Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, sparked another furious row yesterday by saying that Benito Mussolini was "benign".
Asked in an interview to describe the difference between Mussolini and Saddam Hussein, Mr Berlusconi said that Mussolini "never murdered anyone, he sent people on holiday into internal exile".
Responding to the report, published yesterday in a provincial paper, Voce di Rimini, in advance of appearing in The Spectator, Mr Berlusconi's press spokesman, Sandro Bondi, said it had not been confirmed that the Prime Minister had made the remark, and added: "The Fascist regime, as we all know, was a dictatorial and authoritarian regime." But reaction to Mr Berlusconi's apparent attempt to whitewash Il Duce, the latest in a long series of startling gaffes, was swift and angry.
"Berlusconi's comments cause me extreme pain," said Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. "The Fascist regime did not build extermination camps, but certainly it contributed to creating them."
The persecution of Jews in Italy began in 1938 after the imposition of racial laws by Mussolini's regime. Nearly 7,000 Italian Jews were deported after the occupation of northern and central Italy by German troops, and 5,910 were subsequently killed. One biographer of Mussolini, Richard Bos-worth, has estimated that at least one million people died because of his policies during his 20 years in power, with "atrocious massacres of Libyans, Ethiopians, inhabitants of ex-Yugoslavia and, after 1943, thousands of Italian Jews".
Left-wing and centre-left MPs pounced on the Prime Minister's remark, demanding an apology. Pierluigi Castagnetti, parliamentary leader of the centre-left Margherita Party, described the comments as "incredible and shocking".
"Simply shameful," said another Margherita MP, Giuseppe Fioroni. "Somebody must shut him up." Fabio Mussi, an MP of the Democratic Left, the largest opposition party, and Deputy Speaker of the lower house, deployed irony. "Giacomo Matteotti and the Rosselli brothers," he said, naming three of Mussolini's most celebrated victims, "died of old age, as is well known, while the Tribunale Speciale" - Mussolini's political courts, used for getting rid of dissidents - "were a form of Alpitour [tour operator] of their day."
Pietro Folena, also of the Democratic Left, described Mr Berlusconi's comment as "an apologia for Fascism and for Il Duce, and it is shameful for our country to have such a Prime Minister". He called on President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, "a fervent anti-Fascist", to "stop this continual demolition of the basic values of our republic by the Prime Minister".
Speaking to Italian journalists yesterday, Mr Berlusconi attempted to defuse the row. "I never intended to re-evaluate Mussolini," he said. "I reacted as a patriot, as a real Italian, to a comparison between Mussolini and Saddam Hussein which I do not accept."
Yesterday's row broke less than a week after Mr Berlusconi was quoted as telling the same British journalists that Italian judges are "mad twice over ... first because they are politically that way, and second because they are mad anyway. To do that job you need to be mentally disturbed. If they do that job, it's because they are anthropologically different." Yesterday Beppe Giulietti of the Democratic Left said: "Berlusconi is mad, and anthropologically different from the rest of the human race."
IL DUCE: THE FACTS
1922: Mussolini appointed Prime Minister after the Fascists march on Rome.
1926: Brutal pacification of Libya by General Rudolfo Graziani, "the butcher of Libya", employing scorched earth tactics and concentration camps.
1935: Thousands die as Italy invades Ethiopia with 400,000 troops. Mustard gas bombs dropped on villages and Red Cross camps strafed.
1938: Widespread persecution of Italian Jews begins after Mussolini regime issues racial laws.
1940: Mussolini joins war in alliance with Hitler and orders the Fascist army to ransack Jewish ghettoes.
1943: German troops occupy northern and central Italy. Almost 7,000 Jews are deported, 5,910 of whom are killed.
After 1943: "Final solution" to exterminate the Jews of Europe is applied in Italy.
1945: Mussolini is executed with other Fascist leaders. Jews are reinstated as first-class citizens.Reuse content