Pomp and Consequence: Visiting Europe’s 20th-Century Fascist Sites

By Rick Steves
Palazzo Congressi, E.U.R., Italy
You can see prime examples of fascist-era architecture in Mussolini's E.U.R. suburb just south of Rome. (photo: Rick Steves)
Topography of Terror exhibit, Berlin
The Topography of Terror exhibit in Berlin aims to teach visitors about the rise and fall of Nazism. (photo: Rick Steves)

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.

Inspired by Mussolini and buoyed by the Great Depression in 1929, Hitler's similar promises of a better life gained traction in Germany. For the Nazis, the city that most embodied their sense of national unity was Nürnberg. Located at a historic crossroads, and often called "the most German of German cities," it was a favorite of Hitler's to showcase his nationalistic pomp and pageantry, and it's with grand rallies held here that he inspired Germans to get on board.

Within the Rally Grounds, a four-square-mile area a 10-minute tram ride southeast of Nürnberg's Old Town, Hitler made Zeppelin Field the site of his enormous rallies. Today, the stark remains of this massive gathering place are thought-provoking. Also part of this complex — looming over a now peaceful lake — is his huge-yet-unfinished Congress Hall, which now houses the excellent Documentation Center museum. The largest surviving example of Nazi architecture, Hitler modeled this building after the Roman Colosseum…but made it even more colossal. The Documentation Center meticulously traces the evolution of the National Socialist movement, focusing on how it both energized and terrified the German people.

Another stage set for this propaganda show was Hitler's mountain-capping Eagle's Nest. This alpine getaway, south of Munich in Berchtesgaden, was used to soften Hitler's image. A stone tunnel crafted with fascist precision leads to Hitler's plush elevator, which whisks visitors to the top today.

Berlin is full of sights that let us reflect on these dark times: the Germany History Museum and its powerful propaganda art display; the Reichstag parliament building, which caught fire under mysterious circumstances in 1933, giving Hitler an excuse to frame the communists and grab power for himself; and the Topography of Terror exhibit, which stands on the rubble of what was once the most feared address in the city — the headquarters of the Gestapo secret police and the elite SS force.

Hitler's life would end in Berlin, deep underground in a bunker with his capital smoldering in ruins. Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1945, the war in Europe ended. But the aftermath will always linger in the minds of those who live in its wake and those who visit.

While visiting remnants of Mussolini and Hitler's reigns in preparation for my TV special on fascism, I was struck by how entire nations have become mesmerized and led astray by fascist leaders. My best souvenir from that trip — and what I hope viewers will take away from the TV special — is a realization of how fragile democracy is…and how, if you take freedom for granted, you can lose it.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe (www.ricksteves.com). Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.