Monday, September 15, 2003

The benign dictator and his holiday camps: Italian “patriotism” 60 years on.

Italy commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the 8 September 1943 armistice this week; a few days later, the English weekly The Specator published an interview with Silvio Berlusconi in which he said that Mussolini was a “benign” dictator who “never killed anyone” but instead “sent them on holiday” to internal exile. Not surprisingly, there was an immediate furor from the Italian centre, left and Jewish communities. Mr. Berlusconi’s political allies froze and took their distance. Even, or rather especially, Gianfranco Fini and Alleanza Nazionale whose roots are in fascism were clear “he could have spared us that remark on Mussolini” said Fini. If it hadn’t been for the murder of Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh and the continuing crisis in the Middle East, the foreign media would have given the remarks far more coverage.

Comparative evil

Berlusconi’s remarks were part of a comparison with Saddam Hussein and if “comparisons are odorous,” this one left quite a stink. They are essential in the classroom and in academic analyses but are dangerous in short interviews.

In one sense, Mussolini and Fascism have always had it easy compared to most other dictators past and present, Saddam or Hitler. Whatever Mussolini did before and during the war, Hitler and the Nazis did far more and worse. So although Mussolini was far less noxious than Hitler, there is the risk that by saying so, his actions are somehow rendered harmless. When you add Stalin into the formula, Mussolini again goes into a second division of dictators.

But benign? Hardly. Forget about gulags and concentration camps; look at Italy before and after Mussolini instead. Thankfully Mussolini’s government was corrupt and incompetent and many of its servants were less than convinced of the righteousness of Mussolini’s aspirations. This tempered the effects of Fascist aggression and cruelty and it was a relief for many Italians as well as those attacked by Italy: the Greeks, Maltese, Yugoslavs, Russians, French, British and Americans.

But little relief was available to the Libyans where hundreds of thousands died in the brutal repression and concentration camps even before Hitler set up his own. Nor for the Ethiopians massacred with mustard gas during the war and killed in their thousands even after the official war was over. Here there is indeed a comparison with Saddam as only he and Mussolini have used gas on their enemies since the 1920s conventions banning them.

For Italians, thousands of trade-unionists and socialists were killed or beaten up before Mussolini came to power. After 1922, a whole series of anti-fascist leaders were killed, notably the Socialist Giacomo Matteotti, the liberals Amendala and Gobetti and the Roselli brothers. Thousands were sent to prisons or to what was called confine, a concept usually translated as “internal exile.” Neither the prisons nor the places of confino were gulags -- much less extermination camps, but to call 10 or 15 years in close confinement a “holiday” is obscene and to giggle at the idea that some of these places are now summer resorts, as the Spectator journalist does, is grotesque. Of course, some, like political writer Antonio Gramsci, died in prison.

In 1938, Italian Jews were deprived of their civil and political rights, their jobs, and their property. They were catalogued making it all the easier to round them up 5 years later. Hardly benign. During the war, Mussolini knowing that they would be “exterminated,” authorized the transfer of Jews to the German authorities.

And then to say that Mussolini never killed anyone once he declared war on Britain and France shows insensitivity as well as ignorance. Here again, there are faint echoes of Saddam for anyone with keen enough hearing; going to war presuming it would be a walkover and then finding that there was real fighting to be done as Saddam did with both Iran and Kuwait. Mussolini’s overstreched ambition cost millions of lives, Italian for the most part but there were thousands of French, Maltese, Greek, Yugoslav and British killed by the Fascist aggression.

There were concentration camps, like Rab in the Adriatic, where the death rate was as bad as a gulag or German camp and after 1943 Mussolini’s puppet republic hosted an extermination camp in Trieste.

By no stretch of the imagination could he be called “benign.”

Patriotism and the fatherland

When the predictable furor exploded on Thursday (11 September), Mr. Berlusconi dug his hole deeper in his defense. “I reacted like any true Italian would have had the duty to react”. The implication is that Mussolini might have been a dictator but as an Italian patriot, Berlusconi is obliged to defend him.

This is a very dangerous vision of “fatherland” and “patriotism,” one that removes principles, ethics and reason and substitutes them with nationalism. Sixty years ago millions of Italians had to make a choice and decide where their loyalties lay; they had to give their loyalty to the king, the anti-fascist alliance and the Anglo-Americans or to Mussolini, Italian fascists and the Nazis. For many it was a question of life and death, coloured by expedience and personal loyalties. Today, with hindsight, there are very few indeed who argue that the real Italian “patria” was the Nazi-Fascist one. It was not Italy then and most definitely not Italy today, and for a Prime Minister to suggest that to defend Mussolini is “patriotic” colours Berlusconi’s own position in a sinister way.


As a contribution to an understanding and the debate on “8 settembre” and the subsequent division of Italy, the American University of Rome will be hosting a seminar on the subject on Monday, 15 September 17.00 - 19.30 with Rosario Bentivegna, former partisan in the GAP and Carlo Mazzantini, former volunteer in Mussolini’s neo-fascist RSI. They wrote a book together in 1997 explaining their choices of 60 years ago and on Monday will describe what that period meant to them then and what it means today. Dr. Bjørn Thomassen will give a presentation on the significance of the date in today’s popular consciousness.

If you are in Rome, come along. Call 39-06-58330919 to reserve a free seat.

For comments, please write to James Walston at
Manichæan Silvio - a tactic or does he really mean it?
Unspun Berlusconi or how not to deal with the press

There have been two episodes and as many rows in The Spectator saga (6 and 13 September) and, at this rate, there’ll be more next week; in them Silvio Berlusconi confirms his frequent claims to “tell it the way it is” or at least the way he thinks it is.

Last week, he said that to be a judge in Italy, “you need to be mentally disturbed, you need psychic disturbances. If they do that job it is because they are anthropologically different!” This week, he said that Mussolini was a “benign dictator” who “never killed anyone” but had sent the opposition “on holiday” to internal exile.

By any standards, Berlusconi is a serial brickdropper, but the question is, does he do it to cultivate an image of a plain-talking guy in touch with his supporters or does he actually believe what he says? I fear it is the latter; Berlusconi is a master of promotion and advertising, but when it comes to spin or even presentation of difficult issues, he is a tyro. He presumes that he does not need to be subtle, give nuances, or room for manoevre. Given his background as a businessman whose word was not contradicted plus his present wealth and control of the media, one can see where the presumption comes from. Hence, too, the all-or-nothing, Manichæan tone to so many of his outbursts.

With a long tradition of “ideological” politics, Italy has always had this tendency that paradoxically continues despite the end of the Cold War and, as some have put it, the “end of ideology.” Berlusconi is still very much an ideologist, one of those Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle still fighting World War II after 20 years since the end of hostilities. Except that he does know exactly what has happened since the end of the Cold War. Surely that means he is in bad faith then and that all these bricks are knowingly dropped? Too easy. Apart from a few great actors, most good liars manage to convince themselves that they are telling the truth. Berlusconi falls into this category. Furio Colombo put it nicely in L’Unità (12 September). He wrote that the Prime Minister is “overcome by hyperactive narcissism” that excludes interaction with the real world. This allows him to keep a straight face when he says that judges are part of a Communist plot when they prosecute him and honest servants of the law when they acquit him. Or when he implies that the “left” equals “Communism,” conveniently forgetting that in Italy and abroad strong opposition to Soviet communism came from the left. To make such an equation is to show political and historical ignorance and to denigrate the sacrifices made by that opposition. It would be like saying that all conservatives are either real or crypto Nazis.

When he is caught out on any of these scores, he never retracts, he just says he was misquoted, taken out of context, or that it was meant as a joke.

Last year, the Minister of the Interior was forced to resign because he called a consultant murdered by the Red Brigades “a ball-breaker only interested in having his contract renewed” after he had the dead man’s escort removed. The Minister’s boss feels he has no such obligations to take responsibility for what he says.

He does not apologize; instead he attacks and says the opposition (usually defined as “leftwing” or even “Communist”) is exploiting the situation. Tullia Zevi, the former president of the Union of Jewish Communities (herself a victim of fascism), was explicit, “What need does the left have to exploit his words? ... you just have to listen to him because what he says is truly eloquent” (Corriere della Sera, 12 September).

It is all the more ironic that his bricks were published in an otherwise fawning interview where the authors complimented his physical features (“…nipples showing through his white Marlon Brando pajama-suit.”) and political prowess (“Is he a good thing? Our answer is an unambiguous yes.”) and made snide comments about Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Minster killed this week. The Economist, the other English scourge of Mr. B., is explicitly highly critical, but would support his policies if he only set about implementing them.

A final (ironic) word on the Spectator interview; it begins with a rapturous compliment from Berlusconi on the power of an olive tree ‘Look’ he says, pointing his flashlight. ‘Look at the strength of that tree”. Perhaps the opposition, the Ulivo or Olive Tree Alliance, should have taken more solace from that remark than rage at the bricks.

For comments, please write to James Walston at