MOST PEOPLE outside Italy long ago lost interest in the antics — political, financial or sexual — of Silvio Berlusconi, the buffoonish former prime minister who finally was forced from office 14 months ago by Italy’s economic woes. But Mr. Berlusconi’s latest grab for attention demands condemnation. Over the weekend the 76-year-oldpolitician and media magnate, who is hoping to make a comeback in parliamentary elections next month, chose the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day to make the argument that Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who allied Italy with Nazi Germany, was not so bad after all.
Mr. Berlusconi allowed that “the racial laws” that the Mussolini regime imposed on Jews were a fault but added that Il Duce “in so many other ways did well.” True, he allied himself with Adolf Hitler, but that was only pragmatism, Mr. Berlusconi suggested, “out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory.” Though Jews were exterminated, including thousands deported from Italy to concentration camps, Italy “did not have the same responsibility as Germany” because its contribution to the Holocaust was “partly unwitting.”
As offensive and historically inaccurate as it was, Mr. Berlusconi’s Holocaust Day declaration was anything but unwitting. With his party trailing a center-left alliance in the polls, the former premier was attempting to appeal to far-right voters who wallow in nostalgia for Italy’s fascist era. Apparently it is not enough that Alessandra Mussolini, the dictator’s granddaughter, holds a spot on the party ticket; Mr. Berlusconi felt it necessary to openly praise fascism at an event meant to commemorate its greatest crime. It was another demonstration, if any were needed, that Mr. Berlusconi’s cynicism and political corruption are without bounds.
The success of such tactics would be terrible news for Italy, which under Prime Minister Mario Monti has done much in the past year to right its economy and prevent a disastrous default or collapse of the euro currency. Mr. Berlusconi is campaigning against those tough but critically necessary reforms; were he or his party to return to office, the country’s economic crisis — and that of Europe — could swiftly return.
But there is an even more sinister aspect to the dissing of Holocaust Day. Not only Mussolini fans are attracted by such demagoguery: Italian President Giorgio Napolitanopointed out Tuesday that, among youth groups and soccer hooligans, “openly neo-Nazi miserable junk ideology” and “primarily anti-Jewish” hatred was gaining currency — toxic sentiments that are legitimized when a longtime prime minister praises Hitler’s closest foreign ally.
Mr. Napolitano described “an ever wider awareness” among Italians that the persecution of Jews was “an aberration” and “a disgrace.” Mr. Berlusconi, it appears, is determined to lead those who remain unenlightened.