D'Annunzio, under whom all this happened, is supposed to have been just a somewhat extravagant artist?" Says Boris Zakošek, the chief archivist, and scrolls on his computer through the scans of two books that bear the stamp of the "National Council of the Refugees from Rijeka "carry.

In it, a total of 3,013 names are noted by hand, of people who apparently left the city in a hurry during D'Annunzio's reign. Slavica Havić, student. Nicola Petrić, employee. Oskar Rosenberg, doctor.

Today the Italians are a minority in Rijeka - but still a very present one

Today the Italians in Rijeka are a minority, around two percent of the population, but a still very present minority, supported by the government in Rome. There are five Italian schools, an Italian-language daily newspaper, and the "Community of Italians of Fiume".

Its chairman, Melita Sciucca, who is a teacher full-time, is sitting in a café whose showcases show all the splendor of European confectionery art: tiramisu, cream slices, macarons. Melita Sciucca, in a dress that can match the color of the display, orders millefoglie ice cream and talks about her grandmother.

She was 15 years old when D'Annunzio took the city: "She was crazy about him," she says, "she often told me how she and her friends ran over there every time he performed." However, the grandmother was a simple woman, a seamstress, not interested in politics: "If she were 15 years old today, she would probably rave about Justin Bieber."

She herself, says Melita Sciucca, really cannot be a nationalist. As a child she was with the Yugoslav pioneers, she wore the relay for Tito's birthday. And when other children shouted over in the schoolyard for the first time: "Italians, fascists", they just wondered: "I didn't even know what the word meant."

Recently, she has seen someone hissing on the street: "Italians, go home!" The nerves have been brighter since nationalism was again the line of government in Rome. In February, the then President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani of the Berlusconi party Forza Italia, appeared near Trieste at a memorial service at a memorial for the Italians who were killed by Yugoslav partisans in World War II.

"Long live Italian Istria, long live Italian Dalmatia," he shouted, which did not go down well with the governments of Slovenia and Croatia, to which the regions now belong. Tajani apologized, but on the Internet the emotions continued to simmer for a long time; Melita Sciucca received comments on Facebook like: "I am sorry that my grandfather buried his gun from the partisan days".

But Melita Sciucca does not want to let her poet D'Annunzio be stolen from her. To this day, she and her students read his first novel "Il piacere" in every class and the poem "La Pioggia nel Pineto", the almost musical portrayal of a summer rain. "What pure, clear language he used - it's wonderful."

She actually wanted to organize an event in the old governor's palace on September 12th, the centenary of the invasion: a book presentation of a work that has just been published in Italy, the author of which argues that D'Annunzio was not a fascist. "But even the people from the Italian Foreign Ministry told me: Better leave it, not on this date of all times."

Instead, there is trouble about 80 kilometers northwest of Rijeka, immediately behind the Slovenian-Italian border: the city of Trieste wants to inaugurate a statue of D'Annunzio to mark the centenary of the conquest of Fiume. The poet, seated, absorbed in a book. The left opposition in the city has already collected signatures against it, and the mayor of Rijeka has joined the protest. Melita Sciucca finds this "absurd", she says: "In Trieste there is also a statue of Empress Sisi. Why not one by D'Annunzio?"

Tea Perinčić, the Croatian historian, on the other hand, says: "It's so anachronistic. What exactly do the Trieste mean by that? It really makes me angry."