What happens to fascist architecture after the fall of the regime?

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Many contentious monuments can still be found throughout Europe. Alex Sakalis travels to a small Italian town that has found a way to contextualise and defuse fascism’s architectural legacy.

On the surface, Bolzano in northern Italy appears to be just another alpine town. The city is a whimsical snow globe of winding streets, pastel-colored houses, and Baroque taverns nestled in a valley lined by steep green hills peppered with castles, barns, and churches, and terraced with vineyards.

But cross the Talfer river on the western outskirts of town, and everything changes. The quaint streets have given way to wide avenues and large, solemn squares surrounded by austere, grey buildings. The architecture is linear, monotonous, and oppressive, with porticos of tall, rectangular columns and strange, looping arches that gallop across the avenues like viaducts to nowhere.

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Two structures stand out among this bleak ensemble. The first is the city’s tax office, a hulking grey block adorned with a massive bas-relief depicting the unassailable rise of Italian Fascism, from the March on Rome to the colonial conquests in Africa, across 57 sculpted panels. Mussolini is depicted on horseback, his right arm outstretched in a Roman salute, in the centre. It’s a remarkable piece of fascist agitprop architecture, all at once awe-inspiring, odious, and perplexing.

The second is the Bolzano Victory Monument, a striking white marble arch with columns sculpted to resemble fasces, the fascist movement’s bundle of sticks. It exudes an ethereal, almost ghostly aura. It appears as a mirage among the grey apartment buildings and green trees that surround it. An inscription in Latin appears along the frieze: “Set down the banner at the fatherland’s border. We began by educating the others in language, law, and culture.”

It was built in 1928 and is currently surrounded by a high metal fence. It has served as a rallying point for far-right marches and has been the target of several bombing attempts. It has been described as “the first truly fascist monument” by historian Jeffrey Schnapp.

Today, however, these two pieces of fascist architectural propaganda serve as the centrepiece of a daring artistic experiment addressing the debate over contested monuments, one that serves as a model for other communities divided over whether to demolish or preserve monuments with racist, imperialist, or fascist connotations.


Bolzano (or Bozen in German – both names are official) was the largest city in South Tyrol, a mountainous province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, prior to World War One. Both city and province were overwhelmingly German-speaking, but they were awarded to Italy on security grounds at the 1919 Peace Conference. South Tyrol would give Italy a natural northern border along the Alps’ ridgeline, as well as control of the strategic Brenner Pass.

As a border town with a predominantly non-Italian population, it was subjected to Mussolini’s policy of intense Italianisation. Place names were changed, cultural institutions in Tyrol were closed, and German, the native language of 90% of the province’s population, was effectively banned.

Across the river from Bolzano, a massive new city quarter and industrial zone were built, and thousands of Italians were encouraged to settle. The new town was strewn with monuments and structures dedicated to the “glory” of fascism.

Following the war, the Italian government attempted to atone for fascist policies by granting South Tyrol residents a high level of autonomy. Cultural and linguistic rights would be respected, and jobs in the public sector would be distributed proportionally based on language. 90% of tax revenue would stay in the region.

Frequent attempts to resolve the conflict ultimately collapsed into mutual incomprehension


The landscape of fascist monuments, on the other hand, remained a source of contention. “They were a symbol of the fascist Italianisation process that sought to annihilate German speakers’ culture and language. They wanted the monuments demolished “Andrea Di Michele, professor of modern history at the University of Bolzano, agrees. “While Italians, now a majority in Bolzano but surrounded by a predominantly German-speaking province, clung to the Victory Monument in particular as a symbol of their Italian identity in the region, not of fascism.”

Due to persistent vandalism and attempted bombings, a large metal gate was erected around the Victory Monument, and the tax office was surrounded by military police around the clock. The two structures served as a focal point for rival marches by Italian and German-speaking far-right groups. Several attempts to resolve the conflict ended in mutual misunderstanding.

Italy is not the only country that has grappled with the architectural legacies of its fascist past. In Spain, a “pact of forgetting” meant that fascist monuments from the Franco era were mostly left alone until 2007, when the Historical Memory Law established a legal framework for their removal. In 2010, an inscription glorifying Franco was removed from the Spanish National Research Council’s frieze. leaving a largely blank slate. Meanwhile, the last public statue of Franco was removed in February 2021, despite opposition from Vox, Spain’s third largest political party.

Buildings that are too large to demolish continue to be a problem. The University of Gijon is the largest building in Spain, built during the early years of the Franco regime in a Neo-Herrerian style, and described as having “exceptional architectural value”. Yet the left-wing council in the region has repeatedly vetoed attempts to have it proposed for Unesco recognition, saying that “a building linked to Francoism cannot be a World Heritage Site”.


The Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s most infamous architectural endowment, is a massive compound containing a basilica, a guest house, several monuments, a massive cross, and a mausoleum containing the remains of over 30,000 people. Franco envisioned it as a symbol of national reconciliation, and Pope John XXIII consecrated its crypt in 1960. Others, however, see it as a celebration of Francoism and have compared it to a Nazi concentration camp. The remains of Franco were exhumed and removed in 2019, and the government proposed turning the site into a civil cemetery in 2020. However, the debate has largely remained binary – removal or preservation, with little in between. The contested legacy of the Spanish Civil War and Francoist rule is what divides and complicates the debate.

Meanwhile, it would be difficult to find any architecture from the Nazi era in Germany. The majority of it was destroyed during or shortly after the war as part of the country’s denazification process. Surviving fascist structures were simply repurposed by removing swastikas and other fascist symbols, most notably in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. Others, such as the 1935 Congress Hall in Nuremberg, were chosen to house Nazi documentation centres, their monumentalism seen as symbolic of Hitler’s architectural hubris and megalomania.

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