Over the last three years, fascism has been very much in the news. From accusations of Mussolini-style authoritarianism launched at Donald Trump to concerns of global catastrophe caused by the far-right politics of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, through denunciations of Viktor Orban’s xenophobic policies in Hungary and resounding alarm at Poland’s retreat from democracy with the success of the conservative Law and Justice party, references to fascism and its resurgence are countless. Although scholars and pundits debate the appropriateness of the term to discuss present-day populism, rightwing parties, and authoritarian leaders, there is no doubt that allusions to fascism reflect a delicate conjuncture in our contemporary politics. In Italy, where fascism first emerged in the late 1910s and later became the model for German Nazism and other rightwing political movements, its evocations have an even more sinister echo. At the end of World War II, as the country began its reconstruction after twenty years of Mussolini’s dictatorship, the 1947 Italian Constitution definitively banned fascism; it also prohibited its reorganization.

Beginning in the early 1990s, however, a normalizing trend has overturned these institutional guarantees, undermining the legacy of all those who struggled to reestablish democracy. Coinciding with the ascent to the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, naive, if not altogether nostalgic, recollections of Mussolini and his regime have become more frequent. At the same time, the fight of Italian partisans against Nazi-fascism during the final two years of World War II has come to be unabashedly contested — a sobering reminder of history lessons not learned. On the 74th anniversary of Italy’s liberation of April 25, the government could not even agree to celebrate the historic milestone.

This unprecedented turn raises questions about the solidity of Italy’s democratic foundations. It also poses the dilemma of whether Italians have come to consider antifascism irrelevant if not altogether misplaced in present-day reality. And if irrelevant, we might ask whether generations of Italians have simply grown oblivious to their recent history or have just rejected the lesson from the past. Adjudicating answers to this quandary could turn out to be an endless endeavor, considering that we have little empirical knowledge of what Italians understand by fascism or think of its historical manifestation in Italy. Until recently, nobody cared to ask.

The first and only study to address the issue was a 2018 survey conducted by Alvaro Tacchini, president of the Venanzio Gabriotti Institute of Political and Social History. The survey asked 735 high school students aged 16-19 their thoughts about fascism (a phenomenon they did not experience) and democracy (a system in which they have lived all their years). The results are critically important, although worrisome.

While over 60% of the youth declare they are “well informed” about fascism and only 3% state they lack knowledge, a total of 40.4 % does not agree with the statement: “The fascist regime of Benito Mussolini needs to be completely condemned because it was a dictatorship and dragged Italy into war.” More disturbingly, 58.1% of the students accept the assertion: “The fascist regime of Mussolini was a dictatorship but can only be condemned in part because it also benefited the country.” Only 33.6% think the fascist regime accomplished nothing good.

When asked whether the fascist regime “has been a positive form of government that maintained order and brought wellbeing,” 23.9% of the youth answer affirmatively. As for the mark left by fascism on Italian history, 45.6% believe it is a negative one. In the specific case of Mussolini, his legacy is not considered positive by 42.9%. However, a high percentage, between 40% and 42%, failed to make either a positive or negative assessment of these two questions. Finally, only 61% agree that it is important to fight fascist ideology, while 51.6% express favor for the war of liberation by agreeing with the statement, “The Resistance to Nazi-Fascism is at the foundation of the values of our democracy.” A slightly higher number (65%) supports the statement: “Democracy might have problems, but it is better than any other form of government,” yet 23% strongly disagree with the statement. Moreover, one out of three youth thinks that political parties in Italy should be abolished.

Half reassuring and half disconcerting, the findings confirm the legitimizing trend that over the past thirty years has gradually led to the rehabilitation of fascism in Italy. They alert us to the often-ignored distance between official interpretations of history and popular representations. They also raise questions about the school’s effectiveness in transmitting knowledge of critical periods in a country’s past. Ultimately, they ominously signal the romanticization of a dictatorial system that was rooted in violence, persecuted its opponents, denied individual rights, and poisoned thousands of Ethiopians during its colonial war. As the past recedes ever further, the risk of mythical distortions and indulgent historical obliviousness mount. At the minimum, a more grounded understanding of the fascist period is in order, along with sanguine discussions that elucidate the phenomenon more than seventy years after its end. While a return of fascism in Italy seems improbable, confusions about fascism’s history and legacy do not help develop a civic, democratic conscience. This timely survey has taught us as much.

Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author, among other books, of Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy.