Berlusconi, whose center-right People of Freedom (PDL) coalition party is currently polling second ahead of next month’s election, took the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday to tell reporters that he viewed Il Duce in some ways as a good leader who sided with Nazi fuehrer Adolf Hitler only because he felt Germany would win the Second World War.
"It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time,” Berlusconi told reporters in Milan.
“Obviously the government of [Mussolini's] time, out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it.”
Berlusconi, however, condemned Mussolini’s persecution of Italy’s Jews, calling his racial laws “the worst fault of Mussolini, who, in so many other aspects, did well.”
(Berlusconi was likely referring to the large infrastructure and construction projects that Mussolini ordered during his reign to reduce unemployment, as well as his land reclamation endeavors, among other economic measures.)
Response to Berlusconi’s comments came fast and furious.
The Associated Press reported that Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned Berlusconi.
“It is the height of revisionism to try to reinstate an Italian dictator who helped legitimize and prop up Hitler as a ‘reincarnated good guy,’” he said.
Maria Rosaria Bindi, president of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party (PD), and former minister of health, said Berlusconi’s embrace of Mussolini represented “an insult to the democratic conscience of Italy.”
PD spokesman Marco Meloni stated: "Our republic is based on the struggle against Nazi fascism, and these are intolerable remarks which are incompatible with leadership of democratic political forces.”
Antonio Ingroia, a former anti-mafia judge, called Berlusconi "a disgrace to Italy.”
Gianfranco Mascia, a longtime opponent of Berlusconi, filed a complaint seeking to have the former PM prosecuted under a 1952 Italian law that forbids the defense of fascism.
In response, Berlusconi --- a three-time Prime Minister who may yet again run for the top job -- said he should have made it clear that his remarks “are always based on condemnation of dictatorships,” LaPresse reported.
However, Berlusconi’s coalition party includes elements of Italy’s contemporary far right.
In 1938, just one year prior to the war, the Italian government imposed severe restrictions on the nation’s Jews – including the prohibition of Jews from universities and professions and stripping them of citizenship.
The laws were part of a document called "Manifesto Della Razza" ("The Manifesto of Race"), which established that Italians were Aryans and reflected the influence of Hitler on Mussolini by this point. Ironically, prior to the passage of the race laws, many prominent Jews belonged to the Italian Fascist party.
A few years later, during the German occupation of Italy, thousands of Italian Jews were sent to concentration camps, where many perished.