Jacob Heilbrunn

Berlusconi's Dangerous Defense of Mussolini on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is intent on making a political comeback, has a knack for stirring up controversy. He has repeatedly uttered politically incorrect statements and engaged in outlandish, if not bizarre, behavior. But he has crossed into dangerous territory with his remarks defending the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Milan.

Mussolini began his career as a man on the left and then migrated to the right, where he led the March on Rome to install his personal dictatorship in 1922 as the head of the country's National Fascist Party. His success led Hitler to try and emulate Mussolini's march to power with the Beer Hall putsch in Munich in 1923. It failed. Hitler was put on trial and given a light sentence. But the lesson Hitler drew was that he had to come to power by democratic means. Nevertheless, the example of Mussolini helped embolden Hitler in his belief that he, too, could lead a fascist revolution in Germany.

Mussolini was not intent on mass extermination of the Jews, but that is hardly the measure. Mussolini, three years after the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws, passed his own, and worked, as far as possible, to extrude Jews from Italian society, including interning them in concentration camps in Italy. Whether Mussolini was a hardened fanatic or a ruthless opportunist, as the historian Denis Mack Smith has argued, is not really germane. The result of his alliance with Hitler was catastrophic. Once Hitler occupied Italy in 1943, thousands of Jews were deported to the death camps. In 2013 it should hardly be necessary to recite these well-known facts. But Berlusconi's remarks testify to the lingering attachment of some Italians to neo-fascist sentiments and to the urge to polish up their own history rather than confront the obvious.

Supposedly, Winston Churchill said it was fine that Italy was on the side of England's opponents since "we had them last time"—a jest about the inefficacy of the Italian fighting forces. But the fact remains that Mussolini, a vicious despot, plighted his troth with Hitler and Italians, and particularly Jewish Italians, ended up paying the price. But Berlusconi is engaging in the kind of historical revisionism that the right has sometimes tried to perpetrate in Germany as well—the notion that Hitler, or Mussolini, had their good sides and their bad sides, and that distinctions can be made between their policies, when the truth is that they cannot, and that the two dictators directed everything toward militarism and war, policies that ended up leading their countries into an abyss from which it took them decades to emerge.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Berlusconi announced,

"It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time," said Berlusconi, 76, who is campaigning ahead of elections in February.

"Obviously the government of that time, out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it," he said. "As part of this alliance, there were impositions, including combating and exterminating Jews. The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well."

What Berlusconi and other revisionists will never concede is that racial laws were not incidental to these fascist regimes, but their very essence. Mussolini allied himself not because he was cowering before Nazi Germany, but because he reckoned he would end up on the winning side with all the spoils that would entail. He was wrong. With his historical contortions, which are as pathetic as they are offensive, he is defending the indefensible. Berlusconi, who likely hopes to curry favor with voters on the right, is simply bringing further discredit upon himself and Italy. His remarks offer a reminder of the moral obtuseness of those who would try to efface rather than remember the Holocaust. The sooner this odious man disappears from the political scene, the better.

Image: Left half public domain, right half Wikimedia Commons/European People's Party, CC BY 2.0.