No Mea Culpa yet

Italy remains in a sense ‘psychologically inoculated from its responsibility for fascism

By ERIC J. LYMAN
February 20, 2013 12:46
Silvio Berlusconi

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi 521. (photo credit: LORIS SAVINO / REUTERS)

Campaigning in Milan, with an impromptu stop at a ceremony commemorating victims of the Holocaust, Silvio Berlusconi gave voice to a point of view held by many Italians, that Benito Mussolini, Italy’s wartime leader, wasn’t all that bad.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon seeking to become prime minister for a fourth time, admitted that Mussolini had made a mistake by passing anti-Jewish laws in 1938; but, “in so many other ways,” the would-be premier said, “he did so well.”

Berlusconi, who was speaking from the platform in Milan’s main train station where Jews were transported to concentration camps, went on to say on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that it was “very difficult” to see things from the point of view of decision makers at the time, and that fear of German power had prompted Italy to make certain decisions at the time.

“Out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, [Italy] preferred to ally itself with Adolf Hitler’s Germany rather than oppose it,” Berlusconi said. “As part of the alliance, there were certain impositions, including… exterminating Jews.”

The remarks drew immediate fire from political opponents, Italian intellectuals and the country’s Jewish communities, and also sparked a few days of Italian newspaper editorials mostly condemning Berlusconi’s remarks (though a few were in support). But the issue faded away soon enough, failing to start the kind of national discourse about the country’s role in World War II and the Holocaust many experts say is long overdue.

Rome has the oldest continual Jewish community in Europe, with roots that date back to the second century BCE, when Jews arrived in the city from what is now Israel to seek protection from the Seleucid (Syrian) ruler, Antiochus IV. Over the next 22 centuries, there were occasional confrontations with the Vatican, and isolated clashes with Roman citizens.

But it wasn’t until the 1938 Manifesto of Race Berlusconi spoke about that the state apparatus officially turned against the city’s Jews.



Those laws stripped Italian Jews of most of their rights as citizens, and made it illegal for them to work in “professions” (as doctors, lawyers, notaries, accountants, journalists, teachers, bankers) or for the government.

Jews risked having their property confiscated, and the new rules abolished the naturalized citizenship of foreign-born Jews as well as the validity of Jewish-to-non-Jewish marriages that took place during the previous 19 years.

The laws also made it illegal for Jews to have non-Jewish, white servants or employees, and segregated state-run schools.

Things got worse for the Jews of Rome as time went by. There were nearly 13,000 Jews in the Italian capital when the Manifesto of Race became law, and, although exact numbers are hard to come by, it is likely that as many as 3,000 of them had been sent off to German camps by the time the Mussolini government fell in 1943, with at least a similar number having fled the country, never to return.

Historians and other experts dating back decades say that there is little basis for the widely held view – at least in Italy – that Mussolini was a mostly passive figure when it came to racial laws and the Holocaust, as suggested by Berlusconi’s comments that Mussolini and most Italians “did not fully know what was going on.”

According to James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome, “There was absolutely no pressure from Hitler” for the racial laws in 1938. At the time, Walston wrote in a commentary about Berlusconi’s remarks, Italy was still being courted as a possible ally of France and Britain (the “Pact of Steel” alliance between Italy and Germany was not signed until 1939, and even then was not honored by Mussolini and Italy). “Mussolini had every opportunity to get out of Hitler’s embrace,” Walston says.

A sympathetic view toward Italy’s fascist period is not new in the country. Alessandra Mussolini, the wartime dictator’s granddaughter, for example, is a vocal member of the Italian parliament in the political party Berlusconi founded; and longtime Berlusconi ally Gianfranco Fini, a former deputy prime minister, and the head of the National Alliance political party that emerged from the ruins of Mussolini’s fascist movement, once called Mussolini the “greatest statesman of the 20th century.” (Fini has since become more critical of Mussolini.) Berlusconi, too, famously joked in 2006 that Mussolini “never killed anyone,” but that he “used to send people on vacation in internal exile.”

One of the factors behind this sympathetic view, commentators say, is Italy’s failure until now to fully come to terms with its role during World War II. This is due in part to the fact that fascism was overturned midway through the war, in 1943. Furthermore, the early years of fascism in Italy were marked by progressive social policies and massive investments in infrastructure still being used today. A number of high-profile cases involving Italians who hid Jews during the war or helped them to escape have also played their part.

“In a way, Italy is psychologically inoculated from its responsibility for fascism,” Franco Pavoncello, president of Rome’s John Cabot University and a frequent commentator on political and historical issues, tells The Jerusalem Report. “Yes, OK, they created the country’s first social security system. But so what? They also destroyed the country, fought a horrible war, and contributed to an attempted genocide.”

Fabio Perugia, press liaison for the Rome Jewish Community, agrees. “There has never been a full understanding of what happened during the war from most Italians,” he says.

As a result of this lack of understanding, many of the ills created by the war have been slow to come undone. Emilio Gentile, a professor emeritus in history from Rome’s Sapienza University, points out to The Report that the last of the laws that once restricted the rights of Jewish citizens in Italy was not abolished until 1978, while the January 27 Remembrance Day – the official United Nations Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Holocaust, and the anniversary of the date the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated – that prompted Berlusconi’s ill-advised comments was not officially recognized in Italy until 2001, making the country one of the last in Europe to grant the anniversary an official status.

Much work remains, Gentile says, noting, “Even now, most political and community leaders in Italy bow their heads and pay their respects every January 27, and then they forget everything for the next 364 days.”

Unlike the sentiment in Germany – the same day Berlusconi claimed Mussolini’s racial laws were balanced out by the good things he did, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had an “everlasting responsibility” for its actions during World War II – Italians tend to distance themselves from the worst actions during the war.

“There has never been a national catharsis about all this,” Pavoncello says. “They try to cast the fascists as a clownish regime and say ‘It wasn’t us who did it, it was them.’ The belief is that their duty concluded on September 8, 1943 [when Italy surrendered and joined the Allies] and that they just want to go back to their own lives, to look at women, have some nice wine, and go to the beach.”

Adds Gentile, “Instead of recognizing Italy’s role, many Italians try to distance themselves from what happened by making the fascists seem ridiculous.”

According to Perugia, the extreme elements of Italy’s political right can be divided into two categories – those with far-right social values, which, he says, are less worrisome, and those with a nostalgia for fascism or for Mussolini, which, he contends, are a cause for concern.

Perugia tells The Report that Berlusconi falls into the latter group, those with a nostalgia for Mussolini.

“There are certain similarities between the two men,” Perugia notes. “Both are great communicators, both have an appetite for big projects and grand statements, both have enormous egos, and neither has patience for open debate on their plans or for being contradicted.”

Nevertheless, there are signs of progress.

The platform at the Milan central train station from which Berlusconi spoke is being transformed into a small museum to commemorate what took place there. And plans are underway for a far more ambitious Holocaust museum in Rome to be built inside the villa where Mussolini lived after moving to the capital.

For the past three years, the lights on Rome’s Coliseum have been turned off to commemorate Remembrance Day. And though it was relatively brief, the media and public outcry sparked by Berlusconi’s recent remarks was far more severe and nuanced than after his objectively more inflammatory comments from 2006 (when he said Mussolini sent deportees “on vacation in internal exile”).

Pavoncello, the university president, estimates that the extreme right in Italy traditionally amounts to between 7 percent and 9 percent of the electorate, and that is still the case.

Their political influence, he believes, can rise and fall depending on whether they are part of a ruling coalition or not (they have been during Berlusconi’s three terms as prime minister); but their influence on the social agenda of the day appears to be waning, he says.

According to Perugia, however, this is more due to the passing of time than any kind of national reckoning. “As time goes by, the chances of some kind of wide-scale recognition of the sins of Mussolini are diminishing,” he says.

For what it is worth, most experts see Berlusconi’s comments in Milan as a kind of political move on the part of Berlusconi, whose coalition is running a close second in a six-candidate field ahead of Italy’s February 24-25 vote. Walston, the political scientist, saw it as a clumsy lunge for some of the farright vote that might otherwise go to one of the fringe candidates. But Pavoncello said it was likely part of the Franco-Italian dynamic that dates back to Mussolini’s time and even earlier.

“Berlusconi is a tactical salesman and he likes to argue that his last government was undermined by Germany’s influence in the European Union and that because of the economic crisis [the current technocrat government of former European Commissioner Mario] Monti is being dictated to by the Germans,” Pavoncello said. “Berlusconi has vowed to resist this influence and, in Milan, I think he was making a historical argument that even Mussolini was undone by German pressure.”


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