Berlusconi 'a disgrace' for Mussolini praise on Holocaust Memorial Day
Former Italian prime minister condemned for praising fascist dictator who, anti-Semitic laws aside, ‘did well in so many other ways’
Agencies in Rome
Silvio Berlusconi was accused of being a "disgrace" after choosing Holocaust Memorial Day to praise Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Speaking to reporters at a commemoration event on Sunday, during which he appeared to fall asleep , Berlusconi said Mussolini's anti-Semitic race laws were the most blameworthy initiative of someone "who in so many other ways did well".
Italy "did not have the same responsibilities [for the Holocaust] as Germany" and Mussolini's co-operation with Hitler was "not entirely conscious at the start … It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time," said Berlusconi, who is campaigning for next month's elections at the head of a coalition that includes far-right politicians whose roots go back to Italy's old fascist party.
"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," he said.
His remarks, apparently intended to cut the ground from under the far right, prompted an outcry from other Italian politicians. The leader of the centre-left Democratic party (PD) in the lower house, Dario Franceschini, said they were a "disgrace and an insult to history and memory".
A PD spokesman, Marco Meloni, said: "Our republic is based on the struggle against Nazi fascism, and these are intolerable remarks which are incompatible with leadership of democratic political forces."
But, as he has repeatedly done ahead of the election on February 24 and 25, Berlusconi succeeded in grabbing the headlines. His tactics have helped reverse the decline of his Freedom People movement since he snatched back the helm in December.
Faced by the onslaught of criticism, Berlusconi later issued a statement saying he had always condemned dictatorships and regretted not having spelled that out in his earlier remarks.
"There can be no misunderstanding about the fascist dictatorship," he said, accusing the left of capitalising on his earlier comments for cheap political gain.
It was not the first time Berlusconi has defended Mussolini, whose status in Italy remains deeply ambiguous 67 years after he was executed by communist partisans while trying to flee to Switzerland in April 1945.
Many Italian politicians, including the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Gianfranco Fini, come from the ranks of the old Italian Social Movement, which grew out of the fascist party, although Fini and others have renounced the far right.
Others, including Francesco Storace, Berlusconi's candidate for president of the Lazio region, have stayed true to what they see as the "social-right" tradition of the fascist movement.
Although never as fervently anti-Semitic as his Nazi allies, Mussolini's government persecuted Italy's Jewish population, according to the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Centre in Milan. Laws imposed in 1938 placed oppressive restrictions on Jews and most of some 10,000 estimated to have been deported from 1943 to 1945 died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Guardian, Reuters