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Mussolini wasn't that bad, says Berlusconi
( 2003-09-12 11:01) (Guardian)

Even some of Silvio Berlusconi's own supporters and allies were last night squirming with embarrassment at their leader's latest extraordinary gaffe.

In an interview published yesterday by the Spectator, Italy's prime minister appeared to defend the actions of his country's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

"Mussolini never killed anyone," the magazine quoted him saying.

"Mussolini sent people on holiday to confine them [banishment to small islands such as Ponza and Maddalena which are now plush resorts]."

Italy's fascist leader ordered the brutal 1935-36 occupation of Ethiopia, led Italy into the second world war and headed a Nazi puppet government which rounded up and dispatched Italian Jews to Hitler's concentration camps.

Coming from a prime minister who relies heavily on the hard right, "post-fascist" National Alliance, Mr Berlusconi's comments touched a hyper-sensitive nerve in a country whose postwar democracy was founded on an anti-fascist consensus. It raised for the first time since his return to power two years ago the issue of how long his more moderate allies can afford to support him without losing their credibility.

There was a near-apoplectic reaction from the leftwing opposition. Senator Cesare Salvi, of the formerly communist Democratic Left, called Mr Berlusconi's remarks "genuinely disgraceful". He said Mussolini's victims "cried out for vengeance".

Some of Mr Berlusconi's supporters defended his remark, expressed in the context of a comparison with Saddam Hussein.

One leading member of his party tried to excuse it on the grounds that it was not an "official phrase". But others made no attempt to hide their dismay.

"I don't want to believe that the prime minister made the comments on fascism reported by the news agencies," said Giorgio La Malfa, leader of the small Republican party, which backs Mr Berlusconi's government.

"The fascist dictatorship was a ferocious one that killed and lethally wounded its leading political opponents."

In a further, clear rebuke to the prime minister, Luca Volont¨¦, parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrat Union, an important component of Mr Berlusconi's governing coalition, said: "Anti-fascism is a value that unites. It unites the majority [in parliament]. It unites the government with the opposition. It unites the country. To split over that which unites is senseless."

The head of Italy's Jewish community, Amos Luzzatto, said he was "not surprised. Just saddened".

The prime minister's comment appeared in the second set of extracts from an interview which had already caused sparks to fly last week.

In the first part, Mr Berlusconi was quoted as saying that Italy's judges were "mentally disturbed" and "anthropologically different" from other people.

But it was also the latest in a long line of intensely controversial remarks from a leader who only this week declared that he had no intention of being "politically correct".

In July, he opened a bitter rift with Berlin by telling a German MEP he reminded him of a concentration camp guard.

Mussolini's biographer, Dennis Mack Smith, said the Italian fascist leader was not a murderer on the scale of Hitler or Stalin but "had absolutely no compunction in having people killed".

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