The 60th anniversary of Italys liberation on 25 April lies on the cusp between history and living memory. There are still a few who remember the event as adults and it is still close enough not to be just history. The days significance has changed with time; more important than the generational turnover are the political changes the country has gone through.

For almost 50 years, 25 April was commemorated as a celebration of anti-fascism. True, the left tended to hog the limelight; but it was a day when all Italians, from the political right-wing parties, Monarchists and Liberals, to centrist Christian Democrats and political left-wing Socialists and Communists, could forget their everyday squabbles and remember the days when they were united against the nazi-fascists, fighting an idealist war in favour of democracy and against authoritarian oppression. Liberation also signalled a new beginning for politics, which would create a genuinely democratic Italian republic. Like most such celebrations, it had its element of mystification but the majority of Italy accepted both the reality and the legend of the day. Only a few diehard followers of Benito Mussolini closed their shutters as the parades went by.

Today the situation is very different. Mussolinis political heirs, in the Alleanza Nazionale party, were in government in 1994 for seven months and were back again in 2001. They are still there. Their leader, Gianfranco Fini, is deputy prime minister and foreign minister and is one of Italys most competent and respected politicians. There is even a genetic heir of Mussolini; his granddaughter Alessandra, who was an Italian deputy, is now an MEP and leads her own party, Alternativa Sociale, which polled 1.9 per cent in regional elections in Lazio earlier this month.

It is true that Fini has retracted his 1994 statement that Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the 20th century and it is true that he made a formal apology for Mussolinis and Italys complicity in the annihilation of the Jews in world war two. At the same time though, there is a bill before parliament which would give veterans of Mussolinis brutal puppet republic at Sal the same pension status and recognition as the anti-fascist partisans. There is a cabinet minister, Mirko Tremaglia, who is himself a veteran of the Sal republic and who still publicly maintains he made the right choice back in 1943; he has also said that the wrong side won the battle of El Alamein between Axis forces and the British in 1942. And then there are local episodes of streets and squares being named after fascist leaders, and the suggestion that a rock on an Appennine pass carved in Mussolinis profile and destroyed in 1944 be restored.

As important as Alleanza Nazionale becoming part of the establishment is the major change of emphasis that Silvio Berlusconi has introduced into Italian political discourse. In the more than ten years that he has been in politics, he has consistently hammered on an anti-communist theme partly out of conviction and partly to wrongfoot his ex-communist opposition. His speeches contain almost no anti-fascist rhetoric but are filled with references to the communist menace redolent of far-off cold war days. However in Italy, the Communist Party was an important element of the struggle against the nazis and fascists and was also one of the pillars of the post-war constitution. So Berlusconis message is an implicit criticism of at least part of 1940s history.

On top of this historical baggage, there is now the constitutional amendment passed by both houses of parliament last month, which if passed definitively, will enhance the prime ministers powers and devolve many responsibilities health, education and law and order to the regions. Compared to the powers of the British prime minister or the responsibilities of the states in the United States, the Italian reform is small stuff, but in the context it is explosive. The geographical unity of the country has always been perceived as fragile, and after Mussolini the Italian constitution made sure a prime minister remained weak.

Todays prime minister is not Mussolini but he does have the greatest concentration of media, financial and political power of any leader in a democratic country, so it is not surprising that spectres of a future overpowerful head of government merge with shadows of the past one.

All this means that celebrations on 25 April will carry mixed messages. The opposition on the left is divided on how to play the day; the Associazione Nazionale Partigiani dItalia (ANPI), the partisans association, and the left want to use it to defend the constitution. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Comunista, said: This type of solemn anniversary demands that we go to the roots of the republic, the resistance and the constitution, while Francesco Rutelli of the centre-left party Margherita, said: 25 April is the celebration of national unity; it cant be just for half the country. The right-wing political parties in government play down the links between themselves and 1945s enemies, while the centre-right also tries to sand down the hard historical edges contained in the days lessons.

25 April may be part history and part grandparents memory but it is still all todays politics.