Even at 76 years old and with countless scandals to his name, Silvio Berlusconi has not lost the ability to shock. At a recent event commemorating those killed during the Holocaust, Berlusconi defended the legacy of Benito Mussolini, remarking:
“It’s difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time,” said Mr Berlusconi, who is campaigning for next month’s election 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,” he told reporters. “The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well,” he said, referring to laws passed by Mussolini’s fascist government in 1938.
The man somehow continues to fascinate, horrify and astound Europe. There is no other politician in his league. Dazzling, infuriating, and ultimately disappointing, he has been the center of Italian politics for twenty years and is without any doubt its most dominant politician since Mussolini was shot in 1945.
In his latest remarks, he tries once again to dance as provocatively as possible on the very edge of the permissible, rallying the Italian Right, infuriating the Left and capturing the spirit of resentful rebellion against the stodgy EU and its program of Teutonic austerity.
Americans may miss the nuance here. Though Mussolini was a reprehensible Fascist dictator who was not above torturing and murdering the occasional political opponent and a self-consciously brutalist politician who gloried in the physical aggression and lawlessness of his goons on the streets, he was not in the Stalin and Hitler league as an avatar of evil. He had less blood on his hands than Franco, and if he stayed neutral in 1940 he might well have ended up like him, dying peacefully in bed, decades after the war. And just as there is nostalgia for Stalin in much of the former Soviet Union (be sure to visit the Stalin Museum in Gori), there is a certain nostalgia in parts of the Italian body politic for what backers think of as the “good side” of Mussolini’s regime.
Berlusconi’s play of the Mussolini card won’t work the way a similar reference would in Germany or Austria if a politician tried to play the Hitler card. It will unite the Left against him, but they are united already in loathing him. Rather, what Berlusconi is doing here is reminding the Italians that they don’t trust the Left. By provoking the Left into a bitter and enraged chorus of Mussolini-bashing (the kind of thing the Italian communists routinely did during the Cold War), he makes the Left look more like itself and reminds his core voters that he is, if nothing else, their best protection against a Left they despise.
Will it work? It’s a high-risk play—something he wouldn’t do if he were cruising to victory. There’s a chance of a substantial backlash. Berlusconi is still behind in the polls, though he has gained back some ground. It’s looking less likely that the united Left will control both houses of the Italian parliament after the election, which will give him some leverage. In some ways Berlusconi’s biggest advantage remains the disarray on Italy’s Left. There is a moderate majority that would fit comfortably into the European framework, but there is a radical minority faction on the Left that in the past has made it impossible for left-leaning governments to work effectively. This division was the key to Berlusconi’s hold on power, as it was the key for the Christian Democrats who kept the Left at bay during the Cold War.
Italy’s left faces a double challenge: it must win the elections, and then it must discipline itself to become an effective governing force. That will be especially difficult now, when the task of the new government will be to continue down the deadly road of retrenchment and reform.
As always, Italian politics remains an entertaining spectacle, but given the potential for Italy to blow up the euro, what happens here is much more important than usual. In some ways, Italy stands at a crossroads comparable to the choice Mussolini faced in 1940: to ally with a victorious Germany or to withdraw from the European New Order that Germany was constructing. Mussolini’s choice to back Hitler was a disaster for Italy but relatively inconsequential for the course of the war (if anything, the ignominious failure of Italy’s Balkan adventure forced Hitler to distract his attention from the USSR for a few critical weeks in the spring and early summer of 1941, delaying his invasion until July and shortening the window for Germany’s first smashing offensive). This time, Italy’s choice could be decisive for the Eurozone and the EU.