But the full story is a little more complicated. The Italian rail network was indeed in sorry shape after World War I, and the rebuilding process that Mussolini took credit for was underway by the time he seized power in 1922. Some aspects of Italy’s state-run railway system did receive massive investments under the Fascists. “They improved the lines that had a political meaning to them,” says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an NYU history professor and author of several books on Mussolini’s regime (as well as a recent Atlantic piece on the current president-elect). That mostly meant the lines used by the elites and tourists in Northern Italy, where rolling stock was updated and new stations were built. This, she says, was part of Mussolini’s campaign of “soft power,” designed to impress foreign leaders and win over a skeptical public with showpiece projects that made good newsreel fodder.
As NYU’s Ben-Ghiat says, transportation and mobility was a kind of fascist obsession in Italy; the regime also went on an airport-building tear and improved and extended a network of low-cost dopolavoro excursion trains for weekenders as part of a national leisure organization that was designed to keep the working class happily distracted (and indoctrinate their children). “People were on the move all the time for state-mandated activities,” she says. “But it was controlled mobility. The trains were part of that.” This mobility was also part of a strategy that de-emphasized cities, Ben-Ghiat says. Mussolini displaced hundreds of thousands of residents in dense urban areas, moving them to modernist suburbs or outlying shantytowns to make room for massive projects such as Rome’s four-lane Via Dell’Impero.
Ben-Ghiat, now an in-demand explainer of what America could be looking at with its own “homegrown authoritarian,” adds that the parallels between these two strongmen continue to follow a familiar pattern. Current chroniclers of President-elect Trump’s rhetoric on infrastructure and urban issues, take note. “There’s a template for authoritarian rule,” she says. “So far, he’s checking a lot of the boxes.”David Dudley, “The Problem with Mussolini and His Trains,” CityLab